Two Songs of Place and Displacement

Conakry, Guinea, 2013.

Conakry, Guinea, 2013.


The 20th-century term DP, for displaced person, with its old overtones of slave labor, death camps, and forced migration, has expanded in meaning to include many forms of displacement. The condition, too, has expanded—in the 21st century, are more living people “displaced” than not?

A range of displacement, from genocide and exile all the way to economic migration and tourism, is suggested by Elsewhere, a fascinating book created by Eliot Weinberger for the Poetry Foundation in 2014: an anthology of 14 modern poems dealing with an unfamiliar setting, with examples including Federico García Lorca’s nightmare of New York, a Japanese poet visiting Paris, a Nicaraguan poet imagining Norway.

On that theme, here are two poems in English translation, one from Elsewhere and one much older. In quite different ways, both poems confront culture in relation to time. In both, the ancestral past is at once remote and immediate: lost, yet also enduring all around us, and inside us.

Any attempt at translation, knowingly or not, good or bad, must engage a braided web of remoteness and closeness. A translated poem can become a work of art in the new language, as it somehow incorporates that tangle of differences and similarities among languages and their histories.

First, here is a translation by Langston Hughes, from the Haitian French of his friend the poet and revolutionary Jacques Roumain:


It’s the long road to Guinea
death takes you down.
Here are the boughs, the trees, the forest.
Listen to the sound of the wind in its long hair
of eternal night.

It’s the long road to Guinea
where your fathers await you without impatience.
Along the way, they talk.
They wait.
This is the hour when the streams rattle
like beads of bone.

It’s the long road to Guinea.
No bright welcome will be made for you
in the dark land of dark men:

Under a smoky sky pierced by the cry of birds
around the eye of the river
the eyelashes of the trees open on decaying light.
There, there awaits you beside the water a quiet village,
and the hut of your fathers, and the hard ancestral stone
where your head will rest at last.


Weinberger, in his note on Hughes’ translation, observes “a neglected story in the history of international modernism.” That is: “the network of poets that once existed across the African diaspora from the 1920s to the early 1970s, embracing such movements as Negritude and Black Nationalism, publishing and translating each other’s work in magazines in Africa, the U.S. and the Caribbean.” In her book Race, American Literature, and Transnational Modernisms, Anita Patterson describes Hughes’ friendship with Roumain, his protest at Roumain’s political imprisonment, and Roumain’s relation to many European and American modernists.

Hughes artfully conveys a layered urgency, the effort to imagine Africa as a kind of translation from the post-slavery experience of Haiti. The landscape is animated—“the wind in its long hair of eternal night,” “the eye of the river,” “the eyelashes of the trees”—and dreamy, rather than daylit. The road is long and mysterious, the ancestors are patient, emphasizing that the imaginative work of finding home is difficult, a pilgrimage that ends in “the hard ancestral stone.”

An interesting contrast, also involving ancient stone, is a poem written in Latin long after Latin was a spoken language. Even the 16th-century Italian poet’s pen name, Janus Vitalis Panormitanus, is a kind of translation of his actual name, Giovan Francesco Vitale, with the appended “of Palermo” relevant to the subject of place and displacement. In his poem, a stranger in Rome asks directions to Rome, unaware that he already is in Rome. The poem has been translated by Ezra Pound and Robert Lowell, but the version I love is by J.V. Cunningham:



You that a stranger in mid-Rome seek Rome
And can find nothing in mid-Rome of Rome,
Behold this mass of walls, these abrupt rocks,
Where the vast theatre lies overwhelmed.
Here, here is Rome! Look how the very corpse
Of greatness still imperiously breathes threats!
The world she conquered, strove herself to conquer,
Conquered that nothing be unconquered by her.
Now conqueror Rome’s interred in conquered Rome,
And the same Rome conquered and conqueror.
Still Tiber stays, witness of Roman fame,
Still Tiber flows on swift waves to the sea.
Learn hence what Fortune can: the unmoved falls,
And the ever-moving will remain forever.


