Tuesday, July 31, 2012


 By Vasko Popa

Translated by : Anne Pennington 

Vasko Popa is considered the greatest Serbian poet of last century. From surrealist fable to traditional folk-tale, from personal anecdote to tribal myth, Popa's poetry embodies in an original form the most profound imaginative truths of our age, precisely located in the reality and history of Serbia, in the heart of Central Europe. Popa  could be grouped with Zbigniew Herbert and Miroslav Holub, two other astonishingly original East European poets, whose works were plainly unlike anything  written in Britain or the United States.

Popa was born in 1922 in an area north of Belgrade called Banat, where the population was a mixture of Serbs, Germans, Slovaks, Hungarians and Romanians. His father was a record clerk and afterwards worked for a bank; his mother was a housewife. He went to school in the town of Vrsac, and in his last year there he discovered Marxism: he continued to think of himself as a Communist for the rest of his life. The war began for Yugoslavia on 6 April 1941, when the country was attacked simultaneously by the German, Italian, Bulgarian and Hungarian Armies and quickly occupied. Nevertheless, that autumn, Popa, following his parents’ wishes, went to Bucharest to study medicine. He left after a year, and went to Vienna to read philosophy. On a visit home in May 1943, he was arrested and interned in a concentration camp. He was somehow released in September and returned to Vienna, where he enrolled in French and German literature classes and also worked as a tram conductor. He did not return to Vrsac until shortly after the Liberation. There he promptly joined the Communist Party and soon afterwards moved to Belgrade to study French language and literature at the university. It was a most unusual wartime itinerary, as his Communist Party dossier suspiciously pointed out at the time. In Belgrade, Popa began his literary career, editing and writing for a weekly paper; eventually he became an editor at a prestigious publishing house, where he remained until not long before his death in 1991.

The symbolist poetry of Mr. Popa, a modernist, was widely hailed as the finest in the Serbian language and an artful mix of folk poetry and surrealism. His language was succinct, often aphoristic and elliptical, and it focused on the specific over the abstract. He avoided rhyme while using humor and proverbs to explore the universal themes of life, love, fate and death. He was admired for being inventive and entertaining and for using paradoxical images and forceful rhythms to dramatize the senselessness, ironies and tragicomedies of life. The English poet Ted Hughes lauded him as an "epic poet" with a "vast vision" and added, in an introduction to his collected poetry: "As Popa penetrates deeper into his life, with book after book, it begins to look like a universe passing through a universe. It is one of the most exciting things in modern poetry, to watch this journey being made."

Conceited Mistake

Once upon a time there was a mistake
So silly so small
That no one would even have noticed it

It couldn't bear
To see itself to hear of itself

It invented all manner of things
Just to prove
that it didn't really exist

It invented space
To put its proofs in
And time to keep its proofs
And the world to see its proofs

All it invented
Was not so silly
Nor so small
But was of course mistaken

Could it have been otherwise

In the above poem, Popa imagines the creation of the world as an accident; a small, silly error that invented space and time. A silly little mistake can get compounded by another and yet another in a vain attempt to cover the initial error, until it reaches gigantic proportions.

Here is another poem that shows Popa’s comic version of how the world began in ‘A Forgetful Number’ from the cycle ‘Yawn of Yawns’:

A Forgetful Number 

Once upon a time there was a number 
Pure and round like the sun 
But alone very much alone 

It began to reckon with itself 

It divided multiplied itself 
It subtracted added itself 
And remained always alone 

It stopped reckoning with itself 
And shut itself up in its round 
And sunny purity 

Outside were left the fiery 
Traces of its reckoning 

They began to chase each other through the dark 
To divide when they should have multiplied themselves 
To subtract when they should have added themselves 

That's what happens in the dark 

And there was no one to ask it 
To stop the traces 
And to rub them out. 

Here is another poem written in lighter vein that shows his penetrating ability to observe the sly games played by men for their survival   


Some bite from the others
A leg an arm or whatever

Take it between their teeth
Run out as fast as they can
Cover it up with earth

The others scatter everywhere
Sniff look sniff look
Dig up the whole earth

If they are lucky and find an arm
Or leg or whatever
It's their turn to bite

The game continues at a lively pace

As long as there are arms
As long as there are legs
As long as there is anything

From: Vasko Popa: Collected Poems [Paperback] Vasko Popa (Author), Anne Pennington (Translator), Francis R. Jones (Translator), Ted Hughes (Introduction).  Anvil Press Poetry; Revised & enlarged edition (June 1, 2004).ISBN-10: 0856462683

Monday, July 30, 2012


By Dan Pagis

Translated by Stephen Mitchell

Dan Pagis (1930-1986) was one of the most vibrant voices in modern Israeli poetry and is considered a major world poet of his generation. Dan Pagis, born in 1930 at Radautz in Rumanian Bukovina, was raised in Vienna. A survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, he came to Israel and lived for a while in Kibbutz Merhavia. After teaching for several years at the regional kibbutz school in Qiryat Gat, he enrolled at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and supported himself as a high school teacher of Hebrew literature. The holder of a doctorate in medieval Hebrew poetry, Pagis has been on the faculty of the Hebrew University since the early 1960s and has published several scholarly works on medieval Hebrew Poetry .

