Jesse Lee Kercheval is a writer, translator, and graphic artist. Her recent books include the short story collection Underground Women and La crisis es el cuerpo, a bilingual edition of her poetry, translated by Ezequiel Zaidenwerg, published in Argentina by Editorial Bajo la luna. Her recent essays and graphic narratives have appeared in The Sewanee Review, Blackbird, Brevity, The New England Review, and The Quarantine Public Library.
This interview was conducted by Paress Chappell, our Nonfiction Editor for Issue 28 via email. This post also features one of Jesse’s essays, Typhoid Blue. We’re so excited to share her work and the inspirations behind it!
Paress Chappell: What have you been writing during the pandemic?
Jesse Lee Kercheval: I think my illustrated essay, “Typhoid Blue,” that you are featuring is the answer to that question. I started writing essays. I’d already written a whole memoir, Space, about growing up during the moon race so I am not new to nonfiction, but I had always been frightened of essays. Then suddenly I was locked down in Montevideo, Uruguay in the first days of the pandemic and I just started writing essay after essay. One of the first, “The New Troy,” about Montevideo and all its plagues was published in Guernica with a photo of my neighbors tango dancing on the roof of their high-rise.
The other thing I took up was drawing—just to get away from my computer and have something to do while confined to my rented apartment. I bought a box of colored pencils at the supermarket and started drawing—really, for the first time in my life.
Then I began putting the drawings in my essays. “Typhoid Blue” is one. It deals with a long time interest of mine in the life and poetry of the French surrealist poet Robert Desnos. His life story is important in my novel, My Life as a Silent Movie. And I have written a number of poems inspired by his work. One, “Next Tuesday” appears in my poetry collection, America that island off the coast of France. Robert Desnos even has a connection to my interest in silent films. He wrote a long poem “La complainte de Fantômas” based on the popular crime novels about a master thief. The Fantômas books were also turned into an equally popular silent movie serial by the great French director Louis Feuillade. That movie had this amazing poster.
Another of my illustrated essays (“The Fox Sister”) just won an Editor’s Choice Award will be out soon in New Letters. It is about actual foxes, the early spiritualist Fox Sisters, and a Korean folk tale about a changeling fox sister who eats her human brothers. And another, a full graphic essay or comic, “Falling” —about breaking my back when I was ten, 9/11, and the pandemic—was published in Waxwing.
Now I am easing off the essays a bit and back into poetry. I have a new collection of poems, I Want To Tell You, coming out from the University of Pittsburgh Press. But I am still drawing like mad. Art was the one gift the pandemic gave me.
PC: Why did you decide to become a translator and how has that opened doors for you in the literary world?
JLK: In 2010, I decided I wanted to learn Spanish. I had a sabbatical and, for completely random reasons, I choose Montevideo, Uruguay as the place I would live and study. I did not set out with the intention of translating poetry—learning Spanish over fifty seemed challenge enough! I spent the sabbatical just going to language classes and trying to live a normal life in a different language. But I did begin reading Uruguayan poetry. Then, when I returned to visit Uruguayan friends, I began going to poetry readings. Uruguay is a small country (3.3 million people) but one FULL of poets. In Montevideo, there are poetry readings or events most of the nights of the week. It is also country with a strong and unbroken chain of poetry by women.
As I quickly discovered, almost none of this work was available in English translation. So I started work on my anthology, América invertida: An Anthology of Emerging Uruguayan Poets (University of New Mexico Press, 2016) which features the work of young Uruguayan poets, each paired with an American based poet/translator. That book turned out to be a whole wonderful project. I placed many of the poems in literary magazines. I took three of the poets on a reading tour around the U.S, including the Library of Congress and the Associated Writing Programs annual conference. We were even featured on Chinese television. Many of the individual poets in the anthology have gone on to have books published in the U.S. And I have gone on to translate books by Uruguayan poets such as Idea Vilariño, Circe Maia, Tatiana Oroño, to co-translate others and edit several more anthologies as well.
Translation opened the doors to not one, but two new literary worlds for me. The world of Uruguayan poets, which is very much my second home now, but also the world of translators, who are wonderful, generous people. I tell my students it is worth studying translation just to be able to spend time with other translators.
And translating made poetry gave me another great gift. It made poetry come alive for me again. After years of reading, teaching, writing poetry—I think I had become a bit numb to it. But reading, hearing, really trying to understand poetry in another language brought the magic back. I also love this moment where, perhaps because we are living through this pandemic, literature is getting wonderfully hybrid, in all the senses of that word.
So maybe to tie all these obsessions of mine together, I should write an illustrated lyric essay about an Uruguayan silent film. Honestly, that is a very tempting idea!
PC: What’s the connection between your writing and your interest in silent films?
JLK: Ah, there you touch on an obsession of mine that predates drawing. My husband was a special archivist at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research. He first went to a Le Giornate del Cinema Muto/ The Pordenone Silent Film Festival in 2000. The festival is the premiere location for screening silent films made from 1880s into the 1930s. He suggested I might like to go the next year. I thought, Italy! Of course, I want to go! But I thought I would sit in a cafe and write poems, not attend the movies. Instead, I ended up watching films from 9 am to 1 am—nearly without stop—for the entire eight days of the festival. It was like finding the lost world of Atlantis. And then I began writing poems about the films. These eventually became my book Cinema Muto (Southern Illinois University Press, 2009) which takes the form of the eight days of the festival.
