Reviewed by Alessandro Porco

The Benjamin Sonnets
Clint Burnham
BookThug, 2009
60 pages, $18

Try as a poet may for objectivity, for the past to relive itself, not for his living the historical data, he can do only one of two things: get up a most brief catalog of antiquities (people become dates, epitaphs), or use this catalog and breathe upon it, so that it lives as his music. This latter action need not falsify the catalog.
—Louis Zukofsky, on translation (from the essay “Ezra Pound”)

Between 1932 and 1938, while in exile, Walter Benjamin composed his Berlin Childhood Around 1900, a series of vignettes about growing up in the city. The vignettes first appeared, under a pseudonym, in newspapers and journals and were later published posthumously in an edition arranged by Adorno. Benjamin explains his book’s purpose and style in these introductory remarks:

I deliberately called to mind those images which, in exile, are most apt to awaken homesickness: images of childhood. My assumption was that the feeling of longing would no more gain mastery over my spirit than a vaccine does over a healthy body. I sought to limit its effect through insight into the irretrievability—not the contingent biographical but the necessary social irretrievability—of the past.

This has meant that certain biographical features, which stand out more readily in the continuity of experience than in its depths, altogether recede in the present undertaking. And with them go the physiognomies—those of my family and comrades alike. On the other hand, I have made an effort to get hold of the images in which the experience of the big city is recipitated in a child of the middle class.

Benjamin’s archive of childhood “images” includes everything from the telephone (“The sound with which it rang between two and four in the afternoon, when a school friend wished to speak to me, was an alarm signal that menaced not only my parents’ midday nap but the historical era”) to books borrowed from the school library (“pages bore traces of the fingers that had turned them”); from the home of his aunt, located “at the corner of Steglitzer and Genthiner” (“this street corner was one of those least touched by the changes of the past thirty years”) to encomiums for everyday pleasures, such as grabbing socks from a cabinet drawer: “Every pair had the appearance of a little pocket. For me, nothing surpassed the pleasure of thrusting my hand as deeply as possible into its interior.” With Berlin Childhood, Benjamin eschews a strict biographical or autobiographical narrative structure in favour of a circular movement of images akin to that stereoscopic panorama he describes in the book’s third vignette: “the picture would sway within its little frame and then immediately trundle off to the left, as I looked on”; thus, he “formed the conviction that it was impossible to exhaust the splendors of the scene at just one sitting.” So, he continuously turned, and returned, to his Berlin’s “scene” at the end of the 19th century, hopeful its images might later be “capable … of performing later historical experience.”

In 2007, while visiting Berlin, Canadian poet and scholar Clint Burnham got his hands—so admired by Benjamin because of their gestural expressivity—on a German copy of Berlin Childhood Around 1900, or Berliner Kindheit um neunzehundert, and determined to begin a homophonic translation of the German text. In homophonic translation, the sound-structure of a foreign language, but not necessarily the meaning, is translated into the English language; as Burnham explains, Benjamin’s “Haus auf ihre Stärke hätte schliefben becomes ‘house slice aunt Hatty starkers ear off’.” (There’s a felicitous homophonic relation between Benjamin, Berlin and Burnham, don’t you think?) The most famous instance of homophonic translation in the 20th century is Celia and Louis Zukofsky’s Catallus translations, wherein Latinate sound and syntax dictates the translation. In the case of Burnham’s Benjamin Sonnets, the historically circumscribed Germanic sound of Benjamin’s socially inflected structure of childhood “images” becomes a tapped-into repository of English-language “images” in the broadest sense of the term—names (public and private: from Eminem to Burnham’s aunt Hatty), slogans, catchphrases, song lyrics, nonsense, neologisms, literary allusions, etc.—that “preform” Burnham’s “later historical experience” as an “exile” sojourning, ironically, in Berlin. “The kind of words that emerged,” explains Burnham, in his note to The Benjamin Sonnets, “is a record of my own memory & history & of the contemporary moment,” a record in the form of 49 sonnets that echo from, or resonate with, Benjamin’s Berlin.

But, as Burnham emphasizes—and just like Benjamin’s vignettes—these sonnets are not strictly autobiographical. Burnham is not self-obsessed: “it’s not about myself,” he explains in the collection’s “Afterword.” Moreover, these sonnets are definitively not in the popular travelogue mould wherein the sentimental tourist journeys to a foreign land so that he might learn something about himself and life, and in doing so efface his compromised position as tourist as well as the historicity of the location visited. Burnham’s too smart to trade in that sort of claptrap smut. Rather, in The Benjamin Sonnets, Burnham simply tries “just to have [everyday] language”: “how it works […] how it flows, to get some of that down on the page.”