Much of Pagis’s early poetry exhibits the word plays, allusions, and verbal virtuosity of the medieval Hebrew poetry with which he is so familiar. To these linguistic qualities Pagis has added much wit and a wry charm, which link him to his modern mentors, Shlonsky and Alterman. Shlonsky’s short, poignant nature lyrics especially have left their mark on Pagis’s work, but Pagis has developed his own voice, mainly with a playful inventiveness and controlled use of sound, ambiguity, and irony.

The poetry of Dan Pagis offers a variety of themes and concerns: the unbridled passage of time, the weight of unwanted memories, the abortive fruits of the scientific revolution, the unresolvable horrors of the Holocaust. Most of all, Pagis presents himself as a multidimensional observer of the human condition and psyche. With a tone of clever perceptiveness he explores the inner life of trees, seashells, animals, spaceships, dead soldiers, and crossword puzzles. Often the objective is simply to highlight the poet’s fertile imagination, the intellectual acumen and sense of humor he brings to bear in discovering the hidden possibilities in everyday natural phenomena. Just as often, however, the aim is more philosophical, psychological, or moral: to show how empty society and culture have become, despite the progress of modern technology. These ironic implications permeate most his works.

In the last decade of his life, Dan Pagis shed his earlier, richer style for a leaner, almost clinical diction in which craft and intellect joined to conceal emotion. His world became inhabited by unconventional personalities and images of pirates, primordial humans, gorillas, ladybugs, snakes, ants, mice, martinet school teachers, SS concentration camp guards, the human brain, faces, skulls, skeletons, ghosts, smoke from Nazi incinerators, Don Quixote etc. These were often projected into sterile space or suspended in abstract time. In much of this, as Robert Alter has observed, “There is a submerged freight of horror”.  

His Holocaust themes whenever they appeared were increasingly placed in mythological perspective. Let us consider one of his most powerful poems on holocaust, “Written in Pencil in the sealed Freight Car”.

Written in pencil in the sealed freight car

Here in this carload
I am Eve
With my son Abel
If you see my older boy
Cain son of Adam
Tell him that I

In the sealed freight car, moving toward the concentration Camp, the poetess, Eve, mother of all human life, is cut off after the tell-tale word signifying life, “I”…. The last line, “Tell him that I” leaves the message that Eve wishes to convey to Cain unspoken. With Pagis’s knowledge of the Bible, it becomes clear that part of the inspiration to leave the message unsaid comes directly from Genesis chapter four, verse eight:

“Cain said to his brother Abel…and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him.”

In a very concise, concentrated poem of six short lines, Pagis succeeds in conveying much of the pain and terror of the Holocaust. The framework of the poem is the first universal family on earth and the heart of the poem is the request of the mother to convey a message to her one son that is left unformulated.

At least four themes emerge from the short lines of the poem; the case of the first murder in the history of mankind, the need to leave testimony, the place and role of mothers in the two tragedies of the first family and the Holocaust, and the Holocaust itself. Pagis only touches tangentially on Cain’s murder of his brother Abel in the Book of Genesis and likewise, the context of the Holocaust appears only obliquely in the title. These ‘light’ touches serve to magnify the potential of the themes so elusively hinted at in the short poem. Pagis also creates a linear connection of man’s evil potential from the first murder to the multiple murder of the Holocaust by linking the biblical story of Cain and Abel to the Holocaust through the title of the poem, which is in fact the only place where the Holocaust is alluded to.

This short poem invites understanding the Holocaust in its wider human aspects and placing it in a more universal context.

Let us consider another poem:

Instructions for Crossing the Border

Imaginary man, go. Here is your passport.
You are not allowed to remember.
You have to match the description:
your eyes are already blue.
Don’t escape with the sparks
inside the smokestack:
you are a man, you sit in the train.
Sit comfortably.
You’ve got a decent coat now,
a repaired body, a new name
ready in your throat.
Go. You are not allowed to forget.

The historical context in which this poem should be located is an attempted escape by train by a person forced to live with a false identity. The “instructions” are being given to a man who is being smuggled across borders. The poem generates tension as it progresses with a string of ‘instructions’ issued to the ‘imaginary man’. These instructions can be listed to point out the practical difficulties of fleeing a Nazi fate.The tension is highlighted by the contrast achieved in the two diametrically opposed instructions in the second line:

“You are not allowed to remember.” and in the last line:
“You are not allowed to forget.”

