Learning to Drive: Sentence by Line

Marci Vogel

Last summer, I turned 50. The DMV reminded me: It’s time to renew your license. I checked off all the boxes: same California address, no suspensions, no probations. No vision changes. I check the box, but it’s not the truth. This is the last year of driving with no glasses. There is a softness at the margins that’s probably not the safest behind a windshield. Outside the car, however, such vision lets me see differently — not as sharply, to be sure, but with an overall sense of the whole. Global, insists my French language instructor: On a besoin d’une compréhension globale, pas précise.

Clarity will not suffice. The spirit keeps watch, but as through window glass, and cannot — without help — initiate a return. What miracle remains to be wished?

I think of these sentences, translated from Andrée Chedid’s 1956 lyrical sequence Les vivants, and know exactly which spirits keeps watch as I drive.

My stepfather drove a canyon from the Valley to the City every day, one of several winding routes through the Santa Monica Mountains, long stretches of two-way with no cross lights. Drivers wishing to turn left from a side street might wait a good while before a break in traffic allowed safe merging. In anticipation of one particularly congested crossing, my stepfather would lift his foot from the gas pedal with such finesse that drivers behind him scarcely knew they were slowing. As the gap in front of his chocolate brown Firebird widened, my stepfather would flash his headlights to signal his intent to maintain a safe distance until the long-waiting cars could complete their left turns. This technique often yielded a long line of relieved motorists with no angry ones trailing behind. My stepfather was a skilled and gracious driver who understood how to adjust mechanics to keep a line moving forward. It’s his example I try to follow now, both in the car and in translation.

The two poets I share here began writing in languages other than the French they ultimately chose for their work. Andrée Chedid’s first collection was published in English; Anise Koltz wrote in German. Chedid was born in Cairo in 1920 and emigrated to France after World War II. Remembered in Paris as La dame des deux rives — the woman who came from the banks of two rivers, the Seine and the Nile — Chedid published over 20 collections of poetry before her death in 2011. At 87, Anise Koltz is one of Luxembourg’s major contemporary poets. Born in 1928, she began writing in French after the premature death of her husband, René, who never fully recovered from the Nazi occupation. Several poems in her 2013 collection, Galaxies intérieures are dedicated to him:

Drenched in your kisses

the sun & the rain

My pores dilated

like valves

slowly opening

The outside world


the inner core

You arrived with my reinvention

A universal mirror

reflecting the other sphere

The two poets, Chedid and Koltz, were friends. I discover this coincidence only after I have translated long sequences of their work. Anise mentions it when we are seated together in her Luxembourg apartment surrounded by trees. She also says it was her husband who encouraged her poetry after they married, when she left a conservative household where free rein of voice was discouraged. This poem to Renée speaks at once to the past and to the present, a particular moment of love’s opening, and a continuation of love’s effect. In English, these dual temporalities might be relayed by the past progressive tense, in which a past action can be viewed as an ongoing situation. But there is no past progressive in French, only the imperfect, and so I must work imperfectly: Pas precise, globale. So much the better. And oddly contradictory. The past progressive relies on helping verbs, and vivid poems in English are typically helped only by singularly precise ones.

Whether in English or in French, the mechanics of verb tense are complex, all clutch and gearshift, like a 1979 Volkswagen I once owned, its electrical system sparking at the steering wheel one afternoon on California Route 17, one of the most dangerous highways in the nation. I translate now from the safety of my desk, but the urgency feels similar. Whenever life, death, and love are in close proximity, time blurs. They say the moments of an accident last forever. Superstition warns me to write of accidents with caution. A neighbor once gave me an incantation to recite each time I entered a car: May only the good come to this car; may only the good go from it. I invoke it here.

Taking my cue from the first word — buvant — I decide on a combination of present participles and simple past tense throughout the poem. My aim is to convey Koltz’s mingling of time — her original agility and speed — without crashing. But before I head out, I shift buvant — without question, a present participle in French — to drenched, a past participle in English. I also shift the word. Partly it’s because I prefer drenched to drinking here; to my ear it creates a deeper sense of saturation and also resonates with kisses. Partly, I want to portray the speaker as being acted upon — by those kisses, the sun and the rain — rather than the one doing the action, the implication of another’s presence still in play.

But a good part of the decision rests in the poem’s lines, and the way they work in relation to each other. As one line progresses to the next, it might belong either to the ones preceding or to the ones ahead. This progression intersects with my preferences, in that the condition of being drenched (a past event still felt) now becomes the cause of dilation — filled beyond capacity, something opens. And that something (the valves, in this case) are still opening, which explains the choice of the present participle (opening) rather than the simple present of the French (s’ouvrent).

