Let me introduce myself.
I’m the Memory Collector, your companion and spirit guide.
Let’s unwind the clock, peel the past.
The reflections you give me, conjure, surrender from within,
I throw into the fire, the cauldron of resolutions.
They burn into embers and flickers that evolve into butterflies.
They flutter away, free and heal of all strongholds
so they can revisit and reinvent who you are.
Let the dance begin.
I’m in my mother’s womb in Paris.
She’s scared. I want to get out.
I’m three years old in Terracina, Italy, sharing a room with four girls.
My grandfather visits from Greece.
He holds my brother on his lap
and says, a boy at last, I’m not impressed with girls.
I’m four years old, in Monte Carlo.
My mother takes me to school.
A pigeon poops on my scarf.
She reassures, it brings good luck.
I’m five years old, in Karben, Germany.
It’s Saint Nicholas day, my birthday.
Marieluise feeds me Lebkuchen, Stollen and Pfeffernüssen.
They taste like heaven.
I’m six years old in ballet class in Geneva, breaking my point shoes.
The Russian master ingrains in me the correlation between pleasure and pain.
I now know the two centers sit next to each other in the brain.
I’m seven years old, in the Swiss Alps, making snowmen, skiing, hunting for Easter eggs.
My mother laughs then says, your father can’t be left alone.
I’m eight years old, in the Jura mountain, in love with my dog, playing chess with my dad.
I’m nine years old.
My grandmother takes me to the market in Tarragona
to buy the bitter and pungent quince she craves.
I’m ten years old.
My cousin drowns me in the beautiful blue waters
of the Spanish Mediterranean because I threw sand at him.
My head hits the hard bottom, all the air’s gone from my lungs.
My last thought is, no one knows I’m here.
I’m eleven years old.
My mother makes jam with apricots, strawberries, peaches and plums.
She’s filled the house with the intoxicating scent of gardenias.
My brother throws another temper tantrum.
I’m twelve years old in math class, mad with laughter.
I’m thirteen years old.
The Music Conservatory in Geneva is sheer magic,
an enchanted world I inhabit alone, the key to my soul.
My piano teacher has such faith in me.
I’m fourteen years old, between worlds.
My aunt married a fascist. He grabs my dad by the throat.
It’s the middle of the night. It’s loud. I can’t sleep.
I’m fifteen years old, in Northern Wales,
riding a fabulous horse along stunning steep cliffs,
racing him to full gallop in bewitching Celtic wind,
relinquishing cravings in the dust.
I’m sixteen years old, off to San Diego.
My mother cries at the Paris airport.
She breaks my heart but the pull is stronger.
I’m learning to let go, trust the ripeness of the moment.
That everything happens at the right time.
To appreciate what I have.
I’m connected to my bones,
filled with the richness and texture of space, uplifted,
vibrating, reverberating. I become the sound
of Tibetan bells, echoing and hovering in the cosmos.
I perceive the whole world below, life in suspension.
From Life in Suspension (Salmon Poetry, 2016)
La Vie Suspendue
Je me présente, si vous le voulez bien.
Je suis La collectionneuse de souvenirs,
votre compagne et guide spirituelle.
Déroulons le temps, effeuillons le passé.
Vous invoquez vos souvenirs, me les livrez en offrandes,
je les jette dans le feu, dans le chaudron des dénouements.
Parmi les cendres tournoyantes, naissent des papillons qui vous guérissent,
vous libèrent de vos chaînes, vous redécouvrent pour vous réinventer.
Que la danse commence.
Je suis dans le ventre de ma mère à Paris.
Elle a peur, je veux sortir de là.
J’ai trois ans, à Terracina, Italie.
Je partage une chambre avec quatre filles.
Mon grand-père vient d’arriver de Grèce, tient mon frère sur ses genoux
et dit, enfin un garçon, les filles ne me passionnent guère.
J’ai quatre ans, à Monte Carlo.
Ma mère m’emmène à l’école.
Un pigeon me chie sur le foulard.
Elle me console, ça porte chance.
J’ai cinq ans, à Karben, Allemagne.
C’est la Saint Nicolas, mon anniversaire.
Marieluise me gave de Lebkuchen, Stollen et Pfeffernüssen.
Je suis au paradis.
J’ai six ans, en classe de danse classique à Genève.
Je casse mes pointes.
Le maître de ballet russe m’initie au grand art de lier douleur et plaisir.
Je sais à présent que tous deux nichent ensemble dans ma tête.
J’ai sept ans, dans les Alpes suisses,
je fais des bonshommes de neige, skie, cherche les œufs de Pâques.
