14 August 2016

Just as an olive seedling

                                           Jan Kochanowski

from Laments (no.5)

Just as an olive seedling, when it tries
To grow up like the big trees towards the skies
And sprouts out of the ground, a single stalk,
A slender, leafless, twigless, living stick;
And which, if lopped by the swift sickle’s blade
Weeding out thorns and nettles, starts to fade
And, sapped of natural strength, cut off, forlorn,
Drops by the tree from whose seed it was born –
Growing before her parents’ caring eyes,
She’d barely risen above ground when Death
Felled the dear child with his infectious breath
At our very feet. Hard-eyed Persephone,
Were all those tears of no avail to me?

Trans., Stanislaw Baranczak and Seamus Heaney (1995)

17 July 2016

If I were a bull penguin right now

                                              by Tony Hoagland

Romantic Moment

After the nature documentary we walk down,
into the plaza of art galleries and high end clothing stores
where the mock orange is fragrant in the summer night
and the smooth adobe walls glow fleshlike in the dark.
It is just our second date, and we sit down on a rock,
holding hands, not looking at each other,
and if I were a bull penguin right now I would lean over
and vomit softly into the mouth of my beloved
and if I were a peacock I’d flex my gluteal muscles to
erect and spread the quills of my cinemax tail.
If she were a female walkingstick bug she might
insert her hypodermic proboscis delicately into my neck
and inject me with a rich hormonal sedative
before attaching her egg sac to my thoracic undercarriage,
and if I were a young chimpanzee I would break off a nearby tree limb
and smash all the windows in the plaza jewelry stores.
And if she was a Brazilian leopard frog she would wrap her impressive
tongue three times around my right thigh and
pummel me lightly against the surface of our pond
and I would know her feelings were sincere.
Instead we sit awhile in silence, until
she remarks that in the relative context of tortoises and iguanas,
human males seem to be actually rather expressive.
And I say that female crocodiles really don’t receive
enough credit for their gentleness.
Then she suggests that it is time for us to go
to get some ice cream cones and eat them.

10 July 2016

A letter in panic

                                          by Tomas Tranströmer

Answers to Letters

In the bottom drawer of my desk I come across a letter that first arrived twenty-six years ago. A letter in panic, and it’s still breathing when it arrives the second time.

A house has five windows: through four of them the day shines clear and still. The fifth faces a black sky, thunder and storm. I stand at the fifth window. The letter.

Sometimes an abyss opens between Tuesday and Wednesday but twenty-six years may be passed in a moment. Time is not a straight line, it’s more of a labyrinth, and if you press close to the wall at the right place you can hear the hurrying steps and voices, you can hear yourself walking past there on the other side.

Was the letter ever answered? I don’t remember, it was long ago. The countless thresholds of the sea went on migrating. The heart went on leaping from second to second like the toad in the wet grass of an August night.

The unanswered letters pile high up, like cirro-stratus clouds presaging bad weather. They make the sunbeams lustreless. One day I will answer. One day when I am dead and can at last concentrate. Or at least so far away from here that I can find myself again. When I’m walking, newly arrived, in the big city, on 125th Street, in the wind on the street of dancing garbage. I who love to stray off and vanish in the crowd, a capital T in the mass of the endless text.

Translated by Robin Fulton.

03 July 2016

The waves whisper like bureaucrats

                                             by Margaret Atwood

War Movie II

At last we believe in something:
this is the source of our pain.
We no longer drink gin
and sleep in,
we no longer bargain.

We clamber over stony Greece,
we slink through Polish forests,
it is winter, our toes freeze,
we gnaw on stolen turnips,
we retreat from Moscow
burning everything.

I hide the food and rifles
under my filthy shawl;
I wear a skirt,
I’m less likely to be suspected;
you are a spy, you are the commander,
your name is Sir,
everyone does what you say
because it is the only way.

The others are honed and clean,
their heads are signals,
we stab them without mercy,
we switch clothes with their steel torsos.

The sun bestows rewards:
we are allowed to cry,
we are given background music
where there was none, we are finally emblems,
we are finally credible,
we are finally single-minded.

Near the end there is a huge
explosion, a gun
shaped like an enemy, shaped like a dungeon
topples into the sea.

In the backwash, the waves
whisper like bureaucrats;
they are planning the peace,
the peace we fight for,
deciding which of us
to kill, who to sell.

26 June 2016

As different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire

 ‘This is nothing,’ cried she; ‘I was only going to say that heaven did not seem to be my home; and I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth; and the angels were so angry that they flung me out, into the middle of the heath on the top of Wuthering Heights; where I woke sobbing for joy. That will do to explain my secret, as well as the other. I've no more business to marry Edgar Linton than I have to be in heaven; and if the wicked man in there had not brought Heathcliff so low, I should have thought of it. It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff, now; so he shall never know how I love him; and that, not because he's handsome, Nelly, but because he's more myself than I am.  What ever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same, and Linton's is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire.'

