I can be heard reading five of my poems at this link. I am Aaron.
I have been convinced, especially by Hanna’s comments on my previous attempt at translating this, that pulling the repeated words in the original directly into the translation does not work. Here, accordingly, is a revised translation.
Spring night: one moment is worth a thousand in gold.
Faint scent of flowers, shadowy moon.
From the high tower, a flute song, soft.
In the courtyard, a swing, vanishing in the night.
Without the repeated words, it’s hard to capture the parallelism of the last two lines that is so obvious in the original. I’ve tried to do that by mirroring the grammatical constructions, though I’ve had to lose the direct parallel between the soft flute song and the heavy night. For the last line, I’ve tried to capture the heaviness of the night by making the swing vanish into it. This is a liberty, and maybe an ill-advised one, but I am not sure the last line can be captured without some liberty. (Burton Watson’s fine translation, presented in the post linked above, says the night is “deep and still”—equally a liberty.)
I also made a minor change to the first line, mostly for the sake of rhythm.
I thanked Hanna above for her criticisms of the first, but on re-reading our earlier discussion I realized that my changes to the first and fourth lines above mirrored the translation she posted there. That wasn’t intentional, but very likely was subconscious, so I owe her a second note of gratitude.
Poem: Mr. Either/Or
Poet: Aaron Poochigian
Disclaimer: I know the author, who kindly sent me a copy to review. The book can be pre-ordered here.
Aaron Poochigian’s new verse novel, Mr. Either/Or, is a great deal of fun. That is its most apparent feature on first impact and its most important feature on completion.
The book tells the story of F.B.I. agent Zach Berzinski, who saves first the United States, then the world, with the help of the art historian Li-Ling Levine. These two endeavors occupy, respectively, the first three and last four chapters. Each is based around a strange supernatural or sci-fi intrusion into the world: Chinese ghosts to begin, and lizard people to conclude. So far as I could tell, they were not particularly unified, except that they happened in quick succession, and both involved Zach and Li-ling. Indeed, after the first escapade is resolved, the second begins:
Sorry to butt in while you’re making out
with Ms. Levine, but there’s a second myth
that’s out there spoiling to be reckoned with. (p. 99)
And that’s how it feels: there is the first myth (and associated adventure), and then there is the second. But this isn’t a criticism. It is a feature of the book’s world that it contains multitudes (in a sense other than Whitman’s), that it is madcap and plural. The driving force of the book is action and excitement, and it bulges at the seams to accommodate it. That’s as it should be.
Formally, Mr. Either/Or is written in chapters of both rhymed iambic pentameter (with no regular rhyme scheme) and alliterative accentual tetrameter (the Beowulf meter). While the division is not absolute, the rhymed pentameter dominates in expository scenes, the tetrameter in action scenes. And this makes sense, allowing the exposition to expand somewhat languidly (though, in an impressive feat, with a rhythm and pace that is somehow simultaneously brisk), while the action comes in short, sharp bursts. The contrast is also beneficial simply for introducing variation: both forms can trend toward the “too much” (especially given other features of Poochigian’s style, discussed below), and the variation helps keep the book from overstaying its welcome. (Minor gripe about formatting: the alliterative tetrameter splays the caesura across line breaks. I would’ve preferred to see a more compact presentation.)
Despite the form of the book ranging from the old-fashioned (rhymed pentameter) to the really old-fashioned (again, the Beowulf meter), in tone it is relentlessly contemporary. Here, for instance, are a few lines from early in the book, which give a good sense of the whole:
Your cell starts bellowing as if on cue,
and the ringtone, the theme to Peter Gunn,
can only mean Director “Uh Oh” One,
your handler since you signed for Covert Ops.
“Talk to me, maestro mio. What’s the word?” (p. 20)
Elsewhere, Poochigian somehow manages to wrestle a surprising amount of pathos out of the phrase “because you suck” (p. 136), though I can’t explain how he does it without spoilers. See for yourself.
