Friday, December 31, 2010

John Martone: scrittura povera

John Martone is one of the finest purveyors of the short form in English today.  Certainly, he is one of my favorites.  When one of his gorgeous minimalist productions arrives in my mailbox, I am thrilled in a way recent books rarely thrill me today.

scrittura povera ("poor writing") is the latest volume to come from John and it opens with this intriguing epigraph:

hempen clothes and paper bedding ... ippen

The quotation is interesting, giving a little foot in the door of the master's hut.  Which master, you ask?

Ah, that is the question.
For those who might be interested, here is a very informative article on Hijiri Ippen, the master quoted in the epigraph, from Hermitary, a resource on hermits and solitude.  For those who want the poems on their own terms (I frequently fall in this school myself, hence this option), I would suggest simply skipping the article and head right to the poems below.

Well, enough of context, on to text!  Or, perhaps, as we look at the opening poem, we see the poet has given us both at once:

see that

that's yr

Not quite a riddle, eh; for those who take a wholistic approach to existence, this makes sense.  For those who are blues aficionados, the lyric "the stream flows to the river, the river flows to the sea"  may come to mind.  The image is not a trope, it is quite literal.

down to 3
cardboard boxes
and his teeth

An even cursory glance at the Hermitary article gives up the concept eremiticism, the life of the hermit.  Ippen was a hermit and a monk, who ultimately traveled widely spreading his belief in  Pure Land Buddhism.   The speaker here, too, exhibits hermit-like qualities - all life is honed down to 3 cardboard boxes and teeth, maybe just 3 of those, too.

how much time
do you need
morning glory

In terms of modern haiku, it just doesn't get much better than this.  There is certainly a touch of Issa here, a perfect balancing between the comic and the serious.  It is, as is life, both at the same time.  The same principle underlies the following:

everywhere after
a good sleep

Here the speaker begins with misery and ends with happiness - how many of us would think of the good sleep we had after an onslaught of bed bugs?  We might even think the two elements of the haiku are backwards, when it is us, our lives, that are backwards, or at least our perception of them.




Their is something at once contemporary and timeless about this observed scene.  Virtually all of us have seen a variation of the same, yet how often does it call to mind something nearly mythic, evoked by the simple circle.

prairie grasses
a human being
also standing upright

Classic haiku often compares/contrasts seemingly disparate elements; the resolution of these disparities (a mountain in a dragonfly's eye, a snail climbing, climbing, climbing Mount Fuji) evokes the oneness of all things.  Here the oneness of all life, the life essence, is perfectly conjured.

chimney swifts stitch a day's end

There is a beautiful, imagistic, Buson-like quality to this - it is almost as if the insect-hunting swifts are actually gathering pieces of darkness together into night (all in 6 brief words).

watching that spider
you wash yr hands

One of Issa's most popular haiku - the fly wringing it's hands, wringing it's feet - is thought of here; though not as pyrotechnic, this haiku is even better, because it drops out the anthropomorphic quality and connects all beings in a simple gesture.

not one word
a night song

This perfectly evokes the hermit life - there is such a wonderful quality to the idea of song without words, be it bird, animal, or person.

in an apartment under the moon

Sensing the presence of the moon in an enclosed, sealed building also reminds us of the hermit experience and what it must be like for someone who lives alone in a remote area to experience living with others.  A less talented poet would be tempted to "finish this poem."

fossil hunting
my life
of the spirit

As lovers of haiku know and as mentioned above, many a great poem in this form derives from disparate elements.   What does fossil hunting have to do with the life of the spirit?  Well, here is a perfect example of a poem in which the denouement takes place in the reader's head or, if you will, the reader is left to complete the poem.

So I'll leave that one to you, with only the thought that I enjoyed it very much.



This last poem throws us back on a single word, a word we think we know, a word that, if we don't encounter it daily, we certainly encounter with great frequency.  What, oh what, does romance mean?

It means so many things and is such a lovely way to end a book, and a blog post, that I'll end as John Martone ends - right here.


