Wednesday, December 13, 2006


I have been reading and re-reading Late for Work by David Tucker. The book is, in a sense, a collection of procrastinations, never-happened-but-what-if-it-hads, and nothing-has-happened-but-something-else-kind-of-dids. My intention was to review the book in its entirety a full two months ago. But the entropy of life has kept me staid. In reading and savoring Late for Work I think this indolence a fitting appreciation of Tucker’s “putting everything off” aesthetics.

While the humor in Tucker emerges from his musings on wasting time, the darker resonances come from matter-of-fact reports about how things happen: the breathy “oh” of a loved one, a boy forgetting the jacket he wore before taking a beating from his father, and the odd greenery the sick and dying call to mind for those in audience.

Tucker’s matter of fact tone and style enables him to handle memory and flashback with all the flare of a competent storyteller. But what I like most in Tucker’s voice is his understated, unsentimental sentiments. I’ve found myself thinking a lot about several of his poems, but in particular I found myself thinking about his poem, That Day.

Many of us have sick or dying parents—the last place we tend to reach for is our own sadness as that would make us self-indulgent and do a disservice to the parent we love. In That Day the poem moves the reader along an emotional arc that we all bank around when feeling our way through the long term illness of our loved ones.

In That Day the poem spends so much time lavishing in its “nothing day” that the reader falls prey to the same languor allowing the reader, perhaps, their own reverie of their own once-healthy mother to flood the plains of their imagination. The poem, so specific to the boy and his mother, makes vivid a defining moment and yet the details of the shortcut, the sack of groceries, even the flushed quail are common enough to trigger the repose that opens memory to its heart.

Of course such ravishings of memory must be undercut or we fall prey to the snickering of our own cynicism and here is the magic of Tucker: without falling prey to cynicism he finds a way through thickets of emotional snags without letting the poem or the reader slip over the edge into an unrestrained, undifferentiated mess. In That Day the poem slides the mother’s illness into the reverie—slides the future into the past.

Here is the poem…

That Day

It happened long ago.

--“Encounter,” Czselaw Milosz

Walking back from town they somehow missed

the logging road that makes a shortcut to their house

and now they are vaguely lost – the mother and her son

on an evening near Christmas in 1960, but they know

the road is close by and that they’ll find it soon.

The mother sings some song we can’t quite hear anymore

as she carries a sack of groceries on one arm

while the boy wades around her. Kicking the dry leaves.

Halfway down a hill, a quail whirs up from a thicket,

the wingbeats fan the boy’s hair as he grips

his mother’s hand and turns to watch the bird disappear

into the woods. A calm nothing day. It happened long ago.

In a few years his mother will begin hearing voices,

first at night, then all day. She will be committed

to an asylum in Nashville and it will seem that nothing

can bring her back to ordinary life. Then, after twenty years

of doctors and drugs and nothing working, a calm will descend

slowly, as if on its own, and she will become her old self again,

only sharper, wittier—like one lost a long time who at last finds

the wide road home. But it’s all still far off as they walk

to the house and to supper on that evening in 1960,

the boy happy, the mother singing as they found their way

to a future they wouldn’t believe, even if I told them.

When I think of my own mother’s battles with her own illness over the last twenty years, on account of Tucker’s poem I’m afforded the invaluable luxury of returning to images of her from when I was in Kindergarten, she in her black and white horizontal striped sweater, her Jackie Kennedy hairdo, touchdown Jesus in the background as we walk across the mall of the university. Her holding my hand, and we are off to the dentist…a place I hate more than anywhere else in the world; a place I would only trust my mother to take me. Of course this is just one memory of her in her healthy vibrant youth—but it is a recollection that I would not have had if it were not somehow permitted me by the imaginative compass of the poem That Day by Tucker.

While not brave enough to write poems like Tucker myself, I find myself grateful that Tucker’s inimitable, simple, putterings and loafings held me still long enough to call forward what I otherwise might have set aside.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Joe Wenderoth at Bistro 33 in Davis

Joe Wenderoth appeared at Bistro 33 in Davis, California to read for an extended period of time.

Hosts Andy Jones and Brad Henderson kicked things off with a few poems of their own, and then Wenderoth started out singing some down home blues songs (accompanied by Jason Morphew) and finished off his musical set with a semi-derisive (yet still reverent to big Hank) rendition of "I Saw the Light."

Wenderoth then read a long and involved piece about Tony's, a strip bar in Baltimore, that features some unusual fare in contemporary stripping. The emphasis at Tony's is on the strippers' not titillating the patrons but invoking schadenfreude.

He then proceeded to read several selections from what was hailed by Rolling Stone as one of the notable books of 2000 (a fact that Wenderoth disputed), namely, Letters From Wendy's. The central project of this book is that Wenderoth composed each one of his entries on a customer comments card at a Wendy's restaurant. The book is the sum total of his efforts at "improving" Wendy's for future customers. Wenderoth expertly reads selections from Letters to Wendy's, and if you close your eyes, you can almost see him briefly lick his lips when he delivers one of his drop-dead funny, tongue-in-cheek lines.

Saturday, December 2, 2006

THE GREAT AMERICAN PINUP READING Tuesday Nov. 28 in Sacramento, CA

Every once in a while, one finds one’s name in the spotlight.

Such was the case in Sacramento, CA on Nov. 28 that The Great American Pinup assembled, with live bodies and with disembodied voices. David Koehn, Victor Schnickelfritz, and Shawn Pittard appeared before a brave crowd who weathered the second and coldest night of what was described as an “arctic blast.” Geraldine Kim fell prey to a virus (as did Matthew Schmeer’s voice on several pieces that were played). Richard Jeffrey Newman as well as Schmeer were featured via recorded voice.

Victor was the host of the evening and after briefly rehearsing the history of the two-year-old blog and what it has endeavored to achieve over that time, he read the opening piece of the evening entitled ”Wonder”.

Then Matthew Schmeer’s “accountant” picture floated above the crowd like an avenging ghost while his voice was heard reading: “Raisin Ode,” ”Waiting,”“Poemsauce,” “Outside Banning, California,” “Driving My Mother to Her Grave,” and ”1-800.”

Victor read two more poems that illustrated his interest in merging the spoken voice with the singing voice that “quotes” pop songs and other varieties of song, similar to the way selected lines of verse were sampled in poems written in the past when persons, who kept many lines in their heads, would recognize them. The first one, ”Ohrwurm” referenced Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Agua de Beber” and the second one, “Tent of Maybe, Dream of Home” referenced an obscure Paul Simon song entitled “The Teacher.”

David Koehn then read from his re-released chapbook of poems called Coil. In one of these poems he attempted to “jump the crowd” (see below) in describing how one fishes with a net.

Then, like a latter-day Bob Dylan, Koehn switched to his “electronic set” and read a poem of his that was so new it had not yet been transferred to paper.

Then the soulful baritone voice of Richard Jeffrey Newman hovered in the chill air as it went through ”Because”, “After Saying Goodbye to You Three Times in Three Days,” “Dear Yoon,” “Dear Ji-in,” “After Dancing in the Diana Nightclub with a Woman My Friend Paid For Against My Wishes,” and ”The Silence of Men”.

Shawn Pittard finally rounded off the evening by reading from his Oct. 24, 2006 post about Robinson Jeffers. He explained how The Great American Pinup has been a venue where he has taken great pleasure in exploring what he had to say before he knew what that was. Then he read the poem that is found on the Oct. 24, 2006 post by Jeffers entitled, “Birds and Fishes.” At long last, wishing every one in the audience a speedy recovery from their frostbitten tissues, he read a poem that had been inspired and influenced by the Oct. 24 post.

The crowd shuffled their feet to get their circulation going, and the hope was that fond thoughts of the evening would continue to circulate through the dark of the Sacramento night and through the interstices of the world wide web.

Monday, November 27, 2006


Samina Ali, pictured here with mesmerized host Jeff Knorr (or is he fighting off the effects of his medication?), appeared in Sacramento City College's auditorium for a reading and discussion of her book Madras on Rainy Days.

Samina Ali read an excerpt from her novel before a packed and attentive crowd.

