The Field Is Lethal by Suzanne Doppelt, (trans. Cole Swensen). Counterpath Press. 80pp, $14.00.
This is a strange, engaging book that does not offer up its material to the reader without a struggle. Much of its strength comes from its juxtapositions, not only of idea with idea, word with word, phrase with phrase, but also text with image, image or text with white space, and in a larger sense, the abstract with the concrete. Doppelt is interested in how language intersects with itself and how that interaction can be manipulated. Her work is easily described as surreal, but more usefully characterized as a process of peeling away the layers of an object or phenomenon to get at the objects and phenomena underneath. She is not satisfied to see a mushroom, a moon, a worm. Instead:
The diorama changes before your eyes, matter interfiltrates and combines, malleable, alterable; it never ends: stones are moss, and moss, birds. Water moves deep down in the water, above, below, making bubbles of various sizes, the simple flower morphs into a double, a mushroom into a bird, an imperceptible point turns into a worm, which suddenly changes, is flying in red and green and azure. Clouds make vast, vague shadows, scenes take shape, images come and go, the field is kinetic.
The field—a loaded term throughout the book, which I will return to—is indeed kinetic, shifting with the viewer’s eye. The oddities of association, moss and mushrooms becoming birds for instance, are more than trompes l’oeil, although they are that too. They are a way of trying to get at something below the surface of mere observation or superficial understanding.
This goal of seeing beneath the surface is manifested in the structure of the book itself. Each page of prose poetry (or is it poetic prose?), printed only on the right side of the fold, is followed by a page of manipulated photographic images printed on the right side of the fold but with a ‘caption’ that often extends from the left side of the fold. The effect is to focus the eye intently on the right half of one’s ‘field’ of view, while maintaining a sense that something has been omitted. This absence is accentuated in the fact that the textual sections all begin with lowercase letters, as though continuations from a previous (unseen) page, and the single-line captions highlight the empty space above. I use the word ‘caption’ cautiously, because these lines are not at all simple descriptions, but rather are both a commentary on and a disruption to the viewing. The images themselves are presented as a collage or pastiche, often in pairs or in fours, and run the gamut from carefully composed portraits of objects to abstract geometrical patterns. Each is an individual ‘field,’ a confined space in which something happens, and together they make up another, larger field. This fractal creation of meaning is also a deconstruction of meaning: the book cannot be read as straightforward narrative.
Yet there is the temptation to attempt to read it as narrative. There are characters—a ‘he,’ a ‘she’ and a ‘you’—and an evasive first-person speaker. The ‘he’ is the main figure, and the reader, if she wishes, can engage in a kind of wild goose chase to try to determine who he is and where he stands in relation to the others, especially to the ‘I.’ And is the ‘she,’ as one might guess from context, actually a stand-in for the ‘I’? A few hints are offered, as in this early passage (there are no page numbers, as befits this kind of puzzle-book):
Neither scented nor smiling, no make-up, her mouth in a panic, she makes herself heard, low and continuous, a voice going white, full of predictions, inciting recollections, all in vivid images. It takes special techniques and a lot of practice to create the optical and acoustic illusions. Emanating from a charming statue, from an animal; georges schlick converses with a frog who has the voice of a bull, with a box—or with the head inside it—or behind the door or behind the field-green screen, the voice is sculpted, a second face. But then what happens to the thoughts and feelings that remain unfinished; what happens to actions never completed? She spoke in a strange voice not her own, screeches, stutters, yowls painful to the point of rictus. An animal in her throat, rigid raw raaah, it’s the soul of your ex-lover coming back in the body of a dust mite or some other insect clinging tightly to its host. Did you see it?
Do we see it? Do we see the ‘she’ as the creator of this particular “optical and acoustic illusion”? Do we see the ‘he’ as the “ex-lover” who haunts in the form of a parasite? In another passage near the middle of the book, the ‘he’ is described warmly, even lovingly:
The field is a field, fabricated, and he’s wild about botany, he has hay in his hair. He runs along the trails bordered in flowers, gathers them up, paper ones 81 red ones 42 scattered 39 painted 1 rare 63 dried 30—a portable and unlimited catalogue, but he keeps on working. He covers hills, climbs through the trees, gets lost, runs into charles plumier and jack barrelier discussing these marvelous and colorful gifts of nature. One of these days, he will himself become a plant, man sprang from the earth like a daisy or something similar.
