Monday, January 30, 2006


Shu Ting

Shu Ting is the pen name of Gong Peiyu, one of the leading Chinese poets of the second half of the twentieth century. Born in 1952, she was taken out of school while still a teenager and sent to work in a cement factory and later a textile mill during the Cultural Revolution after her father was accused of ideological nonconformity. She began to write poetry during this time, influenced by the unauthorized reading of Western poetry; she was a member of the "Misty" poets, a group of young writers who turned away from the state-prescribed "social realism" in poetry to explore the world of emotion and human consciousness. Her work began to appear in the underground Misty journal Jintian (Today) in 1979; when Jintian was closed down by the authorities, she and others were investigated for possible non-conformity, and she ceased to write for a time. But the authorities were apparently satisfied with her work, and she was asked to join the official Chinese Writers' Association, twice winning the National Poetry Award in the early 1980s. She has continued to write, expanding into prose as well, and has traveled in Europe and the United States.

Typical of her work is "Missing You," a lyric probing emotional depths through concrete images:

A multi-colorerd chart without a boundary;
An equation chalked on the board, with no solution;
A one-stringed lyre that tells the beads of rain;
A pair of useless oars that never cross the water.

Waiting buds in suspended animation;
The setting sun is watching from a distance.
Though in my mind there may be an enormous ocean,
What emerges is the sum: a pair of tears.

Yes, from these vistas, from these depths,
Only this.

(Translated by Carolyn Kizer)

"Fairy Tale," a poem dedicated to her fellow Misty poet Gu Cheng (her first book was a joint publication with him), shows us the value she places on the type of poetry the two of them are writing:

You believed in your own story,
then climbed inside it --
a turquoise flower.
You gazed past ailing trees,
past crumbling walls and rusty railings.
Your least gesture beckoned a constellation
of wild vetch, grasshoppers, and stars
to sweep you into immaculate distances.

The heart may be tiny
but the world's enormous.

And the people in turn believe --
in pine trees after rain,
ten thousand tiny suns, a mulberry branch
bent over water like a fishing-rod,
a cloud tangled in the tail of a kite.
Shaking off dust, in silver voices
ten thousand memories sing from your dream.

The world may be tiny
but the heart's enormous.

(Translated by Donald Finkel)

There is also an emotional affinity with nature that is deeply rooted and vital:

"Maple Leaf"

Here is a heart-shaped leaf
Picked up by a gentle hand
On a very special hillside
At the edge of a special wood.
It may not mean very much,
This leaf with its trace of frost

But still the leaf reminds me
Of a twilit avenue,
A mind crowded with thoughts
Released on a gentle breath
That scattered from my shoulders
The rays of the setting sun.

Again, on a special evening
That touch alights on me
Having grown heavy with meaning.
This time I can't deny it,
Deny that intimacy.

Now, when the wind rises
I am prompted to turn my head
And listen to you, leaf,
As you quiver on your twig.

(Translated by Carolyn Kizer)

She has on occasion been willing to be at least indirectly critical of Chinese society:

"Assembly Line"

In time's assembly line
Night presses against night.
We come off the factory night-shift
In line as we march towards home.
Over our heads in a row
The assembly line of stars
Stretches across the sky.
Beside us, little trees
Stand numb in assembly lines.

The stars must be exhausted
After thousands of years
Of journeys which never change.
The little trees are all sick,
Choked on smog and monotony,
Stripped of their color and shape.
It's not hard to feel for them;
We share the same tempo and rhythm.

Yes, I'm numb to my own existence
As if, like the trees and stars
-- perhaps just out of habit
-- perhaps just out of sorrow,
I'm unable to show concern
For my own manufactured fate.

