Monday, April 12, 2021

Miniature

 


 Miniature

by Yannis Ritsos

Translated by Edmund Keeley


 The woman stood up in front of the table. Her sad hands
begin to cut thin slices of lemon for tea
like yellow wheels for a very small carriage
made for a child's fairy tale. The young officer sitting
         opposite
is buried in the old armchair. He doesn't look at her.
He lights up his cigarette. His hand holding the match
          trembles,
throwing light on his tender chin and the teacup's
          handle. The clock
holds its heartbeat for a moment. Something has been
          postponed.
The moment has gone. It's too late now. Let's drink our
          tea.
Is it possible, then, for death to come in that kind of
          carriage?
To pass by and go away? And only this carriage to
          remain,
with its little yellow wheels of lemon
parked for so many years on a side street with unlit
          lamps,
and then a small song, a little mist, and then nothing?


Yannis Ritsos (1909 - 1990) was one of Greece's finest and most celebrated poets, and was nine times nominated for a Nobel Prize (His Marxist background worked against him) . Louis Aragon called him 'the greatest poet of our age'. He wrote in the face of ill-health, personal tragedy and the systematic persecution by successive hard-line, right-wing regimes that led to many years in prison, or in island detention camps. Despite this, his lifetime's work amounted to 120 collections of poems, several novels, critical essays, and translations of Russian and Eastern European poetry. His poems possess striking emotional resonance and are so pared-down, so distilled, that the story-fragments we are given - the scene-settings, the tiny psychodramas - have an irresistible potency.

I have read many poems on death and its suddenness. This is a poem that is somehow indelible from my mind.

The poetic moment also unites time and timelessness. The chatter and business of everyday life, like preparing tea, is ruled by the clock, but the imagination exists between moments, when “The clock/ holds its heartbeat.” At these moments, all such sound and fury are suspended, but the stilled “heartbeat” of the clock is also associated with death, which is brought in the fairy tale’s carriage. 

The smell of lemon peel, makes one want to live. Lemons always symbolize a desire for life for Ritsos. Ritsos’s vision is tragic, not pessimistic or nihilistic. As a Marxist, he sees “nothing” at the end of life to justify existence; as an existentialist, he believes that one makes one’s meaning along the way. The nothingness of death is preceded by “a small song, a little mist.” Finally it amounts to a small tragic song of memory and vanishing forever into the mist.


 

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

They Are Human After All

 


They Are Human After All

By Gottfried Benn

Translated by Michael Hofmann

 

They are human after all, you think,

as the waiter steps up to a table

out of sight of you,

reserved, corner table—

they too are thin-skinned and pleasure-seeking,

with their own feelings and their own sufferings.

 

You’re not so all alone

in your mess, your restlessness, your shakes,

they too will be full of doubt, dither, shilly-shallying,

even if it’s all about making deals,

the universal-human

albeit in its commercial manifestations,

but present there too.

 

Truly, the grief of hearts is ubiquitous

and unending,

but whether they were ever in love

(out with the awful wedded bed)

burning, athirst, desert-parched

for the nectar of a faraway

mouth,

sinking, drowning

in the impossibility of a union of souls—

 

you won’t know, nor can you

ask the waiter,

who’s just ringing up

another bock,

always avid for coupons

to quench a thirst of another nature,

though also deep.

Benn (1886–1956) was a doctor and worked in an army brothel in occupied Brussels during the First World War. Benn was an expressionist poet and he—along with Brecht, Celan, and Rilke—is one of the great German poets of the twentieth century, the equal of Eliot or Montale.

His vision of the world was very simple: a medical nihilism—the human, in Benns early work, was a swarm of dark instincts, with a fragile set of manners trying to restrain him. And that swarm was always Benn’s subject: the exposed self, a mass of neurons and nerve-endings, registering its billion impressions: “I lived on the edge where existence ceases, and the self begins.”

He gives disgrace its aesthetic form. He experienced life as total defeat, and in this disgrace, he discovered a kind of nihilistic truth. In Benn’s poetry, the real meaning of disgrace was isolation and not remorse. In disgrace, he discovered how easily one can be severed from every community. From this isolation, his conclusion was an absolute disillusion. The only truth in which he could believe was the truth he had always relied on: the swarming, isolated self.

This is a poem that we may call as a sort of  bridge-building to ordinary people like the waiter you encounter in a pub or bar or a restaurant or night cafe on different evenings in different moods. What makes the poem striking is that the poet seems to have found some measure of acceptance or equanimity and open-heartedness in observing and commenting on these people. It has an un-deluded tenderness and compassion in it. 