By way of explanation: with a fair amount of regularity, I post on Fridays and Sundays.  Friday concentrates on poetry related issues, Sunday, leans more toward music of a literary bend, with a healthy dose of poetry.  In both postings I feature a poem (or poems) from back issues in the Lilliput archive.  Somehow, I got two separate strands going with the postings for the different days.  Currently, the Friday post, as with this one, is featuring issues counting down from the current issues; the Sunday post contains poems from issues counting up from #1.  Two different strands, which occasionally pass through the night, which is exactly what happened recently.

Just a few weeks ago, I featured two poems by Albert Huffstickler from issue #117.  Here's a third from the same issue.  Wave as we pass by.  A braid of two contiguous time travel strands, if you will.
Note to self: ease up on the Doctor Who reruns.


I imagine my mother
seated at the yellow table
in her kitchen
sunlight touching
her still face:
so few people
we ever really know.
Albert Huffstickler

burning mosquitoes--
in the paper lamp
my dear one's face
translated by David G. Lanoue

Happy New Year, everyone.


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Sunday, December 26, 2010

Turn, Turn, Turn: Issa's Sunday Service, #83

Sometimes the sacred books dovetail together nicely and "Turn, Turn, Turn (to Everything There is a Season)," from the Book of Ecclesiastes, is something of the Judeo/Christian tradition that recalls the Tao, Confucius, fundamental Buddhist texts, the great classicists and more.

In other words, it brings the real.

The Byrds had a big surprise hit with "Turn, Turn, Turn" in 1965.  Here is a lovely rendition by Judy Collins, accompanied by the man who wrote the melodic adaptation, Pete Seeger, from his TV shadow in the mid-60s.

Listen closely to the notes played just before they begin - I'm hearing a bit of "Here Comes the Sun" - 3, 4, 5 notes at most, but a shared melody/progression if my ear is serving me right.

Finally, if you'd like to learn to play this lovely song yourself, here is Roger McGuinn, in a solo performance, filmed by someone who knows what guitar players, and true music fans, want to see: the artist's fingering and picking, McGuinn on his signature 12-string Rickenbacher, showing how it's done, with soul, spirit, and a clarity of playing par excellence.

And a little bit of history, courtesy of Wikipedia:

The song was first released by the folk group The Limeliters on their 1962 album Folk Matinee, under the title "To Everything There Is a Season". The Limeliters' version predated the release of Seeger's own version by several months. One of The Limeliter's backing musicians at this time was Jim McGuinn (aka Roger McGuinn), who would later work with folk singer Judy Collins, rearranging the song for her 1963 album, Judy Collins 3. Collins' recording of the song was retitled as "Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season)", a title that would be used intermittently by McGuinn's later band The Byrds, when they released a cover of the song in 1965.


Sometimes serendipity just gets right up in your face even though you, stupid old you, try looking every which way but where you should be looking.  I know, cause I'm talking about me.   In any case, this poem, from issue #128, just jumped right out, being the first poem of the issue.  Since the way I select these poems every week is one per issue working my way up (last week was #127, the week before etc.), this is true serendipity.

Now it's in your face.  Enjoy.

  The first Christmas after:
  an orange bristling with cloves,
  the mandrill faces
  in walnut halves left untouched
  the background, snowbanks
  blank as absence
J. D. Smith

a new year--
the same nonsense
piled on nonsense

translated by David G. Lanoue


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Go to the LitRock web site for a list of all 83 songs
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Saturday, December 25, 2010

Tom Waits and Two James Wright Poems

I was reminded of this Tom Waits song from a recent Facebook posting and it immediately put me in mind of two James Wright poems, one for obvious reasons, the other maybe not so obvious.  In any case, I'm thinking out loud here: Merry Christmas, good holidays, and Happy New Year, folks.  

Two poems by James Wright

I was only a young man
  In those days. On that evening
  The cold was so God damned
  Bitter there was nothing.
  Nothing. I was in trouble
  With a woman, and there was nothing
  There but me and dead snow.

  I stood on the street corner
  In Minneapolis, lashed
  This way and that.
  Wind rose from some pit,
  Hunting me.
  Another bus to Saint Paul
  Would arrive in three hours,
  If I was lucky.

  Then the young Sioux
  Loomed beside me, his scars
  Were just my age.

  Ain't got no bus here
  A long time, he said.
  You got enough money
  To get home on?

