Taking in talkbacks during spring cleaning (part 1)

As the executor of my mother’s estate (and also as the child able to work remotely), I spent a lot of time in Kentucky in 2008. Berea did not have a public library when I was growing up, and I was tickled that it had since acquired a branch that circulated not only books but fishing rods. (Nashville’s has a waitlist for ukelele kits, by the way).

A downtown Richmond bookshop (Paperback Exchange) had been a lodestone of my teen years: the proprietor made a point of saving Dorothy L. Sayers novels for me, and I picked up my copies of Religio Medici and Donne’s poems there as well. I think it was already gone by 1999. At any rate, at a different firetrap in Berea, I picked up a book of French fables and an anthology of Chinese poetry in between obtaining quotes on carpet and recaulking the bathtub.

I opened Sunflower Splendor last night to pick a subject line for my personal blog, and came across this pair, 122 pages and 550-odd years apart:

Su Shih [aka Su Tung-p’o], “Bathing the Infant”

Most people expect their sons to be clever,
My whole life was ruined by cleverness.
I only wish my son to be dull and stupid
And without suffering or hardship to reach the highest rank.

[translated by Chiang Yee; there’s also a 1918 translation in the POETRY magazine archives, and the original title translates to “third day” (the timing of the bathing ritual)]

Ch’ien Ch’ien-yi, “A Rebuttal of [Su] Tung-p’o’s Poem on ‘Bathing the Infant,’ Written on the Ninth Day of the Ninth Month in the year I-ssu [1629]”

Master Tung-p’o, in raising children, was afraid of their being clever;
All my life I was ruined because I was dull and dumb.
I still wish my son to be born cagey and cunning,
So he could drill through heaven and earth to attain the highest rank.

[To be continued . . .]

Like 2020

Like, A.E. Stallings, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018

This year was not like many others. And A.E. Stallings’ book of poems, Like, though published two years ago, feels deeply relevant.

The titular poem is a sestina whose endword is “like”. Usually a sestina would have six endwords—and Stallings certainly throws in “dislike” and “unlike” and “alike”—but “like” falls into so many different buckets of speech that you cannot hear the repetition as overwhelming. It’s wonderful to see Stallings’ poetry, often on subjects so removed from contemporary life, bent beautifully into such slang and modernity. The poem includes commentary on what words like “like” do to language, while perhaps exhibiting what “like” does as language, but it read to me, in 2020, as a comment on giving in to peer pressure. In some ways, this year, the only way to reach a friend was the “like” mechanism of social media—but if I truly liked them, I wouldn’t want to endanger them by passing on the coronavirus, and so I would restrict my interactions with them to safe ones, like “like”.

Stallings, of course, is a masterful poet, and so, as in “Like, the Sestina,” every poem in the book is full of musical language accumulated and arrayed to help the reader peer deeper into life, be that physical or emotional or historical. The epigraph for “The Rosehead Nail” tells us the poem’s setting is a blacksmithing demonstration. In the first line, a boy asks if the smith can forge a nail. “He was a god / Before anachronism” and so he makes not simply a nail, but crowns it with a rose. The surprise of the boy’s request, the surprise of the smith’s response, the way in which Stallings draws Hephaestus into the smith’s description, the possibility that the nail is more than a nail with which the poem ends, the simplicity and apparent ease stayed with me.

Other domestic poems revel more obviously in their musicality. In “Cast Irony”, Stallings writes

Who scrubbed this iron skillet
In water, with surfactant soap,
Meant to cleanse, not kill it,

But since its black and lustrous skin
Despoiled of its enrobing oils,
Dulled, lets water in,

Now it is vulnerable and porous
As a hero stripped of his arms
Before a scornful chorus.

The digression into discussion of the Bronze Age warrior seems in line with much of Stallings translations of epic Greek poems, and yet the imagery is put to use as the poem progresses to comment on what is traditionally women’s work (cooking, washing) and a mother-daughter relationship. (And how wonderful is the poet who can throw “surfactant soap” into a poem without blinking?)

