January 5, 2014

Clint Margrave

PANIC ON THE STREETS OF POETRY:
IN SEARCH OF VERSE THAT SAYS SOMETHING TO ME ABOUT MY LIFE

When people ask me how (or why) I became a poet, I always blame music. At 14, I was skinny, unpopular, and shy. My daily life at school was a terror—constant bullying, threats to kick my ass, I’d walk around the campus avoiding eye contact with anyone. My home life wasn’t much better. My mother berated me for being different. The few friends I had were outcasts, and I was lucky to find them. Already an atheist, I had no god to explain the world to me or make me feel at ease. All I had were the lyrics of my favorite singers, and from one band in particular, called The Smiths.

Did I seek The Smiths or did The Smiths seek me? In all truth, the first time I heard them, I can’t say I was impressed. They bored me. Was it an accident that I even became a fan of theirs? Was I just trying to fit in with the few friends that I had? And if so, isn’t it ironic that my willingness to conform is what ultimately led to the discovery of who I am?

Clint Margrave with Morrissey in front of his hotel (Le Parc in Hollywood) circa 1990.I know a lot of people hated them. Or him, I should say—not so much the band, as that whimsical, eccentric, lead singer, Morrissey, who allowed his fans to rip off his shirt and would stroll around on stage with half the local nursery in his back pocket. The same vegetarian freak who would wear a hearing aid though he wasn’t hard of hearing—maybe just a little tone deaf. And, of course, there were the thousands of annoying fans who idolized him.

I was one of them.

But whether you hated him or loved him, who could deny he had something to say—even when it was complaining about the fact that nobody else did. Consider these lyrics to the hit single, “Panic”:

Because the music that they constantly play
It says nothing to me about my life

Was this just vanity? Did he literally mean the particular circumstances of his own life? Of course he did and of course he didn’t. He meant nothing less than the shared suffering, love, alienation, drama, and spirit of all our lives. He was trying to say something honest in a decade saturated with the worst of fabrications (hair bands, the lip-syncing Milli Vanilli, the virgin-by-simile, Madonna), which made him a true outcast and a true poet. He was awkward, bookish, shy, and celibate. Morrissey wasn’t just like a virgin, he was one. And the Smiths were a welcome reprise in a decade of sell-outs. They refused to make videos (though they eventually reneged on this promise), refused to ever sell their songs to television, and to this day remain one of the few bands that refuse to get back together for a paycheck (despite the rumors). Not to mention becoming the progeny for so many musical acts that followed, from Radiohead to Jeff Buckley, who came with the talent, if not the literary bravado. But who can fault them for it? Only a handful of lyricists ever really had literary talent and Morrissey is (or was depending what you think of his solo efforts) one of them. Consider this line from another hit “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before”:

And the pain was enough
to make a shy bald Buddhist
reflect and plan a mass murder

Not only is there humor and wit, but you get that it’s a shitload of pain. It’s also not so obscure that you don’t understand it, and he doesn’t dumb it down but assumes you’re smart enough to understand the irony. It’s also not sentimental and cheesy. The thing about Morrissey is that he doesn’t seem to be singing about his pain, he seems to be singing about yours. What he taps into is the secret of all good writing—honesty. Something that so many aspiring and accomplished writers seem to fail at, and, as a result, fail to connect to their potential reader. Unlike for the singer, there isn’t a melody to pick up the slack when the words ring false. In music, the emotional connection may not always depend on the words, but in writing it always does. The work must be done on the page. And if the work is done right, it shouldn’t matter. But how does one do it? Well, this is, perhaps, the mystery of it all. But part of what needs to be there is the desire to connect to others. Despite what people think, Morrissey isn’t actually narcissistic, not when he creates his art anyway, or we’d never be talking about him today (okay, maybe some of us would). He understands that it’s the reader (or listener) who’s ultimately more self-absorbed than he is. After all, they’re the ones looking for a message. Morrissey may ham it up onstage, but when he sits down to write, he transcends all this by allowing a vulnerability to emerge, which, in turn, establishes a deep intimacy with whoever’s listening.

You see a similar honesty, vulnerability, and intimate connection to the audience in a poet like Charles Bukowski. And it’s no mystery why both writers have such a dedicated fan base. Though these two names are rarely mentioned in the same space, both have more in common than we might initially think, not only in their honesty and ability to connect intimately with their readers/listeners, but in their status as outsiders. It’s not always clear with Morrissey (as with Bukowski) how much is persona and how much is person (strangely, Morrissey’s personal life is very secret). But whatever facts may be skewed, the emotional and psychological truths of rejection, loveless-ness, loneliness, alienation prevail in both of their works.

Consider the lyrics to a song like “Hand in Glove.” There have been different interpretations of this song, from a depiction of closeted homosexuality to two adolescents who want to believe their love is unique in the history of the world, to an autobiographical account of the relationship between Morrissey and Smiths’s guitarist Johnny Marr. Whatever interpretation, the song is a depiction of two outcasts who have found each other, who have “something they’ll never have.” In other words, the “they” who feel comfortable in their own skin, who are content with their lives or loves, who fit in. Two outcasts finding each other is a momentary and hopeful reprieve in a world of isolation, before it all breaks down again—or at least the narrator projects this, recognizing outcasts generally stay outcasts, that loneliness and rejection persist, that all human connection, outside of art, is only temporary:

But I know my luck too well
yes, I know my luck too well
and I’ll probably never see you again
I’ll probably never see you again

A different kind of alienation is depicted in a song like “Barbarism Begins at Home” which demonstrates society’s attempt to force conformity on the outsider beginning, as the title suggests, at home:

A crack on the head
is what you get for not asking
and a crack on the head
is what you get for asking

But with Morrissey’s honesty also comes great humor. Laughter, of course, is another way to connect to others. This is something few seem to understand about his lyrics—they’re also, at times, very funny. Take for instance, these well-known lines from “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”:

I was looking for a job and then I found a job
And Heaven knows I’m miserable now

Or these from “Sweet and Tender Hooligan:”

Poor old man
he had an “accident” with a three bar fire
but that’s OK
because he wasn’t very happy anyway
Poor old woman
strangled in her very own bed as she read
but that’s OK
because she was old and she would have died anyway

This shouldn’t be funny, but it is. At the same time, in a song that is purported to be about someone in love with a murderer and how love can blind us, Morrissey manages to humorously and seriously convey the sad lonely desperation of both lover and victim and murderer. Only to top it off with a cheeky (in this context) quote from the Book of Common Prayer:

In the midst of life we are in death, Etc.

No writer I know of has ever made such a profound and hilarious use of “Etc.” Yet, again, when he sings it, it’s like he’s sending a message directly to you: death is a part of life, he says, but stops short of becoming too polemical or preachy, when he adds that last apathetic touch of Etc., or yeah, yeah, yeah, but you’ve heard it all before. And just to make sure, he takes it one more step by punning the line at the end of the song, by changing “death” to “debt.”

The point is not that you should run out and buy (or rather, download) every Smiths album or even like the band. Many don’t and never will and need not. Many also have no use for music or lyrics or poetry at all. We don’t need to worry about them. They’re hopeless and more than likely, richer than us. But many people, whether we admit it or not, turn to art for guidance just like some of us might turn to, ahem, religion. It’s a lie that we find who we are by simply looking “inside” ourselves. This sort of navel-gazing, for the most part, only produces bad poets and psychopaths. Good art serves a different role, like all great mythology, which is to tell us something about our lives. This is the function of all the greatest myths, all the greatest stories, all the greatest song lyrics, and all the greatest poetry.

Flash forward almost a quarter century:

Clint Margrave in high school. I’m 39, not-so skinny, still unpopular, and still shy. My daily life at school is still a terror, but now I’m the teacher. The constant bullying hasn’t stopped, but rather than it be by football players, it’s by administrators and politicians. The threats, however, to kick my ass have died down. That being said, I still walk around the campus avoiding eye contact with anyone. At home, it’s a little better. My mom has been replaced by my wife, and she only occasionally berates me for being different. The few friends I have are still all outcasts, and I still feel lucky to have them. I’m still an atheist, still without a god to explain the world to me (though I do have science), and for the most part my favorite singers have now been replaced by my favorite writers.

