Reading: A Dream by Boris Pasternak

Boris Pasternak (1890-1960) was a hero of Russian literature, and not just for the famous Doctor Zhivago. He translated Goethe, Schiller and Shakespear and published influential books of poetry, including his breakthrough ‘My sister, Life’. The English Wikipedia page on Pasternak is has lots of details that I am not going to mention here. I read a poem about a dream, in an English translation whose authorship I couldn’t determine.

A dream
I dreamt of autumn in the window’s twilight,
And you, a tipsy jesters’ throng amidst. ‘
And like a falcon, having stooped to slaughter,
My heart returned to settle on your wrist.

But time went on, grew old and deaf. Like thawing
Soft ice old silk decayed on easy chairs.
A bloated sunset from the garden painted
The glass with bloody red September tears.

But time grew old and deaf. And you, the loud one,
Quite suddenly were still. This broke a spell.
The dreaming ceased at once, as though in answer
To an abruptly silenced bell.

And I awakened. Dismal as the autumn
The dawn was dark. A stronger wind arose
To chase the racing birchtrees on the skyline,
As from a running cart the streams of straws.

I found an alternative translation as well:

I dreamed of autumn through the glass half-lightened,
Of friends and you in their joyful band,
And, like a falcon, which took blood in fighting,
Heart was descending on your gentle hand.

But time did go, grew older, failed to hear,
And only slightly silvering the frames,
Sunrise was catapulting bloody tears
Of late September on the glasses’ panes.

But time did go, grew older. And the crumbled,
Like ice, was thawing and breaking sofa’s silk.
And suddenly you stopped and stayed the silent,
And dream, like echo of a bell, did sink.

I waked. The dawn was, like the autumn, blackened,
The passed by wind was carrying far away,
Like a straw rain running behind a hay-cart,
The crag of birches running the sky’s gray.

The imagery of the falcon is convincing (I am reminded of a bird Dostojewski described in his Notes from the underground). The metaphor for time is beautiful and I would have to quote the original Russian here (anybody can help?) As for late September, I think of the October revolution, and how Pasternak, like so many other Russian intellectuals ‘awoke to a blackened dawn’. And then the final metaphor of the hay-cart disappearing from our view, and the silhouettes of the birches against the horizon.

Eureka! I use reverse translation of some peculiar words to find the original Russian. And “falcon” does it! Here is the original poem, first written in 1913:

Мне снилась осень в полусвете стекол,
Друзья и ты в их шутовской гурьбе,
И, как с небес добывший крови сокол,
Спускалось сердце на руку к тебе.

Но время шло, и старилось, и глохло,
И, поволокой рамы серебря,
Заря из сада обдавала стекла
Кровавыми слезами сентября.

Но время шло и старилось. И рыхлый,
Как лед, трещал и таял кресел шелк.
Вдруг, громкая, запнулась ты и стихла,
И сон, как отзвук колокола, смолк.

Я пробудился. Был, как осень, темен
Рассвет, и ветер, удаляясь, нес,
Как за возом бегущий дождь соломин,
Гряду бегущих по небу берез.

I don’t have a ‘feeling’ for the Russian, but something tells me that the “Гряду бегущих по небу берез.” sounds much more haunting than the translation. Perhaps a Russian friend can weigh in on this?

Reading: A Dream by Boris Pasternak was originally published on Meandering home


Reading: Beautiful Youth by Gottfried Benn

German poet Gottfried Benn (1886-1956) supported Hitler when he came to power, but changed his mind after the ‘night of the long knives’. Still, he was naive enough to join the Wehrmacht, where some officers respected his disaproval of the regime. I don’t care too much about the details, but it wasn’t pretty. The nazis, by the way, called his earlier poetry “degenerate and homosexual”. Much of that poetry was inspired by his work as a pathologist in 1912-1913. For our anthology, I picked a poem called “Schöne Jugend”, that was rendered in English by Michael Hofmann:

Beautiful youth
The mouth of the girl who had lain long in the rushes
looked so nibbled.
When they opened her chest, her esophagus was so holey.
Finally in a bower under the diaphragm
they found a nest of young rats.
One little thing lay dead.
The others were living off kidneys and liver
drinking the cold blood and had
had themselves a beautiful youth.
And just as beautiful and quick was their death:
the lot of them were thrown into the water.
Ah, will you hearken at the little muzzles’ oinks!

