February 17, 2022

Tribute to Librarians

Conversation with
Janice N. Harrington

The Spring 2022 issue of Rattle featured a Tribute to Librarians. Librarians work on the front lines of literature and are often the last bulwark against censorship, as we discuss with former librarian Janice N. Harrington in the conversation section. The theme includes 16 poems by librarians and their always-interesting contributor notes. The open section features 22 poets exploring the mysteries of life, both large and small.



Audio Available Kathleen Balma Salmon Shreds in Gravy
Norma Bernstock What I Remember About That Dress
Audio Available Tony Burfield Field Glasses
Audio Available Janice N. Harrington Connecting Flights
Audio Available Becca J.R. Lachman Both Goal and Medicine
Audio Available T.J. McGuire The Mozart Effect
Audio Available Jackie McManus Dock Grade Road
Audio Available Elizabeth McMunn-Tetangco Leaf Cutter
Audio Available Jessy Randall Sylvia Plath’s Handwriting
Audio Available Stewart Shaw My Breath Is Recycled
Audio Available Catherine St. Denis Lucky Ones 
Audio Available Betsy Fogelman Tighe Alphabets Are Like Cows in Sunlight
Audio Available Asa West Offering
Audio Available E.A. Wilberton Visiting My Mother’s Wars
Audio Available Martin Willitts Jr. The Librarian and the Sullen Blank Paper
Elizabeth S. Wolf When the Phone Rings

Open Poetry

Olabimpe Adedamola Back to the Beginning Which Is to Say …
Audio Available Porsha Allen A Prayer
Audio Available Jessica Barlevi Unborn
Audio Available Sara Beck On a Square on a Screen
Audio Available Alexandra Bessette Day 274
Audio Available Mike Bove To My Son on September 15th
Audio Available Tara Bray Memoir
Audio Available Christine Degenaars Swimmers in the Caribbean
Audio Available Raquel Franco An Alternate Universe Where Safety Is …
Audio Available Oli Isaac Hyacinth in Heaven Wondering Why …
Audio Available Jill Kandel How Much Do You Weigh?
Audio Available David Kirby Mass Shootings: A Biography
Audio Available Gary Lark Lenny’s Day
Audio Available Campbell McGrath The Fire
Jeff McRae Kurt Vonnegut Stepped Off the Plane
Audio Available Linda Michel-Cassidy Buoyant
Brian Morrison Lighting the Rocket
Audio Available Jim Peterson The Light
Cati Porter In the Checkout Line at Rite Aid,
e.a. toles What Does Black Taste Like
E.D. Watson Father, Daughter, Hungry Ghost
Tiffany Wu Regulation


Janice N. Harrington (web)

Cover Art

Sherry Shahan (web)

April 17, 2018

Notable News from Past Contributors to Rattle

Note: click the issue # links to find some of their poems!


Art Beck (The Impertinent Duet) has published his translation of Martial, Mea Roma. Starting with a “dissenting” translation of Martial’s Book of the Spectacles, Back translates 130 poems “strictly from a literary standpoint.” (October 17, 2018)

Chaun Ballard (issue #60, PR) won the Sunken Garden Poetry Prize from Tupelo Press for Flight. Judge Major Jackson described it as “… songs that celebrate the miracle of endurance in a country defined by the peculiar phenomenon of race.” (July 19, 2018)

Rodrigo Dela Pena, Jr. (Ekphrastic Challenge) just published on his first book, Aria and Trumpet Flourish! Frequent Rattle contributor Luisa A. Igloria blurbed that “these poems sings always out of a sense of urgency underwritten by love.” (July 13, 2018)

Donna Hilbert (issue #57) just published on her New & Selected book, Gravity, with Tebot Bach! “Donna Hilbert’s poems are brave, unsparing and heartfelt revealing a woman’s life in a way that is universal,” says Joan Colby. (June 28, 2018)

Martin Ott (issue #20) just published his eighth book, Lessons In Camouflage, which “spans his turmoil as a U.S. Army interrogator to conflicts personal in nature …” (June 24, 2018)

Chera Hammons the 2017 PEN Southwest Book Award for poetry! Two of the poems in her book, The Traveler’s Guide to Bomb City, appeared in Rattle: “Sparrows” and “Tornado Alley” (June 15, 2018)

