Acadie, like many French-speaking areas, is in a precarious balance between French and English. Any uncertainty of this sort is bound to create awe and fear, especially where historical traumas and attempts to maintain a lifestyle, culture, and language follow families across generations. Dominique Bernier-Cormier explores the intertwining of personal and collective life to understand how this precarious equilibrium is even possible.
Entre Rive and Shore follows the logic of the title: it is set at the moment of crossing a river, between shore and shore, where it is uncertain whether the second “shore” is another shore, or a translation of the first, a return to the first from a different direction. A suite of interrelated poems, the book focuses on a single story and builds around it: at a moment when Acadians are being deported or killed, Bernier’s ancestor, Pierrot Cormier, manages to flee from jail and thus deportation by dressing as a woman and swimming across a river.
The meaning of the story however is neither historical nor political: Bernier-Cormier writes about his linguistic practices, which could be seen as leaving the French language to embrace English instead. While his family has continued to speak French and Chiac, he finds himself between the two shores, writing and working in English rather than in French. Like myself, and many others whose parents and ancestors struggled to continue speaking French, he bears the weight of expectations and of linguistic realities. His ancestor took flight from the British army, refusing allegiance to Britain and to English. As he sees on a trip with his father to explore his family’s other possible past, those Acadians who were deported to Louisiana weren’t as lucky, and many, having become Cajuns or Cadiens, have had to face much greater adversity in maintaining their culture and language.
I will give away Bernier-Cormier’s central
idea in this book: the two languages don’t have to stand as separate shores,
but can be one current instead, woven together: “I leave the clothes
in a neat bundle on the desk, / trying to memorize each stitch, a poem // of fabric, so I can translate it // dans une langue qui tresse ensemble // the different threads of myself.” (92) This image of the thread follows the returning of motif of hybridity, studied through several poems titled “Hybrid/e.” Here, in this last longer poem, we find Bernier-Cormier at the end of a path toward a translation of his ancestor’s story into English, a way to bring French into English, using mostly English.
The rest of the book makes possible both the poem and the translation that closes the book, reflecting on the flow the two languages share. The language of his hybrid poems is not Chiac, it does not function as translations, or through code-switching. Bernier-Cormier writes directly in a dual language where there are no boundaries or clear differences:
Comme je disais, the important thing
is savoir se fendre
le cerveau in half
et de continuer à parler
devant a foule of light
even ébloui, even aveuglé (46)
Translating these bilingual poems places me before a radical version of the problem of translation. I must answer the question why these words, but in addition I must ask why these words in this language. They are not interjections, they do not reproduce the mix of French and English we find in the ordinary speech of Chiac or Franglais. Bernier-Cormier’s notes on translations, which are themselves part poem, part theory, and part, well, translator’s notes, show his concern for selecting words according to their sonority and possible meanings, finding some words in each language lacking.
As I was saying,
la chose importante
est to know how to split
your brain en deux
and to continue to
in front of une crowd de lumière
même dazzled, même blinded
While I am choosing here to translate by reflecting the linguistic and lexical elements, another translation might choose to alternate between languages in other places so as to maintain the effects due to sonority and tone. The soft, sleek, slippery last line is not only translated in my version; it’s also reversed, harsher for all the “d”s, bumpier for the repeated “m”s – and the evenness and abandon of “even” give way to the similarity and return of the old of “même.”
Through this hybrid writing, Bernier-Cormier refashions his relationship to the past, notably through his relationship to his father, to his father’s view of the past, beyond the repetition and the clichés of collective storytelling:
mais Papa est déjà long gone,
his own personal Deportation,
la mélancolie en surround sound,
parce qu’on la connaît l’histoire,
we’ve heard it all before (30)
From the other shore, one might hear:
but Dad’s already parti depuis longtemps,
dormant à travers sa propre Déportation à lui,
melancholia coming de partout autour,
because we know
on l’a déjà toute entendue
I was tempted to translate “heard” by the old meaning of “ouïe” so that it might almost rhyme with “story” to replicate the almost-rhyming between languages of histoire/before. I also came close to leaving “surround sound” as is, because no one uses the word “ambiophonique” in French, usually saying “surround sound” or “son surround.” Likewise, here, “long gone” is often used in French in English-speaking areas, and translating it feels like a treason. Bernier-Cormier seems to be quite aware of how certain words travel between languages and uses this movement to give us poems as slippery as the stones on a shore.
It is sometimes as if Acadie or the past itself is speaking, interjecting (as it does before and after this last passage) and forcing itself into left-page poems from the right page, though Bernier-Cormier also talks back, highlighting that the Deportation followed the theft of Indigenous land.
Here I can’t do justice to the ways Bernier-Cormier uses the space on the page. This is a book that lets itself be held, that gives room for the eyes and for breath, that allow several langues and paroles, many sites of speech to exist. Letters addressed to Bernier-Cormier by his father coexist with notes on translation, reinforcing the ties and filiation in translated texts and the reshuffling of meaning that takes place between generations. There are self-portraits as a series of figures that I did not expect in a book dealing with the Acadian and Francophone past, surprises which anchor selfhood and collective belonging beyond the nation and a single past.
One of the most fascinating aspects of this book is the constant return to Pierrot Cormier’s story. The same block of text which presents its story appears nine times, each time modified. It is translated, sometimes with annotations that share an ongoing reflection around the act of translation, the feel of the two languages, the depth of meaning stored within words. It is transformed through a cut out, through distortion, through a false erasure, all of which highlight the presence of one language inside the other.
Dominique Bernier-Cormier’s book ought to become central to our reflections on poetry, translation, and linguistic plurality. Aesthetically and narratively, it’s also an achievement. Although I’ve focused on the relationship between languages and the uses of bilingual poetry here, the book remains accessible to readers who don’t speak French.
Above all, what makes Entre rive and shore so successful and enticing, is that its poems are concerned with the present and the future, and not the past for its own sake. The original “Source” (title of the first iteration of this text) loses its metaphorical register to become the starting point of the movement of water, and opens the way to a vision.
Jérôme Melançon writes and teaches and writes and lives in oskana kâ-asastêki / Regina, SK. Apparently the ancestor who bore his name was also pushed out of Acadie, but not so far his father couldn’t bring about Jérôme’s happenstance birth in New Brunswick. His third chapbook, Bridges Under the Water, is forthcoming with above/ground press. It follows Tomorrow’s Going to Be Bright (2022) and Coup (2020), as well as his most recent poetry collection, En d’sous d’la langue (Prise de parole, 2021). He has also published two books of poetry with Éditions des Plaines, De perdre tes pas (2011) and Quelques pas quelque part (2016), as well as one book of philosophy, La politique dans l’adversité (Metispresses, 2018). He has edited books and journal issues, and keeps publishing academic articles that have nothing to do with any of this. He’s on Twitter mostly, and sometimes on Instagram, both at @lethejerome.