Monday, November 18, 2019

THE CHIMERAS Written by Gérard de Nerval Translated by Henry Weinfield Illustrated by Douglas Kinsey

Review by Ravi Teja Yelamanchili

            THE CHIMERAS written by Gérard de Nerval, was originally published in 1854 in French. 
 Though the collection contains only eight poems, it is a work of monumental genius.THECHIMERAS  It is a vision of unfettered idealism, madness, hope, and despair—that blossoms into a beautiful sonnet sermon Nerval calls ‘Golden Verses’.

On page 21, Nerval writes: “This sublime, insensate madman, it was he, one could be sure, / This Icarus forgotten who again began to soar”. The myth of Icarus and Daedalus is a cautionary tale. It is the story of a son who ignores his father’s wisdom and flies to the sun—though he knew the wax would melt from his wings, and the ocean would devour him. For Nerval characters like Icarus are heroes— martyrs who died in the pursuit of idealism and truth. Nerval places figures like Icarus alongside Christ and other prophets from often incongruous religions and myths. Henry Weinfield’s brilliant English translation and Douglas Kinsey’s beautiful illustrations add rich layers and levels of depth to this collection.

Weinfield’s and Kinsey’s THE CHIMERAS, was my first time reading Nerval. When I first saw Weinfield’s and Kinsey’s translation I was immediately drawn to the book’s cover art. It has an illustration of a chimera on it. On the body of the chimera are white lines, which reminded me of a cave painting. I randomly flipped the book open to page 11 to a poem titled ‘Artemis’, and saw the lines:

“White roses fall! Profanation to our gods:
Fall, white phantoms, from your skies, scorched abodes:
—The saint of the abyss is more saintly to my eyes.”

The moment I read those lines I was mesmerized, and looked Nerval up on Google, to learn that he that was one of the great giants of French Romanticism. There are many books out there, and we all have only so much time to read. I only spend time reading books that expose me to perspectives and ideas that challenge my own, teach me valuable skills, and or make me a better person. Had any one of the three artists not done exceptional work I doubt I would have continued reading this book. Nerval and Weinfield have created poetry that is exceptionally beautiful and elegant. The poetry is complex and forces the reader to confront the inescapable darkness and egocentrism prevalent at the core of human nature.

            Traditionally, the sonnet was a form used to write love poems—and most sonnets were written in praise of a woman and or her beauty. THE CHIMERAS is a sonnet sequence, where the ‘truth’ is personified, and praised in verse—in Greek mythology, the chimera is a female. In THE CHIMERAS the ‘truth’ that Nerval pines after takes on the form of a chimera: many headed, strange bodied, etc— each sonnet in the sequence forming one of the parts of the chimera. Since each individual sonnet is a crossbreeding of various religions, and myths— each individual sonnet can also be thought of as a chimera as well.

            Growing up I was raised in a bilingual family, and I never really thought too much about what an accent meant until recently. An accent is the superpositioning of one language and by extension one culture on another. Many immigrant families, like my own, often find themselves negotiating and bartering two different cultures. The task of the translator is similar to the aforementioned phenomenon—there is a constant negotiation between different languages and the cultures. It is particularly complex when translating work from a different time and poetic tradition.
            Translating between French and English is particularly interesting because English is influenced heavily by French and German. I have read before that the English of the ‘upper class’ was derived more heavily from French, while the English of the lower classes was derived more heavily from German. When reading a French to English translation, I would expect to find these linguistic patterns also present in the resulting translated work, and often do. Interestingly, Weinfield’s translation reads more like the translation of a 1900’s-1950’s Greek Myth or Epic, than a French poem. After reading Weinfield’s translation of THE CHIMERAS, I decided to read several other translations of THE CHIMERAS as well.