Lynne Knight has a new book, The Language of Forgetting! Lynne has appeared in seven issues of Rattle and #PoetsRespond, and was winner of the 2009 Rattle Poetry Prize. Order the book from @Sixteen_Rivers Press! (April 27, 2018)

Timothy Liu (issues #43, #47, Poets Respond) has a New & Selected book, Luminous Debris, just out from Barrow Street. “Timothy Liu is a poet faithful to forms of unruliness,” says Roberto Tejada. (April 27, 2018)

Luisa A. Igloria (issue #24, 27, 59 & Poets Respond) has a new book, “The Buddha Wonders if She is Having a Mid-life Crisis from Phoenicia Publishing. “Poem after poem reveals the Buddha.” (April 17, 2018)

John Gosslee (issues #39 and 56) has a new book, Fish Boy, where “he turns to face the raw nerve of grief with guts and grit.”

George Bilgere (issues #51, 57, and more) has a new book, Blood Pages. “The poems in Blood Pages take the bland surfaces of our daily lives and beat the daylights out of them.” (April 17, 2018)

• Big congrats to Malachi Jones (RYPA 2017) on winning a $10,000 scholarship through the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards! (April 17, 2018)

Lowell Jaeger (issues #26, 37, 59) has a new book, Earth-Blood & Star-Shine: “… poetry turns every-day life into a meditation on what it means to be human.” (April 17, 2018)

Yakov Azriel (issue #59) also has a new book, Closet Sonnets: The Life of G. S. Crown (1950–2021), which “turns life as a closeted gay male into an aesthetic form …” (April 17, 2018)

• Finally, congrats to Michael P. McManus (issue #24 and more) on his new book, The Buddha Knot, a book about love, death, and “the slow erosion of all we cannot keep.” (April 17, 2018)

October 6, 2016

Art Beck


this speechlessness, as if it weren’t enough
for me to keep quiet, as if I’ve been assigned
nasty keepers—a persecutor
who strolls into my cell
four or five times a day
to remind me in his memorized English—
“No talk. No words. No speaking
allowed.” But as he leaves the cell-block, the steel

doors ringing in the air, the guards’ fear
lingers like cologne as if they know
the simplest language can destroy these walls.
Know, even if they were to tear out
my tongue, shatter my cellmates’ ears,
our fingertips dancing in code
would recite the story of the resurrection
and the life. It’s the inexplicable
illusion of solitude that keeps me silent.

from Rattle #15, Summer 2001
Tribute to the Underground Press

Rattle Logo

August 1, 2016

Zeina Hashem Beck

« 2016 Rattle Chapbook Prize Winner »


3arabi Song by Zeina Hashem Beck3arabi Song is a song of sorrow and joy, death and dance. Yes there is unrest, war, and displacement in countries like Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, and Egypt. But there is also survival, music, and love. Iconic Arab singers like Umm Kulthum, Fairuz, and Abdel Halim Hafez, inhabit these poems—they mourn and celebrate. So do children, parents, refugees, and lovers. These poems want to hum you stories that straddle the personal and the political, in an English riddled with Arabic words. The voices in them want to mourn for loved ones and broken homelands, but they also want to sing, as Asmahan does, “inta inta imta—you you when / will you know I love you.”


Praise for 3arabi Song

Rarely does poetry seem to matter more than while reading the work of Zeina Hashem Beck—a poet of immense talent and passion who is clearly at the beginning of a long and important literary career. 3arabi Song is a book of displacement and connection, of gravity and grace, and the human music that binds us all together. It’s a tribute to the Arab world and Arab singers, to refugees and refusal, to hope and home, to sorrow and song. Like no other collection we’ve read, these poems feel absolutely necessary. This little book will break your heart and then mend it.
Rattle Editors

“Give me your pain and I will break it into quarter notes.” From the beginning, 3arabi Song opens the broken world and finds the shards beneath shimmering with beauty and hope. These poems ache with the music of reverie, balm for a torn country where grief and loss are as common as prayer. War, ritual, songs on the radio, lovers, friends and family all echo in this haunting collection, the poems calling us to return over and over, to endure, like the mother who urges, “‘Don’t be afraid, just sing it,’ …/ ‘Sabbouha means Sabah means morning,’/ she said. Not mourning with a ‘u.’ Yes, that thing that shines.”
—Dorianne Laux

These poems are brilliantly balanced between languages, between nostalgia and news, between Self and Other. I could read them over and over like, well, playing a favourite Fairouz record, but here the words are the music and the words recreate a world I love, savour and mourn.
—Marilyn Hacker