This poem has probably been dissected plenty of times. My first impulse upon reading such lines is to see some symbolism: The girl’s body is society that is rotten and the rats are the dark elements feasting on it, that are ultimately purged in an act of barbarism that seems inevitable. Given that this was written before World War I, the great war that everybody ‘saw coming’ but nobody believed would actually happen, what do you think of this kind or reading? I think such dialectics of barbarism, where the killing of ‘the youth’ is done to save the image of society – was absolutely perverted by the nazis. You can’t say this kind of things ‘after Auschwitz’ I say with a nod to Adorno.

The dramatic last line benefits from the use of “hearken” but can’t mimic the original “Ach, wie die kleinen Schnauzen quietschten!” Here is the entire poem in the original German:

Der Mund eines Mädchens, das lange im Schilf gelegen hatte,
sah so angeknabbert aus.
Als man die Brust aufbrach, war die Speiseröhre so löcherig.
Schließlich in einer Laube unter dem Zwerchfell
fand man ein Nest von jungen Ratten.
Ein kleines Schwesterchen lag tot.
Die andern lebten von Leber und Niere,
tranken das kalte Blut und hatten
hier eine schöne Jugend verlebt.
Und schön und schnell kam auch ihr Tod:
Man warf sie allesamt ins Wasser.
Ach, wie die kleinen Schnauzen quietschten!

Reading: Beautiful Youth by Gottfried Benn was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: Autopsychography by Fernando Pessoa

I, or at least several of my heteronyms, am a ‘fan’ of Pessoa (1888 – 1935) and noticed some similarities to Nietzsche (their fathers died when they were five and they both developed cherished alter egos). I read a famous poem that I have encountered before, while living in Lisbon. Autopsychography is a concise description of the complex persona of its author. Here is the English rendition by Edouard Roditi:

The poet is a man who feigns
And feigns so thoroughly, at last
He manages to feign as pain
The pain he really feels,

And those who read what once he wrote
Feel clearly, in the pain they read,
Neither of the pains he felt,
Only a pain they cannot sense.

And thus, around its jolting track
There runs, to keep our reason busy,
The circling clockwork train of ours
That men agree to call a heart.

There are many English translations of this poem and comparing them is an interesting exercise. The feigning of the pain does come across in English, but it’s such a delicate idea that we can’t really do without the original Portuguese (can we?) “Que chega a fingir que é dor / A dor que deveras sente.”

The second stanza has an alternative translation by Keith Bosley:

And those who read his cries
Feel in the paper tears
Not two aches that are his
But one that is not theirs.

Pessoa’s readers experience a strange pain that is not their own, a pain that keeps our reason busy:

And the third stanza was better translated by Roy Campbell:

Thus to beguile and entertain
The reason, does he start,
Upon its rails, the clockwork train
That’s also called the heart.

The image of the toy train (clockwork train reminds me of Anthony Burgess’ Clockwork Orange) circling around in our chest, just to keep our reason or mind entertained is a powerful image. Pessoa himself surely kept his reason busy and beguiled when he created around 72 heteronyms during his writing careers.

Reading: Autopsychography by Fernando Pessoa was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: Souvenir of the ancient world by Carlos Drummond de Andrade

Today I read a well-known poem by the famous Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade (1902-1987). The original is called ‘LEMBRANÇA DO MUNDO ANTIGO‘, and I go with the following English translation:

Souvenir of the ancient world
Clara strolled in the garden with the children.
The sky was green over the grass,
the water was golden under the bridges,
other elements were blue and rose and orange,
a policeman smiled, bicycles passed,
a girl stepped onto the lawn to catch a bird,
the whole world—Germany, China—
all was quiet around Clara.

The children looked at the sky: it was not forbidden.
Mouth, nose, eyes were open. There was no danger.
What Clara feared were the flu, the heat, the insects.
Clara feared missing the eleven o’clock trolley:
She waited for letters slow to arrive,
She couldn’t always wear a new dress. But she strolled in the garden, in the morning!
They had gardens, they had mornings in those days!

The beginning is teeming with colors, like Brazilian carnival. It’s an innocent scene, when a policeman (Guarda civil in the original) smiles and people ride bicycles. When a girl is going to catch a bird we are not sure if it’s still innocent, and when the whole world (o mundo inteiro) is quiet around the woman (is she the mother?) we suspect something is going on.

The second stanza confirms this by mentioning that it was explicitly not forbidden to look at the sky. When freedoms are exlicitly not forbidden, it can haunt our minds more than when they are prohibited. The children are taking in the colors, no danger. But Clara was fearful of both tropical things (flu, heat, insects) and things from the ‘old world’ (the trolley with its timetable bringing her letters, presumably of the man who is absent in this poem).

