Tuesday, December 31, 2013

JANUARY FIRST


JANUARY FIRST

By Octavio Paz

Translated by Elizabeth Bishop

The year's doors open
like those of language,
toward the unknown.
Last night you told me: 
                               tomorrow
we shall have to think up signs,
sketch a landscape, fabricate a plan
on the double page
of day and paper.
Tomorrow, we shall have to invent,
once more,
the reality of this world.

I opened my eyes late.
For a second of a second
I felt what the Aztec felt,
on the crest of the promontory,
lying in wait
for time's uncertain return
through cracks in the horizon.

But no, the year had returned.
It filled all the room
and my look almost touched it.
Time, with no help from us,
had placed
in exactly the same order as yesterday
houses in the empty street,
snow on the houses,
silence on the snow.

You were beside me,
still asleep.
The day had invented you
but you hadn't yet accepted
being invented by the day.
--Nor possibly my being invented, either.
You were in another day.

You were beside me
and I saw you, like the snow,
asleep among the appearances.
Time, with no help from us,
invents houses, streets, trees,
and sleeping women.

When you open your eyes
we'll walk, once more,
among the hours and their inventions.
We'll walk among appearances
and bear witness to time and its conjugations.
Perhaps we'll open the day's doors.
And then we shall enter the unknown.



Poets have the power to awaken a new reality in us even about the arrival of a New Year. This has always been my most loved New Year Poem. The Poet puts a new perspective in this poem as if stepping into a New Year is like stepping into a new terrain, stepping into unknown. I love the enigma and mystery in this one that only a great poet like Octavio Paz can invoke. If only we could write a single New Year poem of this grandeur!

In every sense we invent a new day by opening a new door and that is our challenge. There must be a sense of future and a decision to invent a new reality in all of us. That is Paz's positive New Year message.

Today we stand upon the verge of the unknown. There lies before us the New Year and we are going forth to possess it. Who can tell what we shall find? What new experiences, what changes shall come, what new needs shall arise? Nevertheless, we shall enter the unknown with exhilaration and not with trepidation.

Existence is not just what has occurred. Existence is the realm of human possibilities, everything he can become, everything he is capable of. May you all discover new signs, sketch a new landscape and may 2014 invent a better YOU.

May the reality you create for yourself and for those around you be one full of promise, purpose and positivity.

May the New Year be a blessed one for all of you!

Octavio Paz

Octavio Paz was the former Mexican Ambassador to India, Nobel Laureate for Literature and one of the greatest poets of Twentieth Century.

PS: Regarding the reference to Aztec , it may be noted that Aztec feared the end of the world when a century ended and they used to perform a New fire ceremony on the eve of the new century in order to stave off the end of the world (Aztec followed a different Calendar and as per it, a century was 52 years ) .

Ref: A Draft of Shadows, and Other poems by Octavio Paz

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

THE MAD POMEGRANATE TREE




THE MAD POMEGRANATE TREE

by Odysseus Elytis 

Translated by:  Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard 

In these all-white courtyards where the south wind blows
Whistling through vaulted arcades, tell me, is it the mad pomegranate tree
That leaps in the light, scattering its fruitful laughter
With windy wilfulness and whispering, tell me, is it the mad 
   pomegranate tree
That quivers with foliage newly born at dawn
Raising high its colours in a shiver of triumph?

On plains where the naked girls awake,
When they harvest clover with their light brown arms
Roaming round the borders of their dreams-tell me, is it the mad
   pomegranate tree,
Unsuspecting, that puts the lights in their verdant baskets
That floods their names with the singing of birds-tell me
Is it the mad pomegranate tree that combats the cloudy skies of the 
  world?

On the day that it adorns itself in jealousy with seven kinds of feathers,
Girding the eternal sun with a thousand blinding prisms
Tell me, is it the mad pomegranate tree
That seizes on the run a horse’s mane of a hundred lashes,
Never sad and never grumbling–tell me, is it the mad pomegranate tree
That cries out the new hope now dawning?
Tell me, is that the pomegranate tree waving in the distance,
Fluttering a handkerchief of leaves of cool flame,
A sea near birth with a thousand ships and more,
With waves that a thousand times and more set out and go
To unscented shores-tell me, is it the pomegranate tree
That creaks the rigging aloft in the lucid air?

High as can be, with the blue bunch of grapes that flares and celebrates
Arrogant, full of danger–tell me, is it the mad pomegranate tree
That shatters with light the demon’s tempest in the middle of the world
That spreads far as can be the saffron ruffle of day
Richly embroider with scattered songs-tell me, is it the  mad 
  pomegranate tree
That hastily unfastens the silk apparel of day?

