The Red Heifer

redheifer

I had read about Iván Fischer’s opera The Red Heifer (A Vörös Tehén), often described as biting political commentary, but did not realize until yesterday that there was a beautiful video of the October 2013 world premiere! It was performed in Budapest by the Budapest Festival Orchestra, the Saint Ephraim Male Choir, students of the University of Theatre and Film Arts, and soloists and dancers; conducted by Fischer; and directed by Tamás Ascher and Kriszta Székely. Find an hour to watch it today. It’s in Hungarian (and at one point in Hebrew), but if you do not know these languages, the music will carry you along, and the unobtrusive subtitles will give you the gist.

The Red Heifer accomplishes something rare in art or life: It makes a political statement without reducing anything or anyone. It dives into the difficulty of the matter.

It has the texture of a lyric poem; with taut soul and few images, it takes up a complex historical and contemporary event: the Hungarian blood libel of 1882-1883, also known as the Tiszaeszlár affair, in which Christian townspeople and agitators accused the local Jews of ritually murdering and beheading Eszter Solymosi, a peasant girl (who had gone missing), in order to use her blood for Passover.

Móric Scharf, the teenage son of the synagogue sexton József Scharf, first denied all knowledge of the alleged events but later testified that, while looking through the keyhole of the synagogue, he had seen his own father and others commit the murder. (Many years later, in an interview, he said he had been tortured and threatened before his testimony.) A body with the girl’s clothes was found in the Tisza, with no cuts or evidence of murder–but the mother denied that this was her daughter. Fifteen people were formally accused, and news of the case spread fast and far.

The statesman and lawyer (and former Governor-President) Lajos Kossuth wrote letters of protest, from exile, against the accusations and proceedings; even this did not alter the course of events. Only later, when doctors reexamined the body, did it become clear to all that the girl had died by drowning and that no ritual murder had occurred. On August 3, 1883, all of the accused were acquitted–but the case had inflamed anti-Semitism in the country.  (There’s much more to all of this; I have given a bare summary.)

The opera (whose libretto is drawn from a 1931 novel by Gyula Krúdy) focuses on the boy. What would cause a teenager to accuse his father falsely? What might have been happening inside him, then and afterward? The music and choreography convey the questions and hint at possible answers. The musical idioms and forms–Hungarian and Jewish folklore, opera, fugue, rap, cantillation, and more–express not only cultures but minds. It is not a hodgepodge; as I listen, I find that some of these idioms are part of me, that I, like the characters, walk within many languages. Yet not all of them are home; home requires more than knowledge, more than fluency.

You see Móric (Jonatán Kovács) at the inn, watching the townspeople dance, yearning to be part of things, but moving invisibly in the room, as though not counted or seen. He sees the innkeeper (a Jewish woman, played by Orsolya Sáfár) slipping and sliding drunkenly around, humiliated and still magnificent; you feel him wishing to be included, wishing to be one of the others. But this is not just a matter of a teenager wishing to belong. The crowd and individuals seize and use him.

Móric’s court testimony has stunning musical form; as Alex Ross describes it in The New Yorker, he spits it out “in a terrifying triplet-rhythm rap, with Weill-like chords snapping behind him.” Then he turns to the cheering crowd and makes gestures of egging them on, not realizing that they are the ones controlling him.

Lajos Kossuth (Krisztián Cser) appears later, showing a dignity and a standard absent from the proceedings: something possible in this life, something to grow into. His voice resounds with conscience and experience. You sense that he has suffered.

All of this leads up to the astonishing scene between father and son, after the acquittal and release of the accused. (I will leave it at that; it’s better to watch and hear it for yourself.)

The red heifer itself has several meanings in this work. As Iván Fischer explains in his introduction (at the start of the video), it refers to (a) a cow that stepped on the toes of the girl and thereby provided evidence through which the body could be identified; (b) an inn called The Red Cow, where all the manipulation took place; (c) the innkeeper, who was nicknamed “The Red Cow”; and (d) the red heifer in the Torah (Numbers 19), used for ritual purification.

Maybe there’s a fifth meaning here as well. Maybe the red heifer is the great mistake or mistakes we make in our lives–the mistakes that will eventually teach us how to live. None of us is immune to mistakes; there is no static human purity, only purity of learning and return.

But the lessons of the historical event have not been fully learned. The girl’s symbolic grave in Tiszaeszlár has become a site of pilgrimage by extremists. The accusations were disproven and dismissed in 1883, but some wish to revive them even now. Thus the opera speaks not only to the past and its modern-day analogies, but to an urgent present.

