Erín Moure is one of Canada’s most exciting and acclaimed poets and translators. Her multilingual books are a mélange of English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Ukrainian, and Galician. To read Moure is to see the inner workings of somebody deeply embedded in the social life of words; her process is to investigate, challenge, and bring to the forefront. Regardless of what subjects find their way into her books, Moure seems always to be writing about language.
At the centre of The Unmemntioable, Moure’s latest, is Ukraine’s fraught history of war. In a moving piece written in the book’s companion blog, Moure writes: “This whole area, in the first part of the twentieth century, succumbed to the roilings of death so many times, roilings carried out under the sign of wars, fascisms, genocides, anti-semitism, communism, all carried out by people I shall not name here for it is known, and no one now alive did what they did.”
But rather than being about grief, suffering, or war, the book’s central concern is language: how what we know is linked to how we know. The book’s title skews the word unmentionable, pointing to the shortcomings of language to represent experience, particularly that which is tied to violence, war, and genocide. There are simply some places words cannot reach, and The Unmemntioable moves about this space in a gorgeously self-conscious reflection.
Some readers might be confounded by Moure’s work, as she makes no attempt to be neatly categorized. Her new book is several things at once: a book-length poem scattered with smaller poems, fragments, and images; a book about her mother in, and away from, a war-torn Ukraine; it is also a book which constantly addresses the implications of its own writing. Because all of this is handled with expert care and delicacy, the unconventional form and style of Moure’s writing seem inevitable rather than experimental. This is a book that is vivid and powerful precisely because the writing and its subject are so enigmatic.
In a recent email exchange with Moure, we discussed her earliest memories of language, the promise to her mother which inspired the book, and the difficulties of writing about war.
ROVER: You often write in multiple languages, and your new book contains English, French, and Ukrainian. Can you remember what first appealed to you about writing in a language that wasn’t your own? Did you grow up speaking multiple languages, or did that come later?
I grew up speaking English, but it is not “my own” either! A language is never owned. As a child, I heard my maternal grandparents speaking another language, and because my mother always said there were two languages in Canada, English and French, I thought they were speaking French! When I was 5 years old, we took French in school and when I learned how to say “Bonjour grandpère, comment allez-vous?” I raced home to tell my Mom I could talk to my grandfather. She asked me, startled, what I would say. When I told her, she said, Granddad doesn’t speak French. I was floored. There were three languages in Canada: English, French, and what Granddad speaks.
In the end, though, I only really learned French properly when I came to Montreal in the mid 80s. And I never did learn to talk to my grandfather in anything but English.
In O Resplandor you write, in regards to reading Stănescu: “It was in a language I could not read and it entered me. I could not turn away.” How do you think this happens? Do you think a different, albeit valid meaning can be gleaned from words as simply sounds, letters, or markings on a page? Or do you think of your multilingual texts as things that need to be deciphered?
I think a lot of the language I use (except the Ukrainian words!) can be deciphered on the page by Anglophones, because English contains enough influence from Latin and French that many words I use in Galician, Spanish, Portuguese, can be figured out sufficiently just by looking at them. And where they can’t, it is fine…. I know there is a kind of bifurcation of readerly paths through my work, and that’s fine too: some who are more multilingual will understand more things directly, and others will just be able to see the beauty of language, how beautiful words and letters are on the page, and how they shimmer meanings back at you in your own language regardless (even if it is semantically “wrong”.. the way “chair” in French looks like chair in English, or “pain” holds pain… ).
ROVER: Can you remember any early encounters with this shimmering of language? A certain writer, or piece of writing?
I remember the bugs along the bottom of the page of the first reader, and how they turned from bugs into “Go, Sally, Go.” Here’s a snip of the page:
And I remember, a few pages later, my first confrontation with a two syllable word that wasn’t “Sally.” I could not pronounce it, and it upset my mother, to whom I was trying to sound out the words. I had to turn the page to find out why, to see the person whose name I could not pronounce, as this page gave no visual clue of what a mot her was:
After I turned the page, I could see that mot her was mother, and read that word for the first time:
The strangest thing to me now about this page is that the mother, so very elegant, is leaving; she has her back to us. She is the mother that we, as children, do not know. Even in this image, what she is thinking is “unmemntioable.”
ROVER: In regards to your new book, The Unmemntioable, what was the inspiration?
I’m laughing at how my answer to this question overlaps my answer to the previous one! My mother was the inspiration. I made a promise to her when she was dying to bring some of her ashes back to the Ukrainian village where she was born, and where she left when she was four years old. It was one of her two regrets in life that she had been unable to get back there (the other was not ever seeing the Panama Canal, go figure). To go to Ukraine meant I had to learn about a place whose history I was never taught. I speak of some of this in the blog, which is a bit of an open-source relative of the book.