Ref: Impromptus: Selected Poems and Some Prose Hardcover – November 5, 2013

by Gottfried Benn (Author), Michael Hofmann (Translator)


 

Friday, April 2, 2021

POEMS OF ALEJANDRA PIZARNIK

 


POEMS OF ALEJANDRA PIZARNIK

Translated by Yvette Siegert

Alejandra Pizarnik was born in Buenos Aires to Russian Jewish immigrant parents. She studied philosophy and literature at the University of Buenos Aires before dropping out to pursue painting and her own poetry. In 1960, she moved to Paris, where she befriended writers such as Octavio Paz, Julio Cortázar, and Silvina Ocampo. She is considered as one of Argentina’s most powerful and intense lyric poets. Her poems explore many of Pizarnik’s deepest obsessions: the limitation of language, silence, the body, night, sex, and the nature of intimacy. "An aura of legendary prestige surrounds the work of Alejandra Pizarnik," writes César Aira about her.

According to Emily Cooke, Pizarnik “was perennially mistrustful of her medium, seeming sometimes more interested in silence than in language, and the poetic style she cultivated was terse and intentionally unbeautiful.” Her work has continually attracted new readers since her suicide at age 36. I think her poems while lyrical has surrealistic and symbolist overtones. 

Her prose poems and individual poems are so direct and visceral that it just has an immediate effect upon reading. There's no need of mediation. They are full of uncertainty, throwing the reader (as well as the writer) into a confounding but also intimate struggle. Pizarnik is the kind of poet—like Sylvia Plath, to whom she is often compared—who overwhelms, who puts us under her spell


On Your Anniversary


Accept this face of mine, mute and begging.
Accept this love I ask for.
Accept the part of me that is you.

Eyes Wide Open

Someone, sobbing, measures
the lengths before dawn.  
Someone punches her pillow
in search of an impossible
place of rest.

Your Voice

Ambushed in my writing
you are singing in my poem.
Captive of your sweet voice
engraved in my memory.
Bird intent on its flight.
Air tattooed by an absence.
Clock that keeps time with me
so I never wake up.

Meaning of Her Absence


if I dare
look on and speak
it’s because of her
shadow linked so gently
to my name
far away
in the rain
in my memory
for her burning
face in my poem
beautifully carries
the scent of
a beloved face that’s missing

Encounter

 Someone goes into the silence and abandons me.
Now solitude is not alone.
You speak like the night.
You announce yourself like thirst.

Naming You

 Not the poem about your absence,
just a drawing, a crevice in the wall,
something in the wind, a bitter taste

Useless Borders

a place
I didn’t say a space
I’m speaking of
                    what
I’m speaking of what is not
I’m speaking of what I know

not of time
but of all instants
not of love
no
  yes
no

a place of absence
a thread of miserable union




Friday, March 19, 2021

THE HALF-LIFE: POEMS BY ROGER GREENWALD

 


THE HALF-LIFE

BY ROGER GREENWALD

 (Rochester, NY: Tiger Bark Press, 2020.

98 pages. ISBN-13:978-1-7329012-5-4)

 

A certain fraction of my life
has been different, that’s the part
that was life....
(from “The Address Book”)

 Roger Greenwald is an American poet based in Toronto who has won several major awards for his poetry and his translations of Scandinavian poets. He has won the CBC Literary Award twice, and in 2018 he won the Gwendolyn MacEwen Poetry Award from Exile Magazine. He has published two earlier books of poems, Connecting Flight and Slow Mountain Train.

 The Half-Life, Greenwald’s third book of poems, is in three sections whose titles suggest movements in different keys: “Body Dreams,” “Home on the Range,” “Open Water.” It is essentially a book of loss; its leitmotif is melancholy. Memories stream in from different spaces and time zones. Dreams, love, separation, longing, chagrin, chance encounters, and journeys are all themes that are woven into poems in this amazingly engaging book. This is a poet who has seen and experienced life’s many cycles: its panic, pain, pleasure, paradoxes, and perplexities.

 The book opens with a single poem before the first section begins:

 The Half-Life of Sorrow

is about five years.
The decaying, scintillating dust
sits in the small cells of the lung
and colors your breath,
sits in the marrow and colors your blood,
sits in the bile duct.
The half-life isn’t hard
to understand.
It means the sorrow
will be half gone in five years,
what’s left will then take five again
to diminish by half.
So it will never stop flashing

 This poem poignantly captures the way sorrow lurks in the corners of our lives even though it diminishes over time. Its first impact, shock, is evoked in the first half of the poem. In the second half it becomes a dull ache that keeps flashing on and off. In the decay of radioactive elements, the half-life period is the amount of time required for  radiation to fall to half its initial level. The poet says that although sorrow decreases in this way, it gets snuffed out only when our life ends. I love the way Greenwald has conceived this poem on a scientific principle that also reflects the reality of sorrow in our lives. The absurdity of living brightens the poem.

