Helene Cardona's beautifully crafted collection, Dreaming My Animal Selves, drifts in and out of languages, presenting poems in both English and French translations. By doing so, the book raises several compelling questions about the relationship between language and human consciousness: Does language, with its complex grammatical rules, limit what is possible within conscious experience? When one inhabits more than one language, what possibilities open up for thought, expression, and the creation of meaning? Lastly, does language make us who we are, or is there an identity core that exists apart from, or beyond, language? As Cardona teases out possible answers to these thought-provoking questions, her poems prove to be as image-rich and musical as they are faultlessly constructed.
With that in mind, Cardona's decision to present the same poems in two languages is especially fascinating. By doing so, the poet suggests the myriad ways that language structures thought, as the poems frequently exhibit subtle differences across languages. Cardona's decision to present the poems in both French and English suggests that meaning resides beyond language, as it is often modified to fit grammatical and syntactical conventions. Cardona's use of translation to make these ambitious philosophical claims about the nature of language and conscious experience is compelling and masterful. She writes in "From the Heart with Grace,"
Wind, who yearns to be savored, offers
me three cups overflowing
with eternity, daemon of insight.
The opportune encounter enraptures quintessential
distress, ruffles estranged quietude [...]
While there is much to be admired in this poem, Cardona's juxtaposition of these lines with the preceding French translation is especially striking. In the English version of the poem, the words "offers" and "me" appear on separate lines, halved by Cardona's provocative enjambment. In the French version, however, linguistic conventions almost dictate that the words for "offer" and "me" ("m'offre") will appear on the same line. Cardona's use of translation calls our attention to the myriad ways that (somewhat arbitrary) linguistic rules ultimately determine the structure of a poem, and in many ways, the structures of thought itself. Dreaming My Animal Selves is filled with poems like this one, which are as beautifully rendered as they are ambitious and self-aware.
Along these lines, Cardona presents both the poem and the self as existing in a constant state of becoming, which unfolds across languages and cultures. In many ways, the poems and the individual speakers within them find themselves closer to truth as they are transported across languages, literatures, and cultural landscapes. Cardona's use of form (more specifically, the structure of the book itself) to convey this ambitious claim about identity is truly impressive. She writes in "Lunar Standstill,"
The desire to move
to a place in my mind
where I've always been well
brings me back
to innocence placing roses,
of migratory years,
out of bounds moon.
With the bones of the skull
I listen to a language of rain,
prism, melody of a world becoming.
I admire Cardona's skillful use of form to literally enact the content of the poem. Just as the speaker exists in a constant state of becoming, so too does the poem, particularly as it is ferried from language to language, made to inhabit vastly different syntaxes and adhere to their underlying logic. In many ways, Cardona suggests a parallel between the poem and the individual self, particularly as the speaker is constructed and then reconstructed by language. As the poem appears in French, then English, the speaker is carried from one tradition, one cultural milieu to the next, and situated against these very different backdrops. By placing the same speaker within multiple literary, cultural, and sonic landscapes, she gestures at the possibility of an identity that exists apart from and beyond a specific culture, language, or politics, a thought-provoking claim that is made as much through form as it is through content. In short, this is a stunning collection, and Cardona is a poet to watch.
Kristina Marie Darling is the author of over twenty books of poetry and hybrid prose. Her awards include fellowships from Yaddo, the Ucross Foundation, and the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, as well as grants from the Kittredge Fund and the Elizabeth George Foundation. She was recently selected as a Visiting Artist at the American Academy in Rome.
Dreaming My Animal Selves
By Helene Cardona
Cliffs of Moher: Salmon Poetry, 2013
$21.95 paperback, ISBN: 978-1-908836-39-7