Just last month, I attended a number of poetry readings. One stands out more than the others, but not for the reasons you might think. It was at the university where I work. The poet gave some staggering statistics, claiming that in 1950, there were only 100 or so poets publishing in the English language, and today there are over 20,000. This left me wondering, with so many poets out there, why is it so hard to find one that tells me something about my life? Of course, it only took a few minutes to answer the question when this esteemed, award-winning poet delivered his poems. As one of my colleagues would later say, “It was like he ripped down the middle of the newspaper and just read it to us.” I suddenly felt excluded from an elite (or elitist) club. For the next twenty minutes I sat there listening to him wishing I had been closer to the exit. The poet made it a point to tell us one of the poems he read was part of a longer poem he’d been working on since 1975 or something like that. All those years and not one goddamned thing to tell me about my life. In his defense, he gave the disclaimer that only he could understand some of the references because they were personal. Which left me wondering, how much was the college paying this guy? And what were all these young people in the audience supposed to get out of this?

Did The Smiths lead me to become a poet or did the poet in me lead me to like The Smiths? None of my friends who introduced me to them ended up writing poetry. Thanks to Facebook, I now know that the guy who first introduced me to The Smiths is a lawyer (probably the wiser “career” choice.) Another big Smiths fan I know works in advertising. And still another I met much later in life, runs self-help seminars—go figure. Others expectedly became musicians as I did for a time in my life, before I concluded that it was a misguided venture for me—though I loved music, what I loved even more were words. I just hadn’t needed them yet.

What the lyrics of The Smiths did, more than anything else, was inspire me at a time when I needed it most, in ways that much of contemporary poetry is failing to do (or unwilling to do) for young people today. And it wasn’t just the lyrics, it was the word culture they introduced to me. For the first time in my life, I became interested in writers. After all, what other rock band mentioned Keats or Yeats or Oscar Wilde or all three in one stanza, as what happens in “Cemetery Gates:”

A dreaded sunny day
so I’ll meet you at the cemetery gates
Keats and Yeats are on your side
while Wilde is on mine

What other band even thought of putting someone like Oscar Wilde on their t-shirt? Or as a backdrop to their stage show? Who else would title one of their songs “Shakespeare’s Sister”? What band in the history of rock and roll made young men and women excited to attend their English class? I remember going to the public library with my mom and picking out an 800-page biography of Wilde when I was fifteen years old solely because of The Smiths. And even if I couldn’t get through it all, I knew there was something magical and important about it. I knew or hoped, anyway, that within literature lay the answers to all my growing pains as I transitioned into the adult world. My sophomore book report was on The Picture of Dorian Gray, which I loved, and which was a book I’m almost certain my high school English teacher didn’t know (strangely, but that’s another subject.) I wouldn’t have known it either had it not been for The Smiths, and Morrissey in particular, who made it okay, even cool to be smart and read literature, in a way that no one else from my generation had.

There were, of course, all those poets and novelists that came later: Charles Baudelaire, Bukowski, Ernest Hemingway, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Carson McCullers, Fernando Pessoa, Herman Melville (see Morrissey’s solo song “Billy Budd”). But, to me, The Smiths were an unlikely entry-point into what would become the greatest passion of my life. Maybe it was because Morrissey was more poet than pop star. Or maybe it was generational. After all, there had been other poet/pop stars, of course—Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Patti Smith. But Morrissey was more freakish than they were. You got the impression they would be the life of the party while he would be standing in the corner. By the time I was born, they already belonged to the club. And though they all had something to say, he was singing to a different crowd—those who were too shy to leave their bedrooms, those who were bullied, those who felt rejected, those who were outcasts. He was singing to me.

__________

Clint Margrave is the author of The Early Death of Men, a collection of poems published by NYQ Books. His work has also appeared in The New York Quarterly, Rattle, Cimarron Review, Verse Daily, and Ambit (UK), among others. He lives in Long Beach, CA. (www.clintmargrave.com)

Photos (courtesy of author): Clint Margrave with Morrissey in front of his hotel (Le Parc in Hollywood) circa 1990; Clint Margrave in high school.

December 20, 2013

Doug Holder

ED GALING: A POET OF THE GREATEST GENERATION
(1917 – 2013)

I’ve written more than a few poems for my friend Ed Galing, after getting the many letters he has sent me over the years. Ed’s letters are probably as good as his poems. They are alive and spirited, like the scrappy street urchin that Ed was in his early years. Ed can be needy, infuriating, and hilarious, but most of all loveable. And that’s the way I characterize his poetry. Like Ed, it shoots from the hip, giving it straight with no chaser. I find that, in contrast, a lot of the poetry I read today has a calculated ironic distance, almost as if the poet is afraid to display some honest sentiment or emotion. Ed Galing, at 89, is a poet who knows his allotted time is too short for posturing, for cool detachment, or obtuse and inaccessible verse. After long years of writing and submitting his work, Galing has joined the ranks of the major small press poets that includes: A.D. Winans, Hugh Fox, Lyn Lifshin, Alan Catlin, Lynne Savitt, and others. Like the poets just mentioned Galing’s poetry, stories, and essays have appeared in the most obscure and the most well-known journals across the country. Whenever I pick up a little magazine like the Chiron Review, Rattle, Lummox Journal, Poesy, Brevities, The Small Press Review, Pegasus and hundreds of others, I am not surprised to find Ed Galing’s name there.

I first encountered Ed Galing’s poetry in a defunct magazine founded by the late Ralph Haselmann Jr., Lucid Moon. Ed Galing was described as the “harmonica-playing poet-laureate of Hatboro, PA” (his hometown). I later found out that Galing’s work was liberally spread out over a wide swath of small press magazines, journals, newspapers, and the whole spectrum of publications. What came through in Ed’s poetry was his no-bullshit, call a spade-a-spade style. He reminded me a lot of my wisecracking Jewish uncles from boyhood, always busting chops and spinning stories. He is what they would call a mensch. A Yiddish word, it means someone of consequence, someone to emulate. That’s Ed.

In a number of interviews that I conducted with Ed, I became aware of his hardscrabble life, as it was reflected in his poetry. Ed told me that he started to write poetry as a young person during the Depression era. Galing’s family was on general relief, and they lived in very Spartan conditions on the Lower East Side of New York City and in the gone-to-seed environs of South Philadelphia.

Galing remembered his high school English teacher, Dr. Ginsberg, who was supportive of his work and pushed him to read the classics. Galing told me he took to poetry early on. As to why, he related: “Poetry could say something in a few words that prose could only do in the thousands. Poetry allowed me to pour out my heart and soul …” Later Galing mined his early years as fodder for his large body of work. In his most recent collection, Buying a Suit on Essex Street (Iniquity Press), Galing writes about his boyhood urban retreat—the fires cape on his tenement building over the bustling immigrant-filled streets of the Lower East Side.

Fire Escape

Mine was on the
fifth floor
A small iron
Cage
Outside the front
window
Looking down on
Essex Street
Lower East Side:
Down below I
could see pushcarts:
Crowded streets,
people pushing and
shoving,
Screams and mutterings:
shouts of despair:
Up here, when I sat
outside the window
in my fire escape
refuge
I was six years old:
and already I knew
what it felt like
To be caged in
like
some wild animal.

Ed remembers vividly the cornucopia of sights and sounds the Lower east Side had to offer: “There were the cries of the merchants and the hundred of people pushing and shoving. There was a flavor to those streets I won’t forget. I think it shaped my life. There were the rooftops, the wash on the lines, the garbage on the streets, and the gang fights.”

Galing also felt the bitter taste of in-your-face antisemitism. He learned from the predominately Christian world that the Jews killed Christ, and that Santa Claus wanted no part of him. All this left an indelible impression on the man.

Galing has written many poems concerning antisemitism, as he experienced it. As an occupation solider in Europe shortly after World War II, he was a witness to the death camps at Dachau. Galing told me: “All of these events shaped my sensibility and my poetry. I found antisemitism everywhere … the Army, the Navy.” Galing saw the horrific ovens of the camps, and was enraged at the denial of the atrocities by many Germans he encountered. Galing, through the Lucid Moon Press, published a small book of his war time experiences, complete with photos. In spite of these experiences he did not become misanthropic. Galing told me, “This affected me as a man. I wanted to use my words to benefit mankind. I wanted to show that love is important to life.”

