Translator's notes

lamentation with a yak

By Jan Wagner


The skill and effectiveness of Jan Wagner’s use of a wide range of poetic forms is often noted. Had I wanted to demonstrate this quality of his work I might have tried a sonnet, a villanelle, a sestina or a Sapphic ode. But whether or not the following handful of translations gives any impression of his formal dexterity (‘hawthorn’ is a sequence of haiku, ‘lamentation with a yak’ shows his flexible use of syllabics, while ‘jonah’ displays his fondness for smudgy rhyme), there is much else that could be said about his poems, which may be stories, visits to places, encounters with historical figures, or views of paintings, and which, following different routes, collectively engage in a dialogue with language itself. ‘lamentation with a yak’ is an instance of Wagner’s delight in a primitive function of poetry: it is as if he had discovered a lost trove of magical codes for primary naming, for those barely traceable processes (ambush, whisper, adaptation) that once gave us – and continue to give us – words for things and relationships. Or as if each thing (in the broadest possible sense) had its own language, and the poet were able to pick up and body forth its peculiar mode of address. Wagner’s books are full of invitations to take our readerly part in the way things have their say, and in the exchange whereby they leave their signature in the sounds, shape and gesture of a poem. His ‘Contents’ pages name a wealth of such ‘things’: ‘maize’, ‘earthworms’, ‘gecko’, ‘mushrooms’, ‘fennel’, ‘jellyfish’, ‘shepherd’s pie’, ‘hops’, ‘see-saw’, ‘meteorite’, ‘nail’, ‘quince jelly’, ‘tea-bag’, ‘cabbage’, ‘silk’, ‘the catkin’ and so forth. To these, add recent poems such as ‘lamentation with a yak’, or ‘hawthorn’, or even ‘the captains’. Many of these titles suggest the potential of bodily exchange (as does ‘jonah’), whether by eating or, in one poem, getting the eponymous ‘catkin’ stuck up your nose. ‘lamentation with a yak’ conjures the animal from a plexus of syllables sharing and generating the sound of its name, words that give voice to the yak’s arduous life and environment. The English contains almost exactly the same number of rakish sounds and syllables as the German, also imitating the German’s wider aura of ‘a’ and ‘ach’ syllables. It might fairly be countered that English does not use German’s interjectionary ‘ach’ as an expression of lament, and even in Scots it is more likely to imply irritation or impatience. All I can say in my defence is that I do use it (rather than alas, ah, or o dear – who wouldn’t?) and that, anyway, this is also a German yak.


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