She wasn’t very wealthy, but free. Why is it so special that there were gardens and even mornings in ‘those days’? We should know that the poem was published in 1940. All of a sudden we understand the man is fighting in World War 2, and Clara is eagerly awaiting his letters. I assume that Clara is in Brazil and that the ‘mundo antigo’ has been preserved on the South American continent a little bit longer than in Europe, where it was being destroyed by the unthinkable violence of the nazis that would soon affect the entire world.

Here is another small poem by Drummond the Andrade that I like, so I thought I just copy paste it here:

O mundo é grande e cabe
nesta janela sobre o mar.
O mar é grande e cabe
na cama e no colchão de amar.
O amor é grande e cabe
no breve espaço de beijar.

Reading: Souvenir of the ancient world by Carlos Drummond de Andrade was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: Do not go gentle… by Dylan Thomas

Today a poem that people like myself can’t hear anymore, so often has it been repeated and analysed. Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) wrote this for his ailing father. I found a formal analysis online, that is devoid of passion and reminded me why I am doing this. Poetry gets so boring if you must interfere with academic and formal babble at every corner. Cut it off, we know this is a vilanelle in iambic pentameter. Ok, if you get off on that kind of stuff, here you go. There is some teary background information about Dylan’s dad as well. But don’t say I didn’t warn you against the vomitive conclusion of mr. Spacey’s analysis.

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieve it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

What can we say? Everything about this poem has already been sad, by wiser and more imperious men than we aspire to be. The rhythm rocks, consonants, assonants, repetitions, enjambments are strewn in a brilliant way and … bla bla blah
How is dark “right”? This is not a translated poem (or is it, and from which language, mr. Thomas?) How can darkness be right? Natural tendency, thermodynamics: increasing entropy? Or is it the impossibility that gives meaning to the rage? Or is it more mundane. Their “words had forked no lightning” (Dylan père never published his own poetry, I read). It seems a bit cynical to me, and not very nice to his dad (this is the weak joint of this poem.

Okay, frail deeds dancing in a green bay, f*ck yeah. Love it. The words just fit that metre tight like a condom, and the wave associates with the bay and even in their crying they rage (or does it become obvious, half way the poem, that it’s the author’s wish and desire that the good old man rage?)

Next up are the wild men. They were succesful because they sang the sun in flight, but realized too late that also they cannot escape death. And the grave men near death (ambiguity put to good use), so we’re talking death bed now. And their the rage intensifies once more. Today I read how dr. Freud fought his fucked up illness at 83 and refused painkillers to keep his mind bright until the end. Death had, according to Stefan Zweig’s description, distorted his cheeks, front, lips – but failed to penetrate his eyes as long as his will was alive. Dylan talks about blind eyes (they have blinded themselves I guess) that blaze like meteors and be gay. Here it becomes obvious that Dylan’s wish is not realistic. Blind eyes are dull and don’t blaze, except in our, and who knows, the blind man’s, imagination.

Only in his conclusion he mentions the father: powerful. Why the height and the pedestal? Does Dylan need de Voice of a Father and paints him as a creature who is high? An angel, who can curse and bless his son with the fierce tears in his blinded eyes? Yes, curse: Despite this powerful hymn the tears confirm that dark is right, that the light is dying. And bless: We share this rage among generations, it is the source of understanding and peace.

p.s. I like the bronze

p.p.s. What do you think about head on no bullshit poetry babble, as attempted in this series?

Reading: Do not go gentle… by Dylan Thomas was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: The silence of love by Han Yong-Un

Korean poet Han Yong-Un (pen name Manhae; 1879-1944) was a Buddhist monk who resisted against the Japanese occupation of Korea. He wrote about nationalism and love. I choose love, of course, and this famous ‘national’ poem. There is a creative English translation by ljlee (he also provides useful background information), which I like, but sounded too translated to my taste. Instead, here is a translation by a person called “owner” on allpoetry:

The silence of love
Love is gone, gone is my love.
Tearing himself away from me he has gone
on a little path that stretches in the splendor of
a green hill into the autumn-tinted forest.
Our last oath, shining and enduring
like a gold-mosaicked flower,
has turned to cold ashes, blown away
in the breath of wind.
I remember his poignant first kiss and its memory
has wrought a complete change in my destiny,
then withdrawn into oblivion.
I hear not his sweet voice; I see not his fair looks.
Since it is human to love, I, alert, dreaded a
parting to come when we met.
The separation came so suddenly
it broke my heart with renewed sorrow.
Yet, I know parting can only destroy our love if
it causes futile tears to fall.
I would rather transfer the surge of this sorrow
onto the summit of hopefulness.
As we dread parting when we meet, so,
we promise to meet again when we part.
Though my love is gone, I am not parted from love;
an untiring love-song envelops the silence of love.