How can art protest cultural and political trends while retaining its complexity and integrity? This opera achieves just that–by speaking in music and poetry and by going into the difficulty. True political life requires rejection of the glib. We are never just one thing or another; we live in conflict with ourselves. Even so, we are responsible for seeking understanding and moving toward the good. The Red Heifer suggests the possibility and profundity of this movement, not long ago or far away, but here and now.

 

 

Image credit: Painting by Yoram Raanan. The painting and opera are unrelated except through the red heifer.

I made some edits and additions to this piece after posting it.

Ady Endre, “Köszönöm, köszönöm, köszönöm”

117_Ady utolsó fényképeToday I found an astonishing poem by the Hungarian poet Ady Endre (1877–1919; Ady is the surname). I know only a few Hungarian words, phrases, and basic forms, but even this much lifted the latch, with the help of translations. Immediately I saw some of the difficulties of translating this work.

You can hear a recording on YouTube and read both the Hungarian and Leslie A. Kery’s translation in the Babel Web Anthology. There’s another translation, by Zsuzsanna Ozsváth and Frederick Turner, in Light within the Shade: Eight Hundred Years of Hungarian Poetry. Both brought me closer to the poem yet stopped before coming too close. I sense something burning here, something a translator might try to make cooler and softer.

Let us consider first the title, “Köszönöm, köszönöm, köszönöm,” which means “I thank you, I thank you, I thank you” (root “köszön” + personal suffix -“öm”; the “you” is implied). Kery translates the title as “My Thanks to Thee” (making the address to God explicit and removing the repetition). Ozsváth and Turner translate it “Thank You, Thank You, Thank You,” keeping the repetition, making God less explicit, but dropping the sense of “I,” which in turn allows for a sense of relation. It’s a difficult call, whether or not to keep some sense of “I”; “köszönöm” is basically an equivalent of “thank you,” and an added “I” might seem stilted. In any case, the repetition is important, as is the sense of relation; each translation conveys one or the other.

Now let’s look at the first four lines. These are enough to make a person fall in love with the poem, and they only hint at what’s coming.

Napsugarak zúgása, amit hallok,
Számban nevednek jó íze van,
Szent mennydörgést néz a két szemem,
Istenem, istenem, istenem,

Here’s Kery’s translation:

It is the hum of sunbeams that I hear,
Thy name is tasting sweet within my mouth
And my eyes, oh Lord, oh God of mine,
behold the holy thunder.

Here’s what Ozsváth and Turner do:

Dazzling in my ears is the roar of the sun,
Sweet in your mouth the savor of your name,
Loud in my eyes your holy thunder,
Lord of light, lord of sweetness, lord of wonder;

What a difference! I am torn between them. I like the bareness of Kery and the incantation of Ozsváth and Turner. But neither seemed to want the “Istenem, istenem, istenem” (“My God, my god, my god”) in bare form; the one turned it into “oh Lord, oh God of mine,” the other into “Lord of light, lord of sweetness, lord of wonder.”I see what they are doing–they’re conveying the nuances within the repetition–but I miss the repetition itself.

What are the alternatives in English? “My God, my god, my god” lacks the cadence and subtlety of “Istenem, istenem, istenem,” and anything with “O my god” would sound too casual. Maybe the best way around this is to read the original and translations side by side (and listen to the original).

But I jumped ahead. The first line lets us hear the rays of sun:

Napsugarak zúgása, amit hallok,

“[It is] the sunbeams’ hum that I hear,”

The onomatopoeic”zúgása” (“the hum”), which reminds me of the Russian жужжанье, comes right after “Napsugarak,” “of the sunbeams.” In these very sounds, you can hear the beams humming. “amit hallok” means “that I hear.” Here I prefer Kery’s translation (“It is the hum of sunbeams that I hear”): the euphony and syntax work beautifully. Ozsváth and Turner‘s “Dazzling in my ears is the roar of the sun” seems cranked up too loud; moreover, it loses the sense of a question. “It is the hum of sunbeams that I hear” answers the implied “What is it that I hear?”

The third line, “Szent mennydörgést néz a két szemem,” does something spectacular with the first. “Szent mennydörgést” means “holy thunder” (as direct object); “néz,” “watch”; “a két szemem,” “my two eyes”; together, “my two eyes behold the holy thunder.” This is directly followed by “Istenem, istenem, istenem,” which looks like thunder itself. The hum of the sunbeams and the view of thunder go together–but what matters here is not just the joining, but the person who hears and sees.

