Monday, December 26, 2011

Lines from a year's worth of failed and unfinished poems

* I know you are there / on the outskirts of the city, tweeting your location / to a sleeping world. * We wait for a Jerusalem to take shape, beyond sea / and sex... * Unexpected caesarian – / hips too narrow, they said, to deliver though premature. * The earth is letting go of us. * Nothing Hanseatic about this league / of ours. But if they call you homewrecker, they’ve got it wrong – *  I wanted to keep you pinned / in the womb, medicated, sewed up / so you couldn’t escape / the life to come. * Weeks since our goodbye in the metro station, / the one that left me tongue-tied, word of you comes / by word of mouth. * I could not keep up when push came to shove / and we pushed toward love with sightseeing as a viable backup plan. * Sometimes cropping up / in drainage ditches after floods, flash bushes / flattened out in drought and papered the trenchbed. * The television spire, minareted above the city center, pricks the sky, pulses light, / beacons, blinks as we exit onto grey platforms, momentary us / spilt to each... * Blue river. / Water and it’s watery stare – / tributary to oceans, / unceasing susurrations. / Apple / of my eye. *

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Trouble and Translation

Translating Lorca - 

Mi corazón rezuma niebla. 
Cuando la selva del azul oculte 
la tierra, 
mi corazón continuará empapado de niebla. 

Río azul.

Ah, the heart oozes which? 

   1. Fog (densa), mist (neblina), haze, damp. (f)
   2. Disease of the eyes, which dims, the sight. (f)
   3. Mildew (hongo parásito). (f)
   4. Mental obscurity, confusion of ideas. (f)

Or is it all of these at once, all possibilities of the word flashing across the mind of the native speaker?

If so, how then does one translate?

And what is lost or gained in the space between tongues?

What have we after Babel but a beautiful puzzle, a puzzling beauty?

Friday, December 16, 2011

Today's Reading: Anything Can Happen - Seamus Heaney

          After Horace, Odes, I, 34

Anything can happen. You know how Jupiter
Will mostly wait for clouds to gather head
Before he hurls the lightning? Well just now
He galloped his thunder cart and his horses

Across a clear blue sky.. It shook the earth
and the clogged underearth, the River Styx,
the winding streams, the Atlantic shore itself.
Anything can happen, the tallest towers

Be overturned, those in high places daunted,
Those overlooked regarded. Stropped-beak Fortune
Swoops, making the air gasp, tearing the crest off one,
Setting it down bleading on the next.

Ground gives. The heaven's weight
Lifts up off Atlas like a kettle lid.
Capstones shift. Nothing resettles right.
Telluric ash and fire-spores boil away.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Word Frequency - an alphabet of one-offs

An alphabet of single use words from my 2011 writing:

A is for acanthology, B is for blackfly, C is for condom, D is for dogwalker, E is for erosion, F is for foxes, G is for goodbye, H is for hackneyed, I is for insomniac, J is for jacket, K is for knife, L is for lust, M is for midsummer, N is for newspaper, O is for orison, P is for primness, Q is for quailing, R is for rainpocked, S is for scoliotic, T is for tropic, U is for unable, V is for vainglory, W is for windscreen, X is for x, Y is for yellowpages, Z is for Zero

Poetic Obsession

Poets and Writers sent out a prompt today: Look back through the poems you've written this year and make a list of images or words you've repeated. This list will guide you toward identifying your poetic obsessions. Choose one of your poetic obsessions and write a poem that fully explores it. So I did. Below are selected frequent words in my drafts and new poems (minus articles, prepositions, conjunctions, and the like).  The list is really quite lovely, a poem in and of itself, the story of a year:

21 lights, 20 rain, 18 moon, 18 mango, 17 wedding, 17 mouth, 17 floor, 16 station, 16 horses, 16 breath, 15 smoke, 15 sleep, 14 grandfather, 14 face, 14 city, 13 music, 13 hours, 12 room, 12 memory, 12 waiting, 12 hands, 12 half, 12 cousin, 11 wife, 11 press, 11 narthex, 11 factory, 11 evening, 11 dust, 10 voice, 10 vision, 10 wrong, 10 wind, 10 two, 10 roads, 10 rasp, 10 platform, 10 know, 10 keep, 10 gravity, 10 gone, 10 everything, 9 young, 9 tongue, 9 overripe, 9 months, 9 girl, 9 aquavit, 9 another, 8 thrusts, 8 staring, 8 skin, 8 sky, 8 roofs, 8 mornings, 8 forgetting, 8 fish, 8 earth, 8 drunk, 8 deliver, 8 caesarian, 7 bed, 7 womb, 7 thrall, 7 thoughts, 7 sea, 7 passengers, 7 nativity, 7 mountains, 7 metro, 7 Jerusalem, 7 days, 7 ditches, 7 dark, 7 cotton, 7 corrugated, 7 child, 7 cannot, 7 brothers, 6 underground, 6 stopped, 6 starseed, 6 staggered, 6 snorts, 6 scars, 6 highway, 6 Helen, 6 clutching, 6 ceiling, 6 bridges, 6 bottomland, 6 bedroom, 6 awake, 6 arms, 5 trains, 5 tickets, 5 terminus, 5 swathed, 5 suffered, 5 silence, 5 sidestepping, 5 shock, 5 sanctuary, 5 river, 5 return, 5 raw, 5 marriage, 5 i-pod, 5 drone, 5 dream, 5 death, 5 bottleneck, 5 blind, 5 blinding, 5 Bergen, 5 glasses, 5 beach, 5 Arkansas, 4 touched, 4 touching, 4 tethers, 4 stains, 4 spots, 4 legs, 4 leaves, 4 hardwood, 4 harbour, 4 Argir, 4 foothills, 4 floodplains, 4 crenulated, 4 cocktails, 4 cervix, 4 Berlin, 3 winters, 3 pregnant, 3 perhaps...