Other translations of THE CHIMERAS read more like a French to English translation, the expected linguistic patterns finding their way into the poetry. Weinfield’s careful word selection ensures that that the poetry has a unique ‘mythical’ tone to it. I would also argue that it is the most faithful translation of THE CHIMERAS I have read so far. Translating work this faithfully takes great skill. In the poem “Myrtho”, Nerval’s writes “À ton front inondé des clartés d'Orient,”. Weinfield’s translation reads, “Your forehead flooded by the Orient’s bright rays”. Weinfield uses the uses the word “Orient” while other translators refrain from using it, and instead write “morning light”, or “radiance of the East”. The reference to Asia is lost when d’Orient is translated to “morning light” or “radiance of the East”.

 If the word orient wasn’t capitalized it would simply mean “situated in or belonging to the East”— referring to the position of the morning sun. Capitalizing the word ‘Orient’ carries a more Eurocentric reference to Asia. Nerval wrote THE CHIMERAS, in the 1850’s in the heart of European Imperialism. Around this time a great deal of Eastern scripture and literature was being translated by the likes of Ralph T. H. Griffith, Max Muller, Karl Friedrich Neumann, and etc. The word ‘Orient’ plays a critical role in THE CHIMERAS, since the book draws from many myths and scriptures. Additionally, the Romanticist movement as whole was heavily influenced by Eastern scripture and philosophy—so, changing the word Orient drastically alters the meaning and decontextualizes of the poem.

            In mythology Myrto is a Maenad, or a female follower of Dionysus. Many translators change the name Iacchus to Bacchus, possibly to make the poem more accessible to the reader. Though even in mythology Bacchus is closely associated with Iacchus, they are not one and the same. Iacchus is a minor god belonging to an agrarian cult, associated with Demeter and Persephone; while Bacchus has been associated with several different cults such as the hedonistic cult of Bacchus. Demeter and Persephone play an important role in explaining the natural cycles of the world, life, and death; while the cult of Bacchus was associated more so with sensual pleasures. Translating Iacchus into the Bacchus completely strips the poem of its Eleusian Mysteries (the agrarian cult) context. In the third verse of the poem “Myrtho”, Weinfield’s translation reads “the volcano comes alive” while others translated to “the volcano boiled up again”, and “I know why that volcano is aflame”. A characteristic of many myths is the personification of natural phenomenon. In a poem that draws very heavily on Greek Mythology, there is mountain of difference between saying the “volcano is alive”, and “the volcano boiled up again”. While the word alive is a personification of a natural event, the latter are both retellings of an event. Myths serve many purposes—retelling events is one of them, but another is explaining why they happened. If a child were to ask, “why is there lava everywhere?”, “it boiled up again” does not adequately answer why. On the other hand, “it came alive”, or “it was sleeping, and now it is awake” not only answers what, but also provides a more satiating answer to why something happened the way it did.  Additionally, using the word ‘alive’ as opposed to ‘boiled up again’ does a better job of tying back into the narrative of Demeter and Persephone, the seasons, life and death, etc.

            Several years back when I was discussing the work of Rabindranath Tagore with one of my Bengali friends, they explained to me that Bengali is a very flowery language. He had me listen to Tagore in Bengali, to get a better understanding of what the poem would have sounded like in its original language.  I don’t speak French, so to get a better sense of what Nerval’s work sounds like, I listened to several French readings of his poetry. When I compared Weinfield’s translations with the translations of other English translators I found that Weinfield’s was very close to Nerval’s original sound. Weinfield is an accomplished poet with a great ear and captures Nerval’s melodies with precision. Many poetry translators, especially with rhyming poetry, will try to force rhymes just to maintain form—resulting in clunky writing. Weinfield’s translation is very elegant—the rhymes and sounds, remarkably close to Nerval’s.

Weinfield’s and Kinsey’s project is unlike any other take on THE CHIMERAS: each of Nerval’s sonnets are accompanied by one of the Kinsey’s illustrations.  Each of the pieces are stylistically very different. The illustration that goes alongside ‘Myrtho’ on page 3 looks a bit like a Renaissance painting, while the painting on page 18 has a post-Impressionist feel to it. However, each of the paintings are a blending of many different styles—and any attempts at categorizing them would be reductionist and do Kinsey’s work little justice. The artwork influences the poems in a very interesting way. I find visual arts to be more accessible to my eye than words and found myself first looking at the paintings, then reading the poetry. Furthermore, since the paintings were laid out on the left side of the book as opposed to the right side—I found myself taking a quick glimpse of Kinsey’s art before reading each of the lines.

When we read English, most of us, read from the left side to the right side of the page. In poetry the end of each line functions as a soft pause, or a fractional comma or period. When the paintings are laid out on the left side of the manuscript, the reader’s eyes instinctually start on the left side and moves to the right again, where it stops. Then it goes back to the left side where it catches a glimpse of Kinsey’s painting before the next line is read. This to me was a bit like going to a museum looking at a work of art, and then reading the label underneath it. However, since the artwork and the sonnets were given equal page economy, the reader looks at the artwork as they read the poems. Nerval’s sonnets on their own are extremely complex and often the emotional power of the poems is muzzled by the intellectual. Kinsey’s illustrations are abstract and use bold color choices and patterns— this helps draw the emotions out of the poems, while at the same time not forcing interpretation on the reader.

            In summation, I would like to thank Weinfield and Kinsey for the work they have done. Had it not been for them, I would have never read Nerval’s magnificent poetry. Thank you both for your remarkable work!

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Keith Moul’s The Journal

Keith Moul’s The Journal, published by Duck Lake Books, reviewed by Gregory J. Wolos

            “Like so many other men of his generation, the war was transformative, making him almost mute on the subject,” writes Keith Moul of his father, a veteran of World War II, in Moul’s foreword to his poetry chapbook The Journal. My own father was of this generation, and, like Moul and many other children of these soldiers, my brothers and I grew up in an atmosphere largely defined by his silence. We the nearness of history—the war was less than a decade distant. We played with our toy guns and plastic soldiers, fought backyard battles, and vanquished imaginary enemies. But though we were aware that our parent was a human artifact of that “transformative” time, something about the cocoon of silence around my father, a silence that seemed nurtured by our mother, kept us from satisfying our curiosities about the war. Passively, we concluded that this was what all men—all fathers—were like. We saw so many of them at family and social gatherings, at church, working on our cars and plumbing, standing behind the counters of our hardware and shoe stores.

            The thing about monuments is that it becomes easy to believe that they are stone all the way through, and so my brothers remained distant from my father until his death. As the youngest, maybe because I was furthest from the defining conflict, maybe because something in my own personality allowed me to see through the chinks in my father’s rusting armor, I found a softer parent. Maybe I created him myself. We became friends, my father and I, but never companions—I learned no more about the war and what it had done to him than had my siblings.    

            Keith Moul, a fellow child of a soldier, was gifted late in life with a chance to peek into the inner life of a man whose life experiences had made him hard to know. His father, he discovers, had kept a journal for a short time while serving as a radar man on an aircraft carrier in the South Pacific at the height of the war. Moul’s mother had held onto that diary for years after his father’s death, passed the journal on to Moul’s brother shortly before her own, and his brother gave it to him. As Moul writes in “Silent Man,” “His silence lasted emptied almost fifty years . . . / I got the journal on her death. I never knew/ his eloquence, his effort to write to her his love,/ his sifting of boogies through tedium, the carrier/ tracing burial sites over the ever-swirling waves.”

            And thus, in this chapbook, The Journal, the reader participates in Moul’s creation of links to a man long dead, to an experience his father kept to himself for “almost fifty years.” Like an archaeologist, the poet uses the fragments his father leaves to reconstruct an inner life that, had they not been discovered, would have remained forever buried: Moul provides, in each of his pieces, first his father’s journal entry, followed by a poem extrapolated from the detailed experience. For example, in “The Axis,” we learn from the senior Moul’s entry of March 26, 1944, this seemingly mundane fact: “Crossed the equator again yesterday. This makes it about 15 times I have been across it.” From this information son Keith hypothesizes about the inventorying—of trips, of planes, of mines and bombs—that fill his father’s journal: “As it happened, even if asleep at the crossing, he counted it;/ he captured it as an electric surge, extending life, running life/ as if attached to a long umbilical, as if overruling death’s generator.”

