Fortino Sámano (The Overflowing of the Poem), translated by Cynthia Hogue and Sylvain Gallais, with French on facing pages, is a collaborative work by the emerging French poet, Virginie Lalucq, and the distinguished philosopher, Jean-Luc Nancy. Lalucq wrote the serial poem, Fortino Sámano, after seeing an exhibit of photographs on the Mexican Revolution by Agustin Victor Casasola. Her series is a meditation on the single, extant photograph of Sámano, a Zapatista lieutenant and counterfeiter, which Casasola snapped as Sámano, smoking a last cigar, appeared to stare death nonchalantly in the face moments before his execution by firing squad (it was reported that he himself gave the order to fire). Little is known about Sámano, and Lalucq’s poem makes no attempt to be biographical or historical. Rather, she treats the image itself, the fact that the camera caught the image of life just prior to its end. What, then, does the image represent? She asks. Nancy’s section, Les débordements du poème (The overflowing of the poem), is a series of poetic commentaries on each of the poems in Lalucq’s series. It is a philosophical contemplation of the specific poem, Fortino Sámano, and also, a poetic investigation of the lyric genre, which works hand-in-hand with Lalucq’s poems. Fortino Sámano is an exciting poetic dialogue, and a significant work in poetics, which Hogue and Gallais have brought into English.
We all know that the reader collaborates in the text. Here, a reader was given the chance to articulate his reading, which in turn changed the poem. The roles of poet and philosopher seem almost reversed: the poem’s language is plain, stripped down, and engages philosophical questions, whereas Nancy attends to words rather in a poet’s way, playing with sound, punning. It is tempting to speculate what Nancy would have made of a poem with more of Valéry’s “hesitation between sound and sense,” but what we have here is extraordinary: a collaboration that throws light on processes of thinking, poetic or philosophical.
It started with a single image, which overflowed into a serial poem, which overflowed into a philosophic commentary, which overflowed into another language—in this case English. Cynthia Hogue and Sylvain Gallais have masterfully translated this complex articulation among image, poetry, and philosophy, proving that these categories are never stable and that, in fact, they gain their conditions of possibility from that very instability—which is the same instability that enables translation, that allows translation to create a solid ground out of constant expansion. The fact that this particular example is rooted in a defiant stare defying death lends that stare to poetry, philosophic commentary, and translation itself. They will probably refuse to give it back.
Sylvain Gallais and Cynthia Hogue, simply by bringing attention to this dialogue between two powerful French minds, have performed a remarkable service. That they imbued the English version with a bright vitality, with linguistic energy and intellectual rigor, is even more remarkable. Jean-Luc Nancy’s observation that “A poem is always, at each moment, a last word with no conclusion” applies as well to a translation as to an “original,” and this translation is an examination of the power and danger behind powerful images and engaging paradoxes. This is one of the necessary new books.