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Trolley Folly

I grew up on Carrier Street in Grand Rapids, thus named for the trolley line that ran down the street, carrying workers to the furniture factories downtown. Visiting home over the Thanksgiving holiday, I ended up in traffic behind a Grand Rapids Trolley Company "trolley." This faux-streetcar was crammed with holiday shoppers on a  shop-hop around the city.

I would love to live in a world where streetcars populate the city, but wish I didn't live in one in which buses are dressed up as streetcars to capitalize on nostalgia. You can dress a pig in silk, but it's still a pig. The trolley-clad bus belching diesel smoke at the stoplight in front of me was still a bus though, if this picture is a indication, one available for hire for weddings. 

Humboldt University of Berlin - Chemistry Lab 1950

Monday, December 5, 2011

Hiems in Lago Pratorum Alborum

Hiems – in caelo fumus suspendit. Cycni reliqui a lago commigraverunt. In tenebra expergefacio. Odaratus aeris novus est et placidus lagus est. In tenebram ad casam meam ambulo. Legi. Lectito. Recito. Scribeo cum spe lectoris cuius cor meum sentiet scietque. Ita i, bloge parve, et inveni eam! Dona ei verba mea, a dextra mea ad suam.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Selling Italy - Italian Stereotypes in American Marketing

I saw this advertisement on television last night: Amore in the Afternoon - an odd title to be sure, evocative of both Death in the Afternoon by Ernest Hemingway and Afternoon Delight by the Starland Vocal Band (see hyperlink for a wonderfully dated music video) at once. For Americans, fine coffee is essentially an Italian affair. So Nestle, a Swiss company advertises on American television promoting a machine likely made in China by saying its "the Italian way." They dress up an actor who is probably not Italian (he never speaks at least) in stereotypical Italian clothing. The co-opting of the superlative adjective form to make"droolisimo" is particularly nice - I think Italians don't say that. Also, drool does not make me want to buy products. Last week, Italian 10 years bonds sold for 7%. The good life portrayed in advertising is certainly false for many Italians during this time of austerity. But though investors and economist have little confidence in her, Italia is still the sweetheart of advertisers.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Francophilia and Guardian's 100 Most Beautiful Words List

Guardian's list of 100 beautiful words (below) has been kicked about on facebook lately. Most of the words on this list are of French or Latin origin. Fewer than 10% are of Germanic origins. Strange, telling - a thousand years since the Battle of Hastings and English speakers still associate all things bright and beautiful (a French word) with French. Me, I like my English gritty and Germanic.

Ailurophile Assemblage Becoming Beleaguer Brood Bucolic Bungalow Chatoyant Comely Conflate Cynosure Dalliance Demesne Demure Denouement Desuetude Desultory Diaphanous Dissemble Dulcet Ebullience Effervescent Efflorescence Elision Elixir Eloquence Embrocation Emollient Ephemeral Epiphany Erstwhile Ethereal Evanescent Evocative Fetching Felicity Forbearance Fugacious Furtive Gambol Glamour Gossamer Halcyon Harbinger Imbrication Imbroglio Imbue Incipient Ineffable Ingénue Inglenook Insouciance Inure Labyrinthine Lagniappe Lagoon Languor Lassitude Leisure Lilt Lissome Lithe Love Mellifluous Moiety Mondegreen Murmurous Nemesis Offing Onomatopoeia Opulent Palimpsest Panacea Panoply Pastiche Penumbra Petrichor Plethora Propinquity Pyrrhic Quintessential Ratatouille Ravel Redolent Riparian Ripple Scintilla Sempiternal Seraglio Serendipity Summery Sumptuous Surreptitious Susquehanna Susurrous Talisman Tintinnabulation Umbrella Untoward Vestigial Wafture Wherewithal Woebegone

Today's Listening: Riverside - Agnes Obel

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Preface to After Babel

I've been reading After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation by George Steiner. The book puts forth the idea that translation infuses language with newness and strangeness. At Thanksgiving, my family went around the table and said what they are thankful for. I'll say what I'm thankful for in literature/writing/translation here: new and old friends - A.A., K.M., W.B., B.J.B., P.B., and more - who correspond with me about translation, reading, and examined life, helping me keep my poetry new and strange: a rain of stars indeed!

Today's Reading: Dover Beach - Matthew Arnold

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy and Merry

Today is Thanksgiving - happy Thanksgiving! And a month from now, it will be a (hopefully) merry Christmas. It strikes me that merry and happy are not interchangeable between holidays. It would sound odd to most to be wished a happy Christmas or a merry Thanksgiving. Why? The two words are more or less synonymous. It's my guess that the word pairings are based on euphony but there is some etymological appropriateness to the terms also.

