Robert Majzels & Celan, Du Fu
and Bada Shanren

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Robert Majzels is a person who writes from time to time, born in Montréal, Québec. His work — including four novels, a full-length play, and a number of translations — has been a continuing exploration of the forms and ethical underpinnings of writing. The Humbugs Diet is his fourth novel. He has translated four novels by France Daigle and, with Erin Moure, several books of poetry by Nicole Brossard. Robert is presently an Associate Professor in the English Department at the University of Calgary.

The transinhalations here are part of a larger project of translations under an 85-letter constraint of The Song of Songs, poems by Paul Celan, works by Tang dynasty Chinese poets and a series of colophons by Bada Shanren, the late 17th century Chinese ink brush artist. The 85 project is a collaborative work undertaken with sinologist and author Claire Huot.

Claire Huot has worked as a professor of Chinese language and culture, and Comparative Literature at the Université de Montréal, and as the Cultural Counselor at the Canadian Embassy to the People's Republic of China in Beijing. She is the author of two books on contemporary Chinese culture, including China New Cultural Scene: A Handbook of Changes, Duke University Press, 2000, and a novel entitled The Prison Tangram.

Why a series of poems each containing exactly 85 characters? This formal restriction comes out of long thinking about the book. What is a book, aside from or beyond the commercial and technological exigencies? Today, when the new technologies have altered the relation between word and page, and threaten to vaporize books into virtual space, the question is all but inescapable.

In his philosophical treatise Le livre brûlé (Paris: Lieu Commun, 1986), philosopher Marc-Alain Ouaknin returns to the ancient Hebrew Talmud (Chabbat Treatise) and the Torah for a surprisingly contemporary take on the problem of the book. A holy book, the Talmud explains must be saved from a burning house, even on the Sabbath, although work of any kind is strictly forbidden on that day. But what if the book is damaged? Is it still a book and worthy of being retrieved from the flames? The Talmud argues that, if it contains a minimum of 85 letters, the book is still a book, and must be saved.

Why 85? To answer that question we must first remember that the text of the ancient Torah scroll contains no vowels, no punctuation, and only the occasional space, or paracha (passage), between words. Chapter 10:35 and 36 of the Book of Numbers, "Whenever the coffer was to travel...," which contains 85 letters, is unique in that it is enclosed between two backward nounim (the Hebrew letter n). According to the rabbinical sages, those two backward letters are meant to identify the enclosed passage as a book in itself. These letters which are not letters (because backward) are the trace of an erasure of the very passage they enclose. The book is at once written and unwritten, out of its place and in it. Displaced. In this metonymical, not to say convoluted, manner characteristic of rabbinical thinking, we arrive at the question of what constitutes a book? And the answer turns out to be 85 characters!

The reasoning here is by no means purely formalist, as a closer reading of the contents of the passage of the Torah under discussion demonstrates. The coffer in these verses is the Ark of the Covenant, which contains the Law that Moses brought down from Sinai, the law that governs all meaning. The passage stipulates that the Ark must remain mobile, always ready to travel. To ensure its portability, the poles of acacia that flank the coffer must never be removed. This perpetual movement of the Ark is a metaphor for the continual movement of meaning.

This then is the essence of what we call the book: that, on the condition that it contains a minimum of letters (85 according to the sages), it generates meaning endlessly. The being of the book is forever becoming. "L'Israel n'est pas en Israel" (E. Lévinas, L'Au-delà du verset). The Book is neither object, nor text, nor reader; it is the relation between them. By its non-synchrony, the Book produces a surplus of meaning. As it moves, it moves us. Reading breaks open the contents of The Book. The Book is explosive.

Language in continuous movement, it seems to me, is the essence of poetry. By its concentrated combination of letters and words, poetry generates shades and layers of meaning. In restricting myself to 85 characters, and in eliminating word breaks, I am attempting to whittle away at my poems in order to concentrate their effect, to the point where each individual letter achieves its own sacred presence on the page. I am hoping that restraint, reduction, erasure paradoxically open up the text to a vastness of possibilities. The letters are physical bodies in space, spinning like great winged wheels in the air, combining, breaking away and recombining to create unimagined worlds.

I have tested this premise, using as a starting point, English translations of Paul Celan's already rigorously depleted language. Celan's work is already an abrasion of language, in his case, German, the language of the Shoah. My poems concentrate and further constrain the language of Celan's poems into English, the "dominant" world language today, the language of "America." As they do so, something else appears: echoes that implicate the reader by slowing him or her down, stressing the value of letters and relations between them and, as the eye hesitates over the continual textual enjambment, allowing for slippage of meaning.

I have used a similar formal condensation to translate a number of Tang Dynasty Chinese poems and a selection from the works of the 17 th century hermit painter Bada Shanren. Chinese and Hebrew, aside from being two of the oldest surviving languages, have other elements in common. Both regard writing as a system autonomous to speech and constitutive of the world around us. I am especially interested in the dialogical constraints of the lu shi form perfected during the Tang dynasty. In these poems, in which the number of characters, and therefore syllables, the use of homophony, imagery and contrasting metaphors are all strictly regulated, the greatest poets of the Chinese language (Li Bo, Du Fu) have produced works of concentrated power and an open-ended view of the world gorgeously compatible with the ancient rabbinical texts of the Hebrew tradition, and entirely in tune with our own contemporary sensibility.

I have been researching Hebrew and Talmudic scholarship for a number of years now, and Chinese for the last four, including two years I spent in China, studying the language and the arts. In creating the 85-letter poems, I have relied on studies in French by François Cheng, on the 1990 Yale University publication on The Life and Art of Bada Shanren, but more particularly on new and carefully detailed translations of the Chinese poems by Claire Huot.

- Robert Majzels