Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

The poetry of Ha Jin

Sunday, June 12th, 2011

Ha Jin

While in New Hope, Pa., the other weekend, I stepped inside the cheerfully cluttered independent, Farley’s Bookshop. I love “real” bookstores and Farley’s has got its scruffy act down pat. In the lively, dusty rooms filled with book-lover’s delights, I found racks devoted to small, independent publishers that Farley’s believes are publishing some of the most important and vibrant writing in the country.

Among the racks were a few shelves devoted to the hip-sounding Brooklyn publisher of poetry, Hanging Loose Press, and my hand involuntarily reached out to purchase Wreckage, a book of poetry by the Chinese-American National Book Award winner, Ha Jin.

Ha Jin’s novel, Waiting, is easily one of the best books I read in the course of the last decade. Its haunting, true-to-life elegance is still with me years after I read it. However, after reading the Collected Poems of the Irish grandmaster, John Montague, Ha Jin’s poetry comes off a little clunky. The poetry of Waiting is, oddly, missing here. But Ha Jin’s poems are still fascinating in their own right, particularly when you remember he is writing in a language he learned later in life.

Among the laments against the brutality of the Chinese Communist authorities, for example, I came across a hair-raising poem called, “Cleansing The Body.” It’s about how a boy’s father and uncle ritualistically get him drunk and cut off his penis and balls, a sacrificial offering to the family’s ambition. Harrowing stuff. I leave you with the poem’s last two stanzas:

Father had fried my genitals,
wrapped them in a piece of waxed paper,
and put them in a lacquered box
which sits on a beam in our roof.
That’s his way to wish
for my rise in court.

Last week a senior eunuch said
my nine-year-old privates
could join me only in my grave.

The Liz and John story

Friday, April 29th, 2011

My old friend, Elizabeth Wassell, at her Dangerous Pity book launch

My wife and I recently reconnected with an old friend from Sarah Lawrence College. When we were young and poor in New York, Elizabeth Wassell was our elfin-voiced friend who shortly after she graduated from SLC was scratching a living as a food critic. Liz always had an extraordinary way with language, and I remember standing next to her at some gathering of neurotic New Yorkers, listening to her describe the “succulent morsels” she had just eaten. The shockingly inventive language she used to recreate the food can only be described as semi-erotic, and I have a vague memory of Liz trailing a pod of anorexics and bulimics, hanging on to her every word.

Today Liz has four novels under her belt. I just read her latest, Dangerous Pity. In this spookily-entertaining book set in Nice, Liz explores what one critic described as the “host-parasite” relationship between famous author and stalker. Her premise: the writer invites in the stalker, making him equally culpable in the mess that ensues. Great story – and very true, I think. Liz tells me she is now returning to her food-writing origins in the soon-to-be-published, Sustenance. Should be entertaining!

Among the many pleasant surprises we discovered during our catching-up: Liz is married to John Montague, the great Irish poet.

The poet, John Montague

Montague, born in Brooklyn but Irish to the roots of his hair, is a name I recall from my 18 years in London. (Montague was the first poet to occupy the Ireland Chair Of Poetry, the Irish equivalent of Britain’s Poet Laureate). I never got around to reading the work of this particular literary lion at the time, but am now relishing Montague’s Collected Poems (1995). I am struck by his uncanny ability to give a clear sense of Irish history and strife with prose-like clarity, but through the most astoundingly lyrical language and imagery. I suppose that is the very essence of Ireland.

And, for all his important chronicling of Irish bloodshed and human heartache, I must confess I am growing increasingly partial to Montague’s love poems. Here’s the haiku-like opening stanza of Tracks, an exquisite poem about a couple making love in a hotel, first published in Montague’s prize-winning, The Great Cloak (1978.)

The vast bedroom
a hall of air,
our linked bodies
lying there.

Basho couldn’t have said it better.

Sarah Lawrence College Comes Through

Friday, April 15th, 2011

Sarah Lawrence College

Bless Sarah Lawrence College. A double bless for its erudite and efficient librarian, Charling (Sha) Fagan.

I mentioned to Sha I was stumped about finding a Rilke poem in its German original, which in English is known as Sometimes A Man Stands Up During Supper. It had caught my imagination as a Robert Bly translation, and seemed to so well sum up my next novel, Buddhaland Brooklyn.

Literally 30 seconds later the Sarah Lawrence College librarian had the original poem at my finger tips. So here is the original, care of the fantastic Sha Fagan.

It is, despite Bly’s sensitive translation, better in German – the children of the second man are “ziehn,” which really means “drawn” or “pulled”, almost against their will. That’s better, although no question Bly caught the poem’s essence and meaning very well in English.

Manchmal steht einer auf beim Abendbrot

Manchmal steht einer auf beim Abendbrot
und geht hinaus und geht und geht und geht, –
weil eine Kirche wo im Osten steht.

Und seine Kinder segnen ihn wie tot.

Und einer, welcher stirbt in seinem Haus,
bleibt drinnen wohnen, bleibt in Tisch und Glas,
so dass die Kinder in die Welt hinaus
zu jener Kirche ziehn, die er vergaß
. -Rainer Maria Rilke

Rainer Maria Rilke: He got it

Thursday, April 14th, 2011

This is the poem, by the great German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Robert Bly, that best sums up my novel, Buddhaland Brooklyn. I am trying to locate the German original. Please do drop a note if you know where I can find it among Rilke’s many tomes. I believe the poem is untitled in the original, although it is referred to as Sometimes A Man Stands Up During Supper in English translations.

Sometimes a man stands up during supper
and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,
because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.

And his children say blessings on him as if he were dead.

And another man, who remains inside his own house,
dies there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,
so that his children have to go far out into the world
toward the same church, which he forgot

Rainer Maria Rilke

A poem in offering to the literary gods

Monday, February 7th, 2011

Poet-painter, Yosa Buson

As my novel, Buddhaland Brooklyn, is poured over at my publisher, I make a silent offering.

From one of the classic Japanese poet-painters, Yosa Buson (1716-1783), a haiku capturing the sentiment of my little book:

In a bitter wind
a solitary monk bends
to words cut in stone

Snow falling haiku

Friday, January 28th, 2011

Masoaka Shiki

The skies are grey, my daughter is home for the weekend, and I am cleaning out my closets. Perfect time to make another respectful offering to the literary gods as my novel, Buddhaland Brooklyn, makes its way in the world. Here is a seasonally appropriate haiku from Masoaka Shiki (1867 – 1902).

snow’s falling
I see it through a hole
in the shutter….

A love note from my wife

Friday, January 21st, 2011

Poet and physician, William Carlos Williams

8.07AM Philadelphia. Note from my fantastic wife:

I just read this poem by William Carlos Williams and thought of you:

“Danse Russe”

If when my wife is sleeping
and the baby and Kathleen
are sleeping
and the sun is a flame-white disc
in silken mists
above shining trees, —
if I in my north room
dance naked, grotesquely
before my mirror
waving my shirt round my head
and singing softly to myself:
“I am lonely, lonely.
I was born to be lonely,
I am best so!”
If I admire my arms, my face,
my shoulders, flanks, buttocks
against the yellow drawn shades, —

Who shall say I am not
the happy genius of my household?

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