A Fire Was In My Head

Rhythm Is Pre-Memory: Reading Yusef Komunyakaa
21 February 2009, 3:42 pm
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For nearly two months, I have lugged and guzzled a collection of poems within Neon Vernacular, a small anthology of Yusef Komunyakaa’s poetry.  I concentrated on the selections from I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head.

I Apologize reads like a city lives.  The whole, relatively contained mass is cordoned off inside strong borders, and due to a degree of isolation and density, adapts a distinct style.  Still, the distinct chunk retains its own sense of infinity, too, of the ever-presence of undiscovered spaces within an unchanging body.  For those of you literate in Russian novels: it is the claustrophobic definition of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866) married to the expanses of Andrei Bely’s Petersburg (1916).  James Joyce famously captured this urban characteristic in Ulysses (1922), isolating his work in time as well as place, showing the mountains of moments and things (and, more academically and satirically, literary genres) always present and interworking in even narrowly defined spaces.  Keita Takahashi’s video game Katamari Damacy (2004), which invites players to amass a stupendous variety of objects (including animals and people), explores the infinity-within-boundaries theme interestingly, as well, and its setting, too, is the city–eventually spreading to the planet as a mass of buildings and land.  And these few examples certainly do not represent a smidgen of the works on the subject. 

So the tradition apparent in I Apologize (1986) exists within a stable framework of antecedents and heirs.  However, unlike those works, and much more like the evolution of culture within a real city, these poems seem to have dipped into the theme quite by accident.  The variety in the collection stems from the story, not vice versa as implicit commentary.  One strong, multi-faceted narrative emerges, centralized around the figure of the Thorn Merchant.  Explicitly, the Thorn Merchant’s right-hand man, his wife, his mistress, and his son all star in poems auxiliary to that first.  The story tells of double- and triple-lives; crime, violence, and family; desire and love; and the seedy, often dreadful, sometimes sad fallout from the Thorn Merchant’s effort to manage all those aspects of himself.  Komunyakaa pens the tale episodically through time and character.

But there are others in this work, not explicitly a part of the story, who seem affected by it: is the boy’s late uncle in “Boy Wearing a Dead Man’s Clothes” a casualty of the Thorn Merchant’s violent streak?  Or did he offend the Thorn Merchant’s sense of lust or love?  Evidence later in the poems “When in Rome–Apologia” and “I Apologize” portrays men who have crossed the Thorn Merchant (or some like character) in love and business, respectively.  And women both abandoned and in the act of love ponder an irretrievable feeling.  Komunyakaa leaves much to the imagination, but his sketches, drawn-out and varied, remain suggestive.

Perhaps the binding force is the way most of the poems read: in contrast to the formal elegance in other modern poets (such as I have remarked on in my recent piece on Richard Wilbur) the pieces that make up I Apologize are stylized with the kinds of sultry details that belong in a 1920’s detective paperback, or in the, somewhat more literary, slick prose of authors like Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett.  Even abstract pieces contain characters with wooden legs or silky voices, men and women as fluent in sex as illegitimate commerce, penny arcades, rusted ironwork, neglected architecture, and eyes everywhere.  It is both fantasy and reality–as the young man playing Asteroids in a 1980s video parlor while attempting to exude a tough facade in “Child’s Play,” trying simultaneously to enjoy a placid present and, through role-play, a seedy past.  I Apologize portrays the city organically, as a function of the limitless teeming cultures latent in a small space, competing, as well as in its own pop-culture self-stylized tradition.  And then there is the desperate dialogue between hands, genitals, hearts, ears, brains, and eyes that tug so uniquely in different directions inside one defined sector: a human body.


Two Lines from Richard Wilbur
3 January 2009, 10:51 am
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I have admired Richard Wilbur’s poetry for some time now without ever truly having delved into it.  Recently, though, I found Mayflies, a collection of poems and translations at the Philadelphia Free Library, and for the last few weeks I have opened it without plan or regularity, seeing what I could see.  Yesterday, I saw this two-liner:

A Short History

Corn planted us; tamed cattle made us tame.

Thence hut and citadel and kingdom came.

Wilbur’s poetry maintains a right-angled elegance, a sophistication that rather hides itself in plainness; the above piece proves no exception.  Rather than dazzle his readers with visual tricks or funky punctuation, he presents this couplet in a very traditional mold (iambic pentameter) and in mostly common language.  (I argue that the “thence” construction has become the sort of pervasive cliché that can be called “common.”)  Instead he makes his anthropological point by tipping ordinary phrases backwards.  The line “we planted corn; we made the cattle tame” hardly makes any kind of point, but by inverting the subject/object structure, Wilbur forces us to re-examine the causal relationship of farming and modern human civilization.  (Correctly, I think, as I doubt “early man” aspired to a future parade of huts, citadels, and kingdoms.)

While the first line gives pause, opens up a space for consideration, the second is where Wilbur unleashes his magic.  In a poem so short, it is difficult to manage any real transition, but here Wilbur has managed an extremely subtle and important one.  The three-building list functions as it should, detailing a progression of architecture we may take as synechdoche for the progress of civilization.  The transition, however, comes from the word “came,” which Wilbur uses to maneuver his history into the realm of the tidy phrase “kingdom come.”  Suddenly, we have moved from this world to the next.