To this day Ed Galing visits Jack’s Deli in his old stomping grounds of South Phillie and entertains the patrons with his harmonica. Now that his wife is a resident in a nursing home, he visits her daily, and shares his poetry and music with the other residents, as well. Ed makes no concessions to the computer age and still corresponds with fellow poets by hand-written letter. He types his poems out on an old typewriter. Ed and I talk on the phone regularly, and he expresses his frustration with the infirmities of old age, his wife’s declining health, the capriciousness of editors, you name it. Yet, overall, Galing keeps a positive attitude, and still has eagle eye out for the next poem.

Galing has experienced a lot, but like many of his rapidly diminishing peers he is able to separate what is important from what is not. Ed has no time to worry about the latest trend, engage in navel gazing, or morbid introspection. What matters to Galing are the people in his life that he touched and who touched him. Ed reflected: “I have two grandsons, three grandchildren, and I am married to a wonderful woman. What is there to know about Ed Galing? Just a simple man, trying to write poetry, and perhaps trying to hear a good word about my work.”

Day’s Work

if my father taught
me anything,
it was how to exist
where existence
was hard to do.
and where every
breath of air
in our lower
east side building
was filled with
the acrid order
of rotten vegetables
that most of us
tenants ate, when
we could afford
to buy the left-
overs, from the
pushcarts on orchard
street
oh, the rabble, oh
the stench
oh, the jostling
and pushing of
so many of us
as we walked along
pavements so crowded
that we had to almost
walk out into the middle
of the street …
my father made life
as endurable as possible,
by wearing the same clothes
all year round, and when they
tore,
his needle and thread would mend them,
he ate little, mostly potatoes,
which gave him that round little
belly, and portly gait,
and he busied himself around
the apartment we had,
my mother in the kitchen,
making food on the coal stove,
learning how to squeeze beets
to make borscht,
and me in my six year old wisdom,
learning how to steal an
occasional apple from the
pushcart outside …
all in a day’s work in
those days.

And, just like his old man before him, Ed keeps working at his craft, a craft which has been his life.

from Rattle #26, Winter 2006
Tribute to the Greatest Generation

Editors Note: Ed Galing died December 18, 2013, at his home in Hatboro, PA. He was 96.

__________

Doug Holder was born in Manhattan, N.Y. on July 5, 1955. A small press activist, he founded the Ibbetson Street Press in the winter of 1998 in Somerville, Mass. He has published over 40 books of poetry of local and national poets and over 20 issues of the literary journal Ibbetson Street, which published Galing in every issue. He also created a blog for Galing years ago: (edgaling.blogspot.com)

November 27, 2013

Jessica Jacobs

THE DOUBLE IMAGE

“I, who was never quite sure/ about being a girl, needed another/ life, another image to remind me.”
—Anne Sexton, “The Double Image”

I was invited to Hannah’s party by one of her friends, a woman I thought I wanted until I saw Hannah. Her summer house was a stunner, all wood and glass, prowing its very own Hudson Valley hill. “Her other place is a condo in L.A.,” the friend said proudly, as though knowing Hannah granted her equity. “Mary’s heading back there next week.”

“I’m shooting a documentary,” Mary added, leading us into the house.

Mary was Hannah’s girlfriend, yes, but that didn’t stop me from looking at the woman leaning against the knife-scarred kitchen island: Hannah was my height, blonde hair only glancingly tamed—the word leonine came embarrassingly to mind. Her skin glowed against the white of her men’s dress shirt, sleeves cuffed to reveal toned forearms and hands so large they seemed to belong to a woman a foot taller. She looked not only like someone I wanted to know, but someone I already knew.

As Van Morrison’s “Moondance” blared from a room off the kitchen, she handed me a beer and half a pot brownie from a neat stack of them on the counter, and walked me into a room flanked with floor to ceiling windows, dominated by an antique postal desk. In its center was a manuscript. I was about to ask what she wrote but, then, there was Mary, squeezing the back of Hannah’s neck as though corralling an errant pup, leaving with the presumption she’d be followed.

On our way out, Hannah behind me, I reached up as though to stretch and did a quick pull-up on the doorframe, my arms strong from a season of climbing. Even then, I knew that move was more fourteen-year-old boy than what I was, a nineteen-year-old woman, a girl really, awkward and more serious than my years. I wanted so badly to impress her.

* * *

Jessica Jacobs Rock ClimbingSix years earlier, at a summer camp ropes course with a pine tree laddered to the top by small boards, I was introduced to climbing. I made my way up, crying as I death-gripped the brusque bark, crying with every scuffling movement toward the top, until my tears were snuffed by an adolescent epiphany: I’d been terrified and embarrassed the whole way, but I’d made it. The next time I did something that frightened me—and the adrenaline thrumming my body insisted there’d be a next time—I’d keep that fear to myself, find a way to use it like fuel.

Obsessed, I returned home to the flats of central Florida, pored over climbing magazines, and began to swim and lift weights. Two years later, Orlando’s first indoor rock gym opened and I talked my way into a job, cadging climbing road trips from patrons and staff whenever possible. It was the only sport I’d done that pushed my body to failure, where I’d commanded my hand to grip something only to watch it spasm open instead; felt my leg pump wildly of its own accord, Elvising my foot off a ledge. In a life privileged with safety nets—supportive parents, top-shelf education—with climbing, my safety and survival were assured only by what I brought to it. It left me bloody-kneed and bruise-dappled, exhausted as I was exhilarated. But, from it, an image took shape: a self-reliant woman who not only didn’t avoid the things she feared, but sought them out.

That was what I was doing the summer I met Hannah: living in New Paltz after my first year of college, working in a gear shop, trying to stretch myself to fit the outlines of that ideal.

* * *

In the living room, Hannah bent over a small stereo and, from the speakers, another voice joined the fray.

Music pours over the sense, it graveled beneath the din, I mean it remembers better

“Anne Sexton,” she said, a beat before I could.

I nodded and breathed, “I know,” too softly for her to hear, took a long sip of beer that made my head eddy and purl. Anne Sexton: beloved poet of my angsty childhood, the first to make me feel there might be a place for the kind of life I wanted, one driven by passion and poetry … The night I came I danced a circle and was not afraid … I was handed darts and threw them in quick succession, each striking like magic. “Brava!” Hannah cried from astride Mary’s thighs … So it has come to this … Mary stood, spilling her to the floor … The business of words keeps me awake … the friend’s lips were suddenly on mine, my back to the wall, enveloped in her pressing weight, insistent bass, and the words, Hannah and Sexton chanting together, I am drinking cocoa, that warm brown mama.

I pushed my way outside, breath coming in shallow pulls. The heat had finally broken, the air laced with the summer scent of apples and sour of spilled beer, with strains of music from inside. Drunk and high, what could I do with this world I’d stumbled into, one of assured older women who were everything I wanted—to be and to be with. And Hannah. I’d known I wanted to write as long as I’d known I preferred women. She seemed to have already lived out the life I’d imagined.

“Where are you, kid?”

She appeared in the doorway, clutching an armful of long-sleeved shirts, the others behind her. Garlands of lights came alive in the branches. “There you are.”

I reached for a shirt from the pile, but she handed me the one she’d been wearing earlier. We all sprawled in a circle on the lawn, twinkling trees hemming in the night’s prevailing surrealism.

I took the moment to finally ask what she wrote. “She’s our famous neighborhood screenwriter,” the friend answered. While she named the films, Hannah crooked an arm over her eyes and said, “You haven’t seen them. They’re kind of obscure.”

* * *

My boyfriend in high school was a sweet, gangly boy. This was the dial-up era of the internet, before instant access to online queer communities, before Madonna kissed Britney to sell albums, before straight women gloried in saying they’d be gay for Ellen. The one out guy at my school had his ass kicked often enough he transferred. There were no out lesbians, and I wasn’t willing to wait for intimacy until one made herself known. So came a string of disposable boys. So came the boyfriend, the last and best of them. We spent our days biking and wakeboarding, easy access to water one of the few perks of living in Florida; our nights watching movies and having sex—if and when I felt so inclined. Three months into our relationship, the night he told me he loved me, I told him I was gay.

“But what does that mean for me?” he asked, face buried in his hands. “For us?”

“Well, I mean, I care about you and think you’re attractive.”

I paused, not really knowing how to finish a sentence that lamely inadequate.

“So I guess it means we can stay together until I leave for college.” And can date women, I added silently.

How I had the nerve to say this to the face of a poor boy who had just confessed his love is beyond me, so I’ll blame it on the lingering effects of too much Ayn Rand. But, as I was his first, in love and sex, he accepted this meager offering. Together for my last two years of high school, in contrast to the cynicism I’d bricked up to guard my differences—liking girls, liking sports, reading the OED for kicks—he was so kind, so ready to be surprised by what the world and I might offer him. I had moments of wondering if I were making a mistake, if being with a man might be easier, might, eventually, be something even approaching enough.