She proceeded to field a number of questions from the assembled crowd. She talked about the reasons for Islam's divergence from its stated rules regarding women's choices and opportunites and the effect that the overlay of cultural practices in states that have adopted Islam has had on Muslim women's choices. She also touched on the nature of the novel with respect to her experience, emphasizing that there was a good deal of difference between her experience and the experience of her characters, particularly regarding Sameer (the husband of the female protagonist Layla) and her real husband. However, she did let on that much of the book was based on her experience.

Everyone left the auditorium a little more informed and enlightened except for your humble reporter whose offer to have Ali appear as "Ms. January" for an upcoming pin-up calendar of Muslim women of California was rebuked. Alas, if only my shame were a perishable fruit!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


Some mornings I push the paper aside, click off National Public Radio's earnest voice, and simply drink my coffee looking out into the back yard. A 22-year-old Marine Lance Corporal was killed in Anbar province last Sunday. Sy Hirsch says intelligence concerning an Iranian nuclear weapons program is muddled at best.

It is autumn and rust-red dogwood leaves gather on my patio. I listen to a black crow's conversation through the kitchen window. I remember a poem written by the late Jane Kenyon. A good poem to read again two days before Thanksgiving.


I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work of love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candelsticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this one.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

Tuesday, November 7, 2006

Core Samples from the World

Along China's Western Edge

Note: This is the first in a series, core samples from the world. Not meant to serve as travel guides, much less as any sort of informed historical narrative of regions with which I have, often, only cursory acquaintance, these prose passages are personal, particular, often peculiar relations of encounter between poet, poetry, and place. They are the notes of a wayfarer, and of the kind prone to missing the festival in the square because he was squatting to watch a worm fight in an alley.

At Chicago’s O’Hare, boarding the flight to China for a two-part international poetry festival that begins in Beijing and then moves to the far western Xinjiang Autonomous Region. When the steward takes my ticket, I notice fluorescent orange earplugs dangling from a string around his neck. Are my first instincts always self-protective and proprietary that I wonder, What does he need them for, and where are mine?

* * *

At the Xi Xuan Hotel in Beijing, we take the stairs from the lobby down to the basement conference area. The ante-room is opaque with smoke, otherwordly, like a waiting room in Hades. Local poets furiously lighting up before the panel begins. The guidebooks suggest bringing presents to a Chinese host or business partner, and good quality cigarettes, Marlboros in particular, are recommended. The first time I visited China, I brought them. But it felt complicated, from my perspective, coming from a country where smoking is banned from most public spaces, where the dangers are so specifically categorized, to express personal fondness with a carton of tar and methane. On the other hand, as I will find, the Chinese have no qualms about trying to embalm me with compulsory shots of bai jiu and endless toasts. It’s curious that bonding is so often a kind of coalitionary self-destruction.

In the conference room, we take our seats, the hosts are thanked, the press identified, the writers, thirty Chinese poets and a dozen international poets, introduced by Xi Chuan, our bilingual host, poet, and thinker, a man at ease in his body. He looks down when he talks, unconcerned about eye contact, and periodically swipes hair from his eyes. During the long passages in Chinese, I begin to see that the gestures of his hands are also organs of language.

Xi Chuan
* * *

Now the roundabout of first comments. German poet and translator Wolfgang Kubin credits Ezra Pound’s translations for turning him, forty years ago, toward China. The mic goes to Scottish poet William Herbert, to several Chinese poets, to Kazuko Shiraishi, to French poet Andre Veltner. Tang Xiaodu, the other conference organizer, paraphrases Adonis: When I am abroad, I am most at home. Shimizu Tetsuo, from Tokyo, notes that unlike most poetry, haiku is the product of group endeavor. (I wonder if writing in a public space, in a café, for instance, is a Western variation. We tune-in the energy of a public setting, but without relinquishing control?)

Yang Lian
* * *

Ex-patriot Chinese poet (living in London) Yang Lian quotes Tu Yuan’s “Question to Heaven” and identifies poetic endeavor as a questioning. Then he says, “If it weren’t for the substance of poetry, we wouldn’t be worthy of our own experience.” Emran Salahi, who will die of a heart attack two days after the conference, Salahi, the sweet-natured poet from Iraq, speaking Persian, says, in response to my question about traditional Persian forms, that his own poetry is quite modern, unrestricted by traditional conventions. (Later, I will see that what he means by this is that he writes in free verse.) The famous calligrapher and poet Ouyang Jianghe notes “Every mature poet has his particular vocabulary.” Che Qianzi, one of the younger, experimental Beijing poets, responds with a spontaneous poem, “part haiku,” which plays on the names of the two Japanese poets, Kazuko Shiraishi and Tetsuo Shimizu. The conference organizers, Tang Xiaodu and Xi Chuan, offer summarizing observations on the unsettled state of contemporary Chinese poetry in a culture shifting at warp speed. We don’t want to go backward, Xi Chuan observes, but ahead of us, the ways fork in innumerable directions and each is hemmed with liabilities and responsibilities.

Given the gravity of the discussion, it seems the panelists mean to map out a future for Chinese poetry, as though it might be prescribed, tagged with a five year plan. But I am merely inept at reading the forms of discussion here, much less the subtleties. What I take as evident bounces away from me. I begin to notice tensions, faces shaking no, one translator interrupting another to retranslate a comment into English. The topic, Where is Chinese poetry going in the age of globalization, is enormous and of course the answer will be found in poems, not panels, so I try not just to listen, but to listen into. What else is being asked, what is at stake for them?

Tang Xiaodu
* * *

Five airless hours after the first conference panel begins, we swarm back through the ante-room’s cigarette nebulae, and back up the stairs to the hotel restaurant where, exhausted, we plop down at round tables and aim our chopsticks at the endlessly various plates and bowls circling on the Lazy Susan.

* * *

Stone Boat at the Summer Palace Lake

* * *

Kashgar Airport

* * *

At the Poet’s Tomb

* * *

Evening Prayer, Mosque Minaret

* * *

Evening Performance of Traditional Musicians, Statue of Mao Presiding

* * *

Worm Fight

* * *

Cemetery in the Autonomous Region

* * *

Mountains in the Autonomous Region

* * *

The Old City

* * *

Author before the Storm

* * *

Where IS Chinese poetry going in the age of globalization?

I’m not so presumptuous that I would say. But certainly it is going to America, among other places. Here is a glimpse of some of what I see going on.

Bei Dao, a figure nothing like T. S. Eliot or William Faulkner, has achieved something of their status in China. Whether it serves as a model or a point of departure, his work must be taken into account by any serious Chinese poet. As Flannery O’Connor said of Southern writers in relation to Faulkner, "Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down." Bei Dao’s poems, translated powerfully by Eliot Weinberger and published by New Directions, don’t remind you of freight trains, but they carry a markedly evocative force. Here is an uncollected translation of one of Bei Dao’s recent poems that I heard him read in Chile, the audience enthusiastically swarming him afterwards.


In Ramallah the ancients play chess in the starry sky
the endgame flickers
a bird locked in a clock
jumps out to tell the time

in Ramallah
the sun climbs over the wall like an old man
and goes through the market
throwing mirror light on
a rusted copper plate

in Ramallah
gods drink water from earthen jars
a bow asks a string for directions
a boy sets out to inherit the ocean
from the edge of the sky

in Ramallah

seeds sown along the high noon

death blossoms outside my window

resisting, the tree takes on a hurricane's

violent original shape

Xi Chuan, who is more than a decade younger than Bei Dao, marks the beginning of a “new generation.” A critic as well as a poet, Xi Chuan is one of the poets most articulately involved in questioning the trajectory of contemporary Chinese poetry. Several Americans have been interested in translating his work, but almost nothing is available here.

Wang Ping, has lived in the U.S. for more than twenty years. Associated early on with Lewis Warsh and the 1980’s lower east side New York poetry scene, she helped to translate and call attention to the work of her contemporaries and, in addition to writing criticism and fiction, writes poetry. Her book The Magic Whip mixes prose and poetry, a formal equivalent of the themes with which the book is concerned.