So, what of the poems themselves? What do they sound like? Well, they’re riotous, confusing, abrasive, excessive, slapstick funny (like when he begins a sonnet, “Langston Kurtz,” a two-word phrase that encompasses the ambivalence of modernity), occasionally busting the reader’s gut and always busting at the seams of the sonnet form and all it signifies in the Canadian literary-historical consciousness these days. The excerpts below give you a sense of Burnham’s “just” language, or what Benjamin dubs “pure language”:

nixed Kraftwerk tick-tock
don’t say Kraut rock
the mine inside’s
integer, integral, integrate (“I”)

Beware the ears that hear no toc!
need welder conning tower
we’re, we’re grieving black Blackberries
aged well i.e. aged in Zurich
winning winnie’s whining
winnie the pooh’s pooh-poohing (“XV”)

For Abu G-Unit
Saddam’s my wing man
Bush’s my Gilligan (“XVa”)

Belch music real mensch wensch
Handbrake spamologist on call
Musical milk toast toastmasters (“XXVII”)

Squeezed a garge mulll mall moll mills
Melle Mel visited Jerusalem (“XLIII”)

Forget making sense of the lines, there is no message—no need wondering who “Melle Mel” is (rapper who famously performed the rap hit “The Message” as part of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five) and then googling to find out if and when or why he travelled to the holy land (for the record, he hasn’t—at least as far I know). As Burnham explains, the book “is not an expression” of the self or anything else. But The Benjamin Sonnets, taken as a whole, is a multi-tiered event, where the relations between original, copy, cityscape images, and subjectivity are constantly in motion. That said, the event—both the writing and reading of “the contemporary moment”—is relentlessly inflected gesturally by, for example, punctuation: quotation marks, commas, question marks, exclamation marks, hyphenations, honorifics (“Dr.”), short forms (“i.e.”), parentheses and italics (“flossing in Mission [not The Mission]”). Similarly, Burnham’s various paratextual commentaries situate the poems in specific contexts: for example, sonnet “Vb” is composed “after Ken Loach’s The Wind that Shakes the Barley, Kreuzberg, 14.1.07” and “VIII” is composed “after John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, Potsdamer Platz, 17.1.07”; sonnet “XLII” has a dedication: “for Nancy Shaw”; sonnet “XVIII” includes an asterisk after line three, which refers to a note at the bottom of the page: “Thanks to Kevin Killian [American poet and Jack Spicer biographer] for correct pronunciation”; sonnet “XXX” is marked as “(unfinished)”; and sonnet “XXVI” even includes a performance note: “*as if said by an East Londoner.”

Burnham’s decision to use the sonnet form for his homophonic translation project also merits a mention. An “East Londoner” might put it this way: he’s “takin’ the piss.” His sonnets display none of the traditional sonnet’s features—hell, sometimes his sonnets don’t even include 14 lines and they certainly don’t rhyme. While the sonnet has come to represent something like the sine qua non of poetic craft and value, Burnham’s poems, by adopting the descriptor “sonnets,” seek to reveal that curious valuation of the sonnet (i.e., I can write a sonnet, I am a poet, I am a good human being) as anything but objectively determined or politically neutral in Canadian poetry’s field of production. Yet, strangely enough, Burnham’s book does resonate with the history of the sonnet insofar as it returns the sonnet to that which is often neglected, forgotten or omitted from its current Canuck manifestation: the sequence.

In his essay “The Task of the Translator,” Burnham’s eponymous Benjamin writes about the “afterlife” of an original text subjected to the translation process. The Benjamin Sonnets are an instantiation of Berlin Childhood Around 1900’s “afterlife”: a kinship between languages—English and German—is revealed by way of the homophonic liberation of the contemporary moment preformed and imprisoned within Benjamin’s original. The “afterlife,” then, is accompanied by the linguistic afterglow of fate and freedom.

*I have used Howard Eiland’s translation, Berlin Childhood Around 1900, published by Harvard UP in 2006.

Alessandro Porco is the author of Augustine in Carthage and The Jill Kelly Poems, both from ECW Press. He writes “In Extremis,” a hip-hop column, for Maisonneuve Magazine online.

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