The body of the poet

Les Murray © Michele Hutchison

During the translation symposium on Wednesday, when explaining her kooky notion of “translation as homeopathy”, Erín Moure said that language was in her cells, and poetry was in her body. Naturally, it got me thinking about the poet’s body. After all, what is the festival about if not to reveal to the audience the embodiment of the poetry? On the opening night the footlights came on and the poets came forward in a line from the darkness at the back of the stage. They moved forwards, bowed and climbed down from the stage to take up their places on the first row. It was a lovely moment. Here were the poet’s bodies, revealed.

Maarten Elzinga, Murray's translator © Michele Hutchison

They looked like poets. It was a comforting sight: young, old, tall, short, fat and thin, shabbily dressed, one in a straw hat. Dominant was the imposing bulk of Les Murray. Dressed in baggy black casuals, he moves slowly. I spot him wherever I go here, sidling crab-like down the theatre stairs. He wears a faded cap which he takes off to read and carries his transcripts in a white plastic bag. The embodiment of poetry, just how an elderly statesman of the genre should look. More fitting still is his voice, Australian but deep, dignified, gurgling, slurring, Churchillian. The Les Murray experience.

Les with his plastic bag © Michele Hutchison

Syrian poet Nazih Abou Afach was set to appear in last night’s programme but he’d had to cancel at the last minute. His translator, Asad Jaber, took his place on the stage. There was no photo of Afach in the programme but his translator looked Arabic, looked about the right age, could have been a poet. He was clearly bilingual, he read the originals with flourish and conviction. He was as good as a replica as you might find and since a translator can be considered a poet’s (sinister?) shadow self, perhaps the experience was authentic. But no, a niggling voice inside me wondered if it would have been more authentic if the translator had read his translations instead – his own channelling, his own physical reproduction of the poems.