Zhang Er, also associated with the New York poetry scene, with Leonard Schwartz and Talisman House, has seen her work translated by a panoply of good American poets, and her first major book in English, Verses on Bird, was published recently by the excellent Zephyr Press which also publishes Duo Duo, a riveting and influential poet who trained, not incidentally to his poetry, as an opera tenor.

Zhang Er has edited an anthology of Chinese poets, including the work of younger innovative poets like Mo Fei and Cao Shuying. It will, no doubt, play a major role in creating an audience for innovative Chinese poetries. In her introduction, she notes, with reference to the younger Chinese poets she includes, that: “Their work is complicated, filled with conflicted thoughts and emotions, which demand various writing strategies, as well as a wide range of vocabularies and forms. Their aesthetic stand, if I can speak for them, is in stark contrast with the conventional Western view of Chinese poetry's ‘pure, natural, clean, concise imagism.’ For sure, they use plenty of images, but they use them in their messy and maximum way, along with many other strategies. Their view of the Chinese language, as reflected by these writings in Chinese characters, is holistic: the images of things themselves, the human perception and understanding of things, and the human voices that name them. At the root of the Chinese writing system (the characters) live things themselves, not just the images kept as records but the acceptance of things themselves, things that do not need explanation or even to have a fixed articulated name. Human perspective, reasoning and voice are somehow treated in the Chinese language as secondary or even arbitrary.”

One of the edgiest of the younger Beijing poets is Che Qianzi, who has been impossibly but aptly translated by Yunte Huang. Huang, who is known in China principally for his translations into Chinese of Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos, is better known in the U.S. for his critical work and for his own poetry, notably the high-energy Cribs, published by Tinfish Press.

The brilliant, exuberant Hu Xudong, who teaches World Literature at Peking University and speaks of a plural inner self, writes a high speed, macaronic poetry that incorporates provincial dialects, advertisements, classical references, and surrealism. His most recent book awaiting translation into English is titled When Love is a Spreading Disease.

Hu Xudong (right) with Zhou Shu
* * *

Zhaiyong Ming, of Chengdu, is one of the most widely admired poets in China. Her early work is notable for its dense ambiguity, for its shifting fields of association and its dark intimations. Her more recent poems are limpid and precise, easier to translate. But Like Xi Chuan’s, Zhaiyong Ming’s considerable accomplishment as a Chinese writer has yet to be brought over into English in a collection that makes clear why she is so highly regarded.

In Shanghai, the poet Wang Yin makes his living as a photographer and writes the most vividly imagistic poems-- "one raindrop and then another/ on a power line"-- that I encountered in China. The images are made more complex by the lineation, which breaks through the framing syntax, but the emotional registers of the poems are clear and intense.

Wang Yin
* * *

Living in Providence, RI, Xue Di’s translated work has been well-received in the U.S. (even inciting comparisons with Rimbaud). And London-based Yang Lian’s ambitious, often book-length poems have been widely translated in Europe but are most readily available to Americans through Green Integer’s Yi and through Blood Axe’s Concentric Circles. Zhou Zhan, whose scholarly work has focused on translation and contemporary Chinese poetry, has a widening fan base for her own work which has been appearing in translation in England and the U.S. I’ll close this essay with a poem of hers from the series Death in Childhood. It is translated by Susan M. Schultz and Jennifer Feeley.


He used his sign-off to repay
money owed in this world of dust the rope
borrowed in perpetual debt
as though everyone alive became his creditor
secretly condemning him all solutions to follow the one
child witnessing death for the first time
in constant fear of life’s debt
death is itself not frightening it’s only prolonged
a person’s body posts his shadow
on memory’s earthen wall
takes an old man’s voice while he lives
shutting it behind the wall . . . she startles
awake from her dreams hearing the cadence of his speech
his chatter about the weather about bees
and summer’s mosquitoes (children can’t fathom
boredom) using boredom’s quickening, life
arrives appearances swiftly change—now he’s dead
he’ll never again grow old his body slender
at the intersection of dreams arousing her adult desires

Zhou Zhan
* * *

Thursday, November 2, 2006


Many might find visiting a college campus and spending a Friday and Saturday in colloquium with students and professors run of the mill. When Hendrix College and their Classics professor, Dr. Rebecca Resinski, provided me a small grant to visit with their Classics students on October 27th and 28th to work on translations of Catullus I felt blessed.

While I regularly travel the world on business, rarely do my artistic pursuits provide entrée to such opportunities. To wake Friday morning in the beautiful Hulen Hall on the subtly sublime Hendrix College affected me deeply. I looked over my notes on translation—a few scattered thoughts I would share with students.

I looked over the translations I would read on Saturday morning there in Hulen Hall during colloquium. I would be reading translations of Catullus Dr. Resinski informed me had already been published at Lucas Klein’s journal Cipher. See:

I do wish Lucas would communicate with me as I have no idea when or if he ran these translations. I sent them in July and was informed by Dr. Resinski about their appearance at Cipher. I wish I knew more.

I closed my morning with a browse through the student translations of Catullus’ 1, 5, 7, 8, 12, 13, 22, 24, 41, 43, 48, 50, 51, 69, 70, and 99. The student translations struck me as accomplished—but even more impressively they had that feel of things made not by a process but of things made by the human hand. Their translations possessed a texture like hand-woven cloth or hand made paper--some times rough, sometimes delicate, but always imbued with a quality of concentration and diligence that only comes as a result of care.

Deeply impressed with the students and their translations, I felt my worry about having lost Catullus to the classicists at the expense of the modern poet misplaced. Part of me began to think, only students of such skill deserve Catullus. The intellectually lazy and generally muddled minds of most contemporary poets don’t possess the nuance of imagination let alone language to appreciate what Catullus offers.

Against my better judgment I shared with the students, what I think might be a mistaken thesis. My proposition that the modern poet need reclaim Catullus. This may actually ruin him. The students I worked with possess such detail-oriented Latin skills in combination with sweeping imaginations—these personalities in combination with the inspired guidance of Dr. Resinski—suggests the worst thing that could happen to Catullus is that he be treated less by these diligent minds than others.

When I think of how coarse a fair provided by most poets minds one hesitates. Do I really want to bring Catullus fully forward into the contemporary consciousness? He will be mistreated and misunderstood: pilloried and mimeographed by the sad undoings of the trade’s imitators. Translations that might salvage Catullus from the scrap heap will find their way into the ugliest of verse. How many forgettable poems will begin with some subtly wrought line of Catullus’ 51. How many books will quote the unbearable beauty of the line, “lumina nocte,” prefacing the worst of songs?

So here I share my misguided notes on reclaiming Catullus followed by a few paragraphs on Dutiful Translation. It is with the deepest of gratitude towards Hendrix College and Dr. Resinski that I post these notes. One evening Dr. Resinski and I meandered our way through a neighboring wood neither lost nor heading particularly anywhere--her gift is that joy of process so dearly lacking in most educators. Even in our brief, mindful glide through the Arkansas dusk one senses, with her, the experience is its own reward.

Without the opportunity to work with Hendrix College’s genuinely impressive Classics students I would not force myself to think through problems of translation—however failingly—as I have done here.


“The original is unfaithful to the translation.”

Jorge Luis Borges, On Henley's translation of Beckford's Vathek, 1943,

The ‘availability’ of Catullus, is both a challenge and an opportunity. My original thesis in translating Catullus was that Catullus, the pleasure of Catullus, has been subsumed by the classicists and the philologists. Prof. Rebecca Resinski of Hendrix College corrected my course here. She took exception because I made it sound “like classicists and philologists have swallowed Catullus up and have been keeping him from others.” There may be some truth to that—but I clearly overstated.

Rebecca pointed out that the burden of ownership rests with the contemporary poet. She added that “Catullus is there for the taking; why haven't more of them taken him up? Wariness about things old and canonical? Changing curricula de-privileging Latin? Habits of reading that lead many contemporary poets to read mostly other contemporary (or relatively recent) poets? Some of all of these things, and more?”

She even added that classicists take pleasure in folks like myself taking an interest in their kind of work. As she says, “we are enthusiastic about non-classical responses to ancient authors. It's the relief of seeing something that we love have a life outside our academic circle.” So Rebecca and I have agreed that my thesis ought to be amended to suggest the pleasure of Catullus has not been “subsumed by” but rather “abandoned to” the classicists and philologists! Semantics aside, what is real, is that Catullus has all but disappeared from the hands, mouths, and ears of contemporary poets.

