Mario Wirz (1956-2013) was a German poet and writer who started his career as theater actor and director. I read a poem in a translation by Renate Latimer:
the wind in your dream
swells the curtains into a sail
all the things we have collected
in the fearful light of the bedside lamp
I search in vain for our life vests
high waves rise above your sleep
and toss the night onto the side of the moon
perhaps you’d rather be
the sole sailor
untroubled by my fears
this question too
I now cast overboard
cautiously descending into your dream
and following its course
the sea which I haven’t questioned
all these years
imagines in our sleep
a new story
This is a gentle poem about love and anxiety. The curtains becoming sails and the pale moonlight dancing over the ocean’s surface imitated by the bedside lamp are a straightforward metaphor.
The author is cast overboard (intentionally?) because he didn’t want to bother his partner with his fears. That at least is what I read here. It gives him the chance to finally question the sea itself, and it creates the opening for a new story.
Bob Hicok (1960) is a poet from Michigan who writes accessible and meditative poetry. He currently teaches creative writing at Purdue University.
My father’s head has become a mystery to him.
We finally have something in common.
When he moves his head his eyes
get big as roses filled
with the commotion of spring.
Not long ago he was a man
who had tomato soup for lunch
and dusted with the earnestness
of a gun fight. Now he’s a man
who sits at the table trying to breathe
in tiny bites. When they told him
his spinal column is closing, I thought
of all the branches he’s cut
with loppers and piled and burned
in the fall, the pinch of the blades
on the green and vital pulp. Surgeons
can fuse vertebrae, a welders art,
and scrape the ring through which
the soul-wires flow as a dentist
would clean your teeth.
And still it could happen, one turn
of his head toward a hummingbird,
wings keeping that brittle life
afloat, working hard against the fall,
and he might freeze in that pose
of astonishment, a man estranged
from the neck down, who can only share
with his body the silence
he’s pawned on his children as love.
I like this kind of poems that paint a world with a precise and prosaic description of a life and its discomfort, to redeem it with considerable verbal magic (share with his body the silence / he’s pawned on his children as love).
The metaphorical unity of the once strong father who cut through the green and vital pulp, and the weak old man who is estranged from the neck down, is an obvious device and some may call it boring. The nerves are called soul-wires and they are now cut off. Life has become mysterious to him – is that what the son calls ‘something in common’?
I think so. The father has learned astonishment at the hummingbird-like fragility of life. He has learned about love.
Or: Silence can give you enough cash in the pawn shop of love.
Charles Bukowski (1920-1994) was a legendary American poet, and writer of novels and short stories. I read a summer poem presented to me on a poetry website:
she died of alcoholism
wrapped in a blanket
on a deck chair
on an ocean
all her books of
all her books about
of loveless love
were all that was left
as the strolling vacationer
discovered her body
notified the captain
and she was quickly dispatched
to somewhere else
on the ship
she had written it
Carson McCullers (1917-1967) was a novelist who died of alcoholism in New York (as far as I know, not on an ocean steamer, but perhaps the City is an ocean steamer in Bukowski’s mind).
Of the novelist, only books remain. We could say the same for the recently deceased Philip Roth. It’s a sad affair, the whole “what remains” thing. “Dispatched to somewhere else on the ship” – that’s what happens when we die. And everything continues just as we had written it. Or, our imagination is immortal – is Bukowski hinting at some form of consolation here?
The image of the young woman (she was 50 when she died) on a deck chair, wrapped in a blanket, is so lively. I am compelled to imagine a glass of dry Martini in her hand and the beginning of a lustful smile from underneath a pair of gilded frame luxury sunglasses as she checks out a passing deckhand’s buttocks – something I would rather associate with Mr. Bukowski.
Judith Viorst (b. 1931) is among other things an American writer and psychoanalysis researcher. She is known for her children’s books and witty poetry. I read a sober summary of the pleasures of an ordinary life:
I’ve had my share of necessary losses,
Of dreams I know no longer can come true.
I’m done now with the whys and the becauses.
It’s time to make things good, not just make do.
It’s time to stop complaining and pursue
The pleasures of an ordinary life.
I used to rail against my compromises.
I yearned for the wild music, the swift race.
But happiness arrived in new disguises:
Sun lighting a child’s hair. A friend’s embrace.
Slow dancing in a safe and quiet place.
The pleasures of an ordinary life.
I’ll have no trumpets, triumphs, trails of glory.
It seems the woman I’ve turned out to be
Is not the heroine of some grand story.
But I have learned to find the poetry
In what my hands can touch, my eyes can see.
The pleasures of an ordinary life.
Young fantasies of magic and of mystery
Are over. But they really can’t compete
With all we’ve built together: A long history.
Connections that help render us complete.
Ties that hold and heal us. And the sweet,
Sweet pleasures of an ordinary life.
