Friday, June 22, 2012

Under One Small Star

By Wislawa Szymborska

Translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh

My apologies to chance for calling it necessity.
My apologies to necessity if I’m mistaken, after all.
Please, don’t be angry, happiness, that I take you as my due.
May my dead be patient with the way my memories fade.
My apologies to time for all the world I overlook each second.
My apologies to past loves for thinking that the latest is the first.
Forgive me, distant wars, for bringing flowers home.
Forgive me, open wounds, for pricking my finger.
I apologize for my record of minuets to those who cry from the depths.
I apologize to those who wait in railway stations for being asleep today at five a.m.
Pardon me, hounded hope, for laughing from time to time.
Pardon me, deserts, that I don’t rush to you bearing a spoonful of water.
And you, falcon, unchanging year after year, always in the same cage,
your gaze always fixed on the same point in space,
forgive me, even if it turns out you were stuffed.
My apologies to the felled tree for the table’s four legs.
My apologies to great questions for small answers.
Truth, please don’t pay me much attention.
Dignity, please be magnanimous.
Bear with me, O mystery of existence, as I pluck the occasional thread from your train.
Soul, don’t take offense that I’ve only got you now and then.
My apologies to everything that I can’t be everywhere at once.
My apologies to everyone that I can’t be each woman and each man.
I know I won’t be justified as long as I live,
since I myself stand in my own way.
Don’t bear me ill will, speech, that I borrow weighty words,
then labor heavily so that they may seem light.

Wislawa Szymborska, the 1996 Nobel Prize-winning poet who used the imagery of everyday objects and a mordant style to explore dramatic themes of human experience including love, war and death, died in Poland in February early this year. She was 88 and was one the greatest poets of this planet. She was one of my favorite too as most of her poems were quite accessible to me.

 She was so popular amidst readers that even the Nobel committee described her as the "Mozart of poetry" but with "something of the fury of Beethoven" . Her verse, seemingly simple, was subtle, deep and often hauntingly beautiful. She used simple objects and detailed observation to reflect on larger truths, often using everyday images - an onion, a cat wandering in an empty apartment, an old fan in a museum - to reflect on grand topics such as love, death and passing time.

Emily Dickinson  has said, "If I read a book and it makes my whole body feel so cold no fire can ever warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry." Going by this attribute, the above poem took my head off. She starts with  single lines, clusters of words and I am so enamored by her words that I start underlining it until I have pretty much underlined the whole thing. That's when I realized that the poem truly succeeded in its mission: the whole is more than the sum of its lines.

As David Orr says-“Szymborska is an ironist. But in her work, irony becomes playful, almost whimsical. She thinks of the poet as an acrobat who moves, as she puts it, with "laborious ease, with patient agility, with calculated inspiration." Szymborska's poems generally focus on everyday subjects or situations, and her tone stays firmly in the middle ground. She doesn't rant; she calmly assesses. She's a poet of dry-eyed, athletic precision: an acrobat, as she says, not a powerlifter.

As the poem progresses the speaker keeps shifting from one category to another . She begs forgiveness from inanimate objects and even concepts, then from places and from group of people-everything is anthropomorphized. She herself feels unequal to the world’s sufferings and fears that by narrowing her focus on the world to make it manageable, she has trivialized it. But all viewpoints are incomplete, all efforts inadequate:

“My apologies to everything that I can’t be everywhere at once.
My apologies to everyone that I can’t be each woman and each man.”

In another passage she says: 

"Forgive me, distant wars, for bringing flowers home.
Forgive me, open wounds, for pricking my finger.
I apologize for my record of minuets to those who cry from the depths."

We see the lyrical driving the logical here. The loveliness of the words is staunchly supported by their meaning. Beauty alone is laudable but beauty combined with truth make it dazzling. Aspects such as natural utilitarian desire, guilt and despair and  uncommon insight tinged with humor mesh so well in her verse. 

The poem’s conclusion itself is another poetic endorsement. 

“Don’t bear me ill will, speech, that I borrow weighty words,
then labor heavily so that they may seem light.”

The light she makes is a sort of moral illumination, shining back from details onto the inner lives of her readers. I think the author is showing (among other things) that she feels no guilt in finding joy in a world of pain.

Finally, the title "Under One Small Star," confesses that  the poet comes from a place of relative insignificance and hers specific life, small but curiously infinite existence , has an importance of its own . She is aware of what she is. She is a part of it. She is a witness. She feels her impact and simultaneously, her lack of impact. We know how she feels. don't we?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Women from Sonjae

By Ko Un

Translated by Brother Antony of Taize, Young-moo Kim, and Gary Gach

In darkest night, near midnight, the dogs

in the middle of Saeto begin their raucous barking.

One dog barks, so the next one barks

until the dogs at Kalmoe across the fields

follow suit and start to bark as well.

Between the barking of dogs,

scraps of voices echoe: eh ah oh…

Not unlike the sound  which the night's wild geese

let fall to the bitter cold ground

as they fly over,  high above,

not unlike that splendid sound

echoing back and forth.