In petticoats of April first and cicadas of the feast of mid-August
Tell me, that which plays, that which rages, that which can entice
Shaking out of threats their evil black darkness
Spilling in the sun’s embrace intoxicating birds
Tell me, that which opens its wings on the breast of things
On the breast of our deepest dreams, is that the mad pomegranate tree?


At the beginning of his luminous career, the great Greek poet and Nobel Laureate Odysseus Elytis said: “I write so that black does not have the last word.”Black and light, sunshine and darkness, these were the two poles of Elytis’ poetry, a pendulum between passion and patience, a bewilderment stretching throughout the day. At the beginning, he was acclaimed as the poet of the sparkling Aegean .The best of his Poetry - such as The Mad Pomegranate Tree, Commemoration, Aegean Melancholy, Body of Summer, and Drinking the Sun of Corinth, distils vividly and evocatively the typical features of the Aegean scene: its closeness to the natural world, its startling colors, and its hints of the simple and the unsophisticated.

There is a radiating quality in many of his great poems. He is a poet of sunshine, vitality, colour, and exuberance.  It was endemic in his personality, his geographical setting and spiritual awareness. I have never experienced so much light, light, light, sun, sun, sun, fire, fire, fire as in the poems of Elytis. But his greatness lies in the fact that when engaging in simplicities of such elemental features, he interpolates also his unique ingredients of the inspirational and the spiritual; so that, in the end, all of it becomes universal in its significance, and enduring in its meaning. The sun can burn and kill as well as illuminate our earth. And the dark silence can be even greater than the light. But though aware of them, Elytis was never attracted by the darker aspects of the world. That is obvious by looking at the images he returns to again and again in his poems: the Aegean sea, young men and women, or boys and girls, often naked, poppies, pebbles, vineyards, butterflies, branches, olive trees, almond trees, pomegranate tree etc

In “The Mad Pomegranate Tree”, the poet answers to the difficult questions hanging from its branches (”Tell me, that which opens its wings on the breast of things / On the breast of our deepest dreams, is that the mad pomegranate tree?”).One has the feeling that it is the mad pomegranate tree that drives the world. The unabashed pomegranate tree dances and dances in the ear. It sings and stuns the mind  with extravagant repetitions.( ‘Tell me, is the mad pomegranate tree’). The sound of joy repeating and rushing seems to careen wildily ahead of our thought with tickling uncontrolled energy. 

Also, there is something of the frenzy of a Van Gogh painting in this - an urgency to capture the beauty of the various images, as if it would slip away if not grasped at immediately. The poem is intoxicating and invigorating at the same time, lulls you into a trance with its rhythm and repetitions but awakens you to a different world.

I simply love the lyrical surrealism that lingers in this poem. Whenever I read this poem, I gain a rare ‘ Elan vital ‘ (the current of life, the way Bergson used it). I feel that I have the heart of Bacchus to revel and rejoice; I am charged with 440 V to recklessly rush forward, to dance, to fly, to laugh around and do all the naughty things I had dreamed of.  Poetry is Viagra!

The mad pomegranate tree will continue to toss in the wind and “scatter its fruit-laden laughter” lifting up my spirits with buoyancy and bliss in my ritual for renewal.

This poem is pure Mozartian rhapsody.




Source of the poem: Odysseus Elytis: Selected Poems

Odysseus Elytis (Author), Edmund Keeley (Editor, Translator), Philip Sherrard (Editor, Translator), George Savidis (Translator), John Stathatos (Translator), Nanos Valaoritis (Translator): Viking Press

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Small Ode to a Black Cuban Boxer


Small Ode to a Black Cuban Boxer


By Nicolás Guillén

Translated by Roberto Márquez

Your gloves
cocked before a squirrel-quick body
and the punch in your smile!

Boxer, the North is hard and cruel.
The very Broadway
that like a vein bleeds out
to scream beside the ring
wherein you bound, a brand new rubber monkey,
without resorting to the ropes
or the cushions of a clinch . . .
the very Broadway
that oils its melon-mouth with fear
before your fists of dynamite
and stylish patent leather shoes . . .
is the same Broadway
that stretches out its snout, its moist enormous tongue,
to lick and glut upon
our canefields' vital blood!

It's clear
you're not aware of certain things down here,
nor of certain things up there;
for training is tough, muscle a traitor,
and one must gain-you say with joy
-a bull-like strength, to make the punch hurt more.

Your English,
only a bit more shaky than your feeble Spanish,
is good enough inside the ring
for you to understand that filthy slang
spit from the jaws of those you waste
jab by jab.

