Friday, November 21, 2014

Guarding The Air: Selected Poems of Gunnar Harding

Guarding The Air: Selected Poems of Gunnar Harding
translated and edited by Roger Greenwald (Black Widow Press, 2014).
321 pages. ISBN 978-0-9856122-7-6. US $24

To arrive at nothing is no reason for disappointment
if arriving at something was never one’s purpose.
(from “The Star-diver”)

While many poetry readers are familiar with the Swedish Poet Tomas Tranströmer, the 2012 Nobel Laureate for literature, they may not know that Sweden harbors other great poets. Guarding the Air pays wonderful homage to one of them, Gunnar Harding, by presenting work that spans a lifetime of poetry.

For nearly half a century, as a poet, writer, translator, editor and literary critic, Gunnar Harding has been at the center of Swedish literary life. He started as a jazz musician, studied painting in Stockholm, and made his literary debut in 1967. He has published eighteen volumes of poetry, as well as translations and nonfiction, and has won many prestigious literary awards in Sweden, including the Dobloug Prize from the Swedish Academy.

Guarding the Air is the first comprehensive selection of Harding’s work drawn from most of his volumes of poetry written in verse (prose poems are not included). It begins with a crisp but essential introduction by the translator and editor, Roger Greenwald, an American poet who is well known for his translations of Scandinavian poetry. (His  selections of work by such poets as Norway’s Rolf Jacobsen and Tarjei Vesaas have won him many translation awards.)  He has also done readers a service by translating Gunnar Harding’s prefaces to three of his Swedish volumes of selected poems. The book also features line drawings by the poet that lend it a special charm.

Harding’s interest in poetry and culture spans many continents and cultures, and he is candid in listing his inspirational sources. In a preface to one of his volumes of selected poems, Wherever the Wind Is Blowing, he refers to the English orator Edward Young’s saying that “we are born originals but we die as copies.” But Harding argues that in “conversation” with others, we gradually become original. His evolution as a poet bears witness to that process. Art, freedom, love, memory and shared experiences, the passage of time, sensuality, and mortality are some of the many themes that get beautifully woven into the rich tapestries of Harding’s poems. The diversity of the subject matter helps to make this collection resonate, whether in a poem about a wandering shoemaker or in poems exploring music and art. And Greenwald has done a magical job in capturing the intensity and depth of feeling in the poetry.

Life pulsating in many corners forms an integral part of Harding’s poetry. His poems achieve a fine balance of emotional and philosophical content. One can never underestimate his capacity for tenderness, as in the first poem in this collection, “Northwest Express,” which starts with these lovely lines:

    even in our sleep there are cables
    between us. we are coupled
    to each other like the railway cars
    on their way to the sea

For Harding, feelings are important in poetry. He articulates this in a preface: “I know it sounds sentimental, but I believe it is important to keep faith in this truth of the imagination. Moreover — even though it sounds still more sentimental — I believe that it is important to insist that the feelings that come from the heart are sacred. If they are missing, then we are facing a devaluation not only of truth and beauty, but also of poetry.”

Although love is the best balm for man’s soul, the poet knows the absurdity and misery of loving everyone, as finely evoked in these lines:

    Of course you can love everyone,
    but when you have loved everyone
    there’s no one left,
    only the rustle of clothing
    rushing down with a sparkle
    toward the end of the century — the last one,
    soon to be the one before the last, or the next one.
    So much had to be left behind,
    (“Rossetti Sleepless in the Park”)

The poet is also aware of the ambivalence that hides behind love:

    Do you still love me? Smoke grows stale in coils above our shoulders,
    the answer is a timid smile. The answer to such questions
    is a smile one can vanish in and still remain outside of.
    (“Guarding the Air”)

Obstacles to experiencing the true feel of changes in the beautiful outer world also command the poet’s attention. The poem “Ich Weiss nicht, was soll es bedeuten” (whose title is from the opening lines of Heinrich Heine’s “Die Lorelei”: “I do not know what it might mean / that I am so sad”) starts with a question that arises from Heine’s and then moves on to the predicament of our consciousness amidst mechanized urban life. The last line in the poem’s final stanza has a certain poignancy.

    What name shall we give this dark electricity?
    I’m not saying, but I know that it changes everything —
    the season, the setting, the temperature, yes the mood itself —
    and leads us back to ourselves
    like the subway trains that find their way home at night
    along the tracks of current, a series of cars,
    each one scrawled over with its own darkness.

