Saturday, January 12, 2013

"the past"

hello friends-

in response to a recent conversation, one of you followed up with a recommendation of three semi-obscure poems that you remembered from a college literature course taken several decades back in what is commonly known as “the past.”  understandably, you no longer had the textbook but thankfully did remember the authors’ names and and the titles of the three particular poems (except in the case of yuan chen- you were ever so slightly off on that one- unless of course I was only able to locate a different translation, in which case who knows how relevant the poem still is or was to our exchange.  after all, translations can vary wildly).  after a considerable amount of digging, sleuthing, and hacking, I was able to access them, or at least versions of them.  it took quite a bit of time and concentration, so I figured why not share the results of my search with a few others?  these particular poems may have absolutely no relevance to your life right now or they may be written in a style that you are not a huge fan of.  if so, feel free to merely skim or even ignore them altogether.  poetry can be a very delicate and personal matter.  what slips thru and cracks open one person’s soul will simply knock with a dull thud on another’s and tumble lifelessly to the ground.  and vice versa.  and yet we continue to share our enthusiasms and make recommendations.  if it wasn’t for the good old internet we’d all probably be in the madhouse by now.


Dream at Chiang-ling   by Yuan Chen (779-831)

When one dreams of another,
Are both aware of it?
We’re as apart as darkness is from light,
And yet something exists only for you-
Nothingness can be gained via dreams,
But without them how would I see you?
Tonight and how many nights
Have they chanced us a meeting!
Shadowy, the clothes you wore before,
Dimmed, but still your former visage;
You never mention what keeps us apart,
You only say you have to go.
Your sewing’s still strewn about,
The curtains yet are folded;
You often ask after the child,
Countless the tears you’ve shed.

You said: “Yuan, we have only this daughter,
And sighed to have no son;
I remember her then, so naughty and cute,
I can’t bear to think of her hungry or cold!
You showed no interest in the family,
You took a post, left things behind!
No need to mention again the bonds of official duties-
That’s all perfectly clear.
How could you have paid heed to private affairs?
Others have caused us to be alienated;
We were often deceived by our servants-
So long as you’re around there’ll be someone to trust,
But if you should leave, who’s to care for the child?”

Thus her speech ended; tears choked her throat.
I, too, wept like a fountain.

Grieved and startled; I am suddenly awake,
Sitting or sleeping it’s as if I were mad;
The shadow of the moon has blackened half the bed,
The sounds of insects drift across the gloom of the grass;
My senses come back to me slowly-
Though awakened, I am still distraught;
Alone as I picture your face
And conjure the sound of your voice,
Tears come and never seem to end!
Life’s most severe parting of ways is already ours-
How could a single dream bring so many sorrows?
Sorrow for our daughter you spoiled,
Whom I’ve left behind, unable to follow me here;
Ch’ang-an is more distant than the sun-
Mountains, rivers, and clouds separate us!
Even if I could sprout wings,
The net of worldly affairs binds me hand and foot!
Tonight my tears run heavily,
Half for the partings I’ve endured in life,
Half for all the many other meetings that never occurred.
They stir me toward your soul down there,
They move my thoughts nearer the stream:
I can’t even cross a single river,
And the Styx- well, it has no shores!
This longing: how can it end?
This dream: how to pursue it?
I sit here watching the sky about to light,
The river wind humming in the trees.

(translated from the Chinese by William H. Nienhauser)


The Ongoing Story     (by John Ashbery, b. 1927)

I could say it’s the happiest period of my life.
It hasn’t got much competition!  Yesterday
It seemed a flatness, hotness.  As though it barely stood out
From the rocks of all the years before.  Today it sheds
That old name, without assuming any new one.
I think it’s still there.

It was as though I’d been left with the empty street
A few seconds after the bus pulled out.  A dollop of afternoon wind.
Others tell you to take your attention off it
For awhile, refocus the picture.  Plan to entertain,
To get out.  (Do people really talk that way?)

