Friday, September 10, 2021

Towers

on the 20th anniversary


It's been said

that 9/11

was not a failure 

of security

but of imagination - 

it's hard to argue,

and even more

failure of love

and hope

those two shimmering towers

of heart and of mind

that we must build

and re-build 

every 

day.


Wednesday, September 8, 2021

The Hero

What will be said of him 

is that he muddled through,

and it will be true:

He kept his goals to himself

(if he had any at all)

because he didn't want

his failures on display

and he never had much clarity

on what success meant

anyway.

Then one day

someone came along

purely by chance

and he looked up

(from the book he was reading)

and fell instantly deeply in love,

he knew it was love

because he saw details

in someone else

he had never seen before

in anyone,

and he said 'here I am'

and he said 'I am here'

and he stepped forward

out of line

as a young man would 

who volunteers 

for a dangerous mission,

fearful but unafraid

to live.

Friday, August 27, 2021

Condolences

This is just to say

I'm sorry to hear

your dog died.

I know how much you loved 

that dog. 

She was a good dog,

one of the best,

learned some commands,

never chewed the furniture,

never shitted or peed in the house.

I know how you enjoyed 

taking her for walks

in the neighbourhood. 

How watching her

playing with the other dogs

at the dog-park brought you joy,

she never fought. 

How good-natured she was.

How she wagged her tail 

when you came home

from work at the end of the day -

and seemed to be able 

to read all your moods.

She'd come to you

when you were sad or depressed, 

and stay away 

when you were upset.

How attentive she was,

she seemed to understand, 

and easy to please,

all she needed 

was to have her fur stroked

or occasionally her belly scratched 

to be happy. I know you’ll

keep great memories of her,

as a member of the family.

Do you think you'll get another one?

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Exit Strategy

You wanted

this entire time

to make the world a better place

in whatever way you could,

and if not the whole world

then at least, some tiny, 

forsaken corner of it,

but trust me, when I say,  

all your efforts will come to naught

without a good exit strategy.

There are few things in life

as difficult as leaving,

it rarely goes as planned

and there's never a good time,

so, ask yourself  

how will I make my escape?

Will I be the desperate soul 

waiting to be plucked

from the embassy rooftop

or will I be flying the helicopter

when the terrorists take over?

And what will become 

of the ones inevitably

left behind?

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Consolation

I first heard of consolation

when I was home from school 

with a fever. 

A daytime TV game-show prize

for the loser;

Hamburger Helper,

a year's worth of Uncle Ben's 

or Rice-a-Roni, the San Francisco treat.

The host always apologized

as 'Johnny', the disembodied voice of reassurance,

described the fabulous parting 'gifts'

they would receive

for being a good sport,

a set of American Tourister luggage,

a Mr. Coffee (slugger Joe DiMaggio's favourite), 

an endless supply of Dentyne

for fresher breath and cleaner teeth.

Sadly you didn't get the car,

but here's some Turtle Wax

lots of Turtle Wax.


I was riveted by those second placers,

how grateful they seemed, 

smiling as the host's delicate consoling hand 

gently shoved them off stage

so he can get on with the show.

A curtain inside me would open 

as they disappeared 

into the unlit wings

of their private lives,

something in me 

wanted to follow them,

needed to know 

if it all turned out okay for them, 

if the consolation they'd received 

had been enough,

and I took to heart 

the message

that whatever happened,

whatever disappointments, 

none of us leaves this life

empty-handed.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Billionaires in Space

They can't wait to leave behind 

the boredom of high-priced cars, 150-foot yachts, 

and palatial estates with tennis courts 

and private golf courses -

sooo yesterday.

To keep up with the Jones's

billionaires nowadays, head to outer space,

exit the planet on phallic rockets 

(one called Virgin for heaven's sake)

'cause this crowded sphere can no longer contain

their magnificent cosmic egos -

one small step for a man

one giant leap for narcissism and hubris

at Mach speeds.


When they cross the Karman line, 

break free of the earthbound force 

holding you and me here,

they will look down at us

(which is actually the point)

through an atmospheric haze,

unstrap themselves from their capsule seats 

and float upside down

giddy as kindergarten children 

flouting the class rules.