Ere this speech ended I became sensible of Heathcliff's presence. Having noticed a slight movement, I turned my head, and saw him rise from the bench, and steal out, noiselessly.  He had listened till he heard Catherine say it would degrade her to marry him, and then he staid to hear no farther.

. . . "I cannot express it; but surely you and every body have a notion that there is, or should be, an existence of yours beyond you.  What were the use of my creation if I were entirely contained here? My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff's miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning;  my great thought in living is himself.  If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if he were annihilated, the Universe would turn to a mighty stranger.  I should not seem a part of it.  My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods. Time will change it, I'm well aware, as winter changes the trees -- my love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath -- a source of little visible delight, but necessary.  Nelly, I am Heathcliff -- he's always, always in my mind -- not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself -- but, as my own being -- so, don't talk of our separation again -- it is impracticable; and --'

She paused and hid her face in the folds of my gown; but I jerked it forcibly away.  I was out of patience with her folly!

from Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte.

22 May 2016

When suddenly there is heard at midnight


                                  The God Abandons Anthony

                                      by Constantinos P. Cavafy

When suddenly there is heard at midnight
A company passing invisible
With wonderful music, with voices, -
Your fortune giving way now, your works
Which have failed, the plans of a lifetime
All turned illusions, do not mourn uselessly.
As one prepared long since, courageously,

Say farewell to her, to Alexandria who is leaving.
Above all do not be tricked, never say it was
All a dream, and that your hearing was deceived;
Do not stop to such vain hopes as these.

As one prepared long since, courageously,
As becomes one worthy as you were of such a city,
Firmly draw near the window,
And listen with emotion but not
with the complainings and entreaties of cowards,
Listen, your last enjoyment, to the sounds,
The wonderful instruments of the mystic company,
And say farewell, farewell to Alexandria you are losing.

The poems of C.P. Cavafy. Trans. J. Mavrogordatos. 1951

                                  Anthony & Cleopatra
                                   by Wm. Shakespeare

Alexandria. Before CLEOPATRA's palace

Enter a company of soldiers

FIRST SOLDIER. Brother, good night. To-morrow is the day.
SECOND SOLDIER. It will determine one way. Fare you well.
Heard you of nothing strange about the streets?
FIRST SOLDIER. Nothing. What news?
SECOND SOLDIER. Belike 'tis but a rumour. Good night to you.
FIRST SOLDIER. Well, sir, good night.
[They meet other soldiers]
SECOND SOLDIER. Soldiers, have careful watch.
FIRST SOLDIER. And you. Good night, good night.
[The two companies separate and place themselves
in every corner of the stage]
SECOND SOLDIER. Here we. And if to-morrow
Our navy thrive, I have an absolute hope
Our landmen will stand up.
THIRD SOLDIER. 'Tis a brave army,
And full of purpose.
[Music of the hautboys is under the stage]

SECOND SOLDIER. Peace, what noise?
THIRD SOLDIER. List, list!
THIRD SOLDIER. Music i' th' air.
FOURTH SOLDIER. Under the earth.
THIRD SOLDIER. It signs well, does it not?
THIRD SOLDIER. Peace, I say!
What should this mean?
SECOND SOLDIER. 'Tis the god Hercules, whom Antony lov'd,
Now leaves him.
THIRD SOLDIER. Walk; let's see if other watchmen
Do hear what we do.
SECOND SOLDIER. How now, masters!
SOLDIERS. [Speaking together] How now!
How now! Do you hear this?
FIRST SOLDIER. Ay; is't not strange?
THIRD SOLDIER. Do you hear, masters? Do you hear?
FIRST SOLDIER. Follow the noise so far as we have quarter;
Let's see how it will give off.
SOLDIERS. Content. 'Tis strange. Exeunt.

16 May 2016

Duck feathers from a gold pillow

Different Places to Pray

                                   by Susan Rich

Everywhere, everywhere she wrote; something is falling –
a ring of keys slips out of her pocket into the ravine below;

nickels and dimes and to do lists; duck feathers from a gold pillow.
Everywhere someone is losing a favorite sock or a clock stops

circling the day; everywhere she goes she follows the ghost of her heart;
jettisons everything but the shepherd moon, the hopeless cause.

This is the way a life unfolds: decoding messages from profiteroles,
the weight of mature plums in autumn. She’d prefer a compass

rose, a star chart, text support messages delivered from the net,
even the local pet shop – as long as some god rolls away the gloss

and grime of our gutted days, our global positioning crimes.
Tell me, where do you go to pray – a river valley, a pastry tray?

TLS, May 16, 2016.