Saturday, October 30, 2004

Three Faces

In the upper right hand corner of the cluttered bulletin board above my desk at work are three images.

The first is a picture of Kaethe Kollwitz' 1935 sculpture Rest In The Peace Of His Hands. I don't remember when or from where I scissored out this image, but I've had it for years and it's been tacked or taped to a long succession of my walls. I suspect it dates from around 1986. That's the year I wrote a long poem called "The Mummies of Qilaqitsoq," about a group of several women and one infant that had been discovered in 1972, mummified by cold, in a Greenland cave. The remarkable cache was dated to the 1400s, and a photo of the dead infant boy reminded me of Kollwitz' funerary bronze. At that time my son was six and, like many new mothers, I was living in a constant, harrowed state of anticipatory grief. Kollwitz, of course, is an artist who speaks directly to protective maternal love and maternal grief .

This mezzo-relievo she cast in bronze
entitled “Rest In The Peace Of His Hands,”
was intended for her tomb -- Kollwitz,
this artist of mother, child and death.
Her head, with a slight tilt, leans
back into his chest, so her face,
in an ambiguous repose, lies
between bronze drapes she holds fast
beneath her chin even in sleep
or death. Her fist is small
and heart-shaped. It lies in the angle
formed by the two large hands
that surround and hold her,
encircling, but not grasping her.

It is an image of Judeo-Christian consolation: God as source, parent, protector, over-arching wing, and the place to which we return for our final, sheltered sleep.

The second image is of a meditating Buddha. It is a slender Thai Buddha, attenuated and serene.

It is also an icon of repose. The expressions on the two faces are similar -- relaxed, free of strain, at peace. But it's not sleep or death that is depicted on the Buddha's face but awakening, which is also called, paradoxically, cessation -- cessation of all that separates us from the ground of being, Buddha-nature. Cessation of greed, hatred and the illusion of a separate self.

The last is a reproduction of a painting by Goya, Portrait of General José Manuel Romero that I clipped from a cover of a medical journal.

The tiny head, its face scowling and dyspeptic, sits atop a gigantic torso, clad with full military grandiosity. With his arcanely embellished, out-thrust chest with its plates of stiff embroidery and broad scarlet ribbon bow-tied above the buttocks, he reminds me of a rooster, tail and all. He's the cock of the walk who struts and blusters boisterously all about the barnyard.

Cock-a-doodle-doo ! Th' terrr'sts, see, they hate freedom ! Make no mistake about it, ah'm a wo-ah prez-nit ! An ah'm gonna stay the course !

He's sublimely ridiculous, but dangerous and in charge, the deadly antithesis to both Kollwitz's Parent-and-child and the meditating Buddha.

Turn on CNN and you will see him in all his squawking, lethal guises.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

It is time.

As I walked along the river yesterday I kept hearing the opening words of Rilke's "Autumn Day."

Lord: it is time.

Herr: es ist Zeit.

It was, of course, an autumn day, dark, raw, disheveled, threatening rain. Despite two pairs of socks, my feet were cold. The holes in the index fingers of my thin, black gloves were enlarging. Lord: It is time. Time for what ?

It is time to buy gloves. To lower the storm windows. To change my life.

The phrase is similar in English and German: the prayerful salutation, the colon's stark pause, the simple declaration. A translator's dream. Even the sounds -- the soft r's of Lord and Herr, then the thinner, harder i's and t's -- are close.

It is time. All of it. The beginning, middle and end. The folding and the unfolding. The brown river running east behind the trees. The books of photos from lavender grape hyachinth pushing out from under pine needles to the dusky purple-black of the bittersweet nightshade leaves. The "immense," the "huge," the "sehr groß" summer dwindling to tatters on skeletal branches and vines. These cold hands that will get colder and colder still.

The phrase recalls the biblical utterance It is finished. It is over. Christ is dead. The last chord sounds, and silence follows. The music persists as pure potential, ready to be resurrected at any moment in any ear. Or, from the Vulgate: Consummatum est. In Rilke's poem there is the Vollendung, the fulfillment, the completion, the consummation of summer's fruits. And Christ crucified is not simply finished. He is ripe. Ready for harvest, for our tables. Our tongues. The German bible reads Es ist vollbracht. Brought to fullness. Achieved. Voll. Full.

