Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Rodak's Writings: The Pen

Way back when,
just before Cardinal Kinderbumpsen
became the Pope in Rome,
I use to wait in the wee hours for an angel
who came to perch way up atop
the steeple of the Presbyterian church
down on Lonely Street.

She’d come on the occasion of a new moon.

And so long as she stayed up there
the clear glass windows of that building
became the most gloriously glowing
stained glass masterpieces
that ever graced the walls of a church.

But that was then.

Did you know that “pen” originally just meant “feather?”
That’s when I came to know that mourning angels molt.

And that’s how I got my pen.
And that’s why I wrote this poem.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

R.I.P. - Pete Seeger

Today, as the bitter cold rests over the land, we learn of the passing of folk music's patron saint, Pete Seeger. The 'sixties could not have happened as they did without him. He will long be remembered.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Readings: The Poetry of Yu Xuanji


My Facebook friend, Aliki Barnstone, is the co-editor of the anthology, A Book of Women Poets fromAntiquity to Now, which I have borrowed from the Alden Library at Ohio University.  It is a huge book, and, after perusing it with great interest, I decided to ask Aliki this:

“If I were to ask you to recommend one poet from your anthology of women poets from antiquity to the present whose work I probably don't know, who would that poet be? And, if I asked you to recommend one poet from that anthology to study in depth, regardless of the likelihood of my knowing that poet's work, would that be a different woman?”

Aliki’s response to the initial part of that two-part question was this:

“…the poet Yu Xuanji, translated by Geoffrey Waters - that might be the one you don't know.”

While she also generously answered the second part of the question, giving me plenty of names, several of which I was well aware of, and several more that I will need to check out in the future, I decided to start at the beginning, with Yu Xuanji.

Indeed, Aliki was correct: I did not know of Yu Xuanji. I own several books containing Chinese poetry in English translation, but none of them included the works of Yu Xuanji. I went online to search the Alden Library catalog for “Waters, Geoffrey” and could not find a listing for his translations of the recommended poet. I next searched the OhioLink university inter-library loan system catalog, with the same result.

Alden Library does, however, have a translation of the complete poems of Yu Xuanji  entitled, The Clouds Float North; translated by David Young and Jiann I. Lin. So, this morning, I borrowed that. Having done so, I thought that it might be interesting to compare some of Geoffrey Waters’ translations with those of Young and Lin.

Translation, particularly from non-European languages into English, can be a tricky thing. Although I don’t know enough to attempt a learned explanation here, I do know enough to say that Chinese poetics do not work like English poetics, so that literal translations are literally impossible.

Below I will compare two translations of the same poem by Yu Xuanji. You will note that even the two titles of the poem have been translated differently. First, Geoffrey Waters:

Selling Ruined Peonies

Sigh, in the wind fall flowers, their petals dance.
Their secret fragrance dies in spring’s decay.

Too costly: no one bought them.
Too sweet for butterflies.

If these red blooms had grown in a palace
Would they now be stained by dew and dust?

If they grew now in a forbidden garden
Princes would covet what they could not buy.

And now, Young and Lin:

Selling the Last Peonies

Facing the wind makes us sigh
we know how many flowers fall

spring has come back again
and where have the fragrant longings gone?

who can afford these peonies?
their price is much too high

their arrogant aroma
even intimidates butterflies

flowers so deeply red
they must have been grown in a palace

leaves so darkly green
dust scarcely dares to settle there

if you wait till they’re transplanted
to the Imperial Gardens

then you, young lords, will find
you have no means to buy them.

How different these two translations are. Just compare, “Too sweet for butterflies” to “their arrogant aroma / even intimidates butterflies” -- yet both translations convey the extraordinary essence of those last peonies, as experienced by the poet. I am grateful to Aliki Barnstone for turning me on to this wonderful poet and her talented translators.
Here is a link to the Geoffrey Waters article in Wikipedia.

Rodak's Writings: Water Conservation


At 5 a.m. I stand in the shower

breathing steam, soaping the smelly parts.

At head level, above my right shoulder,

a small rectangular window

on the flip-side of which the winter wind

drags crystal-rich sub-zero air moaning

through the frosted boughs of ragged pines.

As I rinse the Head and Shoulders from my thinning hair

I pee into the draining suds water, saving a flush.

When I twist the hot and cold to cut the flow,

Feather the Wonder Cat cries once outside the stall.

She’s been waiting there to lick my legs

as I dry my hair and upper body, employing

my one, semi-crusty, aqua bath towel – a ritual.

The shower was short. The bathroom is chilly.

Yet these simple acts, choreographed by long repetition

and demonstrative of the Will to Hygiene,

disclose as well a stoic assent, on this day, at this hour,

to carry it forward one more time -- with Feather’s approval.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Reflections: Reading Mirabai on a Cold Winter Morning

The temperature has risen, from the 1* F. that I enjoyed in taking out the week's trash, to 3*. The radar map discloses that we rest on the edge of another large field of snow, moving to the east. Relentless winter marches on. I read Mirabai in a warm room, while faithful Feather sleeps nearby.

Friend, I see only the Dark One --
a dark swelling,
dark luster,
I'm fixed in trances of darkness.
Wherever my feet
touch soil I am dancing --
Oh Mira sees into the darkness,
she ambles the back
country roads.

~ Mirabai (Tr. Robert Bly)

Rodak's Writings: Winterscape



No majestic mountains here,
only tiers of rocky hills, hackled up
with scragged pine and deciduous bristle.
A low growling signifies first to the eye.
A high sky bathes the plentiful roadkill
on the salty brown shoulder in useless light.
I am an ancient, brittled by sedimentary regret,
my mossy soul intractably tuned to the icy north.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Readings: from Breakfast of Champions - a meta-strategy of fiction


On page 209 (a little more than 2/3 of the way through) of the first hardback edition of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Breakfast of Champions, he reveals, while speaking as the author--presumably as Kurt Vonnegut--via the ongoing meta-narrative threaded amongst the various subplots, his vision of the connections between fiction, social culture, and history:

            As I approached my fiftieth birthday, I had become more and more enraged and mystified by the idiot decisions made by my countrymen. And then I had come suddenly to pity them, for I understood how innocent and natural it was for them to behave so abominably, and with such abominable results: They were doing their best to live like people invented in story books. This was the reason Americans shot each other so often: It was a convenient literary device for ending short stories and books.
            Why were so many Americans treated by their government as though their lives were as disposable as paper facial tissues? Because that was the way authors customarily treated bit-part players in their made-up tales.
            And so on.
            Once I understood what was making America such a dangerous, unhappy nation of people who had nothing to do with real life, I resolved to shun storytelling. I would write about life. Every person would be exactly as important as any other. All facts would also be given equal weightiness. Nothing would be left out. Let others bring order to chaos. I would bring chaos to order, instead, which I think I have done.
            If all writers would do that, then perhaps citizens not in the literary trades will understand that there is no order in the world around us, that we must adapt ourselves to the requirements of chaos instead.
            It is hard to adapt to chaos, but it can be done. I am living proof of that: It can be done.

It is hard to determine just how embedded was the authorial tongue in the narrative cheek when “the writer” (Vonnegut?) chose those words to describe the technique used in the composition of Breakfast of Champions. It is easier today to see the effects of story-telling on actual behavior through the media of TV, film, and now, especially, in video games. But these are all the offspring of the story book, so Vonnegut’s subjective viewpoint, even if over-simplified, has a certain plausibility, I think.