  What did they do
  To your hand? I answered.
  He raised up his hook into the terrible starlight
  And slashed the wind.

  Oh, that? he said.
  I had a bad time with a woman. Here,
  You take this.

  Did you ever feel a man hold
  Sixty-five cents
  In a hook,
  And place it
  In your freezing hand?

  I took it.
  It wasn't the money I needed.
  But I took it. 

   In Response to a Rumor That the Oldest Whorehouse 
   in Wheeling, West Virginia, Has Been Condemned
I will grieve alone,
As I strolled alone, years ago, down along
The Ohio shore.
I hid in the hobo jungle weeds
Upstream from the sewer main,
Pondering, gazing.

I saw, down river,
At Twenty-third and Water Streets
By the vinegar works,
The doors open in early evening.
Swinging their purses, the women
Poured down the long street to the river
And into the river
I do not know how it was
They could drown every evening.
What time near dawn did they climb up the other shore,
Drying their wings?

For the river at Wheeling, West Virginia,
Has only two shores:
The one in hell, the other
In Bridgeport, Ohio.

And nobody would commit suicide, only
To find beyond death
Bridgeport, Ohio.


Finally, a poem from issue #51, back in 1993, by the fine poet, Christien Gholson, to commemorate the day today.  It was #18 in the "Brobdingnag Feature Poem" series, in which the editor slips in a little something beyond the normal ten-line constraint.  Enjoy.

Sudden Compassion in the Alley Behind
      The Apartment, Christmas Day

  The Lords of Trash
   ride the beerbox skidding across black ice.
  Their laughter calls down the dead
  who will not accept their death,
  waiting behind black windows made of sudden crow wings.

  They tumble into the world
  and enter the bodies of flying ragleaves,
  freed from the ice, tossed blind
  back up through the black crow windows
  without a sound.

  Everything is alive like a merciful warning.
  Even those souls gnashing each other
  behind sudden dark windows, desperate
  to finish something that's already finished.

  The tossed leaves shimmer over starlings
  praising the chimney smoke that warms them
  and the leftover smoke opens its mouth,
  drinking down the seed husk coins
  the sparrow let fly onto the wind.

New Year's day -
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average.
translated by Robert Hass

By way of explanation, under the classical calendar in Japan, New Years is later in the year, about the 2nd or 3rd week in February, around the coming of spring.    Also, it is tradition that everyone celebrated their birthday on New Years.  Issa's undercutting of tradition here is really his poetic signature.

And quite funny.

Happy Christmas all, and, for the coming New Year, may you feel about average.


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Friday, December 24, 2010

splakeus and lillies: a collection of short poetry

t. kilgore splake has been with me, that is has been publishing in Lilliput Review, since almost its inception in 1989.    An upper Peninsula of Michigan poet who has dedicated all to the muse (or the Muse), he rides the wave of words from Whitman through Kerouac, Vonnegut, Ginsberg, Brautigan, Jim Harrison and on and on.  When I think of Albert Huffstickler, I think of t. kilgore splake, poets who reach beyond the normal poetry audience and touch the hearts of everyday folks, and yet, at the same time, are poets' poets, at least in the universe of the small press.

splake volumes arrive in my mailbox with astounding regularity, as do big fat envelopes full of poems, musing letters, and rafts of articles from here, there, and everywhere.  The latest collection to come my way is pictured above, entitled splakeus and lillies (Moon Publishing), revealing in the title a thing or two about its creator.  The lillies of the title are not misspelled, as one might think at first glance: those lillies are these Lillies, issues of Lilliput Review or, more specifically in tom's case, short poems, which he refers to as "lillies" as a kind of homage to the little magazine for which this is the blog.  In a delightful example of the kind of hyperbole mr. splake is capable of, here is his explanation:

since 1989, the term "lillies" has come to define the short poem in the world of american small press operations (italics added).  