In terms of the line, opening might merge either with valves (in the line above) or with The outside world (in the line below), which is the center point of poem. This meridian is where the two-lane highway of past and present converge, the enjambment turning one line into the next without slowing, all the while permitting a juncture of outer and inner, an easy transport between the physical world of “kisses / the sun & the rain” and “the other sphere” reflected in the final stanza’s “universal mirror.” An all-encompassing rear-view, if you will.

There are other points where we might stop along the route of this love poem, both elegy and celebration, but to keep traffic moving, let’s yield briefly to another piece of writing, the one whose spirit first accompanied this journey:

Clarity will not suffice. The spirit keeps watch, but as through window glass, and cannot — without help — initiate a return. What miracle remains to be wished?

These sentences — some might say lines — by Andrée Chedid come from a lyrical sequence of 20 sections called « Les vivants », or “The Living.” They comprise a snippet of section 8, and appear in Chedid’s 1987 collection published by Flammarion, Textes pour un poème 1949–1970. Such a title raises the questions: What makes something a text? What makes it a poem? It’s easy to relegate sentences to texts, lines to poems, but regarding the collection’s title, Chedid has offered this explanation: “I wanted to say that poetry which forms one body with our existence remains — in the same way as life — free, mobile, never cordoned off. No key can open the door onto the mystery of either.” Existence as mystery; explanation as possibility: Whether conveyed via sentence or line, such movements toward fluidity, toward open-road discovery, are what seem to me to distinguish the poetry of Andrée Chedid.

As a translator of her work, I listen for her advice in the passenger seat: “At first I let things flow along and take their course. Then I … look very closely at words that will have to be cut, tightened or straightened out …. I work on the rhythm, the music,” she says in a 1997 interview in The UNESCO Courier. I also keep in mind Chedid’s affinity with haiku, which she characterizes as “formal … poems where the radiance of the essential flows ….” Both observations direct me to a balance of ease and exactitude, a combination of qualities similar to those required for driving a stick-shift car, which, 30 years after the Volkswagen break-down, I still do — a 2005 Mini Cooper called Iris.

Iris is named after the ancient Greek rainbow goddess, and despite California’s withering drought, she and I were recently caught in a sudden torrent that, after 35 years of driving, ranks as one of the most terrifying highway experiences of my life. I almost pulled over, and if not for the thought of my dog alone and soaked in the yard, I would have. I should have. Instead, I hoped the windshield wiper blades still worked, and that the tires had adequate tread. I downshifted and tried to avoid the blinding spray of the big rigs traveling at full speed. I share this with you now in the safety of this room, but the urgency remains a felt experience. Whenever life, death and love are in close proximity, time blurs.

If you look to the final stanza of section 8, you’ll see those very elements sharing space in a single four-lane highway of a sentence. In French, it stretches over six. The friend who introduced me to the work of Chedid and Koltz claims that French is the more precise language by far. This may or may not be true. But in the case of this poem, the string of prepositions that create precision in French function as cautionary orange cones in English — they slow everything down. New questions now flash on the overpass signage: How to keep the lyrical sentence from being prosaic? How best to retain its music?

I sense the gearshift in my palm, my foot on the clutch. Here again, ease and exactitude seem required, or maybe a vision both global and precise. What is clear is that the mechanics of the sentence — which is to say its punctuation, word choice, grammatical structure, syntax — all need to be in vivid working order. In this stanza, Chedid is after a miracle, safe return from the zone of the impossible. The sentence must not simply flow; it must serve as a bridge from one shore to the next. It must bring us across the other side of appearances and deliver us to life.

When Anise and I were seated together in her Luxembourg apartment surrounded by trees, she told me that her son had married Chedid’s daughter, nodding to a shelf lined with framed photographs of their shared grandchildren. When I return to Los Angeles, I open Chedid’s 1972 prose work, La Cité fertile. The epigraph is by Koltz. I translate it here:

Abattez mes branches

et sciez-moi en morceaux

les oiseaux continueront à chanter

dans mes racines.

Cut down my branches

and saw me into pieces

the birds will keep singing

in my roots.

Maybe it’s that singing in the root that makes a poem a poem, in whatever form it takes — sentence or line, or something else entirely. I think about the height and circumference of those trees, so green compared to the Los Angeles canyons where I watched my stepfather maneuver the Firebird. I didn’t ask Anise how she met the Cairo-born friend whose child married her own, but I imagine the two poets traveling side by side down a scenic highway somewhere between Paris and Luxembourg City. I imagine them effortlessly circling the roundabouts, their voices trailing outside rolled-down windows, May only the good come to this car; may only the good go from it.

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