We could pretend that all that isn’t there never existed anyway.
The great ideas?  What good are they if they’re misplaced,
In the wrong order, if you can’t remember one
At the moment you’re so to speak mounting the guillotine
Like Sydney Carton, and can’t think of anything to say?
Or is this precisely material covered in a course
Called Background of the Great Ideas, and therefore
It isn’t necessary to say anything or even know anything?
The breath of the moment is breathed,
we fall and still feel better.  The phone rings.

It’s a wrong number, and your heart is lighter,
Not having to be faced with the same boring choices again
Which doesn’t undermine a feeling for people in general and
Especially in particular: you,
In your deliberate distinctness, whom I love and gladly
Agree to walk blindly into the night with,
Your realness is real to me though I would never take any of it
Just to see how it grows.  A knowledge that people live
close by is, I think, enough.  And even if only first names
Are ever exchanged the people who “own” them
seem rock-true and marvelously self-sufficient.


The Individual’s Soliloquy       by Nicanor Parra  (b. 1914)

I’m the individual.
First I lived by a rock
(I scratched some figures on it)
Then I looked for some place more suitable.
I’m the individual.
First I has to get myself food,
Hunt for fish, birds, hunt up wood
(I’d take care of the rest later)
Make a fire,
Wood, wood, where could I find any wood,
Some wood to start a little fire,
I’m the individual.
At the time I was asking myself,
Went to a canyon filled with air;
A voice answered me back:
I’m the individual.
So then I started moving to another rock,
I also scratched figures there,
Scratched out a river, buffaloes,
I’m the individual.
But I got bored with what I was doing,
Fire annoyed me,
I wanted to see more,
I’m the individual.
Went down to a valley watered by a river,
There I found what I was looking for,
A bunch of savages,
A tribe,
I’m the individual.
I saw they made certain things,
Scratching figures on the rocks,
Making fire, also making fire!
I’m the individual.
They asked me where I came from.
I answered yes, that I had no definite plans,
I answered no, that from here on out.
I then took a stone I found in the river
And began working on it,
Polishing it up,
I made it a part of my life.
But it’s a long story.
I chopped some trees to sail on
Looking for fish,
Looking for lots of things,
(I’m the individual.)
Till I began getting bored again.
Storms get boring,
Thunder, lightning,
I’m the individual.
I began thinking a little bit,
Stupid questions came into my head,
So then I began wandering through forests,
I came to a tree, then another tree,
I came to a spring,
A hole with a couple of rats in it;
So here I come, I said,
Anybody seen a tribe around here,
Savage people who make fire?
That’s how I moved on westward,
Accompanied by others,
Or rather alone,
Believing is seeing, they told me,
I’m the individual.
I saw shapes in the darkness,
Clouds maybe,
Maybe I saw clouds, or sheet lightning,
Meanwhile several days had gone by,
I felt as if I were dying;
Invented some machines,
Constructed clocks,
Weapons, vehicles,
I’m the individual.
Hardly had time to bury my dead,
Hardly had time to sow,
I’m the individual.
Years later I conceived a few things,
A few forms,
Crossed frontiers,
And got stuck in a kind of niche,
In a bark that sailed forty days,
forty nights,
I’m the individual.
Then came the droughts,
Then came the wars,
Colored guys entered the valley,
But  had to keep going,
Had to produce.
Produced science, immutable truths,
Produced Tanagras,
Hatched up thousand-page books.
My face got swollen,
Invented a phonograph,
The sewing machine,
The first automobiles began to appear,
I’m the individual.
Someone set up planets,
Trees got set up!
But I set up hardware,
Furniture, stationery,
I’m the individual.
Cities also got built,
Religious institutions went out of fashion,
They looked for joy, they looked for happiness,
I’m the individual.
Afterward I devoted myself to travel,
Practicing, practicing languages
I’m the individual.
I looked into a keyhole,
Sure, I looked, what am I saying, looked,
To get rid of all doubt looked,
Behind the curtains,
I’m the individual.
Perhaps I better go back to that valley,
To that rock that was home,
And start scratching all over again,
Scratching out everything backward,
The world in reverse.      But it wouldn’t make sense.

(translated from the Spanish by Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti)