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THE PRESENT

January 1, 2017

One New Year’s Eve when I was seven or eight my parents had a few friends over to to celebrate.  I was the only child there, passing cookies and Ritz crackers with cheese slices.  I was thinking about the strangeness of one year ending and another beginning, when I was suddenly overcome with the sense that time was running out to write the year we were in in the present.  What was true now soon would be in the past.  I put down the plate I was carrying, dashed into my bedroom, and opened my notebook.  I wrote the year over and over: 1951, 1951, 1951, 1951, until the page was covered.  Nothing stays time, but I felt better for having marked it.  That was all I could do–when I woke up it we all would have sailed beyond it, no going back.  I still feel that mix of dread and anticipation.  Here are two poems that speak to that:

 

                                                                                                                                                                 

TO THE NEW YEAR
W. S. Merwin
With what stillness at last
you appear in the valley
your first sunlight reaching down
to touch the tips of a few
high leaves that do not stir
as though they had not noticed
and did not know you at all
then the voice of a dove calls
from far away in itself
to the hush of the morning
so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible
*
Archaic Torso of Apollo
Rainier Maria Rilke

trans. Stephen Mitchell


We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could 
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

Mark Strand’s translations of Carlos Drummond de Andrade

August 17, 2016

As is always the case with poetry, one thing leads to another.  After I posted Marvin Bell’s poem, several people mentioned Mark Strand’s wonderful translations of Drummond’s poems.  (I’ve seen him referred to as Drummond, as Drummond de Andrade, and as de Andrade; I’m going with Drummond.)  This is my favorite short description of him:

“Mr. Drummond’s bald, equine, bespectacled visage appears on T-shirts and book bags in Brazil, and one of his poems, “Canção Amiga” (“Friendly Song”), was printed on the 50 cruzados bill.  (We American poets can only dream.) Since 2002 there has been a statue of him on the Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro, his adopted hometown. This statue faces away from, not toward, the ocean. This was a witty decision (he was an inward poet) that annoys the unintelligentsia, who want him spun around.”

Drummond was one of the greatest of Brazilian poets, and English translations by Elizabeth Bishop and Mark Strand brought him notice in America.  You can find wonderful photos and paintings of him online.  I’ll say more about Mark Strand’s own elegant, mysterious, funny poems in a future post, but for now I’ll just include his translation of Drummond’s poem “Don’t Kill Yourself.”

 

Carlos Drummond de Andrade

DON’T KILL YOURSELF

Carlos, calm down, love
is what you are seeing:
a kiss today, tomorrow no kiss,
the day after tomorrow is Sunday
and nobody knows what will happen
on Monday.

It’s useless to resist
or to commit suicide.
Don’t kill yourself. Don’t kill yourself.
Save all of yourself for the wedding
though nobody knows when or if
it will ever come.

Carlos, earthy Carlos, love
spent the night with you
and your deepest self
is raising a terrible racket,
prayers,
stereos,
saints in procession,
ads for the best soap,
a racket for which nobody knows
the why or wherefor.

Meanwhile, you walk
upright, unhappy.
You are the palm tree, you are the shout
that nobody heard in the theater
and all the lights went out.
Love in darkness, no, in daylight,
is always sad, Carlos, my boy,
don’t tell anyone,
nobody knows or will know.

trans. from the Portuguese by Mark Strand

from Looking for Poetry: Poems by Carlos Drummond de Andrade and Rafael Alberti, and Songs from the Quechua, trans. Mark Strand

 

I also want to add a link to an essay by Carol Muske-Dukes that she wrote not long after Mark Strand died, “A Piece of Paper,”  and published in a special issue on Strand of West Branch Wired, at Bucknell University.  It’s a beautiful and moving portrait, and mentions Strand’s translations and a series of very funny poems on the art of translating.