Memory and the associated feelings surface in many poems. In the fascinating poem “Puberty,” the speaker conjures up his school years, a whole class that has been submerged in his memory just as it once was submerged in the green water of a chlorinated swimming pool. The poem ends with an image of a boy (no doubt the poet himself) diving into those waters/memories — and being brought up short by the passage of time:

    year after year
            the boy in the Tarzan swimsuit
                 has been bouncing up and down on the trampoline.
         howling in a shrill breaking voice
    he dives into the water
              to gaze in silence
       at the girls’ legs. but they're already married
    and all rolled up in lilac bathrobes.

In “Persephone,” the poet comes up with a striking simile: “He will carry her like eczema in his memory.” Again, in  “Triptych for Nils Kölare,” the poet notes:

    Memory is as red as a Sunday morning
    when no one has ventured past the long building yet
    so as not to disturb the people dozing there
    in silent chairs inside the barber shop.
    Memory is their hair, which grows imperceptibly
    to replace what has slowly turned white and been swept into piles
        on the floor.

As the image of white hair reminds us, the longer our memories are, the closer thoughts of mortality come. Even Harding’s early poems are mindful of this. “September,” for example,  is set against the backdrop of the war in Vietnam. A frayed poster says “USA OUT OF INDOCHINA,” and the poet observes: “Many / have died so that you might be born, this / unites you with those / who are dying right now.” The poem proceeds to this moving passage.

                          Death lives in the empty spaces
                 between the houses, in the empty spaces
          between people. There are large empty spaces
    between us. When we die
                        we enter them.

But the poem concludes with a touch of surprising, if somewhat grim, humor:

             Here there is still wind. I
                     take it into my lungs. The bells are ringing.
       The wind makes them swing
    back and forth
                            and then not back.
          Watch out!

In a later poem, “The National Hospital, Oslo, September 1976,” mortality is considerably more concrete and immediate. Although the poem is tinged with some humor in the poet’s dreamt conversation with his dying father, it turns somber towards the end:

    Death begins early, one step at a time.
    Is it as full of life
    as life is of death?
    Am I almost as much over there
    as you are here?
    The contours of two worlds fall through each other
    and outside the sickroom window
    the big chestnut tree beside the parking lot
    rushes in the wind.
    It is full of fruit.
    The prickly green-gold husks are life.
    The red-brown kernels death.
    They hit the ground hard
    and crack on the asphalt.


Art is an ever-present theme in Harding’s work, and thanks to his background, the poems engage not only with poetry but with music, painting, sculpture, and the lives of various artists. Harding’s deep connection with various genres of music emerges in many poems in this collection. One can spot it in poems such as “Europe—A Winter Journey,” “Davenport Blues,” “Danny’s Dream,” “Für Elise,” and “The Flute Player.” In “Winter Tour,” the poet moves from depiction of a cold winter day when even “the shining lake of summer has shrunk to a traffic mirror” to an evening immersed in jazz.

    In the evening the landscape we traveled through all day
    gets measured on the bass drum and illuminated by a light bulb.
    There’s a lazy pulse coming from inside it,
    beating in the stage floor, through my soles
    and up through my body.
    The band plays “Moose March” and I recite
    “Back to the beginning
    when only the hundred thousand notes beyond the scale
    are real.” After the reading
    I go backstage while the music continues in the hall,
    one, two, soon three cigarettes from here.

The beginning of “Persephone,” a poem inspired in part by a Magritte painting, illustrates the precision of Harding’s imagery:

    Silence, built of bricks from old tenements,
    glued on with every layer of wallpaper
    where spring is pressed into darkening floral patterns.
    She opens the drapes and a feeble light describes
    all these states of the soul, highly nuanced and distinct
    but so sad that they lack names of their own.
    Streaks of light so broad that she can walk on them
    out above the roofs where the wind is tossing pigeons around, light
    so distant that it can’t remember its source,
    and now it finally sinks to the ground
    through the sun-panels on the linoleum.

Color symbols add richness to “Rugosa Roses,” with its sexual undertones:

    The sky was improbably blue, soundless and blue
    but our friend at the black lake had seen
    the old airforce general sitting in his chair in dress whites
    and he had said: “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

Again at the end of the poem, when the couple muse over their stay in the house, the color symbols turn into sensual images:

    But the rose hedge has grown tall and dense.
    It covers the whole house, and we’re the only ones who know about
    the dark room inside
    where the white flower flows out.

Harding’s fascination with painting is evident in many of his poems. “Painting has also meant a great deal to me,” says the poet in a preface. “At one time that was really what I wanted to devote myself to.” This urge is sometimes stronger than the urge to write poems, as the poet remarks with disarming (or defensive) humor in “Watercolors.” He steps into a river and sees the beautiful reflection of blue sky, the mountains, and the landscape nearby.