In truth, perhaps that's all you need.
And, as you certainly will think,
you've got it made.

For after all, it's great
to find a punching bag,
work off some fat beneath the sun –
to leap,
to sweat,
to swim and
from shadow-boxing to a fight,
from the shower to the table,
come out polished, fine, and strong,
like a newly-crafted cane
with the aggressiveness of a black jack.

So now that Europe strips itself
to brown its hide beneath the sun
and seeks in Harlem and Havana
jazz and son:
the Negro reigns while boulevards
Let the envy of the whites
know proud, authentic black!

Nicolás Guillén was born in the provincial city of Camagüey, Cuba, on July 10, 1902. His commitment to social justice and membership in the Communist Party made him the national poet of revolutionary Cuba.  Guillén's invocation and reliance on the vernacular musical form emerged from the creolization of African and European aesthetics. Not only was Guillén one of Cuba's foremost poets who wrote in many styles, he is regarded as one of the foremost Caribbean poets of the 20th Century.

From its broad-ranging national and Latin American roots, Guillen’s poetry achieved universal projection depicting the struggles and hopes of the men of his times. Many elements come together in his work: sensuality, humor, and the Afro-Cuban musical modalities, along with great knowledge of folklore and traditional Spanish poetry.
Rather than deploying Afro-Cuban culture as an aestheticized response to foreign influence, Guillen focused on racism at home and abroad, including racial hierarchies within black Cuban culture and racism’s attendant inequalities. Guillen was concerned about manual work and worers and also claimed the power of physical labor for his art, as in the manifesto poem “Legend” : “Our somng/is like muscle under the skin of the soul”. Numerous poems in his collections give voice to laborers themselves, many of them working in city in improvisational modes :street vendors, organ grinders, drummers, singers, guitarists, dockworkers.

 In his chronicle , “In a Jeep with the Cyclists”, Nicolas Guillen wrote: “Sports and poetry? Why not?”  “I think that, far from being at odds with poetry, there's a great amount of beauty in a stadium, a boxing ring, a baseball diamond, a tennis court, which should be expressed in poetry. Walt Whitman –such a great lover of nature- truly understood this.”
“Me? Well, I wrote Kid Chocolate an ode some time ago, in 1928; and a poem about chess and boxing, and some verses about baseball. So, I'm entitled to expect that athletes, in turn, become interested in –if they already haven't done so- poets and poetry. Perhaps, it’s not as lively as sports; undoubtedly it's more intimate, but it usually has some moments of cutting and distressing emotions… Doesn't it?”

This poem titled “Small Ode to a Black Cuban Boxer”, is dedicated to Eligio Sardiñas popularly known as  Kid Chocolate, a boxer who won many times professional world championships in Cuba.

The speaker in this one addresses the boxer directly and while  taking  note of  his “weak Spanish” and even “feebler English”  reminds him of the ties between boxing and Neo-colonial exploitation.  The speaker  underscores it  by noting that the implicitly racist Broadway that cheers when he jumps like a “modern elastic monkey” is the same predator that “stretches its snout with its enormous humid tongue/to lick up gluttonously/all the blood (Cuba’s) canefields”. These are critical images regarding the way boxers were treated in the United States and even the economic and political domination that country had on Cuba.

At the same time, the speaker admires the boxer’s strength at work-“your explosive fists"-and concedes that boxing gives him physical and psychological agency-“It’s good, after all,/to find a punching bag”. Like the activity of intellectual workers, the poem also concedes that boxing accrues cultural currency, portraying the boxer’s ability to “speak for black for real” as forceful reminder to European faddish yearnings for primitivism from Cuba and Harlem.

From : Man-Making Words: Selected Poems of Nicolas Guillen by Nicolas Guillen(Author),Robert Marquez(Author, Editor)


Tuesday, December 3, 2013

With a green scarf

With a green scarf


by Marin Sorescu

translated from Romanian by Michael Hamburger


With a green scarf I blindfolded
the eyes of the trees
and asked them to catch me.

At once the trees caught me,
their leaves shaking with laughter.

I blindfolded the birds
with a scarf of clouds
and asked them to catch me.

The birds caught me
with a song.

Then with a smile I blindfolded
my sorrow
and the day after it caught me
with a love.

I blindfolded the sun
with my nights
and asked the sun to catch me.

I know where you are, the sun said
just behind that time.
Don’t bother to hide any longer.

Don’t bother to hide any longer,
said all of them,
as well as all the feelings
I tried to blindfold.