After a few minutes, parachutes deployed,

they will land safely

in the desert

and hold a press conference. 

They will thank all the hyper-educated folks 

who made it possible, say that today 

they realized a childhood dream, tout

the future of space travel for everyone,

and declare they've been changed personally 

forever,

while the rest of us ponder

what if anything 

has been learned. 

Friday, July 16, 2021

Death Fugue by Paul Celan

A new one for me. A translation. I'm talking to my eldest daughter and we're talking about language, one of our most favourite subjects, because she is completing an MA in Occupational Linguistics (essentially how to teach language), and we're talking about the poem she has written for me for Father's Day. I ask her to read it for me (which she resists doing). And this gets us onto the subject of the performance of poetry, which is something I've been thinking about a lot. I tell her that I've come to the conclusion that poetry is truly a spoken form and when I write it these days it's with performance in mind. I tell her that I've been listening to poetry being read and recited and it makes all the difference, it completely changes the experience of the poem. And she says, "You have to hear Paul Celan reading 'Todesfuge'." Of course, I know the poem she is referring to. It may be the most famous poem about the  Holocaust. But I hadn't re-visited it in a long time, and hadn't been aware that recordings existed of Celan reciting it, which got me excited. Also, I don't speak German (my daughter does, she studied it in university) so any time I've read the poem it was in English translation, and the translated poem left me cold, it seemed extremely opaque. My daughter convinced me to give it another try, saying that my knowledge of Yiddish would help with the German. I took her advice and suffice to say, she was right. Celan's recitation of Todesfuge is deeply moving. I listened to it repeatedly, not understanding half of what I was hearing, but getting the gist, and simply allowing myself to be carried away by the timbre of his voice, the sounds and rhythms he was producing. His recitation builds and builds to a dramatic climax and denouement in an unexpected way. Then I began delving more closely into the texts and the meanings of the words. I found several translations online, and frankly was fairly disappointed. Most of them simply didn't square at all with what I heard in Celan's propulsive performance of the poem: the way the contrapunctal repetition emphasizes the growing darkness and ominousness of his themes, the underlying moral outrage that courses through the poem, and the political resonances of Germany under fascism that he is conveying. The best translation I found online was performed by Galway Kinnell, and it's worth a listen, but there's something too loose about the translation that nagged at me, thought it needed to be tighter and sharper. 

There is something about 'Todesfuge' that both begs for translation, and defies translation. It is a deceptively simple poem in some respects. The language is not complicated, and it's that mixture of the banal and an underlying darkness that makes it so compelling. I decided to give translating it a shot (pun not intended). In the process of my efforts the poem opened up to me in surprising ways. And of course I became familiar for the first time with the limitations of translation, and the problems associated with finding but not overstepping the boundary between translation and transformation. How far can a translator stray from the literal words in order to convey their meanings? What I've produced is admittedly a failure, as all translations are. I may have pushed the boundary too far in some aspects, and yet in other ways I believe I hit on some resonances of the poem that other translations have missed. For example, in the poem, the phrase 'Ein Mann wohnt im Haus' means literally 'A man lives in a house' which is how all the translations I read translated it. But I read it differently for a number of reasons, and decided to translate it as 'A Man of the House'. My reasoning is manifold. First, I wanted to maintain the capitalization of the 'Man' and 'House' of the original which signifies to me that the poet is not simply referring to any man in any house. I don’t believe he is referring to himself, the poet. Rather he appears to mean ‘a man’ in both the banal sense and also the mythical sense of the German man in the German house. His meaning may be intended to resonate with the 'master of Death' he later refers to, and the idea of Germans being the political and racial masters of their house/country (which also resonates with other racial references 'blue eye' and 'golden hair'). Second, my knowledge of Yiddish told me that 'Mann' can also mean 'husband', so translating the phrase as 'Man of the House' resonates with the references to the women of the poem 'Margarete' and 'Shulamit' in a new way. Another example of a translation choice I made that differs from other versions, the word 'schreibt' literally means 'writes' and is usually translated that way. I use 'scribbles' and my reasoning is because I think the sound of 'scribble' more closely resembles the original 'schreibt' and also conveys in sound a frenzied feeling. These are just two examples of some of the thinking that under-girds my choices. There are dozens of others, and no doubt I will be making many more, as the poem evolves for me in re-readings and re-listenings.  