Remembering and not forgetting is a central tenet in the biblical tradition. It highlights the historical need for enunciating identity and this poem veers toward the opposite pole of renouncing identity and forgetting the past.

Finally, a creeping doubt filters in about Pagis’s meaning in using the phrase for the addressee, ‘imaginary man’. Is the ‘imaginary man’ of the poem a real man who is in fact being primed for escape by taking on an ‘imagined’ identity? Or does the ‘imaginary man’ represent the near impossibility of escaping the Nazi web? An additional possibility is that Pagis is projecting forward to the peculiar fate of survivors of the Holocaust who in some senses were new ‘constructs’, or a continuation of the ‘imaginary man’ of the poem who had to forge a whole new life after the destruction of their personal worlds.

Lastly, the poem below shows his marvelous capacity to portray  grim humor.


Housing conditions: number of galaxy and star,
number of grave.
Are you alone or not.
What grass grows on top of you,
and from where (e.g., from your stomach, eyes, mouth, etc.).

You have the right to appeal.

In the blank space below, state
how long you have been awake and why you are surprised.

In their totality, Pagis’s poems of inner perception not only display the author’s keen intellectual bent but also imply a view of poetry itself as intelligence.

From: The Selected Poetry of Dan Pagis (Literature of the Middle East) [Paperback]. Dan Pagis (Author), Stephen Mitchell (Translator).Publisher: University of California Press (October 22, 1996).ISBN-10: 0520205391

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Portrait of the Artist

by Marin Sorescu

Translated  from the Romanian by Michael Hamburger 

Portrait of the Artist

I left my shoes
to the road.
As for my trousers, I slipped them over
the trees, right up to the leaves.
My jacket I wrapped
round the wind's shoulders.
I put my old hat
on the first cloud
that came my way.
Then I stepped back
into death
to observe myself.
My self-portrait
was a faithful one.
The resemblance was so close
that quite spontaneously people --
I had forgotten to sign it --
inscribed my name
on a stone.

Marin Sorescu (1936-96), the son of farmworkers, was born in Oltenia and studied philosophy at the university of Isai. His professional life was spent as the editor for newspapers and magazines, interspersed with teaching stints abroad. 

He was a cheerfully comic genius, and one of the most original voices in Romanian literature. His comedy has affinities with the absurdism and black comedy of the mid 20th century, but differs somewhat from those in that his attitude is most often more whimsical and playful and somewhat less darkly grim than one finds in works associated with those approaches. He  was so popular during the Ceausescu years that his readings had to be held in football stadiums and his books sold thousands of copies. While his witty, ironic parables were not directly critical of the Communist regime, Romanians could read other meanings  in his playful mockery of the human condition.

Sorescu preferred to take ordinary experiences and make metaphysical  parables out of them. Sometimes his wit is mere whimsy, but his laconic, intelligent voice often rises to the sort of comedy that can encompass both satire and pathos.

Creation and death: in one sense, these may be said to sum up an individual's life. But by its very nature that life is important and worthy of being recognized. To contribute to the world is in fact the ultimate engagement and is the goal for the individual, each of whom is in his or her own right an "artist". I liked the progressive upward images in this one from road to cloud.

From: Marin Sorescu Selected Poems, Bloodaxe Books, 1983, translated by Michael Hamburger (MH). Bloodaxe Books Ltd (December 31, 1983). ISBN-10: 0906427487

Saturday, July 28, 2012


By Eugenio De Andrade

Translated by Alexis Levitin


We’ve worn our words to death. my love, walking in the streets,
and what remains to us won’t be enough
to keep at bay the cold of our four walls.
We’ve worn out all but silence.
We’ve worn away our eyes with the salt of tears,
we’ve worn our hands out, hand in hand, caressing,
we’ve worn the clock out and cobblestones at corners
in useless waiting.

I reach into my pockets and I find nothing.
We used to have so much to give each other;
it was as if all things were mine:
the more I gave, the more I had to give.

Sometimes you would say: your eves are green fish.
And I believed you.
because at your side
all things were possible.

But that was at a time of secrets,
a time when your body was an aquarium,
a time when my eyes
were really green fish.
Today they are merely my eyes.
Not much, but that’s the truth,
eyes like any others.

We’ve worn our words to death,
when now I say: my love,
nothing happens, absolutely nothing.
And yet, before the words were spent,
I’m certain
that everything trembled
at the mere murmur of your name
in the silence of my heart.

Now we have nothing to give.
There is nothing within you
that asks me for water.
The past is useless as a rag.
And I’ve told you already: the words are spent.


Eugenio de Andrade who passed away in 2005 was Portugal’s best-known and best-loved living poet. He  won all of his country’s literary honors, including the Portuguese language’s most prestigious award, the Camoes Prize.