(Translated by Carolyn Kizer)

But, despite such occasional criticisms, she maintains an essential optimism about her country and her people:

"Motherland, My Dear Motherland"

I am the old battered mill on your river
For hundreds of years weaving a weary song
I am the lamp on your forehead, darkened by coaldust
Lighting your way as you grope like a snail down history's tunnel
I am the rice stalk, my head only husks
I am the road bed, out of repair
The barge stuck on the silted shore
Its towline sunk deep in your shoulder
O, my motherland

I am poverty
I am sorrow
I am the aching hope of generaltions of your ancestors
In the wide sleeves of the apsaras I am the flowers
Which failed from thousands of years to fall to earth
O, my motherland

I am your newest ideal
Just struggling free from the cobwebs of myth
I am the sprouting bud of the ancient lotus, found under the snow
I am dimples hung with tears
I am the starting line, freshly painted
I am the scarlet dawn, with the sun just peeping out
O, my motherland

I am one of your billion
I am all your acres of land
With yopu much-bruised breast you have nursed
The lost me, the meditative me, the boiling me
Then from my flesh and blood
Take your wealth, your glory, your freedom
O, my motherland

(Translated by Sun Li, Hu Meng-jie, Chu Meng-dan, Lu Wen,
Zuo Hong, Li Yi-dong, Ann Arbor, and John Rosenwald)

And, for her, what is finally of greatest importance is that which is rooted forever in the earth itself:

"Love Poem Earth"

I love earth
Just as I love my wordless father
Earth breathing warmth with its rivers of blood
Earth fermenting with sweat, fertile with oil
Quickening slightly under the strong plow and bare feet
Rising and falling from heat at the heart's core
You must shoulder bronze statues, monuments, museums
But sign the last judgment on the line of the fault.
My frost-crusted, mud-coated, sun-cracked earth
My stern, generous, indignant earth
Earth granting me skin color and language
Earth granting me wisdom and strength

I love earth
Just as I love my compassionate mother
Robust earth covered with kissprints from the sun's lips
Collector of leaf-layers, of sprouts springing up after sprouts
Time and again abandoned by man, never abandoning man
Creating each sound, each color, each curse
And still you are called dirt.
My lead-lustred, red-pooled, white-spotted earth
My rough, lonely, untended earth
Earth granting me love and hate
Earth granting me pain and joy

Father grants me an infinite dream
Mother grants me a sensitive heart
The lines of my poems
are the sounds of the gramtree grove
Day and night sending out to the earth
its incessant shower of loveseed

(Translated by Sun Li, Hu Meng-jie, Chu Meng-dan, Lu Wen,
Zuo Hong, Li Yi-dong, Ann Arbor, and John Rosenwald)

Wednesday, January 25, 2006


Anna Swir

Anna Swir (1909 - 1984) was one of the finest poets of Poland during the second half of the twentieth century. The daughter of an artist and a former singer, her childhood was spent in poverty that was offset by the love of her parents. Late in life, she composed a number of poems about her childhood and her parents; "White Wedding Slippers" records how the family often survived by her mother's efforts:

At night
mother opened a chest and took out
her white wedding slippers
of silk. Then slowly
daubed them with ink.

Early in the morning
she went inthose slippers
into the street
to line up for bread.
It was minus ten degrees,
she stood
for three hours in the street.

They were handing out
one-quater of a loaf per person.

(Translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan)

"He Sang All His LIfe" is a tribute to her father which also shows how he influenced her:

sang all his life.
When he was young, in Warsaw,
all winter, in the unheated workshop
he sang, his brush
gripped with fingers blue with cold.
When he came back and told mother
that he had not gotten a commission
for a portrait from a photograph,
and there was no bread for tomorrow,
he would take up his palette and start
to sing.

In Krakow when he had reached
and, in a corner of his workshop,
high-ceilinged as a church

death was waiting behind a picture --
he would sing all morning
and evening.
He sang loudly and beautifully,
people wouldstop on the stairs,

When he died and his paintings
were removed from the workshop, I
started to sing.
-- What are you doing -- said my daughter.
Grandfather died and you sing
so loud you can hear it
on the stairs.

And I sang one after the other
all the songs he sang when he was young
and when he was ninety,
with death
wainting in a corner behind a picture
in a workshop as wretched
as any when he was young.

I sang for the last time
between walls
black from soot,
where he had suffered for thirty years
and where he was taken
without pain
in his sleep by death.
Who one night came silently out
from behind a painting in the corner.

(Translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan)

After putting herself through university studying medieval and Renaissance Polish literature, she began to write prose poetry mostly about the Middle Ages and painting. With the beginning of World War II, she joined the Resistance, writing for underground publications. During the Warsaw Uprising of August and September 1944, she served as a nurse in a military hospital. Her experiences during the war, including having been arrested and told she would be executed in one hour, changed her and her poetry, introducing concern for the immediate and the value of life. Almost 30 years were to pass before she could write about her wartime experiences in Building the Barricades (1974); poems such as "A Conversation Through the Door" reveal her personal involvement during the Warsaw Uprising:

At five in the morning
I knock on his door.
I say through the door:
In the hospital at Sliska Street
your son, a soldier, is dying.

He half-opens the door,
does not remove the chain.
Behind him his wife

I say: your son asks his mother
to come.
He says: the mother won't come.
Behind him the wife

I say: the doctor allowed us
to give him wine.
He says: please wait.

He hands me a bottle through the door,
locks the door,
locks the door with a second key.

Behind the door his wife
begins to scream as if she were in labor.

(Translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan)

Her maturest work, that of the 1960s and 1970s, is both feminist and erotic, work that explores what it means to be a woman, most specifically rooted in the physicality of the body. Poems such as "Maternity" explore that area of the feminine:

I gave birth to life.
It went out of my entrails
and asks for the sacrifice of my life
as does as Aztec deity.
I lean over a little puppet,
we look at each other
with four eyes.

"You are not going to defeat me," I say
"I won't be an egg which you would crack
in a hurry for the world,
a footbridge that you would take on the way to your life.
I will defend myself."

I lean over a little puppet,
I notice
a tiny movement of a tiny finger
which a little while ago was still in me,
in which, under a thin skin,
my own bllod flows.
And suddenly I am flooded
by a high, luminous wave
of humility.
Powerless, I drown.

(Translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan)

"I'll Open the Window" examines aspects of the female/male relationship:

Our embrace lasted too long.
We loved right down to the bone.
I hear the bones grind, I see
our two skeletons.

Now I am waiting
till you leave, till
the clatter of your shoes
is heard no more. Now, silence.

Tonight I am going to sleep alone
on the bedclothes of purity.
is the first hygienic measure.
will enlarge the walls of the room,
I will open the window
and the large, frosty air will enter,
healthy as tragedy.
Human thoughts will enter
and huan concerns,
misfortune of others, saintliness of others.
They will converse softly and sternly.

Do not come anymore.
I am an animal
very rarely.

(Translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan)

That's not to say, of course, that love cannot be a part of a woman's life:

"The Greatest Love"

She is sixty. She lives
the greatest love of her life.

She walks arm-in-arm with her dear one,
her hair streams in the wind.
Her dear one says:
"You have hair like pearls."

Her children say:
"Old fool."

(Translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan)

"The Soul and the Body on the Beach" dramatizes the bipartite nature of the individual:

The soul on the beach
studies a textbook of philosophy.
The soul asks the body:
Who bound us together?
The body says:
Time to tan the knees.

The soul asks the body:
Is it true
that we do not really exist?
The body says:
I'm tanning my knees.

The soul asks the body,
Where will the dying begin,
in you or in me?
The body laughed,
It tanned its knees.

(Translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan)

"I Talk to My Body" perhaps best reveals the nature of her mature concerns and work:

My body, you are an animal
whose appropriate behovior
is concentration and discipline.
An effort
of an athlete, of a saint, and of a yogi.

Well trained,
you may become for me
a gate
through which I will leave myself
and a gate
through which I will enter myself.
A plumb line to the center of the earth
and a cosmic ship to Jupiter.

My body, you are an animal
from whom ambition
is right.
Splendid possibilities
are open to us.

(Translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan)

Thursday, January 19, 2006


Vasko Popa

Vasko Popa (1922 - 1991) was a prolific Serbian poet (43 published collections in his lifetime) who was generally held to be the best poet in his language of his generation. His work was much influenced by surrealism; "In the Ashtray" is typical in this regard: the description of an ashtray and its contents are transformed into a harsh, desolate landscape populated by those damaged souls seeking what they've lost and and paralyzed into inaction, all presided over by a brooding and ambiguous deity:

"In the Ashtray"

A tiny sun
With yellow tobacco hair
Is burning out in the ashtray

The blood of cheap lipstick suckles
The dead stumps of stubs

Beheaded sticks yearn
For sulphur crowns

Blue roans of ash whinny
Arrested in their prancing

A huge hand
With a burning eye in its palm
Lurks on the horizon

(Translated by Anne Pennington)

This piece is typical of much of Popa's work, not just in its surrealistic atmosphere but in its focus on inanimate objects which, through imaginative transformation, become the basis of exploring the human dimension. Popa tended to write short poems in related sequences, often focusing on objects, such as White Pebble and Bone to Bone; "After the Beginning" comes from the second sequence and presents a conversation between two bones:

What shall we do now?

That's a good one
Now we'll have marrow for supper

We had marrow for lunch
A hollow feeling nags my innards

Then let's make music
We like music

What do we do when the dogs come
They like bones

We'll stick in their throats
And love it

(Translated by Charles Simic)

Popa's technique is to strip the subject down to its barest essentials, then explore its denuded self in human terms.

The other important influence besides surrealism on Popa was folklore, legend, and myth -- especially those of Serbia. Several of his important works dealt with the lame wolf, an ancient Serbian deity out of pre-Christian myth, Homage to the Lame Wolf and Wolf's Earth, in which he explores the nature of human desire for acceptance by a personal deity, as in this section from Homage:


Let me approach you
Lame wolf

Let me pluck
Three magical hairs
From your triangular head

Let me touch with a stick
The star on your forehead
The stone over your heart
The left and then the right ear

And let me kiss
The wounded holy paw

Let me approach you
Don't scare me with your divine yawning
Lame wolf

(Translated by Charles Simic)

Popa also creates his own myths, a technique he fuses with his surreal focus on the inanimate in his best-known sequence The Little Box in which The Little Box takes on mythic, cosmic dimensions and significance:

"The Little Box"

The little box gets her first teeth
And her little length
Little width little emptiness
And all the rest she has

The little box continues growing
The cupboard that she was inside
Is now inside her

\And she grows bigger bigger bigger
Now the room is inside her
And the house and the city and the earth
And the world she was in before

The little box remembers her childhood
And by a great great longing
She becomes a little box again

Now in the little box
You have the whole world in miniature
You can easily put in a pocket
Easily steal it easily lose it

Take care of the little box

(Translation by Charles Simic)

In his sequence Raw Flesh turns to Eastern European legends of the werewolf to explore the violence inherent in human nature:

"Under the Sign of Wolves"

On the highway just outside of town
They found horses with torn throats
Harnessed to an empty wagon

And on the top of a mulberry tree
A merchant changed into a white sheep

All night the wolves danced
Around the fruit tree reeking of human flesh

You would have known how to haggle
With those long-tailed dancers
My grandmother tells me

I stare into her pointed teeth
And try to puzzle out her laughter

Then I run into the backyard
Climb the snow-covered pear tree
And practice my howling

(Translated by Charles Simic)

But, while much of Popa's work concerns itself with the darker corners of the human soul, there are also moments when he explores the small, fragile beauties of the tangible world, beauties which exist in the face of time's erasure:

"The Starry Snail"

You crawled after the rain
The starry rain

The stars made a house for you
Out of their bones
Where are you taking it now on your towel

Time limps behind you
To overtake you to run you over
Let your horns out snail

You crawl on a huge cheek
That you'll never glimpse
Straight into the plow of nothingness

Turn to the life-line
On my dream hand
Before it's too late

Make me the inheritor
Of your wonder-working silver towel

(Translated by Charles Simic)

Saturday, January 14, 2006


Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen

Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen (1919 - 2004) was one of the dominant poets of Portugal in the second half of the 20th century, publishing 20 volumes of poetry (as well as other work, including several children's novels) and winning 11 prizes and awards, including the most prestigious of Portugal's literary awards, the Camoens Prize in 1999 for the body of her work. She also served as a deputy in the National Assembly of Portugal.