“The Stain,” too, is a domestic poem with short lines that emphasize its music (rhyming, in this case). The short lines cause the reader to race down the page and the accusatory tone of the language anthropomorphizes an object usually overlooked, adding to the poem’s interest. “It will not out,” the poem says, recalling every famous stain in literature. Stallings closes the poem with such prophetic fervor that I despair for the option to throw out the clothing, as I would throw out 2020:

What they suspect
The stain will know,
The stain records
What you forget.

If you wear it,
It will show;
If you wash it,
It will set.

Diving further into INTO ENGLISH

Turkish is an agglutinative language. That is to say, a word’s meaning can be elaborated on and added to by the attachment of suffixes. In fact, there is a single word in Turkish that can express the following English sentence: “You are not one of those who can be turned into a New Yorker.” Here it is: Nevyorklulustiramadiklarimizdansiniz.

— Sidney Wade, commenting on translations of Yahya Kemal Beyath’s “Gece” (Night)

It has been said that Russians believe everything can be translated into their language and nothing can be translated out of it; and wihle they cite Pasternak’s Shakespeare as a paragon of translation, his own poems are deemed untouchable.

— J. Kates, commenting on translations of Boris Pasternak’s Гамлет (Hamlet)

In the middle of comparing “the vocation for eternity” with “the vocation of eternity” and “the calling of the eternal” in translations of Sophia Mello Breyner Andresen’s “A pequena praça” (The Small/Little Square), Alexis Levitin writes:

Let me mention, parenthetically, that one of the greatest challenges for the translator lies in those pesky, elusive, mercurial little words that inhabit all idiomatic expressions and try to place us all in time and space. Prepositions are the tiny stumbling blocks that we translators, again and again, beat our shins against.

And then there’s new-to-me words from someone who wrote other words I have long loved . . .

I, who use just a small part
of the words in the dictionary.

I, who must solve riddles despite myself,
know that were God not full of mercy,
there would be mercy in the word
and not just in Him.

Yehuda Amichai, “אל מלא רחמים” (God Full of Mercy), translated by Robert Alter

(I’ve linked Amichai’s name to a page with a recording of him reciting the poem in English and Hebrew. So far, I like his own rendition the best.)

Returning to Fields and Gardens

I requested Into English: Poems, Translations, Commentaries (Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2017) after reading Marissa Lingen’s capsule review. This anthology (edited by Martha Collins and Kevin Prufer) is indeed my kind of thing: twenty-five poems in a variety of languages, from Ancient Greek to Haitian Creole, accompanied by three translations, followed by an essay about those translations by another translator who sometimes adds their own. I remember almost nothing about the Aristotle class I took in college with the late Eugene Gendlin, but his advice to consult more than one translation of any text when possible has stayed with me throughout the years.

Interlibrary Loan finally wants the book back. I was able to keep it long past the original due date because of the pandemic, so there was time for it to accumulate some of the bookmarks that populate many of the other volumes in the house:

book + kittens book + kittens

So, what were some of the things I wanted to remember?

page 8: “History doesn’t only efface a text – it also builds ever-changing scaffolds of meaning around what is left.” —Karen Emmerich, commenting on translations of Sappho fragments (98a and 98b)

page 22:

“Returning to the Farm to Dwell” is a landmark poem by Tao Qian (365–427). It is the first in a series of five poems and celebrates a return to a simple life in the countryside. For over a decade, Tao Qian worked as a government official, but he felt constrained and grew increasingly dissatisfied. In 405, Tao Qian retired to the countryside, where he farmed, planted chrysanthemums, drank wine, and wrote poetry. In cultivating his spirit, he became one of the early, great dropouts in the tradition of Chinese poetry.

—Arthur Sze

page 20:

From early days I have been at odds with the world;
My instinctive love is hills and mountains.