I have only inched into the poem here. If this post encourages someone to read and listen to it, I will be glad. Over time, I hope to understand it more accurately and deeply. In the meantime, I adopt it into my life.

 

Image credit: Photograph of Ady Endre, courtesy of the Babel Web Anthology.

More on “Free Relation”

PushkinBenchOver the past two days I struggled with the post on The Stone Guest and statues; I realized that the topics were too large and the connections too weak. After revising it many times, I finally let it stand. But something came out of it, at the end: the idea that a “free relation” to a statue or other work of art comes through a spirit of learning. This kind of freedom consists of movement beyond misconceptions, limited understandings, and errors; not only that, but it yearns for such movement. It is the opposite of ignorance, which rests on self-satisfaction and becomes a rut. As Diotima tells Socrates in Plato’s Symposium, “If someone doesn’t think he’s in need of something, he can’t desire what he doesn’t think he needs.”

I think about my relation to Pushkin’s novel in verse Eugene Onegin, which I first encountered as a fourteen-year-old in Moscow, through Tchaikovsky’s opera. I loved the opera (which I saw as many times as possible) but in a limited way; I saw myself as Tatiana and understood the work primarily from that perspective.

In brief: Tatiana falls in love with Onegin and writes him a letter; he rejects her; he flirts with Olga, Tatiana’s sister, and ends up killing Lensky in a duel; and five years later, he attends a ball in Petersburg, only to discover that Tatiana is married to a prince. He suddenly falls in love with her–and writes her a letter–but she explains her resolve to be faithful to her husband forever. That’s a crude summary, with many details missing, but I was drawn, in any case, to Tatiana’s torment and courage.

While in Moscow, I obtained the sheet music for the opening duet “Slykhali l’ vy” between Olga and Tatiana and practiced it, hoping to sing it beautifully one day. Here’s a recording of a 2011 performance by the Bolshoi Theatre, with Galina Vishnevskaya as Tatiana and Larisa Avdeeva as Olga:

Seeing myself in the opera, I missed a great deal; even when I read the poem that year, I understood it in terms of the opera. But at least the opera was in my life; I would return to it many times later.

In graduate school, I read the poem carefully and came to see its subtleties, ironies, and play; it had humor and bite that the opera seemed to lack. I learned that Nabokov considered Tchaikovsky’s libretto “an absurdity and an abomination,” full of “vulgar and … criminal inanities.” I thought my teenage enthusiasm for the opera had been naive.

Still later, I came to admire Tchaikovsky’s Onegin again, but on different terms. I saw it most recently at the Metropolitan Opera last April and was moved by the entire performance, but especially by Prince Gremin’s aria, performed by Štefan Kocán, in which he tells Onegin of his love for his wife, Tatiana, whom Onegin previously rejected. This aria, rich in life and tranquility, is nowhere in the poem itself; the narrator has some of these words but gives them different meaning. The music alone conveys what Onegin lacks; Gremin’s genuine happiness upends any stereotype. I have found no recording of Kocán’s performance online, but here’s one with Dmitri Hvorostovsky, and here’s the sheet music:

I outgrew both the teenage attachment to Tatiana and the later deference to Nabokov (whom I also questioned and satirized, even then). Pushkin’s novel in verse and Tchaikovsky’s opera are two distinct works, each to be taken on its own terms, over a lifetime. Sometimes the understanding is intellectual, sometimes visceral, sometimes learned, sometimes intuitive; but it builds and changes over time. I have much to learn about both works; I returned to them today to see how much I had missed before.

So a “free relation” to art is one that moves beyond error, safety, and limitation. A person returns to a work, learns from it, learns about it, and understands it in a different way from before, all the while staying alert to more. Maybe, like Gremin, the person moves toward simple joy, the joy of not needing to own or sum up what one loves, the joy, sometimes difficult, of living among things that grow in beauty and meaning and that return, again and again, with more.

 

Image: Photo of a statue of Pushkin at Tsarskoe Selo. Courtesy of the MadOpera Blog.

I made a few changes to this piece after posting it.