    My desire to write worse and worse poems
    still isn’t as strong as my yearning
    to paint a really lousy watercolor
    where a completely hopeless blue runs out into the water,
    only distantly related to that blue
    that just now seemed as momentous
    as becoming water oneself and reflecting a mountain.

The underlying  anxiety evident here about quality in art and in particular in painting crops up in other poems, like “1958 (Miss Setterdahl’s Art School)” and “Imperfect Tense,” from Harding’s sequence about Dante Gabriel Rossetti:

    Yet a sea of flowers
    still covers the black soil
    just as his embroidered vest
    covers the darkness in his heart.
    Each flower has shown itself worthy
    of having a portrait of its own.
    Therefore he stands weeping in the garden.
    His brush goes too slow.
    The flowers wilt, the paint dries out.
    The wardrobe stands there,
    dark with her gowns:
    they too are lifeless.
    This is called “The Post-Romantic.”
    He calls it his life.

In the brilliant title poem of this selection, “Guarding the Air,” contemplations of art slowly evolve into a somber philosophical musing on the way we live and how we can change to find the right path. The poem starts with these arresting lines:

    Take a feather, dip it in ink and draw a swallow.
    It will be a swallow that’s missing one feather,
    just the one that would enable it to fly.

This grand poem, which has a circular pattern, is replete with images and speaks about unexpected correspondences in the urban space, our somnambulistic existence, freedom, love, and the innocence of childhood.

    How long will it take? How long
    will it take you to think everything that’s yours to think
    and what will be left to think then? There will be nothing
    to think then and you will be filled with a deep serenity.
    Clothed in total silence you will be able to observe
    how the pebbles crack like swallow’s eggs, but they crack without
        a sound
    and you understand the silence that pours out from inside them
    as content, a content you recognize from yourself
    and you can never again lose your way, no, never again lose your way.

This poem demonstrates that Harding is a visual poet of the highest order. His poems are rainbows of colors that acquire symbolic meanings dependent on their themes and their contexts. This is understandable, since he started out as a painter. Harding says as much in a preface: “I’ve never been ashamed of the visual qualities in my poetry, even though they have never been in fashion during the whole time I’ve been writing. Because at a certain time in my youth I took the step over to poetry from painting, I have always regarded the poetic image as central.”

That the poetic image is central means it is not there for its own sake: Harding’s poetry explores many themes of everyday life that engage the heart and the mind of the reader. His poetry is thus a rare combination of beauty and intellect. There are lines in almost all the poems that made me pause, ponder, and move forward, such as these from “The Star-diver,” one of the finest poems in this selection:

    To arrive at nothing.... And nonetheless the disappointment
    is grounds for a new beginning, and nonetheless
    the beginning is grounds for new disappointment, and nonetheless
    the grounds are what one didn’t mean to arrive at
    and didn’t arrive at, either — dancing stars.

“The Star-diver” is a magnum opus on our identity and alienation, on disorder and the void that surrounds us. The poem pulls the reader into its magical canvas, thanks to the translation’s fluid grace.

Roger Greenwald deserves thanks for making the gift of this book to serious poetry readers across the globe. These translations of Gunnar Harding’s poems are so pellucid that I can only agree with an advance comment by the American poet Kenneth Koch, who wrote: “It is hard to believe these poems are translations — they are so clear, so exhilarating, have such immediate and uninterrupted effect.”

Guarding the Air proves beyond doubt that Gunnar Harding is a modern poet with a distinctive stamp of his own. Steeped in broad cross-cultural influences, Harding has masterfully crafted vision and music into free verse. His integration of literary and artistic traditions into imaginative creations of broad scope allows us to experience a new realm of poetry that is accessible, reflective, and rich with depth and inventiveness.

                Gunnar Harding (Author, Photo by Paula Tranströmer) and Roger Greenwald (Translator, Editor)

Wednesday, November 5, 2014



By Eugenio de Andrade

Translated by Alexis Levitin

It’s urgent — love.
It’s urgent — a boat upon the sea.

It’s urgent to destroy certain words,
hate, solitude, and cruelty,
some moanings,
many swords.

It’s urgent to invent a joyfulness,
multiply kisses and cornfields,
discover roses and rivers
and glistening mornings — it’s urgent.

Silence and an impure light fall upon
our shoulders till they ache.
It’s urgent — love, it’s urgent
to endure.