As Hughes does with Roumain, Cunningham finds an idiom that has conviction: the authority not just of speech, but of speech coming from a specific, particular voice and place. For Cunningham, the voice of classical aplomb: a 20th-century, Irish-American, working class scholar rendering the severe lyric voice of a 16th-century Italian humanist.

Partly lost in translation, and partly recalled by the fact of translation, are the European imperialist overtones and undertones of Roumain composing his poem “Guinea” in French. Similarly lost and recalled are the Imperial meanings and undercurrents of Vitale (or Panormitanus) composing “Rome” in Latin.

“Now conqueror Rome’s interred in conquered Rome” is a line to remember. It conveys the immensity of time along with its presence. I would say the same about “the long road to Guinea/ where your fathers await you without impatience,” “at the hour when the streams rattle/ like beads of bone.” There’s an exhilaration in these poems, with the costly instrument of French, English, Latin, turned toward the unexpected joy of arrival.


25 thoughts on “Two Songs of Place and Displacement

  1. The poems do distinctly share (as you notice, Robert) an imagination of places as living entities. As a continuation of this theme, it’s also interesting to explore the affinities that both poems create between placelessness (or displacement) and death. In “Guinea,” the lifelike qualities are given to what seem to be the central features of the landscape: the hair of night, eye of the river, eyelashes of the trees. Meanwhile, the streams, which are something less abundant or more diminished than rivers, are assigned the drier and more morbid action of rattling like bone. There is also the detail that the ultimate resting place is a village that is “quiet” and “beside” the river, i.e., a place both associated with death and set apart from the life of the dominant landscape.

    A similar imaginative synthesis between death and displacement occurs in “Rome.” What makes the city seem alive is its history of compulsive consumption or conquering of places beyond itself. Paradoxically, its present state in the poem is one of displacement within its own place, which is also the scene of its death and burial: “Now conqueror Rome’s interred in conquered Rome.” With this scene, the poem is also trying to offer an explanation for how “you” could be in the heart of the city and still not be able to locate yourself there.

    • Thank you, Mike Brokos. in both poems, one could say there are a number of (in your phrase) “living entities.” In “Rome,” cities within the city, innumerable containers-Romes in which other Romes are “interred.” (I think of modern Rome’s many buildings that incorporate walls from several different centuries.) And in “Guinea,” implicitly, a number of villages, imagined and actual in different proportions, strung along the journey back in time. I’m grateful to you for your phrase “displacement within its own place.”

    • I see why you like both translations. The Hughes particularly impresses me
      with the way it manages to carry over “Latin American surrealist” imagery
      into a poem in English whose music is English, rather than ‘Latin America
      Poetry Translationese.’ As you note, Cunningham has a long tradition of
      invention behind him in working neo-classical manners into English, and
      commands it admirably. But Hughes’ invention is his own.

      Reading Vitale’s evocation of the ruins of Rome I can’t help thinking of the
      Santa Clara Valley I grew up in, which has been obliterated almost as
      thoroughly by “progress” (“the stranger with money,” in Wendell Berry’s
      potent phrase) as Lubitz and Dresden by allied bombing.

      • I think Gertrude Stein’s remark about returning to Oakland and “there’s no there there” has been misinterpreted as a put-down of Oakland, when what she means is something more like what you say here about the obliteration of the Santa Clara Valley. Both of these poems, Jim, make me think a little about my home town of Long Branch NJ, where my father too grew up– the places that were a kind of solar system for him and then me have been razed or devoured, so that only technically is the place the same place.
        Cunningham’s translation, I guess, gestures toward a kind of imaginative archaeology, to find the traces of the past “interred” in the present. Less traditionally, Hughes/Roumain digs into the imagination itself, to find the lost home?