—the beginning of James Hightower’s 1970 translation

pages 20–23:

Returning to Fields and Gardens I

“By mischance I fell into the dusty net / And was thirteen years away from home.” —Hightower

“I erred and fell in the snares of dust / and was away thirteen years in all.” —Stephen Owen (1996)

“I stumbled into their net of dust, that one / departure a blunder lasting thirteen years.” —David Hinton (2008)

In all three translations, it’s worth pointing out differences in the poem’s numbers. . . . In line 4, all three translators choose to ignore the literal text, which clearly says “thirty years,” and use “thirteen years” instead. Hightower asserts that thirty years makes no sense; that the time of government service was probably close to thirteen years, and so he transposes the “ten” and the “three” (ten plus three, instead of three times ten). Owen and Hinton follow suit.

In contrast to these translations, I chose to retain “thirty years” and want to offer a justification. First, the text clearly says “thirty years”—no one disputes that—and, although thirty years is not literally true, there’s a figurative justification for it. “Thirty years” has shock value, and it’s also justifiable in that one can conceive of thirty years as half a lifetime. In Chinese astrology, there are twelve zodiac creatures and five elements (wood, earth, air, fire, water), so one cycle with each of the five elements requires sixty years. That cycle can be seen as a completed lifetime. I take Tao Qian’s phrase to mean that once one departs from the true path, it may take half a lifetime to discover it.

When I was young, I did not fit in
with others, and simply loved the hills and mountains.
By mistake, I fell into the dusty net
and before I knew it, it was thirty years! . . .

—Sze

Speaking of nets, it’s time for me to apply my own analytic powers to other people’s English and Spanish, so the rest of the sticky notes and scraps will have to wait for some other day.

relativity

[third attempt]

When you have literally watched both your parents die, and tenderly tended to your honorary parents on their deathbeds, you can forgive yourself for getting drunk on a Monday-Tuesday night because the anguish keeps you from falling asleep. You write dozens of postcards to voters while listening to Szell and then Muti conduct Beethoven’s 9th, which you have longed to sing for more than 30 years but have never been in the right place at the right time.

It is okay. Your poetry career is currently taking a back seat to the day job and doing dishes and doing your part to help save the republic, but you are also dipping into your copy of Raymond Carver’s collected poems when your head is in the right place, and your minister has on file that you want Carver’s “Late Fragment” printed in the program for your memorial service. You know that your odds of reaching the other side of the flattened curve are not great, given your history of respiratory distress. You recognize that you will be attending funerals on Zoom before a vaccine becomes widely available, but you also participated in a wedding-qua-namechange-ceremony Sunday afternoon with a friend you’ve known since 1985, and wasn’t that a fine thing? Your parents grew up in poverty, under martial law, and your now-demented aunt refuses to speak Mandarin because Chiang Kai-Shek’s goons murdered all the intellectuals when they fled China. You have the gift and curse of perspective. You will write more songs if you live long enough. You are crying as you type this, and you would be even if you had sipped only water for the past twenty hours. You have far too many ghosts making demands on you, but they also drive you to care more deeply and speak more truly sooner to the people who are still here. Which is ultimately what you hope for with your poetry, so it is okay that right now it expresses itself in haphazard emails and postcards rather than haiku and iambic pentameter. We will find our way back into form if we live long enough. And if we don’t, we will still know ourselves beloved on the earth when we draw our last breath.

my head’s a beach full of footprints

The subject line is from Bert Meyers’s “Homecoming, 1969,” which appears in a 1971 anthology titled Just What the Country Needs, Another Poetry Anthology (James McMichael and Dennis Saleh, eds.), which I bought for $1.98 from (IIRC) a mess of a shop in Kentucky some years ago.

Some of the poems in the anthology have not aged well. There are some household names in the the mix, but I bought the book mainly because the title made me laugh, and because a quick skim suggested that I’d find at least a handful of kernels amid the chaff. I slid a paper clip onto page 68 a while back so that I could return to these lines by Galway Kinnell:

“And in the days
when you find yourself orphaned,
emptied
of all wind-singing, of light,
the pieces of cursed bread on your tonuge,

may there come back to you
a voice,
spectral, calling you
sister!
from everything that dies.

And then
you shall open
this book, even if it is the book of nightmares.”

