Thursday, April 10, 2014

Sunday Surprise

Sunday Surprise

On Sundays, I would accompany my father on long walks.  We’d dress up in our best clothes and head out, hand in hand, to St Mary’s Church.  Once there, we’d circle the church grounds while the mass went on inside. We’d walk around casually, strolling without a care in the world, and he’d be telling me stories about Christ and the lives of the Apostles, and how the Roman FBI had an inside man who had betrayed God.  He explained how Christ got hung on the cross and then in three days his body disappeared and floated into the sky.  He told me Christ was the greatest person that had ever lived. 

Last Sunday, we met a handsome couple on the sidewalk on the way home.  My father and I stood before them, I’m holding his hand, and he’s getting ready to address the pair.  He gave me a quick comforting look and patted the top of my head like he might flick dust from my hair.  He smiled, and then nodded before beginning to speak:  “Excuse me,” he said, ”I can’t help but admire the cut of your jacket; that silk tie, those patent leather shoes,” and turning to the woman ”and the fine workmanship in that dress, those pearls and earrings, among the best I have ever  seen.” 

The couple separate slightly, parted, glancing at one another, then smiling at me, the cutest thing they had ever seen. 

“I think that watch is fabulous.  How much would you take for it?  My son would love it—turning to me: wouldn’t you love to have it?”  I said yes, and agreed inside to love it.  The gentleman smiled, but had no intention of turning over his watch.  “Those pearls would be a fine gift, and an investment in my son’s future.  How much would you take for them?”

The man spoke for the woman: “We’re not interested, thank you, have a nice day.”

My father then asked about the woman’s bracelet, made of interwoven gold chains as thin as thread.  I thought it was beautiful, glinting in the sunlight, it was alive. 

“We have no intention of selling it, or anything else for any price,” said the man; “it was nice to have met you and your son, we’ll be moving along now, thank you.  Please, have a nice day?”

My father stepped left to block their departure.  “Let’s hear from the woman, let’s hear how she feels about it?” 

The woman immediately spoke up: “I agree with him.” 

“I don’t want to say this before my son, but it may be necessary.  Are you really happy with this man, this lady in drag, this peacock who can give you nothing but trinkets, who carries you on his arm like a handbag?  Do you really believe he takes you seriously?”  I didn’t understand any of this.  I noticed the woman’s face went from pink to gray.  “I don’t want the pearls or bracelet so much as I want the watch.  The kid wants the bracelet, what kid wouldn’t, but the watch will make him soon forget it.  Let’s say I buy the watch—say for 20 bucks—and you can keep the pearls and bracelet?  That sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?”  My father always prided himself on being a reasonable man.

The couple traded sour faces, and then the man said: “20 bucks?  You must be joking?  I wouldn’t sell it for a thousand, and definitely not to the likes of you.  Now beat it!”  I couldn’t understand why the man was getting so upset.  My father looked down, and scratched his chin, and with his other hand he pulled a pistol from his coat pocket. 

“Okay, either the watch for twenty, or all for nothing.  You left me no choice.  Please, decide.”

The man, his face in shock, lunged at my father.  The pistol went off, and the man’s wrist was shattered, the remnants of his hand hanging from a sliver of pink flesh, and the watch my father wanted to give me suddenly returned to gold-dust, glass, and little gears on the ground at my feet.  The woman jumped like a cat, several steps back.  The man was screaming in pain while my father and I looked on.  The woman began unsnapping her jewelry; ears, neck, wrist, all of which she stuffed in her purse, and then she plunged its embroidered purple leather into my hands.  I was thinking about purple cows, purple pigs, purple snakes.  My father took the purse, and I scrunched down to pick the gold bits out of the blood and flesh recently the man’s hand.  The man had never stopped screaming, holding his forearm below the elbow, dancing on one foot then the other, rocking and screaming.  My father told the woman to help the man, to get him to a hospital, or something: “he’s likely to bleed to death on the street.”  The woman jumped into action, placed one hand on the man’s shoulder, and with the other she gently held up his handless arm.  My father pocketed his pistol, handed me the purse, and with my other hand warmly engulfed by his, we walked off toward home, where my mother waited for her Sunday surprise, which in all those years my father had never failed to bring home.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Zebra Finch at Petco, by Karen Holmberg

This poem presents two birds, a male and female zebra finch, in a cage or a cube of pet-shop space, and an observer who may or may not be the poet. The poem:

         The male tweezes a bald millet stalk
         off the sahara of graveled paper.