Marin Sorescu (1936-96) was a cheerfully melancholic comic genius, and one of the most orginal voices in Romanian literature. His mischievous poetry and satirical plays earned him great popularity during the Communist era of the regime, Romanians used to a culture of double speak could read other meanings in his playful mockery of the human condition. On his poetry, Sorescu said, with characteristic irony: "Just as I can't give up smoking because I don't smoke, I can't give up writing because I have no talent." But later- like hapless character from one of his absurdist dramas- the peasant-born people's poet was made Mister of culture. "If anybody except a poet were saying the things Sorescu says in his poems, he or she would be found insane. But this is what poetry should be doing, putting this kind of material into rational form”,  says Russell Edson in an introduction about his poetry.

The above poem addresses the impossibility and inanity of hiding oneself from the world and from oneself. There is an ineluctable clarity in those relations, a profound honesty that we cannot obviate, although we persistently seek to do so, whether it concerns the natural world (‘I blindfolded the eyes of the trees’, etc.) or our own emotions (‘Then with a smile I blindfolded my sorrow’).

Blindfolding does not help, however: ‘At once the trees caught me, their leaves shaking with laughter’, ‘The birds caught me with a song’, etc.

Eventually, everything he blindfolds in an attempt to hide from it, retrieves him and rubs his nose into the fact that concealing is a vain endeavor. Nature seems to ridicule him (‘leaves shaking with laughter’). Of course, nature cannot really mock anything. But its stiff resistance to our hiding efforts suffices to render it a laughing human face.

Where does the tendency to defy our unavoidable clarity in the eyes of the world and ourselves come from (a tendency apropos that originates in our most personal perspective; the I, as can be seen in sentences like ‘I blindfolded the eyes of the trees’. ‘I blindfolded the birds’, etc.)?

The poem does not directly move into an explanation of that question, but an arguable answer might go along the following lines. We habitually hide part of our thoughts, emotions, and even actions, from other people, often deliberately so when it suits us. That often seems to work. Hence it sounds natural to assay to do the same in relation to ourselves - when it suits us. The disbelief in our ability to hide ourselves from nature arises from the ease by which we mislead other people. This disbelief explains our ceaseless defiance (‘and asked them to catch me’).

Finally, there is something game like, hide-and-seek like in our attempts to hide ourselves, as if, deep down, we realize that hiding is a kind of escapism. Unsurprisingly, we always lose the game:

Don’t bother to hide any longer,
said all of them,
as well as all the feelings
I tried to blindfold.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Childhood Memory


 Childhood Memory

Antonio Machado

Translated by Willis Barnstone

A drab and chilling afternoon
in  winter. The schoolboys
are studying. Monotony 
of rain across the window glass.

The classroom. A placard
shows fugitive Cain
and Abel dead
next to a scarlet stain.

In a sonorous hollow tone
the master thunders, an old man
shabby, lean and dried up,
holding a book in his hand.

And a whole children’s choir
begins to chant the lesson:
“Hundred squared , ten thousand.
Thousand squared, a million.”

A drab and chilling afternoon
in  winter. The schoolboys
are studying. Monotony 
of rain across the window glass.

Poems are often generated by memories that haunt us—memories that suddenly return out of the blue, or memories that are familiar companions and part of the fabric of our lives—memories that are too precious and sweet not to be recorded, or that are so painful they cry out to be exorcised.

Antonio Machado, one of the great Spanish poets of the twentieth century, evokes not just the dullness of his childhood classroom, but something too of the magic in which even unpleasant memories of the past are likely to be draped. The poster of Cain and Abel; the withered teacher with his book; the children chanting their numbers; the rain beating against the windowpanes: how oppressive it all is, and how vividly it has been evoked.


The poem is not filled with generalized phrases such as "school days long ago," "Bible pictures," and "inclement weather." But it is a particular day, the weather is chilly and overcast, there are raindrops across the windowpanes. There is not simply some poster or other on the wall but a particular poster, one that is briefly—and evocatively—described.

The old teacher is sketched in quickly with specific details: he has a sonorous and hollow voice, he is withered and badly dressed, and he is holding a book in his hand. The students are not simply studying their lesson but are studying a particular lesson, one that the reader hears them reciting. Concrete, sensory details such as these allow readers to form vivid pictures in their minds of what is being described. That is how great poets and writers bring a scene to life.


Notice how simple the poem is. Neither the vocabulary nor the phrasing is at all complex or unusual. If one imagines that poetry requires exotic and dramatic subject matter, this poem disproves it and prove  that even the most commonplace experiences can be transformed into triumphant verses.


From: Border of a Dream: Selected Poems of Antonio Machado  by Antonio Machado. Translated by Willis Barnstone.