So, letting that serve as both an explanation, a disclaimer of objectivity, and a magnificent example of what Huck Finn characterized as "a stretcher," here are three little gems from this collection, replete with the stripped to the bone punch and power of the short poem as executed by t. kilgore splake:

      after christmas
  vacuuming pine needles
behind grandfather's clock
adjusting heavy pendulum
  seconds ticking slower

       january thaw
   icy mist shadowing
buddha face moon smile
   muting alan's distant
       celestial "howl"

   poet's hmo
2 inch number 6
 20 gauge only

Author w/ his UP Poet Tree


This week's featured poems, two of them this time, comes from issue #118, a broadside by M. Kettner entitled "Highku."    The title says it all:

Two poems by M. Kettner

   ocean breeze
        on a crate of oranges

   brass band out of tune.
   dried seaweed on a fishnet.

And one from the master:

drinking cheap sake--
this cuckoo
this grove
translated by David G. Lanoue


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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Rabbit Run: Issa's Sunday Service, #82

Let me say right off the bat that today's song does not refer to John Updike's novel, Rabbit Run, which took its title from a 1930s song.

I believe that is, and may well be, the one and only time Mr. Updike's name gets mentioned here.

So, what does this lovely little song by Britain's legendary folksinger, Bert Jansch, refer to?  Well, here's a hint or two: Ratty, Mr. Toad, and the Badger, anyone?  Yes, it's the children's tale The Wind in the Willows and, of course, because it is out of copyright you can now get it for free from the new google e-book store, one of 3 million plus free books available there.  Load it to your e-book device of choice or simply read it on your computer.  Me?  I'll be reading a lovely non-virtual copy from the library, one of many illustrated versions also available for the very reasonable price of free.  And, when I'm done, I can bring it back to share with others, one of the many lessons which Mr. Grahame has provided his readers for over a hundred years: the lesson of sharing.

Of course, that's just me.

Here's a great version of one of Jansch's classic tunes, "Blackwater Side," which highlights his strengths in guitar and vocals:

[Note: this week's choice is prompted by the fact that I was very fortunate to see Bert Jansch in concert here in Pittsburgh Friday night, a spectacular show to an audience of around 300 of the faithful, dutifully aligned in pews, in the beautiful local First Unitarian Church.]


This week's featured poem from the Lilliput Review archive comes from issue #127, November 2002, and is a very late autumn poem if ever there was one:

shifting wind
   the coyote's raised foreleg
Ayaz Daryl Nielsen

the first snowfall
caps it...
the piss pot
translated by David G. Lanoue


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Go to the LitRock web site for a list of all 82 songs
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Friday, December 17, 2010

Haiku of the Japanese Masters - Lucien Stryk

Two weeks back, I mentioned a used bookstore trip that yielded two little haiku treasures.  At that time, I took a look at The Duckweed Way: Haiku of IssaToday I'd like to look at the other volume: Haiku of the Japanese Masters, translated again by Lucien Stryk and Takashi Ikemoto.

This collection is once again published by Rook Press of Derry, Pennsylvania, this time in a limited signed edition of 300.  The scope is broadened: instead of one poet, we have 55 poems by 23 poets, including the 4 masters of masters, Bashō, Issa, Buson, and Shiki.  Some of the poems by the 4 masters I've looked at before and will try not to repeat.

I marked 18 of the 55 poems for further perusal and right off the bat I noticed that one was the "cormorant" poem by Bashō that I've mentioned a couple of times previously.  Moving on, there is

Cherry blossoms-
so many,
I'm bent over

One can feel the weight of the blossoms, literally and metaphorically.  It would seem that the blossoms are so full and hanging down so low, the poet must bend to avoid hitting them.  The bowing is, of course, also a sign of respect.  In addition, the sheer volume seems to be overwhelming, so as to cause the poet to bend at the very idea of their immense beauty and profound significance. 

weed quickening
by the stream.

Both in the previous post and this one, the brevity of Stryk's translations has been emphasized.  Brevity is this poem's essence and the reason that it works for me though, admittedly, it almost falters.  Bashō, too, has a poem about a nameless tree or flower and the sense of that haiku, as I remember, is one of universality rather than specificity.    Buson has a poem about a nameless river wherein the lack of familiarity in an unknown region evokes the unknown, fear of the unnamed.  With Chiun's poem there are a number of possibilities.  The weed quickening mirrors the stream quickening, so perhaps there is rain or wind.  Though unnamed, it is effected by the water the same as any known weed.  Perhaps there is not enough here to sketch in a bigger picture.  But the poet's observation is intent and precise.

