Tuesday, September 15, 2020



Roger Greenwald attended The City College of New York and the Poetry Project workshop at St. Mark’s Church In-the-Bowery, then completed graduate degrees at the University of Toronto. He has won two CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corp.) Literary Awards (for poetry and travel literature), the Gwendolyn MacEwen Poetry Prize, and many awards for his translations from Scandinavian languages. He has published three books of poems: Connecting Flight, Slow Mountain Train, and The Half-Life.

 His several translations in poetry  include The time in Malmö on the earth by Jacques Werup (Toronto: Exile Editions, 1989), North in the World: Selected Poems of Rolf Jacobsen (University of Chicago Press, 2002), Guarding the Air: Selected Poems of Gunnar Harding (Black Widow Press, 2014), and Through Naked Branches: Selected Poems of Tarjei Vesaas (Revised Edition, Black Widow Press, 2018). His translation of Rolf Jacobsen’s poems won him the Lewis Galantière Award from the American Translators Association. Other translation awards include the American Scandinavian Foundation Translation Prize (twice), the Inger Sjöberg Translation Prize, the F. R. Scott Translation Prize, and the Richard Wilbur Prize.

The speaker in the above poem begins by narrating  the torpor and clutter that permeate his home. The home cum office atmosphere reflects the speaker’s state of mind ( ‘we’re surviving the same way’) .Routine activities are deferred or are not done with the same frequency as earlier. Everything tends to decay and disintegration.

The second stanza is a continued meditation on the first and it says that some things besides what is mentioned in the first stanza may also fall apart though not  at the same pace. The poem doesn't say what that is, but the title is a hint. Some of the luster in his home still prevents it. The paint that stays bright frustrates the crumbling project. The paint molecules and those of the mattress springs preserve memories for a long time; so that's what doesn't crumble away  (Molecules/have long memories) . There used to be "someone" jumping on the mattress -- no more. There used to be music in the house -- no more. The finger-streaked windows are the same sort of detail as the dusty plants. A person can be tanned. But "someone" is no longer there, only dust motes; and the memory of a tan can be projected only onto the air.Objects can be seen, touched, felt, heard, tasted and felt and they are more than just physical objects. This poem powerfully recognizes it and presents them as reminders of loss and sorrow.


Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Suicide Room


 Suicide Room

By Wislawa Szymborska

Translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak.


 I'll bet you think the room was empty.

Wrong. There were three chairs with sturdy backs.

A lamp, good for fighting the dark.

A desk, and on the desk a wallet, some newspapers.

A carefree Buddha and a worried Christ.

Seven lucky elephants, a notebook in a drawer.

You think our addresses weren't in it?


No books, no pictures, no records, you guess?

Wrong. A comforting trumpet poised in black hands.

Saskia and her cordial little flower.

Joy the spark of gods.

Odysseus stretched on the shelf in life-giving sleep

after the labors of Book Five.

The moralists with the golden syllables of their names

inscribed on finely tanned spines.

Next to them, the politicians braced their backs.


No way out? But what about the door?

No prospects? The window had other views.

His glasses lay on the windowsill.

And one fly buzzed---that is, was still alive.


You think at least the note could tell us something.

But what if I say there was no note---

and he had so many friends, but all of us fit neatly

inside the empty envelope propped up against a cup.


 Wislawa Syzmborska, 1996 Nobel Laureate, was one of the great masters of Modern Polish poetry. Wislawa approach the topic of suicide in a quieter language. In this poem, the speaker makes an inventory of items that he sees upon visiting the apartment of possibly a friend who committed suicide.She seems to be seeking the reasons his choice to kill himself. She initially examines the victim’s circumstances ( I'll bet you think the room was empty./Wrong. There were three chairs with sturdy backs./A lamp, good for fighting the dark.).

 The striking feature of this poem is that it contains no statistics, no quotes from experts, no discussion of antidepressants, none of the sound-bite analysis. It methodically progresses with unremitting detachment in the interrogation. In its analytical inventory, it offers little of conventional sympathy or pathos we might expect from the situation. It is rather forensic and deals more with facts than feelings. Considering the man’s desperation, she writes:

No way out? But what about the door?

No prospects? The window had other views.

The poem goes on to describe the room of the dead man, a place filled with photos, records, books, "a carefree Buddha and a worried Christ," a notebook that held the addresses of his friends. A richly furnished room. Szymborska’s irony is prevalent, allowing her to portray the scene with penetrating coldness.

 Ultimately, the speaker wishes to force us to look harder and more closely, more skeptically at the facts, and the evidence suggests the suicide was mismatched n the things of the world around him. It is interesting to observe how conventional and automatic our own default instincts for psychological reading are. Our tendency is to read through the surface of the poem for traces of the speaker’s “actual” feelings of bitterness or grief. Yet that wounded surface is not there for us to shed tears. I like that poetic coldness and absence of melodrama and withdrawal of empathy. Yet the last lines hit us hard and make us wonder about humans around him.

Even though he had so many friends to rely on, he finally found them inadequate to help him. Sometimes, just because there are friends out there there doesn't mean we can talk to them. And just because we can talk to them doesn't mean that they'll understand.

The empty envelope enveloping his friends shows the vacuity of everything when confronted by utter desperation, defeat and surrender.



Wednesday, June 3, 2020


by Gottfried Benn
translated by Michael Hofmann

Not much of a conversationalist,
ideas weren't his strong suit,
ideas miss the point,
when Delacroix expounded his theories
it made him nervous, he for his part
could offer no explanation of the Nocturnes.

A poor lover;
mere shadow in Nohant
where George Sand's children
rejected his attempts
at discipline.