As an example of where this loss is not the case, take Classical Chinese Poetry. The poems from Li Po to Du Fu live in the minds, hearts, and hands of contemporary poets because poet translators have put them there. I myself translate these poems.

Translated, re-interpreted, and re-translated--these Classical Chinese Poems live not only in the Chinese department of the university but in the popular life of the contemporary poet. Catullus, the most modern and sensitive of all the Latin poets, has not benefited from such care--at least not in the last thirty years.

And Catullus has proven he needs to be re-invented every twenty years or so. Consider why there have been thirty different well-read (and as many lesser read) translations of Catullus into English since 1600. Whether Lamb's metrical versions of 1887 or Copley's hip versions from 1966 each age re-invents Catullus for its own palate.

Catullus appears to elude Frost's suggestion that "poetry is what is lost in translation." Despite the misery of translators through the ages, the genius of Catullus emerges and then re-emerges throughout literary history. Catullus seems irrepressible in any age. Yet in our own modern era he still seems trapped in the turn of the 19th century--unexplored in our own.

As Kinnell asserts in his preface to his translations of Villon, “In these very greatest poems we sometimes find the opposite phenomenon to what Frost described. We find to our amazement that poetry also has an irrepressible translatability. Their wholeness or grace, their vision, sense of life, are so urgent and overriding that the surpassingly great poems seem almost (but not quite) to transcend their words. With them, the ‘poetry,’ even if very little of it, is precisely what does come through in translation.”

In my opinion the most recent translations have failed to help Catullus make this leap from the history text to the contemporary quill. My translations of Catullus focus on reclaiming Catullus for the American poet of the 21st century. Some of the simple techniques I employ include dropping traditional Latin names whenever possible, and modernizing vernacular to match the spirit of Catullus in our era.

Other decisions I have made when translating Catullus adhere, again, to Kinnell's approach as when he says, “Translation is a possible art and a necessary one, and I think that we do really want to know, insofar as it's possible, what Dante and others in the past thought and felt. The translator should try to understand how they thought and felt and try to completely suppress himself, or to put it the other way around, try to flow into that person he's translating and do it faithfully."

But this does not mean adopting false tone nor trying to assert meters in English that can only exist in the other tongue. Kinnell is cutting to the quick of why poets translate: we want to inhabit the lives and words of the poets we admire and, in tongues not our own, translation is that only vessel.

I rarely set off in a serial manner telling myself, “today I will translate poems 1- 5. I have had to find very personal motivations for exploring one poem of Catullus or another. Usually I find my emotional, psychic, and spiritual self caught in the atmosphere of the tropes at work in a particular poem of Catullus and I use that feeling to situate myself in relation to a specific poem. For example, I have a long history with 32. 32 brought me to Catullus when I picked up the Bobbs Merill/Roy Swanson translation out of an old textbook box in my high school. 20 years later, 32 became the first poem of Catullus I would translate. I used that history when working on 32 though none of that “motivation” appears in the final version.

I used my relationship with my mentor, the Professor of Classics at Hendrix College, to serve as my proxy for the relationship between Catullus and Ipsithilla the high-class prostitute of poem 32. By mentioning this I mean no insult to Rebecca—in fact I assume she sees the humor and poetic rational of it, just as Catullus might. In this way I stumbled my way into the poem and found a tack that provided creative energy to drive the resulting translation. In fact I’ve used my relationship and my experiences with 1. my wife; 2. my friend and fellow poet Sholeh Wolpe, and 3. my friend and fellow poet Scott Brennan to “get at” the aesthetic nerve when translating this poem or that of Catullus.

I am not one who thinks any one translation best—even more so, I think no one translator gets every poem even reasonably well. So I have found best versions across ages and translators. I think this is what eludes most modern writers and, especially, editors. They somehow falsely believe that version x or y or collection z have somehow exhausted Catullus—when in fact if you read versions a-z, I think you might come up with the exact opposite conclusion.

In one exercise I took many, many different versions of Catullus 32, and assembled them into an inventory and separated them from their publication dates. I then created a worksheet for myself and other poets to match the age with the version of 32.

Poets I exposed the "quiz" to, admittedly with almost no intrinsic knowledge of Catullus, could not accurately pair the age to the version. Even more pleasant, the poets reacted lovingly to several different versions of the same poem--adoring many rather than privileging one. Some versions they thought very modern were quite antique.

They were surprised how engaging so many different versions of the very same poem could be—voila the magic of Catullus. The one complaint (or one might say difficulty) the poets had was that none of the versions seemed distinctively contemporary—they all had the stink of the “pen of literature” about them—to steal from Milosz.

Sugeng Hariyanto quotes Andre Lafevere from Bassnett-McGuire, 1980: 81-82 noting “seven methods adopted by English translators in translating Catullus's poems: phonemic translation, literal translation, metrical translation, verse-to-prose translation, rhymed translation, free verse translation, and interpretation” all of which are wrong or right, all of which will fail or succeed, depending.


Dutiful Tranlsation

"...structure is duty..." Lisa Robertson, Rousseau's Boat

Consider the size and scale of the cosmos. Consider how unimportant what we do is in the grand scheme of this universe among the many universes. Consider how freeing this sense of insignificance is. Consequently consider how important it is to be exactly where we are, doing exactly what we are doing at every moment. At every moment, we are in service to forces beyond the scope of our imaginations. To be of service does not mean to be selfless--on the contrary.

The correlative experience to total humility due to our insignificance is that the only thing we can do, the most important thing we can do, is to attend to the moment with the whole of our being, our whole humanity: our intelligence, both linguistic and mathematical; our emotions, from anger to lust to love; our attitude or spirit; our bodies; and whatever you might equate to our souls. While this may be the ultimate task of living, humans do this incredibly imperfectly--as one must expect. Though, poets, especially great poets, have proven that the greater one's total capacity for all that makes us human, the more likely one is to attend fully to the moment.

Poetry and the translation of poetry in particular provide the exact instrument to strike this universal chord--the oboe in the orchestra. In the grand scheme, poetry provides us access to this tone of totality. Poetry in translation takes us even further beyond ourselves into a deeper realm of service to the moment at hand. Free of the bondage of our selves yet engrossed by the work we inhabit--in translation we find ourselves necessarily dialed into frequencies we wouldn't otherwise be attuned. How else but through total immersion, passionate attention, and emotional synchrony can we translate the writers we love?

And that is what we are all up to, at all times, whether we are conscious of this act or not--we are in service to the moment, sometimes fully, sometimes half-heartedly. So when considering Catullus what part of us should not be in sync with him? The greatest service we can provide Catullus is our full attention--and all that implies. What research should we not do? What feeling should we not feel? What thoughts should we not think? What words should we not say? What possibility should not be considered? The enormity of such a task should make us shudder.

With Catullus we are lucky and doomed. So little is actually known that most of what is thought to be true of him and his work is simply codified supposition. This too is daunting. But this also grants us a certain freedom.

This liberty should excite us, faced with wilderness we must simply find our way--we must find our way using the guidance provided from the text, professors, mentors, loved ones, textbooks, articles, discussions, and ultimately the tuning fork of the self. When translating poetry, great literary translation brings this human instrument, this humility of service, into full bearing.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Strong Enough to Listen: Reading Jeffers on California's Northern Coast

You’ve probably done this, too—taken a sack of books along on your vacation, along with an equally burdensome ambition to read them. I did it again last week. And, as usual, the books stayed in their bags while I went walking.

This time my walks were along dry-grass bluffs above the ocean, down to rocky tide pools, and among thick stands of wind-bent cypress trees. On clear nights the houselights were left off and I would stare into the swirling disc of stars that is our galaxy. I let my eyes relax into the night sky, identified new constellations. Yes, I consulted the star charts—and a guide to shorebirds—but my attention could not be held by any of the “reading” I’d meant to do.

