CELEBRATING AMERICAN SHE-POETS (27): Hélène Cardona … Poetry is language for the ineffable, what is impossible to write…

Hélène Cardona
Hélène Cardona, American poet, literary translator and actor

“I travel the corridors of mind, synapses
of chaos, frenetic amnesia, beguiling
impulses, diffusion of heaven,
past portals to crystalline temples”

excerpt from Cornucopia in Dreaming My Animal Selves

So often I want to shout: Don’t talk to me about the human condition in sociological terms. Don’t give me a technical analysis of the poem. Don’t talk to me about theology. There’s a place for all that but what I really want is your visceral response to life, art and to the Ineffable. In Hèléne Cardona’s poetry, we get just that. One of Helene’s gifts is to render the mysterious and mystical in often poignant terms expanding the boundaries of physical space into the unfettered space of psyche and Spirit. Writing from her sacred space, Hélène speaks to us in a silken web that is both imaginal and mythic, a space inhabited by visions and creatures we all know. Read with a still mind and open heart,the experience is somewhat like meditating and finding oneself in Rumi’s field where “the world is too full to talk about.”

hcI was first engaged by Hélène’s art when I read Dreaming My Animal Selves, Le Songe de mes Ames Animales (Salmon Poetry, 2013), a surreal pathway in legend, myth and fancy. In her latest book, Life in Suspension, La Vie Suspendue, she explores life after loss, the loss of her mother Kitty, and the search for succor and healing.

“I hear beyond the range of sound
the ineffable, the sublime, my mother’s
breath, grandmother’s smile, ancestors’
voices, to soothe and heal the sorrow.”

excerpt from Search of Benevolent Immortality in Life in Suspension

Both books express an intimacy with nature and broad cultural exposure. The poems were written in English and include Hélène’s own translations into French.

Hélène Cardona is a poet, literary translator and actor, whose most recent books include Life in Suspension and Dreaming My Animal Selves (both from Salmon Poetry), and the translations Beyond Elsewhere (Gabriel Arnou-Laujeac, White Pine Press), winner of a Hemingway Grant; Ce que nous portons (Dorianne Laux, Éditions du Cygne), and Walt Whitman’s Civil War Writings for WhitmanWeb.

She has also translated Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Aloysius Bertrand, Maram Al-Masri, Eric Sarner, René Depestre, Ernest Pépin, Jean-Claude Renard, Nicolas Grenier, and her father José Manuel Cardona. A Romanian translation of Dreaming My Animal Selves was published by Junimea Editions in 2016. Her work has been translated into 13 languages.

She contributes essays to The London Magazine, is co-international editor of Plume, and managing editor of Fulcrum: An Anthology of Poetry and Aesthetics. She holds a Master’s in American Literature from the Sorbonne, received fellowships from the Goethe-Institut and Universidad Internacional de Andalucía, worked as a translator for the Canadian Embassy in Paris, and taught at Hamilton College and Loyola Marymount University.

Publications include Washington Square Review, World Literature Today, Poetry International, Dublin Review of Books, Asymptote, The Brooklyn Rail, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Warwick Review, Irish Literary Times, Poetry Salzburg Review, and elsewhere.

Acting credits include Chocolat, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Jurassic World, X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Hundred-Foot Journey, Mad Max: Fury Road, Inception, and Mumford. She is the Computer voice in the TV series Heroes Reborn and her many voice characters include Happy Feet 2 and Muppets Most Wanted. For Serendipity she co-wrote with director Peter Chelsom and composer Alan Silvestri the song Lucienne, which she also sang. http://helenecardona.com

“Poetry is language for the ineffable, what is impossible to write, the mystery. I seek the light within that mystery. We are stretched to the frontiers of what we know, exploring language and the psyche. The poem is a gesture, a movement, an opening towards a greater truth or understanding.” Hélène Cardona


JAMIE: Hélène both the collections I’ve read are beautifully crafted and graceful, ripe with all that is profound and mystical in life. Your love of language is evident in each poem and in the fact that you’ve studied and master several. Tell us how this love was birthed. How did it become clear to you that language – in one way or another – would be a major path in your life?

HÉLÈNE: I grew up in France, Switzerland, Spain, Monaco, England, Wales, Germany and Greece, and absorbed different cultures and ideas.

I go back and forth between French, English and Spanish the most. My father is Spanish and my mother Greek, so I grew up speaking all three languages at home. I deepened my study of Spanish at the Sorbonne, the Universidad Menendez Pelayo in Santander, and the Universidad de Baeza in Andalucía.

I started learning German when I was eleven or so, and went on to study it at the Goethe Institute in Paris and later in Bremen, Germany. I loved German right away. It feels very familiar and comfortable to me, as if I had a past life in Germany.

I loved language early but it was not obvious to me that it would be a major path in my life at first. That’s because I was a math major in high school, which led me to medical school when I was seventeen. After two years I had a breakdown. it was like giving up my soul. I went through a deep depression and nearly died. Which is what saved me. It was a deeply transforming spiritual experience and put me on my path.

JAMIE: Your life is busy with acting, voice over work, translating, teaching, mentoring and the usual things we all must attend to: friends, family and the daily prosaic activities of maintaining life and livelihood. How do you transition from all that into your time for writing? Tell us something about your writing regime.

HÉLÈNE:  My ideal writing regime is to write every night. In reality it’s more cyclical, with periods of more intense writing, and times where I write much less.
Regardless, I have notepads I carry with me, where I write things down throughout the day. I also have a notebook by my bed, where I write my dreams in the morning.

JAMIE: Congratulations on your many awards including most recently the Pinnacle Book Award for Best Bilingual Book of Poetry for Life in Suspension. What made you decide to do bilingual collections?