Spring plain,
by the pheasant's throat.

Sound has overwhelmed sight (and perhaps smell) in this haiku, but there is something else, too.  Has the pheasant ingested the essence of the field, becoming part of the field itself as a result, so what appears to be a disparate evocation of two elements is actually one?

Old pond,
a frog.

Mostly, I only comment on the poems I like, the ones worth passing on to folks or further pondering.  I don't, however, like this rendition of Bashō's classic poem.  I think I'm used to the poem being predicated on sound.  The oral quality in this version shifts to visual, otherwise how could the observer know that there has been a leap before the sound?  Or maybe I'm being too fussy here.

Buddha Law,
in leaf dew.

I noted this one in The Duckweed Way post but it was new to me then and still fresh so here you have it again: I simply love it.

voices of drowned
in sunken ships.

This is a haiku that reminds us that Japan is an island nation, whose very existence is inextricably bound with the sea.  The ghosts of Japanese culture are conjured here and somehow, for me, they are palpable in this brief little poem.  Various cultures ascribe the sound of thunder to various mythological sources - when I was young, it used to be said thunder was the sound of the gods bowling in heaven.

Autumn wind,
the beggar looks
me over, sizing up.

Though part of the same chapbook series, The Duckweed Way, which is exclusively Issa haiku, did not have this translation.  Who hasn't had this feeling, which in this poem balances precariously between humor and fear (I'm guessing the former for the poet).  Beggars know well their clientele, observation being the primary way.  Yet, has autumn and its cold winds pressed the beggar a little closer to desperation?  In Stryk's rendering, sizing, which functions as slang, may also call to mind the tailor fitting one for a coat.  This may be spurious, however, since Issa wasn't likely to have clothes worth very much to anyone.

Dewy morn-
these saucepans
are beautiful.

This is one of Buson's painterly poems and I love it - pure image, it still somehow resonates with deeper meaning.

Pure brush-clover-
basket of flowers,
basket of dew.

Another painterly image, this time from Ryoto.  The moment is perfect, the dew reminding us it is only (!) a moment and will soon pass, as will the flowers, and all.  The dew in Ryoto's poem has made me look back at the dew in Buson's, with a different eye, and I sense the resonance even more.

even the birds
and clouds look old.

The quality of the light or the color of the sky, with the feeling of wind and dampness, are all brought to the fore with two simple words "look old."  Concision like this in haiku translation is peerless.

There is another Ryota poem that is quite good that is again painterly in the Buson manner and another Issa noted in the Duckweed post.   I'll finish, however, with three other beauties, one of which is an Issa poem not in the Duckweed book:

On the iris
soft droppings.

Don't weep, insects-
lovers, stars themselves,
must part.

May he who brings
flowers tonight,
have moonlight.

6 brief words in Buson's poem and the 1 upon which it turns is "soft."   The tactile quality evokes the feel of the iris also and the whole picture presents us with a hint of a complete life cycle.  Issa and his compassion for "lower" life never gets old and this is a great little poem I don't recall seeing before.  Notice the poet's use of contrast between the very small (insect) and the large (star) with us humans in between, the contrast emphasizing the power of the similarity to great effect.  Kikaku's poem is a perfect way to finish - a beautiful wish, almost a prayer, that is lovely in and of itself.


This week's poem from the archive comes from issue #119, back in September 2001.  Enjoy.

   One day all the leaves blow away
   I have been worrying
   about the wrong things
Ray Skjelbred

And the master's final word:

downstream, the gate
to knowledge...
evening's red leaves


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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Althea: Issa's Sunday Service, #81

This week's selection is one I just ran across during the recent 30 Days of the Dead promotion and really enjoyed.  It is a serious Litrock song, with references to Hamlet that are professionally cited in the Annotated Althea lyrics from the truly amazing Annotated Dead Lyrics webpage.  Attention to detail like this - well, the folks from the War on Drugs simply never give you the upside.  Here's the verse relevant to Hamlet:

You may be Saturday's child all grown
moving with a pinch of grace
You may be a clown in the burying ground
or just another pretty face
You may be the fate of Ophelia
sleeping and perchance to dream -
honest to the point of recklessness
self centered to the extreme

The referencing of Richard Lovelace's To Althea from Prison (1649) will set anybody back on their heels.  The poem contains, among much else, the famed lines "stone walls do not a prison break / Nor iron bars a cage."  Besides Hamlet and Lovelace, there is also the old folk song "Monday's Child" in the line "You may be Saturday's child all grown," as noted above.   This one is jam packed and lovely, too.