Her work is deeply rooted in the the real, the immediate, the actual, which is experienced mostly intensely through the imaginative transformation of poetry:

"Day of Sea"

Day of sea in the sky, made
From shadows and horses and plumes.

Day of sea in my room -- cube
Where my sleepwalker's movements slide
Between animal and flower, like medusas.

Day of sea in the sea, high day
Where my gestures are seagulls who lose themselves
Spiralling over the clouds, over the spume.

(Translated by Ruth Fainlight)

We are constantly being separated from the world, from each other, and from life; it is the role of poetry to attempt to overcome this constant separation and loss:


Muse teach me the song
Revered and Primordial
The song of everyone
Believed by all

Muse teach me the song
The true brother of each thing
Incendiary of night
And evening's secret

Muse teach me the song
That takes me home
Without delay or haste
Changed to plant or stone

Or changed into the wall
Of the first house
Or become the murmur
Of sea all around

(I remember the floor
Of well-scrubbed planks
Its soapy smell
Keeps coming back)

Muse teach me the song
Of the sea's breath
Heaving with brilliants
Muse teach me the song
Of the white room
And the square windom

So I can say
How evening there
Touched door and table
Cup and mirror
How it embraced

Because time pierces
Time divides
And time thwarts
Tears me alive
From the walls and floor
Of the first house

Muse teach me the song
Revered and primordial
To fix the brilliance
Of the polished morning

That rested its fingers
Gently on the dunes
And whitewashed the walls
Of those simple rooms

Muse teach me the song
That chokes my throat

(Translated by Ruth Fainlight)

Poetry becomes the only defense against the ultimate loss, death:

"The Small Square"

My life had taken the form of a small square
That autumn when you death was being meticulously organized
I clung to the square because you loved
The humble and nostalgic humanity of small shops
Where shopkeepers fold and unfold ribbons and cloth
I tried to become you because you were going to die
And all my life there would cease to be mine
I tried to smile as you smiled
At the newspaper seller at the tobacco seller
At the woman without legs who sold violets
I asked the woman without legs to pray to you
I lit candles at all the altars
Of the churches standing in the corner of that square
Hardly had I opened my eyes when I saw and read
The vocation of eternity written on your face
I summoned up the streets places people
Who were the witnesses of your face
So they would call you so they would unweave
The tissue that death was binding around you

(Translated by Ruth Fainlight)

Ancient Greek culture was one of the most important influences on her, and became one of her most frequent subjects for poetry, as in this piece which praises the Greeks for having invested the ordinary with significance:

"The Greeks"

To the gods we attributed a dazzling existence
Consubstantial with the sea the clouds trees and light
In them the waves’ glinting the foam’s long white frieze
The woods’ secret and soft green the wheat’s tall gold
The river’s meandering the mountain’s solemn fire
And the great dome of resonant weightless free air
Emerged as self-aware consciousness
With no loss of the first day’s marriage-and-feast oneness

Anxious to have this experience for ourselves
We humans repeated the ritual gestures that re-establish
The initial whole presence of things –
This made us attentive to all forms known by the light of day
As well as to the darkness which lives within us
And in which the ineffable shimmer travels

(Translated by Richard Zenith)

But she doesn't simply value Greek ideas; she herself transforms them, reinvests them with significance for the present day:


Banished from sin and the sacred
Now they inhabit the humble intimacy
Of daily life. They are
The leaky faucet the late bus
The soup that boils over
The lost pen the vacuum that doesn’t vacuum
The taxi that doesn’t come the mislaid receipt
Shoving pushing waiting
Bureaucratic madness

Without shouting or staring
Without bristly serpent hair
With the meticulous hands of the day-to-day
They undo us

They’re the peculiar wonder of the modern world
Faceless and maskless
Nameless and breathless
The thousand-headed hydras of efficiency gone haywire

They no longer pursue desecrators and parricides
They prefer innocent victims
Who did nothing to provoke them
Thanks to them the day loses its smooth expanses
Its juice of ripe fruits
Its fragrance of flowers
Its high-sea passion
And time is transformed
Into toil and the rush
Against time

(Translated by Richard Zenith)

But this loss, this separation, represented by the presence of the Furies in everyday life, is such an inherent part of life that the final separation -- death -- shouldn't be unfamiliar or frightening:

"I Feel the Dead"

I feel the dead in the cold of violets
And that great vagueness in the moon.