Then I remembered a favorite poem by Robinson Jeffers, “Birds and Fishes.” Its first line, to the best of my recollection, began “Every October.” And there I was, in October, looking out at the same Pacific Ocean that held Jeffers’ eyes, attention, and imagination for decades. Fortunately, I’d tossed The Wild God of the World into the car before leaving Sacramento. It was a last-minute impulse to grab my well-read copy. Despite my intentions to power through several new books, I just couldn’t head to the coast without some Jeffers. And there on the coast, near the mouth of the Gualala River, it was a delight to read “Birds and Fishes” while watching the "festival" he’d described.


Every October millions of little fish come along the shore,
Coasting this granite edge of the continent
On their lawful occasions: but what a festival for the sea-fowl.
What a witches’ sabbath of wings
Hides the dark water. The heavy pelicans shout “Haw!” like Job’s warhorse
And dive from the high air, the cormorants
Slip their long black bodies under the water and hunt like wolves
Through the green half-light. Screaming the gulls watch,
Wild with envy and malice, cursing and snatching. What hysterical greed!
What a filling of pouches! the mob-
Hysteria is nearly human—these decent birds!—as if they were finding
Gold in the street. It is better than gold,
It can be eaten: and which one in all this fury of wildfowl pities the fish?
No one certainly. Justice and mercy
Are human dreams, they do not concern the birds nor the fish nor eternal God.
However—look again before you go.
The wings and the wild hungers, the wave-worn skerries, the bright quick minnows
Living in terror to die in torment—
Man’s fate and theirs—and the island rocks and immense ocean beyond, and Lobos
Darkening above the bay: they are beautiful?
That is their quality: not mercy, not mind, not goodness, but the beauty of God.

I spent seven days reading and re-reading the poems selected, and introduced, by Stanford University’s Albert Gelpi in The Wild God of the World: An Anthology of Robinson Jeffers (Stanford University Press, 2003). The anthology is drawn from Tim Hunt’s five-volume Collected Poetry and includes "Cawdor," one of Jeffers’ narratives, described by Gelpi as “really a novelette in verse.” "Cawdor" is situated “at the center of the volume and is surrounded by a representative selection of shorter poems from a career of more than four decades.”

After my first re-reading of Gelpi’s anthology, I wished I had lugged more of Jeffers’ poems with me to the coast. I wished I had pulled Hunt’s one-volume Selected from my bookshelf. It turned out to my advantage, though, to read deeply the slim (by comparison) anthology’s meditations on granite, ocean, sky, and universe. By this process of total immersion, I experienced a glimpse into Jeffers’ poetic vision. I could imagine this earth before—and after—humankind, as Jeffers had imagined it. And lines I’d read over many times before stood out and became meaningful to me. In "Natural Music," the lines “I believe if we were strong enough to listen without/divisions of desire and terror” took root in me.


The old voice of the ocean, the bird-chatter of little rivers,
(Winter has given them gold for silver
To stain their water and bladed green for brown to line their banks)
From different throats intone one language.
So I believe if we were strong enough to listen without
Divisions of desire and terror
To the storm of the sick nations, the rage of the hunger-smitten cities,
Those voices also would be found
Clean as a child’s; or like some girl’s breathing who dances alone
By the ocean-shore, dreaming of lovers.

It is October in Sacramento. Of course, it’s warmer here than on the coast. Drier. The lawn needs watering. Soon I’ll be raking sycamore leaves. And soon, the salmon schooling in the ocean mouths of our rivers will be here—first in the Sacramento, then the American. I look forward to the salmon’s arrival, and to the migration of the steelhead trout behind them. But my heart’s still breaking over the beauty of Jeffers’ coastal landscape, even though I know it is there—“sufficient to itself”—whether my eyes, or any other human eyes, look upon it.


My friend from Asia has powers and magic, he plucks a blue leaf from
the young blue-gum
And gazing upon it, gathering and quieting
The God in his mind, creates an ocean more real than the ocean, the salt,
the actual
Appalling presence, the power of the waters.
He believes that nothing is real except as we make it. I humbler have found
in my blood
Bred west of Caucasus a harder mysticism.
Multitude stands in my mind but I think that the ocean in the bone vault is
The bone vault’s ocean: out there is the ocean’s;
The water is the water, the cliff is the rock, come shocks and flashes of
reality. The mind
Passes, the eye closes, the spirit is a passage;
The beauty of things was born before eyes and sufficient to itself; the
heart-breaking beauty
Will remain when there is no heart to break for it.

JOSHUA CLOVER at Sacramento Poetry Center on Oct. 23, 2006

A Perfectly Affectless Enthusiasm displayed by Joshua Clover

Joshua Clover read many of the pieces from The Totality For Kids as well as "Zone," the epic poem by Apollinaire as translated by Samuel Beckett. "Das Kissenbuch" and "The Other Atelier" were among those that were featured.

At the end of the evening he ventured into some new work. One of these was a poem entitled, simply Poem. In it Clover displayed his typical biting wit and critique of "capital" which he addresses as an old friend. In "Poem" he also makes apologies for the poets who don't understand the vagaries of the beast of capital.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The 29th Annual Conference of the American Literary Translator’s Association (ALTA)

I am sitting in my hotel room here in Seattle, listening to, of all things, Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “The Power of Love” from Welcome to the Pleasure Dome (I have my iPod set to “shuffle), a few minutes away from heading back to the Hilton, where the ALTA conference is being held. I went to three panels today, each of which was interesting in its own right—and I will write about them in a moment—but what I am thinking about right now is what a friend of mine said about how old most of the conference participants seem to be. Jokingly, she pegged the median age at “What? Around, like, 70?” (She is, if I remember correctly, 40 or almost 40.) I have no idea how accurate her assessment is, but what she said made me wonder whether literary translation, which, in the United States, is an underappreciated art at best, is in danger of not attracting enough younger people to replenish the ranks of translators who are getting older and will eventually stop working. I don’t want to say more than that, because anything else I say would be pure and baseless conjecture. It is, however, what was going through my head as I tried on my walk back here to formulate what I wanted to say.

The first panel I went to this morning was called “Translating the Erotic Mode in Persian Poetry,” an unfortunately unerotic title, in my opinion, because, with the exception of the first talk, the panel dealt in very interesting and specific detail with the ways in which translation is an erotic practice. Neither of the presenters framed what they had to say in that way, but I think the subtext of what they had to say points in that direction.

The first talk, by Sholeh Wolpe, a poet about whose work David has written here on TGAP, dealt with two Iranian women poets: Tahirih (1814-1851) and Forugh Farrokhzad (1935-1967). Each woman was an iconoclast in her time, and each wrote poetry that was openly erotic. Sholeh began by reading two poems, one by each woman, and asking us to decide which poem was an expression of spiritual eroticism and which expressed carnal desire. Her point was that you couldn’t tell. Both poems could be read both ways. This introduction, I thought, augured well for the session, since it suggested that Sholeh was going to talk about the nature of each poet’s erotic language, and I would have been interested to hear her talk about the ways in which each woman broke, or didn’t break, with the male erotic tradition in the specifics of her language, and then say something about the challenges of translating that language effectively into English. Instead, though, Sholeh chose to give a more historical talk, focusing mostly on the details of Tahirih’s life, which was interesting in itself, since I, and I bet would be joined by most people outside of those who study Persian literature, knew nothing about this woman and I think it is always important to recover the voices and stories of women in history. Otherwise, it is more likely than not that those voices would be lost to us.

From the limited notes I was able to take, this is Tahirih’s story: She was the gifted daughter of a mullah who was quite open-minded for his time, and so he let her attend his classes, as long as she sat sequestered from his male students. Her father married her to a cousin who did not approve of her intellectual, creative and spiritual pursuits. She left this man—an extraordinary thing for a woman of her time to do—left her children as well, and became Eventually, she surpassed those students in intellectual achievements and became a Bábi, rising to become a leader of that religious sect. As the leader, she decided—because of the imminence of the coming of the Messiah—that the rules of the Quran no longer applied. To demonstrate this to her followers, she appeared before them unveiled, a transgressive act for which she was ultimately put to death by having a scarf stuffed down her throat till she suffocated. (An interesting note: She was not put to death as an apostate because, at the time, women were seen as so insignificant that, even if they declared themselves no longer to be Muslims, the attitude was that they simply did not know better. Rather Tahirih was put to death for violating the gender taboo of appearing unveiled in public. In other words, she was killed for being a woman.)

