Wednesday, November 30, 2005


The silver brilliance

The first poems I read by Kenneth Rexroth were a few of his Chinese translations, in the anthology Naked Poetry edited by Stephen Berg and Robert Mezey published originally in 1969. I was in high school, 1970 or 1971, and in a poetry writing group that met (outside of school, on our own) once a week; one of the people in the group mentioned the anthology and I went looking. The handful of Rexroth's Chinese translations included in the collection may in fact have been the first translations I read of anything, from any literature. In their compactness, their clarity, the distinct human voices they conveyed, they seized hold of me immediately. A few years later, while I was a student at the University of Minnesota, I found Rexroth's 100 Poems from the Chinese (published 1971 by New Directions), spent weeks and months with it, and have gone back to it constantly over the years since then. The poems, Rexroth's footnotes, and the extensive bibliography he includes opened up worlds to me.

To what extent the poems should really be called translations is a useful question. In some cases Rexroth clearly took liberties in putting the poems into English. Other sources have indicated that Rexroth often worked from already existing translations in English (the very free versions of Florence Ayscough and Amy Lowell, for example) or French (possibly the translations by Judith Gautier). Rexroth's translations are not the most literally accurate ones available. He was a great poet, and he had a keen intuitive knack for getting at least a little into the mind and sensibility of the poet he was translating. This, along with his vast and varied scholarly reading in multiple fields, resulted in beautiful poems, versions, in English, even when they stray far and obviously from the originals.
The men and beasts of the zodiac
Have marched over us once more.
Green wine bottles and red lobster shells,
Both emptied, litter the table.
"Should auld acquaintance be forgot?" Each
Sits listening to his own thoughts,
And the sound of cars starting outside.
The lines are from a poem by Tu Fu, translated by Rexroth with the title "Winter Dawn," in 100 Poems from the Chinese. I don't know any Chinese, and can't comment on what the original poem says. Tu Fu, who lived 713-770 (the dates Rexroth gives), clearly did not quote Robert Burns in the original. And it's doubtful that there were cars starting outside 1200 years before they were invented. In spite of these obvious meddlings, which occur here and there through Rexroth's translations from various languages, the essence of the poem feels true to me.

(I am using here Rexroth's transliterations of Chinese names, rather than the modern Pinyin system, just to avoid confusion and complication in referring to Rexroth's works. Using Pinyin transliteration, Tu Fu would be written Du Fu.)

Ezra Pound said somewhere something to the effect that all cultures are contemporaneous; he thought it should be possible to make a poem from medieval Provence or T'ang Dynasty China into a contemporary 20th century poem in English, and retain all of the essential qualities of the poetry in each of the languages. That, anyway, is what he appears to have advocated; the approach continues to influence generations of would-be translators: trying to create, in translation, the sort of poem the translator imagines the poet might have written, had he or she written in contemporary American English. Pound's approach largely resulted, in his own case, in "translations" (from Provencal, Chinese, and other languages) that read like an average account by a late-nineteenth century English gentleman of a liesurely walk in the country (or, perhaps, sitting in a study daydreaming about the countryside). The poems get lost in the translator's narrow conceit. Pound's translations remain confined by the limits of Pound's own poetry; he didn't write as well as the poets he purported to translate.

What Rexroth did, at his best, was something else. It's as though he attempted to move his mind and senses into the mind and senses of the poet he was translating; to write the kind of poem Rexroth felt he himself might have written, if he had lived in the time and place and life of the other poet. This remains, of course, ultimately an act of Rexroth's own creativity and imagination. Rexroth, as a poet, was largely equal to the poets he translated. Although his translations of Tu Fu or Su Tung-P'o (or of Sappho or Yosano Akiko) are not always the most literally accurate, his versions do invariably convey the greatness of the poets and the original poems.