“Za kaplishchei kaplishcha”

drops

After yesterday’s post on Vladimir Mayakovsky’s poem “Хорошее отношение к лошадям” (approximately “Kindness to horses”), I was left thinking of the lines,

Подошел и вижу –
за каплищей каплища
по морде катится,
прячется в шерсти…
И какая-то общая
звериная тоска
плеща вылилась из меня
и расплылась в шелесте.

which I translate (differing substantially from Andrey Kneller here):

I step close and see —
drop after drop
falls down the face,
hides in the fur,
and some kind of common
animal yearning
splashing spilled out of me
and shook into stream.

The “face” of the horse (морда) is beautifully ambiguous; the word typically means “face of an animal,” but it can also refer to a “mug,” or unappealing face of a person. The horse is not named here, so already horse and human seem to overlap. The horse’s tears are matched by “какая-то общая / звериная тоска” (some kind of common (universal, general) / animal yearning.”

But most beautiful of all (in these lines) are the words “за каплищей каплища,” “drop after drop,” or, more accurately, “after drop, drop,” because of the way they sound, and the way they echo the earlier “за зевакой зевака.”

As for the photo above, I took it this morning in Dallas.

“I alone did not mix my voice with the howl”

peasant-and-horse-1910

This Thursday, at the Dallas Institute (at the Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers), I will give faculty remarks on Vladimir Mayakovsky’s 1918 poem “Хорошее отношение к лошадям,” translatable as “Good Treatment of Horses,” “A Good Relation with Horses,”  “Kindness to Horses,” or something similar. I will not duplicate my remarks here; instead, I will comment on what came out of memorizing the poem.

To memorize a poem, you have to learn its architecture and interior; you learn to find your way in the dark. You know what comes next, because it must come next; moreover, you know where it may pivot, sweep upward, or drop down. Some lines and words hold up the entire structure; when you know them, you know the rest.

For me, these were the lines in which the speaker separates him from the crowd laughing at the fallen horse. They change the rhythm and direction of the poem.

Лишь один я
голос свой не вмешивал в вой ему.

I alone
did not mix my voice with the howl.

“Лишь один я” is difficult to translate. It has triple emphasis; “Лишь” means approximately “only”; “один,” “one” or “alone”; and “я,” “I.” Each of the three words suggests singleness and separation; together, they proclaim it. This separation from the crowd opens up into introspection and relation, where the horse and speaker shed tears in parallel, and the speaker tells the horse that “each of us is in his own way a horse” (каждый из нас по-своему лошадь).

Then the horse comes with new strange vigor–maybe, the speaker thinks, she didn’t need this nursing at all, maybe even the idea seemed vulgar to her–but all the same, she dashed, stood on her feet, neighed (“rzhanula”), and took off. (The words for “vulgar” and “took off”–пошла–are homophones and homonyms, one of various kinds of twins in the poem). Maybe the horse is independent of the speaker; maybe the words meant nothing–but all the same, something has happened, a lift back onto the feet, into the stall, into work and life and youth. But this becomes the speaker’s own song; the near-homophones “стойло” (“stall”) and “стоило” (“it was worth it”), coupled with “встала” (stood up) and “стала” (“stood”) create a secular yet mysterious hymn of dignity.

So my recitation (recorded just now; to be perfected later, when I am back in NYC) has a quieter tone than some. I love the performance by the actor Georgy Sorokin (and was somewhat influenced by it); it sounds to me the way Mayakovsky himself might have wanted it. It makes pictures of sounds; it bursts through the usual and dares us all to do the same. But the poem can be heard in many ways; much depends on the phrases that the reader singles out, which in turn bring out the others and the whole.

I keep coming back to the beginning, with its ablaut-filled play on sounds and words:

Били копыта.
Пели будто:
– Гриб.
Грабь.
Гроб.
Груб.-

The hoofs beat.
It seemed they sang:
–Grib.
Grab’.
Grob.
Grub.–

Each of those syllables (grib, grab’, grob, grub) suggests (or is) a word with meaning; they suggest mushrooms, the imperative “rob,” a grave, and something or someone coarse, respectively. But because of the vowel gradations, they seem like pure sound as well, the sound of hoofs on slippery streets. From the outset, there are two poets: the speaker and the horse, trading roles, joining together, interpreting each other.

You can read the poem in Russian and English here. Thanks to Andrey Kneller for translating so many poems and posting the Russian and English together.

As for my recitation, when I re-record it (in early August), I intend to refine the pronunciation and maybe the interpretation too. This one is a start.

 

Image credit: David Burliuk, Peasant and Horse (Крестьянка и лошадь), 1910.

