Sunday, February 24, 2013

Paumanok, Long Island Poem for Sunday in more ways than one

This poem by Linda Trott Dickman reflects Long Island in more ways than one, it is shaped like it.

after Mardsen Hartley
Linda Trott Dickman

south east
of the bulk,
too close to the lure,
a fish separated
from the school there trod
the good gray poet
trailing through leaves
of grass leaving large
impressions a goodly way to follow
the child chased
the tides, sucked the salt from her hair
was snatched from the jaws
of undertow by her hero.
she learned to drape herself, like a jig,
feathers catching
more than light. a kaleidoscope for a lens,
she explored houses of light, learned
the strokes, the songs.
shores frilled like a collar
of green in scrub pine, beach plum
at the north, sandy marsh for a hem.
reeds, the wind section
of the rolling
music of the sea, the pines
singing high
over the storms
rivers wound their way
from headwaters to mouths
showing the riches
of their banks
from the wounds
of the greedy
her from
pectoral            fin
to                           pelvic
gasping                                          for
air                                     still.

'Paumanok' by Linda Trott Dickman.
Published with author's permission.

Linda introduced herself: "Linda Trott Dickman has been making poetry since her early days at sleep away camp. She grew up here on Long Island and is a school librarian who has just earned her MFA from Adelphi University. This poem was born in a workshop in Maine with poet Kathleen Ellis. Our subject?  Island Poetry."

Previous Long Island Poem for Sunday - "Only the moon now knows", Long Island Poem for Chinese New Year Sunday

Sunday, February 10, 2013

"Only the moon now knows", Long Island Poem for Chinese New Year Sunday

Text of the original
To mark the Chinese New Year of 2013 let us read the haunting poem by Bai Juyi as translated and interpreted by John Digby and Lesli Bai.

Bai Juyi, a prolific poet, high governmental official, "pillar of society" owned many concubines, courtesans, and slave girls. Cruel by our standards, cruel by the standards of his own age (he lived 772–846), the poet was not insensitive to the plight of the unfortunate women.

Leslie comments on the poem: "Cast as a dramatic monologue, it expresses his conflicted emotions of compassion and affection, cruelty and loss."

Illustration by John Digby
Losing a Slave Girl
Bai Juyi
Translation by John Digby

My estate is enclosed by a low
wall of stones and rubble

You absconded
probably at night
and to be honest with you
I harbor no grudges

The population tally
of missing persons
was nailed to the gate
long after you fled

Now I know how unkind
and mean I was to you

Can't think of any caged bird
that doesn't want its freedom
or gale-blown flowers attempting
to cling to their branches

This evening
I sit pondering
whether you are running or hiding

Only the moon now knows
how much distance
has come between us

Losing a Slave Girl (March 2011), appreciation of the poem by Bai Juyi with English improvisation and illustrations by John Digby. Published by Prehensile Pencil Publications.
Reprinted with publisher's permission.

Previous Long Island Poem for Sunday - "Old hatred drifted in", Long Island Poem for Martin Luther King Sunday

Friday, February 8, 2013

Bringing Chinese poetry into the English world - John Digby and Leslie Bai

Leslie Hong Ai Bai and John Digby
Oyster Bay poet and collagist John Digby was already working with Chinese poetry and published a few translations by the time he met Leslie Hong Ai Bai, a linguistics scholar, currently at LIU Post, a colleague of his wife, poet Joan Digby. Leslie, born in China to Korean parents, is in command of various oriental languages in addition to English and French.

Since 2010, they collaborated on a number of themes: horses, women - particularly the neglected, unloved or no longer loved ones, animals, landscapes. They dug out poems for Cold Food Festival, forgotten holiday which now enjoys a revival. All work is by poets active until the 19th century. These are some of their published works - Cold Food Festival, The Horse in Chinese in Chinese Poetry and Culture, Simple Simple, Losing a Slave Girl, Three Neglected Chinese Women: Three Deserted Tang Poets, The Sword Dance.

In their work they try to convey the tone of the poem and stay away from the literal translation. In case of the Chinese poetry the latter is almost impossible to accomplish, as even in the original the poems can be read in many different ways.

There are very many translations of the classic 'At Summit Temple' (李白: 题峰頂寺(夜宿山寺)) by various Western poets. This is John and Leslie's take on it:


Big climb this!

Breathless dizzy
and panting I've
attained the summit

I quiet my heart
hold my breath
looking into infinity

Now I could reach up
cradle a star in my hand
but scarcely whisper a word
for fear of waking up deities

Chinese poems, minimalistic gems, are typically composed of 4 lines of 5 to 7 characters, like the one above. There is no subject, no personal pronouns, no gender, no tenses. There exists rhyme and rhythm of the rising and falling phonetics of the characters. The characters themselves may have up to 30 varied meanings and are often complex, rarely used characters to mark the skill and knowledge of a poet - poetry was a domain of highly skilled individuals who strutted their linguistic dexterity like peacocks. Many poems are not easily understood by an average person of today.

Leslie and John revising text
The process of bringing a translated poem to its satisfactory stage is long and arduous. John and Leslie agree on a topic. Leslie researches potential candidates. A choice is narrowed down to a poem. John learns as much as possible about the author's life and environment. Leslie transcribes the individual characters of the poem into Pinyin. John analyzes every Pinyin character and attempts to construct a meaning or rather a mood from the puzzle before him. Leslie elaborates on metaphors and hidden meaning in the poem, provides additional background. Initial translation is created.

At this stage the battle of wits and esthetics commences. John wants to put in every shade of meaning that transpires. Leslie strikes out half of the words. They encounter numerous cultural differences. One memorable clash happened over a translation of 'green window'. Heated discussion revealed that for John green window was a window with stained glass. For Leslie it was a color of leaves outside - old Chinese houses did not have glass windows, it was the color of leaves that reflected on paper panels. Revision after revision follows, the work may take up to six months to complete. Leslie creates commentary on the poet, poet's time and customs.

Revisions of the poem 'Cold Food':

Please come back soon to enjoy a beautiful poem 'Losing a Slave Girl' in the upcoming Long Island Poem for Sunday series.