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: http://www.bluesonpurpose.com.

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.