Jody Gladding’s Translations from Bark Beetle, Milkweed Editions, 2014
A. R. Ammons asserted that “nature is not verbal” but that “I might expect to find, when I look at things around me, sources of myself . . . I sometimes ‘see’ a structure or relationship in nature that clarifies the energy, releases it.”
In Jody Gladding’s new book Translations from Bark Beetle she assumes the role of translator/interpreter in order to disclose the enigmatic etchings of the bark beetle, an insect which attacks various trees by boring through the tree’s protective outer layer of bark and lays its eggs within. Maybe at first glance nature is not “verbal,” but it decidedly leaves its “mark.” (It’s worth mentioning Jody Gladding is a superb translator having translated works by Jean Giono, Pierre Michon, Julia Kristeva. and many others).
This horizontal sketch-pad-shaped book aims to decipher, decode, and “divine” various inscriptions even as it demonstrates its own practice of inscription on many materials. Several poems appear as bark beetle “translations,” or more precisely transliterations, and readers are able to view the encoded glyphs reproduced in the book’s illustrations of graphite rubbings. The lines, squiggles, and channels map out the paths of intention, practice, and expression belonging to the bark beetle—expression that contains etymological playfulness and innuendo.
The book is an illuminating addition to the recent trend in poetry collections that incorporate found texts and often make evident the materials used in the original compositions. Works by Anne Carson, Lisa Fishman, Jeff Griffin, and the intriguing example of Emily Dickinson’s “envelope” poems contained in the volume The Gorgeous Nothings edited by Jen Bervin and Marta Werner, all come to mind.
Gladding notes the obstacles she confronts in “translating” the beetles’ marks; for instance, she explains that some grammar and pronoun forms are problematic, i.e. a dot “is used for first and second person in singular plural, and all cases.” Her philological theorizing may at first seem completely whimsical and fantastical, although, as Ammons reminded us, she finds sources of herself here and secrets to which she is privy:
Yo• can only travel in one direction
but turn again with m• there love
sap in the chamber
red the friable
(“Spending Most of their Time in Galleries,
Adults Come into the Open on Warm Sunny
through work the quietly
puncture begins in a dark
if not there’s no
(rue mores of light and lying)
some have remained here burrowed
(“Engraver Beetle Cycle”)
In these scarcely punctuated poems, partial thoughts and fractured messages recall Sapphic fragments, and from these pieces Gladding conveys intimate testimony for the bark beetle. The beetle recounts its journeys and the goings-on in its tree (as it is in the process of carving out the tree), and finally, it exalts and laments its own place in the cosmos: “lightivore . . . would have cut stars . . . this is o•r boredom of heaven.”
Gladding draws the idea of authorship and the physical form that it takes. The matter/substance interpolates the voice and vice versa. In numerous poems we become aware of how the voice might inhabit a material. A final section of the book displays small photographs of various objects with writing on them. These reproductions show how several poems originally appeared: on an egg shell, a feather, a milkweed pod. For example, “Seal Rock” is a poem painted on two pieces of slate which we see reproduced in the back guide. Transcribed on a flat two-dimensional page, it still tries to enact its material medium in rhythm, space, and details:
call the split between us
marriage this slab of husband
set against me for warmth
after twenty odd years no one I know
better I should
flipping sand on our backs
wallowing to seal lips
lying two fold
a couple of stones
stones in the wall
Gladding wittily explores multiple meanings of words like “split” and “seal” showing with her playful and poignant experiment the idea that alternative meanings might be embedded in a text.
The notion of secrecy is a trope that works in fascinating ways throughout this book. At times Gladding treats language and words like runes, the alphabetic script which in Norse legends contained secret knowledge: the runes themselves were said to be inscribed on spears, wolf claws, or owl beaks. Gladding’s secret knowledge often pertains to wounds that fester beneath the surface from abuses and violence toward nature and toward other human beings. “How do you (ad) dress the wound?” she asks in a poem that mentions a rape within a family. She might find suggestions of violence buried in the unlikeliest of places, such as Robert Frost’s “Birches” poem which is partially “erased” in this collection resulting in particles of the whole being brought into a different light:
before them girls
their trunks seem not to break
dragged to the withered bracken
shattering the sun’s turn click loaded
Episodes of trauma previously repressed or hidden appear as evidence marks in a kind of dendrochronology that Gladding reveals and expresses.
Gladding reminds us in these poems that deciphering and inscribing entail labor and struggle, and she pays tribute to the demands of those involved with this close attention. The long poem “In Land” is a mostly appropriated text from the book Our Inland Sea: The Story of a Homestead by Alfred Lambourne in which he records his often solitary time as he tries to settle on Gunnison Island in the Great Salt Lake at the beginning of the 20th century. The diction in these abbreviated passages is florid in comparison with other poems in the book and evoke a pioneering spirit, yet also suggest meditative and pensive jottings in a daybook:
that mound of oolitic sand, which stands a mystery
and grief? here it has been
here the old bones, the fossils, the remains of
an hour I lay on the cliff-top
air and water, too, are filled with the ministers of pain
The artistic and sacred communions with natural elements recalled in this book suggest the need for reparations of our near-estrangement from nature. “Nature is the poet’s hieroglyph,” Emerson once declared. With that in mind, Gladding broadens the definition of the translator’s task. In one poem she reads or deciphers Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” as an interrogative: “his question/ mark hanging out there in the question/that needs to be asked” (“Great Salt Lake”). Perhaps his earthwork sculpture poses the question to all of us, how do we mend these rifts between the natural world and ourselves?
Reviewed by Molly Bendall
Molly Bendall is the author four collections of poetry, most recently, Under the Quick from Parlor Press. Her new volume Watchful is forthcoming from Omnidawn in 2016. She teaches at the University of Southern California.