The idea expressed in this poem seems straightforward: Lost love, sorrow, and then the refusal to give up hope, resulting in the emotional distinction between the love in itself and the beloved. The alternative translation had the title translated as ‘Silence of my beloved’; she rendered the crucial metaphor that turns sorrow into hope as follows: I took the overbearing force of my grief and poured it out into a wellspring of new hope.

Just for reasons of braggadocio, and because Korean looks so pretty and is fun to feed to Google Translate, here is the original poem:

님의 침묵(沈默)


님은 갔습니다. 아아, 사랑하는 나의 님은 갔습니다.
푸른 산빛을 깨치고 단풍나무 숲을 향하여 난 작은 길을 걸어서, 차마 떨치고 갔습니다.
황금(黃金)의 꽃같이 굳고 빛나든 옛 맹서(盟誓)는 차디찬 티끌이 되어서 한숨의 미풍(微風)에 날아갔습니다.
날카로운 첫 키스의 추억(追憶)은 나의 운명(運命)의 지침(指針)을 돌려 놓고, 뒷걸음쳐서 사라졌습니다.
나는 향기로운 님의 말소리에 귀먹고, 꽃다운 님의 얼굴에 눈멀었습니다.
사랑도 사람의 일이라, 만날 때에 미리 떠날 것을 염려하고 경계하지 아니한 것은 아니지만, 이별은 뜻밖의 일이 되고, 놀란 가슴은 새로운 슬픔에 터집니다.
그러나 이별을 쓸데없는 눈물의 원천(源泉)을 만들고 마는 것은 스스로 사랑을 깨치는 것인 줄 아는 까닭에, 걷잡을 수 없는 슬픔의 힘을 옮겨서 새 희망(希望)의 정수박이에 들어부었습니다.
우리는 만날 때에 떠날 것을 염려하는 것과 같이, 떠날 때에 다시 만날 것을 믿습니다.
아아, 님은 갔지마는 나는 님을 보내지 아니하였습니다.
제 곡조를 못 이기는 사랑의 노래는 님의 침묵(沈默)을 휩싸고 돕니다.

An example of the poem’s ambiguity, and the fantastic hold of his language demonstrated by its author, is the line about the summit of hopefulness. The original poem uses jeong-su, which can be either 精髓 essence, or pure water 淨水. A translator has to be creative here! I would probably talk about an infinite sadness that invigorates a new and purer hope and desire. Here is another interesting article I found on the topic of Korean poetry in translation.

Reading: The silence of love by Han Yong-Un was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: The pleasures of the door by Francis Ponge

Francis Ponge (1899-1988) was known as the poet of things. For a future anthology, that drifts further and further away in my imagination the more poetry I am exposed to, I read a thing about doors in an English translation by Raymond Federman:

The Pleasures of the Door
Kings do not touch doors.
They do not know that happiness: to push before them with
kindness or rudeness one of these great familiar panels, to turn
around towards it to put it back in place-to hold it in one’s arms.
The happiness of grabbing by the porcelain knot of its belly one
of these huge single obstacles; this quick grappling by which, for a
moment, progress is hindered, as the eye opens and the entire body
fits into its new environment.
With a friendly hand he holds it a while longer before pushing it
back decidedly thus shutting himself in-of which, he, by the click of
the powerful and well-oiled spring, is pleasantly assured …

Is the opening of this line the strongest republican statement we’ve ever read? Stated matter-of-factly as an introduction to the pleasures of the door, we understand how the pinnacles of realism and surrealism coincide. I like it, but Ponge will need to hit exactly the right tone to deliver.

And he does. The observation of the pocelain doorknob and the great familiar panels is precise. We see the common people engaging in the mundane act of opening a door. Their ‘progress is hindered’ for a moment, they experience an obstacle unlike the king, who commands all obstacles out of his royal way. But that is just interpretation – Ponge leaves it to the reader to draw their own anti-monarchist conclusions.

The person with the friendly hand is anonymous. He holds it a while longer before closing the door behind him. Personally, I can relate. I have touched wonderful doorknobs, some were still functional, some were in royal palaces turned museums, where the opening and closing of doors is prohibited because it hinders the progression of the museum’s visitors who wish to see the extravanganza of a Louis XIV or a Kaiser Franz.

Reading: The pleasures of the door by Francis Ponge was originally published on Meandering home