Marvin Bell’s “Poem after Carlos Drummond de Andrade”

August 13, 2016

I’ve been thinking about this gorgeous poem since I wrote the post about Szymborska, and about the photo of her smoking so blissfully, chosen after she knew she was dying of lung cancer.  Bell’s poem is the most powerful embodiment I know of the inseparability of life and death, of the knowledge that there’s no way to embrace one without embracing the other.

Poem After Carlos Drummond de Andrade

     “It’s life, Carlos.”

 

It’s life that is hard: waking, sleeping, eating, loving, working and

dying are easy.

It’s life that suddenly fills both ears with the sound of that

symphony that forces your pulse to race and swells your

heart near to bursting.

It’s life, not listening, that stretches your neck and opens your eyes

and brings you into the worst weather of the winter to

arrive once more at the house where love seemed to be in

the air.

 

And it’s life, just life, that makes you breathe deeply, in the air that

is filled with wood smoke and the dust of the factory,

because you hurried, and now your lungs heave and fall

with the nervous excitement of a leaf in spring breezes,

though it is winter and you are swallowing the dirt of

the town.

It isn’t death when you suffer, it isn’t death when you miss each

other and hurt for it, when you complain that isn’t death,

when you fight with those you love, when you

misunderstand, when one line in a letter or one remark in

person ties one of you in knots, when the end seems near,

when you think you will die, when you wish you were

already dead–none of that is death.

It’s life, after all, that brings you a pain in the foot and a pain in the

hand, a sore throat, a broken heart, a cracked back, a torn

gut, a hole in your abdomen, an irritated stomach, a

swollen gland, a growth, a fever, a cough, a hiccup, a

sneeze, a bursting blood vessel in the temple.

It’s life, not nerve ends, that puts the heartache on a pedestal and

worships it.

It’s life, and you can’t escape it. It’s life, and you asked for it. It’s life,

and you won’t be consumed by passion, you won’t be

destroyed by self-destruction, you won’t avoid it by

abstinence, you won’t manage it by moderation, because

it’s life–life everywhere, life at all times–and so you

won’t be consumed by passion: you will be consumed

by life.

 

It’s life that will consume you in the end, but in the meantime . . .

It’s life that will eat you alive, but for now . . .

It’s life that calls you to the street where the wood smoke hangs,

and the bare hint of a whisper of your name, but before

you go . . .

 

Too late: Life got its tentacles around you, its hooks into your heart,

and suddenly you come awake as if for the first time, and

you are standing in a part of the town where the air is

sweet–your face flushed, your chest thumping, your

stomach a planet, your heart a planet, your every organ a

separate planet, all of it of a piece though the pieces turn

separately, O silent indications of the inevitable, as among

the natural restraints of winter and good sense, life blows

you apart in her arms.

 

You can hear Marvin Bell read this poem on youtube, 13:45 in.

Wislawa Szymborska

August 6, 2016

simic_1-122211No poet gives me more sheer pleasure than the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska ( Vee-shwava Zhim-borshka). The poems’ surfaces have a deceptive simplicity that opens onto bottomless depths.  Great clarity combines with humility–the title of her Nobel lecture was “I Don’t Know.”  No matter how dark the subject–“Hitler’s First Photograph,” “The Terrorist,” “Funeral”–a love of life shines through, an abiding affection for humans in all their imperfections, a rueful embrace of mortality.  The cover of her book Here features a photo of a younger Szymborska smoking, her eyes closed and a blissful smile on her face.  She had to have chosen this after she had been diagnosed with the lung cancer that would kill her, and I take it as an extension of the spirit that pervades her poems: embrace life, pains, pleasures and all.  Sorrow but not guilt.  Joy and humor in the face of loss.

I first came across Szymborska’s work years ago in Czeslaw Milosz’s Postwar Polish Poetry, and it was love at first read.  Over the years, more and more of her poetry became available in English.  I read her only in translation, and the best translators by all accounts are Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak.  I hesitated a little before I taught her work the first time–would my twenty-year-old American students connect to an ironic intellectual Polish poet?  The answer was a resounding yes.  The voice engaged them immediately, and the humor, the surprising questions and unusual takes on every day life.  And then, before they knew it, they were drawn into the poems’ depths.