The secret of Eugénio’s extraordinary appeal lies in his apparent simplicity. Though highly cultured, Eugenio avoids bookishness and intellectualization. His foremost allegiance is to the earth, to the tangible world of the senses, to what he calls “the rough or sweet skin of things.” He was born in 1923 in the small village of Póvoa de Atalaia, close to the Spanish border.Till the age of nine, he lived alone with his adored mother in relative poverty, taking solace from the goats, sheep, birds, and cicadas of the surrounding countryside. These creatures, along with poplars, mulberries, sunflowers, and grassy fields beneath a hot sun, reappear throughout his  poetry. They embody the eloquent simplicity at the core of the poet’s vision and voice. Always distrustful of abstractions, He proclaims his love for “words smooth as pebbles, rough as rye bread. Words that smell of clover and dust, loam and lemon, resin and sun.” Like William Carlos Williams, this is a poet happy to say: “No ideas but in things.”

Although a passionate attachment to the things of this world and the joys of the senses gives vigor to all of Eugenio’s work, in the last decade he  has conscientiously  intensified his focus on language and its sensual music, the pleasure that flows from within towards the outside world. This love of “language received lip to lip; kiss or syllable.” is as erotic for him as any love of the flesh. He is a man who loves “the pulsing of syllables,” and he often feels that his lifelong task has been a search for just a syllable, “a single syllable./Salavation. The abiding eros ,then,  for this poet of desire, body, and nature,  is the eros of language.

The poet beautifully conveys the slow but inevitable erosion of fervor in relationships with the passage of time in the above poem.

From: Forbidden Words: Selected Poetry of Eugenio de Andrade [Paperback]. Eugenio de Andrade (Author), Alexis Levitin (Translator). Publisher: New Directions; Bilingual edition (March 2003). Language: English, Portuguese. ISBN-10: 2110928506. ISBN-13: 978-2110928504

Friday, July 27, 2012


by  Leopold Senghor
Translated by Melvin Dixon

("Femme nue, femme noire")

Naked woman, black woman

Dressed in your color that is life, in your form that is beauty!

I grew up in your shadow. The softness of your hands
Shielded my eyes, and now at the height of Summer and Noon,
From the crest of a charred hilltop I discover you, Promised Land
And your beauty strikes my heart like an eagle’s lightning flash.

Naked woman, dark woman
Ripe fruit with firm flesh, dark raptures of black wine,
Mouth that gives music to my mouth
Savanna of clear horizons, savanna quivering to the fervent caress
Of the East Wind, sculptured tom-tom, stretched drumskin
Moaning under the hands of the conqueror
Your deep contralto voice is the spiritual song of the Beloved. 

Naked woman, dark woman
Oil no breeze can ripple, oil soothing the thighs
Of athletes and the thighs of the princes of Mali
Gazelle with celestial limbs, pearls are stars
Upon the night of your skin. delight of the mind’s riddles,
The reflections of red gold from your shimmering skin
In the shade of your hair, my despair
Lightens in the close suns of your eyes.

Naked woman, black woman
I sing your passing beauty and fix it for all Eternity
before jealous Fate reduces you to ashes to nourish the roots of life.

Leopold Senghor is the greatest of the Francophone African poets . He was born in Senegal, in 1906, and schooled both in Dakar and in Paris, France. He was the first West African to graduate from the Sorbonne (a part of the University of Paris, founded in 1253 that contains the faculties of science and literature) and teach in a French university. He is acclaimed as the father of Negritude (from Negro), a philosophy that affirms the black identity and touts the black man’s values as something to celebrate and be proud of. His poetry shows it in abundance.

Leopold Senghor was a catholic who planned to become a priest, but later became a statesman. He fought with the French in the Second World War and became a prisoner of war in then Nazi Germany. He became the Deputy for Senegal in the French Constituent Assembly, President of the Council of the Republic and Counselling Minister at the office of the President of the French Community. In 1960, he became the President of the Federal Republic of Mali and later in the same year, the President of an Independent Republic of Senegal. He was president of Senegal  until 1980.

This poem was written when Senghor was in exile in France. The celebration of the black body of a woman was rare in art that the poem when published became revolutionary in its implications. The structure of the poem with its accumulation of metaphors owes something to the surrealist technique of poets such as André Breton and Paul Eluard and thereby connects to one of the most vibrant literary movements of Paris in the 1930s. In contrast to poems that celebrate the body of a particular beloved woman, Senghor’s is abstract, directed to a category rather than a particular person. Indeed, the poem may not be addressed to a lover alone, but also to a maternal figure, as line 3 ("I grew in your shadow") indicates. It is thus a poem that epitomizes the convergence of mistress, mother and land as the focus of the poet's nostalgia and desire. The image of the motherland as a nurturing mother and sensual bride acted as poetic inspiration for many black writers. Leoplold fuses Africanity with feminity by extolling the beauty of an African Woman who also serves as a metaphor for Africa thereby indirectly rejecting the European standards of beauty . If eve was the mother of human species, and Africa was the mother of Eve, where does Africa end and woman hood begin?