            In “Darling Honey,” Moul quotes an entry from his father’s journal intended to explain to the poet’s mother why there may have been a lapse in his letters home: “I was scared a few days, and when you get that way, you just can’t write, honey.” The son’s poem intuits his father’s feelings: “Fear in battle . . . the momentary scare of known death/ on the deck, or unknown death waiting for its moment/ . . . that reaper hanging above every breath . . ./ This is why, dear, another letter may have failed,/ may have given you the wrong impression of both me, now, and my universe of war.”

            But Keith Moul’s poems in The Journal are more than an explanation or expansion of his father’s wartime journal entries; they are also more than simple acts of ventriloquism. Because of the son’s enrichment of the journal through his poetry, the father is both memorialized and resurrected. The relationship between entry and poem is both symbiotic and synergistic: the pair becomes a unit that not only recreates the father’s past war experience, but fills a void in the poet’s understanding of his father’s silence. The poem “The Fact of Circling Light,” poses the question, “And what of coming generations amassing questions,/some risking long stifled memory?” The answers to Moul writes are “too often wide of the grisly mark, too grisly to confront.” The truth, however, is that by inhabiting his father’s wartime experience, the son has forged both a truce and truth from that silence. As Wordsworth states in the opening lines of his “Ode on the Intimations of Immortality,” “the child is father of the man.” In a very real sense, Moul himself in his poems has created the father he needed and missed from his father’s brief journal entries. And through these poems, I find that I myself gain insight into my own soldier-father’s silences.

Sunday, November 03, 2019

That Swing Poems, 2008-2016 By X.J. Kennedy

That Swing
Poems, 2008-2016
By X.J. Kennedy
John Hopkins University Press
Baltimore, Maryland
ISBN: 9781421422442
72 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

X.J. Kennedy knows what he’s doing. Into his ninth decade he is one of a handful of poetry grandmasters who revived the ongoing formalist tradition of rhyme and meter, giving it new life and introducing original beats and jazzy tones. His countermeasures against the status quo not only presented an alternative to the undisciplined brand of free verse popular at the time, but rejected its mirror image, the old, tired, formalist drivel being foisted by academia onto that unsuspecting generation of long-suffering students.   

Much of Kennedy’s verse is light and funny, but not that light, and not that funny. He has serious things to say and significant points to make. His accessible, colloquial language and breezy wit disguise much.  Kennedy’s new book entitled That Swing promises a lot and delivers with a slew  of good poems and a couple of great ones.

In Lonesome George, the opening poem in the collection, Kennedy, somewhat hilariously, meets and identifies with, an ancient giant tortoise showcased at the Darwin Research Station, Puerta Ayora, Galapagos Islands. This tortoise is rather special, the last of his subspecies. Watching this beast eat eelgrass, cactus leaves, and catch the occasional fly, the poet clearly recognizes telltale signs of kinship,

          … Dead-ending male,
     lone emblem of despair,
he slumps on his kneecaps, tail
     antennaing the air.
For a long moment we bind
     Sympathetic looks,
we holdouts of our kind,
     like rhymed lines, printed books. 

Kennedy’s poem entitled Insanity in the Basement dishes out the smells and sights of an early twentieth century man-cave presided over by Kennedy’s father. Once the reader gets by the fish guts (toasted over furnace coals) , the rabbit cadavers (victims of coal fuel vapors), and Uncle Bill (who, expelled by his wife from his own home for a ‘twitching’ proclivity, was recovering nicely on the mohair sofa), he or she will marvel at this truly marvelous haven. Women visitors, however, were not encouraged to visit these subterranean environs. Kennedy explains,

And when fish-hating Uncle Norman’s reel
Cranked in a tuna fit for Gargantua’s meal,
Who had to be that fish’s glad receiver?
My old man. Whipped out his butcher’s cleaver
And in our basement took a vicious whack
At its backbone, causing the blade
To take off into space. It made
Straight for my mother, missed her by an inch.
She wasn’t one to flinch
But dryly said, Good Shot.