Then a TV movie kept me up until the small hours. A woman who did everything expected of her—married a man, had kids, held down a household but no job—suffered a breakdown and “went away” for a while. Upon her return, she fell in love with her children’s nanny, her feelings culminating in a rain-drenched kiss that made my stomach ache and hollow. By the end, she found herself but destroyed her family. Watching her movie-husband weep as he repeated over and over, “But I love you so much,” I cried with him. I saw the hopeful look on my boyfriend’s face each time I moved against him, the resigned, downward-eyed acceptance when I more often moved away, and vowed to myself I would never do that to anyone.

That was Hannah’s first film.

* * *

On the way out, I remembered I was wearing her shirt. I began to unbutton it, but Hannah reached out and stilled my hand. “You have an honest face. I’m sure it will find its way back to me somehow.”

The next morning, I drove to the mountains.

Climbing is, by necessity, a clarifying act. Think about anything other than the task at hand and there is the very real chance you will fall, be injured, possibly die. Yet with each move up the rock, with the burr of sediment and slick of quartz, I was distracted by how her broad palms might fit to my back, how her hair might trail my skin as she kissed her way down my stomach.

That day, self-reliance was a piss poor bet.

* * *

Two weeks later, Mary was gone and Hannah invited me over for dinner. Afterward, in the study, as I reclined in a white wicker divan, she drew her chair against it, brought her knees to her chest and tucked her toes beneath my thigh. I tried not to startle at her touch, tried to seem more experienced, more sophisticated than I was.

She asked about my family, what I wanted to do after school. Traced for me the outline of her life: farmed out to boarding schools at twelve; drove to L.A. at the bequest of a girlfriend (who promptly dumped her the day she arrived); worked in restaurants and slept on couches until a friend suggested she turn a short story into a screenplay. I watched as much as I listened. Her strong jaw and cheekbones as she leaned in an out of the light, eye color alternating between the shadows that haunted the corners of the room and that narrow stretch where ocean meets shore, sunlight refracting through the blue.

Pressing her shins more firmly against my leg, she told me she’d finished a novella the day we’d met. Its protagonist was a girl just out of high school—an idealized version of herself at that age. “That’s why I was so startled when I saw you, like I’d written a character so real she’d come to find me. The whole night, I watched you and, each time you talked, a part of me protested, ‘But I didn’t write that.’”

Then she took my hand and pressed it to her lips, her breath pooling in the hollows of my palm. I brought my other hand to her cheek and that was all it took. In a swift movement, she knelt above me, mouth sealing mine. Nearly twice my age, she knew exactly what she wanted, while I simply knew I’d never desired anyone or anything so badly. With boys, I’d kept myself at a remove, in a place of cool observation. With her lips to my neck, I was completely present, open. If she wanted to think she created me, fine, I could go with that. I traced her back, her face. Her skin, lacking the factory-sealed smoothness of girls my age, was instead weathered and pulled taut by years and experiences I wanted to understand. Eyes closed, I ran my hands along her body with the same concentration I brought to the rockface, awareness in my fingertips, feeling my way toward the next best hold. Could she feel that? I held her as though letting go would be the same thing as falling.

* * *

My real climbing education had begun only months earlier, when I met Carl, a man with big-wall, Yosemite experience. He practiced the old-school method of placing and removing anchors in the rock as he went, climbing with only what he carried. I apprenticed myself, belayed as Carl led, dutifully followed him up each route and retrieved the gear he’d left behind. On our last climbing day of that season, we stood midway up the route High Exposure, far above the treetops. Autumn blazed at our feet. Beginning up the second pitch, Carl fumbled at what local climbers had dubbed “The Move”: with left hand clinging to the underside of a massive stone shelf, feel blindly behind with your right to grip a ledge, then let your feet cut away into space, all your weight suspended for a moment from that single right hand.

After ten minutes, I began teasing him. After ten more, in a moment of teenage bravado, I said, “Come on, Carl. I could lead this one.”

He looked at me, face sheened with flop sweat, and said simply, “Fine.”

Retreating to where I stood, he lifted the gear sling from around his shoulder and hung it over mine. It was heavier than I’d expected. But that old epiphany was an exhortation to finish what my words had begun. I scrambled up the short slab and thrust my hand beneath the shelf, knowing if I paused too long, fear would have a chance to effect its heavy paralysis—the promises we make to ourselves often the easiest ones to break. With my other hand, I groped back and around until I had a lip of rock flush against my palm, a rough edge firm beneath my tensed fingers. Closed eyes. Deep breath. Letting go. Then out into the air, one move closer to the person I wanted to become.

* * *

I spent nearly every night at Hannah’s place, parking my car out of sight to avoid word getting back to Mary. It was an arrangement I didn’t question—I wanted to be with her; she wanted to be with me; we were together. Perhaps I thought that was what it meant to be an adult: to take from life what I wanted, when I wanted it.

She bought a small television and VCR. When rainy days kept me from the mountains, I lay in her arms and watched films like Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence and My Life as a Dog. Her commentary through each was equal parts fangirl, technical observation, and masterclass.

Nights, I’d perch on the stool she’d bought for the kitchen so I could sit with her while she cooked, breathing in the heady scent of slow-roasted garlic and red wine whisked into simmering sauce. Cooking was something I’d previously disparaged as “girl stuff,” a fact she found unacceptable. “Anyone who’s smart and creative can cook,” she said, sliding a pan of pine nuts into the broiler. “There’s power in being able to invite people into your home and create an experience—for them, and for you.”

By the end of July, when daylight hours had begun to recede and breezes now and then pierced the summer heat, I led her along the gravel carriage road, where cliffs towered above the trees. She threw her head back in childlike wonder to take them in, just as I’d done to look at skyscrapers my first time in New York. Watching her made my chest hurt.

I spotted the split pine that marked the turn-off to Easy Overhang. At its base, I helped her into the harness and shoes I’d borrowed from my shop, went over the climbing rudiments I’d demonstrated earlier with a rope slung over a branch in her yard. Then I pulled off my shirt and finished my preparations in shorts and a sports bra. I was proud of the body I’d built that summer—the new definition in my arms and back, the deep brown of my tan. I thought then that I took her climbing because, after all she’d shared with me, I wanted to share something, too. But I see now I also did it to show off, to let her know there were areas in which I was the one who had knowledge and power.

Halfway up, she kissed me nervously, but said she was happy she’d come.

Jessica Jacobs #2Yet sixty feet up the next pitch, just as I lost sight of her beneath an overhang, I heard a garbled string of words lost to the distance and wind. I called down, leaning out to hear. All I could make out was, “Can’t.”

A climber appeared on a nearby route. “Your mom—” He saw my eyes narrow and started again, “Your friend’s kind of freaking out. I don’t think she’s going to make it up.”

I down-climbed as quickly as I could, an act far more difficult and dangerous than ascending, especially because, in my cocky self-assurance, I’d worn sneakers instead of climbing shoes. I found her wedged against the cliff, as far as possible from the edge.

On the drive home, Hannah said she figured the scare was caused by the vertigo she sometimes experienced. She said this in an attempt to make me feel better, but it just made me apologize more—even though she hadn’t mentioned a word of vertigo before I’d led her, and myself, away from the safety of the ground.

* * *

Mid-August, we walked from room to room, closing the storm windows. Having grown up in Florida, I’d never done this before and marveled at the weight of the extra pane, at the way the shuttered rooms—defined for me by their airiness and light—felt immediately stifled.

The next day, we stood outside in the cool morning air and kissed goodbye, Hannah on her way to L.A., I with a long drive to campus. I watched her in the rearview and remembered a few things I’d forgotten at her house. But I didn’t bother turning back, knowing I’d see her in Boston that October and spend the upcoming millennial New Year’s Eve with her—in New York or L.A., we hadn’t decided.

* * *

I started classes; she broke up with Mary. There were nightly phone calls, an exchange of letters. Then it was October. My fall break. I picked her up at Logan and we spent a night in Boston before heading to Cape Cod. Pulling up to the massive, marbled entrance of the Four Seasons, I tried not to gawk. She guided me through the steps of turning my keys over to the valet, even handed me a buck to tip him. The next day, she settled the bill: one night and room service, $500. I thanked her politely, as I’d been taught to do as a child when a friend’s parents took me to dinner, but sensed she wanted me to make a bigger deal. I’d been raised that it was rude to talk about how much you’d paid for something, but the deeper truth was I had no idea how expensive that was. It was the first time I’d been to a hotel with anyone other than my parents.