It's the women from Sonjei-ri one their way home

from the old-style market over at Kunsan

where they'd gone with garlic bulbs by the hundreds

in baskets on their heads,

there being a shortage kimch'i cabbages

from the bean-fields.

Now they're on their way home,

after  getting rid of what couldn't be sold

at the cleaning  auction at closing time--

several miles gone,

several left to go in deepest night!

The empty baskets may be light enough

yet I wonder: just how light are they

with empty stomachs, nothing to eat?

Still, they don't suffer alone.

They share this pain,

these plain, simple people

these plain, simple women.

What a good homely life!

Perhaps the dogs have gotten used to their voices,

for the barking starts to die away.

Night seems eager to declare:" I myself am night! "

And the darkness blinks its vacant eyes.

Ko Un is the greatest Korean poet alive today. He was born the son of a farmer in 1933 in Southwestern Korea, Cholla Province (a region that prides itself on its relentless antagonism to the party politics of Seoul). A precocious scholar from the start, he studied Chinese classics as a youth and learned to read and write Korean from a neighbor's servant (when Korean was prohibited as a public school language by colonial Japanese). In his late teens, marked by his experience during the Korean War, he became a Buddhist monk. After 10 years and after becoming an abbot at Haeinsa Temple, he quit the monastic life and returned to the worldly world, but with a deeply nihilistic attitude that culminated in a suicide attempt in 1970.

Ten Thousand Lives is his major, ongoing work, which began during his imprisonment, when he determined to describe every person he had ever met. The above selection is from this work.

As Allen Ginsberg remarked of this singular quasi-beat poetic mingling of cosmic perception and the ordinary life, Ko Un's  poems are as "hard nuts to crack--yet many seem immediately nutty and empty at the same time." 

His works in English translation include Beyond Self: 108 Korean Zen Poems (Parallax Press, 1997) and The Sound of My Waves (Cornell East Asia Series, 1993), both collections I commend to your attention. For the political and the natural orders often collide in his earthy poetry, come wryly together, mingling wit and compassion. As he wrote in a poem set in the DMZ from Ten Thousand Lives , called "Kin Shim Muk" ,"The road between Tongduchon and Uijonbu/ stretches glorious, not a yank in sight!"

Ko Un is still writing this one long poem, "Ten Thosand Lives",  and turning his own one life into an exemplary planetary life of action and meditation, poetry and compassion, deeply expressive of Korea and the global soul of the world. 

The above poem  is poignant and glows with rustic charm in its images. It  beautiful ly upholds the stoic and sanguine spirit of Korean women. You may be able to empathize with it  as such sights  are not unfamiliar in India too. Loved the last two lines.

From "Ten Thousand Lives" by Ko Un published by Green Integer. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012



By Nazim Hikmet

Translated by Randy Blasing, Mutlu Konuk Blasing and Mutlu Konuk 

 If Half My Heart Is Here, Doctor,

       The Other Half Is In China

 With The Army Flowing

      Toward The Yellow River.

 And, Every Morning, Doctor,

 Every Morning At Sunrise My Heart

      Is Shot In Greece.

 And Every Night, Doctor,

 When The Prisoners Are Asleep And The Infirmary Is Deserted,

 My Heart Stops At A Run-Down Old House

                                        In Istanbul.

 And Then After Ten Years

 All I Have To Offer My Poor People

 Is This Apple In My Hand, Doctor,

 One Red Apple:

                My Heart.

 And That, Doctor, That Is The Reason

 For This Angina Pectoris-

 Not Nicotine, Prison, Or Arteriosclerosis.

 I Look At The Night Through The Bars,

 And Despite The Weight On My Chest

My Heart Still Beats With The Most Distant Stars.

NAZIM HIKMET was the greatest Turkish poet of twentieth century. Like Whitman, Hikmet speaks of himself, his country, and the world in the same breath. At once personal and public, his poetry records his life without reducing it to self-consciousness; he affirms reality of facts at the same time that he insists in the validity of his feelings. His human presence - playful, optimistic, and capable of childlike joy- keeps his poems open, public, and committed to social and artistic change. And in the perfect oneness of his life and art, Hikmet emerges as a heroic figure. 

His early poems proclaim this unity as a faith: art is an event, he maintains, in social as well as literary history, and a poet's bearing in art is inseparable from his bearing in life. The rest of Hikmet's life gave him ample opportunity to act upon this faith and, in fact to deepen it. As Terrence Des Pres observes, Hikmet's exemplary life and special vision - at once historical and timeless, Marxist and mystical - had unique consequences for his art: Simply because in his art and in his person Hikmet opposes the enemies of the human spirit in harmony with itself and the earth, he can speak casually and yet with a seriousness that most modern American poets never dream of attempting.

The increasingly breathless pace of his late poems such as in this one conveys the never-ending agony of man in all corners of this universe and his eagerness and heroic temper to embrace the pain of all humanity. There is sense urgency in many of his poems as if time is accelerating for him and it hooks the reader .