“The mountains skipped like rams”

dallas moon

This is my last post (for the time being) on the topic of moving on. (You may read the introduction, first post, and second post at your convenience.)

Some of the most entrenched human conflicts and misunderstandings have to do with differing relationships to time; one person wants to look forward, while another wants to stand still or look backward. Not only individuals, but groups and cultures can come into conflict in this way.

Too often the two sides do not see or think on each other’s terms. Each tends to put the other down. The one who wishes to remember sees the other as dismissive and unreflective; the one who wishes to move on sees the other as self-indulgent and stagnant. To make things even trickier, sometimes they are right in their judgments.

It is no accident, then, that religions ritualize both memory and progress. Judaism has specific times for mourning and repentance; while not erasing an individual’s own rhythms and timings, it offers a strong counterpoint and guide. Mourning takes its own time in a person, but within the rhythms of shiva, the initial mourning period, the year of saying Kaddish, the yahrzeit, Yizkor, and other remembrances, it has both a place and a boundary. A person might not conform to this structure entirely, but it is there all the same.

So, too, with repentance. While we typically associate repentance with the period from Tisha B’Av through Yom Kippur, it has a place throughout the year, at limited times. In ancient times, Rosh Hodesh, the holiday of the new lunar month, had a sin-offering among the sacrifices; today this is mentioned in the Torah reading during the Rosh Hodesh service.

The literature about this sin-offering reveals some surprises. According to the Babylonian Talmud (Chulin 60b), the moon was unhappy about being diminished by God. After some argument, God promised to atone; this is why there is a he-goat offering “for the Lord” on Rosh Hodesh. Thus, according to this and other commentaries, there is divine atonement every month. Therefore this is also an opportunity for humans to atone. (Of course atonement is possible every day–but every month there is a special time.)

But atonement (in Hebrew teshuvah, or return) does not proceed in linear fashion; in the Litukei Halachot, Rebbe Nosson of Breslov’s interpretation and reworking of Rebbe Nachman’s teachings, it is posited that we “skip” parts of the Hallel service on Rosh Hodesh precisely because repentance, too, skips backward and forward:

Rosh Chodesh itself is a time for the beginning of repentance, since the Holy One Himself said “bring me atonement,” and from then on repentance disseminated into the entire created world. For our Holy Rabbi wrote that everyone thinks of repentance on Rosh Chodesh. This is why we say the “half Hallel”, that is, we ‘skip’ parts of Hallel, since those doing Teshuva don’t ascend in a steady way, from step to step, but skip and jump over several steps… this is why the reading of the Torah on Rosh Chodesh skips back and forth. It hints at this theme of repentance which is central to Rosh Chodesh, because those doing Teshuva do not move in a straight line, but sometimes go backwards, and then forwards again.

“Skipping” can be found in the very words of Psalm 114, which is part of the Hallel service.

I love those images and rhythms of the Jordan turning backward, the mountains skipping like rams, the hills like young sheep. The psalm has thrilled me ever since I began to sing and understand it.

But now I understand it in a different way. If this turning and skipping has anything to do with teshuvah–within the liturgy, if not within the psalm itself–then it illustrates how we ourselves go back and forth during our lives, how these changes of direction may signify great moments. Each of us may be at times the skipping mountain or hill, the Jordan turning backward, or other things standing still or rushing ahead.

I take these texts as poetry, not literal teachings–but it’s poetry that opens up the understanding. If our “skipping” and changes of direction have to do with our own striving and reckoning, then there’s room for generosity and forgiveness in all directions. Those impatient to move on can look kindly on those standing still, and vice versa, at least some of the time. At the very least, we can consider that those who differ from us in their motions and directions may be doing their own kind of good.

This doesn’t solve any problems. Nonetheless, I delight in thinking that we all have times of skipping and turning, changing our currents, shaking up our landscapes, and standing still. Although (as a friend and colleague remarked to me today) adults forget the joy of skipping, we actually skip abundantly without knowing it. Viewed from far away, or from inside, our lives might look like the shaking of sheep and hills.

 

I took the photo last night (around 4 a.m.) in Dallas, through the window.

Thanks to Rabbi Adam Roffman for introducing me and others to the passages from the Talmud and Likutei Halachot. The interpretations here are my own (and subject to leaps, skips, and turns).

The text of Psalm 114 (in Hebrew and English) can be found on the Mechon Mamre website.

I made a few changes to this piece after posting it and later edited it again for clarity.

