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)

Saturday, August 23, 2014



By P'an Yeuh

Translated by  Burton Watson

Before I know it, winter and spring depart,

cold and heat suddenly trading places,
and she has gone to the deepest springs;
heaped earth forever seals her apart.
My secret longings I cannot fulfill;
what good would it do to linger there?
Swearing allegiance to the sovereign's command,
I turn my heart back to former tasks.
But seeing the house, I think of her;
entering its rooms, I recall the past.
Curtains and screens hold no shadow of her;
her writings the only trace that remains,
the drifting scent that never quite fades,
her things left forgotten, hung on the wall.
Dazed by longing , I think she is here,
then come to myself with twinge of pain.
We were a pair of birds winging to the wood,
mated, then suddenly one morning alone;
a pair of fish swimming the stream,
eye to eye, then parted midway.
Spring wind filters in through the cracks,
morning rain drips down from the eaves;
lying at rest, when will I forget?
Each day I sink into deeper sorrow.
Perhaps a time will come when it will fade
and I, like Chuang Tzu , can pound the tub.

P'an Yueh (247-300) , along with Lu Ji, was among the finest poets of his time, but only twenty of his poems have survived the centuries. He was born in today's Henan province to a family of officials, and he himself held a succession of important official posts. As legend has it, his extraordinary beauty was such that he was mobbed by crowds of women when driving through the streets of the capital. His involvement in a political scheme against the crown prince led to his execution in 300. His three poems to his dead wife are his most famous works, though he was also renowned as a writer of rhyme prose

Reading this beautiful lament left me misty eyed. Transition of one's beloved is something that takes years to accept, absorb and reconcile with.  Burton Watson has sensitively captured the feelings and emotions of the poem.

Note: When the Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu lost his wife, he grieved for her like other men, but in time he became reconciled and spent his days singing and pounding on a tub.

The line ending 'I cannot fulfill ' indicates his desire to join his wife by committing suicide at her grave.

Source: The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry edited by Burton Watson