Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Weeds in the Forum




Have been torturing myself on the rack of prose, so this poem by José Emilio Pacheco seemed particularly apt. Taken from Inside Out, Selected Poetry and Translations by Alastair Reid (Polygon, 2008)


Roman conversation

In Rome that poet told me:
You cannot imagine how it saddens me to see you
writing ephemeral prose in magazines.

There are weeds in the Forum. The wind
anoints the pollen with dust.

Under the great marble sun, Rome changes
from ocher to yellow,
to sepia, to bronze.

Everywhere something is breaking down.
Our times are cracking.
It is summer
and you cannot walk through Rome.
So much grandeur enslaved. Chariots
charge against both men and cities.

Companies and phalanxes and legions,
missiles or coffins,
scrap iron,
ruins which will be ruins.

Grasses grow,
fortuitous seeds in the marble.
And garbage in the unremembering streets:
tin cans, paper, scrap.
The consumer's cycle: affluence
is measured by its garbage.

It is hot. We keep on walking.
I have no wish to answer
or to ask myself
if anything written today
will make a mark
any deeper than the pollen in the ruins.

Possibly our verses will last as long
as a 69 Ford
(and certainly not as long as a Volkswagen).

Translated by Alastair Reid

Monday, May 17, 2010

Why translation matters

Michael Hofmann argues for the importance of translation, reviewing Why Translation Matters by Edith Grossman

Thanks to Jorge Fondebrider for sending the link to Richard Howard's New York Times review of the same book

Monday, May 10, 2010

Dead Poets' Society




Jorge Luis Borges

To a minor poet of the anthology

Where are the days
that were yours on earth, that mingled
joy and sorrow and were the universe for you?

The river of years
has lost them; you’re a word in an index.

The gods gave others immortal fame:
of you, dark friend, all we know
is that one evening you heard the nightingale.

Among the asphodels of the underworld
your proud shade
might think the gods harsh.

But the days are a tangle of paltry needs
and is there a blessing richer than the ash
of which oblivion’s made?

For others the gods kindled
the relentless light of fame, which pokes in every crevice
and finds out every flaw,
fame which ends up shrivelling
the rose it treasures.

They were kinder to you, brother:
in the ecstasy of a dusk which will never darken
you listen still to Theocritus’s nightingale.


'The river of years' is a bit of a shortcut, translation by omission. The original is 'El río numerable de los años' but I couldn't think what to do with 'numerable'. W.S. Merwin, in his version of this poem, translates those lines as

The river of years has lost them
from its numbered current

which is one way. He also translates the title, which in Spanish is 'A un poeta menor de la antología' as 'To a Minor Poet of the Greek Anthology', which is no doubt what Borges was referring to. I left it non-specific. It might as well be The Penguin Book of Hittite or Irish Verse. Anyway, I liked the poem. Reminds me too of Wilbur's 'To the Etruscan Poets':

Dream fluently, still brothers, who when young
Took with your mother's milk the mother tongue,

In which pure matrix, joining world and mind,
You strove to leave some line of verse behind

Like still fresh tracks across a field of snow,
Not reckoning that all could melt and go.