The Necropastoral Song: Joyelle McSweeney in Translation by Sabrina Salómon


Et in Arcadia ego by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (Guercino)

Joyelle McSweeney defines the term ‘necropastoral’ as a reworking of classical notions of the separation of the rural and the urban, the idyllic and the worldly. She acknowledges that the most famous celebrity resident of Arcadia is death. Necropastoral suggests that there is no wall between ‘nature’ and ‘manmade’ but only a membrane, that each element can bore through this membrane to spread its poisons, its death to the other:

“Rather than maintaining its didactic or allegorical distance, the membrane separating the Pastoral from the Urban, the past from the future, the living from the dead, may and must be supersaturated, convulsed, and crossed. This membrane is Anachronism itself.” (The Necropastoral, Spork Press, 2006)

The more fake it is, the more powerful it is. According to this idea, the rural and the urban are undefined, the original and fake are unsettled into a spasmodic Mobius strip.

The following poem, “Yellow River IX” belongs to Beijing Plasticizer (Black Warrior Review, Vol.38.1), a portfolio of poems she wrote while in China. It is a paradigmatic poem synthesizing McSweeney´s poetics. The Yellow River is choked with yellow silt. To swallow it is to be choked by it (it is non-potable), to be choked by your desire for art. It’s reflects upon the choking desire to get near beauty and the inability to arrive at beauty…

Yellow River IX

The Yellow River
a coverlet a lit-up
starlet or starling’s high
swollen breast a lisping
silty cover song

for the player piano’s
teeth to read

gold teeth line the gut
the revolving gas canister
is sleeping on its spool the scissors slip
from the sleeping hand
and the hair grows on
over the bier and
out the window

golden hair
wake up
choke up

here’s the pitch
fate’s gut shot
for which your gorge has risen

miss unimbibable miss
vomiting beauty miss

The poem begins with a succession of “s” sounds which creates a pleasing and smooth atmosphere. The images, however, are not idyllic, beautiful or pleasant. Beauty is also elusive and discouraged through the abrupt change to single words in the second stanza. The rhythm becomes agitated before the third stanza, where “s” sounds are recovered and the rhythm regains some of the quietness of the first part. These transitions help build the necropastoral aesthetics.

The alliterations and consonants hurry the sound on its way or force the sound to bang up against other sounds. Sound is the pure coercive force of Art, the medium which desires to change forms. So, sound is very important not only to the structure and nature of McSweeney´s work but to the nature of art itself; the presence of sounds is truly Art’s presence, and it is also the political vector of poetry, the sound that touches bodies, moves among languages and registers to change the shape of the world with its own new form.

The poet´s concept of Art is, therefore, related to the theme of translation. She actually believes that Art is an act of translation, a transformation or deformation of form from one medium into another. And she is not afraid of the degradation or decomposition that comes with transformation. The consecutive lines forming “winding sheet music” in the poem depict this concept of de-composition. This phrase, composed of two different expressions (“winding sheet” and “sheet music”) can be taken as representative of the spasmodic Mobius strip into which composition and decomposition, creation-degradation-recreation coexist.

“There’s something special about writing, that it can hold every other art form and form in the world, and that the things that it holds badly (translation) it is excellently deficient in and produces something interesting out of the deficiency. So I love the degradation and decomposition and I’m not worried about it at all.” (“12 or 20 Questions: Joyelle McSweeney”, Rob Mclennan’s Blog, 2009)

I attempted to translate this poem deforming the original text and de-composing a new poem/song that aims to do justice to McSweeney´s aesthetic.

Río amarillo IX

El río Amarillo
una sábana un lucero
joven encendido o vuelo de zorzal
pecho abultado cecear
una canción limosa

que leen los dientes
del piano

dientes dorados forran la tripa
el tubo de gas inestable
reposa sobre el suelo las pinzas se salen
de la mano durmiente
y el cabello crece y crece
sale del féretro a
través de la ventana

cabello dorado

acá está el tono
del destino entrañado
que te asqueó la garganta

miss imbebible miss
belleza vomitiba miss
falsa dermiss

The translation becomes a different song, but the play of sounds and the musicality recreate the tension between the desire for beauty and the inability to reach it.

The “s” sounds at the beginning of the poem are maintained as well as the choppiness of the second stanza, and the harder “r” rodent sounds. In the third stanza, “s” sounds are present but the Spanish meter forces the lines to flow differently, more like a (yellow) river. This fluidity, though, is again interrupted by the following lines introducing harsh imperatives.

The English text offers constant enjambment of relatively short lines, rhymes of short vowels and most words contain one syllable. In the Spanish translation the syllables are abundant and more musical. Yet, the alternation between soft fricative sounds and harder “t” and “tr” sounds in the translation makes up for the differences established by longer and shorter lines in the English text. Consider:


McSweeney invites us to inhabit the conflicting edges of reality, articulating the power and joy that come with degeneracy. She does not let us read for beauty or lyricism (only for vomiting beauty) but makes us active participants, never letting us acquiesce, never letting us inhabit a fake zone of comfort, but encouraging us to become mixed through penetrating the fake walls that separate illusory worlds. Between McSweeney´s poem and my translation there is only a fake wall or falsa dermiss.


Sabrina Salomón holds a scholarship from the Universidad Nacional de Mar del Plata (Argentina) to work on Performace Poetry and Translation, and is a member of the research group, “Problemas de la Literatura Comparada”, coordinated by Lisa R. Bradford. She has published several articles, essays and also Spanish translations of Joyelle McSweeney´s poetry. She holds a degree in Translation from the Universidad Nacional de La Plata and is currently pursuing her Master´s Degree in Letras Hispánicas at Universidad Nacional de Mar del Plata.


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