Impossibly pure poetry is a losing game. At best, a transient mood may be set by way of tone as the general weight of measured restraint from over-expression provides an atmospheric gloss of consciousness. This is the haunting of Mallarme. The desire to have the poem stand for more than is possible. Yet Andrew Zawacki’s translation of Sébastien Smirou holds up admirably well in the face of such challenges.
Jennifer Moxley’s introduction aptly describes the book’s structure:
Eight chapters, each consisting of eight pages, each page made up of two quatrains, one octave separated by a caesura—sixteen quatrains per chapter: sixty-four lines. All lines are typographically justified . . . Smirou’s stanzas are boxes . . . try as we might, we cannot read My Lorenzo as we would more traditional poetry. Nor can it be called prose poetry.
It is “an occluded narrative that tangentially refers to the life and thoughts of Lorenzo de Medici, called ‘The Magnificent,’ the famed humanist, poet, and statesman of Renaissance Florence,” which never settles into any dependable categorization. The writing itself being composed and structured in such a manner that, in Moxley’s words: “Smirou asks us to constantly realign our rhythms and move our emphasis about, depending on where we are in its composition.” Tangible, realistic imagery and straightforward narrative have no place here.
Punctuation is also absent. Parentheses alone provide for shifts in perspective and at points overlap in a matryoshka-doll mesh of complexity:
since moved by this water inside the eye Lorenzo inclines
to favor a dream (‘i already saw that (in reality (everything
is real) it’s guilano who’s wary)) he reclaims control of such
an island where to enjoy it and how long?' An angel passes
we can ask ourselves how the grand poet asked himself
lorenzo was living this loopy role of grand ambler shiftyeye
(grin of ladies whose hands on their knees crossed crossed
(better & less than in guido’s era & laugh & skin are bared))
Moxley also notes the “fresh articulations” Zawacki’s translation discovers as the need to find the closely counted measure of words to fill out the line forces his translation into splendid invention. For instance: rendering les idées louchent into “the doublecrosseyed ideas.” To give an idea of what Zawacki’s options were, a free online translator site Babylon offers the rather intriguing and expansive “the ideas are casting covetous glances” yet also identifies “louchent” as “v. be cross eyed, squint, skew”; meanwhile Google translates the entire phrase rather succinctly as “ideas squint.” Given these options, Zawacki’s “doublecrosseyed” is both lively and inventive. The talented translation work done here makes My Lorenzo a fascinating technical display of vaunted skill.