In Laynie Browne’s fourteenth book of poetry, Translation of the Lilies Back Into Lists, the poems are titled after dates—progressing chronologically from 12.16.15 to 5.23.16—and each line is numbered. Browne describes her process of writing the book as one of translating her daily to-do lists, line by line, into poetry. She says that the project is “very quotidian but a different version of the quotidian. Once I had written the poem version, I felt free of the oppressive weight of the to-do list.”
Translation is at once
1. Gorgeously grounded in the granular details that make up everyday life: “4. Sort, carry, submerge, spin, remove. / 5. Still traveling away from a moment.”
2. Humorously pointed about the gendered social labor of reminding that is taken on predominantly by women: “13. I didn’t want to write this reminder, which reminds me that I should not need to be reminded that someone else should not need to be reminded of something he or she should be well aware of by now. But how can we let them fail when it is so easy, with a few words to myself written on a page, to remember?”
3. Mundanely self-reflexive: “8. Is this item still on my list? If I had only crossed it off yesterday, and yet, that would have been a poor use of time.”
4. Irreducibly mystical and dreamlike: “6. Read lines from an enchantress when you want to be a bird. / 7. Ingest liquid prose when you prefer to be fluid.”
5. Even prayerful: “46. Ahem, amen, selah, so be it, we plead.”
6. And lyrically attentive to the minute and magical transformations of language: “11. Riven is right—is revision—is night.”
Dedicated to C. D. Wright, Translations is one in series of homage projects in which Browne honors and engages the legacy of a powerful woman poet who enabled her work in some important way. Browne’s other “page mothers” include Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Lyn Hejinian, Bernadette Mayer, Alice Notley, Leslie Scalapino, Cecilia Vicuña, Hannah Weiner, and Rosmarie Waldrop. The book’s title references Translations of the Gospel Back Into Tongues (1982) by Wright. But to translate the Gospels back into tongues is to return words back to some pre-linguistic revelation of divine fire. To translate lilies into lists would almost seem to be the opposite: to bring something as simple and alive as a flower into the regimented mundanity of a series of tasks.
What does it mean to translate lilies back into lists? Were the lilies lists in a previous iteration? What is the language of lilies and how do lists embody the flowers’ original form? In our hands, dozens, hundreds, of what-used-to-be-lilies, a bouquet of remains. One thinks of the etymological connection between flowers and books of poems; the Greek and Latin word anthologia, “collection of poetry,” literally means flower collection (anthos + logia).
Lilies are also a flower of death, pervasive at funerals, and commonly sent as expressions of sympathy. C. D. Wright died on January 12, 2016. In the poem dated two days after Wright’s passing, 01.14.16.1, Browne writes:
- I’ll always miss you.
- I began this for you but I hadn’t yet told you. I’m telling you now but you can’t hear me.
- Of course you can hear me but the place you exist cannot be gathered into spoonfuls of snow.
The poem accumulates numbered items instead of the absent friend, who has gone to a place that cannot be gathered. In this way, the lists are transitional objects, representing what can be held close in place of a loved one. To love someone, to miss someone, is to bring together a treasury of utterances in their honor.
But if these poems record a life—a daily to-do list translated—then the ongoingness of the list poem is like a pulse, a vital sign. For as long as the list continues, so does the life of the one with the pen in her hand. And so, another way of reading the translation of the lilies is as a wishful exchange of funeral flowers for the to-do lists of being alive. The translation is in this way life-bestowing, or at least evocative of that possibility.
In Browne’s poems, translation enables communication across planes, from the living to the dead, from the everyday to divinity. Between these categories, translation creates a continuity that is porous and permeable, palpable and alive. Translation is the shared air between the lily and the list, the gospel and the tongue of flame, the unformed or not-yet-formed between worlds of becoming within which creation happens. What appears quotidian, numerically arranged, and order-establishing about the list attains a mystical, alchemical quality in the transformation.
Browne asks us to consider what is irreducible in the very ordinariness of the list. Browne’s lists reflect on their own materiality and the ways in which meaning deepens and acquires metaphorical significance on its way from list item to list poem. When she asks, “2. Do crossed-out items count?” or “7. Repetitions continue,” when she writes, “1. Every day is a repetition,” or “3. Under different circumstances you wouldn’t look twice at this day,” she reconsiders what counts, ritualizes routine, and preserves the detritus of a world that would use up and move on. Browne writes, “1. In considering the form of ‘the list’ doing is surrounded by thought. / 2. While I began with the notion of translating ‘to do’ lists into oblique commentary, I now see dissolved momentary movements.” We know that poetry’s ability to make anything happen is a quality at best dubious. The list poem intensifies the pressure on that non-doing, that charged nothing. By making to-do lists non-purposive, Browne slows down the driving, capitalist urge to accomplish tasks, to be useful, and dwells in whatever it is that surrounds doing—“thought,” or “dissolved momentary movements.”
To have a list as a final product inverts the “to-do” hierarchy, in which the list gives rise to the task whose accomplishment then makes the list obsolete. Here, the list poem retranslates the poem as finished product into something more indeterminate. “4. Rejection of closure marries rejection of finishing a book,” writes Browne, quoting Hejinian’s famous essay. To read this book is to be awash in ongoingness. The magic of the list inheres in its pure potentiality, its expression of promise. “3. My unwritten letter is perfect.” Here we dwell in a subjunctive world of possibility.
Ultimately, Browne’s list becomes a statement of poetics:
- A few words on a list can expand exponentially becoming potentially intrusive.
- Translation of thoughts, or lilies, into lists is coping with finitude.
- I say lilies because the reproductive parts are most delicate.
- We value our own flowering and then the bloom of generations.
- Our continued existence is dependent on this ability to flower.