From the city, we made a quick pilgrimage to Anne Sexton’s house. We sat idling on her street, staring at the garage in which Sexton killed herself. “That crazy old kook drove these roads,” Hannah said, more to herself than to me. A strange diversion to begin a romantic getaway, but one that felt writerly and important. As with most things she suggested, I went with it.

Driving the meandering arc of Highway 6, she told me about college summers spent in Provincetown shucking oysters, working on a whale watching ship where the announcer had a pronounced lisp (“Look starboard and you can see what was once called a wight whale!” “Why did they call it that when it’s black?” “Because it’s the wight whale to kill!”), and dating like a fiend.

We parked and walked Provincetown’s main drag, which was thronged with middle-aged women in loose jeans and cableknit sweaters, with men whose ensembles ranged from burly lumberjack to spangled Speedo. A hot girl seemed to be on every corner. It was the gayest place I’d ever been. Weaving our way through, she continued telling stories. Half-listening, mesmerized by the crowds, it occurred to me that if we stayed together, I’d never have the types of summers she described.

This thinking only deepened during our week there. Removed from the protective bubble of her house, precocious as I might have been, I was still nineteen. Countless cultural references flew swiftly over my head. I was moody. She was tentative. I sensed I was entering a time in which I would be free to make bad, fun, wonderful choices; in which I would be too naïve to do anything other than expect the world to give me what I wanted—and so sometimes it would. But no matter how troubled I was by how staying with her might change and restrict me, the thought of losing her was still far worse.

Listening to a band our last night there, one of Hannah’s friends mentioned she liked the drummer’s shirt. Hannah, being Hannah, walked onstage in between sets and asked the woman for the shirt off her back, waving a twenty. The woman agreed. Show over, the drummer ignored the friend who’d been flirting with her all night and walked to where Hannah sat on a bar stool. She peeled off her shirt, revealing a filmy tank top beneath. She stood so close she was nearly between Hannah’s legs, and asked how long she’d be in town, if she wanted to get a drink sometime. All this despite the fact I was sitting there holding Hannah’s hand. It was as though I were too young to even be seen, let alone accounted for.

Back in our room, I fumed over the way I’d been treated, about how things couldn’t go on that way, until she pulled me into bed and surprised me by agreeing. Stunned, I lay beside her while she ended us, saying things like, “You’re nineteen. You need to be with someone your own age, and I should probably be with someone closer to mine. You’ll miss so many things if you’re with me.”

I curled into a ball, sobbing and not letting her touch me, though her touch was all I wanted. Despite my own doubts, I met that moment with complete disbelief. It had somehow never truly occurred to me that the future I had imagined for us might not play out.

“But I love you so much,” I said, ashamed to hear the movie-husband’s words leave my mouth. Yet I couldn’t help but add, “And you said you loved me, too.”

She took a long breath, her hand hovering above my shoulder before saying the words that marked the end of both my long-held romanticism and dreamy adolescence, “I know. That’s true. But sometimes that’s not enough.”

I drove her back to Logan the next day, dropping her off a full four hours before her flight. She kissed me and I tried to be stoic, forcing myself into the car, pulling away without looking back. A mile down the road, I caved: took the next off-ramp and sped back to the airport. Sprinting to the information desk, I asked after the flight to L.A. My doubts were gone. I was going to find her, along with the words I would say to change her mind.

In those pre-9/11 days, an unticketed passenger could go right to the gate. Suspecting she’d found an earlier flight, I ran for it, getting there just as the final passenger was boarding. I stood, hands curled into useless fists as the jetbridge door closed. I knew Hannah was on that plane, unquestionably, but I still went and looked in every wing of the terminal. I was right, though. She was on it. I never saw her again.

It’s the kind of thing you can’t put in a story because no one would believe it.

* * *

What I did not know as I drove back to school, weeping as though a family member had just died, was that upon graduating I’d write a letter that began, “I’m not even sure if you’ll remember me at this point …” and she’d write back a letter rife with questions and exclamation points and then never write again. I did not know that, for years, having learned just her outline, she would be for me Proust’s transparent envelope to the nth degree, a vessel into which I could imagine whatever was lacking in my partner of the moment. Or that I’d one day look out at a classroom of eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds, unable to see them as anything more than smart kids just past childhood, that I’d struggle not to question her too much on that score, attributing what happened between us to a beautiful fluke, a midsummer’s night kind of a thing.

I know now, through friends, that she’s married, that her wife is beautiful. But, still, I wonder if Hannah ever thinks of me.

I do, of her. Not as a long lost love—not anymore, but because during that summer she helped me find a way into my life, to not just imagine and plan, but to act. Images from that time stay with me, indelible. Like the night the summer’s final full moon rose above the cliffs and I returned to High Exposure. Full-moon climbing was a local tradition and, in full observation of that tradition, I climbed wearing nothing but shoes, a harness, and a headlamp. For the first fifty feet, my visibility was limited to the headlamp’s thin beam of light, making the surrounding trees and sky seem vast in comparison. The rope trailed down to a ground I could soon no longer see. Topping the treeline, the moon finally found me and I snapped off the light. The rock glowed gray-green, flashing with traces of quartz. Each hold was still warm from the day, redolent with the rich smells of earth and pine. I could hear only my breathing and the faint music from a hillside home. It seemed just minutes before I reached the first ledge.

Pausing to re-secure my harness, its heavy waistband dug into my bare hips, my thighs, making me aware of all that was left uncovered. But unlike my first time on that route, as I climbed toward The Move, I felt confident and strong. I reached back and caught the wide lip of rock, released my left hand, and swung into darkness. Bringing my left hand up to partner my right, I hung there for a moment and looked around. The moon was so big it looked like it could swallow the sky. I heard Sexton’s voice, that moon too bright forking through the bars to stick me with a singing in the head, and felt the air sheathe my skin. I thought of her then, of how being with Hannah allowed me to glimpse a future in which words mattered, in which a life with a woman was possible.

Then I pulled in my feet and began to climb, wishing every moment could be half as real as that one.

__________

Jessica Jacobs teaches literature and writing at Hendrix College and University of Arkansas at Little Rock. She received her MFA in Poetry from Purdue University, where she served as the Editor-in-Chief of Sycamore Review. Her poems and essays have most recently appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, CALYX, Rattle, and The Los Angeles Review. (jessicalgjacobs.com)

Photos of Jessica Jacobs courtesy of author.

November 19, 2013

William Wright

BEYOND GEOGRAPHY: WHY I’M A SOUTHERN POET

Not to be glib, but I have to at least acknowledge the obvious: I’m a Southern poet because I was born in the South—specifically, in Edgefield County, South Carolina, where I spent most of my childhood, with a few stints in Iredell County, North Carolina, and frequent visits to Augusta, Georgia. And now, as an editor of a series of anthologies of Southern poetry, I’ve quickly learned that there is no definable element that makes a Southern poet Southern, other than the geography he or she claims—and even then we get into issues, for a lot of these poets wish to disclaim and escape their territory. In fact, I know a few poets whose careers depend on this “escape from the South” theme. I understand and can respect that need to slough off the region as though it were an old snake skin, to move on, renewed, to bigger pastures.

A bit strange, then, that I welcome both the labels “Southern” and “nature” poet, labels that are often applied to my work, as my poems are preoccupied with landscape, gothic imagery, wilderness, time, family ancestry, death, and other motifs often associated with Southern writing.

However, these elements are not what made me a Southern poet. Beyond the freak chance that I was born in the South, and beyond the fact that I’ll most likely live the rest of my life somewhere in or near the South, what made me a Southern poet are elements irrelevant to geography. Essentially, I am a Southern poet for four reasons (there are other reasons, too, but these are the main ones):

1) My parents got a divorce in 1998, when I was nineteen.
2) I lucked up and found a couple of like-minded friends.
3) I stole a copy of a certain book from a creative arts institution.
4) I had an honest-to-goodness epiphany/existential moment.