Eugénio de Andrade was arguably Portugal’s best-known poet and won all of Portugal’s major literary awards: the prestigious Camões Prize, France’s Prix Jean Malrieu (1989), and the 1996 European Prize for Poetry. Marguerite Yourcenar has referred to “the well-tempered clavier” of his poems, and Spanish critic and poet Ángel Crespo has written that “his voice was born to baptize the world.”

Eugénio de Andrade’s poetry has always exhibited a carefully evoked simplicity. Through naked word and image, he strives to convey what he calls “the rough or sweet skin of things.” Distrustful of abstractions, he focuses on the world of matter, proclaiming a love for “words smooth as pebbles, rough as rye bread. Words that smell of clover and dust, loam and lemon, resin and sun.” The four classical elements of earth, water, air, and fire are never absent from his work, nor is the human body, whose sensuality and sexuality lie at the heart of Dark Domain  For this poet, proud to be called solar and pagan, the body itself is the final “metaphor for the universe.”

The above poem is simple, yet moving , and conveys a real sense of urgency and need for  creating more joy in this world through love.

Source:- Forbidden Words: Selected Poetry by Eugenio de Andrade. Translated by Alexis Levitin

Wednesday, October 1, 2014



By José Craveirinha

Translated from the Portuguese by Arthur Brakel

Not so much

Now and again
take me in your arms
and wrap me in the brown and yellow caress of your desire

Now and again
so that I can forget
until morning when they come to get us
and we don’t know if we’ll be back
and if we’re man or thing
and if we can know the nature of true laughter
and if this be true or false
Call the Children
and the house
and the woman with the frightened eyes
without the waking appearance of remorse

not so much

Just now and again

take me in your crossed arms
and wrap me in the brown and yellow caress of your love
and in the peaceful certainty of your affection

Now and again
Just now and again
take me in your arms
my love

José Craveirinha  was a journalist in Mozambique, East Africa, who became the foremost lyric poet of his nation. His early poems inspired African pride and protest during the long (and successful) struggle for independence from Portugal.

The child of a Portuguese father and a black mother of the Ronga ethnicity, Craveirinha was raised in the language and culture of Portugal. His poems, written in Portuguese, address such issues as racism and the Portuguese colonial domination of Mozambique. He was one of the African pioneers of the Négritude movement.

As a journalist, Craveirinha contributed to numerous Mozambican magazines . He also played football and coached other athletes. He arranged an athletic scholarship in the United States for Maria de Lurdes Mutola, who won a gold medal in track and field at the Olympics in 2000, and his son Stelio also held the national long jump record.

Craveirinha was awarded the Prémio Camões, the world's highest honour for lusophone literature, in 1991. He was considered several times for the Nobel Prize for Literature.In 2003, Craveirinha was declared a "national hero" by President Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique, who praised Craveirinha's literary contribution to the fight against colonialism.

What makes Craveirinha a great poet and person are human sympathy, unpretentiousness, a passionate sense of justice, attachment to his land and people, uninhibited lyrical eroticism, a powerful command of words, the directness and concentrated vigor of his verses, an extraordinary combination of reality and dream-like imagery, and a profound seriousness alternating with subtle irony. In 1979, during a private conversation, when the talk turned to the struggle for a better Mozambican society out of love for humanity, the poet wondered why there was so much hate and so little generosity even after the victory had been won. He concluded: "It is easier for man to be heroic than to be humble.”

Source : Bending the Bow: An Anthology of African Love Poetry by Frank M Chipasula (Editor)

Monday, September 29, 2014

Try to Praise the Mutilated World

Try to Praise the Mutilated World


Translated by Clare Cavanagh

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June's long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You've seen the refugees going nowhere,
you've heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth's scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

Adam Zagajewski is perhaps the greatest Polish poet alive today. Zagajewski shot to fame among American audience after “New Yorker” silently featured this influential poem in the first issue to be published after the attacks of Sept 11, 2011 .While watching the faces of the refugees from Syria, especially Children, in TV, I couldn't help but remember this poem and find solace in it. We are living in a mutilated world in every sense. But we must accept it with grace, as the poet echoes. Great poems have therapeutic power, like this one.

This poem juxtaposes the disfigurement and the simple joys of life. The poet is trying to convey a philosophical conviction that one must learn to accept or praise the faults of the world to enable us to see the beauty and help to heal the mutilated world. We as a society must remember the good things when times begin to get arduous. 

The poem moves from the assertion "Try to praised the mutilated world" through "You must praise" to "You should praise" to the imperative "Praise" as it catalogues a series of mutilated objects from "the nettles that methodically overgrow/the abandoned homesteads of exiles" to the refugees heading nowhere/...the executioners singing joyfully" and to the simple "grey feather a thrust lost".