         The pert watch movements of his head
         ignite an ember on each cheek, buff bright

         the beak's rose-hip hue. His elderberry eye
         subjects this meter cubed of universe

         to further scrutiny. The struggles of
         a downy filament attract him.

         With these two finds he alights, caresses
         the injection-molded branch. But there is

         no flaw to catch on, no way to make a start.
         A problem he sets aside for the moment,

         pinning it down with his foot. In the dusky
         corner his mate dangles from brass wires, 

         mobile as a chandelier earring.
         Extending her wing, she makes him
         more to find, fussing
         a small snow from the hot and pearly hollow.

This is the type of poem in which the poet sets out to say something simple, to present a simple picture-narrative, but does so in the most complicated ways. The first several couplets describe the activity of the male bird as he prepares a “millet stalk” and a filament of down (“downy filament”) for offering to his mate, but finds the task of securing them too difficult—the man-made branch has no “flaw” to catch to—so pins the gift items underfoot. His mate, hanging like a bat, extends her wing to measure his distance from her. It’s a touching scene of love, or companionship, in the animal kingdom of a Petco shop.

The activity the poem details is rather pedestrian, though the language itself is the exact opposite. In the first couplet, there’s an abundance of adjectives and metaphors: tweezes, bald, millet, graveled, sahara. In the second, it’s not entirely clear if the reflection of color is on some observer’s cheek—“the pert watch” (pert, used as it is a noun if very confusing)—or if the cheeks are another bird’s. Seems to be a confusion without payoff, it does nothing to make the poem more mysterious. It merely throws dirt on the window through which the reader tries to observe the observer of the finch pair. By overburdening the lines with superfluous details—bald, millet, graveled—the reader has to slow down to account for everything. That would be fine, if the slower pace yielded any insight. But it doesn’t, it merely forces you to reread the lines to make sure that you understand the literal aspects of the poem, never mind what might be happening on the metaphorical level.

In the first line, I say that “tweezes” does not present me with a clear enough picture. Does the finch pick it up with his beak or twig-foot? I say beak, but I’m guessing. “Sahara of graveled paper” is beyond acceptability: what’s being described here? Sahara as in empty, as in claustrophobic? Graveled as in there are bits of gravel on the bottom on paper lining in their container? My question is, in what way do those words and packages of imagery tell me something about the birds? “Sahara of graveled paper,” I say is overwrought, and an example of the worst kind of poetry. So, while I see the bird busily ‘fussing’ in his cage/box, the poet is actually distracting me with superfluous padding that adds no level of meaning to the poem at all, merely cluttering the surface.

The next couplet is similar to the previous in its opaque rendering. The poet simply says in the oddest way that the finch’s cheeks were red and his beak was buffed pink. If you can read those “poetic” lines and get a clearer picture I’ll buy you lunch.

          His elderberry eye/subjects this meter cubed of universe/to further scrutiny.”

He looks around. When I read the above lines and images, I couldn’t pull it off with a straight face. It is cliché—elderberry—and trying so hard to be beautiful in a weird postmodern-lite appropriation of scientific syntax and diction, that this reader was actually embarrassed for the poet.

          The struggles of/a downy filament attracts him”

What does a downy filament struggle to do? Float, land, not end up a gift between birds, end up as that gift? What struggle are we talking about? And why is the bird more concerned with the filament’s struggles than with the thing itself, which is going to make his mate happy? And why the line-break on “of”? Was it to have the line read backwards to yield—scrutiny of struggles? Struggles, in a world where people are dying of hunger? Jesus, that’s too careless, too cavalier with the language without any sense of proportion.

Now for a bigger chunk: Please notice the “With,” and the “But,” both signs that the poet is losing control of the poem. “Caresses” is very odd to describe the activity the bird engages in on the branch. But still, the bird is caressing his finds against the branch. As soon as the next couplet begins, we know that “caresses” is the wrong descriptive verb: in fact, the bird is trying to snag his offerings onto the branch, which being human-made is useless to the bird. My problem with “But there is” at the end of that lines is that it has no “poetic” function, it merely fills out the line, and gives the narration a new direction. In fact, these two lines are exactly what you’d find in prose of the most uninspired kind.