I wrote a lot as a young teenager—mostly fiction, and mostly short fables. And when familial dysfunction got really bad, I wrote horror stories, my language arts equivalent to rebellion, a rebellion that climaxed with a novella about the end of the world when my mom and dad finally called it quits after twenty years of marriage. As a child—since about five or six—I fancied myself the mediator of my parents’ arguments (to be clear, they never imposed this position on me), and, over time, I came to consider myself partly responsible for the strength of their relationship. When they finally parted, I did not handle it well emotionally, because my family—my mother, father, sister, and I—were, at our best moments, a warm, loving, and convivial family. And when my mom moved out, I felt like part of me had turned ghost, that I had somehow failed them.

Long before their divorce in 1998, I encountered a couple of other guys—namely Brandon Wicks and Paul Chesser—now both fiction writers, who became very close friends very quickly, during eighth grade. Through middle school and high school, our idea of a good time was walking rural roads at night, coming up with fictional “what-if” scenarios (usually apocalyptic), and sharing—in embellished, fantasist detail—the dreams we had had the night before. We did not want to party or hang out with other kids our age—at least not early on. We were escapists, and in the little stories we wrote—essentially for one another—we created a sort of immature habit out of escapism. We were often very serious, but we joked a lot too. However, our jokes were tortuous, baroque, completely absurd. Paul and Brandon lived in suburban sections of Aiken, South Carolina, while I lived near a peach orchard in Johnston, and my dad had a small pond set up on a berm of mica-flecked grass in his backyard, so my house quickly became the most mythic ground, the landscape catalyst to sometimes all-night conversations about writing, dreams, aspirations, fears. We’d trudge those orchards and that countryside together—a slight sense of danger always freighting us—whisper conspiratorially about matters far larger than we had a right to even entertain. We knew nothing, but we yearned to know something, something that school and parents, and even our own night walks, simply couldn’t impart. We genuinely yearned for something unutterable.

Later on in high school, I wrote a story called “Mikomo’s Crane,” a fable set in modern-day Japan, that won me a spot in the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts, an esteemed six-week arts summer program at Furman University for high school students. One prerequisite was that all students accepted into the creative writing section of the school had to participate in both genres: Fiction writers had to study poetry and vice versa. One of the books furnished to us was The Made Thing: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern Poetry, edited by Leon Stokesbury and published by the University of Arkansas Press. Long part of this story, short: I turned immediately to poetry after coming into possession of this book. After reading poems by Robert Penn Warren, Charles Wright, Jack Butler, Betty Adcock, and especially James Dickey, I felt as though the poems were written to me—that they were a kind of literary summons, an invitation, a challenge, even. Though we were to return the books at the end of the session, I took mine home with me with no intention of returning it, and—unusual for me—with no guilt. The book still sits on my shelf, now signed by approximately half its contributors, the spine broken, the pages dog-eared, and some sections referenced so many times that they’ve unlatched from the casing of the book and precariously sit loose in the volume.

Finally, with this book in tow, in the winter of 1999, my parents now split up for good, I decided to trek out alone into the orchard. It was a bitterly cold January night. The trees were like little scrawls of ink branching out into the air, and the sky was so clear that the long veil of the Milky Way was clearly visible, the starlight casting the ground in a blue snow-like glow. Every few seconds I saw a shooting star, and even the distant radio tower to the west and the silent jets high up, their red lights pulsing, intensified the beauty. I was so cold that my hands were numb even in my pockets, and, when I reached mid-field, I looked back through the woods toward my house. I could see the distant window lights flickering, and they looked exactly like dying embers in a hearth. I stared at them for a long time. Out of the north I heard the grinding shunt and howl of a train clacking toward some northern county, and I imagined it moving through small towns I knew, and eventually on into ones I didn’t. This experience—as uneventful as it might seem—truly made me love the world. It made me love the world with a sort of joyful sadness, mixed with the urgency mortality freights us with; it made me know I had to do something about the feeling—to record it, to try to recreate it or re-experience it as much as possible. And so I became a poet for life, a Southern poet.

It was only months after this experience that I discovered James Dickey’s poem “The Strength of Fields,” wherein his narrator describes a man walking alone at night and something akin to my own epiphany—“Tell me, train-sound,/ With all your long-lost grief,/ what I can give./ Dear Lord of all the fields/ what am I going to do?” Later in the poem, Dickey answers for me, for a great many of us: “What difference is there?/ We can all be saved/ By a secret blooming.” The poem seemed, if anything, a permission to search, to at least try. It had nothing to do with heritage, with South as a banner to wear—it was just the template, it was simply the landscape that supplied the tools to ignite the imagination.

from Rattle #39, Spring 2013
Tribute to Southern Poets

March 27, 2013

Art Beck

THE IMPERTINENT DUET:
TRANSLATING POETRY WITH ART BECK

#4: THE DEEP PULSE OF IDIOM: NOODLES, BLUE TEETH, FLESH-EATERS, GUSTAVE FLAUBERT, AND KUROSAWA’S DREAM

I. Macaroni con Corazone

Not too long ago, I came across a selection of Sephardic proverbs gathered by Michael Castroi, a skilled poet and translator. He’d collected these sayings in Ladino (the Judeo- Spanish of the Sephardic Jews) mostly from family sources with the aid of a cousin and the memories of older relatives. Most of the proverbs were clear, while still managing to retain a unique sense of place and culture:

He who runs, falls.
Do, but don’t brag.
Grain by grain, the chicken fills its intestines.
Moses may be dead, but God endures …

But there was one fascinating old saying that didn’t seem at all clear to me: Cominos macarones, alambicos corazones. We ate macaroni and licked our hearts.

The image seemed so jolly, a plate of buttery pasta and something intimate, maybe even erotic? A meal reminiscent of the Tom Jones movie scene? I had no idea, but the proverb sang to me. Finally, I asked the editor of the journal in which they appeared if he could put me in touch with Michael Castro.

Michael’s reply was revelatory. He said his sense of the saying’s meaning was “somewhat conjectural,” but that it “tended to be applied in conversations about surviving periods of poverty. Licked our hearts in this context would mean something like ‘consoled ourselves and each other,’ ‘got by on love,’ etc.”

We ended up agreeing that an American equivalent might be something like: We made do with beans and dreams. But while “beans and dreams” might be an equivalent idiom, it draws its energy from another culture and loses the unique images of the Ladino. It transcribes a delicate minor key riff for the guitar, to a hardscrabble banjo.

On the other hand, a Sephardic Ladino speaker wouldn’t be aware of anything exotic or out of the commonplace in the expression. And, from a translation standpoint, if you retain the exotic aspects, aren’t you just adding embellishments that aren’t really there in the original? Ladino, like Yiddish, is a fading language, spoken mainly among the dwindling old. Should an English translation of an old Ladino saying be automatically archaic and foreign? Or is equivalence what a translator should aim for? The dichotomy between the approaches is a core question in translation theory. And there’s probably no single right answer.

Consider the following: Das ist mir Wurscht is a commonplace Austrian colloquial phrase, more or less equivalent to “I don’t give a hoot.” When an Austrian friend saw it translated literally in a New Yorker article as “It’s all sausage to me,” she was incensed at the implication that Austrians spoke in quaint, cute imagery. To the American journalist who wrote the article, this was the point of quoting the literal phrase. But to my friend, a direct translation seemed somehow to infer Austrians were bumpkins. Still, how could any American reporter pass over such colorful language from the politician being interviewed?

II. Yankee Doodle’s Macaroni

Then there’s that other macaroni. The refrain that ends: … stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni. It’s a song we all know, a song taught to six-year-old school-kids. But, how many of those kids, or even their teachers, know what the line means? It’s become simply a nonsense rhyme, although one that’s easy to research.

And when you do, you find that “macaroni” was 18th century English slang for a dandy, a Beau Brummell. And so the original meaning, from a British standpoint mocking the colonists, was that Yankee Doodle stuck a feather in his rough cap and decreed it the height of fashion. But the song was too good for the colonists not to take up. And in winning their rebellion, the macaroni feather became a badge of honor—a finger in the face of the Crown.

Now, we’ve lost all that because macaroni/dandy has slipped so far out of our language. Should we change the lyrics when we sing to something like “… stuck a feather in his cap and called it high style”? Well, someone more skilled than me would have to work on the rhymes and a better equivalent. Still, how would you translate the old phrase into, say, French, if you were doing it today? Archaically? Or would “macaroni” become “haute couture”?

