Friday, December 30, 2005


Marin Sorescu

Marin Sorescu (1936 - 1996) was a Romanian poet and playwright whose poetry is characterized by a degree of whimsy that gives rise to gentle but perceptive irony, as in "Precautions":

I pulled on a suit of mail
made of pebbles
worn smooth by water.

I balanced a pair of glasses
on my neck
so as to keep an eye
on whatever
was coming behind me.

I gloved and greaved
my hands, my legs, my thoughts,
leaving no part of my person
exposed to touch
or other poisons.

Then I fashioned a breastplate
from the shell
of an eight-hundred-year-old

And when everything was just so
I tenderly replied:
-- I love you too.

(Translated by Paul Muldoon and Joana Russell-Gebbett)

In the following poem, Sorescu contrasts the actors who understand so well how to bring their characters and their characters' passions to genuine life with the audience, the "we," who don't know "how to come alive":


How naturally spontaneous -the actors!
With sleeves rolled up,
How much better they know how to live our lives for us!

Never have I seen a more perfect kiss
Than the actors' in the third act,
When the passions start
To make themselves clear.

Stained with oil,
In authentic caps,
True-to-life in their perfectly plausible jobs,
They enter and exit with speeches
That unfurl like carpets under their feet.

Their death on stage is so genuine
That, next to its perfection,
Those in the graveyards,
The truly dead,
Made up for tragedy, once and for all time,
Seem stagy and unstill!

Whereas we, so stiff within our single span,
We don't so much as know how to come alive!
We speak our lines at the wrong time or keep silent for years on end,
Histrionic and unaesthetic,
And we haven't a clue where the hell to keep our hands.

(Translated byAdam Sorkin and Lidia Vianu)

His poems are most often firmly rooted in the ordinary, the everyday, but this becomes a lens which allows Sorescu and his reader to see more deeply beyond the initial surface into metaphysical depths:

"It's Been a Day"

You're coming home
A bit worn out,
But satisfied.
Satisfied as a tram ticket
Showed to the collector
And punched exactly in the right place.

You've been unwinding generously
During the whole day,
And now you gather again, little by little,
You are waiting to rewind
And you return, you return from everywhere,
You return and you're never ending.

It's been a day like any other,
Full of achievements,
No sooner did you arrive at work,
Than you began to spread your own activity
On table, chairs, and telephone
And all surrounding objects meant for that.

You also faced some other tasks:
You asked for and you offered cigarettes,
You shook hands with at least one hundred fellows
Anticipating questions like "How are you?"
Before they had the possibility to ask you,
Thus managing to place them
In a position of inferiority.
And obviously you spoke all day, as usual,
Within the limits of the Current Romanian Language Dictionary,
Five thousand words or so.

And now while you are picking up the rust
From the key you forgot in your pocket,
The pebbles which got into your shoes,
Have now, one by one, slunk also in your soul.
And are so strangely jingling there,
Thus, now your children will have one more toy to rattle.

Even your nerves
Which have been so artistically twisted
All day long,
Will be in such a glorious way used by them
As a new buzzer for the paper kite.
In a few minutes, the kite will be joyfully hoisted
Over your house,
Signalling to the Cosmos that still,
Life does exist on Earth in spite of all,
and it's exploited to the maximum.

(Translated by C. Iliescu)

In what has struck me as one of his finest poems I've yet seem, "Paintings," Sorescu combines all these elements to reveal to us how the observer becomes involved in the perception of art:


All museums are afraid of me:
When I spend a whole day
Contemplating a painting
The following day they announce
It has disappeared.

Every day I am found stealing
In another part of the world
Yet I am unperturbed
By the bullets which whistle past my ears
And the police dogs
Which now know the smell of my steps
Better than lovers
The perfume of their beloved.

I talk loudly to the oil paintings
That endanger my life
I hang them up on the clouds and trees
Then step back to study the perspective.
With the Italian masters it's easy to start a conversation
What a chatter of colours!
And so with them
I am easily detected
Heard and seen from a distance
As if I were carrying parrots.

The most difficult to steal is Rembrandt.
You reach to touch him and come upon darkness
You panic, his people have no bodies
Only. eyes locked in dark cellars.

Van Gogh's canvases are mad
They swirl and turn head over heel
You must keep a tight grip With both hands
They are sucked in by some power of the moon.

Why should Breughel make me cry?
He was no older than me
Yet he was named the Elder
Because he was omniscient when he died.

I try to learn from him
But I can't keep my tears
From running on his golden frames
As I escape, the seasons under my arm.

As I say
Each night I steal a painting
With a dexterity to be envied
And yet it is such a long way
And finally caught I am caught.
So home I come late at night
Tired, torn by dogs,
Bearing in my hands a cheap reproduction.