Poochigian has a knack for off-beat descriptions, which are a main source of the fun. For instance, when a minor character is shot through the head, “brains Rorschach the wall” (p. 26), and later a character is outside in the “pigeon-squalid dawn” (p. 136). Here again he shows his ability to generate pathos in surprising places:
Brick drips like coffee. Traffic signals droop
their heavy heads, and molten roads like soup
absorb them. (p. 53)
Last in this list of the book’s major virtues comes the narrator, who is clearly enjoying the story as much as (perhaps even more than) the reader. He goads and encourages the hero:
Suck it up, killer. Grab the stupid gun;
assassinate compassion. Once you’ve won,
you can repent and wimp out of the Bureau. (p. 57)
The narrator takes seriously his role as a guide to the story, quite explicitly picking the good bits for us:
[…] quaint metaphysics by a nameless sage.
The Dragon and the Phoenix, he maintains,
are Fire-fathered twins, and Time, their mother,
rouses them every hundred thousand years
to feud until they neutralize each other.
The guy is really good on how it’s done:
… just after dawn, a lizard grimace rears […] (p. 69)
And he is lastly, a communist, which allows him to needle the hero’s rather uncritical service of government interests. Importantly, this happens in a loving spirit. It is never mean: we never lose the sense that the narrator really is rooting for the guy.
The book’s vices are the flip side of its virtues. So, for instance, the search for clever and unexpected descriptions can go too far, as when a drug-induced sensation of rising through a fog is described as “forgetting Newton’s laws” (p. 52), a gratuitous touch that doesn’t bring the image into clearer focus—a gloss without purpose.
The quirky descriptions can also intersect badly with the demand for alliteration in the tetrameter, as in the humorous but ultimately somewhat painful second line of, “you’re spy enough | to know never / bring babe-baggage | on Bureau business” (p. 92).
Virtue becomes vice in the case of the narrator as well. For the most part, the narrator’s editorializing is a key element of the fun of the book. But at times the narrator editorializes too much, as in sections 3.2-3.4, where the members of a sewer-dwelling cult come in for repeated astonishment on the part of the narrator as to just how crazy their beliefs are. Which, to be fair, they are, but I don’t need to be told that again and again. As one of Poochigian’s characters might say, “like, I get it, man, chill out.”
Finally, I can’t help but note the frequency with which Poochigian captures surprise or sudden occurrences with the word “whoa”. I only began to notice this in the back half of the book, so this list is likely not exhaustive:
we said our prayers, and Whoa—just past eleven (p. 99)
till Whoa! a surreal colossus of steel (p. 106)
when, Whoa!, some late-night | wastoid Wildman (p. 118)
since Whoa!, watch it, | one of your would-be (pp. 133-34)
Whuzzat? Whoa, | weight from above (p. 155)
… Whoa, consciousness. | The combat coma (p. 176)
But these flaws ultimately do not detract too much from the overall fun of the book. It is an enjoyable ride, well-paced, and rarely predictable.
Bear me to Dictaeus,
and to the steep slopes;
to the river Erymanthus.
I choose spray of dittany,
cyperum, frail of flower,
buds of myrrh,
close pressed in calathes.
For she lies panting,
drawing sharp breath,
broken with harsh sobs,
whom no god pities.
haunting the groves,
who dwell in wet caves,
for all the white leaves of olive-branch,
and early roses,
and ivy wreaths, woven gold berries,
which she once brought to your altars,
bear now ripe fruits from Arcadia,
and Assyrian wine
to shatter her fever.
The light of her face falls from its flower,
as a hyacinth,
hidden in a far valley,
perishes upon burnt grass.
bring your Phoenician stuffs,
and do you, fleet-footed nymphs,
and a branch of shrub,
and frail-headed poppies.
This poem is powerful because the grief it captures is at once starkly apparent and deeply veiled. That it is apparent hardly needs explication, it comes through so clearly. The third stanza of part I sees to that. So I will talk about the way it is veiled.
The first way in which the narrator’s grief is veiled lies in the poem’s opening stanzas. It does not begin with “Hyella, / whom no god pities.” It begins with the command, “Bear me to Dictaeus,” as if the poet were invoking the muses. And though the next stanza does not involve a request for golden words or a honeyed tongue, as might be expected to follow such an invocation, yet nonetheless it does not clearly break the spell. The poem seems like it is still preparing itself, not yet wholly arrived.