Americans grow up with a historical romance surrounding Thanksgiving: the pilgrims fled cruel religious oppression in England, endured hardships and starvation in the new world, and were rescued by the kindness of neighboring natives. Elementary school students hear this story, which is the truth told in a simplified glossy way, while making hand turkeys and writing lists of what they are thankful for. The Thanksgiving narrative squares with the meaning of happy - chancy, lucky, felicitous, fortunate - and so is appropriate to this holiday celebrating historical fortune and present luck.

Merry, despite unsubstantiated claims that it once meant mighty (see Robin Hood's Merry Men and God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen), means pleasant or pleasure producing. This is straightforwards enough, no need to belabor the word, though I like the idea of having a mighty Christmas. And to make you merry and happy on this Thanksgiving morning, I give you this Thanksgiving turducken:

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Soramimi - Bollywood Homophony

I was explaining my recent homophonic translation projects to a friend this weekend. "Oh, like Benny Lava?" he asked and introduced me to youtube video of a Indian pop song with homophonic captions. Apparently this is a thing; there's even a Japanese term for this: soramimi, the homophonic translation of songs. Here is an excellent, though crass, example of the genre:

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Strange Fortune

Two fortunes from Happy Wok from last night - what strange fate does my future hold?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

300 Poetry Submissions

Georgetown Review  Amherst Review Hunger Mountain Parnassus Literary Passages North Burnside Review Agni Magazine American Poetry Journal The Baltimore Review Barnwood Diner Hiram Poetry Shenandoah Puerto del Sol Parting Gifts Gulf Stream Gulf Coast Buttermilk Art Works Slow Trains Soul Fountain Dyer Ives Pearl Magazine No Exit Bear Creek Haiku Aardvark Adventurer Off the Coast Epicenter Kit-Cat CrazyHorse Third Eye Magazine Maelan Magazine Ibetson Street Press Clarion Review Five Finger Review Blacklisted Magazine High Altitude Press Boxcar Poetry Review Convergence Journal Westward Quartely Crazy Child Scribbler The Stickman Review Mary Journal Antimuse Freefall Redivider Over the Transom Prose Ax Willard and Maple Waterways Magpies Nest Sunken Lines Buenos Aires Review Cellar Door Dyer Ives Texas Poetry Journal Sun Poetic Times Burnside Review Paris Review Extistere Journal Pearl Magazine Massachesets Review Istanbul Literary Review Greatcoat Darkhorse CrazyHorse Gettysburg Review Southern Review Cimmaron Review Third Coast Absynthe Muse Riddle Fence New Madrid Rattle AGNI Tin House Ashville Poetry Review New Orleans Review Arabesques Review Burnside Review Extistere Journal Poetry of the Sacred The Drunken Boat Columbia Tiferet Journal Baltimore Review Blue Earth Review Quarterly West The Literary Review Jubilatt Copper Nickel Blue Mesa A Public Space Witness Chattahoochee Review Cincinnati Review Green Mountains Review West Branch Minnetonka Review Fifth Wednesday Review New Formalist Festival Potomac Review New Madrid Two Review Slice Tipton Poetry Review Blood Orange Review Bateau Sketch Euphony Crannog Linebreak Saltgrass Edinburgh Review Redivider Concave Los Angeles Review Mid American Review Poetry East Black Warrior Beloit Ashville Poetry Review Hayden's Ferry RHINO Texas Poetry Review Yale Hunger Mountain Crab Orchard Bayou Ploughshares Cimmaron Review Nimrod The New Formalist West Branch Columbia Quarterly West Ninth Letter New Madrid Third Coast Hollins Critic Virginia Quarterly Review 34th Parallel Light Quarterly Bellingam Review Evansville Review New Ohio Review Smartish Pace Massachesets Review Arkansas Review Pleiades Southern Review Potomac Review Rattle Iron Horse Georgetown Review  Classical Outlook Zoland Fugue Cream City Tiferet Journal Tar River Red Wheel Barrow Classical Outlook Belvue Rattle Hunger Mountain Bayou Cimmaron Review Nimrod Baltimore Review Bateau Florida Review Black Warrior Hayden's Ferry Caketrain Third Coast Bat City Arsenic Lobster Tuesday: An Art Project BOMB RHINO River Styx Blue Mesa Alaska Quarterly Ploughshares Harper Palate Blue Earth Review Fifth Wednesday Review Raintown Review New Madrid Slice Hawaii Pacific Review Cutbank Gulf Coast The Journal Ninth Letter Puerto del Sol Mid American Review Jubilatt West Branch New Ohio Review Green Mountains Review Alimentum Barrow Street Salamander 34th Parallel Appalachee Review Artful Dodge Fifth Wednesday Review The Journal Sakura Review Other Poetry (UK) Extistere Journal Lousiville Review New Plains The Believer Arroyo AGNI West Branch Shenandoah Pleiades Rattle DIAGRAM Crab Creek Review Cold Mountain Fence Indiana Review Third Wednesday Upstreet Silk Road Quarter After Eight Emerson Review Minnetonka Review Big Muddy Crate  Arts and Letters Plainspoke Copper Nickel Copper Nickel Jubilatt Poetry Magazines Indiana Review Notre Dame Review Salamander Prism Review Quiddity Redivider Paris Review Green Mountains Review Beloit Poetry Journal Mid American Review The Common CrazyHorse Agni Harvard Review The Drunken Boat Blue Earth Review Blood Orange Review Blue Mesa Sugarhouse Review Caketrain RHINO Euphony Bateau Smartish Pace Missouri Review New Orleans Review A Public Space Rattle Oxford American Poet Lore Pleiades Arkansas Review Memoir (and) Narrative Magazine  Southern Humanities Review Bat City Hunger Mountain Post Road Boston Review Michigan Quarterly Review Fugue Gettysburg Review Poetry Magazine  wordwithoutborders AGNI Colorado Review Copper Nickel Gulf Coast West Branch Green Mountains Review Harpur Palate Cutbank Hayden's Ferry Beloit Poetry Journal Arts and Letters: Prime 2 Lines Crannog 3rd Coast William and Mary  