The earth is doomed to be a ghost,
She who rocks all death in herself.

I know I sing at the edge of silence,
I know I dance around suspension,
Possess around dispossession.

I know I pass around the mute dead
And hold within myself my own death.

But I have lost my being in so many beings,
Died my life so many times,Kissed my ghosts so many times,
Known nothing of my acts so many times,
That death sill be simply like going
From the inside of the house into the street.

(Translated by Ruth Fainlight)

Wednesday, January 11, 2006


Taslima Nasrin

Taslima Nasrin was born in Bangladesh in 1962; she is a gynecologist and anesthesiologist as well as both a novelist and poet. Much of her literary work is strongly feminist, seeking to overcome the limitations placed on women by fundamental Islamic political elements in her country. Her novel Shame was banned by the Bangledeshi government in 1993. As the result of claims -- which she has contended were misrepresentations of her actual statements -- that the Koran should be revised, fundamentalistic Moslem factions called for her death, a situation which led to her leaving her country for Sweden in 1994; she has lived in exile since, and continues to be an active voice for women particularly (but not necessarily exclusively) in Moslem culture. A much more detailed biography is available on her personal website as is a selection of her poems ; "Another Life" is typical of her work:

Women spend the afternoon squatting on the porch
picking lice from each other's hair,
they spend the evening feeding the little ones
and lulling them to sleep in the glow of the bottle lamp.
The rest of the night they offer their backs
to be slapped and kicked by the men of the house
or sprawl half-naked on the hard wooden cot --

Crows and women greet the dawn together.
Women blow into the oven to start the fire,
tap on the back of the winnowing tray with five fingers
and with two fingers pick out stones.

Women spend half their lives picking stones from the rice.

Stones pile up in their hearts,
there's no one to touch them with two fingers . . .

(Translated by Carolyne Wright)

Saturday, January 07, 2006


Chairil Anwar

Chairil Anwar ( 1922 - 1949) was an Indonesian poet who, although he died at an early age and produced fewer than 100 published poems, revolutionized Indonesian poetry by adopting the methods and manner of Western poets: plain, spare, direct language; the organic form of free verse; unflinching and uncompromising honesty in treating his subjects. "Aku" ("Me"), the poem for which he is best-known in his homeland, clearly demonstrates these qualities:


When my time come
No one's going to cry for me,
And you won't, either

The hell with all those tears!

I'm a wild beast
Driven out of the herd

Bullets may pierce my skin
But I'll keep coming,

Carrying forward my wounds and my pain
Until suffering disappears

And I won't give a damn

I want to live another thousand years

(Translated by Burton Raffel)

The postwar years were years of enormous change in Indonesia and its culture; Anwar himself fought as a guerrilla against the Dutch attempt to reclaim Indonesia as a colony after the Japanese occupation was ended and witnessed the early stages of Indonesia's emergence into the modern world, with the consequent changes entailed. He saw and experienced the challenges to the dominant Islamic faith, as recounted in "Heaven":

Like my mother, and my grandmother too,
plus seven generations before them,
I also seek admission to Heaven
which the Moslem party and the Mohammedan
Union say has rivers of milk
And thousands of houris all over.

But there's a contemplative voice inside me,
stubbornly mocking: Do you really think
the blue sea will go dry
-- and what about the sly temptations waiting in every port?
Anyway, who can say for sure
that there really are houris there
with voices as rich and husky as Nina's, with eyes that flirt like Yati's?

(Translated by Burton Raffel)

Not only religion but all traditional values, including love, are called into question:

"Tuti's Ice Cream"

Between present and future happiness the abyss gapes,
My girl is licking happily at her ice cream;
This afternoon you're my love, I adorn you with cake and Coca-Cola.
Oh wife-in-training, we've stopped the clocks ticking.

You kissed skillfully, the scratches still hurt
-- when we cycled I took you home --
Your blood was hot, oh you were a woman soon,
And the old man's dreams leaped at the moon.

