“To a Cat”

Panther in the Wild

If you look hard at my life, you will see that it is like a marginal gloss to the poems, essays, and stories of the Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges. Ever since I first came across his work around 1970, I have returned to it again and again as to an ineffable guide. Here is one of his poems, called “To a Cat.” I have visited the zoo in the Palermo district of Buenos Aires where Borges probably got the inspiration for this poem.

Jungle Waterfalls at Buenos Aires Zoo (2011)

To a Cat

Mirrors are not more silent
nor the creeping dawn more secretive;
in the moonlight, you are that panther
we catch sight of from afar.
By the inexplicable workings of a divine law,
we look for you in vain;
More remote, even, than the Ganges or the setting sun,
yours is the solitude, yours the secret.
Your haunch allows the lingering
caress of my hand. You have accepted,
since that long forgotten past,
the love of the distrustful hand.
You belong to another time. You are lord
of a place bounded like a dream.

 

The Only Language the Devil Respects

Hungarian Poet Borbély Szilárd (1963-2014)

This post is a tribute to my strange native language, Hungarian, which is one of only four non-Indo-European languages in Europe. (The others are Basque, Estonian, and Finnish.) It is also a tribute to one of the great Hungarian poets of our time: Borbély Szilard. Get the pronunciation right: It’s BOHRR-bay SEE-lard.

I have decided to print the following poem first in English translation, and then in the original Magyar language. My intent is to show you what a strange language Hungarian is, so alien from any other language you may know. In his novel Budapest, the Brazilian novelist Chico Buarque writes that Hungarian “is rumoured to be the only tongue in the world the devil respects.”

Computer, Evening

There are certain moments in the evening when
one is too tired to do more.
Just to sit quietly. Not tired enough for sleep,
but not really energetic either. You read a few lines

from Kosztolányi about autumn and the soul, mysterious
way stations, the passing of time. For time is like life
itself: it leaves its imprint on the body alone.
In consciousness, on the soul, or the relational

structures of language. I don’t really know. Someone looks
out from the window, to see the stars growing distant
or whatever else they are doing. And thinks about

this: between the stars and the earth, he lived. Afraid
to sleep. Like a child in the evening, always seeking
a pretext. While the computer’s screen saver swirls.

Now for the original Magyar:

A Számítógép Este

Vannak azok a pillanatok este, amikor
az ember fáradt már bármit csinálni.
Csak ül csendben. Még nem álmos, de
nem is friss. Olvas néhány Kosztolányi

sort lélekről, őszről, titokzatos megállókról,
elmúlódő időről. Mert az idő is olyan, mint
az élet: csupán a testen hagy nyomot.
A tudatban, a lélekben vagy a nyelv

viszonyrendszerébden. Nem is tudom. Valaki
kinéz az ablakon, hogy távol a csillagok
vajon mit is csinálnak. Elgondolkodik azon,

hogy a föld és a csillagok közt élt ő. Fél
elaludni. Mint a gyerek este, kifogást
keres. Amíg táncol a képernyőkímélő.

I don’t expect you to understand a word of the Hungarian. It is one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn. But it was the first language I learned, and it has had a lasting effect on my life. First of all, it is an agglutinative language, like Turkish, Korean, and Swahili. It puts together elements into long words such as viszonyrendszerébden (relational structures of language) and képernyőkímélő (screen saver). Note also the double acute accent in words such as őszről (about autumn). It represents a lengthening of the umlauted vowel sound.

The reference to Kosztolányi is to Hungarian poet and prose writer Dezső Kosztolányi (1885-1936).

 

 

 

“A Toast to Inyo”

The House at Laws Railroad Museum Where I Found the Poem Framed on the Wall

Hitherto, whenever I have presented a poem, it had a certain literary quality which justified the effort to puzzle it out. This time, I am reprinting a poem which I saw framed on a wall in one of the houses at the Laws Railroad Museum near Bishop, California. So at one and the same time, it is a poem and an artifact of a particular time and place which are increasingly remote to us.

Toast to Inyo

Here’s to Inyo, well beloved,
With her smiling skies so fair,
Here’s to her Sierras tall,
With their grand and stately air.

Here’s to the pioneers, old and gray,
Many of whom have passed away,
And solved the mystery, which all
Of us must solve some day.

Few there are who now remain
To remind us of the past;
Foremost in our hearts are they,
And as our “nobles” they are classed.

Here’s to the wives and mothers true
Who did their very best
To make this lovely vale of ours
A home of peace and rest.

Here’s to the noble sons and brave
Who hallow the colors three;
Smiling at the foeman’s frown,
Ready to fight for liberty.

Here’s to the daughters, fair and good;
With laughing eyes so sparkling bright,
With rosy cheeks and golden hair,
The world they hold within their might.

Remember then, whe’er you go,
There’s no place like “home sweet home;”
And think of dear old Inyo,
As o’er the wide world you roam.

I rather suspect that the poem was written around the time of the First World War based on the “foeman” in the fifth stanza.