Reading and Rereading

kosice bookstoreThis is the first of three blog posts on the pitfalls of moving on. (See the introduction here.) Of all the examples of fruitful return, rereading stands out as both obvious and splendid. For as long as I can remember, I have enjoyed rereading more than first-time reading; in remembering and rediscovering the book (or poem or play), I not only see new things in it but grasp a different whole. For this to happen, the work does not have to present explicit difficulties; I can reread Lorca’s poem “La guitarra” (in his Poema del cante jondo) and find new clarities and darknesses in it, even though nothing seemed to stump me on the first round.

Continual rereading has its own pitfalls; if you never get around to new books, you will limit the rereading itself. To reread a book, you must have read it in the first place; you must put those old favorites aside and take up this bulky thing that you do not yet know. This is my main “reading difficulty”: those stacks of unread books in my good intentions.

Rereading, then, can only accompany first-time reading. But our culture and economy seem tipped toward the latter: the latest book, the book club selections, the titles that everyone is talking about for a short while. Many of these books disappear as quickly as they come, but if they manage to squeeze some fame and sales out of the air, the publishers and publicists will not complain. Publishers do care what comes out of their presses, but they have to prosper too. So they will publish many urban daylilies along with a few bristlecone pines.

One possible measure of literary quality is longevity: how many times, or over how much time, a work can be read with new understanding and pleasure. A few publishers base their entire work on this principle. Library of America “champions our nation’s cultural heritage by publishing America’s greatest writing in authoritative new editions and providing resources for readers to explore this rich, living legacy.” Thus the Library of America’s work consists not only of republishing but of rereading too–and reading works that have been there for decades or centuries but that we barely acknowledged with a soporific quote.

A spirit of rereading makes room for first-time readings too. When you look back, you make room for those works you missed. Cynthia Haven’s “Another Look” book discussion series, which she founded with Tobias Wolff, focuses on books that deserve more attention than they have received. For many, these books may be first-time reads, but the club’s name, “Another Look,” suggests return. The series kicked off with William Maxwell’s short novel So Long, See You Tomorrow. I had not read it before; although I could not attend the discussion, I purchased a Library of America edition, read it in time for the event, brought it into my life, and now look forward to a third reading.

So returns and rereading can dissolve the highways of popularity and bring newness out of dust. But it is a complex matter. Exclusive rereading (with no new books) and exclusive first-time reading (with no returns) both constrict. Nor is there a perfect proportion; the balance or imbalance may vary. But rereading can offer a strong corrective to a culture bent on “moving on” to the next new thing. What just came out is not necessarily more important than what came out years ago.

Each summer, at the Dallas Institute, my colleagues and I teach literature: epic in the odd-numbered years and tragedy and comedy in the even-numbered years. This year, when returning to King Lear, I admired the scene where Edgar (in the guise of a stranger) pretends to assist his blinded father, Gloucester, in jumping off a cliff but actually saves him. Having attained the make-believe cliff, which actually is nothing, they have the following exchange (Lear 4.6.25-41):

Edgar. Give me your hand: you are now within a foot
Of th’ extreme verge: for all beneath the moon
Would I not leap upright.

Gloucester.                            Let go my hand.
Here, friend, ‘s another purse; in it a jewel
Well worth a poor man’s taking. Fairies and gods
Prosper it with thee! Go thou further off;
Bid me farewell, and let me hear thee going.

Edgar. Now fare ye well, good sir.

Gloucester. With all my heart.

Edgar. [Aside] Why I do trifle thus with his despair
Is done to cure it.

Gloucester says farewell to the world, jumps, “falls,” and is rescued by Edgar in the guise of another stranger, who speaks of his miraculous survival.

Edgar. Hadst thou been aught but gossamer, feathers, air,
So many fathom down precipatating,
Thou’dst shivered like an egg: but thou dost breathe;
Hast heavy substance; bleed’st not; speak’st; art sound.
Ten masts at each make not the altitude
Which thou hast perpendicularly fell:
Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again.

I have read and loved this scene many times. But on this reading, Edgar’s aside stood out: “Why I do trifle thus with his despair / Is done to cure it.” This may seem an unnecessary explanation; the audience can already guess that Edgar intends to save his father’s life. But Edgar speaks here not of saving a life, but of curing despair; he makes a striking connection between “trifling” with the despair and “curing” it. He invents a lightness, which then surrounds Gloucester’s unfatal fall. “Thy life’s a miracle,” says Edgar–but what makes it a miracle is this very trifling, this creation of precipice, fall, and survival out of level land.