Is it an under- or overstatement that in trying to translate an idiom, you’re as often as not going to find yourself between the devil and the deep blue sea? I mean it really is a fine kettle of fish you’re stirring.

III. So what’s an idiom, really?

The MS Word dictionary on my computer gives the primary definition of “idiom” as “a distinctive and often colorful expression whose meaning cannot be understood from the combined meanings of the individual words.” But secondary definitions are: “the way of using a particular language that comes naturally to its native speakers,” or “the style or expression of a specific individual group,” and/or “the characteristic style of an artist or artistic group.”

So “idiomatic” can cover a wide range—from “conversational usage” to something akin to the black holes of language—expressions that began as bright images but have since imploded into a mute energy; indecipherable passwords shared by initiates. The one commonality, I think, is that idiom is language that taps an internal energy apart from the speaker’s intent or control. Or as G.K. Chesterton put it (at the beginning and near the end of a 1901 essay): “The one stream of poetry which is continually flowing is slang …” And later: “All slang is metaphor and all metaphor is poetry.”

Almost every idiom begins with an image—even though that image often becomes so blurred through usage, similar to the image on a worn coin, that the image is no longer essential to the currency. Translating idiom is tough enough in prose, but it’s that still pulsing wellspring of underlying imagery that can really roil the water if you happen to be translating poetry.

IV: King Harald’s Blue Tooth

In our world everything is accelerated, and the blurring process can happen quickly. Most everyone knows—at least in passing—what “Bluetooth” does. It allows wireless connection of various electronic devices.

As a bit of background, the electronic protocol was negotiated by a consortium of major manufacturers to enable any Bluetooth device to “talk to” any other without regard to different individual software or competitive formats.
But why the name Bluetooth? Because the consortium of competitors named it after the tenth-century Danish King Harald Bluetooth, who “united warring factions.” Even knowing this, who thinks of King Harald when they use a Bluetooth device? Not even the most nerdish among us, I’d guess.

In the nature of things, Bluetooth, like VHS and Beta will, sooner probably than later, pass into the graveyard of old technology. But let’s say that before that happens, one of us became inspired to use Bluetooth in a poem. Maybe a love poem entitled, say, “Electricity”:

… our fingers didn’t need to touch,
when we glanced, our eyelashes were already entangled.
Your whisper was Bluetooth tickling my tongue.

Well, I pulled those lines out of my butt, but say they were better and that something came of the poem, that it got good enough to be anthologized, and some fifty or a hundred years from now someone wanted to translate it into German or Chinese. Let’s say five hundred years from now, long after the minutiae of today’s high tech is as obscure as the highly engineered parts of ancient racing chariots. Think what fun a 26th century translator might have with “Bluetooth.”

Think how impossible it would be for someone in another culture and separated by five hundred years to get it right. In the context of accelerating change, the average educated reader knows more about the minutiae of the Classical world than the seventeenth or eighteenth century, mainly because up until that time our ancestors had longer cultural memories and wrote all this stuff down. If change keeps accelerating, how could someone five hundred years from now hope to research a technology that probably will last less than ten years?

So think how many ways there might be in 2610 to get the Bluetooth whisper wrong. Was Bluetooth a drink? Obviously. Some sort of vodka, no doubt. No, a type of oyster, ergo a late twentieth century euphemism for a forbidden sexual practice.

An intuitive poet-translator might simply finally choose to ignore “Bluetooth” and, taking a cue from the title, emend the line to “your whisper was electricity tickling my tongue.”

In fact, saying that, I’m thinking that “Bluetooth” might make a better title for the poem than “Electricity,” and electricity is better than Bluetooth in the line. But then translators could argue about the title. Is “Bluetooth” a woman’s name, perchance? A disease? Some sort of dental tattoo?

But what if, five hundred years from now, a translator did stumble on not only the definition but the etymology of Bluetooth? And what if that translator decided to utilize the image implicit in Bluetooth: King Harald uniting the warring factions.

Then, we’d have something like: “your whisper was a truce tickling my tongue.” On the one hand, maybe a more interesting, more complex poem—and a better poem? But if so, isn’t the translator mining something that wasn’t really there? Adding an embellishment that wouldn’t have occurred to any twentieth century reader.

But why not, if it adds to the 25th century translation? If it produces a real poem that resonates with 25th century readers, what harm’s done to the long since worm-eaten original poet? To the competitors who coined the word, Bluetooth was, above all, a productive detente. A format that avoided expensive, needless product wars. To its users, Bluetooth, with its strange alliterative name, evokes a sort of magic, an electronic ESP. A glowing tooth of sorts. Cool electricity. But these are the kind of resonances that will be hopelessly lost five hundred years from now. If the hypothetical Bluetooth poem is somehow resurrected in that hypothetical future, other—as yet unimagined—resonances will have to replace them.

V. The Way of All Flesh

Bluetooth is an artificial example. An advertising agency’s inspiration. Natural idioms are richer. Especially when it comes to sex, death or disaster.

A troll of the internet will yield several guesses at the origin of the phrase “bought it”—as in, “He bought the farm.” But all seem to agree it originated among wartime pilots. The first time I heard it was from auto racers. With the connotation that this was the way you “retired” from a dangerous occupation. Similar to the way “he graduated” is used to describe someone fired from a corporation. Or the way old women talk about their friends in the nursing home—“she’s in the finishing school,” where she “talks to her parents.”

On a more ancient level, there’s sarcophagus. Literally, in Greek, “flesh eater.” A word taken into Latin that apparently began as an idiom and that we now use in English without much awareness of its ghoulish image. What funeral director would suggest consigning a loved one to a “flesh eater”? This was something I should have known but didn’t know some twenty years ago when I was translating a Luxorius poem about a sarcophagus. I say “should have known” because Luxorius, a grammarian writing around 525 A.D. would have almost certainly been aware of the Greek etymology.

Rilke, in his 1907 poem “Roman Sarcophagi,” certainly seems aware of the etymology when he says “inside slowly self consuming garments/ a slowly loosened something lay—/ till it was swallowed by the unknown mouths/that never speak…” (Edward Snow’s translationii).

And again in the “Sonnet to Orpheus #10,” first part—about now vacant ancient sarcophagai—“I greet those gaping re-opened mouths/ torn away from any doubts/ who know now, what silence means” (my translation).
But Luxorius puts a somewhat different spin on the image-rich word:

De sarcophago ubi turpia sculpta fuerant
Turpis tot tumulo defixit crimina Balbus,
Post superos spurco Tartara more premens.
Pro facinus! Finita nihil modo vita retraxit!
Luxuriam ad Manes moecha sepulcra gerunt.

Sarcophagus

The notorious Balbus, who furiously chiseled
all the filth he could on his own coffin—
as if he could pump and bugger the underworld
into some kind of submission … If he’d had time
to think, would he be ashamed of himself?

His recent death had no effect
on the continuing flow of that raucous life,
that coffin, like one of his erections
carried in solemn funeral procession
to a pale, insatiable tomb.

Before getting into the flesh-eating coffin in this poem, I should mention (especially to those who read Latin) that my translation is fairly loose and expanded. This approach, I think, befits translating a poet whose work for the most part survived in only one early medieval manuscript with no way to check copyist’s mistakes. And with titles believed added by monks as a way of cataloguing artifacts of a no longer relevant pagan world.

Luxorius is fraught with obscurity—a voice lost for a thousand years until the manuscript containing his poems resurfaced in the 1600s. So any attention is better than the attention he’s gotten. The only real harm a translator can do with a poet like Luxorius is to be boring.

So I stretched out and embellished as the spirit took me. One of the things Luxorius didn’t exactly say was “insatiable tomb.” What he said was moecha sepulcra—“adulteress tomb.” (If in fact that’s even what he said, since “moecha” represents a 19th century scholar’s best guess emendation of an otherwise unknown word.)

What’s interesting though is the way the insatiable flesh eating idiom/image found it’s way into my translation—without my even thinking about what may have prompted Luxorius to portray the same kind of Roman sarcophagus that Rilke characterized as a mouth—as a man eating, desperate housewife. In retrospect, maybe it’s a better translation for my not being conscious of the way the underlying goulish idiom pulses through the poem like a half-remembered nightmare.

VI. Akira Kurosowa’s Idiomatic Dream

Flaubert, in an 1853 letter to Louise Colet, writes:

What seems to me the highest and most difficult achievement of art, is not to make us laugh or cry, nor to arouse our lust or rage, but to do what nature does—to set us dreaming … iii

In his 1990 film, Dreams, Akira Kurosowa explores this aesthetic. The film is a sequence of eight dreams presented in what’s been characterized as “magical realist” mode. It’s a highly personal work in that each episode is purported to depict an actual dream of the director, who turned 80 in the year the film was released.