Sample Poems

•“This Country: Ghazal for Abdel Halim Hafez” in Rattle online
•“Pantoum for Sabbouha” in Rattle online
•“Ya’aburnee” in Rattle’s Poets Respond
•“Ghazal: Back Home” in Rattle’s Poets Respond
•“Adhan” in 32 Poems
•“3arabi Song” performed live with the Fayha Choir in Lebanon, live on YouTube:

About the Author

Zeina Hashem BeckZeina Hashem Beck is a Lebanese poet. Her first collection, To Live in Autumn, won the 2013 Backwaters Prize. She’s also the author of the chapbook There Was and How Much There Was, a smith|doorstop Laureate’s Choice, selected by Carol Ann Duffy. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and the Forward Prize, and has appeared in Ploughshares, Poetry Northwest, and The Rialto, among others. She lives with her husband and two daughters in Dubai, where she has founded and runs PUNCH, a poetry and open mic collective. Zeina is a strong performer of her poetry, and has participated in literary festivals in the Middle East, the United Kingdom, and the United States. (website)



Cover art by Yazan Halwani
“Arabic Musicalligraphy,” ink on paper, A4

ISBN: 978-1-931307-30-7
Cover price: $6.00
Chapbook: 40 pages
Size: 6″ x 9″


August 31, 2014

Rare & Retired Content

Rattle has been in continuous publication since 1995, and over the years we’ve experimented with a large number of side projects. For several years, for example, we were publishing a new poetry book review online every fifth day—you’ll find hundreds of those reviews on our e-Reviews page. Before we shifted to quarterly production, we published a series of e-Issues in the spring and fall, with original content and previews of the forthcoming issue—you’ll find those, below, as well, along with many other odds and ends. Some of them, like the book interviews and Poets in Prose essays, may return from time to time. Others, like Critique of the Week and the Ekphrastic Challenge, are ongoing. But they’re all archived here for you to enjoy!



Audio Archive 1,000+ mp3s (now indexed on issue pages)
Book Interviews Poets discuss their recent books
Contributor News Regularly updated updates from Rattle contributors
Conversations Anthology 14 of the best Rattle conversations
Critique of the Week A live video workshop
E-Issues 12 free PDF downloads
Ekphrastic Challenge Monthly Art-Inspired Poetry
E-Reviews 8 years of book reviews by our readers
Eye Contact A look at visual poetry with Dan Waber
Impertinent Duet Translating poetry with Art Beck
MicroReviews Brief reviews that lasted briefly
Poets in Prose Essays by poets on any topic
Workshop Program Free copies for free classes

March 27, 2013

Art Beck



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.


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.


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)


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.

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April 15, 2013

Review by Art BeckThe Changing Room by Zhai Yongming

by Zhai Yongming
tr. by Andrea Lingenfelter

The Chinese University Press of Hong Kong
& Zephyr Press
50 Kenwood St
Brookline, MA 02446
ISBN 978-0-9815521-3-2
2012, 163 pp., $15.00

… You can kill without meaning to make it a habit
Swallow poison without thinking of death
Fall in love and never wonder what the year might bring
—Zhai Yongming from “Things Are Always Like That,” tr. by Andrea Lingenfelter

There are two ways to read translated literature. One is in the context of the source culture: What does/did the work say to its original readers? What is/was its historic dynamic?  But there’s a second focus: What does the work say when transmuted into a new language and culture? Consider, for example, Oedipus Rex. For Sophocles and the ancient Greeks, Oedipus is one man trapped in a unique situation; for Freud, he’s become everyman. Or perhaps, more pertinent to the material at hand, there’s the I-Ching as resurrected by Richard Wilhelm and Carl Jung from ancient arcane cosmology and divination, into an intuitive touchstone for exploring the modern unconscious.  It’s a truism that culture mutates into multi-culture as it travels.

In the case of The Changing Room, Zhai Yongming’s poems, while referentially intensely Chinese, seem also immediately cosmopolitan. Some of this is, no doubt, due to Lingenfelter’s elegant translation which won last year’s Northern California Book Award for poetry in translation. The bilingual publication partnership between the venerable New England, Zephyr Press (which specializes in translated poetry) and the Chinese University of  Hong Kong, also imparts the expectation of an international audience.  The volume is, in fact, a short “selected poems” marketed to both Chinese and U.S. readers.  So perhaps it’s worthwhile to look at the poems in The Changing Room  from both  Chinese and translated perspectives.