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Today's Reading: The Language Issue - Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill (trans. Paul Muldoon)

I place my hope on the water
in this little boat
of the language, the way a body might put
an infant

in a basket of intertwined iris leaves,
its underside proofed
with bitumen and pitch,

then set the whole thing down amidst
the sedge
and bulrushes by the edge
of a river

only to have it borne hither and thither
not knowing where it might end up;
the lap, perhaps
of some Pharaoh's daughter.

Cuirim mo dhochas ar snamh
i mbaidin teangan
faoi mar a leagta naionan
i geliabhan
a bheadh fite fuaite
de dhuilleoga feileastraim
is bitiuman agus pic
bheith cuimilte lena thoin.

ansan e a leagadh sios
i measc na ngioicach
is coigeal na mban si
le taobh na habhann,
feachaint n'fheadarais
a dtabharfaidh an sruth e,
feachaint, dala Mhaoise,
an bhfoirfidh inion Phorain?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Google Mistranslations

Google Translate doesn't know Faroese and autotranslates any Faroese website as if it were Icelandic. Here are a few lines automistranslated back into English from Faroese versions of my poems that recently appeared in Oyggjatíðindi:
  • the hood path / is as good as any other
  • Think about peace / beyond the wall circuits
  • Toe soap is rinsed out, come / remember the young tarvafiktarar
  • The standing army is gravsteininum
  • his son, Kleitagoros that kills the Odin, / packs, and now comes home 
  • virginity to a stripper pole, high, I danced some draft / in one night clubs on Canal Street
  • You've been here before, laser hair
  • Hades is a beach

Friday, November 11, 2011

Today's Reading: In the Provinces IV - Durs Grünbein



A cruciform frog
Lay flattened against the hot macadam
Of the country lane. Mouth gaping

It curled heavenwards, dried out by the sun,
The sole of a shoe, as first appeared –
An amphibious holdout from an older era
Now caught under the wheels.

No resurrection, save in the form of the larvae
Of the flies that will hatch from it tomorrow.

The dream leaks out of which orifice?



Wie der Gekreuzigte lag dieser Frosch
Plattgewalzt auf dem heißen Asphalt
Der Landstraße. Offenen Mauls

Bog sich zum Himmel, von Sonne gedörrt,
Was von fern einer Schuhsohle glich –
Ein Amphibium aus älterer Erdzeit,
Unter die Räder gekommen im Sprung.

Keine Auferstehung als in den Larven
Der Fliegen, die morgen schlüpfen werden.

Durch welche Öffnung entweicht der Traum?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Homeric Travel Tips - Stock Phrases on Xenia in the Odyssey

A question to ask on arriving at your destination: What are they here–violent, savage, lawless? / or friendly to strangers, god-fearing men? 

A question one should be prepared to answer when asking hospitality of a stranger: Where did you sail from, over the running sea-lanes? / Out on a trading spree? Or roving the waves like pirates, / sea-wolves raiding at will, who risk their lives / to plunder other men? 

A good reminder for guests and hosts alike: Respect the gods... / Zeus of the Strangers guards all guests and suppliants: / strangers are sacred - Zeus will avenge their rights.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


I went down to Whitmore Lake Tavern tonight with my friends Molly and George. Glancing down the menu, I noticed that the word salad was, ominously, in quotation marks. 

Though often used for emphasis rather than grammar in advertising, I can't help but read unnecessary quotation marks as that's what she said or if you know what I mean marks. I read "salads" and asked myself, "what are they really?" On closer reading, I saw that the word fresh was in italics. For emphasis or qualification? 

Molly ordered a "salad." When the waitress brought it to our table, I was put out of doubt as to what the quotations were for. It was definitely a "salad" not a salad: a mound of lettuce topped with an entire chicken breast sliced into strips, piles of cheese, and two halved hard boiled eggs. As for the fresh, Molly didn't say.