I am a heap of half-detangled memories at the moment, truth be told. I am getting ready to ship some old yearbooks, clippings, awards, and the like to the archivist at my grade school — the main emotion is relief, as it didn’t feel right to toss them into the trash, but I want the space for what interests me now — but as with far less significant belongings, there’s some mourning and wistfulness in the letting go.

I don’t care for the Philip Dacey poems in Just What the Country Needs, but Night Shift at the Crucifix Factory is across the hall and Strong Measures in the next room, and I first encountered his writing in a Paul Janeczko anthology in high school; tonight I learned that he had been a teacher at Southwest Minnesota State at the same time as my dad, which means we actually lived in the same county for a while. The overlap doesn’t mean anything, and yet I’m a tiny bit pleased to add that tiny detail to my mental file folder.

I looked up Meyers’s bio and obit as well, having not heard of him before: one could do worse than to be remembered as cantankerous and compelling.

I shall write more (both here and in general) in 2020, I hope. But I don’t intend to lose sleep over it, although owning probably a couple dozen anthologies (at a very rough guess — not counting the ones I’m in, even) is effectively keeping a warren full of rabbit holes. Mentally revisiting the store in Kentucky (which I may well be confusing with some other dusty middle-of-nowhere maze-shed in North Carolina) had me thinking about other shops there: I’m pleased to see that Hot Flash Beads is still in business. That’s a good note to end this ramble on.

September is here…

… and, it being the rare First Sunday I could sleep in, I did, and that was delicious. So is the tomato jam a friend canned last summer, which I have put on an English muffin.

A hummingbird explored trying to get in through the left kitchen window earlier in the hour, and I startled a deer when I flung my old pie weights (umpteen-year-old white beans that had become too smelly during last week’s baking) into the compost heap.

September is here, and I inevitably reread Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal during the month. Nazlan Ertan has a fine take on both the love and politics that make it moving (and, in where the politics are concerned, resonate anew, in ways that do not bode well). I have just ordered Autumn Sequel, which for some reason hadn’t stayed on my radar before (perhaps because I was more attuned to other themes when I picked up the biography of MacNeice I read sometime during the last decade). I still own Rosamunde Pilcher’s The Shell Seekers, the novel that introduced me to “September has come and it is hers …” to begin with.

Needing space and cash, I put all my Pilchers except Shell Seekers and Flowers in the Rain into the resale bag some while ago, deeming those two volumes sufficient for future comfort reads. Shell Seekers is more satisfying than say, Coming Home in part because the characters’ touchstones are better integrated. Fond as I am of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” it isn’t integrated into Coming Home‘s central love story as deftly as “September” appears and reappears in The Shell Seekers. Which is to say, just twice in both cases, but in The Shell Seekers, they really count.

Ironically, as a professional editor, I periodically have to discourage authors from quoting from songs or poems, because publication schedules often preclude securing the reproduction rights in time. (“Fair use” doesn’t cover squat where commercial works are concerned.) It makes me sad in part because fiction has so often served as the gateway to poems that now run deep in my veins. Becoming hooked on Dorothy L. Sayers as a teenager led me to John Donne. The stories of Sherlock Holmes (which were responsible for my becoming interested in Sayers, after WEKU broadcast a dramatization of Strong Poison in the slot formerly reserved for the Holmes tales) were where I first encountered certain lines of Shakespeare (chief among them “Journeys end in lovers meeting”).

I just spent the better part of an hour happily revisiting Bill Richardson’s “Bachelor Brothers” trilogy, which was published in the 1990s. As Richardson himself observed, the first book did well and the sequels not so much — with reason, I have to say. I myself found the Solomon Solomon subplot more tedious than entertaining. But all three books contain gems both in the way of funny-moving vignettes and choice quotations, and they introduced me to Margaret Atwood’s “Variation on the Word sleep” and Charles Mackay’s “I have lived and I have loved.”

In quoting the Mackay, Richardson wisely includes only the first ten lines; the poem wouldn’t have gripped me as it did (nor worked within the story it was stitched into) had the final quatrain been present. My subsequent search for the original ended up being a mini-saga — it is not in de la Mare’s Come Hither (which I own, thanks to Richardson’s alluding to it), and it wasn’t until 2015 and an inspired online search that I learned who had written it (and that it is in a different de la Mare anthology).