          With these two finds he alights, caresses
          the injection-molded branch. But there is

          no flaw to catch on, no way to make a start.
          A problem he sets aside for the moment,

          pinning it down with his foot. In the dusky
          corner his mate dangles from brass wires,

The “it” in the 5th line here, makes no sense. The bird has two things and pins one down. Which? Does he have the filament or the stalk? Should I be reading this kind of poem this closely, or should I just breeze over it. Notice in the dusky, which ends the line. What if that line ended with “His mate dangles?” That makes the “pinning” line richer as poetry.  Let’s look at the final four lines:

          (corner his mate dangles from brass wires)
          mobile as a chandelier earring.
          Extending her wing, she makes him
          more to find, fussing
          a small snow from the hot and pearly hollow.

Chandelier earring? Mobile? Brass wires, as opposed to tin ones?  The latter is an example of overwriting the poem, giving us specific details to “see” while keeping the overall picture as opaque as a bathroom window. Is there any reason intrinsic to the poem’s aims for such a simile, beyond a demonstration of the poet’s cleverness to compare the female bird with a chandelier earring? Anything beyond dressing up the image? Anything besides beating us over the head with the projected romance taking place? I can’t tell, and I’m not ready to buy that it’s related to the mutual attraction game in the cage.

This next line: “Extending. . .”, I think is the most promising of the lines, especially in the way it ends. But as a narrative-picture, it is not clear into the next line—she makes him more to find (she makes him find more?)—fussing (she’s a woman) over the filament? “Hot and pearly hollow”? Anyone know what that refers to?

This is exactly the type of poem that is burying American poetry, one shitty poem at a time. The business of poetry and its quality are going in the opposite direction, while the capacity for readers of poetry to distinguish the real thing from piffle is on the decline. And that’s why American poets have no readers to speak of. This poem is a typical masturbatory effort, that as an exercise to ball up and toss, it’s fine, but as a poem, it’s too obscurely rendered, the picture oddly presented, distracting, as if the poet was in the way of the reader and the text. The language, when it isn’t overwrought, is prosaic without any aesthetic reason to be. It’s exactly the kind of poem you’d get from a classroom prompt to write about a pair of finches. The faux-branch, the cage/box/container/glass, the ritual within the limited space whose aim is the reproduction of finches, the observers who delight in the beautiful captives while making sentimental observations to soften the fact. Imagine what one could have done with this material were one not trying to be a poet but merely writing a poem. This poem is not the poem about these birds. They’ll have to wait for a real poet to come along to explore the themes Holmberg raises.

One final word. This poem by Karen Holmberg, had she time to reconsider it, to come to it over a period of months, even years, would never have been published in its present form. Not if she’s a real poet, a vestal virgin of the language. But because she’s probably more a careerist than a poet, she has to publish this. “Publish or Perish” works great for individual poets, but in general I sense the prevalence of its opposite: Publish & Perish. Who can comfortably expect such craft-challenged poems to endure even to the next year? But let’s not blame the poets, let’s blame the editors. They are doing the real disservice, not rejecting this type of stuff, and forcing the writer to try harder.

Down with Soviet Editors! Up with Horace!
Down with Writers’ Unions! Up with Horace!
Down with American Yevtushenkos! Up with Horace!
Down with Poetic Apparatchiks!  Up with Horace!

Friday, May 3, 2013

Henrik Nordbrandt (poet) vs. Patrick Phillips (hack)

How would you feel, were you to write the kind of poetry that could be rendered perfectly by Google translator, such that no poetic version, that is, no attempt by any poet-translator to bring it into the mother tongue could outmatch what Google did with the original?

One might think it’s blasphemous to suggest that a machine’s algorithm could do just as well as an award-winning poet at the game of literary translation. If you’re someone like me, when you come across a translation online or in a book, you insist on seeing the original, even if it’s in a language you have no understanding of. Naturally, Cyrillic and Chinese, et al, would be prohibitive. But European languages, especially Germanic and Latinate should be a cinch. I am always curious to chart the translator-poet’s decisions, to see the overall aesthetic sensibility underpinning the final rendered product.