Today's Reading: Half an Hour - C.P. Cavafy

I never had you, nor I suppose
will I ever have you. A few words, an approach,
as in the bar the other day—nothing more.
It’s sad, I admit. But we who serve Art,
sometimes with the mind’s intensity,
can create—but of course only for a short time—
pleasure that seems almost physical.
That’s how in the bar the other day—
mercifully helped by alcohol—
I had half an hour that was totally erotic.
And I think you understood this
and stayed slightly longer on purpose.
That was very necessary. Because
with all the imagination, with all the magic alcohol,
I needed to see your lips as well,
needed your body near me.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Viva la Vida

My students always request this song. One took this video at our school's halloween bonfire.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Jeggings Season

It's that time of year again. Leaves are falling from the trees, somber skies are evoking angsty poetry, and girls everywhere are pulling their jeggings out of storage. These hybrid pants - a combination of jeans and leggings - became so popular last year that the word was included in the Oxford English Dictionary. My friend Sara introduced me to jeggings last fall, patiently explaining the concept of the garment. Tacky, guileful, an excuse to wear leggings in public and seem less teenagey, perhaps - but the fact that jeggings exist bring a smile to my face, if only because I like the way the word rolls front to back to front in the mouth.

A Gentleman's Haircut

Today, I took a walk. It's beautiful today - sunny, almost warm. Swans are paddling and diving along the shore of Whitmore Lake. There's not much of a downtown here, maybe two dozen shops, most of them closed on the weekend but there are three barber shops. I went to Ted's Barber Shop and read Popular Mechanics while I waited. When it came time to cut my hair, the owner (Ted I assume) asked if I was there for a gentleman's haircut. I didn't know what that meant but how can one say no to that question? Here's what I ended up with. Perhaps it would help if I owned a comb.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Homophonic Telephone

In elementary school, we played a game called telephone - you whisper a phrase in someone's ear; they whisper it in someone else's ear and on and on. The original phrase inevitably gets garbled. There is a bit of propaganda in the game: the lesson that rumors get exaggerated and the truth gets distorted in oral communication. True as this may be, I prefer to not let the literal get in the way of a good story or good literature.

A friend suggested telephone as model for an experiment with homophonic translation, translation that reproduces sound rather than meaning (see previous blog contest posts here and here). The idea is to take a poem, homophonically translate it into another language then have the new text homophonically translated into another language and on and on until it ends back in English, changed by its trans-lingual travel.

I'm looking for translators for the experiment - preferably ones whose native language is not English. Email me at if you are interested. I'll post the results on my blog to show the progression of the text.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Burial Verse

This verse, translated by Richmond Lattimore, is from a gold burial tablet found in a Grecian grave.

You will find to the left of the House of Hades a spring,
And by the side thereof standing a white cypress.
To this spring approach not near.
But you shall find another, from the lake of Memory
Cold water flowing forth, and there are guardians before it.
Say, "I am a child of Earth and starry Heaven;
But my race is of Heaven alone. This you know yourselves.
But I am parched with thirst and I perish. Give me quickly
the cold water flowing forth from the lake of Memory."
And of themselves they will give you to drink of the holy spring:
And thereafter you will have lordship among the other heroes.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Midway through this life of ours...

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova la paura!

Tant’ è amara che poco è più morte;
ma per trattar del ben ch’i’ vi trovai,
dirò de l’altre cose ch’i’ v’ho scorte.

Memory and Forgetting

Passports last ten years. Mine never fails to get odd looks at TSA (I was in a shaggy hair contest when the photo was taken). 7 years have gone since then... I think of growing out my hair sometimes, forgetting how it didn't suit me, thinking I liked it. So easy to forget the past in favor of the invented country of memory, the place where we construct what never was...

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

from the Greek Anthology

Unhappy men, why do we travel so,
emptily optimistic before death?
Here was Seleukos, perfect of his kind
in talk and manners, briefly at his prime:
on the far edge of Spain, a world from Lesbos,
he lies a stranger on the unmeasured coast.

Thursday, October 20, 2011


A friend recently introduced me to a lovely pair of German antonyms - Heimweh (homesickness) and Fernweh (faraway sickness). The latter word doesn't have an exact parallel in English. The closest word is probably wanderlust. In traditional American music, one afflicted with fernweh would be called a rambler. 

A man gives an injunction to his lover in the blues song Leavin': "Don't let my leavin' grieve you. When it comes to rambling, lord, I'm natural born." This other side of leaving, of wandering - the pain of loved ones left behind - is portrayed nicely in the Odyssey. Euryclia bemoans Telamachus' decision to travel to Pylos and Sparta, crying "Why, dear child, what craziness got into your head? / Why bent on rambling over the earth? / ...Don't go roaming over the barren salt sea / no need to suffer so (2.401-409)!" 

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh's mother offers similar sentiments in her prayer to the godess Shamash: "Why have you imposed--nay, inflicted!--a restless heart on / my son, Gilgamesh! / Now you have touched him so that he wants to travel (3.45-48)..." 

Fernweh is portrayed in both epics as a curse, a cause of suffering . Perhaps it is, but no use telling that to the traveler. And perhaps fermweh isn't so antonyminous to heimweh. Perhaps fernweh/wanderlust is a type of home sickness - a longing for a yet undiscovered home.