One of my favorite Rexroth translations, and one of my favorite poems by anyone, is one I've never found in any other version by any of the other translators I've read; I've considered the possibility that it may be largely of Rexroth's own making, though I don't have any basis for saying that, I'm just idly speculating. From the poem "Moon Festival" by Tu Fu (in 100 Poems from the Chinese):
The moon toad swims in the river
And does not drown. The moon rabbit
Pounds the bitter herbs of the
Elixer of eternal life.
His drug only makes my heart
More bitter. The silver brilliance
Only makes my hair more white.
I know that the country is
Overrun with war. The moonlight
Means nothing to the soldiers
Camped in the western deserts.
In a footnote, Rexroth says that in China the moon is sometimes popularly imagined as a toad, a rabbit, or a mortar for grinding, among other things, in the way that some popular "Western" tradtions imagine a man-in-the-moon face. Whether the moonlight means anything to the soldiers camped in the desert is maybe a worthwhile question; we often turn to isolated moments of calm and beauty in the midst of misery and chaos. But on the scale of history and the world the poem feels true to me.

For readers wanting a closer sense of the Chinese originals, and the detailed workings of Chinese poetry in general, a useful source is The Heart of Chinese Poetry by Greg Whincup (Anchor Books, 1987). Whincup presents several dozen classic Chinese poems, in the original Chinese, with literal word-by-word translations, and his own renderings into something like modern poems in English; and useful prose commentary on the lives of the poets and the historical background of the individual poems. Although his poem translations aren't everything I might hope for, the literal versions he presents are invaluable (especially if you don't know any Chinese) in giving a little bit of a sense of how the poems and the language work; I generally preferred the literal versions, even as awkward as they sometimes were, to Whincup's more finished translations. It can help give a little bit of basis for gauging how far from the originals any particular translator may have wandered.

Issue 23 of the online literary magazine Jacket includes a large section devoted to Rexroth, including a couple of essays dealing with Rexroth as a translator. Though I don't agree across the board with everything in the essays, I found them interesting and provocative. The table of contents for the issue of Jacket is here.

Rexroth did further translations from Chinese, all published by New Directions: Love and the Turning Year: 100 More Poems from the Chinese; Women Poets of China (originally published as The Orchid Boat by The Seabury Press); and Li Ch'ing-Chao: Complete Poems (done in collaboration with Ling Chung). All are wonderful, even with the reservations I've noted above about Rexroth's tendency to take liberties with what the originals say. All of them left me wanting more.

The world is vast and we are small. Even with computers and cell phones and the internet, we find our way through a mysterious world, swept by the forces of politics and history, the whims of love and loss and sorrow, in which we sometimes choose to act, by which we sometimes find ourselves seized and dragged along. A poet writing hundreds of years ago speaks across the distance of years and continents. The struggle to exist on the earth, to make life better, continues, through everything; we speak to each other, and we are not alone.
Once more it is the Ninth Day
Of the Ninth Month. I lie restless
On my brocade pillow, under
The gauze curtains, until, past
Midnight, a chill sweeps into me.
In the East Enclosed Garden
We got drunk one evening.
The wine's secret perfume has never
Left my sleeves. No one else notices,
But it carries my soul away.
Now when the West wind flaps the screens,
I am more frail than the orchid petals.
(From the poem "To the Tune 'Drunk Under Flower Shadows'" by Li Ch'ing-Chao, in Love and the Turning Year: 100 More Poems from the Chinese, cited above.)

Thursday, November 03, 2005


For the red carnations

It's late at night. Gray gloom weather today, the air still mild though the weather reports have mutterings of snow further north. I have the small electric space heater turned on, filling the room with its hum. It hasn't been cold enough yet for the radiators to build up a full load of steam. Winter is a long siege here. Down the hall the door to another apartment opens and shuts. The night cool and anonymous outside. I'm reading the poems of Olga Cabral.
If this small human testament
completes its odyssey
clears the curtains of fiery meteors
crosses the rages of magnetic storms
rides free of hydrogen whirlwinds
falls through coalsack eternities
lands smoothly on the Milky Way
glides along its lightband
to the shores of an unknown planet
in an unknown star-continent
to be found and wonderingly
pondered held in your hands --
this message was meant for you.
(From the poem "Electronic Tape Found in a Bottle," in Voice/Over: Selected Poems by Olga Cabral, published 1993 by West End Press, P.O. Box 27334, Albuquerque, NM 87125. All quoted passages here are taken from the above collection, which includes work from seven previous books and previously uncollected poems.)