You could infer from all this that sleep — and well-deserved rest — has been much on my mind lately. Two mentor-friends passed away earlier this year, and I just received an unexpected bequest from a third. All three had lived long, productive lives, and were generous to me with attention and encouragement:

  • David Bevington
  • Nancy Ransom
  • Susan Z. Diamond
  • Not unrelated to all this is a piece Richardson published this year on having “used to be someone” who is now — happily — a part-time dishwasher. I think of my conversations with several friends (especially Joanne) about the jobs we accept and/or choose based on how they balance with our writing and publishing (a)vocations. I’m in the camp of being happiest with a corporate job where the metrics, performance reviews, and compensation operate in tandem with the prowess of my left brain (one of my favorite responses EVER to my editing has been a colleague muttering that I had no poetry in my soul), because the writing’s way more fun for me when it’s separate from what I professionally have to do. That said, there are also those nights where what I’m writing becomes something I have to do before my hamster brain will let me sleep, and then of course I run into the age-old problem of the day job’s demands draining from me some of the energy and stamina that would likely make good writing crystallize sooner (not to mention missed ops and faltering sparks — I look back at my relationships with David, Nancy, and Susan, and in all three cases wish I had done a better job with various projects, proposals, and paths they had a hand in. The lyf so short, the craft so longe to lerne…). And it’s not just the day job, but the aging house, the aching body, the ongoing friendships to tend (and sometimes mend), and one’s own need for sleep amid the piles on the counter and the porch to attend to.

    (I will make my next post here about something other than Ars longa, vita brevis. I promise.)

    Why Is Soft Science So Hard? [Response]

    Soft Science, Franny Choi, Alice James Books, 2019

    Soft Science by Franny Choi is a collection of poetry focused on the effect of technology and technology-in-media on contemporary lives. One of the threads running through the book is the comparison—and sometimes blurring—of cyborg and women as shaped things molded by the society that uses them. The poems respond vehemently and sometimes violently to Othering in many forms; this is part of what makes the book so powerful and so important. The book is organized according to multiple (imagined) versions of the Turing Test, allowing the speaker (a cyborg? a woman?) to self-express and also to refute the shapes and molds imposed on them. It is representative and slightly a summing-up that the first line of the second poem reads “// this is a test to determine if you have consciousness”.

    But I’m writing this more as a personal response than a review; hopefully the above gives you an idea of whether you’d like to look at the poems for yourself. I picked up the book based on the cover and the title; I want to read poetry about science. The first poem is presented in the form of a table, yes, columns, rows, headers, lines separating each entry and boxing them in. I bought the book because I was completely flummoxed about how to read this as a poem and because I really thought this is the kind of thing I should be reading, all the themes presented are important to me—and when I scanned the table of contents I saw a poem titled “Everyone Knows That Line and Ogres and Onions, but Nobody Asks the Beast Why Undressing Makes Her Cry” and how could I not read that?

    As I progressed through the poems, I learned that Choi has a wonderful ear for alliteration, consonance, and rhyme, and that she uses full and partial rhymes and homonyms to propel her poems forward. It’s wonderful. I loved how over and over the poems take commonplace phrases and play with them, rewriting them, a word at a time, to build into something completely new, or simply casting a different light on the meaning of the phrase by giving it different context. Many many of the poems sing exactly how I love poems to sing.

    But I still have no idea how to read a poem without lineation but with slashes, such as each of the Turing Test poems, such as this bit from the second poem:

    // why do you insist on lying

    I’m an open book / you can rifle through my pages / undress me anywhere / you can read / anything you want / this is how it happened / i was made far away / & born here / after all the plants died / after the earth was covered in white / i was born among the stars / i was born in a basement / i was born miles beneath the ocean / i am part machine / part starfish / part citrus / part girl / part poltergeist / i rage & all you see / is broken glass / a chair sliding toward the window / now what’s so hard to believe / about that

    By the end of the book, I had given up trying to assign meaning to lineation in the poems that used it. I confess, that made them much easier to read, less probing and confusion, more emphasis on the words, but I keep coming back to the fact that lineation is the main difference between poetry and prose and if it means something the reader can’t understand, then what good is it? One could argue that “understanding” and “having an effect” are different things, and I would agree, but I would have liked something for the effort I exerted.