A translation is never the original; trite to say, but an important fact to keep in mind: the translation is the poem of a translator, duly cited. Many writers, Kundera the most famous, were obsessed with the efforts of their translators. In fact, Kundera was accused in his own country of writing the type of prose that easily slides between languages. (Nice to be brilliant in Czech and French.) And he was known to dog his translators, even going so far as to learn a new language to ensure his aesthetic vision got translated. I have been on both ends of the spectrum, having translated, and had my work translated. The biggest sin among translators is the condescending helping hand.

I’m going to focus on “Casa Blanca,” a poem by Henrik Nordbrandt, translated by Patrick Phillips. I will be contrasting the Google version with the version by Phillips. Philips is the author of two poetry collections, one of which won an award. I don’t want to speculate about what drove him to translate Denmark’s preeminent poet besides the excellence of the poems themselves. At the same time, my suspicions are raised by the absolute failure of Phillips’ effort; and the failure of the publisher to guarantee that Nordbrandt gets the best representation among American readers. If the publisher of Phillips’ translations was banking on his Foundation accolades to lead American readers to Nordbrandt’s poems, then it I believe it failed miserably. Winning awards can do nothing to redeem bad work. It merely adds insult to injury. If the publisher was rather banking on an audience of readers that are as discerning as the translator, then it doesn’t matter what happens to Mr. Nordbrandt when he crosses the Atlantic. I would like to speak in the name of Mr. Nordbrandt and literature—self-appointed advocate—about what I take to be an injustice.

The first thing to mention about “Casa Blanca” is the simplicity of its execution in the original. It’s as clear as glass. The allusion to the film of that title is both central to the dream-metaphor and absent, because “gone,” and “still present” are exclusive and inseparable. The first line in the Danish is absolutely straightforward, without hesitation, reflection. A statement about a particular fact. The speaker has “dreamed of a white house by the sea/”. The second line in the original says: “so it was no dream.” I dreamed, therefore it was no dream, is the logical sense of the couplet and the proper function of the “so”. Here are the original lines, followed by Phillips’ improvements:

                         Jeg drømte om et hvidt hus ved havet
                         så det var ingen drøm.

                         I dreamed of a house by the sea, so white
                         it was no dream.

The Danish is easy to follow, the syntax simple, the diction uneventful. The meaning is in the line-break, the “sa” (so) at the beginning of the line, meaning “consequently.” The logic is the poet’s, a mathematical insight as my paraphrase of Descartes above suggests. Both lines are true, and thus a paradox. Phillips has decided to exchange a mathematical truth for an adornment, an augmentation of the color white, and its meaning through that gesture. It makes no sense considering that the title of the poem is “Casa Blanca,” which clearly emphasizes the whiteness of the house; moreover, the American reader is now reading an American poem pretending to be a Danish poem, the former a mere deformed twin of the original. By misplacing the "so," Phillips changes the “white” in the couplet, brings it to the foreground as a conceptual anchor whereas Nordbrandt has it as an attribute of the house, present because it’s the only extra word in the line but decidedly buried within the bigger picture). It’s as if Phillips discovered the key to the paradox—the whiteness of absence and presence???—and wanted his readers to get it too. Instead, we get his wrongheaded directions, made more egregious by the added punctuation, which runs counter to the energetic genius of the original, its fearless clarity in the face of the Unknowing Self.

Destroyed in the first couplet, the American poem, ostensibly improving on the original like Baudelaire with Poe, will continue along its error-filled ways. In the second couplet, the poet makes another interpretative move, using “divine” in place of “otherworldly,” which is the word Nordbrandt uses in the Danish. Only someone poking through a thesaurus, or looking from the back of the poem forward could stick “divine” in the poem. I can hear the poet now: ‘I know, he means “divine.”’

                       The summer night was so divinely clear
                       summer had long since gone.

Divinely clear is an oxymoron, if one isn't speaking in terms of religious dogma. Here’s Google translator with the same couplet:

                       Summer night was so otherworldly clear
                       that summer was long gone.

Phillips gives us a shift in verb, and an extra adjective for “gone.” He projects religious sentiment where there is none. “Otherworldy” has no religious connotation, which is why Henrik uses it: it accounts for mystery without depending on transcendence.

