Review: Two New Chapbooks from Publication Studio Guelph // Jeremy Luke Hill

Publication Studio Guelph's two newest poetry chapbooks, Lisa Hirmer's Forests Not Yet Here and Taqralik Partridge's curved against the hull of a peterhead, both engage with ideas of translation, though they do so in very different ways.

Partridge takes up translation in the more usual sense of the term, as the turn from one language to another. Though the poems in the volume are largely in English, several of them are in transliterated Inuktitut or in French, and some of the Inuktitut poems are also written in the Inuktitut alphabet (syllabics). The final poem incorporates all three languages, repeating in multiple tongues, "The land does not belong to us." Most of these translations are made by other writers, but Partridge does some of them herself.

This concern with translation also appears in Patridge's live performances. For example, when she headlined The Guelph Lecture—On Being in January 2020, she began with a reading in Inuktitut, which she initially said she wouldn't translate into English, but then eventually did. In this way she flagged the issue of translation directly, first forcing the almost exclusively English-speaking audience to experience the reading in a language they didn't understand, without even the prospect of having it translated for them. This move asserted a kind of linguistic power over the audience, reclaiming the power of a language that has historically been silenced, now establishing the right to appear as it is, without the mediation of a translation. Even when Partridge then relented and offered an English translation, it felt like a gesture granted from a position of power, a condescension to those who were unable to truly hear the poem in its proper tongue.

The translations in Partridge's book function in a similar way. The first poem appears in the Inuktitut alphabet, asserting its right to speak first, as what it is. The same poem then appears twice more on the next two pages, first in English and then in transliterated Inuktitut. Although the majority of the following poems then appear in English, this opening gesture positions all of those poems, at least to some degree, as a condescension to the book's broader audience that is almost certainly unable to understand poems in Inuktitut. It speaks in English, but only after it establishes that English is the language of translation in this space, secondary to Inuktitut, which retains for itself the power to grant English its very right to appear. 

Lisa Hirmer, in Forests Not Yet Here, engages with a much different sense of translation, one that is less common but more literal, the sense of translation where something is carried from one place to another. She does so without ever using the word 'translate' specifically, preferring sometimes the word 'transfer' (which is etymologically related to 'translate'), sometimes the word 'transmit,' most often just the words 'move,' 'receive,' 'give', or 'exchange,' but she uses all of these words in the sense of translation, in the sense of something being carried from one place to another.

This idea of translation arises throughout the book, but emerges as a central theme in the final sections, where Hirmer talks about the mechanics of forests that allow them to survive difficult times. She describes how "through underground networks / of roots and fungi resources move from the mother trees to smaller, / younger and more shaded trees around them." She describes how "a birch tree that grows next to a fir will give the shaded fir sugar / during the summer. From fall to spring the fir will give sugar to the / leafless birch. If you cut down one, the other will often die." She describes how "as one of its last gestures a dying tree will transfer its carbon- / rich sugars into nearby living trees."

With these examples, and many similar, Hirmer develops the idea of translation, of carrying things from one place to another, as a model for how a species can function together to survive in ways that don't sacrifice the whole to the demands of the individual. "Matter moving back and forth between bodies makes the forest strong," she says. "This works at a timescale beyond the self." In this way, she employs translation as a gesture of sharing and survival rather than a gesture of assertion and power.

And yet, as different as Hirmer's use of translation might initially seem to be from Partridge's, they aren't fundamentally all that different. They both recognize that the success of the whole requires translating what is essential between bodies. The difference is that Partridge is calling attention to how this translation has for too long and in too many ways not been reciprocal. She uses translation in order to reassert the need for this sharing to operate between all the bodies, in order for the whole to survive. 

Jeremy Luke Hill is the publisher at Gordon Hill Press, a literary publisher based in Guelph, Ontario. He is also the Managing Director of Vocamus Writers Community, a non-profit community organization that supports book culture in Guelph. He has written a collection of poetry and short prose called Island Pieces, along with several chapbooks and broadsheets. His writing has appeared in ARC Poetry, The Bull Calf, CV2, EVENT Magazine, Filling Station, Free Fall, The Goose, HA&L, The Maynard, paperplates, Queen Mob’s Tea House, The Rusty Toque, The Town Crier, and The Windsor Review.

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