    So, I am very glad to have read Choi’s work and will look for more of it, but, personally, I am even more confused about how to read a poem.

    too early for Happy Lamb

    [July 14]

    Something I like about travel is that it kicks my “everything can become a subject line or poem seed” mindset into a higher gear. I’d thought about stopping by Happy Lamb Hot Pot on my way to South Station, but it doesn’t open on Sundays until noon, and I’d already used up my cutting-things-close quotient yesterday, when I capped my 79-hour work week by setting off alarms at the Southwest kiosk by checking my luggage in late. One failed geocaching attempt and beer request later (Tavern in the Square being out of Lord Hobo Brewing Boom [sic] Sauce, I’m chilling out with tortilla soup, a pint of Devil’s Purse Pollock IPA, and the ideal pair of screens (Federer-Djokovic next to the departing train list) in front of me:

    tennis at South Station

    [July 21]

    … and I was not so chill as Federer came oh-so-close to winning the championship. It was fun, though, to watch and listen to the other occupants of the bar cheer and moan in response to the rallies, the aces, and the misses, and as the set stretched on, the clusters of onlookers on three sides of the bar thickened:

    tennis at South Station

    The night before, I’d ended up walking past St. James the Greater twice on my way from the Silver Line stop to the hostel. [It was past midnight by the time I reached the hostel, I had a 1 p.m. train to catch, and (as feared) I was running on fumes with work still in tow, so I didn’t try to meet up with any friends this round.] That said, if I hadn’t been hauling two weeks’ worth of clothes and music/dance paraphernalia with me, I still might have been tempted to wander around until 2 a.m., to see more and take notes. (One trickle of people included several Asian women holding armfuls of flowers, reminding me of the pageant contestants I spotted two Mays ago in San Francisco, during another walk that ended up being less straightforward than planned.)

    Instead, I scribbled a few lines to myself in Bunk #4 before sacking out and, over two bagels and a bowl of coffee, wrestle-teased them into the start of something more:

    the start of a poem

    the start of a poem

    the start of a poem

    I’ll return to it in August, perhaps. Right now I’m at the Amherst Early Music Festival, and it’s wrenching enough having to choose among things I can enjoy only while here (practicing on lutes and harpsichords in particular), pursuits that would arguably provide larger returns were I to devote myself more fully to them (e.g., building vocal and keyboard chops), time with people, time with trees, time in/on water, time on postcards (to voters, decision-makers, and others),
    and so on. And, like on Friday, sometimes the right move is to nap instead of practice, even when one feels woefully underprepared for, say, playing quartets. Or to seek out a keyboard in a nearly empty building long after nightfall instead of attending a party. Sometimes I feel pangs about the many details that will evaporate from my memory sooner than later because I’m not journaling like I used to — but, even back then, there were poems I started and then lost momentum on. There’s a sliver of me that hasn’t let go of finishing the one about the Christian Science Center pool, keeping company with the Past Mes who put her feet wrong every which where — including just yesterday. (The good thing is that as I get older I have gotten a smidge faster at getting over myself.)

    Surrounding all this, of course, is delight and wonder. I’m mopping my face and neck and cleavage every three minutes, and the little breezes that do make it through my open window feel all the more divine. Someone down the hall is playing their violin. Most of the faculty members and many of the students are accomplished musicians. There are heart-tugging phrases in the Rameau pieces I’ve been inflicting on the harpsichords, and there are encounters with, say, bass recorders that look like contemporary public art:

    faculty concert

    I hadn’t planned on drafting any new poetry during this trip, what with the intensity/immersive pace I knew to expect, so to have a poem insist on getting started — those three pages above — that too is a gift.