Even the article “The” to begin the first line is a drag on the image and the music in the original. It’s unnecessary and amateurish, whereas the pronoun beginning line two is completely necessary: it echoes the “so” in the poem in both meaning and function: another mathematical gesture rendered goopy by Phillips. Let’s look at the next couplet, the first is Phillips, the last is Google.

                       I saw my love stand in the doorway,
                       saw her I had forsaken.

Jeg så min elskede stå i døren
så hende havde jeg forladt.

                       I saw my beloved at the door
                       saw her I had left.

The Google couplet is not accurate, even though it leaves the verb “stand” unrendered, it’s still superior to what Phillips does. “I saw my beloved at the door” implies that she’s standing. In fact, it’s not necessary for the poem’s meaning in any way. Some argument could be made about the iconographic power of “standing at a door”, but I see “standing” when I read that line, whether “stand” is in it or not. “Doorway” versus “door “ is a strange choice: it’s so specific as to be distracting in the context. It emphasizes a small portion of door, a subcategory of Door, and I believe Phillips chose it simply for rhythm’s sake, to maintain the same number of syllables as the original. The genius of the Google word “beloved” for love is a bit disturbing, since Google translates the same Danish word later as “love.” “Love” and “beloved” are interchangeable, as far as meaning is concerned. But those extra two syllables in “beloved” is what Phillips tries to get from “stand” and the “way” in “doorway.” The Google lines are superior, simply because they are extremely efficient, which is the original’s intent, and because they still retain the sense of mystery in the original without being overly poetic. In the last line of the couplet we have “left” replaced by “forsaken”—a melodramatic gesture—as if they were the same thing. Whether the same or not, why choose the anachronistic “forsaken,” unless the word in Danish looks like the word “forsaken”? In the Danish it says “left,” period; plenty powerful in the context without Phillips’ sentimental embellishments.

I’ll look at the last two couplets together; they mark a transition in the poem by the repeating the first line exactly, a clear nod toward some type of wrapping up. The Danish:

                         Jeg drømte om et hvidt hus ved havet
                         og om min elskede og sommernatten

                        så det var meget længe siden
                        og det var ingen drøm.

(Phillips’ Award Winning Version)

                        I dreamed of a house by the sea, so white,
                       of my love and the summer night

                        though it was very long ago
                        and though it was no dream.

(Google’s Pedestrian Version)

                       I dreamed of a white house by the sea
                       and my love and the summer night

                      so it was very long ago
                      and it was no dream.

The first line of this couplet repeats Phillips’ misplaced adjective and adverb. In the second line, Phillips adds the possessive “of”, whereas in the original, it’s “and”. There’s a big difference in remembering-dreaming of a house and a love and a sea in a single, total package, as distinct as the film the title alludes to, and what Phillips would have us understand, that the speaker dreamed of a house, of an extreme whiteness, of his love, of a doorway, of a summer night, a kind of slide-show where the trope of a film’s continuity is warranted. It’s makes no sense whatsoever in the context of the poem, nor does it reflect the original’s intent.

In the final couplet Phillips decides to replace the word “so” with “though,” as if it were filler. He seems to be on a crusade against the use of “so”. The last line gets an additional “though,” as if Phillips sensed that he needed to account for the missing and symmetrically-arranged “so’s.” It is such bad writing, full of amateur mistakes, that one wonders if anyone proofread it, if any of Phillips’ colleagues looked it over, or if Mr. Norbrandt had a hand in any of it. The fact that the collection this poem is in won a major translation award is frightening, disconcerting.

Sadly, Phillips has taken a great poem and turned it into kitsch; a kind of revenge against a superior poet camouflaged as homage. His punctuation throughout is abysmal, and seems to suggest that he really didn't “get” the poem at all, neither musically nor intellectually, so concerned was he to fill in any gaps in meaning that he sensed lurking in the couplets of the original. The choices he makes couldn't be worse; trembling, confused, hopeful, clearly out of his element. Imagine for a second, Henrik Nordbrandt actually reading this poem out loud, pausing at the first comma in the first line, and then reading “so white.” You understand immediately that that’s impossible, unless Mr. Nordbrandt is as mediocre as Phillips would have us believe he is. Unfortunately, it’s the first of many mistakes that Mr. Nordbrandt will have to live with now that Phillips has added translator-creator to his CV.