This is the Dead's second appearance on the Sunday Service and, with this annotated site ready for detailed perusal, I'm sure it won't be the last.   Let's cap this one with a live performance of said tune from 1982:


This week's selection from the Lilliput archive comes from issue #126, July 2002, and is from West Virginia poet, John McKernan.  It is fine:

Distant Church Bell at Midnight
  High C   Butterfly
  Of sound   Larva
  Of darkness   Peeling off
  Layer upon layer of silence

  Twelve strokes   That
  Wooden hammer once
  A tree  The bell itself
  Once flecks of lead & silver   Hidden

  Under the hard earth's soft shadows
John McKernan

Reading this after so many years, I suddenly realized that perhaps it has a relationship to the following:

       on the temple bell  

Sometimes blissful ignorance has its pending rewards.

the praying mantis
hangs by one hand...
temple bell
translated by David G. Lanoue


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Friday, December 10, 2010

Two Short Poems by Sylvia Plath

A quick post amidst a busy, busy week: two poems by Sylvia Plath, whose work I'm returning to for a session of the 3 Poems By discussion group.  I've appended a note on the Hanged Man card from the Tarot deck by way of explanation.  I found both these short poems intriguing. 

The Hanging Man

By the roots of my hair some god got hold of me.  
I sizzled in his blue volts like a desert prophet.

The nights snapped out of sight like a lizard’s eyelid:  
A world of bald white days in a shadeless socket.

A vulturous boredom pinned me in this tree.  
If he were I, he would do what I did.

On the Hanged Man card from the Tarot Deck:


Basic Card Symbols

A man hanging by one foot from a Tau cross - sometimes from a bar or tree. His free leg is always bent to form a "4," his face is always peaceful, never suffering. Sometimes his hands are bound, sometimes they dangle. Sometimes coins fall out of his pockets or hands.

Basic Tarot Story

The Fool settles beneath a tree, intent on finding his spiritual self. There he stays for nine days, without eating, barely moving. People pass by him, animals, clouds, the wind, the rain, the stars, sun and moon. On the ninth day, with no conscious thought of why, he climbs a branch and dangles upside down like a child, giving up for a moment, all that he is, wants, knows or cares about. Coins fall from his pockets and as he gazes down on them - seeing them not as money but only as round bits of metal - everything suddenly changes perspective. It is as if he's hanging between the mundane world and the spiritual world, able to see both. It is a dazzling moment, dreamlike yet crystal clear. Connections he never understood before are made, mysteries are revealed.

But timeless as this moment of clarity seems, he realizes that it will not last. Very soon, he must right himself, and when he does, things will be different. He will have to act on what he's learned. For now, however, he just hangs, weightless as if underwater, observing, absorbing, seeing.

Basic Tarot Meaning

With Neptune (or Water) as its planet, the Hanged Man is perhaps the most fascinating card in the deck. It reflects the story of Odin who offered himself as a sacrifice in order to gain knowledge. Hanging from the world tree, wounded by a spear, given no bread or mead, he hung for nine days. On the last day, he saw on the ground runes that had fallen from the tree, understood their meaning, and, coming down, scooped them up for his own. All knowledge is to be found in these runes.

The Hanged Man, in similar fashion, is a card about suspension, not life or death. This is a time of trial or meditation, selflessness, sacrifice, prophecy. The Querent stops resisting; instead he makes himself vulnerable, sacrifices his position or opposition, and in doing so, gains illumination. Answers that eluded him become clear, solutions to problems are found. He sees the world differently, has almost mystical insights. This card can also imply a time when everything just stands still, a time of rest and reflection before moving on. Things will continue on in a moment, but for now, they float, timeless.

