Author Archive

Rosh Hashanah

Aharon Shabtai

Listen (in Hebrew)

Listen (in English)

Even after the murder
of the child Muhammad on Rosh Hashanah,
the paper didn’t go black.
In the same water in which the snipers
wash their uniforms,
I prepare my pasta,
and over it pour
olive oil in which I’ve browned
pine nuts,
which I cooked for two minutes with dried tomatoes,
crushed garlic, and a tablespoon of basil.
As I eat, the learned minister of foreign affairs
and public security
appears on the screen,
and when he’s done
I write this poem.
For that’s how it’s always been —
the murderers murder,
the intellectuals make it palatable,
and the poet sings.

(translated from the Hebrew by Peter Cole)

For those of us who regularly seek solace in poems, acts of terrorism can be particularly hard to deal with, because (the deluge of poetry written in the aftermath of 9/11 notwithstanding) there just doesn’t seem to be enough good poetry about living with terrorism.

In times like these, I find myself turning to books like  J’Accuse (New Directions 2003), a collection of ‘political’ poems by Hebrew poet Aharon Shabtai. Shabtai’s poems seem matter of fact, even flippant, in tone, but beneath their nonchalance lies a deep groundswell of outrage – an outrage made all the more powerful for being directed impartially against all who traffic in hatred or hold human life cheap, whether Arab or Jew. Shabtai’s voice is the voice of a poet for whom terrorism is a fact of everyday life, and therefore something to be not dismayed by but struggled against. What you hear in Shabtai’s poems is the constant rediscovery of the balance of being human, of learning to endure the horrors of the news without either succumbing to hatred or surrendering to indifference. It is what makes these poems so unexpectedly comforting.

– falstaff

(recording courtesy: PBS)

November 27, 2008 at 8:28 pm 9 comments

Crickets

Aram Saroyan

Listen

crickets
crickets
crickets
crickets
crickets
crickets
crickets
crickets
crickets
crickets
crickets
crickets
crickets
crickets
crickets
crickets
crickets
crickets
crickets
crickets
crickets
crickets
crickets
crickets
crickets
crickets
crickets
crickets
crickets
crickets
crickets
crickets
crickets
crickets
crickets
crickets
crickets
crickets
crickets
crickets
crickets
crickets
crickets
crickets
crickets
crickets

(from Complete Minimal Poems; audio courtesy Ubuweb)

April 24, 2008 at 2:16 am 4 comments

Alle Tage / Every Day

Ingeborg Bachmann

Listen (to Bachmann read)

Der Krieg wird nicht mehr erklärt,
sondern fortgesetzt. Das Unerhörte
ist alltäglich geworden. Der Held
bleibt den Kämpfen fern. Der Schwache
ist in die Feuerzonen gerückt.
Die Uniform des Tages ist die Geduld,
die Auszeichnung der armselige Stern
der Hoffnung über dem Herzen.

Er wird verliehen,
wenn nichts mehr geschieht,
wenn das Trommelfeuer verstummt,
wenn der Feind unsichtbar geworden ist
und der Schatten ewiger Rüstung
den Himmel bedeckt.

Er wird verliehen
für die Flucht von den Fahnen,
für die Tapferkeit vor dem Freund,
für den Verrat unwürdiger Geheimnisse
und die Nichtachtung
jeglichen Befehls.

Translation (by Peter Filkins):

War is no longer declared,
but rather continued. The outrageous
has become the everyday. The hero
is absent from the battle. The weak
are moved into the firing zone.
The uniform of the day is patience,
the order of merit is the wretched star
of hope over the heart.

It is awarded
when nothing more happens,
when the bombardment is silenced,
when the enemy has become invisible
and the shadow of eternal armament
covers the sky.

It is awarded
for deserting the flag,
for bravery before a friend,
for the betrayal of shameful secrets,
and the disregard
of every command.

I’ve been reading a lot of Bachmann recently, having just got my hands on a 2006 edition of her Collected Poems translated by Peter Filkins and entitled Darkness Spoken.