This could be a former or current lover, or in any case a man with whom the narrator is intimately familiar. Or perhaps these clues are all a series of red herrings that match the false impressions of reality created by the manipulated photographs. The book is haunted by these impressions, and in some sense, the whole work is a kind of haunting, a Ouija board:
Who’s there, speak, go on, it’s moving, no doubt about it, yes, no, to the right or backward. Can you read my mind, never pick up what is dropped at the table that way you don’t eat too much or because, go on, finish the sentence, because crumbs belong to the dead. There the three-legged table bought in a toy store or the night table next to the bed with utensils on the round, oval, long, tall, open, squared, and extended. The world is a table, one knock for an A, 2 for a B, etc., animula takes 72, the magic number of naples. The furniture dances, matter turns neither plastic nor glass nor metal, why have you come, you want to change something in the lines above, why waste time on such trivia. And yet it turns, like the earth carried off in the middle by its rotation—a game, a real performance. Or maybe rosaspina, if you prefer, or perline. The room is dim and so encourages disintegration, broken spirits, an unknown worm, a thumbtack, an ardent opal that clears a path outside if this keeps up I’m going to faint. Can you read my mind, every crumb is unique.
There are echoes here, perhaps, of the susurrous Madame Sosostris, the “famous clairvoyante” of Eliot’s Wasteland. Instead of Tarot cards, there are crumbs, and tables, and a thumbtack. This is a world in which every small thing is unveiled or morphs into something else, and in collecting and studying such things—flowers, worms, photographic plates—hidden connections reveal themselves. As in a haunting or a prophesy, it is this sense of revelation, and not a concrete or scientific or narrative truth, that is the culmination of one’s efforts.
Instead of offering a direct path, The Field is Lethal encourages a wandering, a circling back, a kind of exploratory hunting that carries the reader through the text, sometimes with excitement, sometimes with frustration. This is not to understate the beauty of the images (both textual and photographic) that stud each page:
In the field, the mushrooms give off light, while the sunflowers seek it, and in the river, algae and eels discharge jolts of electricity . . .
Speechless machine rolling along on clay feet and hand indistinguishable, red, flour-fine, elastic, and impermeable, his body is human but altered, a scaffold for hypervoxels . . .
Micro-mirrors that reflect, distorting the sun, a glass disk that gives back light, moon, clouds, mercury colored, smooth metallic water, double suns, triple, rain pouring down more streaming than dropping . . .
Plants have appetites, feel sensations, drunkenness, bitterness, etc. Some of them sleep at night, daisies, for instance.
The recurring images of dancing furniture, flowers, worms, the sun and moon, “ex-glances sharp as rays,” magic carpets, water, bubbles, mushrooms, and of course the field itself, all serve to anchor the reader, if only in the air. The sudden expansiveness of the two-page spread of images that comes at the end of the book ties back to these repeated tropes, and it comes as a unexpected relief, a kind of centering and reassurance. It urges the reader to go back to the beginning to read it all again, to find new lines of correspondence and to connect the dots differently, in a new constellation of meaning. Whether these connections lead to some kind of emotional revelation or deeper universal truth, I suspect, will depend on whether the individual reader is taken in by Doppelt’s personal mythology.
According to an afterward by philosopher Avital Ronell, this book is part of a trilogy of related works that includes an invented ethnography and a work of pseudo-philosophy (neither, as far as I can tell, are available in English yet). The Field Is Lethal, dealing as it does with a blurring between the spiritual and natural world, seems like a fitting conclusion.
Swensen, a prolific poet herself, rises to the task of translating this fairly esoteric work. Her language is fluid but never lazy, and she recreates exquisitely what must have been very ambitious French:
The sun returns, it rises and moves on, choosing a path that radiates like the place d’etoile, it’s a wild point on the line, a super-engine of rotation, he goes round, like the world, the luminous rays form and dissolve. He accelerates faster and faster through the air at an indeterminate point he deviates slightly from the horizon, wrong way, the head turns, the eyes turn, all caused by the whirlwind, he stops and then again takes up his regular rhythm around the endless loop of freeway intersections.