Zagajewski thus uses repetition with the phrase "Praise the Mutilated World," and each time the phrase is written, it means something completely different because of the tone that is being used and the urgency that is being asked to praise the mutilated world. The tone changes throughout each stanza, it changes from an asking tone, to a demanding tone, to a parental tone then a pleading tone .The poet thus reminds us to “praise the mutilated world” , filled as it with exiles, the debris of war, refugees and other contingencies but also with “gentle light that strays and vanishes and returns”

Indeed we must praise the mutilated world, for the very reason that praising itself is a hard a task. The poem doesn't say how to do it. But it puts into words what one wanted to do and felt one had to find a way to do. The 'hope' that is beautifully captured in the last line reminds us that joy will overpower sorrow.

As we reflect on our own suffering and reach out to alleviate the suffering of the world, the words of  Maurice Merleau-Ponty , a pivotal figure in twentieth century French philosophy, comes to mind- “ The human world is an unfinished system and the same radical contingency which threatens it with discord also rescues it from the inevitability of disorder and prevents us from despairing of it." 

Source: Without End: New and Selected Poems by Adam Zagajewski (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002)

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Kiss poem by Catullus (Poem No. 5)

The Latin poet Catullus (born in Verona 84 bc), who died roughly at the age of thirty, was the first poet in the ancient world to write about a personal love affair in an extended way. Other poets treated the subject of “love,” allowing the flushed cheeks or alabaster limbs of this or that woman to enter the frame of their poems, but it was Catullus who wrote verses with a near-obsessional passion around a single woman whose entire presence, body and mind, fills the lines of his poetry. From the first excruciating moments of infatuation with the woman he called “Lesbia,” through the torrid transports of physical love, to the betrayals that leave him stricken, Catullus told it all, and, in so doing, did more than anyone to create the form we recognize today as the love story.

Though historians have many versions about the identity of Lesbia, what is certain about her is that she was married and that Catullus’s relationship with her was adulterous. Of Catullus's many poems devoted to his relationship with Lesbia, the most popular are his 'Kiss' poems and the ones addressed to her pet sparrow. The below is the most popular 'kiss' poem of Catullus

Kiss poem by Catullus (Poem No. 5)
Translated by Peter Green

Let's live, Lesbia mine, and love—and as for
scandal, all the gossip, old men's strictures,
value the lot at no more than a farthing
Suns can rise and set ad infinitum—
for us, though, once our brief life's quenched, there's only
one unending night that's left to sleep through.
Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,
then a thousand more, a second hundred,
then yet another thousand then a hundred—
then when we've notched up all these many thousands,
shuffle the figures, lose count of the total,
so no maleficent enemy can hex us
knowing the final sum of all our kisses.

This is poet's call to Lesbia to join with the poet in living and loving to the fullest. The poem begins by the poet pleading to Lesbia not to pay any attention to old men's morals and strictures . The poet adopts the pose of the lover whose passion makes him (and his love) vulnerable to external but intrusive forces that seek somehow to negate his passion.

He, therefore, suggests to spend their moments of togetherness with maximum pleasure and contentment. There is an ecstatic frenzy in the piling up of kisses and he provides brevity of life as a rational for his overindulgence in passion.  I liked the poet's idea of confusing the number of kisses, making it numberless, to avoid hex ( bad eye or curse),  as envy comes only when there is clarity in the number of kisses. It was also believed in ancient time that precise knowledge had special powers: knowing the exact number of kisses exchanged by the lovers would enable malevolent outsiders to cast a spell on them.

Monday, September 15, 2014

I Wash the Shirt

I Wash the Shirt

by Anna swir

Translated by Czeslaw Milosz & Leonard Nathan

For the last time I wash the shirt
of my father who died.
The shirt smells of sweat. I remember
that sweat from my childhood,
so many years
I washed his shirts and underwear,
I dried them
at an iron stove in the workshop,
he would put them on unironed.

From among all bodies in the world,
animal, human,
only one exuded that sweat.
I breathe it in
for the last time. Washing this shirt
I destroy it
only paintings survive him
which smell of oils.

The famous Polish poet Anna Swir has written some of the most beautiful and deeply stirring poems I have come across. Her poems dives deep into the frailty and the power of a woman's spirit.Her
  poetry is devoid of usual poetic embellishments and is purposeful, direct and simple with profound reverence for life.She often paints pictures in your mind so real and tangible that it is guaranteed to leave you gasping for emotions that you may not have known existed within you.

