A human is a spidery thing: digits, Appendages for sensing the currents, Good for catching, clutching, striking, stroking; An upright anemone, an antenna. A dog is a nose-delivery system, Built for forward motion with detours: A face on propulsive feet, a torpedo (Until sacked-out, done for now, recharging). Joined by the filament of a leash that Ties me to him as much as him to me, We loop through a net of scents, sounds, memories, Tugged back to the door that keeps us both safe.
The young speak to say something, to make a name.
The old repeat to hold themselves the same.
Midlife is for any age, a state of mind.
It’s saying what you think you’d better say,
Like it or not, because the words, not you,
Might budge some dense thing in someone’s way
(Although by speaking you are using time,
That dwindling light, that sinking sun).
Your words are not true, not original,
Not worth repeating, especially by you;
They have their purpose, they take their turn.
Midlife is the breadwinner, the driver,
The gentle nudge and the picture-taker.
Tender to those who speak to speak, and those
Who sing one more time what they fear to lose.
Little Irina Antonovna, six,
Took it upon herself to write to her aunt,
Laboriously addressing it to:
"Region of Petrograd, Max Heltz factory."
Why did she write this letter? Well, her father:
Ten years in the camps for being a scholar,
Dead by now. Her mother: dead. Neighborhood:
Wall fragments, smoke, equipment shards, Nazi bombs.
Grandfather: died of rickets while walking
Irina to safety. Grandmother: same.
The letter worked; Irina lived. Married
Dmitri, who never asked her opinions,
But did write Number Nine for her and maybe
Heard her when he wrote the gentle cello drone
That supports the opening. Or the polka--
Why couldn't that frenzied part be Irina?
Why assume she was always soft, helpful?
A young, diverse American quartet
Exhumes Dmitri and Irina for us,
His black notes crisp on their iPads, their bows
Vibrating like cicadas, their eyes flashing
Recognition, assent: one to the other.
They are pillowed in layers of safety.
A clean, bright stage, a tidy concert hall,
An audience that has heard it before
And knows just when to leap up for applause:
White-haired burghers of this college and town.
Irina's professor father would have fit
Right in, if he hadn't been starved or shot.
Little Irina would have liked to hide
Beneath that concert grand, so solidly framed.
A campus cop waits, unworried, outside.
This place is not real. What's real is in the notes.
They know starvation, midnight knocks on doors,
Cities murdered from the sky, orphans' fears,
They know, too, the terrors of the audience,
Shrunken in their seats, nervous to drive home.
Phones still ring with sad news; death sentences
Come in biopsy results. And beyond this room
A billion new Irinas plead to be spared.
See Stephen Harris, “Quartet Number Nine,” “Interview of Irina Shostakovich by Alexandre Brussilovsky,” and also “voices,” and “a poem should.”
Kuruntokai (The Short Collection) is an anthology of classical Tamil verse collected by Pooriko Nachinarkiniyar in the sixth or the seventh century CE. The poems are lyrics of love and longing. Apparently they offer layers of religious symbolism. Here are two translations of #36, giving some sense of the original:
Poem from the purple-flowered hills Talaivi says to her friend— He swore “my heart is true. I’ll never leave you.” My lover from the hills, where the manai creepers sometimes mount the shoulders of elephants asleep among the boulders, promised this on that day when he embraced my shoulders, making love to me. Why cry, my dear friend? Paranar, Kuruntokai, verse 36, translated by A. Anupama
She Said On his hills, the ma:nai creeper that usually sprawls on large round stones sometimes takes to a sleeping elephant. At parting, his arms twined with mine he gave me inviolable guarantees that he would live in my heart without parting. Friends, why do you think that is any reason for grieving? Paranar (Kuruntokai 36), translated by A.K. Ramanujan
Or #46 …
Poem from the fertile fields and fragrant trees Talaivi says— Don’t you think they have sparrows wherever he has gone, with wings like faded water lilies, bathing in the dung dust in the village streets before pecking grain from the yards and returning to their chicks in the eaves, common as evening loneliness? Mamalatan, Kuruntokai, verse 46, translated by A. Anupama
She Said Don't they really have in the land where he has gone such things as house sparrows dense-feathered, the color of fading water lilies, pecking at grain drying on yards, playing with the scatter of the fine dust of the street's manure and living with their nestlings in the angles of the penthouse and miserable evenings, and loneliness? Ma:mala:tan (Kuruntokai 46), translated by A.K. Ramanujan
I’ll try a reply:
We used to watch sparrows like this one. They'd look up at her, at me, hopeful, Head tilted: crumbs? fly away? Now it's only me. This one flutters up To hunch under an eve and wait. When the rain stops, maybe it will find a bite.
Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, lines 19-35, in my amateur translation:
Prometheus, you will always suffer under
One tyrant or another, uncomforted:
That’s the price of befriending people.
A god, you didn’t fear the rage of gods
When you gave mortals the forbidden gifts.