Horace asks his friend Grosphus "Why do we aim at so much in our short years? / Why trade our home for lands warmed /  by other suns? No one can expatriate himself from himself (Odes, 2.16)." We may know better. But we long. And we try.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Fragment

My friend sent me these lines she found on a notecard stuck in a book I'd borrowed ages ago. I barely remember writing them but they seem important now. Something about St. Christopher...

    Imagine that impossible weight, the muck
    of the river's bed sucking at my feet,
    every step grudged. Infant in arm.
    What was he doing so far from home?
    Grace was lighter.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Homophonic Translation Contest - Winners

I've received some excellent entries to my homophonic translation contest. Entrants translated, sound for sound rather than sense for sense, a Latin poem by Horace. It was interesting to see how translators worked in different ways with the same material. I was torn between two entries so am calling the contest a tie between Laura Vorgias and Katharina Müller. Both winners will receive a copy of Willis Barnstone's "The Poetics of Translation."

Horaces original text:

  Persicos odi, puer, apparatus;
  displicent nexae philyra coronae;
  mitte sectari rosa quo locorum
  sera moretur.

  Simplici myrto nihil adlabores
  sedulus curo; neque te ministrum
  dedecet myrtus neque me sub arta
  vite bibentem.

Laura Vorgias' flapper/jazz translation. The narrative voice of a despondent libertine searching for identity is nicely maintained as is the telegraph style of language:

  Percy, couz oh dear, a pair of twos;
  This place ain’t nice and full of Corona;
  Might have sent for eras ago local or
  By motor.

  Simply I mirror tonight hell, and labors
  Are dully cured; next to my mystery
  The descent to minor next, myself, and to
  Vie to give in to them.

Katharina Müller's German homophonic translation captures the sounds of Horace in a more surreal way (see literal version below):

  Per se kost' des - puh äh - ein Apparat unn
  des bitzelt! Nix viel üwwerkoche, ne?
  Mit de Sekretärin unn rosa Kohl, locker rum
  sehr am Ohr nur.

  Sie blitze! Unn mer tobe nie hier, alla Boris?
  Seh du - koch ne Ente mindestens um
  de Dienstzeit. Mer tuns net, gell, mer suche aach do
  wie de Bieberturm.

  (Per se it costs - phew, er - a machine and
  it tickles! Don't let it boil over too much
  With the secretary and pink cabbage, loosely hanging
  but close to the ear.

  They're flashing! And we are never romping here, so Boris?
  Look - cook a duck at least for
  working hours. We don't do it, you know, we are looking for it there
  like the beaver tower).

Friday, October 14, 2011

Odysseus in the Underworld

I've been reading the Fagles translation of the Odyssey in preparation for teaching. The preface has an interesting note on Odysseus as portrayed in Dante's Inferno. Dante places Odysseus in the lower rings of Hell where he burns eternally for deceiving the Trojans. Most of Canto XXVI is dedicated to a monologue by Odysseus on how his restless heart compelled him to once again leave his family and set sail into the Atlantic where he drowned, just in sight of land:


mi diparti' da Circe, che sottrasse
  me piu` d'un anno la` presso a Gaeta,
  prima che si` Enea la nomasse,

ne' dolcezza di figlio, ne' la pieta
  del vecchio padre, ne' 'l debito amore
  lo qual dovea Penelope' far lieta,

vincer potero dentro a me l'ardore
  ch'i' ebbi a divenir del mondo esperto,
  e de li vizi umani e del valore;

ma misi me per l'alto mare aperto
  sol con un legno e con quella compagna
  picciola da la qual non fui diserto.

L'un lito e l'altro vidi infin la Spagna,
  fin nel Morrocco, e l'isola d'i Sardi,
  e l'altre che quel mare intorno bagna.

Io e ' compagni eravam vecchi e tardi
  quando venimmo a quella foce stretta
  dov'Ercule segno` li suoi riguardi,

accio` che l'uom piu` oltre non si metta:
  da la man destra mi lasciai Sibilia,
  da l'altra gia` m'avea lasciata Setta.

"O frati", dissi "che per cento milia
  perigli siete giunti a l'occidente,
  a questa tanto picciola vigilia

d'i nostri sensi ch'e` del rimanente,
  non vogliate negar l'esperienza,
  di retro al sol, del mondo sanza gente.

Considerate la vostra semenza:
  fatti non foste a viver come bruti,
  ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza".

Li miei compagni fec'io si` aguti,
  con questa orazion picciola, al cammino,
  che a pena poscia li avrei ritenuti;

e volta nostra poppa nel mattino,
  de' remi facemmo ali al folle volo,
  sempre acquistando dal lato mancino.

Tutte le stelle gia` de l'altro polo
  vedea la notte e 'l nostro tanto basso,
  che non surgea fuor del marin suolo.

Cinque volte racceso e tante casso
  lo lume era di sotto da la luna,
  poi che 'ntrati eravam ne l'alto passo,

quando n'apparve una montagna, bruna
  per la distanza, e parvemi alta tanto
  quanto veduta non avea alcuna.

Noi ci allegrammo, e tosto torno` in pianto,
  che' de la nova terra un turbo nacque,
  e percosse del legno il primo canto.

Tre volte il fe' girar con tutte l'acque;
  a la quarta levar la poppa in suso
  e la prora ire in giu`, com'altrui piacque,

infin che 'l mar fu sovra noi richiuso."