The belongings of the dead, especially clothes, evoke an intense emotional response when the deceased was intimately attached to you. I loved the emotional fervor she brings into a shirt left behind by her father. Throughout the poem, the shirt is symbolic of the remnants of a personal relationship between the father and the daughter that continues after his death. The alliteration in “the shirt smells of sweat” conveys the pleasantly intimate scent that makes personal connection with the daughter. The line "from all the bodies in the world, animal or human, only one exuded that sweat" reflects the uniqueness of her father and their binding relationship. 

She finally destroys the shirt by rough washing thereby metaphorically removing the precious memories associated with the shirt (“washing this shirt I destroy it forever”) and dispelling her father's haunting presence that returns with every washing. While it can be seen that washing the shirt will destroy precious memories, it can also be seen as a way to open a new chapter in her life by coming to terms with her grief. 

She decides at the end that the only thing that "survives [her father]" are his paintings that smell of oil, whereby the narrator is probably hinting at this being yet another aroma that would vividly remind her of her father, just as his sweaty clothes. Perhaps, the images created in “smell of oils” are very impersonal as the paintings are merely artistic output of her father, which is bearable, compared to the smell of sweat on the shirt which is natural and distinctive.

Source: Talking to My Body by Anna Swir. Translated by Czeslaw Milosz & Leonard Nathan
Painting by  Fernando Amorsolo

Thursday, September 11, 2014



by Sa'id Aql

Translated by Mansour Ajami 

Once...I heard a bird,
an absorbed ecstatic bird,
eloquently telling
its child:
"Fly away,
soar high:
a few bread crumbs
will suffice you,
but the sky 
you need....
the whole sky."

A very inspirational poem indeed!

Sa|id |Aql (B. 1912) was born in Zahle, Lebanon, where he became a teacher and journalist before establishing himself in the 1930s as one of the leading conventional poets in the Arab world. He was influenced by the symbolist school and despite his many innovations in style and content, never deviated from the conventional formula of a poem.

From : The Flag of Childhood : Poems from the Middle East

Sunday, August 31, 2014

A secret kept

A secret kept

by Judah Al-Harizi

Translated by David Goldstein

The girl brought me into the house of love.
She was as pure and perfect as Abigail.
When she took off her veil she revealed a form
That put to shame the beauty of Esther.
Her light shone in the darkness, made everything tremble.
The hills started to dance like rams.
I thought; ‘Now our secrets are discovered.’
But she stretched out her hand like a woman of strength
And enveloped me with her jet-black hair.
So the day was immediately turned into night.

Yehuda Alharizi, also known as Judah Alharizi- was a rabbi, philosopher, poet and traveler active in Spain in the Middle Ages ( 1165 in Toledo – 1225 in Aleppo). He was supported by wealthy patrons, to whom he wrote poems and dedicated compositions. His most famous treaties-Makama Tahkemoni- is divided to fifty chapters. The chapter 46 is called Moznei ha-Dor (The Appraisal of the People) and includes his travel to the East and within the East. The last point in his journey was Aleppo where he resided and passed away in 1225. 

This poem is  beautiful and it reminds me of  the poems written during the golden age of  Andalusian Arabic poetry. 

God has Pity on Kindergarten Children

God has Pity on Kindergarten Children

by Yehuda Amichai

Translated by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell

God has pity on kindergarten children.
He has less pity on school children
And on grownups he has no pity at all,
he leaves them alone,
and sometimes they must crawl on all fours
in the burning sand
to reach the first–aid station
covered with blood.

But perhaps he will watch over true lovers
and have mercy on them and shelter them
like a tree over the old man
sleeping on a public bench.

Perhaps we too will give them
the last rare coins of charity
that Mother handed down to us
so that their happiness may protect us
now and on other days.

“God Has Pity on Kindergarten Children” has become one of YEHUDA AMICHAI’s most quoted and anthologized poems. Amicahi is considered as the greatest Israeli poet of last century. The poem operates on multiple levels, but given its historical proximity to Israel’s war of independence of 1948, one is hard pressed not to view its surface theme as that of the savagery of war and the sacrifice of young soldiers.

The poem also typifies Amichai’s inclination, especially in his early poetry, to challenge and to transform in an acutely ironic fashion the traditional perception of God as merciful. Amichai had a complex relationship with Orthodox Judaism and conducted a grand theological argument with the Almighty, rejecting any submissive reverence and the certainties of an exclusive faith. For example, the companion piece to “God Has Pity on Kindergarten Children”—“A God Full of Mercy”—limns similar terrain, featuring a speaker who relates a life redolent of pain and misery, angry at a God who keeps all lenity, all compassion strictly to himself, which is why he is so “full of mercy.”