What I love about this poem is the first stanza, which seems to me to encapsulate the essence of modern warfare, the way the horrors of violence are converted into just another television feature, how routine steadily numbs us to the brutality of the truth.

[falstaff]

P.S. Today’s recording comes to your courtesy of lyrikline, where you can also fine a whole bunch of other Bachmann recordings.

April 2, 2008 at 3:20 am 4 comments

She rose to his requirement

Emily Dickinson

Listen

She rose to his requirement, dropped
The playthings of her life
To take the honorable work
Of woman and of wife.

If aught she missed in her new day,
Of amplitude, or awe,
Or first prospective, or the gold
In using wore away,

It lay unmentioned, as the sea
Develops pearl and weed,
But only to himself is known,
The fathoms they abide.

It’s been over a year since we ran a Dickinson poem, so I thought it was about time.

I don’t know where to begin to praise this poem. I love the subversion of the message – the way the opening stanza loudly dismisses the “playthings of her life” and celebrates the “honorable work / of woman and of wife” only to have the second stanza make disappointment and suffocation seem almost inevitable. I love the arc of the poem – the first stanza rising, the second stanza losing momentum, leveling off, and the third dropping quietly to the bottom of the sea. I love the conciseness of it, the precision of the word choices (“amplitude, or awe”, “pearl and weed” “abide”), that startling ‘himself’ in the penultimate line that always takes my breath away.  And I love the music of the poem, the rhythmic perfection that makes the end rhymes (awe, away; weed, abide) seem entirely natural, the way the opening line of each stanza is a shift in gears, the subdued gentleness of those last lines with their sense of something coming softly to rest.

[falstaff]

March 5, 2008 at 5:18 am 3 comments

Language Lesson 1976

Heather McHugh

Listen

When Americans say a man
takes liberties, they mean

he’s gone too far. In Philadelphia today I saw
a kid on a leash look mom-ward

and announce his fondest wish: one
bicentennial burger, hold

the relish. Hold is forget,
in American.

On the courts of Philadelphia
the rich prepare

to serve, to fault. The language is a game as well,
in which love can mean nothing,

doubletalk mean lie. I’m saying
doubletalk with me. I’m saying

go so far the customs are untold.
Make nothing without words,

and let me be
the one you never hold.

While we’re doing poems that dabble playfully in the possibilities of language, I thought I’d throw in this Heather McHugh poem (originally from A World of Difference, since republished in Hinge and Sign) which takes a few cleverly observed idiosyncracies of the language, and pushes them in delightful and unexpected directions.

Oh, and don’t miss the bell!

[falstaff]

You can read more about McHugh here, and also find a link to an audio recording by her of the ultimately moving, if slightly rambling What He Thought.

March 3, 2008 at 2:53 am 4 comments

Paradise Lost, Book IV (extract)

John Milton

Listen

O Hell! what doe mine eyes with grief behold,
Into our room of bliss thus high advanc’t
Creatures of other mould, earth-born perhaps,
Not Spirits, yet to heav’nly Spirits bright
Little inferior; whom my thoughts pursue
With wonder, and could love, so lively shines
In them Divine resemblance, and such grace
The hand that formd them on thir shape hath pourd.
Ah gentle pair, yee little think how nigh
Your change approaches, when all these delights
Will vanish and deliver ye to woe,
More woe, the more your taste is now of joy;
Happie, but for so happie ill secur’d
Long to continue, and this high seat your Heav’n
Ill fenc’t for Heav’n to keep out such a foe
As now is enterd; yet no purpos’d foe
To you whom I could pittie thus forlorne
Though I unpittied: League with you I seek,
And mutual amitie so streight, so close,
That I with you must dwell, or you with me
Henceforth; my dwelling haply may not please
Like this fair Paradise, your sense, yet such
Accept your Makers work; he gave it me,
Which I as freely give; Hell shall unfould,
To entertain you two, her widest Gates,
And send forth all her Kings; there will be room,
Not like these narrow limits, to receive
Your numerous ofspring; if no better place,
Thank him who puts me loath to this revenge
On you who wrong me not for him who wrongd.
And should I at your harmless innocence
Melt, as I doe, yet public reason just,
Honour and Empire with revenge enlarg’d,
By conquering this new World, compels me now
To do what else though damnd I should abhorre.