I like the rhyme of losses and becauses. And the phrase “the pleasures of an ordinary life” that falls out of rhyme / each time. These pleasures, we learn are friendship, parenthood, safety, rather than victory and wild pleasure.
With the extraordinary she also denies the “grand story” (of religion) but instead she finds comfort in tangible, little things.
What really matters is the shared “long history” that holds and heals us. The connections that render us complete, the little story of the ordinary, is the sweetest pleasure. There is no redemption for our soul, we won’t be welcomed in heaven with trumpets. But we can rest assured that the pleasures of an ordinary life will continue in the hearts and minds of future generations.
Mansur Rajih (b. 1958) is a Norwegian poet and human rights activist with Yemeni roots. I found this translation of one of his poems online:
Do not despair, my friend:
The light that shines on our land
will remain chaste.
We still have time.
Maybe next year, the year after-
it will be enough.
We will see
the new face of Eban
smiling over our lives.
This land is good
and its history teaches us
we must not despair.
This land is happy.
Look, see the girls
painting their cheeks?
This land is continuously giving birth.
Yemen is a happy country,
the people die standing tall.
The land cannot be desecrated: No matter how much terror the enemy (in this case the Saudi bombings and terrorist cells), the land is still a worthy place to fight for.
Eban could be the Israeli diplomat Abba Eban, who was in favor of a Palestinian state, but I doubt that. I just can’t find another Eban on Google. Perhaps my readers have an idea?
What do we make of this definition of happiness: To die standing tall? There certainly is no better way to die, but such a line can’t help but sound incredibly cynical from the mind of a former political prisoner.
Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) was a giant of Northern Irish poetry. He translated Beowulf into lively, modern language. Heaney was an immensely popular ambassador of poetry. I have read a poem about strange fruits by Heaney before, and today I read again a detailed fruity allegory of our life:
Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.
I like the precision here. I remember those late Augusts of my childhood and the blackberry picking we did. The thick description of Heaney sounds almost biblical (thick wine, summer’s blood). I too went out with a bucket and my two younger brothers and picked until the bucket was full.
My hands were also peppered with thorn pricks (though later I came prepared and wore gloves). We made jam, every time, boiling it for hours to give germs no chance. Poor Seamus and his friends caught blackberries that were infected with a furry fungus and started to ferment as soon as it was picked. This is the heart of the allegory, and again I feel the proximity to the Bible. The hoarding of the fruit was in vain (oh vanity of vanities) and our hope too is in vain (“knew they would not”).
Today I read a poem by Mahmoud Darwish (1942-2008) in a translation by Fady Joudah. Darwish was born in Galilee, in a village that doesn’t exist anymore. He lived in exile in Beirut and Paris and published a lot of books. I know that he was considered a ‘resistance poet’ and served on an executive committee of the PLO (1987-1993), but I don’t want to get into politics. I just like this poem.
In Jerusalem, and I mean within the ancient walls,
I walk from one epoch to another without a memory
to guide me. The prophets over there are sharing
the history of the holy … ascending to heaven
and returning less discouraged and melancholy, because love
and peace are holy and are coming to town.
I was walking down a slope and thinking to myself: How
do the narrators disagree over what light said about a stone?
Is it from a dimly lit stone that wars flare up?
I walk in my sleep. I stare in my sleep. I see
no one behind me. I see no one ahead of me.
All this light is for me. I walk. I become lighter. I fly
then I become another. Transfigured. Words
sprout like grass from Isaiah’s messenger
mouth: “If you don’t believe you won’t be safe.”
I walk as if I were another. And my wound a white
biblical rose. And my hands like two doves
on the cross hovering and carrying the earth.
I don’t walk, I fly, I become another,
transfigured. No place and no time. So who am I?
I am no I in ascension’s presence. But I
think to myself: Alone, the prophet Muhammad
spoke classical Arabic. “And then what?”
Then what? A woman soldier shouted:
Is that you again? Didn’t I kill you?
I said: You killed me … and I forgot, like you, to die.
The ending is a strong way to characterize the conflict in the Middle East. The first lines give a wonderful impression of the poet walking through Jerusalem after so many years in exile. He has no memory but walks between epochs and feels the prophets’ labor of love and peace.
Though the narrators disagree about ‘what light said about a stone’ and this caused wars. The poet is sleepwalking and becomes lighter and lighter, undergoing a transformation three times. Transfiguration, doves, a biblical rose and the cross – the poem is replete with Christian symbols.
The enlightened soul is hovering over the streeds of Jerusalem, not in place and time, he is no “I” in ascension’s presence. But all this hovering causes spiritual traffic congestion nonetheless, as the shouting woman soldier indicates. Didn’t I kill you? Didn’t I make sure that my narrator is the only one? Oh yes, we all did.