Ryan Clark’s series “The Appositional Project” examines poetry that makes use of appropriative writing methods (such as cut-up, erasure, and homophonic translation) to investigate intersections of place and domination/loss.
Happy Groundhog Day, SRPR Blog readers. In honor of today’s holiday, I want to talk about a particular form of homophonic translation that offers a poet, to some degree, the opportunity to re-enact the long journey of self-transformation that Phil Connors (played by Bill Murray) experiences in the movie, Groundhog Day. While obviously the movie has very little to do with poetry, it does shed light on yet another way that we can understand the Poetics of Emplacement, because emplacement is not only about location; it is also about something that is placed within a location. Often, that something might be the person who is writing the poem, or it might be the poem itself. But to really talk about emplacement, we should pay attention to both the place and the placed, particularly in the effect they have on one another.
For Phil Connors, he finds himself in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, a small town 84 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, the city where Phil works as a news weatherman. Something about Punxsutawney and its famous Groundhog Day celebration has trapped Phil in a time loop, and each morning he wakes to live the day over and over again. He is not able to escape this loop until he learns to stop being selfish and egotistical and start being a more caring person. While the town of Punxsutawney becomes something of a character in itself (despite the film actually being filmed in Woodstock, Illinois), it is the town’s effect on Phil (and his subsequent transformation) that is most significant. As he learns more and more about the town and its people through his countless relived days, Phil realizes that other people in the world, apart from himself, need and deserve care and compassion. It is his experience with the town that drives him toward this path to self-transformation, and it reminds us that emplacement can manifest itself in ways that point us toward the internal attributes of the subject that is placed (in this case, Phil Connors) in addition to or even instead of the external features of a geographic location.
In poetry, homophonic translation presents us with an opportunity to place ourselves inside of a similar loop, particularly if we consider the re-sounding method of homophonic translation. The re-sounding method (which differs from the standard method of approximating sounds of a source text, as in the Spanish “rei” becoming the English “ray”) is built upon the idea of re-sounding a word based on each individual letter’s potential to make sound within a single language. For example, “cat” can become “sash” when we use the s-sound of “c” (as in “cede”), the ah-sound of “a” (as in “cat”) and the sh-sound of “t” (as in “ratio”). In this way, a simple three-letter word like “cat” can be be translated into more than sixty different words or phrases. With this method of re-sounding, one could translate a text repeatedly. “Cat” can become “sash,” which can become “essays” (“s” read as “es” and “h” silent), which can become “size” (silent “e” and “a”), which can become “eyes” (silent “s”), and this can go on just about forever. If we use a longer text from which to begin, the possibilities for transformation increase exponentially.
Keeping in mind Phil’s transformation from an egomaniacal jerk to a sensitive and compassionate hero, consider the shift from conquest (represented by Phil’s careerism) to care. This shift is very much at the heart of the Appositional Project, as it involves the repurposing of harmful language for poetry concerned with care and repair, and it is a shift that this method of homophonic translation can handle very well. Just as Phil was given the opportunity to repeat Groundhog Day until he was able to learn how to be a better person, homophonic translation can provide the chance to go back and re-sound language away from domination and toward a place of compassion.
As an example, consider one of the many hurtful things we regretfully say at various points in our lives to people we love. What if we were to take that language and translate it over and over again until we transform these sources of pain into poetry that emphasizes a concern for those whom we have hurt? Perhaps this could be a move toward healing, or at least it could serve as a purposeful self-examination in which we actively choose to move toward the practice of care.
The journey of Phil Connors was one of self-repair, and it was made possible through a long series of repeated attempts to become a better person and to treat others in the world with respect. Only when he succeeded and finally woke up on February 3rd was he able to move on from the town of Punxsutawney, unsticking himself from a time and place to which he was bound until he learned to appreciate it for what it was: a community of people who were no more and no less deserving of love and care than he, himself. His story reminds us that in order to fully grasp a sense of place, we must first clear our vision and learn to see beyond ourselves. Homophonic translation may provide one way to write through this potentially transformative process of self-examination, as it gives us the chance to re-sound and to transform, which at the very least sounds a lot less like a vision of purgatory than the plot of Groundhog Day.