It’s been a very Milton-centric week in my online world. First this post (and the discussion in the comments space) by Daisy Fried over at Harriet about the delights of Milton’s verse and his accessibility to modern readers, then this piece today by Claire Tomalin in the Guardian Book Review. So I figured it was time we posted another extract from Paradise Lost (see earlier post here).

As I say in that earlier post, the thing that always strikes me, reading Milton today, is how, once you get past the often convoluted diction (and it does take a bit of working out, doesn’t it?) you discover a mind that is strikingly modern in its conception of the world. The two lines that immediately follow this speech in the book read: “So spake the Fiend, and with necessity, / The tyrant’s plea, excused his devilish deeds.” [1] Substitute ‘terrorist’ for ‘tyrant’, and what Milton gives us here is a pitch-perfect rendition of the standard terrorist apology: it’s terrible to have to hurt the innocent, but what can they do? It’s the big bad Oppressor’s fault, that’s what’s compelling them to act such brutally, they’re only sharing what’s been done to them, they would spare the innocent if they could but ‘justice’ demands it.

Fried, in her post, calls Paradise Lost “psychologically authentic”, and reading this passage it’s easy to see what she means. But the real power of Milton lies in a deeper authenticity, in a grasp of human nature so fundamental it can come to seem prophetic [2]. That’s why Milton, for all his baroque grammar, remains not just relevant (whatever that means) but insightful and exciting.

[falstaff]

[1] Quick note on the text. The text I reproduce here comes from Literature.org though my reading uses the text from the 1909 Harvard Classics edition of the Complete Poems. There are a number of differences in punctuation between the two texts, which explains why the audio recording may not follow the text here all that faithfully.

[2] Nor is Paradise Lost the only place where Milton’s concerns seem surprisingly modern. In a sonnet to Sir Henry Vane the Younger (from 1652; one of the sonnets Tomalin doesn’t mention in her piece), Milton praises Vane saying “Both spiritual power, and civil, what each means / What severs each, thou hast learned, which few have done. / The bounds of either sword to thee we owe:” If only we could say the same of George W. Bush.

March 2, 2008 at 4:21 am 2 comments

Scumble

Rae Armantrout

Listen (to Armantrout read)

What if I were turned on by seemingly innocent words such as
“scumble,” “pinky,”

or “extrapolate?”

What if I maneuvered conversation in the hope that others would
pronounce these words?

Perhaps the excitement would come from the way the other person
touched them lightly and carelessly with his tongue.

What if “of” were such a hot button?

“Scumble of bushes.”

What if there were a hidden pleasure
in calling one thing
by another’s name?

A bewitching little poem, that perfectly showcases Armantrout’s abiding fascination with the intricacies and intimacies of the language, the quality of her attention, the way words and phrases, placed in her deft hands, take on a vitality one never suspected they had. R.S. Thomas, you may remember, wrote of the poet learning “how to assemble / With more skill the arbitrary parts / Of ode or sonnet” but Armantrout’s poems work the other way, taking the poem apart into its component parts, as though one way to study time were to disassemble the clocks and examine each cog with careful attention. In poems like this one, Armantrout places everyday speech under a multi-colored microscope, discovering a universe of nuance and detail that is both delightful and treacherous.