 In typical Négritude fashion, it takes a European stereotype about Africans, that their partial or total nudity proves a lack of sophisticated culture, and turns it into a positive attribute: Dark skin is here praised as a vital kind of clothing in and of itself. The metaphors that follow take on a distinctly biblical tone. Not only is the woman explicitly compared to the "Promised Land," but more generally the metaphors likening her to a landscape, to exquisite food and drink, to an instrument, a graceful animal, and the sun invoke the general tone of the Song of Songs. The last stanza brings up a motif that is common in Western lyrical poetry, namely, the idea that the poets’ words preserve the beauty of a woman otherwise destined to vanish.

In the first stanza, the poet emphasizes the thematic statement that the color of the natural black woman itself is life and her form is beauty. Senghor has grown up under her shadow and his spirit has been nourished by her. Now that he has grown up and matured, he returns to her as if he were coming upon the promised land. He sees her through a mountain pass at noon in the midst of summer, and her beautiful form goes to his heart directly.

In the second stanza, she is seen as a lover, a woman whose flesh is like that of a ripened fruit. The poet compares her to the infinite savanna that shudders beneath the caresses of the east wind. She is like a tight, well-sculpted drum that resounds under the fingers of a valiant  conqueror; a woman whose resonant  contralto voice becomes the spiritual anthem of the loved one.

In the third stanza, she becomes almost a goddess, with her skin as smooth as the oiled skin of an athlete or a prince. She is like an elegant gazelle adorned with heavenly ornaments.

In the final stanza, Senghor concludes philosophically that he is perpetuating her transient beauty permanently in his poetry.

His language thus reifies black woman as an embodiment of sensuality and as a place for comfort and warmth for men.  At the end, death appears as a metaphor of entombment of Africa's mythical past , as well as a source of sustenance for future.

From: The Collected Poetry (CARAF Books: Caribbean and African Literature translated from the French) [Paperback]. Leopold Sedar Senghor (Author). Melvin Dixon (Translator) Publisher: University of Virginia Press (August 22, 1998). Language: French/English. ISBN-10: 0813918324. ISBN-13: 978-0813918327

Telephone Conversation

Telephone Conversation
by Wole Soyinka

The price seemed reasonable, location
Indifferent. The landlady swore she lived
Off premises. Nothing remained
But self-confession. "Madam," I warned,
"I hate a wasted journey—I am African."
Silence. Silenced transmission of
Pressurized good-breeding. Voice, when it came,
Lipstick coated, long gold rolled
Cigarette-holder pipped. Caught I was foully.
"HOW DARK?" . . . I had not misheard . . . "ARE YOU LIGHT
OR VERY DARK?" Button B, Button A.* Stench
Of rancid breath of public hide-and-speak.
Red booth. Red pillar box. Red double-tiered
Omnibus squelching tar. It was real! Shamed
By ill-mannered silence, surrender
Pushed dumbfounded to beg simplification.
Considerate she was, varying the emphasis--
"ARE YOU DARK? OR VERY LIGHT?" Revelation came.
"You mean--like plain or milk chocolate?"
Her assent was clinical, crushing in its light
Impersonality. Rapidly, wave-length adjusted,
I chose. "West African sepia"--and as afterthought,
"Down in my passport." Silence for spectroscopic
Flight of fancy, till truthfulness clanged her accent
Hard on the mouthpiece. "WHAT'S THAT?" conceding
"DON'T KNOW WHAT THAT IS." "Like brunette."
"THAT'S DARK, ISN'T IT?" "Not altogether.
Facially, I am brunette, but, madam, you should see
The rest of me. Palm of my hand, soles of my feet
Are a peroxide blond. Friction, caused--
Foolishly, madam--by sitting down, has turned
My bottom raven black--One moment, madam!"--sensing
Her receiver rearing on the thunderclap
About my ears--"Madam," I pleaded, "wouldn't you rather
See for yourself?"

Wole Soyinka is among contemporary Africa's greatest writers. The Nobel Prize in Literature 1986 was awarded to Wole Soyinka "who in a wide cultural perspective and with poetic overtones fashions the drama of existence". He is also one of the continent's most imaginative advocates of native culture and of the humane social order it embodies. Born in Western Nigeria in 1934, Soyinka grew up in an Anglican mission compound in Aké. A precocious student, he first attended the parsonage's primary school, where his father was headmaster, and then a nearby grammar school in Abeokuta, where an uncle was principal. Though raised in a colonial, English-speaking environment, Soyinka's ethnic heritage was Yoruba, and his parents balanced Christian training with regular visits to the father's ancestral home in `Isarà, a small Yoruba community secure in its traditions.

