Thrown by Brooke Ellsworth
The New Megaphone, 2014
The New Megaphone
Translation isn’t only the process of converting words or text from one language to another. Translation is transformation. In Thrown: A Translation, poet Brooke Ellsworth explores the myriad ways we convey both classic myths and ourselves. Drawing on the Roman poet Ovid’s tale of Echo and Narcissus, Ellsworth begins to delineate her multivarious take on translation in the first poem of the collection, “In Nova,” the reader’s guide to her chapbook. “Nova,” the feminine of “novus,” is Latin for “new star,” an extant star that shines brightly to declare its apparent newness only to fade out and return to its original form.
“In Nova” illuminates the terms of Ellsworth’s translation of Ovid’s classic myth, which she translates first from the Latin, then from an anonymous late-Middle English translation, and then experientially as herself, “young, living on an isl&, at a distance from the process of urbanization.” Though the poem’s presentation is minimalist—from the small, numbered sections to the miniscule typeset—Ellsworth’s translation can only be described as maximalist.
If a translator’s obsession is fidelity, then Narcissus deserves Ellsworth’s style of translation: faithful only to itself. The poet frames Thrown as an overdubbing of the myth of Echo and Narcissus, à la the dubbing of Dorothy Dandridge’s singing voice by Marilyn Horne in Carmen Jones. Ellsworth overdubs Ovid’s voice, adding new layers to the myth to allow the charm, the poem/play, the ampersand, and the sororicide to each take the stage for a turn in the spotlight. Never mind if sororicide is Ellsworth’s own addition to the myth—this is “A Translation,” not, “The,” and articles are crucial here.
“In Nova” completed, the reader enters “Thrown,” Ellsworth’s translation in earnest, with the understanding that she will explode the notion of le mot juste. Rather than agonizing over a unit, the poet stretches the words in her translation into phrases and similes, giving Ovid’s words their maximum valence. “Thrown” unfolds in 20 numbered sections under headings that present the scene the reader is entering. There are the familiar scenes: first, Narcissus’ birth by Liriope, then Echo falling for Narcissus, and then Narcissus falling for himself. And then there are the scenes that Ellsworth recasts in modern summation. The reader enters these sections en medias res, sometimes to a straightforward retelling of the myth of Narcissus, and sometimes to Ellsworth’s own reflective utterances.
When she saw him.
When she saw him.
My extravagance diversifies.
While Ellsworth’s translation is broad, her power is in her concision, as she cuts to the myth’s marrow: that we are tortured does not make us noble. In Ellsworth’s estimation, Narcissus is “underst&ably a loud-mouthed fool.” Echo is given only “meaninglessness to braid in response” to being called, and so she braids. The ampersand too braids the letters a-n-d throughout the collection, whenever they appear—the ampersand itself is a corruption of language. Ellsworth captures the essence of Narcissus, the original heartthrob: “Narcissus goes perfectly from boy to man. / He is widely known / as one among many.” She also captures the eroticism couched in the myth, describing his self-discovery as going to the water: “To unfold his second thirst.” And who has not similarly unfolded to her or his own image?
Ellsworth reimagines translation in Thrown, from the audacious multiplicity of dictions she selects, to the emergence of her own persona toward the end of the poem. In section 16, she betrays the pretended selflessness of translation to greet us: “Ciao, *_* my home_ / I stole / a lot more than Ovid but I can’t remember.” Though the poet resists the fate of Echo, unwilling to simply mimic any previous treatment of the myth, her empathy extends to Echo from the outset. For Ellsworth, Echo is “a talkative thrown / down to the ground,” and so it is from the ground up that this translation is built.
Neologism, transference, deletion, Ellsworth doesn’t choose one when she can use all three. And she chooses, deftly, to tell a story that isn’t new, but is an old one brightly exploding.
Disclosure Note: Brook Ellsworth has written for Entropy in the past.
Justin Sherwood holds an MFA from the New School Creative Writing program, where he was selected for the 2012 Paul Violi Prize in Poetry. His poetry and critical work appear in or are forthcoming from Women’s Studies Quarterly (WSQ), H_NGM_N, The Poetry Project Newsletter, New Criticals, and elsewhere.