[falstaff]

Armantrout’s reading comes to your courtesy of Poets.org, which also features other Armantrout poems, including an audio recording of ‘Yonder’ here. You can also find a treasure trove of Armantrout readings over at the Kenyon Review, as well as new poems by her in The New Yorker and in mark(s)

February 25, 2008 at 6:06 am 5 comments

Todesfuge

Paul Celan

Listen (in German [1])

Listen (in English)

Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken sie abends
wir trinken sie mittags und morgens wir trinken sie nachts
wir trinken und trinken
wir schaufeln ein Grab in den Lüften da liegt man nicht eng
Ein Mann wohnt im Haus der spielt mit den Schlangen der schreibt
der schreibt wenn es dunkelt nach Deutschland dein goldenes Haar Margarete
er schreibt es und tritt vor das Haus und es blitzen die Sterne er pfeift seine Rüden herbei
er pfeift seine Juden hervor läßt schaufeln ein Grab in der Erde
er befiehlt uns spielt auf nun zum Tanz

Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nachts
wir trinken dich morgens und mittags wir trinken dich abends
wir trinken und trinken
Ein Mann wohnt im Haus der spielt mit den Schlangen der schreibt
der schreibt wenn es dunkelt nach Deutschland dein goldenes Haar Margarete
Dein aschenes Haar Sulamith wir schaufeln ein Grab in den Lüften da liegt man nicht eng

Er ruft stecht tiefer ins Erdreich ihr einen ihr andern singet und spielt
er greift nach dem Eisen im Gurt er schwingts seine Augen sind blau
stecht tiefer die Spaten ihr einen ihr andern spielt weiter zum Tanz auf

Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nachts
wir trinken dich mittags und morgens wir trinken dich abends
wir trinken und trinken
ein Mann wohnt im Haus dein goldenes Haar Margarete
dein aschenes Haar Sulamith er spielt mit den Schlangen
Er ruft spielt süßer den Tod der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland
er ruft streicht dunkler die Geigen dann steigt ihr als Rauch in die Luft
dann habt ihr ein Grab in den Wolken da liegt man nicht eng

Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nachts
wir trinken dich mittags der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland
wir trinken dich abends und morgens wir trinken und trinken
der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland sein Auge ist blau
er trifft dich mit bleierner Kugel er trifft dich genau
ein Mann wohnt im Haus dein goldenes Haar Margarete
er hetzt seine Rüden auf uns er schenkt uns ein Grab in der Luft
er spielt mit den Schlangen und träumet der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland

dein goldenes Haar Margarete
dein aschenes Haar Sulamith

English Translation (by Michael Hamburger):

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at sundown
we drink it at noon in the morning we drink it at night
we drink and we drink it
we dig a grave in the breezes there one lies unconfined
A man lives in the house he plays with the serpents he writes
he writes when dusk falls to Germany your golden hair Margarete
he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are flashing he whistles his pack out
he whistles his Jews out in earth has them dig for a grave
he commands us strike up for the dance

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink in the morning at noon we drink you at sundown
we drink and we drink you
A man lives in the house he plays with the serpents he writes
he writes when dusk falls to Germany your golden hair Margarete
Your ashen hair Shulamith we dig a grave in the breezes there one lies unconfined.

He calls out jab deeper into the earth you lot others sing now and play
he grabs at the iron in his belt he waves it his eyes are blue
jab deeper you lot with your spades you others play on for the dance

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at noon in the morning we drink you at sundown
we drink and we drink you
a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Shulamith he plays with the serpents

He calls out more sweetly play death death is a master from Germany
he calls out more darkly now stroke your strings then as smoke you will rise in the air
then a grave you will have in the clouds there one lies unconfined

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at noon Death is a master from Germany
we drink you at sundown and in the morning we drink and we drink you
Death is a master from Germany his eyes are blue
he strikes you with leaden bullets his aim is true
a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete
he sets his pack on to us he grants us a grave in the air
he plays with the serpents and daydreams death is a master from Germany

your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Shulamith

One of the greatest poems of the 20th Century. The repetition, the fragmentation, the authentic sense of being trapped in a nightmare that you must live through again and again and can never escape. The human voice cannot do justice to this poem. It needs the weeping of cellos and the clockwork of bombs.

