Friday, May 22, 2020

Five minutes after the air raid




Five minutes after the air raid

By Miroslav Holub  


Translated by George Theiner

In Pilsen,
twenty-six Station Road,
she climbed to the third floor
up stairs which were all that was left
of the whole house,
she opened her door
full on to the sky,
stood gaping over the edge.

For this was the place
the world ended.

Then
she locked up carefully
lest someone steal
Sirius
or Aldebaran
from her kitchen,
went back downstairs
and settled herself
to wait
for the house to rise again
and for her husband to rise from the ashes
and for her children’s hands and feet to be stuck back in place.

In the morning they found her
still as stone,
sparrows pecking her hands.


Miroslav Holub was a curious mixture, perhaps a unique one: he was one of  Czech Republic’s  most prolific and original poets and also a distinguished scientist, a leading immunologist. What makes Holub so unusual is his distinction in both fields. Miroslav Holub is one of the half dozen most important poets writing anywhere", says Ted Hughes. "One of the sanest voices of our time”, writes A. Alvarez in an introduction. His fantastical and witty poems give a scientist's bemused view of human folly and other life on the planet. He loved experimental poetry and wrote free and irregular verses. "I prefer to write for people untouched by poetry," he said in an interview.


"Five Minutes After the air Raid", is a poignant and nostalgic evocation of a woman who loses everything after her home and family are destroyed by a bomb. The poem skillfully balances the use of a factual journalistic tone with striking and at times shocking imagery, which combined evoke strong reactions in the reader. The encompassing sensation of horror and tragedy are profoundly characteristic of Holub's entire oeuvre and his poetic style.

It begins with the plainest of physical descriptions:


"   In Pilsen,
   twenty-six Station Road,
   she climbed to the third floor
   up stairs which were all that was left
   of the whole house,

   she opened the door
   full on to the sky,
   stood gaping over the edge."


One minute the woman appears to be on solid ground, making her everyday ascent to her home Upon opening the same door she has opened many times before she is met with a shockingly different world to the one familiar to her. She is simply gaping into the open sky putting herself on the peril of falling down. This move from certainty to uncertainty in this poem is amazingly swift. No sooner have we taken the address on board than we are treading those free-standing stairs. What dreadful history do they suggest? Are they the hallucination of a damaged mind, or real wreckage? How can the climbing woman avoid further injury?
 

The buildings physical ruin directly reflects the woman's emotional state: "this was the place the world had ended". These lines demonstrate the fragility of human existence, and it is telling that they are singular and separate from the rest of the poem, creating a gap, between the first stanza of the poem, and the rest, its purpose is to demonstrate the divide between the woman's old life, and that which follows the bomb. Holub is expressing that everything we know, everything we take for granted can be taken away in a single moment.

Holub reveals, the woman's disoriented mental state by having her perform an illogical action. She locks up the house. Why? There is nothing left to protect. Everything she had is gone, and Holub emphasizes this, by suggesting she is protecting.


"Sirius or Aldebaran"


They are the two brightest and most precious stars in the sky. Perhaps those are the stars she thought only she had the luck of feasting every day from her kitchen. Now that the house is gone, her deranged mind thinks that someone can steal those stars she had cherished as her own delight.


She is expecting the impossible at the end. She "went back downstairs / and settled herself / to wait / for the house to rise again / and for her husband to rise from the ashes / and for her children's hands and feet to be stuck in place. / In the morning they found her / still as stone, / sparrows pecking her hands." She is mentally deranged now. Her physical presence is there like a stone. But the mind is gone!


This is one of the saddest and deeply moving poems I have read in recent times.


Sunday, May 17, 2020

BARBARA


 
BARBARA

By Jacques Prevert (France,1900-1977)

Translated from the French by Lawrence Ferlinghetti


Remember Barbara
It rained all day on Brest that day
And you walked smiling
Flushed enraptured streaming-wet
In the rain
Remember Barbara
It rained all day on Brest that day
And I ran into you in Siam Street
You were smiling
And I smiled too
Remember Barbara
You whom I didn't know
You who didn't know me
Remember
Remember that day still
Don't forget
A man was taking cover on a porch
And he cried your name
Barbara
And you ran to him in the rain
Streaming-wet enraptured flushed
And you threw yourself in his arms
Remember that Barbara
And don't be mad if I speak familiarly
I speak familiarly to everyone I love
Even if I've seen them only once
I speak familiarly to all who are in love
Even if I don't know them
Remember Barbara
Don't forget
That good and happy rain
On your happy face
On that happy town
That rain upon the sea
Upon the arsenal
Upon the Ushant boat
Oh Barbara
What shitstupidity the war
Now what's become of you
Under this iron rain
Of fire and steel and blood
And he who held you in his arms
Amorously
Is he dead and gone or still so much alive
Oh Barbara
It's rained all day on Brest today
As it was raining before
But it isn't the same anymore
And everything is wrecked
It's a rain of mourning terrible and desolate
Nor is it still a storm
Of iron and steel and blood
But simply clouds
That die like dogs
Dogs that disappear
In the downpour drowning Brest
And float away to rot
A long way off
A long long way from Brest
Of which there's nothing left.