The expression, at least in its widely disseminated form, originates in the Lord’s Prayer–“Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven”–which lends his short history the force of something incanted, spoken en masse to melt multiple individual spirits into one vociferous myth.  The poem uses that stock phrase in disguise, thereby lashing the common sentiment of humanity’s having arrived from its simpleton past to a paradise state of advancement to the Christian doctrine of eternal paradise.  I imagine that both Christians and Atheists easily understand the irony of that comparison, which calls into question a fundamental assumption of history that we have eternally advanced from a low state.    And he accomplishes the whole thing rhythmically, obliging the human ear, which craves order.  The second line, particularly, lilts.  It sounds like a lullaby.  In Richard Wilbur’s “A Short History,” human progress is the lullaby we use to convince ourselves that everything is alright.

More from Basho
22 October 2008, 2:38 pm
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Another of Basho’s poems:

It is spring,
Even nameless hills
Are decorated
With thin films of morning mist.

(translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa)

This excellent poem owes its power to the word “nameless.”  Far from employing it simply as an unexpected adjective (although its weirdness handily invites a closer look), Basho packs that strange lump with two functions.  The first is an artful description of the weather that morning: here, he uses “nameless” as a synonym for “lower” or “smallish”–after all, when it comes to hills, size merits significance, and significance merits nomenclature–to emphasize just how superlatively low the vapor hung.

The second function adds depth to the fine image already at hand, a depth illuminated via the juxtaposition of “nameless” against “decoration” in the following line.  We see small hills explicitly decorated in mist as if by a kind atmosphere–and the description of what they have got enhances the notion of what they haven’t got.  Names, then, become linked in metaphor with fog and implicated as a mere subset of decoration.  This idea is a worthy one, yielding conclusions expansive and tumultuous.

Two Translations
22 October 2008, 12:07 am
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Here are two English versions of the same haiku by the celebrated Japanese poet Basho.  I have no Japanese, so I can hardly comment on their fidelity to the original, but let’s take a look anyway:

The first, translated by Lucien Stryk

How pleasant –
just once not to see
Fuji through the mist.

And the second, translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa

In a way
It was fun
Not to see Mount Fuji
In foggy rain.

Obviously, both generally communicate the same atmospheric phenomenon: haze obscuring typically overbearing Mt. Fuji.  But the devil remains, as ever, in the details.

Stryk’s three-line translation represents a more standard form of haiku.  Visually he achieves the style’s characteristic restraint, even as he chooses not to retain haiku’s syllabic measure (and who can blame him for avoiding that exacting task?).  He has, to be blunt, presented a thing that appears haiku-y.  The language, too, especially in the words “pleasant” and “mist,” rings with the kind of solemnity frequently associated with “the distinguished writer”–a boring and suspect idea.  These lines are as dead as their translator’s clichéd literary reverence.

To treat these words so austerely is to deny the poet his life.  Basho was a restless farmer’s son.  He traveled constantly and uncomfortably, happy to rely only on the hospitality of those he encountered.  To be sure, Basho strove for harmony and thoughtfulness, but he was not an absentee of the world.  He wrote vividly about rheumatism, urine, lice, and his own tears–all of which are as essential to nature as any unspoiled pond or field.

Yuasa’s interpretation is cruder and more successful.  The lead, “in a way it was fun,” evokes appropriate delight and contemplation; “how pleasant” is tired and tiresome and probably insincere.  And  “foggy rain” has more grip to it, more urgency, and for that is memorable where Stryk’s use of the more traditionally poetic word “mist” only exposes a paucity of real meaning (i.e. “mist” in this instance conveys only a vague, hand-me-down poetic essence and ignores the need for a phrase that actually describes a unique weather occurrence).

Perhaps more necessary to the poetic effect is Yuasa’s willingness to shirk established formal rules in his translation.  I am drawn to his four-line presentation, especially as, it seems to me, English is a much wordier language than Japanese and so requires more space.  And it allows the poem a hinge (the line break after “fun”) that subtly enhances the surprise (the suddenness of “not”).  (Too few writers take true advantage of a poem’s physique.)  It is a technique elegant in its simplicity, especially in comparison to Stryk’s clunky italics–italics that draw early attention to and ruin Basho’s quick subversion.

It was not my intention in this post to demonize Lucien Stryk or his work.  Rather, I hope this post highlights the necessity for live writing, writing willing to strain for meaning, writing steeped in unidling ideas.  The consequences of dead language are severe, and not just for readers left hungering for substance.  The subject, too, suffers: by translating to the cliché, Stryk perpetuates a devastating false exoticism of East Asia, similar to Westerners’ too-longstanding perception of the Near East so thoroughly detailed and analyzed in Edward Said’s Orientalism.

[For a concise and readable history of haiku, consult Nobuyuki Yuasa’s introduction to the Penguin edition of The Narrow Road to the Deep North, and Other Travel Sketches by Basho.]