Wole Soyinka writes in English and is chiefly recognized as a dramatist. His many-sided and vital literary works also include some important collections of poems and novels, an interesting autobiography and a large number of articles and essays. He has been, and is, very active as a man of the theatre and has staged his own plays in England and Nigeria. During the civil war in Nigeria in the middle of the 1960s he was drawn into the struggle for liberty because of his opposition to violence and terror. He was imprisoned under brutal and illegal forms in 1967 and was released over two years later - an experience that drastically affected his outlook on life and literary work.

Written in the first person narrative point of view, the poem “Telephone Conversation” by Wole Soyinka is a poetic satire against the widely-spread racism in the modern Western society. The poem is about a telephone conversation in England between the poetic persona seeking to rent a house and an English landlady who completely changes her attitude towards him after he reveals his identity as a black African. The motif of a microcosmic telephone conversation, therefore, is employed by the poet to apply to a much broader, macrocosmic level where racial bigotry is ridiculed in a contest of human intelligence, showcasing the poet’s witticism as well as his ingenious sense of humor.

Instead of discussing price, location, amenities, and other information significant to the apartment, they discussed the speaker's skin color. The landlady is described as a polite, well-bred woman, even though she is shown to be shallowly racist. We can see that the speaker is an intelligent person by his use of high diction and quick wit, not the savage that the landlady assumes he is because of his skin color. All of these discrepancies between what appears to be and what really is create a sense of verbal irony that helps the poem display the ridiculousness of racism.

"The price seemed reasonable, location / Indifferent"

The first sentence of the poem includes a pun that introduces the theme of the following poem and also informs us that things are not going to be as straightforward as they appear. "The price seemed reasonable, location / Indifferent"

If we read over these lines quickly, we would assume that the speaker meant "Being neither good nor bad" by the use of the word indifferent . But, indifferent is also defined as "Characterized by a lack of partiality; unbiased." This other definition gives the sentence an entirely different meaning. Instead of the apartment's location being neither good or bad, we read that the apartment's location is unbiased and impartial.

However, we quickly learn in the following lines of the poem that the location of the apartment is the exact opposite of unbiased and impartial.

The speaker is rudely denied the ability to rent the property because of bias towards his skin color. This opening pun quickly grabs our attention and suggests that we as readers be on the lookout for more subtle uses of language that will alter the meaning of the poem.

"Caught I was, foully"

After this introduction, the speaker begins his "self-confession" about his skin color (line 4). It is ironic that this is called a self-confession since the speaker has nothing that he should have to confess since he has done nothing wrong. He warns the landlady that he is African, instead of just informing her. "Caught I was, foully" he says after listening to the silence the landlady had responded with.

I hate a wasted journey—I am African

Again, the word caught connotes that some wrong had been done, that the speaker was a criminal caught committing his crime. By making the speaker actually seem sorry for his skin color, Soyinka shows how ridiculous it really is for someone to apologize for his race. To modern Western thinkers, it seems almost comical that anyone should be so submissive when he has committed no wrongdoing.

An uneasy atmosphere ensues thereby. Following the caesura (break or silence) , there is “Silenced transmission of / Pressurized good-breeding”, with the word “silenced” again to reiterate the landlady’s sudden change, as well as the man’s intuitive sensitivity towards the unfriendliness on the other end of the phone. There is a foreboding overtone, relevant to the change of the woman’s attitude she would have towards the African man. And we get the first indication of the poet’s sense of humour in the expression “pressurized good-breeding”, too, which is an ironical manifestation of the polite manners landlady was supposed to have for the job of renting premises. After a considerable period of silence, the landlady finally spoke again, “Voice, when it came / Lipstick coated, long gold-rolled / Cigarette-holder pipped.”  It is interesting to note that when the landlady opened her mouth again, the feeling she gave off is immediately contrastive of what she was like before, as if her status in society was all of a sudden upgraded, which is indicated by her voice colourfully and olfactorially described. Such evocative language, which greatly appeal to our sensory impressions, conveys the poet’s power of imagination dissecting the sound of an affluent landlady’s voice. And such use of subtly imagistic language is abundantly rich throughout the rest of the poem.

Tension rises with the explicitly racial discrimination in line 10 of the poem as the landlady asked “HOW DARK?”  The poet uses capital letters here, and a lot more to come, to accentuate the landlady’s effort in seeking clarification for something that would have been irrelevant to their previous topic, yet it mattered a lot to her.  “I had not misheard”, the persona reflected. Before he was able to respond, the landlady asked again, “ARE YOU LIGHT OR VERY DARK?” reinforcing the racist overtone in the English society today.  The woman’s pushy, unequivocal stance in pursuing the answer dumbfounded the man, who was so confused and so taken aback by the landlady’s sudden change of attitude that he suddenly appeared to have a blank mind. The automation imagery “Button B. Button A” that the poet uses here not only vividly shows the man’s temporary confusion, but also humorously foreshadows the intelligence contest that is to follow. On a deeper level, the image of the readily available automatic selection also implies the rampant racial discrimination taken for granted in the western society.