Forugh Farrokhzad, who was born more than a century after Tahirih, was also a woman who dared to write in ways deemed inappropriate for women by the male establishment, and it was remarkable how much like Tahinih’s work was the Farrokhzad poem that Sholeh read—a fact that, again, makes it too bad that Sholeh chose to focus more on the poets’ biographies than on the particulars of their work, especially since the next speaker, Mahmood Karimi-Hakkak, spoke very interestingly on some of the specific linguistic and cultural challenges of translation between Persian and English. The most interesting part of his paper was a taxonomy of erotic terms in Persian that pose difficulties for anyone translating either from Persian into English or from English into Persian. Some examples: The connotations of the Persian expression which means “to sleep together” do not necessarily include sex. As well, the expression in Persian which means “to share a bed” includes, by definition, not only sexual activity, but sexual activity of a short-term, one-night-stand nature. Those terms in English often carry precisely the opposite connotations.

More interestingly perhaps are the two Persian words “kardan” (to do) and “dadan” (to give) when used to talk about sexual intercourse. The “doer” is the one who penetrates; the “giver” is the one who is penetrated. In Persian, because the third person singular pronoun has no gender, it is impossible to tell whether the “giver” is male or female. (The “doer,” on the other hand, is always and by definition male.) More to the point—and I may be reconstructing this incorrectly—while we can say in English “She fucked him” or, to adhere more closely to the words in Persian, “She did him” (to mean “she fucked him”), that construction—if I have understood this correctly—is impossible to render in Persian. (I think that towards the end of his presentation, Karimi-Hakkak did mention a word that can be used for intercourse that does not distinguish between the penetrated and the penetrator, but it is, if I remember correctly, a recent coinage.)

This question of the gender-neutral third person pronoun in Persian also figured centrally in the next speaker’s paper. Bill Wolak talked about how, in classical Persian poetry, everything below the neck is pretty much invisible; it simply is not written about. What is eroticized, then, is everything above the neck: face, hair, eyes, eyebrows, etc. What is fascinating in classical Persian poetry is that the descriptions of physical beauty—“moon-faced,” for example—are used for both men and women. Unfortunately, I am looking at my notes and I realize that I must have gotten so caught up in the conversation that I did not write down what Bill said about this observation, so let me end here by posing one of the questions that this panel raised for me. It is one that preoccupies me quite a lot these days, and, in fact, the panel presentation that I will be giving tomorrow takes the question up from a slightly different angle: To the degree that sex is about the body, the way we talk about sex is a way of talking about what bodies are for in a very literal sense. So, for example, if we talk about sex as being only or primarily about reproduction, bodies are there to reproduce and to be reproduced. While if we talk about sex as being about enjoyment, then bodies are there to be enjoyed. It would be fascinating to push this consideration of how to translate the eroticism of one language/culture into another into a consideration of the cultural construction of the body in each culture, to get at an even deeper level of significance.

Also posted on my blog.

Sunday, October 15, 2006


To listen to Janis Joplin’s music and not be deeply, soulfully affected means you have a soul as rancid as the ass-end of skunk roadkill. Joplin’s magic was in how close to the very nerve of aesthetic charge she operated. Emotionally she lived that charged life, and the evidence of that charge manifested itself in her voice.

So a musical that starts out with the music of Janis Joplin as its raw material has a decided advantage. I mean you could watch a dog taking a crap while listening to Joplin and be moved in a way cosmic, personal, and irreversible.

“Love , Janis” bases its narrative through line on letters from the book, Love, Janis authored by Janis Joplin’s sister, Laura. The onstage mechanism is to have the inner Janis narrate from her letters in divergent monologues and a second Janis, Janis Joplin the singer, delivers live performances of her music thematically related to the monologue/letter.

An interesting twist to this dichotomy is how the inner “Janis” and the singer “Janis Joplin” occasionally enter into dialogue. The narrative is furthered by an offstage “interviewer” whose voice comes like the voice of god but is meant to imitate the many interviews Janis Joplin gave.

Managing this inner-outer Janis—her monologue/letter’s home—and the interviewer/interviewee/God dynamic is where “Love, Janis” has its struggles. In the beginning of the play the audience struggles to resolve the skinny girl pretending to be Janis with the heavier set girl, who is doing the singing, and who appears to be the real Janis Joplin. The initial confusion in this particular set-up seems inevitable without a serious re-write. The solution is to dump the inner/outer Janis and just have one woman do both the monologues and the singing. This would much improve the staging.

That said, it would be beyond demanding to have the same woman do all the singing and successfully execute the monologues. The performance already has two different Janis Joplin singers. These two different singers alternate from night to night so as not to permanently ruin their voices. The demands on the voice and body of the woman singing as if she was Janis Joplin are excruciating. So to ask her to deliver the monologues—at the bookends of the live performances would take something beyond extraordinary.

I say beyond extraordinary because I think it more than difficult to find a singer who can even hold a match to the burn and charge of the original Janis Joplin. The play/musical (actually think of this as a kind of “American Opera” rather than a musical or play) is all but guaranteed to hit home because of its source material…I mean who has not flushed with gooseflesh when hearing “Take Another Piece of my Heart…”

But the risk when starting with such impossibly heightened material, whether it is Mozart, Picasso, Hendrix, or, in this case, Janis Joplin is that who in this world can actually even hold a flame to such talent? Are you going to ‘air guitar’ your Hendrix imitator? Are you going to have your Janis Joplin lip sync to the real Janis? Well of course not, not in a live play/musical performance.

So, while the “narrator” Janis, played by Marisa Ryan, was very pretty and nice to look at—I felt she was extraneous. If only she could have been played by the singer, Janis Joplin. Yesterday evening, our Janis Joplin was played by Mary Bridget Davies. You can learn more about her here:

Mary Bridget Davies, while no Janis Joplin, comes as close as I can possibly imagine any singer/actress to matching the power of Joplin’s originals. She exceeded my expectations because she never flinched from her task even when she could not exceed her character’s prowess—she hung in there, powerfully, remaining where I originally thought no singer/actress could ever get too. To hear Davies is be as close to Joplin without Joplin being there as one can get.

“Love, Janis” does so much right and so little wrong. I like that I have trouble categorizing it. I mean it is play…but it is also a musical. In my opinion the performance is an American opera. It tells a story, features a character of historical importance and re-envisions that character for us. Also, I admit affection for the very San Franciscan story line...Janis found herself here in S.F. and loved it--an experience many share.

“Love, Janis” not only revisits a character from our very American past but even tries to bridge subjects that remain topical—the tension between art and living, between integrity, soul, and stardom. The performance plays out a story of addiction and need that diseases the lives of many artists. This American opera manages history, story, and social relevance with a reasonable balance of story and metaphor. The music, oh so American in its making, ain't half bad either.

Even when it fails, falling prey to cliché and unneeded complication, Janis saves the production. Mary Bridget Davies, Janis Joplin, all my applause. No one deserves the applause more than you.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Claptrap: Notes From Hollywood by Stephen Gyllenhaal

clap·trap n

pompous or important-sounding nonsense (informal)

Never have I struggled so much when reviewing a book as I have with Stephen Gyllenhaal’s first collection of poems, Claptrap: Notes From Hollywood, just out from Cantarabooks. Mr. Gyllenhaal is already well-known for his work as a film director. What is less known is he was an English major at Connecticut's Trinity College and, in keeping with American literary tradition, has continued writing poetry while meeting the demands of raising a family and building a career. I was rooting for him when I opened his book.

I still am. Even after being somewhat taken aback by the substantial introductory material to his book: a Foreword by Hugh Odgen, Mr. Gyllenhaal’s professor and mentor at Trinity College; an Editor’s Preface by Cantara Christopher and Michael Matheny; and an Introduction by Jamie Lee Curtis. I’ve never seen such an abundance of praise inside anyone’s first book. In addition, both the Editor’s Preface and the Introduction implied most poetry written in America today isn’t really very good, and Mr. Gyllenhaal’s poems are the exception to the rule. That assertion raised the bar pretty darn high for my review. As both a contributor to and a reader of The Great American Pinup, I would assert there is plenty of outstanding poetry being written in America today.