        • Oh yes, I was working something up with similar parallels, especially because of “Rome” – recalling what Gertrude Stein said in “Composition as Explanation”. “The only thing that is different from one time to another is what is seen and what is seen depends upon how everybody is doing everything. This makes the thing we are looking at very different and this makes what those who describe it make of it, it makes a composition, it confuses, it shows, it is, it looks, it likes it as it is, and this makes what is seen as it is seen. Nothing changes from generation to generation except the thing seen and that makes a composition.”

          Place, or even translation, substitutes for me here fairly accurately as composition: “It is understood by this time that everything is the same except composition and time, composition and the time of the composition and the time in the composition.”

          • nicoleburdick, that last sentence of Stein’s, with the nouns “time” and “composition” interred in one another– it sounds like some of the lines in Cunningham’s translation!

          • I was thinking that translation itself is always performed from a certain position of exile. And the translation of any given poem may shift over time as the translator herself shifts. The poem is never the same poem from one consideration to the next, as the translator is never the same person. I guess that’s true of all manner of communication.

  2. Writing (from France) to say that I really like your idea of these translations as markers of both place and displacement. To say “here!” in a translation is always a little bit removed, I think, from the gesture in the original language. But the translated “here” is moving for that same reason. The word becomes a reading of another poet’s reading of a place. And in between the two readings, maybe a the nuances of a place can take shape…Thank you for this post.

    • A comic, cruel version of this in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, when Bottom the Weaver, with his magical ass’s head, is told by his colleague “Thou art translated.” Transformed, and his name made literal. Sometimes translating a poem, like reading one or writing one, is to court a sweeter kind of transformation than Bottom’s, a yearned-for “here” in your terms, Laura. In these poems, toward an only-imagined place in the past for Roumain and his translator, both? Thank you for these thoughtful sentences– from France. Appropriately.

  3. Charlie, it’s not clear to me that Slate has fixed the Comments glitch. I’m sure that eventually that will happen– sure hope it happens before I write another of these “Classic Poem” pieces! In the meantime, I’m trying to respond to those who were frustrated.

  4. I think too of Zagajewski’s “Going to Lvov,” which, in the Gorczynski translation ends: “…go breathless, go to Lvov, after all/it exists, quiet and pure as/a peach. It is everywhere.” The impossibility of exile and yet its infinite possibility.

    • marmcc, I agree that “Going to Lvov” (along with other work by Zagajewski) belongs in this discussion/category. As does much of Czeslaw Milosz’s writing. Poland, between to powerful, larger languages/countries to its east and west, has endured a kind of internal exile (pardon the phrase) in the form of invasion and expropriation. The Polish language, its persistence and its poetry, has been a theater for “displacement.” With, “Going to Lvov” a great, powerful example.

  5. I’m glad to see this up here. These poems deserve a good discussion. Both depict the ways in which the past, even your personal past, become a foreign country when revisited. The sense of hiraeth (Welsh – longing for a home that we remember but which we have never visited) is very strong in both these pieces. Sometime an actual, physical diaspora brings hiraeth into sharper relief, but the landscape of the past becomes more detached from us through mental space, through the shifts in our consciousness, than any changes in the lands themselves. The following lines really drove that point home to me:

    You that a stranger in mid-Rome seek Rome
    And can find nothing in mid-Rome of Rome,
    Behold this mass of walls, these abrupt rocks,
    Where the vast theatre lies overwhelmed.
    Here, here is Rome!

    In this case, it was a longing for a past culture, rather than a personal memory – but the culture that is, is the culture that was, and the past that the speaker imagined never existed.

    • ” . . . ways the past becomes a foreign country” says it, Bethany. In a way, Roumain’s poem, too, longs “for a past culture, rather than a personal memory”– though for him Africa is personal _and_ cultural, the process of becoming foreign sort of reversible, maybe. Mainly, I appreciate your confirming my sense that these poems deserve considering together. With the fact of translation another layer of foreign/not foreign.

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