A Chinese Introduction

Zhai Yongming was born in 1955. As the introduction by the expatriate Chinese writer and poet Wang Ping enumerates, she’s endured the difficulties of being “a Chinese woman poet who has survived drastically different eras in Chinese modern history; the Cultural Revolution, ‘educated youth in the countryside, Post Cultural Revolution … New York City Diaspora, and China’s current economic reform and boom. Zhai Yongming has lived through all these historical eras, and her poetry vibrates with an energy born out of the tumult.”

Zhai is a few years younger than most of the poets of the “Misty School.” This is  a movement originally pejoratively named due to its perceived self-absorption and hermeticism. A departure from the socialist realism that had officially dominated Chinese poetry since Mao, and persisted even into Post Cultural Revolution reformist “scar literature.” The name stuck as a compliment, while many of the “Misty”  poets, including the exiled Bei Dao and the exophone, Ha Jin, made their mark as expatriates. Unlike her somewhat older Misty siblings, Zhai Yongming’s reputation flowered primarily domestically.

But perhaps “flowered” is too mild a word. In a 2004 article on American and Chinese Confessional Poetry in the Canadian Review of Contemporary Literature, Jeanne Hong Zhang recounts how random translations of Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath by Chinese poets began appearing in both “official”  and “semi-official” student or informally circulated journals in the early ’80s. The fractured psyches and wounded imagery of the American Confessionals seemed to strike a fertile, timely chord when transmuted into Post-Mao era Chinese. That influence seemed to coalesce when, as Zhang notes,  Zhai Yongming’s 1986 poem sequence, Woman, received an “overwhelming nationwide response” spearheading a feminist/confessional poetry movement characterized by Zhang as “the Plath Tornado,”  and by Zhai as a “ Black Whirlwind.”

The Confessionals influenced both men and women Chinese poets, but Zhai staked a (for China at the time) novel feminist claim and still often evokes the sobriquet of China’s “foremost feminist poet.”  She is also a noted essayist, has travelled widely and was recently honored with a regional Italian literary festival prize. Along the way, the Chengdu cafe’ she started in 1998, has evolved into a trendy gathering place for the arts.

In the early ’90s,  Zhai spent some time in New York accompanying her artist husband. An attempt by Wang Ping to have her poetry translated by Anne Waldman proved frustrating. According to Wang Ping, who got to know her well during that period, Zhai struggled with English, had a hard time fitting in, and eventually returned to China, where she “split up” with her husband and opened a bar, the White Nights Cafe in Chengdu.  At the time, Wang “wondered if (Zhai) had ‘plunged into the sea,’ a euphemism for those who abandoned their previous profession to become business people, a tsunami that had swept the whole of China.”

But Wang was sure Zhai would continue to write and her faith was confirmed when in 2006 she found Zhai’s poem “Child Prostitute” in a Chinese journal forwarded to her by Bei Dao:

I read it, again and again as tears streaked down my face … a devastating poem about a little girl kidnapped … The voice definitely belonged to Zhai Yongming—dark, hauntingly beautiful, but it was also the voice of a lioness that had come out of her maze and was now roaring with indignation and grace …


The Translator’s Preface

For Wang, the early Zhai seemed most influenced by the “Misty” poets, and their “dark, heavy, collage—like imagery that reflected the influence of French Imagism. But what made Zhai’s poetry really stand out was the complex maze of her interior world—a world filled with darkness, water, moon, mystery, courage and a will to live …”

But Lingenfelter, the volume’s translator, is also aware of the above-mentioned American Confessional poetry influence. Lingenfelter notes that beyond being grouped with the “Misty” poets and the successor “Newborn Generation,”  Zhai Yongming has been categorized as a “stream of consciousness” poet: “Like others of this group she drew inspiration from the American confessional poets … Plath’s early influence is palpable, particularly in the groundbreaking 20-poem sequence Woman, in which Zhai forcefully articulates women’s subjective physical and social experiences …”

For the reader of Zhang in English translation, I think this is, indeed, a useful frame of reference.  Perhaps not so much for similarity, as for richness of contrast. The first poem in the selection is “Premonition,” from her Woman sequence. It begins:

A woman dressed in black arrives in the dead of night
Just one secretive glance leaves me spent
I realize with a start: this is the season when all fish die
And every road is criss-crossed with traces of birds in flight

A corpse like chain of mountain ranges dragged off by the darkness
The heartbeats of nearby thickets barely audible
Enormous birds peer down at me from the sky
With human eyes
In a barbarous atmosphere that keeps its secrets
Winter lets its brutally male consciousness rise and fall

I’ve always been uncommonly serene
Like the blind, I see night’s darkness in the light of day …

And ends:

Fresh moss in their mouths, the meanings they sought
Folded their smiles back into their breasts in tacit understanding
The night seems to shudder like a cough
Stuck in the throat, I’ve already quit this dead end hole.

