29 June 2014

Mandelstam: The Horseshoe Finder

(A Pindaric Fragment) 

                         by Osip Mandelstam

We look at a forest and say:
Here’s a forest for ships, for masts,
Rose-shadowed pines,
Right to their very tops free of shaggy burdens,
They ought to creak in a windstorm,
Like solitary Italian pines,
In the furious forestless air.
Beneath the wind’s salt heel the plumline holds, set in the dancing deck,
And a seafarer,
In his insatiable thirst for space,
Dragging the brittle instrument of the geometer across sodden ruts,
Collates against the pull of earthly breast
The ragged sheet/surface of seas.
But drinking the scent
Of resinous tears, which show through the ship’s planking,
Admiring the timber,
Riveted, well-jointed into bulkheads,
Not by that quiet carpenter of Bethlehem, but another—
The father of voyages, the seafarer’s friend,—
We say:
They too once stood on land,
Ungainly, like a donkey’s spine,
Their tops overlooking their roots,
Upon the ridge of some renowned mountain,
And clattered beneath fresh cloudbursts,
Suggesting vainly that the heavens exchange their noble burden
For a pinch of salt.
Where shall we start?
Everything cracks and reels.
The air shivers with similes.
One word’s no better than another,
The earth drones with metaphors,
And light-weight carts
Harnessed garishly to flocks of birds dense with strain
Burst to pieces,
Competing with the snorting favorites of the hippodrome.
Thrice blessed, he who guides a name into song;
The song adorned with nomination
Lives longer among the others—
She’s marked among her friends by a fillet on her brow,
Which saves her from fainting, from powerful stupefying smells,
Whether it be the closeness of a man,
Or the smell of fur from a powerful beast,
Or merely the scent of savory, crushed between palms.
The air grows dark, like water, and all things living swim through it like fish,
Fins thrusting aside the sphere,
Compact, resilient, barely warm,—
A crystal, in which wheels spin and horses shy,
Damp humus of Neaira, furrowed anew each night,
By pitchforks, tridents, hoes, and ploughs.
The air is mixed as solidly as the earth:
One can’t get out of it, to enter it is difficult.
A rustle runs along the trees like some green ball.
Children play at knucklebones with vertebrae of dead animals.
The fragile chronology of our era is drawing to its close.
Thanks for everything that was:
I made mistakes myself, fell astray, botched my reckoning.
The era rang, like a golden sphere,
Hollow, molded, sustained by no one,
At every touch responding “Yes” or “No.”
It answered like a child:
I’ll give you an apple” or “I won’t give you an apple”,
Its face a perfect copy of the voice that speaks these words.
The sound’s still ringing, though the source of sound has vanished.
A horse slumps in the dust and snorts in a lather,
But the sharp turn of its neck
Still keeps the memory of racing forward with its out-flung hooves—
When there weren’t only four of them,
But numerous as stones upon the road,
Rekindled in four shifts,
As numerous as the ground-beats of the racehorse blazing heat.
The finder of a horseshoe
Blows off the dust
And burnishes it with wool, until it shines.
He hangs it over the threshold,
To take a rest,
So it no longer needs to strike out sparks from flint.
Human lips,
for which there’s nothing more to say,
Retain the form of their last-spoken word,
And weight continues tangible in the hand
Although the jug,
                 spilled half
                               while carried home.
What I’m saying now, I do not say,
But has been dug from the earth, like grains of petrified wheat.
                 portray a lion on their coins,
                a head.
Assorted copper, gold and bronze lozenges
Lie with equal honor in the earth.
The age, which tried to gnaw them through, imprinted teeth on them.
Time lacerates me, like a coin,
And I’m no longer ample for myself.

