Dobby Gibson and Amanda Nadelberg Translation Poems



We asked two poets to exchange work and create interpretations of each other's poems. Read the original texts and new interpretations, and then get the poets’ commentary on the process.






Gibson to Nadelberg


Hum by Dobby Gibson



I awoke locked inside this contraption,

no room to turn around in the cockpit,

not an initial mission beyond making do,

so that when I first radioed for backup

only my own thoughts echoed in the squelch.

They became my trusted companion

as I grew old enough

to see newspapers turn into antiques,

antiques into lifestyles,

lifestyles into prisons of tasteful disrepair,

all the while the lessons of my predecessors lost on me:

do you have to clean up after making soap?

I have washed this machine in joy

and washed it in shame.

I‘ve looked a beautiful woman in the eyes

and refused her invitation to dance.

I once built a fort out of snow

and learned that even honesty is temporary.

I have drunk too much wine and learned nothing.

At night, when the windshield darkens

and that strange state again comes over me,

I drift from the present and into the great past,

back to a time before there was a man

to believe the moon was a man,

or a lone bone to comb a child’s hair.

Back before there was a single secret among the trees,

or the rains washed the earth

and left it sexed,

with water everywhere and no one

yet lucky enough to suffer thirst.

Before there was another stranger

to pat me gently on the shoulder

in that way that let’s you know you’re loved

but also being quietly asked to go.






Having Borrowed the Self from a Future Weekday by Amanda Nadelberg



Forget the country has a moon—

a moving photograph of the time

sensation we’re after, a fact settled

massively into replacement, curtailed

from brotherhoods onto a graph of metals

and meteors plucked for a killing sky.

(Goodbye moon and physical montage!)

Constantly there were changelings, and it

was wonder to believe, and it was doom,

reporting hideous muddles rolling out from

the monuments. (Just turn the knob of the

radio down to quiet the whirl.) Among honest

mistakes in the brambles I found a new word

for nothing. In the carefully measured dream

compartments they were testing machines and

distance function as if routine occupation

of a living space could alter the creation

of a real live life. At the distinguished

lake (stars in the presence of clapping

in a country with trees) I learned; but to

ask a question on one’s way out the door

is proof of such dishonesty and if we were

women in the Fifties, we’d exercise our necks

like we meant it. But enough about everything,

we should wear more scarves at night. Drape

the world in automats and recall our mothers,

have them draw us maps of spotted light.




Nadelberg to Gibson



Except Quebec by Amanda Nadelberg



As ever, the scenery planted day,

a vast coordinate of charts clinking

against their sure frailty once the

body’s mended. One could hear the

beach from the beach parking lot

and patience was being made over:

get the thing out of the jar, because

place pertains to ideas of nothing

or train stations, cue I’m sorry

I had to leave you, it was

messy out the window.


Delphine and the beehive in

coincidence, about which I

knew nothing, were the defining

proximities of an arid space—

they just come, how country

became a whole system of

landscape ethics, children

concocting selves out of

cardboard boxes.


A pleasant cure for absence

turns bygones toward abduction.

The midline of a body calls

the family unit, it’s unclear if

Bonaparte meant anything

by revolution, thoughts filled in

with months of constellations

and indifference, frivolity

as the coachman’s ear delayed.


Almost western in the evening

we tended seasons patiently:

a home with a foyer of thistles

and a formidable front door

memory was a gait as constant

as presence in the age of the

vernacular. Under the house

a letter for god in a hand that

wind understood. The day

turned accordingly gray; you

must be a house back then

before known to me as this.






The Briars by Dobby Gibson



Of all the words

I’ve fallen in and out of love with,

occupied and banished,

I haven’t regretted one.


Not catacombs or marquee. Not intelligentsia.


I’m only 40 and already

I can’t believe

how long a life can last.


In the empty factory,

the night watchman sits on his stool

and watches the night,

watches his watch.


His jacket, hung from the hook,

is the other version of himself,

the one still forced to stand in corners

and contemplate the wrong he’s done.


Sometimes it can get so quiet in here

that my own breath

feels like an invasion

I have to fend off,

even though holding it

provides no rescue.


Language is everything.


It’s the sparrow’s tracks

melting in the snow,

the little tyrant’s fist

striking the map table.


