Jerome Rothenberg: from “The Seven Hells of the Jigoku Zoshi,” Poem & Variation
[In the 1990s I composed a series of thirty-three “Lorca Variations,” systematically drawing vocabulary, principally nouns, from my previously published translation of Lorca’s early gathering of poems, The Suites. I later made use of this method of composition for homages to Jackson Mac Low, Octavio Paz, & others as a step beyond translation but with an idea of translation – or what Haroldo de Campos called “transcreation” & I called “othering” – as one of the defining characteristics of poetry as a whole. The obvious difference in the variations presented here is that I apply the same procedure to an earlier work of my own, The Seven Hells of the Jigoku Zoshi, a series of eight poems (not seven) drawing themes but not specific images from ancient Japanese painted scrolls of that name & their accompanying verbal descriptions. As with other variations – other translations for that matter – the procedure, if it works, doesn’t so much annihilate the original version as bring it into a new dimension, where both versions can lead an independent if interlinked existence. The fifty year gap between them adds its own strangeness to the mix. (J.R.)]
THE FIRST HELL: of measures, where swindlers measure fire in iron boxes (1962)
How can any of you know
what it feels like
to count coins in Hell
You have the rest of it to keep you busy
Your eyes are troubled enough
But down here
the nights are longer
& the days are senseless
the rain falls
from iron boxes
The smoke inside the narrow room
It winds around the bedposts
like a colored cloth
around a leg that’s bleeding
Violet & green
What should we say to our fingers?
Should we remind them
of the cool silk yards
they handled behind counters
The healing lotions
rolled between the palms
Should we tell them that the earth
crawling with black grief
at least was wet
Blue coins of disaster
are ringing in the night
The distant call of metal birds
is like the rhyming
in bad poems
before your birth
You would not know me now
The fire at my ribs
has emptied me of flesh & words
I stand here with the others
letting the numbers fill my head
I want to turn aside
but Hell won’t let me
Hell is the outraged customer
who slams the cashbox
against my hands
A candle drips
along the sidewalk
Wax covers the windows of a small store
& blurs the sun
A darkness full of crates
through which I walk
thinking of other hells than this
The skin cries under the brand
Deceit of numbers
raising questions in the mind
The fevered brow
Smash it to hell
You have a right to it
The white eye watches
through the window
Where we live is where
we always lived
The sea of death
A VARIATION ON THE HELL OF MEASURES (2012)
Hell has windows as the skin has numbers, & the sun flashing on the sidewalk blinds the little customers who bathe in it.
In my head as on my flesh the poems appear, responding to my call.
My palms turn violet & blue, smoother than Chinese silk.
My room is filled with rain, as Hell with fire, while an eyebrow slightly raised signals deceit.
The other Hells are kept in store.
A Hell of numbers follows one with rhymings.
Ribs grow heavy.
The night is meant for grief no lotions over legs or fingers can assuage.
Lost in the smoke we wait for day to come, for coins to burn the swindlers who demand them – like a brand.
Crates pile up.
Death makes the mind turn white.
Hands open Hell for others.
Let its fires trap the birds who fly through them.
Let disaster make them all turn black.
Let them cry out with pain, the counters filling up with cloth in boxes, broken open in the night, unmeasured, boxes smelling of the sea, the intellect imprisoned in their darkness, knowing the right questions but afraid to ask.
Make it pliable like wax & let it drip over the outlaw’s’ cashbox.
Words have their birth in it, & metals drawn out of the earth & melted give us coins.
The years ahead are green.
The bedposts where we rest are iron.
Our eyes are iron too & blind us.
Call it Hell.
* * * * * * *
One should be able to rework an old work at least once – to make
sure that one has not fallen victim – to one’s nerves or to fate.
– Henri Matisse to Gino Severini
When you have achieved what you want in a certain area, when
you have exploited the possibilities that lie in one direction, you
must, when the time comes, change course, search for something