His tuberculosis
took the chronic form,
with repeated bleeding and scarring;
a creeping death,
as opposed to one
in convulsions of agony
or by firing squad:
the piano (Erard) was pushed against the door
and Delphine Potocka
sang him
a violet song in his last hour.

He took three pianos with him to England:
Pleyel, Erard, Broadwood,
for twenty guineas
he would give fifteen-minute recitals in the evenings
at the Rothschilds' and the Wellingtons', in Strafford House
to the assembled cummerbunds;
then, dark with fatigue and imminent death,
he went home
to the Square d'Orleans.

Then he burned his sketches
and manuscripts,
didn't want any leftover scraps
betraying him–
at the end he said:
"I have taken my experiment
as far as it was possible for me to go."

Each finger was to play
to no more than its natural strength,
the fourth being the weakest
(twinned with the middle finger).
At the start, they occupied the keys
of E, F sharp, G sharp, B and C.

Anyone hearing
certain of his Preludes
in country seats or
at altitude,
through open French windows
on the terrace, say, of a sanitorium,
will not easily forget it.

He composed no operas,
no symphonies,
only those tragic progressions
from artistic conviction
and with a small hand.

The reader is confronted with disparate fragments about Chopin in a non-chronological order that elude unified view of the artist.  Though limited in scope, it sensitively sketches the musical life of a fragile artist.  Its unrhymed and free verse afford the poem an open character. Presumably, what fascinated Benn about Chopin was his manifold playfulness that does not go in depth. Benn characterized Chopin as a diffident lover and a shadow in Nohant whose advice on their upbringing would have been ignored by George Sand’s children. Following the topic of failure in everyday life, the third stanza thematizes illness and death, in order to deal with his artistic performance in the next verse. Benn clarifies that the preludes are not meant for “everybody” by referencing to the semipublic play in England to which Chopin had been invited by Jews and the nobility (Cummerbunds) . Because he wished to leave only complete works behind, Chopin is said to have burned his “sketches and manuscripts” before his death. The poem disregards the intimate details of his relationships. The penultimate stanza speaks about Chopin’s technical advice for the Piano, stressing the importance of activity of each individual finger, especially the notorious weakness of the fourth finger. The end of the poem thematizes the reception of Chopin after his death with great poignancy. This is a great poem that bathes in existential pathos.

Notes (source Wiki) : 

Delacroix was a great painter and a friend of Chopin. The first stanza sounds both ironic and tender, and fills me with joy when thinking of the modesty of a great artist like Chopin. The love affair between the novelist George Sand and Chopin is quite famous. The bucolic landscapes of the black valley that surround the George Sand  family château in the village of Nohantis where they spent long summers for seven years, from 1839 to 1846, skipping only 1840, when she was upset by the failure of her play, Cosima, and he was ill. They separated two years before his death for a variety of reasons. And it was at Nohant that the musician composed most of his works for piano, from the Third Sonata to the last of the Grand Polonaises.

Delphine Potocka (March 1807 – 2 April 1877) was a Polish countess and a friend and muse to Chopin . In 1825 she married Count Mieczysław Potocki (thereby becoming a countess), with whom she had two daughters. Unhappy in her married life, she eventually divorced Potocki. After parting with her husband, Potocka went abroad, where she maintained close contacts with Chopin. She studied piano with him, and their friendship continued throughout Chopin's life; two days before his death in 1849, at his request, she sang for him an aria from Handel's Dettingen Te Deum.  

Cummerbund:  It’s a pleated waist sash worn with single-breasted tuxedo jackets. Traditionally black, they are also available in other colors, most notably burgundy, bottle green, rich gold, and even white.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Let’s Hurry

Let’s Hurry

by Maxim Amelin

translated by Derek Mong and Anne O. Fisher

Let’s hurry

to grace this meager table

with red tomatoes

and stacks of melon wedges,

with onions

and dill, with parsley and peppers,

with garlic and goose-pimpled

cucumbers. Let the oil,


as sunlit amber, glimmer.

It’s time to slice

black bread, to strew salt


Let’s offer bottles full

of wine and tipple

till they’re gone. How pleasant

to placate

our palates and sup with taste!

We won’t give up,

we won’t give in to autumn,

not a bit.

For God, the Creator of All,

likes naughty lovers

far more than dreary doubters.

Maxim Amelin is he one of the most brilliant of all contemporary Russian poets. I first heard about him while listening to an interview with the Russian poet Vera Pavlova where she praised Amelin lavishly. 

Poet, critic, editor, and translator, Maxim Amelin is among the last generation of Russian poets to grow up in the Soviet Union, or as the poet Aleksei Tsvetkov wrote in Poetry Magazine: “those in the thirty- to forty-year-old range… the children of perestroika―or one should say the orphans, since their alleged mother went missing long ago” (February 2008). The recipient of numerous national awards, including the Moscow Reckoning Award, the Anti-Booker, the Novyi Mir Prize, and the Bunin Prize, his work has been translated into over a dozen languages. In 2013 Amelin won the prestigious Solzhenitsyn Prize for his contributions to Russian poetry. 

A loving collector of neologisms and a devoted student of Revolutionary word-smithing (like Mayakovsky), Amelin keeps his poetry in suspension through a tension of opposites. He writes of bodily pleasures while musing on the body’s resurrection.

This poem is such a pleasure to read that I felt the pulse of running around and setting the table to host a party. Its accelerating pace is frenetic as the title itself. What a pleasure to read such a lively verse in these depressing times! It has amazing oomph and alacrity. And that line, 'we won’t give in to autumn' sums up the spirit.