Write in a Serial Fashion

Petrarch, painting by Altichiero


Translation Beyond Metaphor On Petrarch, grief, and my mother
by Allison Grimaldi-Donahue

At the American Literary Translator’s Conference in Oakland this past year (ALTA39) Matvei Yankelevich, one of the founders of Ugly Duckling Press, asked a question during the discussion portion of Don Mi Choi’s keynote address. I don’t remember what he actually asked but I do remember that he prefaced his comment by saying that he wouldn’t ask her to share more metaphors for translation since we’d all spent the entire weekend repeating the phrase, “translation as…” or “___ as translation.” I laughed because I’d been feeling the same way and I’d been asking myself where translation studies and theory could go beyond the use of translation metaphors.

In the year following my mother’s death from ALS, a brilliant Jewish writer I met at the Vermont Studio Center suggested creating a ritual to carry out in honor of my mother. According to Jewish tradition I would do that ritual each day for the entire year after she died. I’d been struggling to deal with my grief, to find any way to confront my loss and this seemed like a good, grounded idea. I would translate one of Petrarch’s Canzoniere each day from July of 2013 to July of 2014. Petrarch wrote 366 of them so it was a perfect match and a book I’d become very attached to years earlier as a graduate student of medieval and early modern Italian literature.

At first it was easy; I was still at the residency and it felt good to place energy in something so deeply outside of myself. Those translations, or the first drafts of them, are literal, dictionary-bound and have little to do with my own loss. But as time passed, as I returned to my normal life, translating a poem a day became difficult. I was teaching high school full time, heading an English department, beginning to think about going back to school myself. Then something unexpected happened. My partner’s mother also became terminally ill. The poems became a place to go every morning before work or every evening, alone and full of confusion. The poems helped me to make space for the grieving I would have to handle on my own while my partner dealt with her own loss just ten months after my own. They were a private world for me and I can’t emphasize this enough because two dead mothers is too much for one house in one year. Read more...


Petrarch:The Canzoniere

You who hear the sound, in scattered rhymes,
of those sighs on which I fed my heart,
in my first vagrant youthfulness,
when I was partly other than I am,

I hope to find pity, and forgiveness,
for all the modes in which I talk and weep,
between vain hope and vain sadness,
in those who understand love through its trials.

Yet I see clearly now I have become
an old tale amongst all these people, so that
it often makes me ashamed of myself;

and shame is the fruit of my vanities,
and remorse, and the clearest knowledge
of how the world's delight is a brief dream.

Read more Petrarch...

Learn more about Petrarch...


Looking Out of a Window

At Noon: Looking out my window I see four seagulls flying south, spaced evenly into a four-cornered square, as if they were carrying a sheet. And there is a sheet - the low-hanging clouds that still let blue sky and the tops of the Front Range peaks shine through. The clouds are thick and gray so that a robin perched on a bare-winter maple tree looks like a lonely gargoyle collecting moss. All the lawns are dormant muted dried-out. Only a white sign that says "Express Leasing" looks fresh, clean as snow. There is no snow. January is our driest month but we always forget that, expecting storms and avalanche. Instead we have dirty cars and open land with a thousand shades of brown. We have dried out garden hoses snaked in the corners of yards. We have plastic grocery bags pronged into tree branches. Styrofoam cups blown against retaining walls, beginning their long half-life of decay. We have cracked lips and bronchitis. In March, the storms come from the south, up from Mexico. Then we'll have snow.

Bill Scheffel 1- :25 PM, Sunday Jan 14th 2001


At Noon: I'm squinting, even with sunglasses on. To my right the window is unshuttered, big as a garage door. It floods the room with light; ultraviolet, infrared, white light. It's too bright. It's the snow. Eight inches on the lawn, sidewalk and car hoods. The Express Leasing sign is white along with everything. The sun hangs low and glistens through the dust on my windowglass. The sun hits my arm in a pattern the blinds cast and my arm hair is illuminated, it falls this way and that, like winter grasses a horse tromped through. My tea steams beside me. Even with car tracks and a thousand footprints on the sidewalk the stillness of snow carries endures. But it is melting. A juniper branch breaks loose of a snowbank seeking heat the sun offers. The sidewalks are clear. Icicles drip. This is still an Aztec world, a world of sun and fair skies three-hundred-twenty-four days a year. The sun's refraction glitters on snow crystals. Is it the jewels conquistadors sought? There are millions of snow-flakes glistening, like the countless beings of the cosmos - in my morning chant I vowed to save them.

Bill Scheffel - 2:39 PM, Wednesday, January 17th 2001


At Noon: When I look out my window at noon I see snow. Snow on the ground, on the rooftops, snow in the air, yesterday's snow frozen on the sidewalk lightly covered by todays. Abby, my nine-year-old roommate, informed me that the entire story of the Grinch occurred on a snow flake. Today there are stories falling from the sky. A novel emerges, falls, and
decays on the hood of my car. Missoula, Montana is covered in drama.

Lisa Thompson









Back to the top.



I found no grail. But I did discover the modern tradition. Because modernity is not a poetic school but a lineage, a family dispersed over several continents and which for two centuries has survived many sudden changes and misfortunes: public indifference, isolation, and tribunals in the name of religious, political, academic and sexual orthodoxy. Being a tradition and not a doctrine, it has been able to persist and to change at the same time. This is also why it is so diverse. Each poetic adventure is distinct, and each poet has sown a different plant in the miraculous forest of speaking trees. Yet if the poems are different and each path distinct, what is it that unites these poets? Not an aesthetic but a search.

– Octavio Paz