Every day's whim invited you on, every day's whim was different.
Tomorrow we'll fight and turn our backs on each other:
Heaven is this minutes' game.

I'm like you, everything ran by,
Me and Tuti and Hreyt and Amoy . . . dilapidated hearts.
Love's a danger that quickly fades.

(Translated by Burton Raffel)

There are also moments of introspection that raise questions about the meaning of it all:

"Twilight at a Little Harbor"

This time no one's looking for love
down between the sheds, the old houses, among the twittering
masts and rigging. A boat, a prau that will never sail again
puffs and snorts, thinking there's something it can catch

The drizzle brings darkness. An eagle's wings flap,
brushing against the gloom; the day whispers, swimming silkily
away to meet harbor temptations yet to come. Nothing moves
and now the sand and the sea are asleep, the waves gone.

That's all. I'm alone. walking,
combing the cape, still choking back the hope
of getting to the end and, just once, saying the hell with it
from this fourth beach, embracing the last, the final sob.

(Translated by Burton Raffel)

Tuesday, January 03, 2006


Lorna Goodison II

My copy of Guinea Woman: New and Selected Poems (Carcanet, 2000) arrived today and has provided me with a large helping of her work; I've already found a number of poems I'm particularly taken by. There are several poems about art; this one about van Gogh is particularly effective:

"Vincent and the Orient"

The blackbird in the bougainvillea bush
brushes against the powder blue sky.
The carnelian froth of the flowering tree,
and the way that this picture
framed itself inside my window,

makes me remember again Vincent
and the Orient he would imitate,
japonaiserie, white-petaled trees
set in a spare Eastern landscape.
They are not my favorite; dearer to me

are those in which familiar things turn
transcendent. Golden cornfields
shimmy like blonde dancing girls,
hips rolling, abondoned, fecund.
The red turban of a zouave's uniform

pulses like a live internal organ.
Strange how I never meditate upon
the harsh details of his death
but see instead the glory of his gift
for transforming elementary things

through patience and careful seeing
past all obvious appearances
down to where the whirling spirits
flash primal pigments, creating
images, sensuous, duende, amazing.

There are also a number of love poems, of which "Domestic Incense" is a good representative:

Just then, in that early afternoon,
I wanted to be that simple woman
who had cooked you Saturday soup

using all golden foods. Bellywoman
pumpkin, yellow yams, sweet potato,
carrots and deep ivory bones of beef.

I would bear it to you in an enamel bowl,
the smell of fragrant thyme and pimento
would waft, domestic incense, as I go.

How the hot Scotch Bonnet pepper
would issue its flavor through
the ripened walls of its own skin

but because like our love its seeds
can scorch, I'd be careful to remove it
before it cooked itself into breaking.

Food and the preparation of food is a frequent element in Goodison's love poems, as it is in other poems, as well, including this attempt to define poetry:

"The Mango of Poetry"

I read a book
about the meaning of poetry.
The writer defines it as silence,
then breaks the lines

to construct ideas
about the building of bridges,
the reconciliation of opposites.
I'm still not sure what poetry is.

But now I think of a ripe mango
yellow ochre niceness
sweet flesh of St, Julian,
and all I want to do

is to eat one from the tree
planted by my father
three years before the sickness
made him fall prematurely.

The tree by way of compensation
bears fruit all year round
in profusion and overabundance
making up for the shortfall

of my father's truncated years.
I'd pick this mango with a cleft stick,
then I'd wash it and go to sit
upon the front wall of our yard.

I would not peel it all back
to reveal its golden entirety,
but I would soften it by rolling
it slowly between my palms.

Then I'd nibble a neat hole
at the top of the skin pouch
and then pull the pulp
up slowly into my mouth.

I'd do this all while wearing
a bombay-colored blouse
so that the stain of the juice
could fall freely upon me.

And I say that this too would be
powerful and overflowing
and a fitting definition
of what is poetry.

Finally, food and its preparation are central in what I think may be Goodison's finest poem, "The Domestic Science of Sunday Dinner," a poem too long to include here but a magnificent and complex work that operates on a number of levels simultaneously; it's a work definitely worth seeking out.

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