This breathless yet controlled effect can be produced only by a writer completely at home in her language, someone who pauses only to consider carefully, not to second-guess. Keeping the French of “place d’etoile,” the former name of the enormous roundabout that houses the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, now known as the Place de Charles de Gaulle, is a graceful touch. Because the phrase is in lowercase, as are all of the proper names in the book, its literal meaning is brought to the fore, and in this celestial context, the ‘place of the stars,’ takes on more import as both the sun’s opposite (the night sky) and its very category. This, like names left as “madame lux” or “monsieur de palma,” maintains a fruitful sense of foreignness, a marker that we are reading a translation. These are occasional, needed reminders that the book is a manipulated object, that it has traveled a linguistic and cultural distance to come to us in its English-language form.
It is an important part of the reading experience to recognize a work as foreign and to approach it at least partly with that in mind. Swensen’s text is so sinuous and evenhanded that the book largely reads as though English were its original language, and this raises a thorny question. Doppelt’s original title is Le Pré est vénéneux, meaning literally “the meadow is poisonous.” Swenson gets much mileage out of choosing instead to translate pré as ‘field.’ It is a word that leads to many associations: magnetic field, a field of study, force field, farm field, a battlefield. It calls to mind Mark Strand’s “In a field / I am the absence / of field,” a truth very much in keeping with Doppelt’s work. Repeated phrases like “the field is kinetic” sound nicely scientific, even familiar. But is what Doppelt intended in fact something closer to “the meadow is kinetic,” which is much more organic in flavor, and, in some ways, more surprising in the way much of Doppelt’s poetry is inherently surprising, which is to say, in its appositions? According to an excerpt of the original text available on the web, Doppelt uses both champs (field) and pré (meadow). Swensen chooses to translate both as “field.” One can see why; it does make the poem easier to follow and more thematically cohesive. Yet perhaps it also diminishes one of Doppelt’s strengths, namely her evocative strangeness.
This is not a bilingual edition, but I hope readers will find themselves curious about the original French; enough to wonder about the title, or about which “you”—tu or vous—Doppelt used, an indication of formality or plurality that we lack in English and whose distinction is lost in translation. Still, to question individual word choices of a translator is a losing game. Such decisions are always the product of many deliberations and of weighing one consideration against another. Two languages never line up neatly, and Swensen’s larger success overrides any quibbles. The resulting poetry is well worth reading.
Eleanor Goodman is a writer and translator from Chinese. Her work appears in journals such as Pathlight, PN Review, Chutzpah 天南, Pleiades, The Guardian, Cha, and The Best American Poetry website. Her book of translations, The Selected Poems of Wang Xiaoni, is forthcoming from Zephyr Press.
Read More on this Subject:
More from The Quarterly Conversation:
- Wolf and Pilot by Farrah Field When Farah Field announced the opening of Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop (Field and Jared White’s pop-up shop the only all-poetry bookshop in New York City) two Februarys ago on her blog Adultish, she wrote this: It is kind of an anti-capitalistic act because no one could ever pay what poetry...
- A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit I would call A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit’s new book, atypical, except that I’m not quite sure what constitutes “normal” for this writer. Solnit is the author of eight previous books, and they are quite a mixed bunch. Two of them, Wanderlust and River of Shadows, could...
- Promising Young Women by Suzanne Scalon Plath’s ghost haunts the pages of Scanlon’s book, a non-linear narrative that hinges around Lizzie, a bright liberal arts student from Barnard and aspiring actress who has much in common with Plath’s protagonist. We’ve fast-forwarded forty years to New York in the early 90’s’; like Esther before her, Lizzie has...
- Rising by Farrah Field Rising, Farrah Field. Four Way Books. 72 pp, $15.95. “In a poem,” wrote Laurie Sheck, “it is not enough to tell the hidden story. The question is also how to look at the subterfuge, the cover, how power functions to block out what it can’t absorb, what would undermine it.”...
- The Bun Field by Amanda Vahamaki and Cecil and Jordan in New York: Stories by Gabrielle Bell The Finnish artist Amanda Vahamaki is a relative newcomer to U.S. comics, having been published here only in the Drawn and Quarterly Showcase #5. But her debut full-length comic, The Bun Field, is an oddly powerful, lingering work, and it's one of the strongest pieces I've seen in a long...
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Eleanor Goodman