What makes him come to his senses from this sudden dumbfoundedness, however, is ironically the foul smell of the telephone booth, which the persona humorously refers to as a facility of children’s play.  “Stench of rancid breath of public hide-and-seek” dragged him out from his dream-like world back into reality.  The poet then uses sentence fragments, “Red booth.  Red pillar-box.  Red double-tiered / Omnibus squelching tar”, to describe the persona’s frantic attempt to ascertain the situation.  The diction “red”, which is connotative of terror and disturbance, is used three times to highlight the extreme mental discomfort of an African man, who referred to city buses, again humorously, as the idiomatic “omnibus”. Such extensive use of symbolically chromatic images points out the setting of this poem, for the first and only time, to be London. Thereby arises the sense of irony as the place where the persona was facing such ostentatious racism is in London, a city seen as a symbol of the developed western world, where equality and justice are supposedly valued above all. “This is real!” the persona’s exclamation only serves to delineate his bewilderment at the situation.

Instead of describing the justifiable indignation that the poetic persona was supposed to have felt at the moment, the poet chooses to characterize him an a pacifist, or a humble and meek man who would rather not stand up to face the situation. The telephone conversation between the two conservationists continues as the African man hoped to get on with their previous topic instead of starting a new, awkward one on a politically sensitive issue – “Shamed / By ill-mannered silence, surrender / Pushed dumbfoundment to beg simplification.”  However, regardless of his thoughts, the landlady, who was unequivocal in seeking the clarification, continues to question him, “Considerate she was, varying the emphasis – “ARE YOU DAARK? OR VERY DARK?” The African man, now probably fuming with anger inside, remained silent, while the ruthless landlady continued with her racist inquiry: “You mean – like plain or milk chocolate?” The limited choice of words as well as the simple object of comparison that the poet uses to describe the landlady suggests her to be a linguistically impoverished character despite her affluent economic status. Furthermore, her tone was cold and bordering on aggressiveness, as is established by the persona’s interpretation accurately brought forth with clarity and specificity - “Her assent was clinical, crushing in its light / Impersonality.”

Deciding not to stay silent for any longer, and as if answering a passport control officer, he replied “West African Sepia… Down in my passport”, which was then responded with the landlady’s “silence for spectroscopic/Flight of fancy.” Here, the character of the poetic persona is seen to undergo a rapid development as he started to react against the landlady’s racist comments, by first forcing her into submission with his superior vocabulary. The double alliteration of “s” and “f” produce a special sound effect, making the atmosphere almost fearfully spooky, illustrating the mental status of the landlady whose turn it was now to feel dumbfounded. Also worth noting is the metaphor of spectroscope, hilariously befitting not only the skin colour of the persona, but also the specific locale of England, where modern science and technology still inexplicably intermingle with superstition. Either the case, the instant victory he had over the landlady in this part of the conversation demonstrates the obvious difference in their education and knowledge, also illustrating the fact that beyond the landlady’s lavish exterior, she was simply a shallow judgmental racist.

The contrastive images that the poet has so far established of the persona of the African origin and the landlady of the western European society serve to increase the tension in the atmosphere, precipitating the conflict to its climactic moment. Although the African man had already provided an answer, the landlady did not understand as she was not only bigoted, but also definitely under-educated, as compared to the poetic persona.  She continued asking rudely, “…till truthfulness changed her accent / Hard on the mouthpiece “WHAT’S THAT?” conceding / “DON’T KNOW WHAT THAT IS.” Paying no attention to the landlady’s disrespect for him, the persona started to turn the table completely against her, as he took a firm control over the conversation, defending the dignity and integrity of his ethnic identity from the ruthless onslaught of the racist landlady. To effectively show this, the poet juxtaposes various major European hair colours together in a deliberately confusing manner, suggesting that although being an African, the persona is nonetheless a person no different from any Europeans – “Facially, I am brunette, but, madam, you should see / The rest of me.  Palm on my hand, soles of my feet / Are a peroxide blond. Friction, caused – / Foolishly, madam – by sitting down, has turned / My bottom raven black – One moment, Madam!” Sensing the landlady’s “receiver rearing on the thunderclap”, which indicates the landlady’s slow but finally furious realization that she had been outwitted, he rushed to ask sarcastically, “Madam, ……wouldn’t you rather / See for yourself?” The quasi politeness of the tone the poet uses here can hardly conceal the ultimate insult, which shows how indignant the man was as he outwitted her by inviting her to see his bottom, thus ending the poem with a tremendous sense of humour, apart from the obvious sarcasm.