(Translation by Constantin Roman)

In late 1996, dying of liver cancer, Sorescu dictated his last volume of poetry The Bridge to his wife, directly confronting without hesitation his own death:

"Ladder to Heaven"

A silken thread, spun by a spider
Hangs from the ceiling
Just above my bed.

Day by day I watch it descend.
And think, 'now heaven offers me ladder,
It reaches to me from above'.

Weakened though I be,
A shadow of my former self,
I think the ladder might not
Support my weight.

Listen, my soul, on you go ahead,
Softly, softly.

(Translation by Constantin Roman)

Tuesday, December 27, 2005


Lorna Goodison

Lorna Goodison, born in Jamaica in 1947, is another recent discovery for me in The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry. Much of her work focuses on the role of women in Caribbean society, both in the past and the present; she often draws upon the history of her own family, as she does in this poem about her great grandmother, who was enslaved and whose "Mulatta" daughter was taken from her, but whose dynamic nature continues to assert itself in each successive generation:

"Guinea Woman"

Great grandmother
was a guinea woman
wide eyes turning
the corners of her face
could see behind her
her cheeks dusted with
a fine rash of jet-bead wars
that itched when the rain set up.

Great grandmother's waistline
the span of a headman's hand
slender and tall like a cane stalk
with a guinea woman's antelope-quick walk
and when she paused
her gaze would look to sea
her profile fine like some obverse impression
on a guinea coin from royal memory.

It seems her fate was anchored
in the unfathomable sea
for her great grandmother caught the eye of a sailor
whose ship sailed without him from Lucea harbour.
Great grandmother's royal scent of
cinnamon and escallions
drew the sailor up the straits of Africa,
the evidence my blue-eyed grandmother
the first Mulatta
taken into backra's household
and covered with his name.
They forbade great grandmother's
guinea woman presence
they washed away her scent of
cinnamon and escallions
controlled the child's antelope walk
and called her uprisings rebellions.

But, great grandmother
I see your features blood dark
in the children of each new
the high yellow brown
is darkening down.
Listen, children
it's great grandmother's turn.

Exploring the West Indian past, Goodison recounts the stories of the daily lives of slave women through dramatic monologues which recreate intimate details of their experiences, as here in a poem that plays with multiple meanings of the title phrase "inna calabash":

"Inna Calabash"

Inna calabash
Inna calabash
tell them that the baby
that count in them census already
Inna calabash

One slave child
that count already
while it inside my belly
tell them that the baby
Inna calabash.

She show me
Quasheba show me one day
when I faint in the field of cane

When I cry and say
Why I can't be like missus
siddown and plait sand
and throw stone after breeze.

Quasheba show me
how the calabash contained
for a slave gal like me
a little soft life and ease.

Pick a big calabash
bore both ends she say
shake out the gray pulp belly.
run a string through both ends
and tie it across your belly.

Drop the little shift frock
make outta Massa
coarse oznaburg cloth
over your calabash belly

Nothing Massa like
like more slave pickney
to grow into big slave
to serve slavery.

You will get rest
when you have belly.
When you rest enough
just take it off.

Say you fall
say you lose baby.
Quasheba show me
all I need to know.
Inna calabash.

Goodison also explores the lives of contemporary women as well, as in this three-part poem on the lives of "fallen women":

From the Garden of the Women Once Fallen


Woman alone, living
in a tenement of enmity.
One room of back-biting
standpipe flowing strife.

Recall one dry Sunday
of no rice and peas no meat
how you boiled a handful
of fresh green thyme

to carry the smell of Sunday
as usual.
Thyme, herb of contraction
rising as steaming incense
of save-face.

When you dwell among enemies
you never make them salt your pot.
You never make them know
your want.

"Of Bitterness Herbs"

You knotted the spite blooms into a bouquest-garni
to falvor stock from sour soups and confusion stews.
Now no one will dine with you.

A diet of bitterness is self consuming. Such herbs
are best destroyed, rooted out from the garden
of the necessary even preordained past.

Bitter herbs grow luxusiant where the grudgeful crow
dropped its shadow, starting a compost heap of need in you
to spray malicious toxins over all flowers in our rose gardens.

Bitterness herbs bake bad-minded bread, are good for little
except pickling green-eyed gall stones, then eaten alone
from wooden spoons of must-suck-salt.

"In the Time of Late-Blooming Pumpkins"

In this garden, water walks
and water walking enters
belly of pumpkin.

This means you are growing
big from within, all ripeness,
though somebody (Jeremiah?)

shouts from outside the garden wall
"You are all conceived in sin"
but that is just some false prophet

negative and bad mouthing.
For in this new garden
of fresh start over

with its mysteries of walking water,
give thanks for late summer's
rose afternoons shading
into amethyst, then deepening
into red water grass evenings,
time of late-blooming pumpkins.