 The first section of the book, “Body Dreams,” draws on the levels of the self that both idyllic dreams and nightmares emerge from. There are many poems in this section that openly deal with a deep love relationship, its perfume, apprehensions, fears, and disenchantment. The visual quality of Greenwald’s poems and their striking imagery are evident in the poem “Body Dreams”:

We hold our bodies; mine shakes.
It shakes and shakes till my seed
is making dry music like a gourd’s.
Seed and language, mine and hers,
deepest flesh I have. No end to
shake and sing while the blood goes.
in your life, though your life
will stop it eventually.

 In “Should You Ever Leave Unanswered,” the emphasis is verbal: the poet associates the word “should” with the absent one in several different ways, as the ambiguity of the title suggests. In many stanzas the word begins a question:

Should I run out to the streets whenever
I wake in the evening, the past
quaking into the gap between my dream
and knowing which day it is, streets
whose failure I’ve already read, searching
my address book like a wound.

 Later it is part of a statement:

 ... it’s when I think of you
that “should” invades my chest
like the wind off a glacier,
though just to be fair—because I should—
I blame myself for breathing it.

 And the poem concludes with a long unfinished clause that echoes the ambiguity of the title.

 “Giving” goes further in portraying a sense of chagrin and squandered effort in the relationship that is the focus of the whole first section of the book. The lyrical passage below uses good imagery to express a reciprocity that goes awry; it closes the poem on a terse ironic note.

She gave me
the feet of a goat, the eye
of an apple, the tongue
of a waterfall, a child’s
new jacket and the heart
of a man. Peace
and then no peace.
She gave me a life
and took it back.
I gave her a life;
she took it with her.
Thanks, she said.

 The book’s second section. “Home on the Range,” gives us the poet at home on a realistic level rather than through dreams. But the “range” available in the city is limited, not the wide-open one of the American cowboy song, so this title contains an irony.

Greenwald is quite good at expressing an edge of anger or bitterness, managing some distance from it even when clearly in pain, as in the powerful short poem “ ‘Acknowledgments’ .” The last line shocks.

 “Acknowledgments”

Someone phoned me at 5 a.m.
from Europe. I could hear
the wires breathing, alert
distance. Between my hellos
the circuits shoved No Signal
from gate to gate. If you were me
you’d know who it was, fresh-smelling
book in her lap, the past (like
everything else) real
when it’s in her hand. Things
the way she wants them. Just
making sure
the corpse is still in the ground. 

 There is another engrossing poem called “Someone” in this section. The speaker begins by describing the torpor and clutter in his home. The home-office atmosphere reflects his state of mind. Routine activities are deferred, and everything tends toward decay and disintegration.

 "Someone"

I’m doing my best to make my home an office,
pile notebooks on the diningroom table
and do my marking there, the study’s
already piled as high
as the bureaucrat’s office in Ikiru.
The plants are dusty, I never repot them,
water them once a week at most,
like to feel we’re surviving the same way.
Cardboard boxes, unemptied waste baskets, no visitors.
Never cook here, paint the walls or even wash them.

Still, nothing crumbles fast enough.
The pipe is bright red, the window frames
rich brown or egg-yolk. Molecules
have long memories, e.g. the springs
in the livingroom mattress: someone was
jumping there once when there was music in the house
and now when the sun bangs in through finger-streaked windows
I see dust-motes going up and down
and the air looks tanned.

 The second stanza ponders how yet more things may fall apart than in the first, though not at the same pace. The paint molecules and the mattress springs preserve memories for a long time; so that’s what doesn’t crumble away. There used to be “someone” jumping on the mattress who is no longer there. There used to be music in the house – no longer. A person can be tanned, but here the memory of a tan can be projected only onto the air. Objects can be seen, touched, and heard, but they are more than just physical objects. This poem powerfully recognizes that and presents them as reminders of loss and sorrow.

 This theme is continued in a beautiful poem that surprised me, titled “Sounding.” The speaker hears from his window across an alley from another building the sound of a woman’s cry. Listening with concern to the gradations of sound, he soon realizes that it is a cry of pleasure. The opening line of the poem, “I haven’t heard this sound in years,”  goes some way toward explaining the mixed feeling that the poem ends with:

 ... It’s him
she cries out to, not alone
her pleasure. That moves me.
And memory. And lack of sham.
I don’t know which neighbor
I’m hearing. Close my window
quietly. Whoever it is, I’m—
happy for her?

