Tableau I

, in which we are all gummy bears
competing with each other
on the birthday table of a child

who has yet to be diagnosed colorblind

Tableau I was originally published on Meandering home


Reading: Stagnant water by Wen Yiduo

Chinese poet Wen Yiduo (1899-1946) was assassinated by the Kuomintang. According to many, he was an important figure in Chinese intellectual life. He “Wen never resolved the conflicts that existed within him: The elitist and the proletarian, the scholar and the activist, the traditionalist and the innovator, the personal man and the public man, fought for ascendancy. Yet it was these contradictions that proved so fruitful and give his poetry its singular power.” (Bright City Books)
I couldn’t resist this brilliant translation of a piece called 死水 (‘stagnant water’) by A.Z. Foreman:

Stagnant water
Here lies a ditch of hopeless stagnant water,
Fresh breezes can’t breathe half a ripple from its skin.
Better just junk your copper scrap metal here
Or dump the leftovers from dinner in.

Perhaps the copper will turn emerald green
And in rusting cans peach blossom petals will bloom.
Then let grease weave out a film of silken gauze
And microbes brew up clouds of colorful brume.

Oh let the dead water ferment into green liquor
Abrim with floating pearls in its white foam
Sweet little pearls that, laughing, turn into large pearls
And burst when the liquor-raiding mosquitos come

Thus may a ditch of hopelessly dead water
Still boast some lively brightness where it lies
If the frogs cannot tolerate the desolation
Hear croaking song from stagnant water rise!

Here lies a ditch of hopeless stagnant water.
It’s really no place for Beauty to keep state.
Better let Hellion Ugliness cultivate it
And see what kind of world it will create.

The translator says his specialty is ancient Chinese and he puzzled a bit on this one.

Reading: Stagnant water by Wen Yiduo was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: La fausse morte by Paul Valéry

Paul Valéry (1971-1945)

I found a short poem in a remarkable translation by Nathaniel Rudavsky-Brody:

The Faux Death
Humble, tender, against the charming tomb,
______Unfeeling monument
That out of shadows, leavings, offered love
______Conjures your weary grace,
I fall, dying against you, dying — Yet,

No sooner fallen across the low grave
Whose lawn littered with ashes summons me,
Life reawakens in her seeming death;
She shakes, reopens lambent eyes, and bites,
And wrenches from my chest still other deaths
……….Dearer than life.

The chaining of adjectives doesn’t work as well musically as in French, where we hear a mantra of -ment. A charming tomb, well the tone of the poem is set. Is the poète visiting a graveyard in the night-time? The tomb has its grace because of all the drama of abandonment and the love that lavished, and the protagonist is dying too and lies down. What the translation misses is the ambiguity of the word ‘abats’, which also means offal or giblets in French.

So, our tombsleeper lies there, summoned by his surroundings where ashes are spread, and what happens next will blow your mind. It’s a ‘seeming death’, in which life returns. La vie – frémit: Eyes are opened, I am lightened and life bites me in a forceful inverse of vampire fantasy affirmed by the awkward full rhyme with ‘mort’. The translation with lambent eyes and wrenching from the chest is well done and makes this Valéry seem part of a Keatsian canon.

By lying down and playing dead at graves, life rears its beautiful head and purges all those morbid fantasies (nouvelles mortes) that he holds dearer than life. Perhaps at the end he reaffirms life itself? (But thank heavens the poem doesn’t think it needs to say that, or other lines that dissolve it into marketable kitsch.

Here is the original French, that I quote because the translation takes some liberties:

Humblement, tendrement, sur le tombeau charmant
Sur l’insensible monument,
Que d’ombres, d’abandons, et d’amour prodiguée,
Forme ta grâce fatiguée,
Je meurs, je meurs sur toi, je tombe et je m’abats,

Mais à peine abattu sur le sépulcre bas,
Dont la close étendue aux cendres me convie,
Cette morte apparente, en qui revient la vie,
Frémit, rouvre les yeux, m’illumine et me mord,
Et m’arrache toujours une nouvelle mort
Plus précieuse que la vie.

Reading: La fausse morte by Paul Valéry was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: The drowned woman by Ted Hughes

Ted Hughes (1930-1998). British giant of poetry. Married twice with ladies who committed suicide, then a third time to live a quiet rural life until his death from cancer. Very prolific. Today I want to read this poem about a drowned woman, published 1957, six years before Plath’s suicide at age thirty, which charges it with eerie premonition.

