My favorite readings from ALTA were translations of poems by Julio Martínez Mesanza and Luis Cernuda. Readers were often grouped by language or by country; I made an effort to go to the Spanish-language readings, especially if they were heavy on poetry and light on fiction.
Don Bogen translated Martínez Mesanza’s decasyllabic lines into blank verse, into deftly rolling yet dense & compact lines that lent dignity to the work. Listening with concentration and focus is difficult. Even if I achieve it, the words slip away from me and I’m left with only impressions. I need to see the poems on the page. Unfortunately I lost my notebook where I jotted down some of Bogen’s lines, but the originals are here:
His poems spoke of war: trenches, artillery, castles. knights, tapestries, goniometers; the language of war, of power and chaos, seemed doubly rooted in history and fantasy, catapulting the poem’s metaphors into philosophical musings applicable to anyone’s struggle in life.
I thought of the function of war, of battle, in poetry. Consider the symbolic and narrative value of combat in comic books or superhero stories. The battle is charged with meaning; the “action sequence” in a spy movie, in a western, when Wolverine fights his womanly arch-enemy and her razor claws, when Chow Yun-Fat and the gangster spray an endless hail of bullets around the church and he crawls blindly past his blind lover… Consider Arjuna’s struggle, his moment of choice and judgement before the Battle of Kurukshetra in the Mahabharata. Combat, ultimately, is about that razor edge of consciousness, about decision using all possible information and experience.
Es poder una torre sobre rocas had a powerful impact. Maybe because I had just been working on a long poem about towers, or The Tower, what we think “tower” means; fictional towers of all kinds, tarot cards, the tower of babel, the Two Towers; and the tower’s antidote, the rhizome. Something about the ephemeral quality of hearing, and my own bad memory, makes poetry hook unexpectedly into my own thought trains; on some level, I stop listening, I phase in and out of focus on the heard poem. This imperfection of understanding is productive. Later there is time enough to read the poem on the page and grasp it fully.
In fact, I don’t like a poem that is simple enough to grasp fully on one hearing. How dull, how disappointing, how very like a sound bite! For example, the poem by the Bulgarian poet, who was certainly a nice guy and a sensitive poet, and perhaps a translator himself. But the very poem that listeners in two audiences sighed over, in appreciation and perhaps in relief that it could be understood, I found to be one of the worst I heard all weekend. It was quite short, and had something like this: “God is a child/making sand castles/ and doesn’t understand/that he can control the waves…” I am a fan of the short poem as a form, but if it’s short, it had better have some good thick ideas jam-packed into it, especially if it’s one image and one metaphor. Songs don’t have to be that simple. A poem you can understand completely in one hearing is poor food for poet’s souls.
I forgot to talk about Cernuda, but I’ll do that in the next post.