Ma mère rit puis dit, ton père ne peut rester seul.
J’ai huit ans, dans le Jura.
Je suis folle de mon chien, je joue aux échecs avec mon père.
Je suis en extase.
J’ai neuf ans, à Tarragone.
Ma grand-mère et moi allons au marché
acheter les coings amers et âcres qu’elle adore.
J’ai dix ans.
Mon cousin me noie dans les belles eaux bleues
de la Méditerranée espagnole parce que je lui ai jeté du sable.
Ma tête heurte le fond de la mer, mes poumons manquent d’air.
J’ai pour dernière pensée, personne ne sait où je suis.
J’ai onze ans.
Ma mère fait des confitures d’abricots, de fraises, de pêches
et de prunes. Elle a rempli la maison du parfum grisant des gardénias.
Mon frère pique une nouvelle crise de nerfs.
J’ai douze ans, cours de maths. C’est une crise de fou rire permanente.
J’ai treize ans.
Le Conservatoire de Musique de Genève est pure magie,
un monde enchanté que j’habite seule, clé de mon âme.
Ma prof de piano croit tant en moi.
J’ai quatorze ans, à la lisière des mondes.
Ma tante a épousé un fasciste. Il a saisi mon père à la gorge.
C’est le milieu de la nuit. C’est bruyant. Impossible de dormir.
J’ai quinze ans, au Pays de Galles, chevauchant un fabuleux
cheval qui galope vers le nord, le long de falaises
étourdissantes, le vent celte m’ensorcelle,
laissant mes désirs s’envoler dans la poussière du galop.
J’ai seize ans, je pars pour San Diego, la Californie.
Ma mère est en pleurs à l’aéroport de Paris.
Elle me brise le cœur mais l’appel est plus fort.
J’apprends à ne pas m’attacher,
à apprécier ce que j’ai,
à croire en la magie du temps qui transforme,
que tout arrive à son heure.
Je suis en symbiose avec mes os.
La richesse de l’espace et sa densité me ravissent,
me transportent, me font osciller, vibrer.
Je deviens le son de cloches tibétaines, écho flottant dans le cosmos.
Je perçois le monde entier, la vie suspendue.
La Vie Suspendue (Salmon Poetry, 2016)
About Hélène Cardona
Hélène Cardona’s recent books include Life in Suspension and Dreaming My Animal Selves(both from Salmon Poetry), the translations Beyond Elsewhere (Gabriel Arnou-Laujeac, White Pine Press), winner of a Hemingway Grant; Ce que nous portons (Dorianne Laux, Éditions du Cygne); The Birnam Wood by her father José Manuel Cardona (forthcoming from Salmon Poetry in 2018); and Walt Whitman’s Civil War Writings for WhitmanWeb.
She has also translated Rimbaud, Baudelaire, René Depestre, Ernest Pépin, Aloysius Bertrand, Maram Al-Masri, Eric Sarner, Jean-Claude Renard, Nicolas Grenier, and Christiane Singer. She contributes essays to The London Magazine, co-edits Plume and Fulcrum, holds a Master’s in American Literature from the Sorbonne, received fellowships from the Goethe-Institut & Universidad Internacional de Andalucía, worked as a translator for the Canadian Embassy in Paris, and taught at Hamilton College & LMU. Publications include Washington Square Review, World Literature Today, Poetry International, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Drunken Boat, Asymptote and The Warwick Review. http://helenecardona.com
Hélène Cardona was born in Paris and raised all over Europe before settling in the US. She earned her MA in American literature from the Sorbonne, where she wrote her thesis on Henry James. She is the author of 7 books, more recently the bilingual collections Life in Suspension, called “a vivid self-portrait as scholar, seer and muse” by John Ashbery, and Dreaming My Animal Selves, described by David Mason as “liminal, mystical and other-worldly.” Cardona’s luminous poetry, hailed as visionary by Richard Wilbur, explores consciousness, the power of place, and ancestral roots. It is poetry of alchemy and healing, a gateway to the unconscious and the dream world.
Her translations include Beyond Elsewhere (Gabriel Arnou-Laujeac), winner of a Hemingway Grant; Ce que nousportons (Dorianne Laux); Birnam Wood (José Manuel Cardona): and Walt Whitman’s Civil War Writings for WhitmanWeb. She contributes essays to The London Magazine, and co-edits Plume, Fulcrum, and Levure Littéraire.
MY CREATIVE PROCESS
How would you describe your own (very individualistic) poetic voice? What are your intentions in your poetry?