That being my opinion, I couldn’t help but react strongly to the editors’ statement that “Poetry in America is no longer the distinguished art it used to be—it’s never read, hardly taught, and almost never practiced with any sort of discipline. Yet people keep stumbling to write it.” The editors related a story of helping edit a recent issue of North American Review. “Now, for those of you who think it’s easy to read through a stack of unsolicited poems and come up with five or six that are at least halfway publishable, think again.” My resistance to Mr. Gyllenhaal’s book was becoming entrenched.

What I discovered while reading Claptrap, though, is a poet in love with language, a love that shines at the heart of every poem. Mr. Gyllenhaal enjoys wordplay, which makes his writing fun to read. The poems are wide-ranging in their subjects—parenthood, family, and social justice among them—and style. Some are improvisatory, some painstakingly crafted.

Mr. Gyllenhaal’s poems are most often self-referential, anecdotal, and drawn from his everyday life. He expresses concern about his relationship with an openly antagonistic neighbor—and his noisy “5am” struggles with his garbage cans—and muses about the world seen through the windshield of his automobile while driving “down Wilshire Blvd./just west of Rodeo Drive.” Hollywood is Mr. Gyllenhaal’s town—the place where he lives and works—hence the subtitle—and Hollywood is a character in this collection.

No book making reference to Hollywood would be complete without making reference to its luxury-car culture, where a woman’s beauty is described, in the poem “Democracy,” as “all past benz/and maseratis.” Hollywood is also a town where wealthy locals are suspicious of a GMC pickup with a “rattling tailgate.” In “Photosynthesis,” the speaker’s suspicion gives way to envy for the young men in the old pickup when he reveals, “Oh, to be that kind of young again/when every oyster spreads its legs for you/and the nails you hit on two by fours/sing out your praise.”

In “Careful There, Pardner,” Mr. Gyllenhaal surprises the reader with revelations about his—and therefore our—ability to jump to conclusions about others. The speaker sits in traffic and, with time on his hands, prejudges the man in the Caddy ahead. He imagines him taking offense to an ad on the side of a bus showing “a joyful black boy billboard prince.” The speaker sees “A Jesse Helms stiffness in the neck,” “fighting/for his Ronald Regan California,/the John Wayne of it all.” The poem ends with him driving by to see there is no angry white man boiling over in the Caddy, but rather “the man/instead/is black/and old/and content.”

While I enjoyed these and other poems for their wit and irony, they never drew me in completely—never convinced me that the writer had a real stake in them. In contrast, Mr. Gyllenhaal is at his best when he writes about subjects closest to his heart, and at the heart of Claptrap is an elegantly choreographed Shakespearean sonnet that I absolutely admire and adore.


It’s the tiny space between my words to you,
the hesitations that were never there before—
I just can’t find an easy way to say what’s true
and touch this thing that reaches to our core.

The beauty of what’s you I knew when you arrived
in blood and tiny fingers, reaching blindly at it all
for I was father to your joy that you’d survived
and blossomed, one from two, into this flesh to call

your own and grow as I began my fall to here
and you so far more than I’d ever dreamed
rose tall, my dear, which makes it all too clear
to me, if only I can see and hear between

the hesitations, words and nearly endless breaths:
to have joyful births, there must be joyful deaths.

When Mr. Gyllenhaal writes about his family his poems ring true. The depth of his thought and feeling is apparent—even when he offers a clever bit of wisdom in “Birth Announcement.”

Birth Announcement

Learn to stand apart,
keep a clean slate,
be pretty:
honey catches flies.

Roll up your sleeves
be a mule to the wounded:
you’ll never
lack for friends or work
or have to consider
that nothing’s here for you.

James Dickey was asked if there was any value in reading a review of one’s own book—or were book reviews only of value to prospective readers. He said the review is only valuable to the writer if the reviewer takes the time to get inside the work, look at it from the inside out. I hope I succeeded in looking at Mr. Gyllenhaal’s poems from the inside out. They are written with care and consciousness and, while Claptrap has its flaws, I hope I’ve responded in kind.

Monday, September 18, 2006


In the following listing the publication dates are mismatched with their versions. Can you arrange them properly? What number 1-21 in the right column matches with A? With B? And so on…

Good luck!

P.S. If you have additional versions of 32 on your shelf do post the version, and the pub date /publisher here—or send it to me via e-mail. Either way…


1969, Vintage: A Division of Random House, The Poems of Catullus, A Bilingual Edition translated by James Michie


Please, Ipsitilla, sugar,

my doll, kid, baby, please

tell me to come this afternoon;

contribute to my ease

by letting no one lock your door,

by staying where you are; what's more,

get set to soothe me, as I choose,

with nine uninterrupted screws.

Whatever gives, don't make me wait:

I'm lying, filled with all I ate,

watching my tunic stand up straight.


1957 Ann Arbor / University of Michigan Press, Catullus. The Complete Poetry, translated by Frank O. Copley


Please, my love, sweet Ipsitilla,

My darling, my own clever girl,

Command my presence at siesta

And if you do, help by ensuring

That no one bolts your outer door

And that you don't go out on impulse

But stay home and prepare for us

Nine uniniterrupted fuctions.

In fact if you're willing command me now.

I lie back after a large lunch

Boring holes in tunic and cloak.


1966, Penguin Classics, THE POEMS OF CATULLUS, Peter Whigham


Call me to you

at siesta

we'll make love

my gold & jewels

my treasure trove

my sweet Ipsithilla,

when you invite

me lock no doors

nor change your mind

& step outside

but stay at home

& in your room

prepare yourself

to come nine times

straight off together,

in fact if you

should want it now

I'll cone at once

for lolling on

the sofa here

with jutting cock

and stuffed with food

I'm ripe for stuffing


my sweet Ipsithilla.


1991, Oxford University Press. World Classics, THE POEMS OF CATULLUS, Guy Lee

4. please, Ipsithilla

my darling, my delight

tell me you'll be home

when I come in the hotly still of noon

tell me and if you tell

be this much kind to me

no lock to block the door

no note "gone out back soon"

stay home and make you ready for me

nine times to feel the pulse of love.

what? you'll be busy?

then tell me now

for I lie full and flat, and feel

love knocking, beating at my passion's door.


1959 Bobbs-Merrill, ODI ET AMO, THE COMPLETE POETRY OF CATULLUS, Roy Arthur Swanson


Dear Ipsitilla, my sweetheart.

My darling, precious, beautiful tart,

Invite me round to be your guest

At noon. Say yes, and i'll request

Another favour: make quite sure

That no one latches the front door

And don't slip out for a breath of air,

But stay inside, please, and prepare

A love-play with nine long acts in it,

No intervals either! Quick, this minute,

Now if you're in the giving mood;

For lying here, full of good food,

I feel a second hunger poke

Up through my tunic and my cloak.


1979, Johns Hopkins, THE POEMS OF CATULLUS, Charles Martin


I entreat you, my sweet Ipsitilla, my darling, my charmer, bid me come and spend the afternoon with you. And if you do bid me, grant me this kindness too,

that no one may bar the panel of your threshhold, nor you yourself have a fancy to go away, but stay at home an have ready for me nine consecutive

copulations. And bid me come at once if you are going to at all: for I'm on my back after lunch, thrusting through tunic and cloak.


1894 Catullus. Carmina. Sir Richard Francis Burton. London. Smithers.[VERSE]


Please, please, please, my darling Ipsithilla,

oh my delicate dish, my clever sweetheart,

please invite me home for the siesta--

and, supposing that you do invite me, make sure

no one happens to bolt and bar your shutters,

and that you don't, on a whim, decide to

go off out: just stay home and prepare for

us nine whole uninterrupted fuckfests.

Fact is, if you're on, ask me at once, I've

lunched, I'm full, flat on my back and bursting

up, up, up, through unershirt and bedclothes!