Not all of her work deals with the lives of women; there are joyous evocations of Jamaican life and of childhood, such as the delightful "Songs of the Fruits and Sweets of Childhood" which is too long to post in its entirety, but a few stanzas will demonstrate its visual, tactile, olfactory, and gustatory appeal :

. . .

Jade green lantern
light astringent
is the tart taste
of the jimbelin.

. . .

But of all fruit
the most perfect is
the dark ochre
taste like rosewater
color like logwood honey
that is a naseberry.

. . .

And in singing
the lungs will fill
with the sweet dust
of corn,
pounded, parched
blended with
cane sugar
to tickle the
channels of breathing.
Inhale, sneeze
sing so
"Asham O."

. . .

The rise
of the palette's roof
is a nice height
under which
to tuck the pink backed
paradise plum.
Its smooth
white underbelly
melting level
with the tongue.

. . .

And the ring game
or join up
of pink top
candy bump
going round and round
in a ring
of the fruits and sweets
of childhood

Saturday, December 24, 2005


Miroslav Holub

Miroslav Holub (1923-1998) was a Czechoslovakian microbiologist specializing in cellular immunology as well as a poet who often drew upon his scientific background for poetic material, inspiration, and outlook. His outlook (perhaps exacerbated in part by his run-ins with Communist authorities and subsequent loss of position and privileges) is often bleak, as are the outlooks of many of his contemporaries, but, unlike many of those, Holub also retains both a strain of humor and at times a cautious and limited optimism.

Holub's poems often focus on clear images, precisely observed, as in "The Fly":

She sat on the willow bark
part of the battle of Crécy,
the shrieks,
the moans,
the wails,
the trampling and tumbling.

During the fourteenth charge
of the French cavalry
she mated
with a brown-eyed male fly
from Vadincourt.

She rubbed her legs together
sitting on a disemboweled horse
on the immortality of flies.

Relieved she alighted
on the blue tongue
of the Duke of Clervaux.

When silence settled
and the whisper of decay
softly circled the bodies

and just
a few arms and legs
twitched under the trees,

she began to lay her eggs
on the single eye
of Johann Uhr,
the Royal Armorer.

And so it came to pass --
she was eaten by a swift
from the fires of Estrés.

(Translated by Stuart Friebert and Dana Habova)

By focusing on the fly and its actions, Holub shifts our perceptions of the killing ground where the feudal aristocracy of medieval France was slaughtered so that it becomes -- in terms of the fly -- virtually an Edenic setting as the fly fulfills her fundamental urges and passes on her genes to a new generation. Her death afterwards comes as an ironic, almost offhand occurrence as the perspective shifts again from that of the fly to that of the swift who devours her. Holub thus establishes the human action of the Battle of Crécy, and of warfare more generally, within the broader context of biological nature and thereby reveals its inevitability and, perhaps, questions whether such events as Crécy are, when seen from a broader perspective, any more a "tragedy" than the death of the fly. At the very least, the perceptional shift asks us to question our anthropocentric view of the world.

But, as was mentioned, there is at times an element of whimsical optimism in Holub's work, as in this poem where, in addition to "wide-eye bunnies/ dropping from the sky," at the end, the beetles ensure a kind of resurrection for the dead:


And it is all over.

No more sweetpeas,
no more wide-eyed bunnies
dropping from the sky.

a reddish boniness
under the sun of hoarfrost,
a thievish fog,
an insipid solution of love,
and crowing.

But next year
larches will try
to make the land full of larches again
and larks will try
to make the land full of larks.

And thrushes will try
to make all the trees sing,
and goldfinches will try
to make all the grass golden,

and burying beetles
with their creaky love will try
to make all the corpses
rise from the dead,


(Translated by Stuart Friebert and Dana Habova)

There are also moments when the whimsy is more obviously satirical:

"The Teaching of the Master"

He spoke
and the shirts of penitents
fell to the ground, impregnated.

It was the Caesarian section of thought,
plush dolls were born, jubilating.
It was a profile of Everyman,
cut out of black paper.
Ladybugs crawled out from under our fingernails.
Trumpets were heard at the walls of Jericho.
Our genes sizzled.

It was magnificent, as he spoke.
It's just that I can't recall
what he was talking about.

(translated by David Young and Miroslav Holub)

I suspect that, in satirizing religion here (and in a few other poems, as well), Holub is actually disguising satiric thrusts at the Communist government of his country.