HÉLÈNE: It was my first publisher’s idea and it was brilliant. French is my native language and English is my fifth but it has become my language of choice. So I mostly write in English now. Translating my poems into French, my mother tongue, helped me tremendously because I made some beautiful, creative discoveries and revised the English in the process. It’s become a dance between the two languages.

JAMIE: Congratulations on being a Translation judge for the PEN Center USA Literary Awards. What can you tell us about the experience?

HÉLÈNE:  I was very honored to serve as a Translation judge for the PEN Center USA Literary Awards, along with Hilary Kaplan and André Naffis-Sahely. I’ve been a member and supporter of PEN Centre USA and PEN America for many years. PEN champions “the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world.” Their goal is “to ensure that people everywhere have the freedom to create literature, to convey information and ideas, to express their views, and to make it possible for everyone to access the views, ideas, and literatures of others.” As for PEN Center USA, its “mission is to stimulate and maintain interest in the written word, to foster a vital literary culture, and to defend freedom of expression domestically and internationally.” We judged work produced or published by writers living west of the Mississippi River in all genres: poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Two works really stood out: Forbidden Pleasures: New Selected Poems, Stephen Kessler’s gorgeous translation of Luis Cernuda – the winner -, and Woman in Battle Dress, Jessica Powell’s stunning translation of the bold novel by Antonio Benítez-Rojo, which was one of the finalists.

JAMIE: Among other works you translated Walt Whitman into French. How – if at all – the experience of translating your own work differ from translating the work of others?

HÉLÈNE:  With my own work I feel freer to make changes to the original, because I’m only accountable to myself.

JAMIE: Who is the poet (or poets) who have most influenced you?

HÉLÈNE: I’ve been writing poetry since I was ten. Growing up I read poetry and plays and devoured novels. I read all the classics like Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas. I loved Balzac. I read most of The Human Comedy. It is composed of a series of stories and novels, some historical like The Chouans (which remains one of my favorite with Old Goriot, Cousin Bette, The Lily of the Valley and The Wild Ass’s Skin) mostly depicting French society in the first half of the 19th century. The genius of it is that characters reappear from novel to novel and the reader keeps asking for more. I enjoyed the French playwrights Molière, Racine, Marivaux and de Musset, the Spanish playwrights Calderón de la Barca, Lope de Vega and Lorca, and Shakespeare of course. I discovered English literature and started spending my summers in England and Wales studying English philology. I would later discover Henry James and fall in love with him the same way I fell in love with Balzac.

Some of my favorite poets, in no particular order, are Anna Akhmatova, Mallarmé, Rilke, H.D., Emily Dickinson, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Aragon, Alberti, Lorca, Neruda, Machado, Cernuda, Breton, Cocteau, Robin Coste Lewis, Lee Upton, Éluard, Blake, Rumi, Yeats, Marie Ponsot, David Mason, Hafiz, David Wagoner, Louise Glück, Dorianne Laux, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Lao Tzu, Sharon Olds, Geoffrey Hill, Thomas McCarthy, Rita Dove, Wisława Szymborska, Warsan Shire, Heather McHugh, Chase Twichell, Seamus Heaney, Mary Oliver, Larry Levis, Hart Crane, and John FitzGerald.

JAMIE: Our readers have a strong interest in poetry as a healing agent, as witness to the human condition. In what ways do you feel your poetry fills these needs?

HÉLÈNE:  For me, poetry is a process of self-revelation, an exploration of hidden dimensions in myself, and it is also at the same time a way to become myself, a process of individuation I try to create throughout my life – a profound experience of the fundamental interconnection of all in the universe. Moreover, writing is cathartic as it extends a search for peace, for serenity, rooted in a desire to transcend and reconcile the fundamental duality I see in life. Ultimately, I seek expansion of consciousness.

helenecardonalis1200pxPOEMS FROM LIFE IN SUSPENSION, La Vie Suspendue (a collection in English and French)

The three poems are shared here with Helene’s permission and are under copyright.

A House Like A Ship

I live in a house like a ship
…..at times on land, at times on ocean.
I will myself into existance
…..surrender, invite grace in.
I heed the call of the siren.
…..On the phantom ship
I don’t know if I’m a wave
…..or cloud, undine or seagull.
Lashed by winds, I cling tight to the mast.
…..Few return from the journey.
I now wear the memory of nothingness
…..a piece of white sail wrapped like skin.

Hélène Cardona
From Life in Suspension (Salmon Poetry, 2016)

Galactic Architect

From the bottom rung of a ladder in the sky
I hang in the void.
Ultramarine is all I need.
Let it be simple,
build a cottage for the spirit
to rest and soar.
I trust, self contained, in equipoise,
resources at my fingertips —
deep-rooted ghosts supporting
the foundation of a throne
to explore and claim whole worlds —
surprised to find you here with me
lighting up my life.

Hélène Cardona
From Life in Suspension (Salmon Poetry, 2016)

Twisting the Moon

Now is the time to know
that all you do is sacred.

We shared the coast of Maine in June,
hundreds of whales, lobster
…..sandwiches, buttermilk pancakes
…….and a room in Bar Harbor with antique tub.
They’re now a cloister of shadows loved,
goldsmith of the music of time.
…..She left when circumstances met.
I dream of offering her strawberries on sacred moons,
healed by the beauty of memories,
…..ready to start over as if knowing nothing.

– Hélène Cardona
From Life in Suspension (Salmon Poetry, 2016)

Hélène’s Amazon page is HERE and her website is HERE.

© Intro, Jamie Dedes © poems, interview responses and book cover art,Hélène Cardona

THE WORDPLAY SHOP: books, tools and supplies for poets, writers and readers

LITERATURE AND FICTION oo Editor’s Picks oo Award Winners oo NY Times Best Sellers