ROVER: In The Unmemntioable you write: “Relationships written down instead of remembered, cuts the tie.” And later, in regards to Agamben: “That there is a before-speaking, that we did not always speak, is this how experience is possible?” Do these notions influence how you approach a difficult subject that a conventional use of language maybe can’t articulate?
Yes, they do. I remember a “before-speaking.” I still had experiences, but I can only utter them with the “after-speaking” I now inhabit: the dark of the hallway; the bars of the crib; biting the wavy thing in my crib and finding out that it hurt me; before I had the word “toe.” The first quote you mention articulates a notion of trouble between written and oral culture. Oral culture in a way preserves memory because each generation, each storyteller, alters the story a bit, and the nub of it remains intact. Written culture fixes a text, and since humans keep on moving, generations change. Eventually, the text does not hold the same nub or significance it once held.
ROVER: If writing becomes how we remember something, or might over time, do you have a different approach to writing about topics as personal as those of The Unmemntioable?
Part of my point is that writing can sometimes be how we forget! This is the paradox in writing itself that cannot be excised. In The Unmemntioable, I tried, in writing, to write not the story of others—whom I did not know and could scarcely fathom—but the gap between the story I experienced in Ukraine and then studied in books, and the truth, whatever that is, could be, for any of us, for all of us two generations later. The truth, all of it, in most cases can never be known now, or doesn’t make sense to our ways of thinking. Big things can be known about terrible wrongs done, yes, but when it comes down to individual experiences, the gap widens. And we humans, when we suffer, we suffer as individuals, we hurt as individuals, not solely as members of groups.
The book also involves the story of my sitting beside my dying mother, who is “the artist,” as it is she who is dying. A whole history of being and immigration was going to die with her, a whole epoch that she did not understand either; she just wanted to be a Canadian and was an unhyphenated Canadian. But, dying, she wanted to return to Ukraine, to her village where she was born, and she made me responsible to bring her ashes there. She caused it all.
I knew in the book I had to honour everyone, and that that was my responsibility to my mother. My small philosophy of “honour others” is my inheritance from her.
ROVER: Could you also talk a little about the title of this book?
The difficulty of the subject, the unmentionable, means that even the word can’t be fully mentionable. What it says is visible, but the word is dented, compressed, folded, unmemntioable. Even what we think of as mentionable can be unmemntioable; because you can only take up one, or perhaps a few angles at any one time in writing, you always risk creating a distortion. I think that Agamben, who is quoted on the back cover, raises an apt consideration: “Seule est vraie la représentation qui représente aussie l’écart entre elle-même et la vérité.” I like the title of that book too. “The idea of the enigma,” which could also be, I suppose, in my case, “The Enigma of the Idea.” The idea of Ukraine, the idea of home, of “somewhere”.
With historical events, especially ones involving genocides and multiple genocidal actions, telling the story can be especially difficult. From my time and place, I cannot recreate the pressures that the peoples of Western Ukraine were under as individuals seeing their communities destroyed by ideologies. I can say that great wrongs were perpetrated, actively in mass murders but also passively, in people being frozen, afraid, or turning away. I can say that everyone lived through a horrific time. Today, almost no one who carried out those events is alive; witnesses are alive, but not perpetrators. People have had to find new ways to invent themselves and who they are, and still are trying to understand their history and terrain.
What is saddest is that the horrors perpetrated, above all the catastrophe of the murder of the region’s Jews, but also, on a much smaller scale, the murders by Ukrainian ultra-nationalists of ethnic Poles and by ethnic Poles of Ukrainians, and, as well, by the Soviets and Nazis of everyone, including Ukrainians, and the loss of communities of folks such as ethnic Armenians and ethnic Germans, destroyed a complex way of life on a territory, a way of life that now cannot be recuperated. This was the nature of war in the area where it caused the greatest destruction, unimaginable destruction, utter horror. And, yes, people caused this destruction, or stood by as it washed over them. People can go on, though, and can go on in better ways by acknowledging everything that happened on their territory, without relying on the old excuses.
Finally, two generations later, the responsibility to grieve and speak falls to others; I am able to grieve what my mother (who fled all idea of this “nowhere” and was Canadian to the bone) and my grandmother (who was silent and deeply saddened) could not.
Erin Mouré launches The Unmemntioable at Drawn & Quarterly on Thursday, April 12, at 7pm: 211 Bernard Ouest, 514.279.2224
Michael Lake is a writer from Nova Scotia currently living in Montreal. He works for the Montreal Zen Poetry Festival.