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

Down here

the rain falls


from iron boxes


The smoke inside the narrow room

pulls back

It winds around the bedposts

like a colored cloth

around a leg that’s bleeding


Violet & green

with pain


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

An outlaw








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

of intellect

Deceit of numbers

raising questions in the mind

that’s helpless

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





     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. 


     Windows break.


     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


And again:


            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