“The terrible light of life or the light of death” or Gratitude
Brief thoughts inspired by Gonzalo Rojas and Hazel Dickens
Veo un río veloz brillar como un cuchillo, partir
mi Lebú en dos mitades de fragancia, lo escucho,
lo huelo, lo acaricio, lo recorro en un beso de niño como entonces,
cuando el viento y la lluvia me mecían, lo siento
como una arteria más entre mis sienes y mi almohada.
(Gonzalo Rojas, excerpt from the poem "Carbón")
I see a swift river glittering like a knife, dividing
my Lebú into two halves of fragrance, I hear it,
I smell it, I caress it, I cross it within a boyhood kiss like I did back then,
when the wind and the rain swayed me, I feel it
like another artery between my temples and my pillow.
(This is one stanza of five, my translation; I don’t have Rojas’s Green Integer selected, From the Lightning, translated by John Oliver Simon so don’t know if this one’s already been translated. You’ll find the entire original along with a wide range of other Rojas poems here.)
I often find myself wondering (internally or aloud) why what I do—whatever that might be at the moment—matters. Many, many writers and artists have reiterated this question in a multitude of compelling ways; here’s one (a quote you’ll also find as part of the thinking in my translator’s notes to Myriam Moscona’s Negro marfil, secretly arrived at my doorstep recently though officially out in September from wondrous Les Figues Press):
Each war leaves behind remains...
Once one has covered thousands of anonymous corpses with a blanket of ashes and sand, one cultivates forgetting.
So poetry rises. Out of necessity. Amidst the disorder where human dignity is trampled, poetry becomes urgent language.
But words pale when the wound is deep, when the well-planned chaos is brutal and irreversible. Against that, words. And what can they do?
Tahar Ben Jelloun, The Rising of the Ashes
(Note: The interview to which I just linked fascinatingly doesn’t mention in its brief intro on Ben Jelloun’s biography that he was interned in a Morrocan prison camp for a year and a half, during which time his active writing life began. More thorough (but equally somewhat elderly) information can be found here.)
Many of my students ask similar questions about the purpose of writing or art, the impact our work might (or might not) have on others, and on reshaping the difficult worlds through which we move. Somehow what I find nearly impossible to tell myself, in the moments when I’m sitting in front of the blank page or the blinking cursor, or when I wake bereft of purpose in the middle of the night and the only comfort or softness seems to come from feline companionship, I am more often than not able to articulate—perhaps even convincingly—to my students. That is: that we are all part of a worldwide ongoing conversation that is necessarily and wonderfully much, much larger than any one of us, and that each of us enacts different and equally crucial forms of participation in that conversation, which vastly precedes us and extends vastly beyond us and within which any model of competition or narrative of singular heroism is utterly irrelevant. That everything we do matters, and that part of our reason for being and for making work is to model different ways of mattering—different ways of approaching fact, history, craft, structure, consciousness, interaction. That we may never know in what ways or how profoundly our work or our way of being in the world might affect other people, and that the lack of such knowledge doesn’t mean our lives have no impact. Consider all the writers, artists, musicians, teachers, or other humans whose work and/or presence in this world revolutionized your thinking in some form. Consider how rare it is to have the opportunity to tell those humans how their work has re-woven the texture of your thinking, how it has shifted the boundaries of what you imagine to be possible.
This week, two such humans left this world: Chilean poet Gonzalo Rojas, and Appalachian singer Hazel Dickens (coincidentally, both children of miners).
Here is a tiny array of links: check them out, and go forth to find more of your own! (And please send me any especially good ones through Facebook or at email@example.com—thanks!)
Gonzalo Rojas reading "80 veces nadie" at the Festival Internacional de Poesía de Medellín in 2003, when he was 86.
NEA feature with John Oliver Simon’s translations of Gonzalo Rojas
John Oliver Simon’s blog post on Gonzalo Rojas, with a fantastic account of a day with the poet in Chile.
Video profile of Hazel Dickens, part one and part two, produced by Russ Barbour and Cecelia Mason for West Virginia PBS.
"Please Mommy Please," by Hazel and Alice, recorded in 1967.
Hazel and Alice on Smithsonian Folkways.
P.S. As I’m posting this, just learned that Poly Styrene has died. She may not find “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” to be especially spiritual (one obit makes a point of quoting her on this), but my vision of spirit absolutely includes any model of anti-authoritarianism you can dance to raucously. Here is a more thorough obit, from NPR. Considering the Guantánamo information just published on Wikileaks (and consolidated quite usefully at The Guardian), all I can say is ¡¡Oh Bondage Up Yours indeed!!