Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Jack Gilbert

Painting by Jack Richard Smith  

I was sorry to hear of Jack Gilbert's death recently. Gilbert was one of those poets who are famous for not being famous. For most of his life he operated below the radar of critical attention, but this was by choice. After winning  the Yale Younger Poets Prize for his first book he lived a modest and peripatetic life, travelling around Europe and spending periods in England, Denmark and Greece. But there was more to his relative invisibility than that. He was an old-fashioned kind of poet, a muse poet who wrote obsessively about the women in his life -- the poems he wrote for his dead lover Michiko are among his most powerful. And he didn’t produce at the regular intervals reputation demands. He took twenty years to produce his second book, Monolithos (1982) and only published a further two books, The Great Fires (1994) and Refusing Heaven (2005) which brought him some late recognition, winning him the National Book Critics Circle Award.Bloodaxe published Transgression: Selected Poems in 2006. Here are two poems which can be found in that book, the first forseeing the disappearance, in him, of his birthplace, the second probably his best-known poem.

They Will Put My Body into the Ground

They will put my body into the ground.
Chemistry will have its way for a time,
and then large beetles will come.
After that, the small beetles. Then
the disassembling. After that, the Puccini
will dwindle the way light goes
from the sea. Even Pittsburgh will
vanish, leaving a greed tough as winter.

The Forgotten Dialect Of The Heart

How astonishing it is that language can almost mean,
and frightening that it does not quite. Love, we say,
God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words
get it all wrong. We say bread and it means according
to which nation. French has no word for home,
and we have no word for strict pleasure. A people
in northern India is dying out because their ancient
tongue has no words for endearment. I dream of lost
vocabularies that might express some of what
we no longer can. Maybe the Etruscan texts would
finally explain why the couples on their tombs
are smiling. And maybe not. When the thousands
of mysterious Sumerian tablets were translated,
they seemed to be business records. But what if they
are poems or psalms? My joy is the same as twelve
Ethiopian goats standing silent in the morning light.
O Lord, thou art slabs of salt and ingots of copper,
as grand as ripe barley lithe under the wind's labor.
Her breasts are six white oxen loaded with bolts
of long-fibered Egyptian cotton. My love is a hundred
pitchers of honey. Shiploads of thuya are what
my body wants to say to your body. Giraffes are this
desire in the dark. Perhaps the spiral Minoan script
is not laguage but a map. What we feel most has
no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses, and birds.

Listen to Jack Gilbert read his poem here

Monday, November 12, 2012

The sadness of God

The sadness of God
('Tristesse de Dieu', Jules Supervielle)

Just as when it all began
I see you come and go 
on the trembling earth,
with one great difference:

my work is no longer mine:
I gave it all to you.
But if you're my people
misfortune is your own

and beyond my help.
All I could provide
to prove my warmth
was your tears, your strength.

The ache in your soul
is what’s left of me.
It was all I could do.
I can’t help the mother

whose son will die
but I can offer you light,
candles of hope.
If it were any different

do you think the narrow cot
would feel the weight
of the sickly child?
It’s as if my work

was someone else’s.
All that I made
slips farther away.
The stream that flows

down the mountain
has no thought of returning.
I have as much to say to you
as the potter to his pot:

one is deaf, the other 
speechless before his work. 
I can see you careening
towards terrible precipices

but I can’t point them out
let alone help you avoid them.
Like orphans in the the snow
you must save yourselves.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Songs of the earth (1): Yannis Ritsos


The Meaning of Simplicity

I hide behind simple things so you’ll find me;
if you don’t find me, you’ll find the things,
you’ll touch what my hand has touched
our hand-prints will merge.

The August moon glitters in the kitchen
like a tin-plated pot (it gets that way because of what I’m saying to you),
it lights up the empty house and the house’s kneeling silence–
always the silence remains kneeling.

Every word is a doorway
to a meeting, one often cancelled,
and that’s when a word is true: when it insists on the meeting.

(Translated by Edmund Keeley, published in The Greek Poets: From Homer to the Present, Norton, 2010)

Yannis Ritsos’ output as a poet was enormous. He published more than a hundred collections of poetry, and often wrote with great speed, sometimes producing three collections in a single year. Such protean fluency can interfere with the reception of a poet in his own culture, and it can also inhibit or distort the reception in translation. How do you choose? How much of the work can endure? Can we trust the judgement as well as the achievement of the translators? These are, of course, impossible questions to answer for those not immersed in his work and its Greek contexts. We can only respond to what we see and get a small sense of the greater project, a whiff of what made him such a vital and uncomfortable presence.

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