Moscow, 1923 

[Translator identification mislaid -- help requested]

22 June 2014

Dryden's Antony and Cleopatra


                           by John Dryden (1678)

Antony. But grieve not, while thou stayest,
My last disastrous times;
Think we have had a clear and glorious day,
And Heav'n did kindly to delay the storm,
Just till our close of ev'ning. Ten years love,
And not a moment lost, but all improv'd
To th'utmost joys, -- what ages have we liv'd?
And not to die each others; and so dying,
While hand in hand we walk in groves below,
Whole troops of lovers ghosts shall flock about us,
And all the train be ours.
Cleopatra. Your words are like the notes of dying swans,
Too sweet to last. Were there so many hours
for your unkindness, and not one for love?
Antony. No, not a minute, -- This one kiss -- more worth
Than all I leave to Caesar.
Cleopatra. O tell me so again,
And take ten thousand kisses for that word.
My lord, my lord! speak, if you yet have being;
Sign to me, if you cannot speak; or cast
One look! Do anything that shows you live.
Iras. He's gone too far to hear you;
And this you see, a lump of senseless clay,
The leavings of a soul
Charmion. Remember, madam,
He charg'd you not to grieve.
Cleopatra. And I'll obey him.
I have not lov'd a Roman, not to know
What should become his wife; his wife, my Charmion!
For 'tis to that high title I aspire;
And now I'll not die less. Let dull Octavia
Survive, to mourn him dead; My nobler fate
Shall knit our spousals with a tie too strong
For Roman laws to break.
Iras. Will you then die?
Cleopatra. Why shoul'dst thou make that question?
Iras. Caesar is merciful
Cleopatra. Let him be so
To those who want his mercy; My poor lord
Made no such cov'nant with him, to spare me
When he was dead. Yield me to Caesar's pride?
What! to be led in triumph through the streets,
A spectacle to base plebeian eyes;
While some dejected friend of Antony's,
Close in a corner, shakes his dead, and mutters
A secret curse on her who ruin'd him!
I'll none of that.
Charmion. Whatever you resolve,
I'll follow, even to death.
Iras. I only feared
For you' but more should fear to live without you.
Cleopatra. Why, now, 'tis as it shou'd be. Quick, my friends,
Dispatch; ere this, the town's in Caesar's hands:
My lord looks down concern'd, and fears my stay,
List I should be surprised;
Keep him not waiting for his love too long.
You, Charmion, bring my crown and richest jewels;
With 'em, the wreath of victory I made
(Vain augury!) for him, who now lies dead;
You, Iras, bring the cure of all our ills.
Iris. The aspicks, madam?
Cleopatra. Must I bid you twice?
[Exit Charmion and Iras]
'Tis sweet to die, when they wou'd force life on me,
To rush into the dark aboad of death,
And seize him first; if he be like my love,
He is not frightful, sure.
We're now alone, in secresie and silence'
And is not this like lovers? I may kiss
These pale, cold lips; Octavia does not see me;
And, oh! 'tis better far to have him thus,
Than see him in her arms. -- O welcome, welcome!
[Enter Charmion and Iras]
Charmion. What must be done?
Cleopatra. Short ceremony, friends;
But yet it must be decent. First, this laurel
Shall crown my hero's head; he fell not basely,
Nor left his shield behind him. -- Only though
Cou'dst triumph o'er thy self; and though alone
Wert worthy so to triumph.
Charmion. To what end
These ensigns of your pomp and royalty?
Cleopatra. Dull, that thou art! why 'tis to meet my love;
As when I saw him first, on Cydnos bank,
All sparkling, like a goddess; so adorned,
I'll find him once again; my second spousals
Shall match my first in glory. Haste, haste, both,
And dress the bride of Antony.

15 June 2014

Strangers in the lush province of joy

              CLEAR NIGHT

Clear night, thumb-top of a moon, a back-lit sky.
Moon-fingers lay down their same routine
On the side deck and the threshold, the white keys and the black keys.
Bird hush and bird song. A cassia flower falls.
I want to be bruised by God.
I want to be strung up in a strong light and singled out.
I want to be stretched, like music wrung from a dropped seed.
I want to be entered and picked clean.
And the wind says “What?” to me.
And the castor beans, with their little earrings of death, say “What?” to me.
And the stars start out on their cold slide through the dark.
And the gears notch and the engines wheel.