That’s what happens with rereading: it is choreography of words, where the dancers surprise you even after you think you know the whole dance. Rereading holds you up to the book and says, “There’s more, there’s more.”

 

I took the photo in Košice on May 29.

“Ta Bahare Delneshin”

IMG_3281This has been a beautiful quest! On May 19, in Istanbul, I heard two musicians play a song that kept coming back to my mind. (I recorded a video, so I was able to learn the melody). It felt subtle and melancholic; I understood none of the words but was enchanted by their sounds.

I hoped to hear the duo again, but during my many walks, I did not run into them. Then, on May 26, my last day in Istanbul, I saw them standing right where they were before. They played a different song; when they finished, I requested this one by humming the melody. When they played it, people gathered around and sang along. I recorded it and learned their names (but not the name of the song). They are Sherko Hoseini and Fali Talebi.

Back in New York City, I tried to look up the song by googling some of the phrases. I didn’t know how to spell them; some of the vowels and consonants sounded different from their counterparts in any languages I know. Also, I wasn’t sure of the word divisions. I tried different possibilities (“tava hare teleshin,” “trova har e teleshin,” etc.), again and again, but nothing came up.

Then I decided to do the simplest thing of all (which I’m often slow to do): ask. I wrote to Sherko last night; this morning I received his reply. The song is “Ta Bahare Delneshin” (or simply “Bahare Delneshin”) an old Persian song. He sent the lyrics too; I will  give them below. I looked for translations; this one (from someone named Afsaneh) seems particularly careful. I have included only the verses that are in Sherko and Fali’s performance (and have kept Sherko’s transliteration). What a beautiful poem and song.

Bahare delneshin
(The Pleasant Spring)

Music: Ruhollah Khaleghi
Poem: Bijan Taraghi

Ta bahare delneshin amade soye chaman
since the pleasant spring had come towards the grass

Ey bahare arezo bar saram saye fekan
oh the spring of wishes spread your shadow on me

Chon nasime nobahar bar ashianam kon gozar
like the breeze of the newly come spring visit my home

Ta ke golbaran shavad kolbeye virane man
so that my ruined cottage would be showered by flowers

Baza bebin dar heyratan beshkan sokote khalvatam
come and see me in astonishment, break the silence of my solitude

Cho laleye sahra bebin bar sine daghe hasratam
see my sorrow on my hot face which is like a lonely tulip

Ey roye to ayineam eshghat ghame dirineam
oh you, whose face is my mirror, your love my old grief

Baza cho gol darin bahar sar ra beneh bar sineam
in this spring come like a flower, put your head on my bosom

Here are the lyrics in Persian:

تا بهار دلنشین آمده سوی چمن
ای بهار آرزو بر سرم سایه فکن
چون نسیم نوبهار بر آشیانم کن گذر
تا که گلباران شود کلبه ویران من

تا بهار زندگی آمد بیا آرام جان
تا نسیم از سوی گل آمد بیا دامن کشان
چون سپندم بر سر آتش نشان بنشین دمی
چون سرشکم در کنار بنشین نشان سوز نهان

تا بهار دلنشین آمده سوی چمن
ای بهار آرزو بر سرم سایه فکن
چون نسیم نوبهار بر آشیانم کن گذر
تا که گلباران شود کلبه ویران من

باز آ ببین در حیرتم
بشکن سکوت خلوتم
چون لاله تنها ببین
بر چهره داغ حسرتم

ای روی تو آیینه ام
عشقت غم دیرینه ام
باز آ چو گل در این بهار
سر را بنه بر سینه ام

listenersThe lyrics seem to match what I heard and saw. When people gathered around and sang along, I sensed that this song was special to them. They didn’t respond the way people do to a recent hit; they were held in a dreaminess for a little while. So was I, though differently.

There is something astonishing about the poem: the way seemingly opposite words come close together, even joining at times: images of brokenness and renewal, sadness and rejuvenation, solitude and love. The sounds hold many textures: I can follow them now, from word to word.

I am glad it took me some time to learn the name of the song; through searching for it, I found myself returning to it, refusing to give up the question. Even now that I have a translation, I realize there is more to understand in the images, phrases, allusions. Something has been opened here, not closed.

Partly through its difference, the poem reminds me of Petrarch’s sonnet “Solo et pensoso i piú deserti campi”:

Solo et pensoso i piú deserti campi
vo mesurando a passi tardi et lenti,
et gli occhi porto per fuggire intenti
ove vestigio human l’arena stampi.