And in Greek, the language of the New testament ? An oddly actuarial phrase. Tetelestai. Paid in full. The transaction is complete. You are the proud owner. Your debt is paid off. You ate the forbidden apple, Death gaped in you. Here is the fruit that will fill that abyss. Eat it and you'll be whole again.

I have no church now and will never have one. My body, my hermitage is permeable to wind and rain. My monastary is the wide, fractured world. Everything in it is scripture, ideogram: branches against sky, emerging ribs of leaves, fallen pine-needles, feathers, stalks, pods, nuts, tendrils, tufts, burrs, seeds. And every word that evokes it seems a prayer.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Dear Mr Kerry ,

Why do you consider shooting creatures like these

a legitimate political act ?

If you must bring non-human animals into politics, wouldn't visiting someplace like this be a more powerful counter to this than donning camouflage and killing birds ?

Friday, October 15, 2004


The yellow was irresistible, a vestige of high summer in darkening autumn, so I stopped and framed the goldenrod in my viewfinder. As I focused and waited for the wind and my hand to become still, an intruder entered the frame and dove, famished, into the buttery froth. Startled, frightened, I snapped the picture and backed off.

There's something about a wasp that the even disassociating buffer of a camera can't mitigate.

She was a willowy woman with a swan neck, doe eyes, apple-cheeks and a peaches and cream complexion. Or perhaps she was simply wasp-waisted and archnodactylous. Dog-eared, pigeon-breasted and extremely catty. A real bitch.

The other day a Karen Carpenter song came over some muzak or another. As usual, I cringed at the bland, beige, uninflected voice, all veneer and cheerfulness, a creepily pretty voice, edgeless and flawless. A lukewarm porridge of a voice. A treacly gruel of a voice.

Wasp-waisted. It's not an inviting image. It evokes not just visual thinness -- the Victorian, whale-bone corseted, hourglass-shaped woman -- but also an overtly masculine, even phallic dangerousness and aggressiveness. Carpenter's voice was not wasp-waisted in the least.

Dr Mack once asked me what I thought he saw when he looked at me.

I was just emerging from a flirtation with starvation, a reprise of something I'd done years prior with no treatment beyond our useless GP's diagnosis and prescription: You look like an Auschwitz survivor. You should eat. I remember, on one of many of that summer's long, anguished, kcal-burning walks, encountering a toddler standing on the sidewalk eating a sandwich. Baloney on white bread. The most normal thing in the world, eating a baloney sandwich, was beyond me. The pathos was overwhelming. Eventually, at the increasingly strident behest of the starving animal to which I was fastened, I ate. And, starved, kept eating until there was nothing left. Then I ate some more.

This time, six years later, visibly dwindling, I'd extracted a muted threat of hospital from Dr Mack. This was unheard of in our long, therapeutic conversation. He was about interpretation, not intervention. I was forcing his hand. Acting out. What power I wielded in my regression ! Not just over my body, but over him. The power of a screeching infant.

Having gotten what I wanted -- the proffer of a Freudian breast -- I reluctantly turned back to health, and grew, inevitably, anxiously, more normal in appearance. I hated it. I felt grotesque.

What do you imagine I see when I look at you ?

I have no idea.

His reply, unrecorded, lost to thirty years, was probably short and dry. Discreet and objective. But I've always remembered one phrase.

A slight woman.

The proffer of a mirror.

That's all 30 years ago. He's been dead for three weeks. I barely recognize the person who wrote page upon page of tormented journal entries on body, gender, hunger. I can call up the queer intimacy of therapy and analysis as if it were yesterday: my lonliness, isolation and confusion, and his unwavering presence. Though gone, he's here still. Disseminated in the hundreds and hundreds of lives he's touched. That doesn't much help the grief.

It's odd how neuroses and symptoms become quietly folded into character. I am, I suppose, slightly female; I eat enough, but oddly: vegan, on the fringe. An ember of the old pleasure in shrinking is in there somewhere, burning like a perverse eternal flame at the tomb of a half-dead, rejected former self. It flares up at the oddest times. Like the thought I had, when, at 3 am, after 15 hours in the ER and the diagnosis of a broken neck, the nurse finally brought me to a room and slid me into a hospital bed. A bed, diabolically enough, that contained a scale. She peered down and announced my weight. This thought popped out:

Three pounds less than I thought ! Cool !

