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Lost Children

May 25, 2022

Thinking of all the families steeped in grief now, and the rest of us grieving with them.  Two poems, one by the 20th century Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral, in English and Spanish (I couldn’t identify the translator), and one by 17th century English poet Ben Jonson, on the death of his son.

 

CHILDREN’S HAIR

Gabriela Mistral

Soft hair, hair that is all the softness of the world:
without you lying in my lap, what silk would I enjoy?
sweet the passing day because of that silk, sweet the sustenance,
sweet the ancient sadness, at least for the few hours it slips between my hands.

Touch it to my cheek;
wind it in my lap like flowers;
let me braid it, to soften my pain,
to magnify the light with it, now that it is dying.

When I am with God someday, I do not want an angel’s wing
to cool my heart’s bruises;
I want, stretched against the sky, the hair of the children I loved,
to let it blow in the wind against my face eternally!

**

 

LOS CABELLOS DE LOS NIÑOS

Cabellos suaves, cabellos que son toda la suavidad del mundo:
Que seda gozaría yo si no os tuviera sobre el regazo?
Dulce por ella el dia que pasa, dulce el sustento,
dulce el antiguo dolor, solo por unas horas que ellos resbalan entre mis manos.

Ponedlos en mi mejilla;

Revolvedlos en mi regazo como las flores;
dejadme trenzar con ellos, par suavizarlo, mi dolor;
aumentar la luz con ellos, ahora que es moribunda.

Cuando ya sea con Dios, que no me de el ala de un ángel,
para frescar la magulladura de mi corazón;
extienda sobre el azul las cabelleras de los niños que ame,
y pasen ellas en el viento sobre mi rostro eternamente!

*

 

ON MY FIRST SON

Ben Jonson

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy.
Seven years tho’ wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O, could I lose all father now! For why
Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon ‘scap’d world’s and flesh’s rage,
And if no other misery, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and, ask’d, say, “Here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.”
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such,
As what he loves may never like too much.

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Adam Zagajewski

March 22, 2021

The wonderful Polish poet Adam Zagajewski died yesterday in Krakow–an enormous loss.  I don’t know where to start. With his poems, I suppose, which I can read in English, thanks to the wonderful translator, Clare Cavanaugh. They move through his love of music, philosophy, art, his friends, serious engagements with the range of human behavior, but always with a light touch: one of his books is titled Mysticism for Beginners. I’d never thought, until I heard him talk about it, what it was like to read aloud his Polish poems in English. Like reading someone else’s poems, he said, but he did it beautifully. He was fluent in half a dozen languages, a true intellectual, but as James Merrill said of Elizabeth Bishop, he did “lifelong impressions of an ordinary person.” His prose books include one titled Solitude and Solidarity, referring to his love of solitude at one end of the spectrum and his participation in the Polish Solidarity movement at the other. I met him when I taught for a semester in Houston, and we became friends. He was one of the best men I have ever known–kind, generous, funny, brilliant. And one of the best poets. Although he didn’t write this poem about himself, it predicts how those who knew him and loved him are all feeling today.

 

THAT DAY

 

That day, when word comes

that someone close has died, a friend, or someone

we didn’t know, but admired from a distance

–the first moment, the first hours: he or she is gone,

it seems certain, inescapable, maybe even

irrefutable, we trust (reluctantly) whoever tells us,

heartbroken, over the phone, or maybe some announcer

from a careless radio, but we can’t believe it,

nothing on earth could convince us,

since he still hasn’t died (for us), not at all,

he (she) no longer is, but hasn’t yet vanished

for good, just the opposite, he is, so it seems, at the strongest

point of his existence, he grows,

though he is no more, he still speaks,

though he’s gone mute, he still prevails,

though he’s lost, lost the battle–with what?

time? the body?–but no, it’s not true, he has triumphed,

he’s achieved completion, absolute completion,

he’s so complete, so great, so splendid, he no longer fits

inside life, he shatters life’s frail vessel,

he towers over the living, as if made

from a different substance, the strongest bronze,

but at the same time we begin to suspect,

we’re afraid, we guess, we know,

that silence approaches

and helpless grief

 

 

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W. S. Merwin

March 15, 2019

William Merwin was one of my first poetry heroes. I loved his poems and he seemed to me a model of a life devoted to poetry. I also admired the fact that half of his published work is translation of other poets into English–an invaluable gift. He had the equivalent of perfect pitch for language, so that when he began to write unpunctuated poems, and then poems with caesuras, they weren’t hard to follow. The absence of visual clues simply means you have to lean in and listen more closely. One of my favorites is “Strawberries,” in which the speaker describes a vision after his father’s death, one that includes a boy driving a wagon loaded with strawberries, and then a dream when he finally falls asleep. Near the end of the poem he wakes from the dream:

up in the morning       I stopped on the stairs
my mother was awake     already and asked me
if I wanted a shower       before breakfast
and for breakfast she said        we have strawberries

And this opening of the poem “Yesterday,” a dialogue between two men talking about their fathers that could be an opera duet, music made of words and white space:

My friend says I was not a good son
you understand
I say yes I understand

he says I did not go
to see my parents very often you know
and I say yes I know

even when I was living in the same city he says
maybe I would go there once
a month or maybe even less
I say oh yes

he says the last time I went to see my father
I say the last time I saw my father….