Thirteen's Observations

Neptune is spirituality, dreams, psychic abilities, and the Hanged Man is afloat in these. He is also 12, the opposite of the World card, 21. With the World card you go infinitely out. With the Hanged Man, you go infinitely in.

This card signifies a time of insight so deep that, for a moment, nothing but that insight exists. All Tarot readers have such moments when we see, with absolute clarity, the whole picture, the entire message offered by a spread. The Hanged Man symbolizes such moments of suspension between physical and mystical worlds. Such moments don't last, and they usually require some kind of sacrifice. Sacrifice of a belief or perspective, a wish, dream, hope, money, time or even selfhood. In order to gain, you must give. Sometimes you need to sacrifice cherished positions, open yourself to other truths, other perspectives in order to find solutions, in order to bring about change. One thing is certain, whether the insight is great or small, spiritual or mundane, once you have been the Hanged Man you never see things quite the same.


   I'm the riddle in nine syllables,
   An elephant, a ponderous house
   A melon strolling on two tendrils.
   O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!
   This loaf's big with its yeasty rising.
   Money's new-minted in this fat purse.
   I'm a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
   I've eaten a bag of green apples,
   Boarded the train there's no getting off.

This is a Dickinsonian style riddle-poem.   9-lines, of 9 syllables each, jam-packed with metaphors for ...


One from the master, to round things out:

baby sparrow--
even when people come
opening its mouth
translated by David G. Lanoue


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Sunday, December 5, 2010

Utterly Simple: Issa's Sunday Service, #80

Today's Sunday selection is another chosen this week "at random" by the mp3 player: Traffic's "Utterly Simple."   This song is a Dave Mason composition, one of his earliest according to the All Music Guide, and an early version of it first appeared on the soundtrack of the movie, Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush.   As to its literary aspirations, here's the first verse:

Everything really is stupidly simple
And yet all around is utter confusion
Fairy tales written may help you to see it
Do you understand about Lewis's Alice?
We fit all our lives into regular patterns
All that we really know is that we're really living

The Alice books, along with the Bible, are among literature subjects most referred to in rock lyrics.  I listened to this song hundreds of times and never caught the reference (till this week's Ipod playing) and so it goes for mp3 listening being such a sonically degrading experience.  I've always been a big fan of Traffic, their handful of early albums being some of the finest music to come out of the 60s pop/rock experience.   This one is an old fav and their first single:


In the regular featured archive poems, we seem to be at a spot where there is a lot of Albert Huffstickler (and here's a whole bunch).  What a fine spot to be!  Here are two short poems from #124 from March 2002 - enjoy.

She wants so much
to be like the others.
I understand.
How could I not?
But it's the wanting
that defeats her.
The wanting
defeats us all.

Everyone leaves
a different silence
on departing:
it's like a signature.
Albert Huffstickler

butterfly flits
as if wanting nothing
in this world
translated by David G. Lanoue


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Hear all 80 at once on the the LitRock Jukebox

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Duckweed Way: Haiku of Issa

A couple of weeks back, I uncharacteristically took a lunch hour off and went to a favorite local used bookshop.  To my delight and surprise, I ran across, among other things, two signed limited edition chapbooks of translations by one of my favorite translators, Lucien Stryk.

The volume pictured above, which I'll be taking a look at today, is entitled The Duckweed Way: Haiku of Issa, rendered by Stryk along with Takashi Ikemoto.   I am absolutely thrilled to have this collection, which was limited to 250 copies signed by Stryk, and was published by Rook Press of Derry, Pennsylvania.   To have an Issa collection translated by a Stryk is simply sublime.

As I've noted previously and others much more knowledgeable have before me, the power of Stryk's renderings are in their brevity.  Somehow Stryk manages to portray all the delicacy, power, and resonance of Issa with fewer syllables and words than so many other translators.  Many of the haiku, if not new to me, are effectively new in these succinct, pointed renderings.  Stryk captures mystery, via both his selections and their translations, in a way that is missing from more literal, prosaic versions.

Changing clothes,
but not
the wanderer's lice.

This particular haiku is familiar yet transformed by Styrk; his use of the third person ("the wanderer's') opens the poem up to a more universal view, while still decidedly residing in the physical realm.  It is the plight of the wanderer, the plight of the poor man, the plight of the priest/beggar.