Altro schermo non trovo che mi scampi
dal manifesto accorger de le genti,
perché negli atti d’alegrezza spenti
di fuor si legge com’io dentro avampi:

sí ch’io mi credo omai che monti et piagge
et fiumi et selve sappian di che tempre
sia la mia vita, ch’è celata altrui.

Ma pur sí aspre vie né sí selvagge
cercar non so ch’Amor non venga sempre
ragionando con meco, et io co llui.

And in the English translation of A. S. Kline:

Alone and thoughtful, through the most desolate fields,
I go measuring out slow, hesitant paces,
and keep my eyes intent on fleeing
any place where human footsteps mark the sand.

I find no other defence to protect me
from other people’s open notice,
since in my aspect, whose joy is quenched,
they see from outside how I flame within.

So now I believe that mountains and river-banks
and rivers and forests know the quality
of my life, hidden from others.

Yet I find there is no path so wild or harsh
that love will not always come there
speaking with me, and I with him.

I took the first photo on Eurovelo 11 in Hungary; the second, while listening to Sherko and Fali. For a short video playlist of Istanbul musicians, go here. Also, Sherko pointed me to Ali Zand Vakili’s recording of the same song.

New Poem: The Swing

cropped-swingset.jpg

The Swing

There stood a swing by the edge of town
that lifted us over our plight.
It graced the ragged grass of a farm,
and the hired hand would pause and watch
as we kicked off into the blue,
one at a time, over the years,
swinging with nothing else in our eyes
but the edge of town and the sky.

This man had seen people come and go
and whole populations go.
Such memories rob your mind, he said;
they steal on you at any old hour
unless you have toils and cares.
So he tended the hens and watched the swing.
It was the swing, he said, that creaked
his ragged mind to repose.*

I came here when in doubt of the world
or in need of a tilt of soul.
Dozens of others have done the same:
we swang and thought, swang and thought
our way into gilded mind.
All of us yearned for an edge of town,
a place to sit in the wind and song,
a place that stood against time.

Inside, the owners looked on the scene,
their gladness seething with pride.
It is good, they screamed, with our children grown,
that the swing has carried on for so long,
but look at the filth and the noise.
Tomorrow we’ll take it down, they vowed.
And so it happened: overnight
a canticle ceased to be swung.

Not long ago I saw a swing
much like the one I had known.
It stood on a farm, removed from the road,
so I watched from afar, and it eyed me too,
as though we were both on display.
I shook my head and headed on.
The cost of speaking was far too harsh;
the hush, too awesome and true.

 

*He may not have found the hens as calming.

Image credit: I took the photo during my bike trip in northern Hungary.

In the Thick of It (or Not)

midsummerLast night I woke up with the beginnings (or rather the ending) of a poem; within half an hour, I wrote the whole thing. It’s a sonnet, like many of my others.

I want it to begin below this picture, so I’ll go on here for another sentence or two. Why a sonnet? What’s so appealing about this form? I am drawn to the conciseness, the logic, and especially the volta; but beyond that, the more sonnets I write, the better I know their language. I am not sure that sonnets should tell stories, as this one does, and some of my others do–but since this is a story about telling a story, I think the form fits. (Why am I ambivalent about sonnet-stories? That’s a discussion for another time.)

The Misunderstanding

The room was loud, so after spurts of whats
and I-can’t-hear-yous, I declaimed a tale,
doused with illusion, of a bowl of kale
all crinkly somber green, sprinkled with nuts
and lush tomatoes…. where from here? A klutz
with small talk, stumped beyond the pale,
I nailed the salad part, but when the frail
rundown ran out, I flailed in ands and buts.

And while you smiled, and while the windowsill
cracked open into breeze, and I believed
that every nod of audience you meant,
that, just as I poured forth with the intent
of giving, so with soul was I received,
a fragile evening glittered in goodwill.

With poetry, as with music and other things, I am either in the thick of it or not; when immersed, I have one idea after another–no trouble with “writer’s block,” yet a strong sense of how to improve, where to go from here, what to try, what to refine.  I am not good at “sort of” doing things; I have to be surrounded by the idiom.

When not in the thick of it, I have trouble doing it at all; a poem might come now and then, but scrapingly.

This one didn’t scrape, though. Maybe there will be more soon.

Art credit: Henry Towneley Green, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1895.