Friday, December 23, 2005


A Danish Shiny Bit: Henrik Nordbrandt

Henrik Nordbrandt is a contemporary Danish poet I recently ran across for the first time in The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry, edited by J. D. McClatchy (Vintage Books, 1996); the five poems there and the couple of others I found on the Poetry International website interested me enough that I've ordered a collection of his work available in English, The Hangman's Lament: Selected Poems (Green Integer, 2003).

Born in 1945, Nordbrandt has lived most of his adult life away from Denmark, primarily in Italy, Greece, and Turkey; this self-imposed exile is at least part of what contributes to what is perhaps his major theme, that of loneliness and isolation. Interestingly, this theme apparently reveals itself especially in his love poetry (which I gather forms a substantial portion of his body of work). Of the half dozen of his poems I've located so far, half deal with this awareness of the loneliness within love. "Sailing" is a remarkable poem which develops this idea through a two-part extended metaphor:

Henrik Nordbrandt

After having loved we lie close together
and at the same time with distance between us
like two sailing ships that enjoy so intensely
their own lines in the dark water they divide
that their hulls
are almost splitting from sheer delight
while racing, out in the blue
under sails which the night wind fills
with flowerscented air and moonlight
-- without one of them ever trying
to outsail the other
and without the distance between them
lessening or growing at all

But there are other nights, where we drift
like two brightly illuminated luxury liners
lying side by side
with the engines shut off, under a strange constellation
and without a single passenger on board:
On each deck a violin orchestra is playing
in honor of the luminous waves.
And the sea is full of old tired ships
which we have sunk in our attempt to reach each other.

(translated by the author and Alexander Taylor)

The first strophe develops the metaphor of the two lovers, lying beside each other in post-coital repletion, as two sailing ships traveling side by side but with each ship (personified) focusing entirely on its own motion and movement through the water; each ship is absorbed entirely in its own pleasure in the physical sensations it experiences and it neither approaches nor draws away from the other. Each lover, in short, is alone, revelling in the afterglow of his/her own sexual gratification without any real concern or interest in the partner. Although each is near the other, the presence of the other doesn't impinge upon the awareness of the individuals; their physical union has led to an emotional and psychological disconnection between them.

The second strophe likewise develops a similar metaphor, that of the two lovers again lying side by side but this time like two ocean liners, empty of passengers, and having drawn close to each other fully lighted and with their respective orchestras playing on deck, clearly in an attempt to communicate somehow with each other, particularly given that they are alone "under a strange constellation." But, again, there is no indication that either ship -- or lover -- is able to directly or meaningfully communicate with the other, that anyone on one ship perceives and understands what is being communicated by the other. Instead, there is only an awareness of an attempt to communicate and of what has been lost in the past in the lovers' "attempt to reach each other." It is almost as if the music each ship's orchestra is playing is an elegy for the failures that make up the past.

Thursday, December 22, 2005


The First Shiny Bit

"Rolling Naked in the Morning Dew"
by Pattiann Rogers

Out among the wet grasses and wild barley-covered
Meadows, backside, frontside, through the white clover
And feather peabush, over spongy tussocks
And shaggy-mane mushrooms, the abandoned nests
Of larks and bobolinks, face to face
With vole trails, snail niches, jelly
Slug eggs; or in a stone-walled garden, level
With the stemmed bulbs of orange and scarlet tulips,
Cricket carcasses, the bent blossoms of sweet william,
Shoulder over shoulder, leg over leg, clear
To the ferny edge of the goldfish pond -- some people
believe in the rejuvenating powers of this act -- naked
As a toad in the forest, belly and hips, thighs
And ankles drenched in the dew-filled gulches
Of oak leaves, in the soft fall beneath yellow birches,
All of the skin exposed directly to the killy cry
Of the king bird, the buzzing of grasshopper sparrows,
Those calls merging with the dawn-red mists
Of crimson steeplebush, entering the bare body then
Not merely through the ears but through the skin
Of every naked person willing every event and potentiality
Of a damp transforming dawn to enter.

Lillie Langtry practiced it, when weather permitted,
Lying down naked every morning in the dew,
With all of her beauty believing the single petal
Of her white skin could absorb and assume
That radiating purity of liquid and light.
And I admit to believing myself, without question,
In the magical powers of dew on the cheeks
And breasts of Lillie Langtry believing devotedly
In the magical powers of early morning dew on the skin
Of her body lolling in purple beds of bird's-foot violets,
Pink prairie mimosa. And I believe, without doubt,
In the mystery of the healing energy coming
From that wholehearted belief in the beneficient results
Of the good delights of the naked body rolling
And rolling through all the silked and sun-filled,
Dusky-winged, sheathed and sparkled, looped
And dizzied effluences of each dawn
Of the rolling earth.

Just consider how the mere idea of it alone
Has already caused me to sing and sing
This whole morning long.

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