Occasionally in Kennedy’s poems one can hear the classic tones of other practitioners of narrative poetry, especially pieces ending in twists of irony. Think Edward Arlington Robinson. One such piece Kennedy calls Progress. In this poem Kennedy tells the story of his father, a very good bookkeeper, who was replaced by an early form of automation, the Burroughs adding machine. The powerful skills that once provided essential human dignity lose their value in this brave new world of mechanized progress. Here is Kennedy’s penultimate ironic twist,

…my father saw that his number
Would shortly be up. As he feared,
Anybody could tug on a handle
And an accurate total appeared.

They broke the news to him gently,
They professed their profound regret
And presented him, not with a pension,
With a pen and pencil set.

For a time he displayed it proudly
Till the pencil had to be tossed
When it wouldn’t quite twist as it used to
And the cap of the pen got lost.
The poet details an epic dance scene, set in a nursing home, in his poem Invitation to Dance. Through eighteen stanzas Kennedy rivets the attention of his readers (How is this possible!) with humanity, elderly humor, and an exhilarating sense of existential joy. The words in this piece seem to dance off the page. Even the dark humor rises a couple of notches to a musical grin. Consider these stanzas,

Now out on the floor move the hesitant dancers:
And two-fingered Fein bows to Mag O’Quin.
Tim Mudge finds his feet, takes a break from quaking,
Screws his courage to sticking point, soon cuts in.

Now women and men into dance steps stumble,
All hatched from the shells of their separate woes.
Their crutches and walkers and canes forgotten,
With slow steps they weave the design of a rose.

“Circle round!” hollers Mabel. “Once more now, me dearies!
You wheezing old engines, set wheels to the track!”
In the thud of their heavy steps nobody notices
Finver slump to the floor with a last heart attack.

My favorite poem in Kennedy’s collection is In the Motel Office. Somehow, around a horrifying vignette of loneliness, old age, and illness, Kennedy weaves another tale, a farcical one. Here the distasteful greed and low brow ethics of a motel staffer takes center stage, showing the poet’s insightful comprehension of human nature. The predator sizes up his prey while conversing in the heart of the poem,

Jesus, Jack.
What’s this, a hospital we’re running here?
       I bet there’s dough or something in his bags.
Used underwear, you mean.
       And something better, Christ,
       You see him sign in? Face all gray? He drags
       Like one whole side of him is paralyzed
      And coughs up black blood on the frigging pen
      And when he breaks his wallet out the green
      Is like he robbed a bank.
Dreaming again! Another get-rich-quick. I never seen
A guy like you.
       You mean a guy that claims
       The chips left lying around

Memorable. Timeless. Tragically funny. Yes, X.J. Kennedy knows what he’s doing.

Saturday, November 02, 2019

Women Musicians Network 23rd annual concert, Thursday, Nov. 7th Berklee Performance Center

Women Musicians Network  
23rd annual concert, Thursday, Nov. 7th 
Berklee Performance Center 

Kirk Etherton 

I think this is Boston's best annual concert: completely different every year, extremely diverse and very high quality. Often, I run into people who share my opinion.  

I met a very interesting Berklee student a few years ago (she was older, having taught classical piano at a university in Japan before discovering jazz, and eventually getting a full scholarship to Berklee). 

This woman knew music--travelled widely, had her own radio show, etc.--and she insisted, "This is the best annual concert anywhere! For me, missing this show would be musical tragedy." 

As always, it's at the B.P.C. and focuses on Berklee women students and their bands from around the world, plus special guests. 

There are 10 (yes, ten) original acts again this year, ranging from Cuban Jazz and Flamenco, to Korean Folk, R&B, and Poetry set to music and dance. 

The WMM concert (and its co-founder / leader / host, Lucy Holstedthas gotten special commendations from the Cambridge Mayor's Office and the Mass. House of Representatives, and been featured on WGBH's "Eric in the Evening."  

I hope to see you there. 

Women Musicians Network 
23rd annual concert 
Berklee Performance Center 
8:00 pm - 9:30 pm  
Tickets: only $10 in advance / $15 day of show 
Directed by Lucy Holstedt.  
Supported by Berklee's Center for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion & the Office of External Affairs, plus Boston Union Realty.