- You could say it’s metaphorical and also literal. Your flower is the location of your chosen pulse. Where you are alive. Where you want to continue—to live beyond yourself.
- This is both a poem and a pullout statement—a way to represent.
- Poetics are not a fold-out couch, a disappearing train, a combative rhetoric, a proclamation or prescription. Change and attention are all I can promise. In other words, love.
Poetics of the list cannot be static, but require “change and attention.” The flowering of life, the bloom of generations, love. Translation’s unceasing movement. In conversation with Rachel Zucker on the Commonplace podcast, Browne speaks about the centrality of translation to her poetics: “in writing, everything is translation.” She describes translation’s importance to a poetic or to a contemplative practice, in the way it allows one to reframe experience and one’s understanding. Browne quotes Vicuña’s essay, “Language Is Migrant”: “We need to translate language into itself so that IT sees our awareness, translating us into another state of mind.”
In addition to spiritual and poetic translations, this book contains visual ones. Reproductions of six original collages by Browne appear at the beginning of each month like calendar images. These artworks make visible the project of collage already at work in the book’s language, drawing together seemingly disparate elements to create unexpected correspondences. The collages also create another connection to Wright’s poetry and her “art of disjunction.”
But Browne is not only in conversation with Wright in these pages. Rather, these profoundly social poems buzz with emails, meetings, plans. They explore the minor agonies of daily interactions inflicted by experiences such as waiting for an email that never comes, wondering how many times to confirm a meeting before it takes place, or reflecting with witty annoyance on a passive-aggressive comment: “1. Was her observation meant as a critique? I didn’t know what to say in reply, so simply said, thank you. / 2. To be ‘fancy’ is not my objective. I write toward the illegible. / 3. It’s too bad because I was hoping we could be ‘not fancy’ together.” At the same time, these poems access larger feelings too—the homage, the love poem to a dead friend and mentor. Yet Browne does not hierarchize noble feelings over petty ones. In fact, the poems that track minor irritations and doubts offer a capacious sense of welcome in what’s shared about a small paranoia, or an exchange that skirts failure. “3. Spend too much time decoding your tone before replying. / 4. What is the potential maximum percentage of affection inside any word?” These are, perhaps paradoxically, some of the most moving and relatable moments of the book. And they ask us to consider the list form as a startlingly accurate and accessible way to represent interiority. Maybe it is within the to-do list that the human mind can best be portrayed and the heart plumbed. Maybe it is by listing things to do for one another that we make community. Browne writes, “7. What kind of message was I expecting to save me?/ 8. Implausible, but true, an inbox radiates love.”
Like life, like death, and like the poem, the list is at once proliferative and focused on the immediacy of the present: “3. What it’s really like to do one thing at one time.” While one item begets another, each is also distinct from the items around it, clearly demarcated on the page. Any notion of true separateness must be revealed as a fallacy. Items roll into and through one another, not only prompting the next to emerge, but swelling through, informing, and animating their neighbors. And yet boundaries, contrary directionalities, even personalities, do emerge. “8. The entire room then became a person I knew, in many bodies” (in whose singularity within plurality I hear the music of A Forest On Many Stems, a line from Scalapino, and the title of Browne’s groundbreaking anthology of essays on the poet’s novel, published by Nightboat in 2021). And, “15. The other deaths remind me that death is plural.” A single being is made multiple in the list on its way to being reabsorbed as disparate material back into the universe of materials. The list poem demonstrates a preoccupation with gathering an uncountable collectivity.
In this way, Browne makes immediate the connections between listing and language: “15. Write a series of sentences which will hopefully open another series of sentences for a reader.” So the series speaks to our shared social condition as living beings who will die, as speaking beings whose linguistic imprecision is endlessly generative.
Browne teaches me how the poem is already a list. And not just in the obvious ways—how both often straggle in a skinny column down the lefthand margin of the page, for instance. Or how both contain numbered entries, whether the list’s numbered tasks or poetry’s “harmonious numbers.” Or even how each engage musically and mundanely with repetitions, refrains, echoes, rhymes—the same sound, again and again, every Monday at 3 p.m., every recurrence of the word “long”: “6. For how long / must I rely on breaking lines, as in after the word ‘long’?” All of these connections between lists and poems are clear enough. But what I think is most crucial to Browne’s work here is accessing and uplifting the long feminine tradition of enumeration, of giving attention and even love to the ephemeral details that make up actual, embodied, lived life. Embracing this form of attention remains an oppositional political act.
Like each of her “page mothers” (Wright, Berssenbrugge, Hejinian, Mayer, Notley, Scalapino, Vicuña, Weiner, Waldrop), Browne writes of everyday life in ways that are various, expansive, and deeply informed by critical theory. And also in ways that sustain urgent engagement with and critique of the feminized roles carved out by our capitalist, heteropatriarchal society. The penultimate poem of the book reads:
- Chekhov may have been a doctor
- But he wasn’t a mother and a writer
- ‘Mother’ a job as taxing as doctor
- Yet no pay
- The hours are longer
- Conditions may be hazardous
- But even more precarious
- Is your position in society
- I made breakfast for one notion
- While the other slept
- Then took a walk and drove
- Your thoughts to school
About the Reviewer
Claire Marie Stancek is the author of several collections of poetry, including wyrd] bird (Omnidawn, 2020), Oil Spell (Omnidawn, 2018), and MOUTHS (Noemi Press, 2017). With Daniel Benjamin, she co-edited Active Aesthetics: Contemporary Australian Poetry (Tuumba/Giramondo, 2016). With Lyn Hejinian and Jane Gregory, she is co-editor and co-founder of Nion Editions, a chapbook press. Claire Marie has a Ph.D. in English Literature from UC Berkeley. She lives in Philadelphia. clairemariestancek.com