An African Elegy

By Ben Okri

We are the miracles that God made
To taste the bitter fruit of Time.
We are precious.
And one day our suffering
Will turn into the wonders of the earth.

There are things that burn me now
Which turn golden when I am happy.
Do you see the mystery of our pain?
That we bear the poverty
And are able to sing and dream sweet things.

And that we never curse the air when it is warm
Or the fruit when it tastes so good
Or the lights that bounce gently on the waters?
We bless the things even in our pain.
We bless them in silence.

That is why our music is so sweet.
It makes the air remember.
There are secret miracles at work
That only Time will bring forth.
I too have heard the dead singing.

And they tell me that
This life is good
They tell me to live it gently
With fire, and always with hope.
There is wonder here

And there is surprise
In everything the unseen moves.
The ocean is full of songs.
The sky is not an enemy.
Destiny is our friend.

Ben Okri  (born 15 March 1959) is a Nigerian poet and novelist. Okri is considered one of the foremost African authors in the post-modern and post-colonial traditions and has been compared favorably with authors like Salman Rushdie and Gabriel García Márquez.
Having grown up, and experienced lifetime in Africa first-palm, Ben Okri gives his reader a glimpse at the beauty of optimism and lifetime in the vast culture, in his poem "An African Elegy". Okri wrote this piece in the early 1990's, as a reflection of his experiences that occurred during his childhood in Africa.In this poem, the speaker is saying that even though we may not understand the reason for suffering and death, we should be optimistic that this mystery, like many other of life's mysteries, will one day be revealed to us; the only thing we can do now is appreciate life, with all its inherent mysteries. When describing this aspect of life in the penultimate stanza and the first two lines of the last stanze, he says "There is wonder here. / And there is surprise / In everything the unseen moves."

Ultimately, this poem seems to be an assertion in God's overall plan for humankind, despite the fact that we may not fully understand that plan. Rather than fear that plan, the speaker believes that "Destiny is our friend" and that 
we should embrace it.)

With a Pure Heart

By Attila Jozsef

Translated by John Batki

I am fatherless, motherless, 
godless and countryless, 
have no cradle, no funeral shroud, 
and no lover to kiss me proud. 

For the third day I have had 
no food, not a piece of bread. 
My strength is my twenty years-- 
I will sell these twenty years. 

And if no one heeds my cry, 
the devil may choose to buy. 
My heart's pure, I'll burn and loot, 
if I must, I'll even shoot. 

They will catch me and string me up, 
with the good earth cover me up, 
and death-bringing grass will start 
growing from my beautiful, pure heart.

(Attila Jozsef  is recognized as one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. Attila had a painful existence: his childhood was marked by poverty and tragedy, and his adulthood was plagued by depression and psychological instability. At the age of 32, Attila committed suicide by throwing himself under the wheels of a freight train.
But I do not want to focus on his death; rather, I would like to focus on the way that he is still living, and that is through his powerful poetry. Every Hungarian is well-acquainted with his life and his poems, and most of them seem to know one or two of his poems by heart, having been required to memorize his verse as part of their education. The above is one of them. The poem is  just raw, deeply personal, sad and revolutionary in its theme and style.)

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Seven Dresses for Visibility

By Pia Tadruf

Translated by David McDuff

I am sewing a dress that can be worn
proudly by one who is born with
an expectant spark in the heart’s vessels,
it will perfectly fit large and small,
is spun strong by the bow of the rain
it can be enjoyed a whole life long,
if the cloth is looked after well.
I am sewing a dress that can be worn
silently by new victims of the fear, 
it can fit large and small,
does not hide vulnerability
as droves of birds are hunted
out of the tree’s dense crown,
the fabric flutters in the wind.
I am sewing a dress that can be worn
lightly by new victims of the hate,
it is coloured red by blood
and has thunder-black borders,
it can fit large and small,
those who least of all will think
that one should change before the night.               
I am sewing a dress that can be worn
by the victims of a cold cynicism                          
it can fit large and small,
its crazy fabric is made    
of fire no downpour will quench,
it will be a reminder that the earth
may open up at any time at all.
I am sewing a dress that can cover
dried blood on the victims of death,      
it can hide large and small,
it is shaped by the deep furrows
of tears across the cheek,
the cloth matches the walls of the dark,
the peace in each grave on the planet.
I am sewing a dress that can be worn
in a misty haze of sorrow’s                               
victims, designed for relatives 
and friends of the deceased,
it can fit large and small,
anger’s first light is visible
between lead-grey threads of pain.
I am sewing the dress that can be worn
securely by one who knows hope,             
woven in are the laughter of friends,
quiet tears of joy, the desire
to wake up in spite
of life the disaster took
 – it reflects the rays of the sun.

(Pia Tafdrup is one of the major contemporary Danish poets working today, and her work has been translated into more than thirty languages. She is the author of more than twenty books, several of which have been translated into English, and the recipient of numerous awards—including the prestigious Nordic Council Literature Prize (1999) for Dronningeporten (Queen’s gate). She wrote the above poem after the July 22 tragedy in Norway. )