Years ago I heard Ed Hirsch give a talk on poetry and photography.  Before he spoke, a black and white photo was shown on a screen onstage: a baby in what could be an old-fashioned christening dress.  Because it was a baby we all oohed and aahed and smiled.  And then Ed read Szymborska’s poem “Hitler’s First Photograph.”  I’m not posting it here, but you can find it online.

I joke that in my next life I want to come back as a Polish poet.  When Szymborska died it was front page news, and flags around the country were lowered to half-mast.  Poetry there is a major part of the conversation, along with philosophy, politics, science, and the other arts.  I dream of making ways for more of that to happen here, but we’re a long way from that now.

In addition to Szymborska’s poems, there’s a wonderful collection of short prose pieces, Nonrequired Reading.

Here are a couple of my favorites, both translated by Cavanagh and Baranczak. Feel free to add your own, and your thoughts about her work.

 

IDENTIFICATION
   Wislawa Szymborska
It’s good you came—she says.
You heard a plane crashed on Thursday?
Well so they came to see me
about it.
The story is he was on the passenger list.
So what, he might have changed his mind.
They gave me some pills so I wouldn’t fall apart.
Then they showed me I don’t know who.
All black, burned except one hand.
A scrap of shirt, a watch, a wedding ring.
I got furious, that can’t be him.
He wouldn’t do that to me, look like that.
The stores are bursting with those shirts.
The watch is just a regular old watch.
And our names on that ring,
they’re only the most ordinary names.
It’s good you came. Sit here beside me.
He really was supposed to get back Thursday.
But we’ve got so many Thursdays left this year.
I’ll put the kettle on for tea.
I’ll wash my hair, then what,
try to wake up from all this.
It’s good you came, since it was cold there,
and him just in some rubber sleeping bag,
him, I mean, you know, that unlucky man.
I’ll put the Thursday on, wash the tea,
since our names are completely ordinary—
MAYBE ALL THIS

Maybe all this
is happening in some lab?
Under one lamp by day
and billions by night?

Maybe we’re experimental generations?
Poured from one vial to the next,
shaken in test tubes,
not scrutinized by eyes alone,
each of us separately
plucked up by tweezers in the end?

Or maybe it’s more like this:
No interference?
The changes occur on their own
according to plan?
The graph’s needle slowly etches
its predictable zigzags?

Maybe thus far we aren’t of much interest?
The control monitors aren’t usually plugged in?
Only for wars, preferably large ones,
for the odd ascent above our clump of Earth,
for major migrations from point A to B?

Maybe just the opposite:
They’ve got a taste for trivia up there?
Look! on the big screen a little girl
is sewing a button on her sleeve.
The radar shrieks,
the staff comes at a run.
What a darling little being
with its tiny heart beating inside it!
How sweet, its solemn
threading of the needle!
Someone cries enraptured:
Get the Boss,
tell him he’s got to see this for himself!

 

 

Hot Weather Poem: The Emperor of Ice Cream

July 25, 2016

Stevens said this was his favorite of his own poems.  I’ve always loved it, first for the sounds and lush words, gradually for the scene that began to emerge.  My grandparents, just  a little younger than Stevens, shared his sense of ice cream as something new and magical.  My grandfather smiled at its mention in the same way he did when he described seeing women’s ankles for the first time as hems began to creep up.  My mother remembered hand-cranked pineapple ice cream as her favorite childhood dessert, and made a note in my baby book when I had my first taste of ice cream–then finished the bowl and wanted more.  Stevens’ poem captures the thrill and delight and sensual pleasure of ice cream, and its evanescence: death is just in the other room.  I found this great account at the Poetry Foundation.

Feel free to add your own thoughts about the poem, ice cream, and other hot weather favorites.

The Emperor of Ice-Cream

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.