The penalty: you’ll always guard this rock,
This awful rock. No sleep, no rest; you can’t even
Move your leg. You just sing out your anguish
To no effect. Prometheus, it is a hard thing
To change the mind of the king of the gods.
For every new ruler is harsh and cruel.
And according to Google TranslateTM:
Arthovoulos Themidis absolutely,
Nearby of dissolvable copper
I use human ice cream
It is neither the voice nor the brute form
Light, constant flame retardant
you have to pay for flowers. Tied up
lei a variety of hidden hides,
thunderstorms if the sun again:
This is a bad thing
bury you: à à à ù ù ù
this is what I give to the philanthropic way.
God forbid, not even for the balloons
Honorable Mention I Am Out Of Trial.
There are no stone guards here
Arthostadin, Cleft, the knee flexor:
a lot of good people and good people.
Type: Two grams of unpleasant brakes.
You left me alone in the new hold.
Most trees have leafed out for two or three days.
Each leaf unfolding in place to fill its space, green;
But the trees that flowered are wilting now,
Bold blooms shrinking to leave more space between,
Dwindling to stipples along each bough.
Superimposed: a lacy screen, damascened,
Patches on a slate background--the dripping sky--
Grey except at some hidden place where a break
Must let the sun flood up to certain high
Shingles, a wire, a spire that's a streak
Of brilliant white. All silent, a still sheen,
Sheer, stretched thin to fade or end in a blaze.
Let us be glad for tangled things--
For soiled fingers raking thick-stemmed grass;
For matted fur on long, warm ears;
Or child's hair idly twisted in rings.
A thatch of ganglia fires in the brain's wet mass:
A thought--electric--splits, connects, adheres.
All things rooted, snarled, or tensed,
Whatever needs some mesh to form its mass,
With loops, forks; twists, knots; ends, tears.
Let's give thanks for things that are soft and dense.
I was so distracted, tense, and busy
That I missed the lotus bloom.
Though preoccupied and hasty
I sensed something in the room—
Caught that subtle scent of longing,
That mute yearning to be still—
But I hadn’t yet an inkling
That the flower was my will.
(Answering Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali #20, “On the Day When the Lotus Bloomed,” which begins—in Tagore’s own English translation—“On the day when the lotus bloomed, alas, my mind was straying, and I knew it not. My basket was empty and the flower remained unheeded.”)
Emerson, Lowell, cummings, and Plath,
Stevens, Roethke, Frost, MacLeish, and Hall,
Ashbery, Bishop, Eliot and Rich–
I write them down in verse, shuffling their names
To fill my lines, making them my material,
They who took all the words I want to use.
(Longfellow, his house a federal shrine,
Is too “historic” to trouble me much.
Phyllis Wheatley, too, but all honor to her;
And grey Amherst is a world apart.)
My adopted city is still more theirs than mine,
Though they have settled into matte darkness
While I still walk the prosaic blocks,
Narrow sidewalks, double-decker homes,
Gingerbread, brutalism, and maple leaves,
And belligerent drunks who own their spots
Until the streetlights dim and the town stirs.
— Cambridge, MA, November 2018
Political prisoner K. was sentenced to solitary, with only cement walls, a cot, a stinking bucket, and a food slot for company.
One day, on his way back from interrogation, he saw a tattered paperback on the floor. The guard let him take it with him. It turned out to be Letting Your Inner Boss Shout by Dr. Bradford P. Bradley, PhD.
K. was enraged at first by its solecisms, trivialities, cliches and lexical trespasses. Anything would be better than this! After reading it several times without finding any value in its Six Winning Strategies for Asserting Your True Needs in an Office Context, he began selecting fragments from the pages. The rule was to leave chosen words in place but hide the rest. For instance:
Another game: rearranging all the words of a sentence to say something better:
The Six remember. Strategies, always.
True, winners: their real minds speak.
These activities engaged K’s. attention for several days, but something kept intruding. Or rather, someone. Dr Bradley, PhD.–Brad Bradley–just Brad. Was he raggedly bearded and balding, with spots on his head and long speeches to give? Or a young guy, bored out of his mind, looking for new life though writing? A pseudonymous woman, quiet observer of her office culture? An ironist, chuckling as he typed?
K. couldn’t quite tell. Alternatives multiplied into a whole community of Brads.
The real author, whoever it might be, seemed to deserve the respect of attention. Maybe Brad really had only five strategies in mind, but the book was too short and he’d wracked his poor brain until he came up with a sixth to pad the pages. Or maybe Brad knew that eleven strategies were necessary for achieving your life goals, but the cheapskate publisher forced him to cut five of them, and now he was worried to death about his misinformed readers.
It was good, in any case, to have a companion. The six strategies had been meant as gifts; perhaps it would be better to accept them as such. With thanks, even.
Prisoner K. and Dr. B. Just the two of them, in solitary but not solitary. Shouting their inner bosses. Hearing the other’s shouts. Having someone to walk with blindfolded to the final wall.
(Chicago, Sept. 20)