Jacques Prevert’s poem “Barbara” is a haunting evocation of love, loss, and memory set against the destruction of the city of Brest in northwest France during World War II. The poem, first published in 1946, tells the story of a passionate love affair, tragically cut short by the outbreak of war. The poem is simple, straightforward, and lyrical. The eponymous Barbara is repeatedly urged to remember her joyful life before the war, how once she ran to her lover’s arms amid Atlantic squalls that washed over her city, bringing only “That good and happy rain/ On your happy face/On that happy town.” The war swept away Barbara’s lover, his fate agonizingly uncertain (“Is he dead and gone or still so much alive"), and reduced her once happy city to a landscape of  shattered rubble, destroyed  “Under this iron rain/ Of fire and steel and blood”.


How powerfully Prevert responds to the violence and subsequent disorientation of the twentieth century in this poem professing a belief in the redemptive power of humanity’s creative force, viz poetry. Try to read this poem aloud.  As the reader gets engaged in the process of reading the poem,  one can sense that it is exerting an emotional effect and creating a dialogue between itself, the voice of the poet, the characters discussed in the poem and the reader. 


Pervert describes this experience of entering into an intimate dialogue with a stranger: The poets speak of a quintessential pair of tragic lovers, which is represented by Barbara and her lover, but as the poem progresses these characters become internalized and therefore universal. The poet says to Barbara:

And I ran into you in Siam Street
You were smiling
And I smiled too

describing their encounter, which in the space of that smile turns them from strangers to lovers. This shift becomes evident as the poet continues to describe Barbara’s meeting with her ‘actual’ lover in very similar terms:

A man was taking cover on a porch
And he cried your name
Barbara
And you ran to him in the rain
Streaming-wet enraptured flushed
And you threw yourself in his arms


The following lines establish a lovers’ connection between the poet and Barbara, as well as the poet and anyone who has ever experienced love:


And don’t be mad if I speak familiarly
I speak familiarly to everyone I love
Even if I’ve seen them only once
I speak familiarly to all who are in love
Even if I don’t know them


Repetitions abound in the poem and include repetitions of phrases as well as symbols and themes. Prévert constantly calls out in Barbara: “Remember Barbara” and “Don’t forget,” he repeats the adjectives in different contexts, seeing “happy rain”, a “happy face,” a “happy town,” and “iron rain” made of “iron and steel and blood.” Greet explains this type of artistic expression in revolutionary terms, as she writes that “by exposing clichés, he negates a tired civilization; he affirms life’s essential value by creating new meanings for words or by renewing old ones. In describing the actions of a lover Prévert reverses the order of his repeated adjectives, so that “streaming-wet enraptured flushed” becomes “flushed enraptured streaming-wet,” magnifying the importance of the repeated action by adding another level to its meaning, as if it were a magical phrase that has to be spoken a certain way under certain conditions for the magic to work. 


On the other hand, when Prévert describes the devastation of war and destruction of the city of Brest he thwarts the melodiousness and symmetry of the repetition, which starts with “this iron rain/Of fire and steel and blood,” and is repeated as “a storm/Of iron and steel and blood.” Similarly, the reader is caught off guard to read about the “shitstupidity the war,” which is so jarring that it in every way reminds us what love is being set against, and what it is expected to conquer. Prévert writes of what he sees is left of Breast after the destruction, and what bares no resemblance to either the passion that built the city nor the violence that destroyed it, but what resembles a deserted space not even fit for graves and memories.


The repetitions and world play in this poem remind the reader of the overall lullaby-tone of the poem, and the feeling of familiarity between himself and the poet grows into an experience of love itself: the reader becomes one of the lovers.