I write as a form of self-expression, fulfilment, transcendence, healing, to transmute pain and experience into beauty. For me, poetry is a process of self-revelation, an exploration of hidden dimensions in myself, and also a way to express the profound experience of the fundamental interconnection of all in the universe. Writing is cathartic as it extends a search for peace, for serenity, rooted in a desire to transcend and reconcile the fundamental duality I see in life. Ultimately, I seek expansion of consciousness.
We are stretched to the frontiers of what we know, exploring language and the psyche. The poem is a gesture, an opening toward a greater truth or understanding. Art brings us to the edge of the incomprehensible. The poems, in their alchemy and geology, are fragments of dreams, enigmas, shafts of light, part myth, and part fable. Mysticism constitutes the experience of what transcends us while inhabiting us. Poetry, as creation, borders on it. It is metaphysical. It offers a new vision of the universe, reveals the soul’s secrets and mysteries. These lines from the poem “The Isle of Immortals” encapsulate my philosophy:
The ultimate aim is reverence for the universe.
The ultimate aim is love for life.
The ultimate aim is harmony within oneself.
What defines my writing is the sacred dimension of the poetic experience. And it is founded in very concrete reality, a reconciliation of the spiritual and the carnal. It speaks of transformation and seeks the unison of all that lives.
Clearly, your poetry is enjoyed by a wide range of different readers; but I was wondering if you have a kind of ideal reader? That is, who is the reader you imagine when you are writing?
Thank you for saying that. I’m delighted to have a wide range of readers. But I don’t write for a specific kind of reader. I’m hoping my poetry leaves the reader in awe, with a renewed sense of wonder and of the sacred.
Your poetry collections Dreaming My Animal Selves and Life in Suspension are bilingual, and you write in French and English equally fluently. What are the challenges of presenting your work in this way? For example, are there things that one language can do which the other can’t, and vice versa?
English has been my language of choice for a long time now. French is my mother tongue but English became the dominant language when I moved to the United States. Actually it took over even before, when I wrote my thesis on Henry James for my masters at the Sorbonne. I was already an anglophile, having lived and studied in England, and I loved writing in English. I feel as if English, even though it was my fifth language, chose me. So I write in English first and then translate into French. I love this exercise of going back and forth because it enables me to make beautiful discoveries. I’m also influenced by other languages, including Spanish, German, Italian and Latin. It’s very stimulating and enriching. I was born in Paris and grew up in Switzerland, France, Monaco, England, Wales, Germany, Greece and Spain, absorbing different cultures and ideas.
When I wrote my first collection in English, I did not originally intend it to be a bilingual collection. It was my first publisher’s idea that I present it as a bilingual collection. This turned out to be a brilliant idea. It was fascinating because it rekindled my love of the French language and of writing in French again. The French translation absolutely informed the English version. I made discoveries with the French and it became a dance between both languages. I also felt more freedom than if I were translating someone else because it was my own text. This has been the process for all three collections.
To answer your question, there are always things one language can do which the other can’t. And so the process is a bit like that of a detective searching for clues and of a mathematician looking to solve a problem.
In my interview with John Ashbery for Le Mot Juste, which was also published on the Poetry Foundation, I commented that French leaves less room for ambiguity. It’s a very precise language. So is English but English is more fluid. Interestingly, Ashbery responded that he needs “sort of a sfumato effect to hide in or to find material in.”
How do all the languages influence you and your writing?
I think they stimulate the mind in different ways. I’m naturally curious about other cultures. Having been raised in a very international environment makes me a citizen of the world. Both my parents were immigrants. My mother left Greece to move to France. My father escaped the Franco dictatorship so as not to be jailed for his writing. That’s how my parents met. I am an immigrant too. After moving to the U.S., I became an American citizen. So I’m keenly aware about not fitting into molds. I wasn’t the typical French girl growing up. At home, all my parents’ friends were foreigners. My dad worked for the United Nations in Geneva and Paris, among other places, and his colleagues were mostly from South America or Spain, but also from Iran and other countries. I literally grew up in the U.N., which is a microcosm of the world.
So very early on I would transition between languages and countries. It’s harder to be nationalistic when you’re made of several countries. It opens up your mind. When you learn new languages it creates synapses in the brain. They inform my writing, consciously, and unconsciously. All kinds of associations come to mind when I read or write.
Your poetry draws heavily on dream, mythical and psychoanalytic imagery and archetypes. In this sense, I suppose it’s not really “poetry of the everyday,” perhaps. Why are you drawn to this kind of imagery in your poetry?