Oh for goodness sakes, you tedious ninny, I replied, as if swatting at a half-dead, persistent wasp, Do shut up.

Thursday, October 07, 2004


Yellow, yes; jaune, of course. Amarillo ? A cousin of yellow. But gelb ? I looked up, disappointed but not surprised, from my German-English dictionary. Gelb. Gelb !

But "yellow" is no more yellow than "gelb," after all. It's a small miracle that "yellow" floods my mind's eye with, well, yellow. Just as "gelb" presumably floods Greta's eye with gelb. But there is something in it of the old question about the dog and Buddha Nature. Does a Jerusalem Artichoke have Yellow Nature ? Mu !

And, come to think of it, it's got an alias or two: girasole, earth apple. Girasole -- get it ? -- turns with the sun, sunflower. And, playing botanical charades, it sounds like Jerusalem.

And, I read, it has an edible, tuberous root. Like a potato. Like a pomme de terre.

And what about the ubiquitous, autumnal air potato ? As in Frost's poem ?

For I have had too much
Of apple-picking. I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down and not let fall.

Words, words words. Ten thousand thousand words. To touch, cherish and lift down onto the page. No wonder the poet is weary and has taken to staring at the hoary grass

...through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough

Consider two translations of Rilke's famous, autumnal poem from The Book of Hours

The first, Robert Bly's I think, begins

Already the ripening barberries are red
and the old asters hardly breathe in their beds

and ends with (you being God)

... And you are like a stone
that draws him daily deeper into the depths.

The language is simple, stately, anaphoric. The speaker describes the man who is not "rich" by harvest time, not full of a confident, vision-generating interior darkness. "No days open" to him and everything that does happen "cheats" him, "Even you, my God," prays the speaker.

But then the speaker calls God a "stone" "drawing" the unfulfilled old man "deeper into the depths" -- an image that is the mystical antithesis of the "God" who "cheats," the merely conceptual God, the idea of God.

The other translation begins

The red barberries are about to ripen,
the old chrysanthemums heave

and ends with the old man considering everything, "even you dear Lord," "blatant lies."

... And you become a stone
to him, one that drags him down.

Here the lie, the cheat, the conceptual "God" simply "drags him down." There is no implicit mystical movement in this translation as there seems to be in Bly's. Bly's uses the softer, gentler, less violent verb "draws." The heavy alliteration -- "draws him daily deeper into the depths" is like gravity; the man is drawn into the depths of himself by God that resides there, heavy as a stone. A mystic involution, involuntary. Even though "deeper into the depths" is annoyingly redundant, it makes its point.

"Drags" is a harsh verb. I picture someone sinking in water, drowning, pulled down by a stone.

And the last lines in German ?

Und wie ein Stein bist du
in tagliche in die Tiefe zieht.

I speak no German. My German dictionary makes my eyes cross -- all those strings of consonants and ie/ei words. But I extract several key words --

You stone
daily depth draw

...and can't help thinking that Bly has been more faithful to the text. Indeed, listen to the book's opening stanza via the second translator:

The clock has struck and nudges me
with clear metallic beats:
My senses tremble. I feel I am able --
and I tackle the day that greets.

How can I begin to enumerate the infelicities ? The worst is the overwhelmingly clumsy and unnatural "tackle the day that greets," obviously chosen to rhyme with "beats." The second line in German is "mit klarem, metallenem schlag." "Schlag" means blow or beat, and, since "pulschlag" is pulse beat, Rilke seems to have chosen it to imply human pulse or heart beat. So "beats" is a reasonable choice for translation. But it "sounds" wrong. At least to my ear. I think musical beats more than heartbeats, maybe resisting the anthropomorphized, pulsing clock that's rousing the speaker into sensibility.

Then take the last two lines:

mir zittern die Sinne. Ich fuhle: Ich kann --
und ich fasse den plastichen tag.