The only expectation

is the expectation for more.


That is our silent birthright.

That is our noisy, endless war.







Dobby Gibson

Among the few things I know for certain about poetry is this: an Amanda Nadelberg poem isn’t going to benefit from me doing much more than stepping aside. It won’t be enhanced by being translated into the same language in which it was written. And it’s definitely not going to be improved by re-contextualizing in a blousy re-interpretation. As you’ve likely already discovered, Amanda’s poems are fully sufficient demonstrations, panoptic and indivisible, and nothing could be more foolish than to attempt to re-express one of them; nothing a surer recipe for disappointment than to relegate one of them to raw material for one’s own purposes.


And yet the inescapable fact remains that Amanda’s work does engender my own. We’ve exchanged work for several years, and I’ve seen it with my own eyes. The interesting thing about this exercise was being forced to be so awake to it. I have to be honest: I’m not sure I liked that. Wakefulness is not an ideal state in which to write a poem. In this case, Amanda’s poem’s Napoleon references, along with its decidedly swimmy Frenchiness, got me thinking about Elba, and the pavilion on the Briars, and with that I was off and running. Soon — and only for a while — I forgot about Amanda’s poem, as is necessary to write a poem. Because in order to write a poem, one has to forget that anyone else in the world has ever thought to do something as preposterous as write a poem. But now here all four of our poems are, on a tin-cans-and-twine conference call, and for that I’m glad.


Nothing has been willingly remade here. No animals were harmed in the making. It starts without expectation and ends without forgiveness. It’s a fool’s festival. It’s a two-car parade. So please pity the poor drivers who never get to throw candy, who never get to wave.



Amanda Nadelberg

Beyond a graph of enthusiasm, it gets muddy how this works. I printed a copy of Dobby’s poem and for a few weeks I took it everywhere—to the beach and the market and the kitchen table and the living room and the other rooms in the house. I took it to Long Island (twice). It kept me company during the State of the Union address and the Packers vs. Bears game and some movies and a little bout with Nintendo. This carrying around was an absolute delight because I love Dobby’s poems (and this poem) and I entirely admire Dobby himself and his super sharp thoughts and the righteously helpful ways in which he pushes me and my poems to do better. (What I mean, I guess, is that I’m glad to have the opportunity to converse with my friend in a structured manner beyond our ordinary correspondence and sharing of youtubers.) I remember starting to try to say what “Hum” says. I started in a notebook and then I wrote a little on the back of his poem, and then I wrote a little in a Microsoft Word document, and I tried to say what Dobby had said, again but differently, and again and differently more, sometimes not in the same order, and sometimes certainly unrecognizably similar: I looked at Dobby’s poem until I had something to say and I said it. And then I put some of those different things near each other and tried to fill in what seemed to be absent from the lot. I read Dobby’s poem more, and sometimes I counted things and considered his beautiful equations of syntax and emotion, and sometimes, meaning one time, I wrote “the national” beside his poem and then did nothing. I spent a lot of time staring at his poem, wondering about time and lost lessons and situation. Some of the time I was writing my version of his poem there was a “holy shit” kind of moon outside. Some of the time I was writing it I remembered things Dobby and I have talked over, like about other poems by each of us, so I found myself sometimes also responding to halves of conversations that are missing from anything particularly present here, but things which, nonetheless, seemed pertinent on this occasion. When it approached a kind of completion, I rewrote my new poem by hand on a piece of paper to try to find the misheard things and/or mistakes. Then I started reading Dobby’s poem and my new poem alongside each other and again to see how I’d thrown my ball into the mix of order and mess while orbiting a beautiful poem by a dear friend (who is terribly nice and extremely classy).






Dobby Gibson is the author of Polar (Alice James Books, 2005), which won the Beatrice Hawley Award; Skirmish (Graywolf Press, 2009); and The True Ghost Is a Nameless Thing (forthcoming from Graywolf Press, 2013). He lives in Minneapolis.


Amanda Nadelberg is the author of Bright Brave Phenomena (forthcoming from Coffee House Press), Isa the Truck Named Isadore (Slope Editions, 2006) and a chapbook, Building Castles in Spain, Getting Married (The Song Cave, 2009).  



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