My Translation of “Untitled” by Grace Hartigan- Turning a Painting into a Poem

Into the Fields

Originally ‘Untitled’ by Grace Hartigan

Translated by Mady Neal


Into the fields there came a soul called Ada

The fruit of a mediocre American Dream

Parting before her feet

Like that one ancient body of water.

This young woman

Had, earlier that day, fled the confines of Mother’s rule

By fear of responsibility

And want of perks generally reserved for men.  

There she would stay, this outcast called Ada,

In the shade of an intuitive red barn

And light a cigarette-

Because that seemed to be the thing to do.


Into the fields there came a soul called Ada

Inhaling quiet felicity

Exhaling anxiety,

Hoping to more easily avoid expectation labelled ‘duty’

Than the 600*

Who rode into the valley of Death

And were left to do and die-

Just as they had been told.


Into the fields there came a soul called Ada

Whose profoundly premature principles

Convinced her to fly

From a golden sky

And a dried up pond

And a family lacking in love aside rudimentary financial devotion

And a belief system unaltered by progress.


Into the fields there came a soul called Ada

Remembered always in summers past

Though unknown to the individual heads of grain

Sprouting new every year,

Never having heard told of the gentle creature that preceded them

But nevertheless feeding off of cigarette butts and tobacco residue that lingered there.


Into the fields there came a soul called Ada.

Leave her where her body lay

So that from her ashes grow barley and bean

Roots take their place from her chestnut hair

No longer sheltered by the welcoming exterior of a kind old structure

That lay, a pile of red-scratched wood

Without a skeleton.

But to her soul, reserve

A more ethereal abode-

One which she had never truly left:


Into the fields there came a soul called Ada.

Resting finally in a cushion of grass stalks

That were her refuge

In life and in death

When she could not rely on maternal affection

To protect her from objectification

And disappointed hopes

And child-bearing hips

And growing up in order to be sold off.


Into the fields there came a soul called Ada:

The fruit of a mediocre American Dream,

Inhaling in quiet felicity.

Whose profoundly premature principles

Remembered always in summers past-

Leave her where her body lay,

Resting finally in a cushion of grass stalks.  


Into the fields there lies a soul called Ada, evermore.


*”The Charge of the Light Brigade”, Poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson

Translator’s Note: ‘Into the Fields’ is a poem derived and translated from ‘Untitled’, a painting by Grace Hartigan.  The predominately warm colors of Hartigan’s art were ultimately contrasted by vivid, yet dark, purples- a reminder of the balance in life between light and dark.  The ultimate comparison being that of life and death or right and wrong- which are equally explored in my interpretation.  In my own attempts at translating the original creation, I kept coming back to the figure of a woman, fading until she seemingly became nothing more than the fields themselves.  It is in this way that I have captured my own focus; ‘Into the fields there came a soul called Ada’ which was repeated throughout the translated poem, as well as demonstrating the possible reasoning for which the creature in the painting appears so forlorn and frail.
In short, translating this visual piece, for me, was the equivalent of climbing a mountain; beginning at the bottom tier and grasping for any helpful hint as to how to climb the rest of your way to the summit.  Nevertheless, you do eventually find yourself standing a bit higher on its slope and begin to see the formation of a reasonable explanation as to the original author’s intentions- just as, initially one can see preceding footsteps through the snow.  While ascending and, inevitably tripping and sliding back down (exactly like the expression ‘one step forward, two steps backward’) you manage to make progress anyway.  The falls become less frequent and less painful when they do occur, as you now have the necessary tools to pick yourself up immediately and try a different route.  It isn’t until reaching the peak, and seeing not only the steps you took to reach it, but in looking out over the underlying valley, that you can at last understand the immensity of your own journey, and suddenly your own work seems to have been for this precise reason and your exact perspective inevitable; having been not a matter ‘if’, but ‘when’ and ‘how’.


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