Where is "plastichen" in the translation ? And why didn't she chose "I can" instead of "I am able" ? Surely not for the silly off rhyme of tremble and able ! "I can" also has a nifty, built-in GMHopkins homage --

Not, I'll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist -- slack as they may be -- these last strands of man
In me or, most weary, cry I can no more . I can;

-- how could she have resisted it ? Is there really a "clock" (uhr) that "nudges" (stupsen) in line one -- Da neigt sich die Stunde und rührt mich an ? And what does babelfish, a useful albeit stupid machine, have to say about all this ? It's not clever enough to chose "beats" for its implied pulse, but it's more faithful to Rilke's images --

there the hour leans and touches me
with clear metallic impact
me the senses tremble. I feel: I can
-- and I seize the plastic day

-- a leaning, touching hour is not the same as a nudging clock.

This translator has attempted to preserve Rilke's rhyme and meter and sacrifices fidelity to his images to that end. Well, one's rhetorical allegiances must go somewhere, I suppose.

Words, words, words: our grand, imperfect harvest, the thorny thicket where I've lost my way. If mere naming is a slippery and fraught enterprise, how can translation ever hope to succeed ? Is God -- "God" -- a lie or a stone ? If I had no eyes, what would "yellow" or "gelb" be to me ? And what is the eye that can realize "God" ? Do I need a neurophysiologist or a priest ? A translator or a poet ?

Is "God" Father Son and Holy Spirit in the same way that a sunflower is yellow ?

And if I sit here long enough, eyelessly enough, until all vestiges of "God" and "gelb" (and "rough" and "tall" and "crucified") are burned away, then what ?

Enlightenment, the Kingdom or just some human sleep ?

Saturday, October 02, 2004


A year or so ago I moved my journals -- 35 volumes, spanning 1971-1994 -- from bookshelf to closet shelf, then closed the door. A faint smell leaks out from time to time, not so much the frank stench of putrefying corpse, as the sour, stale odor of sloughed epithelium -- toe jam, navel lint. But that smell is far less nauseating than the sight of them there in all their bald, naked, narcissistic magnificence.

My body of work, my corpus, my wordy effigy.

I should really burn them. But ice figures more prominently in my metaphoric life than fire. So they're doing ice time, prison lingo for time spent in isolation, in solitary confinement.

Most of the notebooks are black speckled composition books with unlined pale green paper, utilitarian, academic blank books. Some, which I bought when I couldn't find the proper speckled ones, have green cardboard covers. Two thirds of them are handwritten. The later ones have typewritten entries, on paper trimmed and taped to the blank pages. The tape is brittle and failing. The typed entries are beginning to yellow, detach and fall out, as if striving to attain some state beyond chronology, leaving behind big gaps in the record. Disorienting, dementing. The last volume is simply a black three-ring binder of word-processed entries.

And after that ? A computer file (9.01-12.03) named "Pue de Soi," journal finally reduced entirely to gas: electrons and stink. Cleaner, and oh so much easier to dispose of the evidence: just hit delete. What is it when solids go directly to vapor without the intervening liquid phase ? Sublime ? Yeah, right.

And between 1994 and 2001 ? Poems. Lots of poems. Again, the bodies pile up, viz. the six bulging thesis binders (1970-2004) still squatting in plain sight in my study,

even though the stack of little magazines where some of their poems have been published has long since been evicted to the back room.

I note with amusement tinged with unease that, on the floor of my room, in front of a low bookcase, is a pile of twelve photo albums, record of nearly a year of looking at weeds.

Logorrhea ? Syllogomania ?

Keeping a journal served to make me feel more real, in the same way that a mirror does. An admiration. It provided me with a reassuringly structured, narrative meta-self that cohered and made sense. It relieved the claustrophobia, the loneliness, of simply experiencing myself. It projected me outward, as in projectile vomiting, as in being too full of myself, as in having swallowed myself whole. It transformed me into an artifact in page after page of writing and rewriting, as if I were a tree continually shedding and regrowing its leaves.

There's something of this in public writing, too, a tawdry little psychodrama that goes on behind the text. My poems range from the frankly confessional to the impersonal. But having my words read is a little like being seen, being reflected in the mirror of the reader's eye. But at several removes. Like eye contact filtered through two pairs of dark glasses, or bounced off the surface of an intervening moon. The text is an emissary, a surrogate I send out into the world to do my dirty work. It's my bag man.

And what about all those weed photos ?

You'd think they'd be the least personal, most objective of all my accumulated artifacts, where the explicit self is at its most covert. But aren't they, after all, just a creepy, Jeffrey-Dahmer like invitation to come inside me and look out at the world through my eyes ?