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Housman - Shropshire Lad, IV.

Two months ago, I walked up and down Argir sand reciting this poem to the wind and rain.

A.E Housman- Shropshire Lad, IV. 

It is no gift I tender,
  A loan is all I can;
But do not scorn the lender;
  Man gets no more from man.

Oh, mortal man may borrow
  What mortal man can lend;
And 'twill not end to-morrow,
  Though sure enough 'twill end.

If death and time are stronger,
  A love may yet be strong;
The world will last for longer,
  But this will last for long.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Translation Contest Update

It's fall in Michigan. It feels like Faroe but with trees. I opened my email this morning to find the first foreign language entry to my homophonic translation contest in my inbox. This entry, in German, came with a literal translation version in English. I'll share my favorite line, a piece of practical culinary advice - "Look - cook a duck at least for / working hours." 

Six more days left. Keep the submissions coming.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Housman in Translation

Here is a translation of Housman's Latin elegy for Moses Jackson. I laboriously pieced it together from snippet views of Google books - all worth it for more Housman. The verse is from Housman's critical Latin edition of Manilius' Astronomica, a 1st century text on astrology. I've been reading Housman's four slim volumes for seven years and had thought I'd read every bit of him. Finding this was like Christmas.

Those starry signs that freak with light
The frosty caverns of the night,
Sea-born and bright when daylight dies—
Together we have watched them rise,

Late wandering, where fields lay wide,
The lone and silent countryside.
So once, while still our place was blank,
The poet watched them where they sank,

Setting below the Latian sea;
And, mindful of mortality,
Earth-sprung nor spared from earth for long,
He looked aloft and launched his song

Against the everlasting stars—
Alas! to leave, with many scars,
A warning, all too plain, of odds
Which mock the man who trusts the gods.

For, though to Heaven dedicate,
With all the universe for freight,
His verses found misfortune fast,
And, washed upon our strand at last,

Shipwrecked and battered, blurred and lame,
They scarce can tell their maker's name.
 I have not plied, importunate,
The stars that harass human fate

Nor, begging guidance from above,
Besieged the gods, but, touched with love
Of mortal glory swift to fade,
Have sought a name through human aid

And, man, have chosen among men,
To stead no heaven-assailing pen,
A comrade, mortal-lived but stout,
Whose name shall bring my volume out –

'O comrade', let me say, 'whose name
May perish with my pages' fame,
Yet worthy through thine own to live:
From human hand to hand, I give —

To thee who followest away
Those rising signs, to seek the day —
This present from a western shore:
Take it: to-morrow runs before,

With those whom life no longer owns
To lay our flesh and loose our bones –
To dull with all-benumbing thrust
Our wits that wake not from the dust

Nor spare, with learning's lettered leaf,
The bonds of fellowship as brief.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Translation Contest Update

So far, I have received two entries for my homophone translation contest, one flapper/jazz version about a party and another about purses. Both entries are well done and very different from one another. It seems homophonic translation is a sort of literary Rorschach test reflecting interests, concerns, personality. I'm interested to see what comes in over the wires in the next two weeks.

Sidenote: entries need not be in English as long as they are accompanied by a literal translation of the homophonic translation.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Homophonic Translation Contest

I have been reading old issues of Circumference over the past week. Every issue contains a homophonic translation section in which multiple authors try to reproduce the sounds of a poem in another language, completely ignoring the meaning of the original. 

So Zukofskys’s translates Catullus's

   Nulli se dicit mulier mea nubere malle
   quam mihi, non si se Iuppiter ipse petat.
   dicit: sed mulier cupido quod dicit amanti
   in vento et rapida scribere oportet aqua.


   Newly say dickered my love air my own would marry me all
   whom but me, none see say Jupiter if she petted.
   Dickered: said my love air could be o could dickered a man too
   in wind o wet rapid a scribble reported in water.

Other examples abound online. There are some excellent homophonic translations of English nursery rhymes into French - see "Un petit d'un petit / S'étonne aux Halles."

So, I thought I would host a contest for homophonic translation. Translate the text below, sound for sound. It can be sense or non-sense or something in between. Send it to matthewdlandrum at gmail dot com by October 15. Winner gets a copy of "The Poetics of Translation" by Willis Barnstone.

The text: 

    Persicos odi, puer, apparatus;
    displicent nexae philyra coronae;
    mitte sectari rosa quo locorum
        sera moretur.
    Simplici myrto nihil adlabores
    sedulus curo; neque te ministrum
    dedecet myrtus neque me sub arta
        vite bibentem.

Fair translating,


Friday, September 23, 2011

The Bitter Sea - Lessons in Untranslatability

As with Lorca's other poetry, the Spanish of "Sleepwalker's Ballad" is deceptively simple. With my poor Spanish, I can more or less read the original without trouble. However, this ease of vocabulary masks the complexity of his poetry and his untranslatable word plays. 

Take the lines "Ella sigue en su baranda, / verde came, pelo verde, / soñando en la mar amarga." This translates as "She is still on her balcony, / green flesh, green hair, / dreaming of the bitter sea." The line is good. The poetry is good in English. But an untranslatable play of great beauty has failed to make the trip into English. In the translation, the sea has the quality of bitterness. But in "mar amarga," the word bitter contains the entire ocean - amarga. The possibility of this line does not exists in English. 

