Circle of Dogs by Amandine André, translated by Kit Schluter and Jocelyn Spaar
Review by Joyelle McSweeney
Late April in the small blue Rust Belt city of South Bend, Indiana. Life is stressful and covered with pollen. Naturally, under the rain of bad news and microgametophytes, one’s thoughts turn to revolution, and, specifically, the anti-patriarchal kind. But what will be its shape? How might a non-phallic co-body ‘penetrate’ the center of power in order to destroy it? What might be its methods? What horizon, what “next”, might it bring into view?
"How might a non-phallic co-body ‘penetrate’ the center of power in order to destroy it?"
Some recent anti-patriarchal works of translation feel like blueprints for anti-phallic revolution—including Aase Berg’s Hackers, translated by Johannes Göransson, and Dolores Dorantes’ Style, translated by Jen Hofer. In both those works, patriarchal self-sameness is undermined by a fizzing, multiple, choral or fragmented co-body which, unorganized into a single ‘what’, somehow hacks (Berg) or seeps (Dorantes) into the space of the phallic ‘real’, collapsing or paralyzing it. In both works, the question of what will come ‘next’ continuously refracts like an image from a prism—the future is dazzlingly multiple but never definitively arrives. To bring that nextness into being might be the work of the reader.
Another model is proffered in the bizarre and irresistible short text Circle of Dogs by Amandine André, translated from the French into both English and image by Kit Schluter and Jocelyn Spaar. This work has the drive of dance; the strictly limited vocabulary—arranging and rearranging the terms “dog”, “head” and “words” in severely attenuated syntax—puts the reader through her paces. André asserts in her Preface that rhythm in art is produced by the struggle to “put an end to the master’s reign”: “This rhythm produces a body that members and dismembers itself, an other inside of me.” This ‘body’ could just as well refer to the reader’s body as she is manipulated into and out of the relations of power the text diagrams. The diagrammatic energies of the text become continuous with those forces in the world beyond its brief space, via the vehicle of the reader.
The English text opens:
Dogs. Dogs in the head. Dogs outside. Dogs. In the mouth devouring flesh. Dogs. In the head turn and bark. Dogs. In the head don’t lay the head down. Dogs. Turn and dogs forage and dogs guard. Dogs feast in the head. No more silence. Dogs bark. Dogs growl. Dogs threaten. Gnawing away. The head in the mouths. Clench the head release the head clench the head don’t let go of the head.
Thus the reader is dropped into a dog-world, dogs thudding in the text like a beat or a blow: 400 dogs, 400 blows. Schluter and Spaar have recreated this gesture of the text with exactitude by replicating André’s word order and, like her, omitting articles before these ‘dogs’ so that they cohere into a sometimes singular, sometimes plural force of dogginess. The reader is quickly beaten into the rhythm of the text, beaten into (yes) submission—where a ‘dog’ does not appear at the beginning of the phrase one looks around for it somewhat anxiously (“In the head don’t lay the head down”). The reader takes up the role of ‘head’, beset and later penetrated by dog(s).
In obeying André’s syntax, constricted vocabulary and chary use of articles with a strict scrupulosity, the translators communicate to the readers the text’s essential logic of masochism, a masochism which will allow the bottom to eventually undermine and overcome the top. As André notes in her preface, “all domination is made to be overthrown and is overthrown as soon as the subaltern comes to understand its place, understands that is through it that power manifests, as soon as power can be harnessed to overthrow power.”
Ironically, we can see this overthrow happening on the level of language itself right in this translation. While French is certainly an imperial language, it is no match for the current hegemony of English. Yet, translated into English, André’s Gallic perversity, with its strains of Sade and Bataille, Genet and Artaud, is not blunted but amplified. This is because, in French, verbs reveal their subjects through their conjugation. The unanchored verbs in the above passage, “turn and bark”, “don’t lay the head down”, “Clench the head release the head clench the head don’t let go of the head”, actually indicate, in French, a third person plural subject. Though André does not rewrite ‘chiens’ each time, context confirms the subject to be “dogs”, and the phrases could be rendered, “Dogs turn and bark”, “Dogs clench”, etc. But Schluter and Spaar have chosen to follow Andre’s omitted subject and, in English, the omitted subject converts all these verbs into commands. Thus it is the addressee, the reader, who is implicitly commanded to turn and bark and clench and release. The reader is thus forced to assume her position in André’s theater of dogginess, the theater of dominance and submission, power and overpowering. Just as, in André’s text, underdog eventually subverts dog, so English’s immediately sadistic imperatives are harnessed for André’s eventually antihegemonic ends.
"The reader is thus forced to assume her position in André’s theater of dogginess, the theater of dominance and submission, power and overpowering."
Schluter and Spaar’s bravery in allowing this reversal to happen right in the syntax of the text rather than semantically ‘clarifying’ the translation is to be praised. As the text knifes along it enacts many such upheavals—head, in-dogs and out-dogs, and finally words all take their turn at the ‘top’ and in the ‘in’ of this pack. But there is another level to this translation—the beguiling and unsummarizable a-topologies in the form of drawings by Spaar which punctuate the texts. Here we are flipped out of language. The drawings both perform the text’s involutions and provide alternate means of swallowing (with one’s eyes) the text’s commands. They are also lovely. With no rational syntax or vanishing point, the drawings somehow burrow out of power’s sightlines while concealing their alternate horizons.
This is the ultimate riddle of Circle of Dogs. Its logic is circular. Entities rise and fall. Initially subservient, head figures out how to dominate dog by manipulating words—yet word eventually bests her, as the text’s final phrase suggests. A circle is a closed form, and so Andre’s vision is more fatalistic than Berg’s or Dorantes’s. Yet, paradoxically, it is also an open form because continuous; André’s Circle provides the somehow invigorating lesson that the tools of revolt are always close to hand, and that no defeat is permanent. Rather the struggle is permanent—and continually translating itself into Art’s convulsive rhythm.
This text is sold out, so a free PDF of the complete text is available here.
Joyelle McSweeney is the author of eight books of poetry, drama, fiction and essays. Her most recent books are: The Necropastoral: Poetry, Media, Occults (Goth eco/poetics); Dead Youth, or, the Leaks, a verse play which won the first Leslie Scalapino Prize for Innovative Women Performance Artists; and Percussion Grenade, poems and a play. With Johannes Göransson, she edits Action Books, teaches at Notre Dame, and lives in South Bend, Indiana.