“Makes us stranger in a place we thought was home”: The Untranslation of John Pluecker’s Ford Over

Nathan Stabenfeldt

Ford Over is a collection of word and image from writer, interpreter, and translator John Pluecker that takes as its source material the language of colonial explorers and cartographers—travelers through a place we’ve come to call Texas. Pluecker begins by adopting the role of archivist, gathering old maps, journals, sketches of landscapes and chronicles, assembling a body of work to serve as source text. But what follows is not rote historical reconstruction, an attempt to return to some separate source; rather, the remnant texts are divorced from their referents, shedding their initial purposes as signs to become their own landscapes to be surveyed by the poems born and borne out of them.

The result is a flattening, an emptying, an untranslation that attempts to erase the violent act of attaching word to object. Pastoral sketches become undiscovered landscapes in themselves, landscapes that the reader charts with the speaker of the poems as traveling companion. Pluecker takes care to capture within the language of the poem every detail of the sketch taken as its subject, much to the same end as the original cartographer. Through the poems, we enter a world—not of rock, dirt, and trees—but one constructed from graphite and ink. As in “Here, Hold My Hand”:

            Fellow, see there to the right, the shapes degrade. These are                 marks on paper and we are also marks of paper. Yes, look: a                    series of marks on this paper. You can tell this was                                      manufactured, look at the skill of even a shadow trailing off                   the small structure to the right.

Pluecker sustains this dedication throughout the body of Ford Over. Texts become rivers whose currents flow across pages; words engage in their own pilgrimages across digital scans of maps; an anti-glossary disrupts a translation project by erasing the words of the dominant language to leave the alien language in its native state unknown. Spanish and English live within the same poems, often coexisting without translation or corollary. These poems destabilize the power dynamics bound up in the very essence of our language-selves, and through these undiscoveries Pluecker does “teach [us] to ferry well.”

Through these poems, we enter a two-dimensional space: literally ford over from the land to the page. And in our exit, the landscapes previously colonized through documentation can return to a state that is pre-language, or at the very least, pre-our language. The tragedy here is that such a state is inaccessible to us; to return to the land is to bring our language back to bear, to rediscover the old words placed on the land before us. Pluecker is keen to this dilemma, as he notes in “A Reckoning: Note To Aid The Un-Discoverer” that “All of this will have been provisional then. Provisional notes. A trace of process. All the layers not visible.” If the project is to undo some of the violence inherent in the act of naming, then the only way to remove our language is to remove ourselves with it. By repurposing historical surveys of the land from sign to referent, Pluecker frees that land from the language of colonization, but at the cost of our relationship to it. And since this detachment is untenable, we return. Otherwise we erase ourselves, or, as Pluecker concludes, we die in the crossing.