Thus it is a shock to reach the third stanza and to find Hyella “drawing sharp breath, / broken with harsh sobs.” Suddenly the reader realizes that the narrator has been gathering medicine, and that whoever she has invoked (this is still in doubt), it was not the muses. The poem has not been gathering steam, no—it began at the beginning. But this eruption of grief was needed to see it.
And this points to the second and crucial way in which the grief of this poem is veiled. The narrator’s attention hardly turns to Hyella directly: her names appears but the once, and she is the central focus in only two of the poem’s six stanzas (stanzas three and five). The other four stanzas all concern the process of attempting to heal her, the gathering of (and the imploring of various mythological characters to gather) the medicine needed to heal her.
The overwhelming impression is that the narrator is attempting to distract herself from the reality of Hyella’s suffering with this labor. In losing herself in the labor, she can forget, if only for a moment, the harsh truth. And yet the poem reveals that this is only marginally effective. In part I, she can hold it off for two stanzas, but in the third she cannot hold it back, and her mind returns to Hyella gasping in her bed.
In part II, she manages to turn her mind back to her labor, but this only serves to set up the poem’s devastating (I don’t use the word lightly) fifth stanza. Whereas the third stanza offers a brutally direct picture of Hyella suffering, the fifth stanza works through metaphor. All of the plant imagery—to this point quite literal—gathers itself into this one stanza:
The light of her face falls from its flower,
as a hyacinth,
hidden in a far valley,
perishes upon burnt grass.
The attempt to distract herself with the work of healing has not succeeded. It has merely resulted in the physical material of that work, the plants from which the medicine derives, and turned them into a beautiful but terrible reminder of the cause of that work.
Of course, the poem does not end there, for the suffering continues, and so also the search for distraction continues, as the sixth stanza captures. And we are not wrong if we see a hint of Hyella once more in the “frail-headed poppies” with which the poem ends.
Poem: Between Walls
Poet: William Carlos Williams
In: The Voice That is Great Within Us (ed. Hayden Carruth)
the back wings
will grow lie
in which shine
pieces of a green
This is a poem that has rewarded re-reading, and I am pleased that it was chosen to represent Williams in this collection, in place of the comparable but dramatically more famous poem about the red wheelbarrow. (It is not the only Williams selection, to be clear, but it is the only selection in this particular mode.)
At its core the poem is an image: the broken pieces of the green bottle lying amid the cinderblocks of an industrial dead zone. Indeed, this image is very nearly the poem itself. I say “very nearly” because there is one bit of editorializing on the part of the narrator. This is the implied comparison between the description of the setting as one in which “nothing // will grow” and the greenness of the broken glass, which, against that background, clearly suggests that we are to take it as a sort of industrial plant.
But beyond that, the poem tells us nothing about how we should feel about the image. And indeed, the justification for the implied comparison between the absent plant life and the present bottle is that it gives shape to the uncertainty of what to make of the scene described.
What, exactly, are we to make of this image? One might read it as a celebration of what is not often celebrated: a dead, ugly looking place—but wait, for there is life here, too, the broken bottle is the vegetation appropriate to such a place, and furthermore, is evidence that humans live here, that there is life even here. It is the task of the poet to find signs of life even where others see only ugliness and decay, and that is the virtue of this poem.
One might equally see in the comparison of the bottle to a plant a statement on just how different they are, how pale an imitation of true life the bottle is. The similarity then serves only to draw our attention to just how dissimilar the two really are. And what sort of life is evidenced by this bottle: a drunk, skulking about hidden places—no life at all. Such a reader might also note a feature of the setting I have thus far left unremarked: that this occurs around a hospital building. The whole setting is one of death and disease.
Well, there are two readings. Does the poem tell between them? Not in the slightest. Both are the impositions of the reader. In the end, there is only the broken bottle amid the cinder blocks. Make of it what you will.