Cabral was born in 1909 of Portuguese parents in the British West Indies. Her family moved to Winnepeg when she was a child, and she later moved to New York, where she lived for the rest of her life. I remember an article about her in Contact II in the late 1980's (I can no longer recall the author) that began "Olga Cabral fixes things" and went on to describe Cabral, at around the age of 80, tinkering around at home with screwdriver and pliers, tightening hinges, wiggling doorknobs, whatever seemed to need work. Cabral died in 1997.

Olga Cabral exemplies the sort of poet for whom a political understanding of the world is as essential and organic as the need to write poetry. This is true whether the actual subject matter of any particular poem is explicitly or publicly political, or deals with more interior experience. Speaking in a quiet and direct voice, many of her poems seem to explode off the page.
The firmament rocks the sky heaves
and earth explodes one big-bang firecracker
showering villages corpses burning pages of history
the wrong war the wrong time Mussolini's
furnace-red rose of infernal incandescence
once more unfolding
over mudhuts
bouquets of hellbombs "To Charlie With Love"
valentines of death sly canisters of murder
lead candy for kids.
(From the poem "By Bomb's Early Light.")

Art and science find their way with equal power into Cabral's work. One of her most remarkable poems, "The Xenon Breathers," is written partly as a mythological telling, partly as a science fiction nightmare vision, in the raw spare language of hard fact:
This is the island of death.
Ships turn away
with the living.
Ocean is sick.
Turtle has death in her.
She builds her ancient house
She builds her ancient house
out of strontium.
Patiently Crab
builds and rebuilds
his bony shell
having only death-grains for
for building.

Sorrow and sorrow.
My people gone.
Death hide
in a mote of dust:
death so small
but powerful as 1000 ancestral plagues.
A number of Cabral's poems grow out of her encounters with writers, musicians, artists, or their work. In the poem "The Scream" she enters the murals of Mexican painter David Alfaro Siqueiros:
Perhaps somebody's shoes were burning
like a city in flames.
Perhaps some oranges on the windowsill
turned pale at what they saw.
Everything was flying to the four quadrants
at the velocity of pain.
Small fists and feet through themselves about
beat the canvas like furious stones.

An ear sailed past
torn from its bony anchorage.
A navel.
A wheel.
There remained a face.
But that too was flying apart.
Then all that was left was a mouth
a red funnel of pain
of one born in this world
to nothing but hunger.
Over the years I've gone back periodically to re-read Olga Cabral's poems, to find their solid substance and life-sustaining warmth. One poem of hers in particular has stayed with me since i first read it, summing up the passion and urgency of taking an active part in the history we live and make. In the poem, titled "Black White and Gray and Red Carnations," the poet addresses Dolores Ibarruri, whose anti-fascist radio broadcasts during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930's became legendary; Cabral then moves through Picasso's painting Guernica, blending the scene in the painting with newsreel images of the Civil War.

passion flower
grown old
Dolores of the

your hair

they bring you red

In your trembling arms the red flowers
cover your black dress
a white handkerchief weeps
your white hair sheds the light
of an alabaster statue [...]

The horse has swallowed its scream
has leaped an ocean
and runs free in its native

the lamp that was blown to bits
has flown back
and burns on the
miner's table

the bull with the innocent face
of an astonished beast
sees the dead child leap up hearty and full-grown
and take its place in the ranks of a new generation

Black white and gray
and red carnations
for the bellies of the Stukas
for the dun procession of decades
without tongues
for the sad faces in the dust
for the radioactive ash
on red tomatoes

for the pinch of earth that was
carried in the pocket
in the wanderings of exile

for the white hair of those who endured
and who came back

for the red carnations

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