Another favorite is “Fly,” featured on this blog June 21, 2018.

I was lucky enough to know Merwin a little. I first met him in the early seventies when he came to Boulder, Colorado, to stay with the poet Bill Matthews. I opened the door one day, and there he was standing on the step, smiling, his face surrounded by dark curls. He had a small cloth bag slung over his shoulder, everything he’d brought with him. He was smart, kind, funny, supportive. Over the years we had some lovely conversations. I was delighted when I met Paula, who was a loving companion but didn’t take any guff. I’m glad they had so many years together.

He had a beautiful reading voice, hypnotic. I have it on vinyl, tape, and cd, and I’m sure you can find it all over youtube. I’m going to be going back to favorites, and to poems I haven’t read (I joked that he could write faster than I could read), but right now I’m inevitably hearing his beautiful poem “For the Anniversary of my Death.” The first time I read it I thought, “Oh! Why did I never think of that?” Because I’m not W. S. Merwin. Please share your memories and favorite poems here.

FOR THE ANNIVERSARY OF MY DEATH

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

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Rilke Translations

June 4, 2018

I was just looking at some again recently for my poetry group discussion.  We read the first two Duino Elegies in translations by Stephen Mitchell, David Young, Gary Miranda, and Edward Snow.  When I came into the poetry world, all my teachers spoke of Rilke as one of the presiding poetry gods, so I tried to read the poems–in translation, that is, since I have no German.  I don’t know whose versions I read then, but I found them impenetrable.  I took it on faith that Rilke was important, but thought to myself, “I don’t get it.  Why does everyone think he’s so great?”  The first time I had any sense of his poems as poetry was when I read David Young’s translation of the Duino Elegies, published originally in Field, and then as a collection by Norton in 1978.  His don’t have the square and solid look of the originals and other translations–they’re indented triplets. First Snow’s, with typical lines, then Young’s:

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angelic
orders? And even if one of them pressed me
suddenly to his heart: I’d be consumed
in his stronger existence….
Edward Snow

If I cried out
…………who would hear me up there
………………..among the angelic orders?
And suppose one suddenly
…….took me to his heart
…………….I would shrivel
I couldn’t survive
……….next to his
………………..greater existence.
David Young

For the first time, I could see and hear music in the poems. And the extra white space made the poems seem less heavy and dense, and also slowed down them down to a speed at which I could follow them.

Since then I’ve read many translations of Rilke, and taught some of them in comparative translation classes, but I hadn’t looked at Young’s in quite a while. Now I find them distracting and oddly broken up (though as I typed them above, all that beauty I felt the first time came back to me), only because I’m so much more familiar with the contents. But I’m forever grateful to them for giving me a way in to the Elegies, for conveying the poetry of them for the first time.

The Miranda translation is the one I came to most recently, and I think of it as another great introduction to the work. His version is spoken by something close to a first-person speaker, and has a clearer through-line and forward pull than any other version I know–and probably than the original. It makes for a kind of immediate emotional connection, but loses what Robert Hass describes as Rilke’s omnipresence: “It is as if, not having a place to stand, the author of these poems is everywhere. Really, they are the nearest thing in the writing of the twentieth century to the flight of birds. They dive, soar, swoop, belly up, loop over.” (From his introduction to the Stephen Mitchell translations.)

The two I find myself most drawn to now, of the ones I know, are those by Stephen Mitchell and Edward Snow, and as I read them side by side I like one better here and one there. Whenever I’ve taught comparative translation we’ve all concluded that for those of us who don’t know the original language, one translation is never sufficient, no matter how good it is. We need several so we can triangulate, and we need the original on facing pages to remind us of what we’re missing.  And different ones at different times in our reading lives.

In the end, those who were carried off early no longer need us:
they are weaned from earth’s sorrows and joys, as gently as children
outgrow the soft breasts of their mothers. But we, who do need
such great mysteries, we for whom grief is so often
the source of our spirit’s growth–: could we exist without them?
Stephen Mitchell

In the end, those torn from us early no longer need us;
they grow slowly unaccustomed to earthly things, in the gentle manner
one outgrows a mother’s breasts. But we, who need
such great mysteries, for whom so often blessed progress
springs from grief–: could we exist without them?
Edward Snow

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