The drowned woman
Millionly-whored, without womb,
Her heart already rubbish,
Watching the garret death come,
This thirty year old miss

Walked in park pastoral
With bird and bee but no man
Where children were catching armsful
Of the untouched sun.

With plastic handbag, with mink fur,
A face sleep-haggard and sleep-puffed
Fresh-floured and daubed “whore,”
This puppet was stuffed

With rags of beds and strangers’
Cast-offs, one cracked cup, a cough
That smoked and malingered.
But put a coin in her slot

This worn public lady
Would fountain a monologue,
Would statuesque and goddess a body,
Ladder Jacob a leg.

She plucked men’s eyes from happy homes;
Hands grew in the empty dark
And hung like jewellery on her limbs,
Yet she came to this park

Not for the sun’s forgetful look
Nor children running here and there;
On the mud bed of the lake
She found her comforter.

The imagery is brilliant and strong, baked with a crisp, just the way I like it. So, Hughes and Plath were married in 1956. This appears in 1957. That’s some messed-up couple right there. Using ‘whored’ as a passive verb for your wife is already grotesque, and millionly? No to fertility, a stale garret, that is death.

The ‘park pastoral’ is rendered in splendid fashion. I see the children running around, their innocence set in the image of an untouched sun.

Follows the insane description of her both poor (plastic bag) and rich (mink fur); both haggard and fluffy. She is a puppet who is freshly ‘floured and daubed’, like a bread-puppet I think. The expression is ‘wattle and daub’, but I associate ‘daubed’ with baptized because that’s how that sounds in my native Dutch but maybe Ted thought about the German ‘Taufe’. Anyway, this puppet gets filled with bed sheets, cast-offs and coughs – metonyms for her customers.

Next, he says how his whore mesmerized him. How she is spouting language and is ‘godessing’ (again the use of verbification) her body. And to “ladder Jacob a leg”, brilliant, ain’t it? Jacob’s ladder is the connection between heaven and earth that Jacob, fleeing from his brother Esau, dreams about in Genesis. Break a leg! we hear. No: ladder a leg. Between heaven and earth, between holy and whorely. This is some funky line, Ted.

Okay, she wasn’t very nice luring men away from their ‘happy homes’, we know. What else? The final stanza: She found her comforter on the mud bed of the lake? Huh, Hughes? On the bottom? In death? In thinking about death while strolling through the park? Between you and me, I think that Ladder Jacob a leg would have been a great ending. We know already.


Reading: The drowned woman by Ted Hughes 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: 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: Yet to die. Unalone still by Osip Mandelstam

Here is a pretty translation I found of a poem by Osip Mandelstam (1891 – 1938), one of Russia’s acclaimed anti-formalist (Acmeist) poets along with Akhmatova, Pasternak, Tsvetaeva. This was written in 1937:

Yet to die. Unalone still.
For now your pauper-friend is with you.
Together you delight in the grandeur of the plains,
And the dark, the cold, the storms of snow.

Live quiet and consoled
In gaudy poverty, in powerful destitution.
Blessed are those days and nights.
The work of this sweet voice is without sin.

Misery is he whom, like a shadow,
A dog’s barking frightens, the wind cuts down.
Poor is he who, half-alive himself
Begs his shade for pittance.

Unalone is a nice invention and sounds more ‘Russian’ to me than not alone (еще ты не один). The delight in the grandeur of the plains, together with a pauper-friend (с нищенкой-подругой) you find delight in the grandeur of the plains and the snowstorms. I found this element of the sublime in other poetry by Mandelstam as well.

And then poverty itself receives positive attributes: gaudy poverty, powerful destitution (В роскошной бедности, в могучей нищете). The days and nights are blessed and the work is without sin. Of course, we read experienced without sin. Poverty has an aspect of righteousness that doesn’t feel bad. And that is where it differs from misery or unhappiness (Несчастлив).

If you are afraid of your own shadow and the dog’s barking and don’t feel the grandeur of the wind, you’re miserable. You are poor, on the other hand, when you ask your shadow for alms (У тени милостыню просит), even though you’re already half dead. In other words, if we don’t give up our spirit and the reverence for the grandeur of nature, we will never go from merely poor to miserable (Несчастлив).

Reading: Yet to die. Unalone still by Osip Mandelstam was originally published on Meandering home