The title “God Has Pity on Kindergarten Children” positions the reader to expect a poem praising God’s benevolence, but it quickly develops into a searing tract about a universe devoid of higher kindliness. The first two lines foreground the poem’s central theme, that childhood and youth provide a type of protection and shelter denied to adults:

God has pity on kindergarten children.
He has less pity on school children.

At first we are told that God does show mercy, but it is dispensed in a discriminatory manner, only to those who are regarded as totally pure—kindergarten children and, to a lesser extent, schoolchildren. In a sense it is not just God who offers his concern and protection to the innocent and powerless, but also the institutions of home, kindergarten, and school that proffer a shield. On the other hand, God denies the vulnerable grownups (embodied here as soldiers) of his sanctuary, even though soldiers are customarily in more peril than small children. Amichai marshals the image of soldiers crawling on all fours in the hot sands toward the first aid station, bloodied and wounded, to underline the idea that combatants (in this instance, during the war of independence) were not the objects of God’s watchfulness. This particular image struck a chord with Israelis, who were all too well acquainted with the high cost of successive wars. In this poem the soldiers, left entirely alone, have reverted to their infant state, dragging themselves as children do to be tended to. More broadly, this “last station” could symbolize the final destination for all of us.

The following stanzas convey the message that omnipotence does not have a duty to provide protection against danger or death. In the end, only love acts as a buffer for suffering adults. The second stanza suggests that “true lovers” may well be deserving of God’s love .

But perhaps he will watch over true lovers
and have mercy on them and shelter them
like a tree over the old man
sleeping on a public bench.

 Still, the tree that shelters the young lovers can provide only a limited degree of safety. It cannot insulate the lovers from rain, cold, or physical injury. From the second word of the second stanza (perhaps), it is evident that God’s sanctuary is contingent on something else. Those who love truly (as the poem largely implies) can be likened to children in their naïveté and righteousness, and they are thus more worthy of protection, albeit only a fractional sort. The idea developed in this poem—that only love can afford redemption that only love will drive away pain and cruelty—is a recurring theme in the Amichai poetic corpus.

The last section of the poem suggests that generosity and empathy handed down in the form of “coins of compassion” by a mother (or mother figure) may generate happiness for the adults shunned by a discriminating God. Acts of (metaphorically) maternal charity, Amichai says, will lead in turn to our protection. The referencing of “the mother” evokes the association of “motherly love” with its accompanying warmth and affection, remembered from childhood. This trope is not surprising. Time and again reminiscences from childhood (nostalgic glimpses into a world of peace and innocence) dapple Amichai’s poetic canvas. One critic appositely noted that “a whole coin” often emblematizes completeness in Amichai’s poetry, observing that the soldiers, hurt and incomplete, can also parabolically signify people stuck in the mechanical drudgery of urban life, with its attendant isolation, estrangement, and disjunction. Ultimately, it is God who is cast as the designer of such afflictions. 

The poem avers that human beings should not rely on God for refuge or mercy, but must be responsible for their own safe conduct. Amichai is asserting, contra Jewish religious dogma, that human goodness, kindness, and love are far superior shields and can function as a worthy substitute for God’s uncertain protection. Compassion is to be reclaimed here on Earth, rather than from the heavens, so evidently impoverished of kindness.

The poem can be classified as a modern opus, an existential meditation on the relationship between us and our creator. It confirms God’s presence in human affairs, but demonstrates humankind’s loss of faith and profound disappointment in what can only be seen as divine indifference to the uncertain lives of human beings.

Ref : Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai .Translated by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell
The Facts On File Companion to World Poetry, 1900 to the Present by R. Victoria Arana

Wednesday, August 27, 2014



By Li Po

Translated by David Hinton

Among the blossoms, a single jar of wine.
No one else here, I ladle it out myself.

Raising my cup, I toast the bright moon,
and facing my shadow makes friends three,

though moon has never understood wine,
and shadow only trails along behind me.

Kindred a moment with moon and shadow,
I've found a joy that must infuse spring:

I sing, and moon rocks back and forth;
I dance, and shadow tumbles into pieces.

Sober, we're together and happy. Drunk,
we scatter away into our own directions:

intimates forever, we'll wander carefree
and meet again in Star River distances.