Home from Abroad

British Poet and Writer Laurie Lee (1914-1997)

I have just finished reading a wonderful book of Laurie Lee’s travels in Spain during the mid 1930s, when he walked out of his Gloucester village, wound up in Spain, walked for hundreds of miles across Spain to Andalusia—at which point Spain erupted in its Civil War. He was evacuated by a British destroyer in July 1936. His book, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, is a travel classic and gives a better picture of life in Spain than I have ever read. Doing further research on him, I discovered that Lee also wrote poetry, among which was the following poem about his travels:

Home from Abroad

Far-fetched with tales of other worlds and ways,
My skin well-oiled with wines of the Levant,
I set my face into a filial smile
To greet the pale, domestic kiss of Kent.

But shall I never learn? That gawky girl,
Recalled so primly in my foreign thoughts,
Becomes again the green-haired queen of love
Whose wanton form dilates as it delights.

Her rolling tidal landscape floods the eye
And drowns Chianti in a dusky stream;
he flower-flecked grasses swim with simple horses,
The hedges choke with roses fat as cream.

So do I breathe the hayblown airs of home,
And watch the sea-green elms drip birds and shadows,
And as the twilight nets the plunging sun
My heart’s keel slides to rest among the meadows.

For all his travels, Lee ended up in the Gloucestershire village from where he started. How curious!

 

“Eating Poetry”

Canadian-American Poet Mark Strand (1934-2014)

I had not heard of Mark Strand until I read an interview between him and Wallace Shawn that is reprinted in Shawn’s Essays. The following is one of his most famous poems. It is also a hoot.

Eating Poetry
Ink runs from the corners of my mouth
There is no happiness like mine
I have been eating poetry.
The librarian does not believe what she sees.
Her eyes are sad
and she walks with her hands in her dress.
The poems are gone.
The light is dim.
The dogs are on the basement stairs and coming up.
Their eyeballs roll,
Their blond legs burn like brush.
The poor librarian begins to stamp her feet and weep.
She does not understand.
When I get on my knees and lick her hand,
she screams.
I am a new man.
I snarl at her and bark.
I romp with joy in the bookish dark.

 

Reading Russian Poetry in Translation

I Love Russian Poetry, But I Don’t Know Russian

I get a real feeling of inadequacy every time I read Russian poetry in translation. How can one really appreciate a country’s poetry unless one speaks the language? What Russian I know relates only to, of all things, chess. I used to play international correspondence chess in competition, so I had to understand certain terms such as “position drawn” or “resigns” or the names of the pieces in several languages. That doesn’t help me understand what Marina Tsvetaeva meant in the above illustration. I’ve read Tsvetaeva and several of her countrymen in translation. Most recently, I read Arseny Tarkovsky’s collection I Burned at the Feast.

Again and again, I would run into stanzas that seemed to open vistas for me—only to wonder how the poem read in the original language. Here are a few examples:

A word is only a skin,
a thin film of human lots,
and any line in your poem
can sharpen the knife of your fate.

Or this:

Something was leading us.
Built by miracle, whole cities split—
like mirages before our eyes.
And mint bowed beneath our feet,
and birds hovered above our heads,
and fish nosed against the river’s flow,
and the sky unscrolled above the land…

while behind us, fate followed
like a madman with a razor in his hand.

Russians love the poetry of Pushkin, but I have no idea of what he sounds like in the original Russian. Sometime in the next year, I will read Babette Deutsch’s translation of Eugene Onegin. But is it really any good? Some people say it is, but I am at the mercy of whatever translation I select.

 

In Ignatievo Forest

Russian Forest Scene

Today I have made the acquaintance of a major Russian poet named Arseny Tarkovsky. If that last name is more than a little familiar to you, it is because his son Andrei Tarkovsky is one of the greatest postwar Russian filmmakers. Curiously, Arseny’s first published collection came out in 1962, when the poet was 55 years old; and his son Andrei made him famous by quoting his poems in his films Mirror (1974) and Stalker (1979). (And Stalker is one of my favorite films—ever!)

The following poem, “Ignatievo Forest” was written in 1935. According to the notes in the collection I am reading, it deals with the difficult relationship with the poet’s first wife, Maria Ivanovna Vishnyakova (1907-1979), mother of Andrei, whom he divorced in 1937.

Ignatievo Forest

The last leaves in self-immolation
burn and rise to sky. The whole forest here
lives and breathes the same irritation
we lived and breathed in our last year.

In your tear-blurred eyes the path’s a mirror
as the gloomy flood-plain mirrors the shrubs.
Don’t fuss, do not disturb, don’t touch
or threaten the wood’s wet quiet. Here,

the old life breathes. Just listen:
in damp grass, slimy mushrooms appear.
Slugs gnaw their way to the core,
though a damp itch still tingles the skin.

You’ve known how love is like a threat:
when I come back, you’ll wish you were dead.
The sky shivers in reply, holds a maple like a rose.
Let it burn hotter—till it almost reaches our eyes.

The collection I am reading is called I Burned at the Feast. The book is overdue at the L.A. Central Library, and I cannot endure the thought of returning it until I am finished with it, even though it will cost me a few bucks.