I think if anyone is really interested in Nordbrandt’s work, and all of it is worthy, you’d be better off pasting the original poem into Google translator and crossing your fingers. In many cases, you’ll get a superior poetry than Phillips’ offering. See all the poems below:

Casa Blanca (Patrick Phillips)

I dreamed of a house by the sea, so white
it was no dream.

The summer night was so divinely clear
summer had long since gone.

I saw my love stand in the doorway,
saw her I had forsaken.

I dreamed of a house by the sea, so white,
of my love and the summer night

though it was very long ago
and though it was no dream

Casa Blanca (Google)

I dreamed of a white house by the sea
so it was no dream.

Summer night was so otherworldly clear
that summer was long gone.

I saw my beloved at the door
saw her I had left.

I dreamed of a white house by the sea
and my love and the summer night

so it was very long ago
and it was no dream.

Casa Blanca

Jeg drømte om et hvidt hus ved havet
så det var ingen drøm.

Sommernatten var så overjordisk klar
at sommeren for længst var gået.

Jeg så min elskede stå i døren
så hende havde jeg forladt.

Jeg drømte om et hvidt hus ved havet
og om min elskede og sommernatten

Friday, September 28, 2012

Transcreation vs. Translation

My trancreation puts itself against John Kinsella’s translation of the French.
I’ll put mine last as is only fair.  First, Baudelaire’s sonnet:

La Musique

La musique souvent me prend comme une mer!
Vers ma pâle étoile,
Sous un plafond de brume ou dans un vaste éther,
Je mets à la voile;

La poitrine en avant et les poumons gonflés
Comme de la toile
J'escalade le dos des flots amoncelés
Que la nuit me voile;

Je sens vibrer en moi toutes les passions
D'un vaisseau qui souffre;
Le bon vent, la tempête et ses convulsions

Sur l'immense gouffre
Me bercent. D'autres fois, calme plat, grand miroir
De mon désespoir!

Kinsella’s translation of the above


Music often carries me away like a sea!
Toward my pale star,
Beneath a ceiling of mist or in a vast sky,
I cast anchor;

My chest a bowsprit and lungs billowing
Like sails,
I scale the back of waves gathering
As night drops its veil;

I feel all the passions of a stricken
Vessel vibrating inside me;
The fair wind, the tempest and its convulsions

Upon the immense gulf rock me.
At other times, becalmed, great mirror
Of my despair!

My trancreation of the above French and English

by Charles Baudelaire

Music often like the sea lifts me high
Toward my dimlit star
Under a mistthick ceiling, or beneath sky
Unending, I throw anchor;

Bowsprit-chest cresting, lungs brave
As open sails,
I surf the scales of schooling waves
As night drops its veil.

I sense all its vibrations,
A doomed vessel’s passions inside me;
Nice wind, the storm’s convulsions,

The infinite gulf’s rock-a-by. 
Otherwise, calmed, still
It shines with my despair.

Now I ask, what is more exciting, more true
To the spirit of Baudelaire but the transcreation
Of moi?

Saturday, August 20, 2011


The greatest poet of his generation
Reaches out for validation
Like a little boy saying, look, look, look
And you can hear the applause of a book

In the wind.  Assholes are born, not made.
They live in their own perpetual shade.
When others breathe deeply with sun on their lips
They lose their grip.  They grade

Themselves higher than the rest.  They test
Our capacity for forgiveness,
For empathy with the worst of the worst.
I think I have that, and it's for the best

When dealing with the greatest poet
Of his generation.  After all, he's not
Only an asshole.  Something in his verse
Redeems his petty space on earth.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Quartrain for Obama

Can't wait for Obama's memoir.
All his hopes and the way things are.
Sly, apologetic light's on the pond;
A faint ripple in a god's song.

Friday, June 3, 2011

(Sappho: translated from the 7000 plus versions in all known human languages)

He is More than a Hero

Obviously he’s with the gods, that one
Facing you, leaning over the festive table to feast
On that voice and that sweet spellbinding
Laughter of yours—that’s why the caged

Bird beats its wings against my breast
At the sight of you.  Only silence makes sense
With my tongue a sacked temple—a quick
Burning cooks me from the inside out— 

I’m blind; and my ears drone like shrine
Gongs hammer-struck.  I’m pouring sweat,
Shaking in my seat; my skin’s pale as grass.
And, it seems, this close to death.