[falstaff]

[1] Requires real audio. The German recording comes to your courtesy of Norton Poets Online, which includes a treasure trove of other Celan poems, including Count up the Almonds, a personal favorite. The voice butchering the poem in English is mine.

February 24, 2008 at 4:56 am 5 comments

Lord’s Prayer

Nicanor Parra

Listen

Our Father which art in heaven
Full of all manner of problems
With a wrinkled brow
(As if you were a common everyday man)
Think no more of us.

We understand that you suffer
Because you can’t put everything in order.

We know the Demon will not leave you alone
Tearing down everything you build.

He laughs at you
But we weep with you:
Don’t pay any attention to his devilish laughter.

Our Father who art where thou art
Surrounded by unfaithful Angels
Sincerely don’t suffer any more for us
You must take into account
That the gods are not infallible
And that we have come to forgive everything.

[translated from the Spanish by Miller Williams]

The original:

Padre neustro que estas en el cielo
Lleno de toda clase de problemas
Con el ceno fruncido
Como si fueras un hombre vulgar y corriente
No piense mas en nosotros.

Comprendemos que sufres
Porque no puedes arreglar las cosas.

Sabemos que el Demonio no te deja tranquilo
Desconstruyendo lo que tu construyes.

El se rie de ti
Pero nostros lloramos contigo.

Padre nuestro que estas donde estas
Rodeado de angeles desleales
Sinceramente
no sufras mas por nosotros
Tienes que darte cuenta
De que los dioses no son infalibles
Y que nosotros perdonamos todo.

This is Parra at his plain-spoken, subversive best. The tone of the poem is sympathetic, friendly, yet with these few simple lines Parra effectively turns the Lord’s Prayer inside out, reversing the relationship between man and God so that it is now the gods who suffer and prove fallible and man who must find in his heart the compassion to forgive them. If you’ve ever wanted to know what anti-poetry is, I can’t think of a better example than this.

[falstaff]

February 17, 2008 at 4:21 am 1 comment

Making Peace

Denise Levertov

Listen

A voice from the dark called out,
“The poets must give us
imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar
imagination of disaster. Peace, not only
the absence of war.”

But peace, like a poem,
is not there ahead of itself,
can’t be imagined before it is made,
can’t be known except
in the words of its making,
grammar of justice,
syntax of mutual aid.

A feeling towards it,
dimly sensing a rhythm, is all we have
until we begin to utter its metaphors,
learning them as we speak.

A line of peace might appear
if we restructured the sentence our lives are making,
revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power,
questioned our needs, allowed
long pauses. . . .

A cadence of peace might balance its weight
on that different fulcrum; peace, a presence,
an energy field more intense than war,
might pulse then,
stanza by stanza into the world,
each act of living
one of its words, each word
a vibration of light–facets
of the forming crystal.

What I love about this poem is the way it takes an idea – the idea that even to conceive of true peace, peace as something more than the absence of war, is a task that requires the kind of skill and imagination that goes into the making of a great poem – and proceeds to develop it so exquisitely. Levertov takes us deep into the heart of the way a poem is written – the uncertainty, the difficulty of knowing what you want to say until you’ve said it, the seemingly endless possibilities, none of them quite satisfactory, and then that inexpressible moment of fluency when the poem just flows and you know you’ve got it right. This would be a feat in itself, but Levertov turns this description into a metaphor for the painstaking process of constructing peace, turning an abstract idea into a tangible, living exercise, that ends with that luminous and delicate image of ‘vibrations of light’ shining from a crystal as it forms. What’s extraordinary about this poem is the way you can hear it coming together, can feel it, through all the pauses and hesitations, starting to gain momentum. So that even though some of the metaphors Levertov uses early on are a little raw (“restructured the sentence our lives are making” Really?) that only adds to the sense of a force slowly gathering, preparing to pulse “stanza by stanza into the world”.

[falstaff]

Note: The phrase “imagination of disaster” comes from Henry James.

February 10, 2008 at 3:56 am 1 comment

Older Posts


Feeds

Categories