Ref: William C. Chittick and A-T. Tymieniecka - Sharing Poetic Expressions__ Beauty, Sublime, Mysticism in Islamic and Occidental
Peter Meusburger, Michael Heffernan, Edgar Wunder - Cultural Memories_ The Geographical Point of View-Springer
Jacques Prevert-Criticism

Saturday, March 7, 2020

AND GOD MADE ME WOMAN






AND GOD MADE ME WOMAN

By Gioconda Belli

Translated by Steven F White

And God made me woman.
With the long hair,
with the eyes,
the nose and mouth of a woman.
With curves
and folds
and soft hollows.
God carved into me a workshop for human beings.
Delicately wove my nerves
and carefully counted
and balanced my hormones:
composed my blood
and poured it into me
so that it would flow
through my entire body.
And so ideas were born,
dreams,
instincts,
everything that was gently created
with hammering whispers
and the drilling motion of love,
the thousand and one things that make me a woman every day,
that make me arise proud,
 when I get up
every morning,
and bless my sex.

Gioconda Belli is one of Nicaragua’s major political and intellectual voices, as well as one of the most important living poets of Latin America. Belli has also stood out for her fantastic novels, which have been bestsellers in different countries around the world.
The literature of Gioconda Belli is characterized on the one hand by the theme of feminism and eroticism and, on the other, its political activism. Her profound commitment to the revolutionary ideal of working together to create a fairer society is unquestionably at the heart of her writing, both poetry and fiction.

Belli is a multifaceted woman, a talented writer, journalist and feminist. Belli has been a woman sensitive to social injustices, defender and promoter of women’s rights in the Latin America region.

I couldn’t think of a better poem to celebrate 2020 International Women’s day and womanhood than this one

Tuesday, February 4, 2020



Caesarion

 By CP Cavafy

Translated by Daniel Mendelsohn

 In part to ascertain a certain date
 and in part to while away the time,
 last night I took down a collection
 of Ptolemaic inscriptions to read.
 The unstinting laudations and flatteries
 are the same for all. All of them are brilliant,
 glorious, mighty, beneficent;
 every undertaking utterly wise.
 As for the women of the line, they too,
 all the Berenices and the Cleopatras, are wonderful too.

 When I successfully ascertained the date
 I’d have finished with the book, if a tiny,
 insignificant reference to King Caesarion
 hadn’t attracted my attention suddenly… …

 Ah, there: you came with your indefinite
 charm. In history there are only a few
 lines that can be found concerning you;
 and so I could fashion you more freely in my mind.
 I fashioned you this way: beautiful and feeling.
 My artistry gives to your face
 a beauty that has a dreamy winsomeness.
 And so fully did I imagine you
 that yesterday, late at night, when the lamp
 went out—I deliberately let it go out—

I dared to think you came into my room,
 it seemed to me you stood before me: as you must have been
 in Alexandria after it had been conquered,
 pale and wearied, perfect in your sorrow,
 still hoping they’d have mercy on you,
 those vile men—who whispered, “Surfeit of Caesars.”

"A Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe." E. M. Forster's famous description of C. P. Cavafy--the most widely known and best loved modern Greek poet--perfectly captures the unique perspective Cavafy brought to bear on history and geography, sexuality and language. Cavafy wrote about people on the periphery, whose religious, ethnic and cultural identities are blurred, and he was one of the pioneers in expressing a specifically homosexual sensibility. His poems present brief and vivid evocations of historical scenes and sensual moments often infused with his distinctive sense of irony. They have established him as one of the greatest Greek poets of the twentieth century.

A striking number of his poems are about characters from Roman and Greek history and some of them come as nocturnal apparitions of those who have vanished into history.  In “Caesarion,” he brings to life a figure marginalized by history and brutalized by the imperial forces at history’s command. Caesarion was the child of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra; he was murdered (and possibly raped) by the henchmen of Octavius.

'Caesarion' shows how even reading dry historical sources can arouse the sensual memory.  Cavafy reads “a collection / of Ptolemaic inscriptions” and discovers identical, interchangeable “unstinting laudations and flatteries.” Then “a tiny, / insignificant reference to King Caesarion” attracts Cavafy’s attention. A connoisseur of history’s castaways, Cavafy, oddly, seemed tempted by his obscurity. Someone needed to intervene, and Cavafy restores to Caesarion the “beauty” and “feeling” that history effaced, a sexual favor that our boy Caesarion has travelled through time to repay. Here the poet shows how the emotional and sensual participation with characters ignored by history can illumine and immortalize them in the realm of art.

Cavafy’s use of “Surfeit of Caesars” (meaning “too many Caesars”) smacks of history’s fluent, ineluctably sensual appetite for violence.

Note: 'Caesarion' was the nickname of Ptolemy XV Caesar, ostensibly the son of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, who was invested with the title 'King of Kings' by Mark Antony. Following Antony's defeat at Actium in 31 BC the victor Octavian (later the emperor Augustus) ordered Caesarion's execution.

Berenices: name of three queens of the Ptolemy family