For me,  the funereal feminist imagery of “Premonition” seems eerily reminiscent, not so much of Plath, but of a short poem by Anne Sexton, “The Moss of His Skin,” which opens with the epigraph: “young girls in old Arabia were often buried alive next to their dead fathers, apparently as sacrifice to the goddesses of the tribes …”  The Sexton poem contains lines that resonate with Zhai’s: “… the black room took us/ like a cave or mouth/ or an indoor belly/ I held my breath/ and daddy was there … I lay by the moss/ of his skin until/ it grew strange …”


Two Kinds of Dark Sides

Zhai’s long sequence “Fourteen Plainsongs for my Mother,” which looks back from the age of 40 to her conception, birth, adolescence and genetic heritage might similarly be a compatible anthology companion to Sexton’s “The Division of Parts,” set not long after her mother’s death. Although Sexton’s poem delineates various inherited items, including jewelry, clothes and a fur coat,  her real inheritance is the morbid pull of death: “Mother, last night I slept in your Bonwit Teller nightgown …” Years later, in real, not poetic, life she dressed in her mother’s fur coat to gas herself.

And perhaps, for English speaking readers, this points up a useful contrast between Zhai and the Confessionals, so many of whom were consumed by their own darkness.  In Zhai’s “Plainsongs,”  her young mother visits her in the night, not as solace but as insomnia, and death is inseparable from ancestry:

Head bowed, I listen deep underground
bones are talking with other bones
glittering eyes dart around
like the spirits of the soil
listening to daylight
from any dark place
a rooster pecking at grain        as if it were alone

Zhai’s sense of darkness is undeniable. But unlike the dark chasm that ultimately swallowed up poets like Plath, Sexton, Berryman, and so many of their generation, Zhai’s shadow seems to project a generative energy. Wang’s preface refers to “yin” forces in Zhai’s poetry—“feminine, moon, water.” And Lingenfelter quotes from an essay in which Zhai herself references:

An individual and universal inner consciousness—I call this Black Night Consciousness … female consciousness, beliefs and feelings … As one half of humanity, from the moment of her birth, a female faces a completely different world. Her first glimpse of this world is of course colored by her individual spirit and sensibility, and possibly even by a psychology of private resistance.

On surface, a feminist statement that many Western readers can easily relate to. But, if you turn her words over a bit, there’s a difference. This seems an organic femaleness, not just social feminism. It’s not the organization of society, but the dynamics of nature that evoke her “private resistance”. Being a Westerner my concept of yin/yang is  probably more Jungian I-Ching than Chinese, and for me Zhai’s “psychology of private resistance” evokes Jung’s “individuation”.  A wholeness with nature that can only be attained within one’s unique self.

The Confessionals were plagued by the depression side of the manic-depressive coin.  But what Wang Ping characterizes as Zhai’s “will to live” seems to imply an elemental yin aspect in her “darkness.”  Wang, in fact, ends her preface by saying about Zhai’s development: “Her journey from interior to exterior, from self to world, from yin to yang, had finally come full circle.”  And of course, Zhai, whose adolescence coincided with the Cultural Revolution and rural “re-education,”  had to forge and protect her “interior world” in circumstances far different than those of Lowell, Sexton, and Plath’s formative years. The 14th  and last “Plainsong for my Mother” (set in boldface in both Chinese and translation) seems to finally complete the process and mark a readiness to move on to some still unattained but necessary somewhere:

So when we speak of poetry           we no longer waver:
____it’s like stirring ice cubes
it’s like pairs of cymbals crashing into each other’s faces
Wounded       suffering like glass____
words, fair faces and love at an impasse.