1894, Catullus. The Carmina of Caius Valerius Catullus. Leonard C. Smithers. London. Smithers.[PROSE]


Please, my sweet Ipsithilla, my delight, my charmer: order me to come to you at noon. And if you should order this, it will be useful if no one makes fast the

outer door [against me], and don't be minded to go out, but stay at home and prepare for us nine continuous love-makings. In truth if you are minded, give the

order at once: for breakfast over, I lie supine and ripe, poking through both tunic and cloak.


1913-2005, Harvard University Press, Catullus, tranlated by F.W. Cornish, Loeb Classical Library .[PROSE]


I’ll love my Ipsithilla sweetest,

My desires and my Wit the meetest,

So bid me join thy nap o' noon!

Then (after bidding) add the boon

Undraw thy threshold-bolt none dare,

Lest thou be led afar to fare;

Nay bide at home, for us prepare

Nine-fold continuous love-delights.

But aught do thou to hurry things,

For dinner-full I lie aback,

And gown and tunic through I crack.


2005, University of California Press, The Poems of Catullus, Peter Green


I beg of you, my sweet, my Ipsitilla,

my darling, my sophisticated beauty,

summon me to a midday assignation;

and, if you're willing, do me one big favor:

don't let another client shoot the door bolt,

and don't decide to suddenly go cruising,

but stay at home & get yourself all ready

for nine--yes, nine--successive copulations!

Honestly, if you want it, give the order:

I've eaten, and I'm sated, supinated!

My prick is poking through my cloak & tunic.


1946, The Poems of Catullus, W&W Norton and Company, Horace Gregory


O Mellow, sweet, delicious little

piece, my Ipsithilla,

I love you dearly.

Tell me to come at noon

and I'll come galloping

at your threshold.

Let no one bar the door today

but stay at home, my little one,

to fit yourself for nine long

bouts of love. And if you're so inclined,

call me at once;

my morning meal is over

and I reclining


my tree of life (your bedfellow)

has risen joyfully tearing through my clothes,

impatient to be at you.


2004, Catullus, Poems of Love and Hate, Bloodaxe Press, Josephine Balmer


List, I charge thee, my gentle Ipsithilla,

Lovely ravisher and my dainty mistress,

Say we'll linger a lazy noon together.

Suits my company? lend a farthing hearing:

See no jealousy make the gate against me,

See no fantasy lead thee out a-roaming.

Keep close chamber; anon in all profusion

Count me kisses again again returning.

Bides thy will? with a sudden haste command me;

Full and wistful, at ease reclin'd, a lover

Here I languish alone, supinely dreaming.


2002, The Complete Poetry of Catullus, The University of Wisconsin Press, David Mulroy


My sweet Hypsithilla, my delight, my merry soul; bid me, like a dear girl, come to you to pass the noon. And if you bid me, add this, that no one bar the gate, that no fancy take you to go abroad, but that you remain at home, and prepare for us no end of amorous delights. But if you agree, summon me immediately, for I am lying on my back after dinner, full, and pampered, and am bursting my tunic and my very cloak.


1866, Stanza 41, Address to Priapus, Algernon Charles Swinburne


XXXII The Rendezvous. To Hypsithilla.

Kind of heart, of beauty bright,

Pleasure's soul, and love's delight,

None by nature graced above thee,

Hypsithilla, let me love thee.

Tell me then, that I shall be

Welcome when I come to thee;

And at noon's inspiring tide

Close thy gate to all beside.

Let no idle wish to roam

Steal thy thought from joys at home;

But prepare thy charms to aid

Every frolic love e'er play'd.

Speed thy message. Day goes fast.

Now's the hour; the banquet's past:

Mid-day suns and goblets flowing

Set my frame with passion glowing.

Spend thee, wanton, fair and free!

Tell me I must haste to thee.


1871, The Poems and Fragments of Catullus, Translated in the Metres of the Original, London: John Murray, Albemarle Street; by Robinson Ellis


My Hypsithilla, charming fair,

My life, my soul, ah! hear my prayer:

The grateful summons quickly send,

And bless at noon, with joy, thy friend.

And if my fair one will comply,

And not her sighing swain deny

Take care the door be then unbarr'd,

And let no spy be on the guard.

And thou, the aim of my desire,

Attend at home my amorous fire.

Prepare to meet repeated joy,

Continued bliss without alloy;

Dissolving still in thy dear arms,

Still raised by thy reviving charms,

To onsets fresh of sprightly pleasure,

Tumultuous joy beyond all measure,

But dally not with my desire,

Nor quash with thy delays of fire,

Bursting with love upon my couch I lie,

Forestalling with desire the distant joy.


1887, Erotica. The Poems of Catullus and Tibullus, and The Vigil of Venus., London George Bell and Sons, York Street, Covent Garden, Walter K. Kelly [PROSE]


What broke off the garlands that girt you?

What sundered you spirit and clay?

Weak sins yet alive are as virtue

To the strength of the sins of that day.

For dried is the blood of thy lover,

Ipsithilla, contracted the vein,

Cry aloud 'Will he rise and recover,

Our Lady of Pain?'

Cry aloud; for the old world is broken:

Cry aloud, for the Phrygian is priest,

And rears not the bountiful token

And spreads not the fairly feast.

From the midmost of Ida, from shady

Recesses that murmur at morn,

They have brought and baptized her, Our Lady,

A goddess new-born.

And the chaplets of old are above us,

And the oyster bed teems out of reach,

Old poets outsing and outlove us,

And Catullus makes mouths at our speech.

Who shall kiss, in thy father's own city,

With such lips as he sang with, again?

Intercede for us all of thy pity,

Our Lady of Pain.


1887, Erotica. The Poems of Catullus and Tibullus, and The Vigil of Venus., London George Bell and Sons, York Street, Covent Garden, Walter K. Kelly (Lamb's verse version)


Be a sweetie, Ipsithilla,

joy and charm personified,

invite me to join in your afternoon nap.

But merely inviting is not enough.

Make certain that nobody locks the door.

Resist your desire to wander the streets.

Stay in the house and prepare to engage

in nine continuous copulations.

If this is agreeable, tell me at once.

I'm lying on my back, digesting my lunch,

and boring a hole in my tunic and cloak.


1887, 1887, Erotica. The Poems of Catullus and Tibullus, and The Vigil of Venus., London George Bell and Sons, York Street, Covent Garden, Walter K. Kelly (Anonymous version)


An Afternoon with Ipsitilla

Please, please me, dear Ipsitilla,

my own sweetness, my so clever,

invite me in for siesta

and I'll come -- but at your leisure.

Don't block your passage, fold down flaps,

slip off out for other pleasures.

Hold on, get set, let's fill the gap:

nine full-time, full-on, fuck-fuckings;

just say you're game, just say you will,

you see I've eaten, had my fill,

yet still my lunch-box is bulging.


1996,The erotic spirit: an anthology of poems of sensuality, love, and longing, Shambala Publications, Inc., Sam Hamill


Ipsithilla, baby girl,

Sugar, honey, let me curl

Up with you this afternoon,

Tell me that I can come soon,

Tell me none will bar your door,

That you're not busy, and what's more

That you will wait for me and choose

To give me nine successive screws.

Oh, don't delay, don't make me wait,

I'm resting, stuffed with all I ate,

Feeling my pecker stand up straight.


1970, Catullus, The Complete Poems for American Readers, E.P. Dutton & CO., INC., New York; Reney Myers and Robert J. Ormsby


Please darling, dear Ipsithilla,

All my pleasure, my only attraction,

Order me to you this afternoon.

And if you do order me, please arrange also

That no one shall get in my was as I enter,

And don't you go off either at the last moment.

But stay at home and organize for us

Nine copulations in rapid series.

If there's anything doing, send round immediately;

For here I am, lying in my bed;

I have had my lunch, the thing sticks out of my tunic.


1966, The Poetry of Catullus, Viking Press, C.H. Sisson


My lovely, sweet Ipsithilla,

my delicious, my passion,

call for me this affternoon.

Please send for me so I may come

without question,

And don't sneak off as I enter.

Stay, and wait, and dream up

nine different kinds of copulation

to keep us entertained.

Send for me here, after lunch,

wher I'm supine on my bed

with my cock peeking out from my tunic.