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 -

soooo 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 on the spot. 

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

Monday, July 12, 2021

Kill a desire to learn, condemn the person to despair

 

“The best thing for being sad,’ replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, ‘is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in you anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then – to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags in it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting'.”

― T.H. White, The Once and Future King

Friday, July 9, 2021

Lemon Wedges

for Eden 


Lemon wedges in a dish

placed around our home.

I come upon them

in the bathroom,

in the hallway corner

at the foot of the back stairs,

in the basement next to the condemned fireplace.

A test for ghosts, my daughter says,

if our house is haunted

the lemons will grow mold,

if not, they'll dry and shrivel up.

Some nonsense she read online.

Waste of perfectly good fruit, I say.

They're here, she says, I feel their presence,

hear creepy sounds in the walls 

and beneath the floor,

and didn't a previous owner

die in your bathroom, she asks.

What about that water stain 

on the ceiling that keeps coming back

no matter how often we plaster and paint?  

Have you checked the attic?

We don't have an attic, just a crawl space,

she's seen too many movies. 

But I've heard the noises -

smile at her doubtfully.

Why lemon wedges, 

why not potatoes? Or tomatoes?

Stymied by my logic she has no answer,

not that it matters,

my daughter is at that irrational age;

spends too much time online,

wears too much make-up and

tight clothes that show too much skin,

listens to loud, angry music, 

smokes pot, drinks booze, and curses

like a sailor.

That age when there are no limits,

too much is not enough, 

the days stretch out ahead without end,

and anything is possible,

except death.

I think about me, when I was her age, 

what my parents thought,

how I drove them mad with my antics,

and the love I felt in spite of it. 

I too believed that anything was possible,

because feeling loved 

does that to you, 

makes you believe.

Lately, I check the lemon wedges

for mold.

Monday, July 5, 2021

Forgive Me This Edit

I am fortunate to have friends who are also poets. I wrote a poem about that a few weeks ago and shared it with a couple of my poet/friends who had cameos in the poem. I didn't expect the poem to come back all tidied up. But here it is, courtesy of Karen Shenfeld, a fine poet and editor, who responded to my email with a classic Canadianism - "Forgive me this edit..." So for Karen's version I've decided to re-title the poem. Here it is. The original, if you care to compare, was called "Just A Poet" and posted on June 7th. Let me know which one you like better. 


FORGIVE ME THIS EDIT


there was the farmer

who raised chickens, livestock

picked apples and pears

the family doctor

who made house calls


one ran a big insurance company

another practiced law


one was a banker

one a politician

another a mail carrier

who eventually moved up

to sorter


one was a government bureaucrat

another the heavyweight boxing champion

of the world


and the teachers, the teachers

so many teachers


not one

just a poet

not one


some I know only by reputation

others I call friends


me, I’m a rent collector

sometimes call myself

a property manager


and also a poet.

Monday, June 28, 2021

The Building Fell

The building fell,

12 floors,

fell down,

fell.

No earthquake.

No hurricane.

No tropical storm.

No warning.

No reason.

The residents

came home

slipped between sheets,

slept. Then

the building

fell

just fell,

floors folded

in the dark,

flattened

in thunder and dust

and

silence;

water gushed 

from severed pipes,

power arced and sparked,

mattresses smoldered and smoked,

rescuers swarmed

the rubble

amid fumes

with devices and dogs

to listen and sniff

for signs;

families cried,

hoped,

prayed,

waited

for answers.

Ocean surf roared 

broke on shore

vanished into the sand

the tide rose

and fell

rose

fell.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

The Secret

You can not become happy.

You can only be happy.