Thursday, March 5, 2009

James Wright:: "The Mini-Series"

In a past post, I believe I mentioned the fact that Wesleyan University Press has issued a teeny version of perhaps my favorite book of poetry, The Branch Will Not Break by James Wright. It occurred to me I didn't show how teeny it is, so here it is above. It is a hardcover and I just weighed it on my mail scale: 1.1 ounces. I have the ability to have this with me at all times and usually do. It weighs less than my mp3 player, fer chrissakes, and though that has over 900 songs, the set of songs is no where near as lyrical as these 43 poems. Or nearly as boring. How can you get bored with 900 songs?

That's another story, for 21st century historians to cogitate. I'm afraid the verdict will not be good.

So while I have it in hand, literally, let me share another little gem from this groundbreaking volume. Besides being a lyrical poet of the first order, Wright was an accomplished translator. I will forever be in his depth for his translations of Hermann Hesse, in the volume simply entitled Poems. Though narrow in scope, Wright strictly selected work concerned with what might loosely be described as "homesickness," a theme the two poets shared. It is nonetheless a valuable collection, one of only a few in English by the prolific poet, Hesse (yes, we have lots of his great fiction, but a truly miniscule amount of his poetry - if there are any translators out there who want to see Hesse's work see the light of day, I'm interested).

In a footnote to the following translation, Wright says: "These three stanzas are from Goethe's poem Harzreise im Winter. They are the stanzas which Brahms detached from the poem and employed as the test for his Alto Rhapsody of 1869."

Three Stanzas From Goethe

That man there, who is he?
His path lost in the thicket,
Behind him the bushes
Lash back together,
The grass rises again,
The waste devours him.

Oh, who will heal the sufferings
Of the man whose balm turned poison?
Who drank nothing
but hatred of men from loves abundance?
Once despised, not a despiser,
He kills his own life,
The precious secret.
The self-seeker finds nothing.

Oh Father of Love,
If your psaltery holds one tone
That his ear still might echo,
Then quicken his heart!
Open his eyes, shut off by clouds
From the thousand fountains
So near him, dying of thirst
In his own desert.

translated by James Wright

The subject, tone, and even style perfectly fit the poems this translation is surrounded by in The Branch Will Not Break. As with Hesse, it shows how a translator/poet, in a sense, makes another's work his own.

So if you'd like something to carry along while waiting around for your front-end to be aligned, your wisdom teeth to be extracted, or your boss to stop talking, this tiny little volume may do the trick. I purchased it directly from Wesleyan University Press (see "teeny version" link above) but be forewarned: they charge an outrageous amount to ship it. Though my amazon link boycott stands and I like to buy direct from small presses when I can, you can get it from amazon at a slightly less outrageous rate. Search via isbn (978-0-8195-6841-0) to make sure you get the right version.

No matter what the size, this is a near perfect book of poems.



Charles Gramlich said...

Good things come in small packages!

And it's hardback? Wow. It's nice to know that if I ever get shrunk down I'll still have real books to hold in my hand.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


The only thing missing is a dust jacket ...


Tor Hershman said...

I can't see Russia BUT I can view Martin's Ferry from moi's back porch.

James Wright REALLY knew/knows this valley, very well.....verily.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Thanks, Tor ... that must be some back, very expansive, at least metaphorically ... Don