In The Poetics of Translation, Willis Barnstone asserts that translating poetry is fundamentally impossible and that, for this reason, it must be attempted. The green girl is still on her balcony. The sleepwalker still aspires toward her, bleeding. We see them more clearly with every flawed and lovely failed translation.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Post-Faroe Words

After studying Faroese for a month, I'm back in Ann Arbor. It's been a weather shock and culture shock coming back. I miss Havn, the sea, and my friends very much. I miss Faroese. I was amazed at how much language one can learn in a short time. A few phrases of have stuck in my head so much that I've had a hard time not responding to people in Faroese. I keep wanting to say ger so væl, nei, and ja (inhaled). Besides Faroese, I've picked up adding "of course" into everything. Also hard to get Faroese balladry out of my head. I keep humming Flóvin Bænadiktsson and Regin Smiður. I suppose you carry people and places, language and words with you as a part of you. It's like the graffiti on the Sirkus bathroom wall: "Once bread becomes toast, it can never be bread again."

Thursday, September 15, 2011

This Year's Reading - The Invention of Love (Tom Stoppard)

I have been tentatively treading into drama, even modern drama, this year. It's a field I'm unfamiliar with and don't fully understand. I tend toward the descriptive and lyric and often (in real and literary life) find myself perplexed by human relationships and dialogue. But the work and afición of two friends - Powell Burke and Heather Hammond - have piqued my interest.

During college, my roommate and I read and worked to memorize A.E. Housman's 'A Shropshire Lad.' It remains a book close to my heart and has exerted a profound influence on my writing. Housman, a reclusive Latinist, who sublimated a hopeless love for Moses Jackson into two beautiful books of poetry, is the subject of Tom Stoppard's biopic play The Invention of Love. The play is set in Hades where a recently-deceased Housman stands on the banks of Styx and stops to remember his life before sailing on across the river, beyond memory.

I read it a few months ago but two parts have been coming back to me lately. The first is a conversation in Hades between Housman and Oscar Wilde. Wilde tells Housman that "Before Plato could describe love, the loved one had to be invented. We would never love anybody if we could see past our invention." The second is Housman misquoting Sophocles' only surviving line from the lost play The Love of Achilles: "Love, said Sophocles, is like the ice held in the hand by children. A piece of ice held fast in the fist." The real quote is more specific: "When ice appears out of doors, and boys seize it up while it is solid, at first they experience new pleasures. But in the end their pride will not agree to let it go, but their acquisition is not good for them if it stays in their hands. In the same way an identical desire drives lovers to act and not to act."

I leave the work of interpretation up to you, dear reader, and also the work of judging the truth and weight of these lines. As for drama, I have been considering translating a play or parts of a play. I have felt for some time that for the sake of my art and my life, my next poetic must be relational. Send suggestions.

Saturday, September 3, 2011


Sleepwalk Ballad

Green I want you green.
Green wind.  Green branches.
The ship on the sea
and the horse upon the hill.
With her waist wrapped in shadow
she dreams on her veranda,
green flesh, green hair,
with eyes of frozen silver.
Green I want you green.
Beneath the gypsy moon,
things keep watching her,
and she cannot see them.
Green I want you green.
Huge stars of frost
appear with the fish of shadow
that opens the way for dawn.
The fig tree rubs the wind
with the sandpaper of its branches,
and the thicket, a theiving cat,
bristles its sour spears.
But who could be coming?  And from where?
She lingers by the railing,
green flesh, green hair,
dreaming of the bitter sea.
—Brother, I want to trade
my horse for your house,
my saddle for your mirror,
my knife for your quilt.
Brother, I come bleeding
from the Cabra passes.
—If I could do it, young man,
that deal would be closed.
But I am no longer myself,
nor is my house my house.
—Compadre, I want to die
a decent death in my own bed.
Of steel if it can be,
with sheets of Dutch linen.
Don’t you see the wound
that runs from my chest to my throat?
—Three-hundred dark roses
adorn your white shirt-front.
Your blood reeks and oozes
about your sash.
But I am no longer myself,
nor is my house my house.
—Let me at least go up
to the high railings.
Let me go! Let me go up
to the green railings.
Balustrades of the moon,
where the water thunders.
The two men go up now
toward the high balustrades.
Leaving a trail of blood.
Leaving a trail of tears.
On the rooftops
tin lanterns were trembling.
A thousand crystal tambourines
wounded the dawn.
Green I want you green,
green wind, green branches.
The two men went up.
The long wind left in the mouth
a strange taste
of mint, of gall and of sweet basil.
Brother!  Where is she?  Tell me,
where is your bitter girl?
How many times she waited for you!
How many time she would wait,
fresh cheeks, black hair,
on this green veranda!
Over the face of the cistern
the gypsy girl was swaying.
Green flesh, green hair,
with eyes of frozen silver.
An icicle of moonlight
suspends her above the water.
The night grew intimate
like a small square.
Drunken civil guardsmen
were pounding at the door.
Green I want you green.
Green Wind.  Green branches.
The ship on the sea,
and the horse upon the hill.

Sigh No More