From Yin to Yang

The order of the 40-some poems in Lingenfelter’s selection is roughly chronological, and there’s a sense of slowly moving from interior to exterior. Lingenfelter confirms that Zhai was closely involved in the editorial and selection process, so it’s valid to intuit her voice in this. And as you pass the halfway point, the poems seem increasingly less self-absorbed and more socially and/or societally absorbed—as if the need to protect a sensitivity steadily grows into the ability and need to impart it.

There are sardonic dialogues with lovers—“I’m Drunk and You’re Dry,” “Daylight Slumbers,” “In the End I Come Up Short”—in which the poetic dynamic is as much a certain quizzical detachment as sensual inhabitation. A sensibility that sometimes seems an almost surreal blend of Dorothy Parker and Emily Dickinson as in “I’m Drunk and You’re Dry”:

… suddenly I’m flushing red
but you get bluer all the time
if it isn’t alcohol it must be
a wound
shoring up the strength
your sobriety softly sucks away …

There are poems like “Lightly Injured People, Gravely Wounded City” and “The Language of the ‘50s” in which social commentary is personal and slightly surreal. But others—“Report on a Child Prostitute” and “The Testament of Hu Huishen,” taken directly from local news reports—in which Zhai abandons her naturally intricate aesthetic and speaks wholly within the perspective of child victims.

And in yet other “historical”  poems like “Climbing the Heights on the Double Ninth,”  she revisits recurring themes of Classical Chinese poetry and seamlessly breathes them in, then out in her own present day, consciously female, voice.

… Beyond the North Bank        are beautiful women without number
Every man who climbs these heights               will think of them
Even if in the next thousand years                  mammals
And humans               merge into one …

… Today I raise a cup alone                  while River and mountains change color
The green months of spring depleted me …

… Faraway peaks above and below

Plunge naked into my heart …

Longing is miserable                Being drunk is miserable too
How many sighs in the soughing of the wind Who will answer
my echo?
Wine poured down the throat             flows into the body’s deepest reaches
Problems of desire and mortality
Problems of separation and health
Also change inside the throat              and flow into the body’s deepest reaches
They become nimble                yet meticulous
They’re drunk             and they’re everywhere.

As an oenophile, I’ve often wondered what the “wine” those old Tang poets drank was made of. Probably something closer to sake’?  One thing that makes Zhai “contemporary” is that her White Nights Cafe in Chengdu (named after the Baryshnikov/ Gregory Hines movie) is a wine bar. So we do—probably—know what she’s drinking.


An Exchange of Gifts

Of course, all the lines I’ve quoted above aren’t really Zhai Yongming’s, but the English translations which accompany her poems in Chinese on facing pages.  Like Lowell or Plath speaking Chinese, they’ll strike different chords than they did in their native tongue. This volume may attract its share of bilingual readers, but few of them will be equally at home with both sides of the facing pages. And, unlike European poetry, the difference between alphabets will preclude those with no Chinese from sounding out the Chinese lines. So, the English-speaking reader owes a great deal to Andrea Lingenfelter’s ability to translate poetry into poetry. An act of re-creation that—beyond linguistic knowledge—can demand almost telepathic, intuitive skills and an inborn ear/eye for poetic equivalence.

Other English versions of some of these poems are accessible on the internet. Lingenfelter cites Michael Day’s. And the Poetry International Rotterdam site has a number of translations by Simon Patton along with links to other translators. Various readers may prefer various translations of various poems, but Lingenfelter’s volume provides an added plus in that she worked directly with Zhai. The reader has the benefit, not only of Lingenfelter’s bilingual skills, but of being invited to share a long, ongoing conversation that took place in life as well as on the page. In Lingenfelter’s words: “I could not have completed this project without the gracious help and encouragement of Zhai Yongming herself, who has shown me around Chengdu … taking me to (historic) sites … all the while placing everything we were looking at in a larger context. She has also treated me to many memorably wonderful meals …” Translation is, after all,  a matter of the tongue, and, ultimately, nourishment.


An interview of Zhai Yongming by Andrea Lingenfelter, including several poems from the book, can be read online at Full Tilt.


Art Beck is a San Francisco poet and translator who’s published two translation volumes: Simply to See: Poems of Luxorius (Poltroon Press, Berkeley, 1990) and a selected Rilke (Elysian Press, New York, 1983). Beck’s translation of the complete poems of Luxorius, a Roman poet whose 90 extant poems were literally lost for a thousand years, was recently published by Otis College Seismicity Editions.

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