Tonight you too
are rushed,
autumn moon.

The moon reminds the poet of what he is about or, more specifically, how he is about.  This haiku is its mood, the outer realm seeming to reflect the inner.

Buddha Law,
in leaf dew.

I don't remember this particular haiku, though there are certainly plenty of Issa dew drop poems.  What is "Buddha Law" referred to here?  I would think the 4 Noble Truths (plus the 8 Fold Path), but this is only conjecture on my part.  Certainly, when dew is referenced in haiku, we think of its symbolic significance in pointing out the transient nature of all life; this rendering simultaneously captures the beauty and magnificence of all life.

A good world,
dew-drops fall
by ones, by twos.

Would that be as opposed to falling by dozens and dozens?   Well, yes, I think so.  Life may be transient but it plays out at its own pace and, as with the Tao, we flow with it.

all creeping things-
the bell of transience.

I seem focused on Issa's evocation of transience.  What is the bell of transience Issa refers all creeping (i.e. all living) things to?  Certainly, I can only speculate and if it is something specific, I'll be wrong.  Still, the bell is silent, the bell is rung, the bell resounds, the bell fades.

The bell is silent.

Where there are humans
you'll find flies,
and Buddhas.

I'm sure I've quoted this one before - and I'm sure I'll quote it again.  Issa turns the world on its ear and loves.

First cicada:
life is
cruel, cruel, cruel.

I don't remember this one at all and it exemplifies Issa's immense sympathy with insect life.  And humans because, well, the insect may be living it, but humans are reading it (and living it, too).  The struggle of the first cicada of the season may be reflected in the cry Issa hears or at least his perception of it.

Autumn wind-
mountains shadow

A great example of classic haiku translated as succinctly as it possibly can be.  It makes me un-remember the versions I've read before.  Little insects, plants, trees, people - even huge mountains - all bowing to the wind.

Never forget:
we walk on hell,
gazing at flowers.

This is just wonderful - Robert Hass's version, nearly as succinct, is also a favorite:

----In this world
we walk on the roof of hell,
----gazing at flowers.
             translated by Robert Hass

Stryk's "Never forget" is more direct, less philosophical, but both have their virtues. 

From the bough
floating down river,
insect song.

To be fair, this is one in which Hass has the superior, just as brief, version:

----Insects on a bough,
floating down river,
----still singing.

The Hass version is more active, more present in the moment, though both are in the present tense.  One translator chooses the singular "insect," the other the plural, as there is no distinction in the original. Why the difference?  To be fair again, Stryk's did come first and therefore was available perhaps to consult.  That can, of course, work to disadvantage when a later translator spots an opening, goes for it and falls short.  To mix the metaphor, one can paint oneself into a corner.  Sometimes avoiding what came before can be fatal, or at least result in sticky soles.    

In any case, both translators use the utmost brevity to great advantage.

Under cherry trees
there are
no strangers.

I have a crewel-point version of this one on my wall, done by someone who is no longer with us, and so I can't be objective.   Everything about it radiates the love, though there are technically better translations.

Dew spread,
the seeds of hell
are sown.

This is a little bit of darkness I've never seen before and I find it simultaneously powerful and very good.  Although the metaphor seems contradictory in light of this haiku's more famous cousin above, I'd say it depends whether or not you know how to stand on your head.


in the dragonfly's eye

I've seen this one translated badly time and again - except this time.   The classic haiku theme of contrast between the very large and very small, this time perfectly dovetailed together, has never been captured better than in Master Issa's fine, fine poem.

Cherry blossoms?
In these parts
grass also blooms.

The one thing I would say is missing from the selection above is an abundance of Issa humor - this one making up for it in spades.   A real beauty.

Finally, here's the signed title page.


This week's selection from the Lilliput archive comes from #121, another poem by Albert Huffsticker I believe hasn't seen the light of day since December 2001.  Enjoy.

I was born
into a body
and set out in it
to learn who
I was.  I saw
no contradiction
in this.
Albert Huffstickler

stubborn they are
even while trampled...
cherry blossoms
translated by David G. Lanoue


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Go to the LitRock web site for a list of all 79 songs
Hear all 79 at once on the the LitRock Jukebox