Note: Star River: Milky way

Painting : Watching the mid-autumn moon by by Xiao Yun

Li Po was one of the greatest poets of ancient China. The Chinese have valued Li Po for his gaiety, freedom, sympathy and energy for so long that he has become a sort of archetype of the bohemian artist and puckish wanderer. The story that he drowned when he drunkenly tried to embrace the moon in the river is doubtless apocryphal, but it is also delightfully apt to anyone who knows his work. This poem is no different.

Li Po made his solitary state into an ecstatic one because he knew how to transform his lonesomeness and associated sadness into joy. Life at its best, as Li Po envisions it, is a kind of intoxication, an elevation; poetry, like good wine, should help us get perspective on ourselves and put the cares of the world aside. Even nature, as Li Po likes to present it, has a kind of intoxicated quality, especially in spring. The poet's presentation of himself as drunkenly enjoying some natural setting is thus a cleverly unpretentious way of presenting transcendent states of mind and being. This idea isn't exclusive to Li Po, but he handles the metaphor of the bibulous poet in a tipsy world as well as anyone before or since.

Sunday, August 24, 2014



By Sarah Kirsch

Translated by Anne Stokes

In the afternoon I pick up a book
In the afternoon I put a book down
In the afternoon it enters my head there is war
In the afternoon I forget each and every war
In the afternoon I grind coffee
In the afternoon I put the ground coffee
Back together again gorgeous
Black beans
In the afternoon I take off my clothes put them on
Apply make-up first then wash
Sing don't say a thing

The above poem is by Sarah Kirsch, the acclaimed East German poet who died last year, aged 78. Her selected poetry translation into English has been published for the first time this year. The book “Iced Roses: Selected Poems” is edited and translated by Anne Stokes.

In an interview with Die Zeit in 2005, Kirsch said her poems were sparked off by "optical impressions". Although Black Beans isn't primarily a visual poem, the image of the "gorgeous/ Black beans" is clearly important. It gives it its title and the key metaphor – the hopeless, Sisyphean task of putting "the ground coffee/ Back together again".

Realism rules until this point. The long, repetitive, restless afternoon is characterized by lack of concentration. A book is picked up and abandoned; then the speaker takes us into her own head, and the same thing happens to her perception ("there is war"). It's not denied that "there is war", however: it's simply that the power of some undisclosed emotion or event makes the speaker "forget each and every war".

The fantastical coffee "episode" may be an assertion of the desire for psychological control. It's the point at which the Seventh Writers' Congress spokesperson could have discerned a literal Socialist paradox. Material goods in short supply are all the more treasured – eked out, recycled, re-used whenever possible.

Then again, the poem invokes the truism that you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs – a universal law under every Ism known to mankind. The magical idea – omelette and eggs, cup of rich coffee and "gorgeous" coffee beans – is reinforced by the absence of punctuation, a feature of the whole poem, of course, but particularly assertive when it occurs inside the line: "Back together again gorgeous/ Black beans."

At this same point the anaphoric pattern ("In the afternoon") breaks down, enhancing the visual impact of the "Black beans". It's picked up once more, in line nine, a kind of punctuation-through-repetition, but then a more urgently-paced narrative takes over. The last three lines are a kind of "flash fiction". They bring us close to the speaker, generous in denotation but without filling in connective details. The pronoun "I" occurs only once in the English version, with an effect of acceleration and added mystery. If the speaker is a woman waiting for her lover, do we assume he has arrived and made love to her in between those lines? Do the making-up and washing activities bookend gratified desire, or signal the breakdown of reason?

Perhaps the last line ("sing don't say a thing") alludes to political astuteness. In a repressive society, the poet might favour the traditional "song" of love- or nature poetry in preference to political comments the censor could interpret as subversion. Singing and not speaking might also imply madness – an Ophelia-like love-dementia, where song becomes the only kind of speech available. The simple, cheery musical chime of the sing/thing rhyme in the English version lightens the mood and raises the possibility of a happy dénouement.

Black Beans may be a love poem but it's also a trenchant critique of materialism, capitalist or communist. Its narrator seems islanded among the good things of civilization, the books and information, the coffee, clothes and cosmetics. At some vital, core level of her being, she remains aloof. What drives the poem is its inner narrative – the story of an "I" who perceives, thinks, knows, forgets, and apprehends the world with both sensuous admiration and desolate boredom. In a rare meeting of inner and outer possibility, this "I" at last finds a voice, and sings.

Ref : Poem of the Week by Carol Rumens in Guardian Newspaper
Ice Roses: Selected Poems Paperback – March 1, 2014 by Sarah Kirsch (Author), Anne Stokes (Translator, Introduction)