 The third section of The Half-Life, “Open Water,” presents the poet away from home, having the new encounters that travel affords or pausing in solitude, but never far from the memories that travel with him. If there is one landscape that recurs throughout the book, it is the Scandinavian one. Since the poet is a well-known translator of many Scandinavian poets, it is no surprise that he is familiar with this landscape and the people living in it: their variety of customs, attitudes, mindsets.

 “Among the Grasses” begins with a strong visual description –

“My name is that grass,” she points
    to an inlet where the curve is sweet
proportion, repose, an almond
    of water that eyes my hip
as I bike by—rippling and the sway of
    resilient color of straw.
 
– and arrives at a surprising ending:
 
I’m ahead of her, already
    among the grasses, child and father.

 Poems that describe chance encounters often have strong lyrical or erotic qualities. “Passerby,” which considers missed chances and unspoken words, begins:

Her glance slides past. This is the palm
that cups it, slow curving arm.
What are you doing? she smiles.
I’m catching your eye.
So verbal—later. This palm
stayed in its pocket, she followed
her glance, did not become a you.
Would we want each to be
“you”? How can questions
continually breathing
die before they’re asked.

 “A Crossing,” a poem with an alluring charm, deals with an encounter that leads to a wistful meditation. It ends this way:

The water’s calmer now, city coming up
behind our backs. If we’d been together
three years or even the stretch of these ten
rather than hours, it would feel in the wind here
exactly as still, in our minor ordeal
as full of a common past as this moment
oddly seems, as if the chance of a destination
conjures the wake that leads there; and its widening,
its reflections, braid us into something
that has grown always, and will yield
the iridescent fabric we’ve deserved.

 It is in this last section of the book that music becomes an important subject. It is referred to in the first section (“In the Pines”) and more frequently and explicitly in the second (“First Night Warm Weather,”  “Home on the Range,”  “Music Building, University of Toronto”), but here music’s evocative, elegiac, and therapeutic effects on listeners emerge strongly. “Loss” describes a woman who, at a concert in a Swedish church, begins crying for unknown reasons. The poem gives some clues but ends:

 ... And why

 was she crying, then? You’ll have to figure it out yourself,

 it’s not so hard, it’s just the sort of thing

 she couldn’t have said in the Sofia Church

 before she walked out the door

 shaking her head a little and still dabbing her eyes.

 In the three-part poem “Evening Raga,” the poet is the listener at a concert, this time one given by Indian musicians on tour (in Norway, it would seem). The poem itself has a raga-like structure and is highly musical in its rhythms. It opens with a detailed narrative in past tense. The second part, which describes the concert, suggests that the first part is a memory triggered by the music and offers reflections on the memories. The third part is an extended meditation on music that returns to the memories and casts them in a somewhat different light. This is a major poem that weaves together narrative, imagery, philosophical reflection, and emotion carried by the music of language.

 The last poem in the book, “Dilation,” is breathtakingly beautiful. It is meditative, mystical, existential, and dreamy. The poem enchants the reader right from the start, where “your last day” refers to the poet’s imminent departure on a flight but suggests also a vision of the end of life, an idea that is further developed at the end of the poem.

On your last day the clouds expand
    like time and you suddenly stroll
at low pressure toward the evening
    as if toward a mountain cabin
you can reach whenever you like, your reservation
    perpetual as the snow.

 At the end of the poem:

    ... we can see how we merge into each other;
how earth and sky give rise
    to something spirited and edible, and we
to other voices before this leisurely walk
    stumbles over a careless rock in the half-light.

 It is interesting to note how certain words recur in many poems. For example, “half,” from the title of the book, its opening poem, and its last line quoted above, appears in “half-Jew but half-balsa” (“In the Pines”), “half-pound” and “half-consumed” (“On Terms”), “half like // violin and half like microtome” (“As the Temperature Drops, the Air Releases Its Voice”),  “half hearing” (“Music Building, University of Toronto”), and “half-clean” (“A Crossing”). “Night” is another word that appears in many poems that reflect myriad shades of it.

 Greenwald is an astutely intelligent poet. One can observe this in his striking imagery and in his use of apt and expressive metaphors, including medical and scientific ones, to reflect mental states. He is also sensitive and evocative. The poems in The Half-Life show that he has a unique style emblematic of his persona. His rich exposure to a variety of cultures and art has enabled him to craft dexterous poems with a remarkable musicality. What makes his poems most engaging is their intimate address to the reader and their sustained appeal to the head and heart. The Half-Life is a rewarding and healing book of poems that can console any reader who has known life’s ups and downs. Greenwald has opened a new realm of poetry that is accessible, original, introspective, and inventive.


 Photo Courtesy : ALF MAGNE HESKJA