The first episode is entitled “Sunshine Through the Rain” and has at its heart an idiom, “the foxes are getting married” or “the foxes’ wedding.” This is an expression used in Japan and Korea for a sun-shower—rainfall while the sun is shining. And, with some animal variations (monkey, jackal, wolf, rat, bear), it also appears in many Asian, African and European languages. But the image is as hermetic as it is universal. An idiom that seems to exist at a core of language so deep and ancient that no matter how deeply we reach, it no longer makes decipherable sense—an artifact, ur-idiom.

It’s not hard to imagine the expression coming from a time before written language. From a time when, possibly, our ancestors imagined magical animals who were guardians of the sun-shower, the way ancient demigods were said to guard sacred groves and streams.

Or, not so much a name for the sun-shower phenomenon, as an arcane description of the imagined dynamic, an image in itself as mysterious as sun-showers. Or an ejaculation uttered almost like a protective charm in response to a magical occurrence. The “foxes’ wedding” could be any or all of these things.

Kurosawa’s “Sunshine Through the Rain” is an enigmatic journey into that ancient image. His dream-episode is as short, haunting, and ephemeral as a sun-shower. Adjectives that might also apply to lyric poetry, a territory into which Kurosawa’s episode implicitly enters.

The “dream” begins with a boy of around six running into the courtyard of a large but traditional Japanese home on a sunny morning. The time might be today or hundreds of years ago. He’s dressed in a traditional Japanese robe, but because of his age and knowing this is a dream, the robe “feels” more like pajamas.

Then suddenly it’s raining, and the boy stands under a lintel sheltered from the rain falling both in front of where he wants to go and behind him in the open courtyard.

Responding to the sudden shower a woman runs out of the house holding a yellow umbrella, gathering cushions and pulling them inside. Then the woman, presumably his mother, tells the boy. “You’re not going outside today. The sun is shining, but it’s raining. Foxes hold their wedding processions in this weather. And they don’t like anyone to see them. If you do, they’ll be very angry.”

Of course, as in any worthwhile fairy tale, he disobeys. After peering inside to make sure his mother is no longer watching, the boy sets out through the sun-shower into a primeval redwood forest where ferns reach as high as his shoulders. The sky through the tall old trees is blue, but the rain keeps falling. Strangely (or is it just the off quality of the pirated YouTube clip I’m watching), his robe-pajamas seem to stay dry.

The little boy wanders aimlessly, almost as if he’s sniffing his way, looking this direction and that. Until, in a gap between the Tolkienesque trees, he sees a blue glowing mist, a ground hugging cloud that radiates gold sunlight on the forest floor. And from this cloud: at first slow, solemn Japanese music. Then, little by little, the quiet, measured wedding procession of the foxes. They walk in studied steps as if engaged in some deep, bittersweet ritual. Their unhurried feet guided by light syncopated drum taps. Every few steps, their knees slightly bend, half-genuflecting. The male foxes are dressed in blue coats and trousers. The vixens in traditional gowns. They’re all masked, as if they were Noh players, their faces wooden, unreadable.

From time to time, the eerie procession stops, as if startled and the Noh-foxes turn their heads in unison, from side to side, testing the air. The little boy hides behind a large trunked tree. The third time the creatures stop like this, they spot him and he runs.

And then, in the dream, the boy is running up to his grand house, his sandals flopping through puddles drying in the sun, the rain finally stopped. His mother meets him sternly in front of the front gate. “You went and saw something you shouldn’t have. I can’t let you in now. An angry fox came looking for you. He left this …” From her sleeve, she hands him a short scabbard, which the child opens to find a tanto sword, the traditional weapon of ritual suicide.

In Samurai culture, compulsory suicide was a traditional form of capital punishment—the tanto knife presented like a gun with one bullet in the chamber. A chance for an honorable death, otherwise …

So the knife is serious, akin to showing the child the electric chair. The boy, with his curious and rash exploration of the buried image beneath the idiom, has stumbled into a sacrilege as unforgiveable as eating the cattle of the sun, or blinding Poseidon’s one-eyed son. Only this is a shaken six-year-old, not wily Odysseus and his battle wizened cohort.

“You’re supposed to kill yourself.” His mother’s face is stern, but her voice holds out a slim ray of hope. “Go quickly and ask their forgiveness. Give the knife back and tell them how sorry you are.”

But then, turning away: “They don’t usually forgive. You must be ready to die.” She closes one side of the gate, then moves to the other. “Get going. Unless they forgive you, I can’t let you in.” She begins to close the other gate.

But I don’t know where they live,” the shunned and alone little boy desperately begs. Just as she’s closing the gate, his mother tells him, “You’ll find out. On days like this, there are always rainbows. Foxes live under the rainbows.” Then she slams the door to their home in his face.

If we accept this episode—as Kurosawa asks us to—as his own dream, did he dream this as a six-year-old, or as an old man? Because for me, what makes the dream so painfully personal—not just a filmmaker’s fantasy—is the tanto knife and the admonition to suicide.

Kurosowa did, after all, undergo a deep depression at the age of 60, and attempted suicide, slashing himself almost fatally, some 30 times, with a razor. So, is this a dream of childhood foretelling, or of late life healing? And why was it triggered by the hermetic idiom of the foxes’ wedding?

But really, if this is an old man’s healing dream, could it be the miraculous but tentative sun-shower itself, reaching into itself for a metaphor worthy of Kurosawa’s art? And with Kurosawa the artist, the sacred animal metaphor at the heart of the indecipherable idiom gives a quiet voice to scarred personal depths.

As the director-poet’s dream continues, the condemned boy stands forlorn in front of a home that’s suddenly expelled him. He explores an also locked side door, holds the grim knife and broods. Then sets off shuffling with the uncertain steps of a helpless child preparing himself to die.

But then, dreaming on, we see the little boy walking in the sun through a meadow of wildflowers as tall as the ferns in the fox-forest, the horrid knife still held in both hands, but no longer shuffling. His step is quizzical now, wandering, but there’s the slightest trace of jauntiness, of “what the hell” as he walks through the multi-colored meadow toward a blue misty gap in the hills and the edge of a barely discernable rainbow.

In the dream, a six-year-old who’s trespassed on an arcane magical rite walks toward a rainbow razor’s edge that will bring either death or absolution. But stepping back from the dream to the dreaming Kurosawa: does the 80-year-old necromancer of light and shadow also sense he’s moving somewhere? Towards death of course, but maybe beyond, towards the cusp of reincarnation and yet another childhood? As with so much mythical marriage, is the sly sun and rain showered wedding of the foxes just a prelude to birth?

With this unresolved scene, Kurosawa’s dream enigmatically ends on a mood that Flaubert, later in that same letter to his lover and muse Louise, describes better than I can:

Through small apertures, we glimpse abysses whose somber depths turn us faint. And yet, over the whole there hovers an extraordinary tenderness. It is like the brilliance of light, the smile of the sun, and it is calm, calm and strong.iii

Flaubert was talking about the experience of writing and communing with language at a level few ever attain, but it helps to be reminded that language and imagery not only live in us—but that we exist in an imaged language older than any human memory. And that its vagaries and strange twists can be as inscrutable, haunting and fertile as dreams.

Notes:

i Castro, Michael. Big Bridge: www.bigbridge.org/BB14/MCASTRO.htm
ii Rilke, Rainer Maria, tr. by Edward Snow. New Poems, 1907 (North Point Press, 1990).
iii Flaubert, Gustave, tr. by Francis Steegmuller. The Letters of Gustave Flaubert 1830-1857 (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1979).

—from Rattle e.9, Fall 2010 (PDF)

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Art Beck was a regular contributor to Rattle e-issues with a continuing series of essays on translating poetry. He has published several collections of poetry and poetry translations, most recently Luxorius, Opera Omnia or a Duet for Sitar and Trombone, published by Otis College, Seismicity Editions. His poetry and essays have appeared in a wide range of literary journals including Alaska Quarterly, Artful Dodge, OR, Sequoia, Translation Review and in anthologies such as Heyday Books’ California Poetry from the Gold Rush to the Present and Painted Bride Quarterly’s 20 year retrospective.