Friday, December 30, 2005

Waukegan, There I Come From

Ray Bradbury, science fiction master and native of my hometown (immortalized as Green Town in his classic Dandelion Wine) once wrote a poem, a hymn rather, an homage to Waukegan, Illinois. The line, lodged forever in my brain at seventeen, "Waukegan, There I come from, and not, my friends, Byzantium" has become a dizzy undercurrent of my daily thought pattern. I will admit that the poem itself causes me to shudder, even this line which I can no more erase from my thought waves, but it has become a part of me, and so has Waukegan and so has Ray. (All right, I've never met Ray, but his nephew did play tuba in the high school orchestra at the same time as I did.)
Decades later, I am sitting in the Swedish equivalent of a bistro, located just off Odengatan (the old gods were big with the Stockholm city planners a hundred-odd years ago). Swedish author Niklas Rådström is sitting across the table and we are talking literature, translation, and my recent translations of his poems. It was the first time we had met face-to-face, and it felt a bit odd for me, as I was a total newcomer to the translation scene and Rådström's reputation was well-established in Sweden. Then I asked about the writer who had influenced him most when he was starting out, and he said, to my surprise, "Ray Bradbury."
"Ray Bradbury? He's from my hometown."
"Really? I don't believe it. My translator comes from Bradbury's hometown! Bradbury should win the Nobel Prize. His prose is beautiful, so poetic."
"Though his poetry, well..." I said, and then quoted the quote that rattles my brain.
We went back and forth on Bradbury's novels, returning to Dandelion Wine.
"That one, I think, influenced my writing the most in the beginning," said Niklas. "When I was a teenager."
"Your trilogy does remind me of his work," I said. "The poetic and the scientific combined in a memoir, minus some of the more science-fictiony aspects."
As I left the bisto, I wondered. Did Rådström like my translations of his poetry because Ray and I spoke the same Waukegani dialect, and this way of thinking, this way of writing words in a string until the prose becomes poetry is as much a part of my molecular system as the water of Lake Michigan? Or was I drawn to translate Rådström's work because he had created a Swedish way of writing Waukegani-style?
I know one thing: Bradbury loved Waukegan with a passion that he would not hide, and Rådström also loves Stockholm, loves its bistros, its neon, its building facades, its birds and trees and the people who inhabit its cinemas and restaurants.
It's the love, the thing that matters most in art. Without it, style be damned.
Waukegan, there I come from....

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