I attended Le Giornate del Cinema Muto every year right up until the recent pandemic pause—eighteen years. And I still love silent films.
Do poems exist? After a plague year, nothing is a poem to me anymore. Or everything is.
In 1924, in his surrealist manifesto, André Breton said, “We are living under the reign of logic, but the logical processes of our time apply only to the solution of problems of secondary interest.”
But we are not living in logical times. Breton, writing four years after WW I, a decade and pocket change before WWII, was not either.
Now, everything I draw is blue.
Blue lips. I am giving everyone blue lips.
The poet Robert Desnos was a surrealist before Breton expelled him from the movement. In 1945, he died of typhoid in Terezín concentration camp a month after the camp’s liberation. In severe cases of typhoid, the lips and fingernails may turn bluish in color.
Or so it says in a very old article, as old as Desnos’ last poem, said to have been found on him when he died:
Le Dernier Poème
J’ai rêvé tellement fort de toi,
J’ai tellement marché, tellement parlé,
Tellement aimé ton ombre,
Qu’il ne me reste plus rien de toi.Il me reste d’être l’ombre parmi les ombres
D’être cent fois plus ombre que l’ombre
D’être l’ombre qui viendra et reviendra dans ta vie ensoleillée.
Except his poem never existed.
A Czech newspaper published his obituary, which ended with a part of Desnos’ poem, “J’ai tant rêvé de toi” (I Dreamt About You So Much), translated into Czech by a Czech poet, Jindřich Hořejší. When it was republished in France, the sentence was retranslated into French again.
A poem that never existed—existed. And made people weep.
The French newspaper said he had written “Le Dernier Poème” for his wife Youki Desnos. Youki means snow in Japanese. When I draw snow—I add blue. White, white alone is never cold enough. Except Desnos’ wife wasn’t Japanese. Her name was Lucie Badoud and Youki was a nickname given to her by her lover Tsuguharu Foujita before she left him for Desnos.
In his portrait of Youki, Tsuguharu Foujita uses on the slightest touch of pale blue for her eyes.
The poem Desnos never wrote Youki from Terezín ended up engraved on a wall behind Notre Dame Cathedral that is the memorial to the 200,000 French deportees to Nazi death camps. President Charles de Gaulle inaugurated it in 1962, before anyone discovered the mistake of the double translation.
Once a poem is engraved in on a wall, can there be any doubt it exists?
The poem is even famous in English:
I have dreamt so very much of you,
I have walked so much, talked so much
Loved your shadow so much,
I have nothing left of you.
All that remains to me is to be the shadow among shadows
To be a hundred times more of a shadow than the shadow
To be the shadow that will come and come again into your sunny life.
And there is also no doubt that a shadow of a shadow of shadow is blue, blue, blue.
Wave after wave.
André Breton’s surrealist novel Nadja is dotted with photos, most of them random, found art that make a story even more surreal—perhaps not unlike the illustrations in this essay. But Nadja also includes these photographs by Man Ray of Robert Desnos sleeping. The young Czech medical student, Josef Stuna, who cared for Desnos’ last days in Terezín, recognized him from the book. The caption on the photos in the book reads: “Once again, now, I see Robert Desnos . . . ”
It didn’t save him.
Besides the story about the fictional last poem, there is another one from the camps about Robert Desnos, this one probably true. The scholar Susan Griffin tells it in her article “To Love The Marigold: Hope & Imagination.”
I am thinking of a story I heard a few years ago from my friend Odette, a writer and a survivor of the holocaust. Along with many others who crowd the bed of a large truck, she tells me, the surrealist poet Robert Desnos is being taken away from the barracks of the concentration camp where he has been held prisoner. Leaving the barracks, the mood is somber; everyone knows the truck is headed for the gas chambers. And when the truck arrives no one can speak at all; even the guards fall silent. But this silence is soon interrupted by an energetic man, who jumps into the line and grabs one of the condemned. Improbable as it is, Odette told me, Desnos reads the man’s palm.
Oh, he says, I see you have a very long lifeline. And you are going to have three children. He is exuberant. And his excitement is contagious. First one man, then another, offers up his hand, and the prediction is for longevity, more children, abundant joy.
As Desnos reads more palms, not only does the mood of the prisoners change but that of the guards too. How can one explain it? Perhaps the element of surprise has planted a shadow of doubt in their minds. If they told themselves these deaths were inevitable, this no longer seems inarguable. They are in any case so disoriented by this sudden change of mood among those they are about to kill that they are unable to go through with the executions. So all the men, along with Desnos, are packed back onto the truck and taken back to the barracks. Desnos has saved his own life and the lives of others by using his imagination.
And at least one of them lived to tell this story.
It wasn’t Robert Desnos.
“I have walked so much, talked so much”—an imaginary Desnos says in his imaginary “Last Poem.”
I think he would have loved being that imaginary, to be honest.
Not all blues are dark blue.
I should draw Desnos and color his eyes the same light blue as Youki’s. Instead I draw this.
Do poems exist?