To conclude, through his poem “Telephone Conversation”, Soyinka is able to satirize the racist society in the west. By showing that a dark African persona is eventually capable of confronting the racial discrimination aimed towards him, and retaliates against it by outwitting the landlady, the poet sends out a clear message - dark skinned people are no less intelligent than people that are lighter in skin colour.

PS: The explanation of this poem is mainly derived from the literary  notes of Dr. Ronnie Bai

From: Selected Poems [Paperback] Wole Soyinka (Author)Publisher: Methuen (February 21, 2002)
Language: English ISBN-10: 0413764605. ISBN-13: 978-041376460

Thursday, July 26, 2012



By Odysseus Elytis

Translated by Edmund Keeley  and  Philip Sherrard

A long time has passed since the last rain was heard
Above the ants and lizards
Now the sun burns endlessly
The fruit paints its mouth
The pores in the earth open slowly
And beside the water that drips in syllables
A huge plant gaze into the eye of the sun.

Who is he that lies on the shores beyond
Stretched on his back, smoking silver-burnt olive leaves?
Cicadas grow warm in his ears
Ants are at work on his chest
Lizards slide in the grass of his armpits
And over the seaweed of his feet a wave rolls lightly
Sent by the little siren that sang:

" O body o summer, naked, burnt
Eaten away by oil and salt
Body of rock and shudder of the heart
Great ruffling wind in the osier hair
Beneath of basil above the curly pubic mound
Full of stars and pine needles
Body , deep vessel of the day!

"Soft rains come, violent hail
The land passes lashed in the claws of snow-storm
Which darkens in the depths with furious waves
The hills plunge into the dense udders of the clouds
And yet behind all this you laugh carefree
And find your deathless moment again
And the sun finds you again in the sandy shores
As the sky finds you again in your naked health."

Odysseus Elytis is considered as one of the most important Greek poets of last century. He is also the winner of the 1979 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Born the scion of a prosperous family from Lesbos, he abandoned the family name as a young man in order to dissociate his writing from the family soap business. Elytis studied law at Athens University. Intrigued by French Surrealism, and particularly by the poet Paul Éluard, he began publishing verse in the 1930s, notably in Nea grammata. This magazine was a prime vehicle for the “Generation of the ’30s,” an influential school that included George Seferis, who in 1963 became the first Greek Nobel laureate for literature. Elytis’ earliest poems exhibited a strong individuality of tone and setting within the Surrealist mode.

When Nazi Germany occupied Greece in 1941, Elytis fought against the Italians in Albania. He became something of a bard among young Greeks; one of his great poems,  “Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign”, became an anthem to the cause of freedom. During and after the Greek Civil War, he lapsed into literary silence for almost 15 years, returning to print in 1959 with To Axion Esti (“Worthy It Is”; Eng. trans. The Axion Esti), a long poem in which the speaker explores the essence of his being as well as the identity of his country and people. This poem, set to music by Mikis Theodorakis, became immensely popular and helped Elytis earn the Nobel Prize.

 As mentioned, Elytis was perhaps the first modern great poet who embraced surrealism as a poetic inspiration. He felt that surrealism heralded  a return to magical sources which rationalism had calcified; it represented a plunge into the wellsprings of fantasy and dream, a free-flowing clustering of images creating its own shapes.  The broad perspective of an open mind and a vital, concrete bond with the archetypal gestures of life, magical surrealism and unbroken Hellenic substance merge in poetry to form painfully illuminating images of Mediterranean existence.

Through surreal , Elytis infused spirit into the material world. Through personification he molded the abstract into concrete forms as we see in this poem, "Body of Summer". The animate inanimate is found in fruit which paint their mouths in summer heat and transform into earth's swelling pores.  Summer itself is a boy stretched out on the shore while " Cicadas grow warm in his ears/Ants are at work on his chest/Lizards slide in the grass of his armpits/And over the seaweed of his feet a wave rolls lightly". Infused with light and idyllic joy, these are images of hope, joy, and sensuality, bathed in the light that has become the trademark of a poetry free of the sentimentality .

The Greek  landscape is perceived by the poet as archaically harsh and glaring—considering Elytis's birthplace, one is tempted to say "Cretan"—and man does not appear here as lord of creation, as the measure of all things. Human form is, to be sure, assumed by the forces of the landscape and of time: the summer, the earth, youth, memory. But man, for his part, is scarcely anything other than a lens, in which the burning force of the landscape and of time is refracted—a reflection, and perhaps a deceptive one.

From: Odysseus Elytis: Selected Poems 1940-1979 [Paperback]: Odysseus Elytis (Author), Edmund Keeley (Translator), Philip Sherrard (Translator), George Savidis (Translator), John Stathatos (Translator), Nanos Valaoritis (Translator)