Without further ado, here is my version, with the original German underneath. 

DEATH FUGUE by Paul Celan

translation B. Glen Rotchin (with help from many other translations)


Black milk of daybreak we drink it in evening

we drink it at noon and in morning, we drink it at night

we drink and we drink

we grave-dig the sky where no one lies crowded.

A Man of the House plays with serpents  

and he scribbles, he scribbles as Deutschland darkens, your golden haired Margarete,

he scribbles and steps out from the house 

and the flashing stars, he whistles for his dogs,

summons his Jews to grave-dig the ground.


Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night

we drink you in morning and at noon, we drink you in evening

we drink and we drink

A Man of the House plays with serpents 

and he scribbles, he scribbles as Deutschland darkens, your golden haired Margarete,

your ashen haired Shulamit,

we grave-dig the sky where no one lies crowded.


He shouts to dig deeper in the ground, sing and play for each other,

he grabs his holstered iron, he swings, eyes of blue,

spades dig deeper, while they play for each other to dance.


Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night

we drink you at noon and in morning we drink you in evening

we drink and we drink

A Man of the House, your golden haired Margarete,

your ashen haired Shulamit, he plays with serpents


he shouts 'play sweet as death', Death is a master from Deutschland,

he shouts 'stroke the violins darker', then rise in the air as smoke

to your grave in the clouds where you don't lie crowded.


Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night

we drink you at noon, Death is a master from Deutschland

we drink you in evening and in morning we drink and we drink,

Death is a master from Deutschland, eyes of blue,

he pumps you with lead, his aim is true,

A Man of the House plays with serpents, your golden haired Margarete


he hunts us with his men, grants our grave in the sky,

he plays with serpents and dreams Death is a master from Deutschland


your golden haired Margarete

your ashen haired Shulamit.




Todesfuge

Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken sie abends
wir trinken sie mittags und morgens wir trinken sie nachts
wir trinken und trinken
wir schaufeln ein Grab in den Lüften da liegt man nicht eng
Ein Mann wohnt im Haus der spielt mit den Schlangen der schreibt
der schreibt wenn es dunkelt nach Deutschland dein goldenes Haar Margarete
er schreibt es und tritt vor das Haus und es blitzen die Sterne er pfeift seine Rüden herbei
er pfeift seine Juden hervor läßt schaufeln ein Grab in der Erde

Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nachts
wir trinken dich morgens und mittags wir trinken dich abends
wir trinken und trinken
Ein Mann wohnt im Haus der spielt mit den Schlangen der schreibt
der schreibt wenn es dunkelt nach Deutschland dein goldenes Haar Margarete
Dein aschenes Haar Sulamith wir schaufeln ein Grab in den Lüften da liegt man nicht eng

Er ruft stecht tiefer ins Erdreich ihr einen ihr andern singet und spielt
er greift nach dem Eisen im Gurt er schwingts seine Augen sind blau
stecht tiefer die Spaten ihr einen ihr andern spielt weiter zum Tanz auf

Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nachts
wir trinken dich mittags und morgens wir trinken dich abends
wir trinken und trinken
ein Mann wohnt im Haus dein goldenes Haar Margarete
dein aschenes Haar Sulamith er spielt mit den Schlangen

Er ruft spielt süßer den Tod der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland
er ruft streicht dunkler die Geigen dann steigt ihr als Rauch in die Luft
dann habt ihr ein Grab in den Wolken da liegt man nicht eng

Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nachts
wir trinken dich mittags der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland
wir trinken dich abends und morgens wir trinken und trinken
er Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland sein Auge ist blau
er trifft dich mit bleierner Kugel er trifft dich genau
ein Mann wohnt im Haus dein goldenes Haar Margarete

er hetzt seine Rüden auf uns er schenkt uns ein Grab in der Luft
er spielt mit den Schlangen und träumet der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland

dein goldenes Haar Margarete
dein aschenes Haar Sulamith