I like to cultivate a relationship with my inner self through dreams and love to remember them. I keep a notebook by my bed and write them down. You always dream, it’s only a matter of remembering. The day is the waking dream. When I trained with Sandra Seacat at the Actors’ Studio in New York, she introduced me to a particular form of dream work, which could be called Jungian. I have done this work for many years now. It’s very therapeutic. And it can also be used to develop a character in a play or movie. Your inner self has all the answers and will give them to you, as long as you’re meant to know what you’re asking for.
In the dream you are connected to your inner self and to the divine. We experience the dream’s intelligence and the world psyche. Everything in the universe is connected. Dreams provide insight into the personal and archetypal dimensions of the unconscious. I’ve continued to train with different teachers and shamans. Dream work is medicine for the soul and helps us integrate our conscious and unconscious selves so we can explore our path, gain self-insight and wisdom, and fulfill ourselves. Many poems are born from dreams. It’s a wonderful gift to be given to hear a new melody or lines this way. For instance, the poem “My Mother Ceridwen” came from a dream: my mother appeared to me as the Celtic goddess Ceridwen.
You’ve talked in interviews about the “transformations” of self involved in acting, costumes and performance. What are the similarities and differences, do you think, between the kinds of transformations of selves in your poetry, and those involved in, say, acting?
Acting and writing are two creative outlets for me, two ways of expressing who I am. It helped me a lot when I was in drama school studying Shakespeare from a performer’s perspective that I had already read most of the plays and knew the language. The fact that I had studied so much literature made it easy for me to analyze the texts. But then you want to get out of your head as an actor. And studying the Meisner technique was very useful for that. It helps you be in the moment and react to what’s going on in the room, to be acutely aware of your surroundings, of others. It shifts the attention from you to whoever is with you. Which in turn is helpful when you read poetry. There is an audience you want to address, you can’t just be in your head. And you have to project. There isn’t always a mike. So good diction helps. I also like to hear what I write, the sounds and rhythms. If I stumble, maybe I need to change a word.
As an actor I am drawn to films that are visually beautiful and poetic. At the same time, I always pay close attention to the screenplay. It’s the backbone of the film. I was lucky to work with Lawrence Kasdan (Mumford). He writes all his screenplays, and they’re usually original screenplays. He’s a terrific writer and director. I was also lucky to work on Lasse Hallström’s Chocolat. Robert Nelson Jacobs’s screenplay was nominated for an Oscar and won the BAFTA award. It’s based on the beautiful novel by Joanne Harris. Great writing helps the actor.
Acting and writing both raise your consciousness and in that sense, enhance one another.
On a personal level, it’s very satisfying to have more than one creative outlet. If I’m not working on an acting project, I can write. I can always use my time creatively.
Which of your many talents - acting, voice-over, poetry, etc. - do you enjoy spending time on the most?
I’ve worn many hats over the years: teacher, writer, actor, translator, dancer, shaman, dream analyst. I have multiple selves. To be an actor you have to be a chameleon. The search for fulfillment is a recurrent theme in my life. It’s the title of the thesis I wrote about Henry James. Jean-Claude Renard writes that “I” by essence becomes “Other,” that is to say “someone who not only holds the power to fulfill his or her intimate self more and more intensely, but also at the same time, can turn a singular into a plural by creating a work that causes, in its strictest individuality, a charge emotionally alive and glowing with intensity.” In that sense the work’s artistry affects others and helps their own transformation. This applies to any art. I’m happy as long as I can express myself through art and I love to work. Whether writing or acting, I find myself in an exalted state of concentration and consciousness, like a meditation or trance. It’s as if time stops or expands and I’m able to touch other worlds and keep a sense of connection with what is bigger than me.
What are you working on at the moment?
With my partner John, we have adapted his novel Primate into a screenplay and we’re looking to get it made into a film.
I just co-translated, with Yves Lambrecht, Walt Whitman’s Civil War Writings for WhitmanWeb. It was commissioned by the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. It was a ten-month long endeavor. The Civil War Writings retrace Whitman’s writing and service as a volunteer nurse during the American Civil War. We also translated the in-depth commentaries that scholars Ed Folsom and Christopher Merrill wrote for each text. The poems and texts are thus bookended with a foreword and afterword. They explore how writing and image can be used to examine war, conflict, trauma, and reconciliation in Whitman’s time and today.
Ce que nous portons, my translation of What We Carry by Dorianne Laux, was recently published by Editions du Cygne in Paris.
Adapted from an interview with Jonathan Taylor in Everybody's Reviewing