Thursday, December 14, 2023

"Compass" by Jorge Luis Borges

[Original Spanish text]


A Esther Zemborain de Torres

Todas las cosas son palabras del
Idioma en que Alguien o Algo, noche y día,
Escribe esa infinita algarabía
Que es la historia del mundo.  En su tropel

Pasan Cartago y Roma, yo, tú, él,
Mi vida que no entiendo, esta agonía
De ser enigma, azar, criptografía
Y toda la discordia de Babel.

Detrás del nombre hay lo que no se nombra;
Hoy he sentido gravitar su sombra
En esta aguja azul, lúcida y leve,

Que hacia el confín de un mar tiende su empeño,
Con algo de reloj visto en un sueño
Y algo de ave dormida que se mueve.

[English translation by Richard Wilbur]


To Esther Zemborain de Torres

All things are words of some strange tongue, in thrall
To Someone, Something, who both day and night
Proceeds in endless gibberish to write
The history of the world.  In that dark scrawl

Rome is set down, and Carthage, I, you, all,
And this my being which escapes me quite,
My anguished life that’s cryptic, recondite,
And garbled as the tongues of Babel’s fall.

Beyond the name there lies what has no name;
Today I have felt its shadow stir the aim
Of this blue needle, light and keen, whose sweep

Homes to the utmost of the sea its love,
Suggestive of a watch in dreams, or of
Some bird, perhaps, who shifts a bit in sleep.

Source of the text - Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Poems 1923-1967, edited by Norman Thomas di Giovanni. [New York]: Delacorte Press, 1972, pages 96-97.

TJB: This Italian sonnet, Neoplatonistic to the core, sees the fallenness of things, larger truth hiding beyond; & a compass as the metaphor to point us there.

"the rites for Cousin Vit" by Gwendolyn Brooks

the rites for Cousin Vit

Carried her unprotesting out the door.
Kicked back the casket-stand.  But it can't hold her,
That stuff and satin aiming to enfold her,
The lid's contrition nor the bolts before.
Oh oh.  Too much.  Too much.  Even now, surmise,
She rises in the sunshine.  There she goes,
Back to the bars she knew and the repose
In love-rooms and the things in people's eyes.
Too vital and too squeaking.  Must emerge.
Even now she does the snake-hips with a hiss,
Slops the bad wine across her shantung, talks
Of pregnancy, guitars and bridgework, walks
In parks or alleys, comes haply on the verge
Of happiness, haply hysterics.  Is.

Source of the text - Gwendolyn Brooks, Selected Poems.  New York: Harper Perennial, 2006, page 58.

TJB: Lust for life. This envelope sonnet, of a woman so vital that death can’t contain her, finds its true spirit in rhyme, alliteration, & internal rhyme.

"I have a gentil cok," anonymous Middle English lyric

I have a gentil cok,
    Croweth me day;
He doth me risen erly,
    My matins for to say.

I have a gentil cok,
    Comen he is of gret;
His comb is of red corel,
    His tayel is of jet.

I have a gentil cok
    Comen he is of kinde;
His comb is of red corel,
    His tail is of inde.

His legges ben of asor,
    So gentil and so smale;
His spores arn of silver white,
    Into the worte-wale.

His eynen arn of cristal,
    Loken all in aumber;
And every night he percheth him
    In min ladyes chaumber.

Editors' Notes:

  gentil - noble
  Comen he is of gret - He comes of a great family.
  Comen he is of kinde - He is of good lineage.
  inde - indigo
  asor - azure
  spores - spurs
  worte-wale - root of cock's spur
  eynen - eyes
  loken - set

Source of the text - Middle English Lyrics: A Norton Critical Edition, selected and edited by Maxwell S. Luria and Richard L. Hoffman.  New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1974, page 77.

TJB: Gentle dick energy; double-entendre as a source of poetic power. In short iambics, the poem gives us a fabulous, near-deadpan blazon of a rooster.

Monday, December 4, 2023

"Obituary" by A.K. Ramanujan


Father, when he passed on,
left dust
on a table full of papers,
left debts and daughters,
a bedwetting grandson
named by the toss
of a coin after him,

a house that leaned
slowly through our growing
years on a bent coconut
tree in the yard.
Being the burning type,
he burned properly
at the cremation

as before, easily
and at both ends,
left his eye coins
in the ashes that didn’t
look one bit different,
several spinal discs, rough,
some burned to coal, for sons

to pick gingerly
and throw as the priest
said, facing east
where three rivers met
near the railway station;
no longstanding headstone
with his full name and two dates

to hold in their parentheses
everything he didn’t quite
manage to do himself,
like his caesarian birth
in a brahmin ghetto
and his death by heart-
failure in the fruit market.

But someone told me
he got two lines
in an inside column
of a Madras newspaper
sold by the kilo
exactly four weeks later
to streethawkers

who sell it in turn
to the small groceries
where I buy salt,
and jaggery
in newspaper cones
that I usually read

for fun, and lately
in the hope of finding
these obituary lines.
And he left us
a changed mother
and more than
one annual ritual.

Source of the text – Ten Twentieth-Century Indian Poets, edited by R. Parthasarathy.  Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1976, pages 106-107.

TJB: Reused elegy. An ode to a father’s incomplete life in 3 parts: what he left behind; the handling of his remains; & his obit, as used by spice merchants.

"I never saw a Moor" by Emily Dickinson

(1) [Poem as written by the poet on a fragment of stationery]

(2) [Text from Franklin's variorum edition]

I never saw a Moor.
I never saw the Sea -
Yet know I how the Heather looks
And what a Billow be - 

I never spoke with God
Nor visited in Heaven - 
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the Checks were given - 

Source of the text - (1) Emily Dickinson Archive: An Open Access Website for the Manuscripts of Emily Dickinson,, Amherst Manuscript # A 237, page 1. (2) The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Variorum Edition, Volume II, edited by Ralph W. Franklin. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998, p. 756.

TJB: Billow-talk; epistemology in quatrains.  As a proof that God exists, this is wanting; as a verse-assertion of faith, well, fine. What is a billow?

from "Writing is an Aid to Memory" by Lyn Hejinian


apple is shot nod
                         ness seen know it around saying
                                     think for a hundred years
   but and perhaps utter errors direct the point to a meadow
                                 rank fissure up on the pit
arts are several branches of life
                     little more science is brought where great
                         need is required
                           out becomes a bridge of that name
                in the painting is a great improvement
   bit ink up on the human race
and return if the foot goes back
              in the trunks of trees behoove a living thing
                                       wedge war common saw
           hard by that length of time the great demand is
                                    very dear
ashes in water
                                 that might be a slip of architecture
                                 think was reduced to an improper size
   blocks to interest who can visit
                                         variations on ideas are now full
           from a point of increasing
at only as to four or we who nine
a little grace familiar with simple limbs and the sudden

Source of the text - Lyn Hejinian, Writing is an Aid to Memory.  Berkeley, CA: The Figures, 1978.

TJB:  High strung—composed at phrase-level, stripped of connective tissue, metaphors mixed, shot through with unresolved tension, & a tree-meadow motif.

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