Charles Wright, “Clear Night” from Country Music: Selected Early Poems. 1982.

Lead us to those we are waiting for, 
Those who are waiting for us.
May your wings protect us,
                                            may we not be strangers in the lush province of joy.
Remember us who are weak.
You who are strong in your country which lies beyond the thunder,
Raphael, angel of happy meeting,
                                                      resplendent, hawk of the light. 

All things in the end are bittersweet—
An empty gaze, a little way-station just beyond silence.
If you can’t delight in the everyday,
                                                         you have no future here.
And if you can, no future either.
And time, black dog, will sniff you out,
                                                            and lick your lean cheeks,
And lie down beside you—warm, real close—and will not move.


Comfort them all, Lord, comfort their odd shapes                                         
                                                                              and their standard hair.
They seem so hand-haunted, so hymn-hewn,
In their slow drift toward received form.
Comfort them standing there,
                                                then comfort them sitting down—
God knows his own, the old have no tears,
The thickness of winter clouds is the thickness of what’s to come.  

Charles Wright, Sestets. 2009.

08 June 2014

At dawn when rowboats drum on the dock


              by James Richardson

At dawn when rowboats drum on the dock
and every door in the breathing house bumps softly
as if someone were leaving quietly, I wonder
if something in us is made of wood,
maybe not quite the heart, knocking softly,
or maybe not made of it, but made for its call.

Of all the elements, it is happiest in our houses.
It will sit with us, eat with us, lie down
and hold our books (themselves a rustling woods),
bearing our floors and roofs without weariness,
for unlike us it does not resent its faithfulness
or question why, for what, how long?

Its branchings have slowed the invisible feelings of light
into vortices smooth for our hands,
so that every fine-grained handle and page and beam
is a wood-word, a standing wave:
years that never pass, vastness never empty,

speed so great it cannot be told from peace.  

From The New Yorker  June 9 & 16, 2014.

01 June 2014


                by Yasunari Kawabata

There's a novel of my father's that I've been thinking about a lot since he became like this. He wrote about this young man who wanted to be a writer -- the boy had been sending strange letters to him pretty much every day, and then he went completely mad and was sent off to a sanatorium. Pens and inkpots are dangerous, and they said that pencils were dangerous too, so they wouldn't let him have them. Manuscript paper was the only thing they would let him have in his room. Apparently he was always there in front of that paper, writing . . . at least he thought he was writing. But the paper stayed white. That much was true, the rest is my father's novel. Every time the boy's mother came to visit, he would say -- Mom, I wrote it, Mom, will you read it? Mom, will you read it to me? His mother would look at the manuscript he handed her and there would be nothing written on it at all, and she would feel like crying, but she'd say -- Oh, you've written it very well, it's very good, isn't it! -- and she would smile. Every single time she went he would pester her to read the manuscript to him. It occurs to her to tell him stories of her own, making it seem that she's reading the manuscript. That's the main idea behind my father's novel. The mother tells the boy about his childhood. No doubt the crazy boy thinks he's having his mother read some sort of record of his memories, something that we wrote himself -- that's what he thinks he 's listening to. His eyes sparkle with pride. His mother has no idea whether or not he understands what she's saying, but every time she comes to see him she repeats the same story, and she gets better and better at telling it -- it begins to seem like she's actually reading a story of her son's. She remembers things she had forgotten. And the son's memories grow more beautiful. The son is drawing the mother's story out, helping her, changing the story -- there's no way of telling whose novel it is, whether it's the mother's or the son's. When the mother is talking she's so focused she forgets herself. She's able to forget that her son is mad. As long as her son is listening to her with that complete concentration, there's no way of knowing if he's mad or not -- he could very well be mad and sane both. And in those times the souls of the mother and the child fuse together -- it's like the two of them are living in heaven -- and the mother and the child are both happy. As she goes on reading to him it begins to seem that her son might get better, and so the mother goes on reading the blank paper.

 "Silence," in First Snow on Fuji, by Yasumari Kawabata.  Trans. Michael Emmerich. 1999.