Archive for ‘Poetry’

October 21, 2011

Read this, Google Translate!

A few days ago, a friend sent me an article from The Independent about how Google Translate works. According to David Bellos, the web giant’s translation service is unlike any other automated translator. Other translators operate by ‘decoding’ (so to speak) the source language, and then recoding the message into the target language. This has produced limited results.

Google Translate attempts nothing of the sort. It searches the internet “for the expression in some text that exists alongside its paired translation.” Relying, in other words, on other people’s previous work. But instead of inaccurately trying to decode and recode a message, it bets that a human has already translated the message, and that it can be found online.

The service more closely resembles the behavior of a human translator than it does a translation automaton. “Translators don’t reinvent hot water every day. They behave more like GT – scanning their own memories in double-quick time for the most probable solution to the issue at hand. GT’s basic mode of operation is much more like professional translation…” writes Bellos.

There is a downside, however. Because GT uses text that have already been translated, and determines relevance and quality of translation based on frequency of use, text that get disseminated further carry more weight. So “John Grisham makes a bigger contribution to the quality of GT’s Icelandic-Farsi translation device than Rumi or Halldór Laxness ever will. And the real wizardry of Harry Potter may well lie in his hidden power to support translation from Hebrew into Chinese.” This makes me shudder.

I may be swimming against the tide here, and helplessly so, but when I read that I was instantly compelled to post some poetry onto the web, just to try to even things out a bit. (Crazier things have been done.) Here, then, is a poem by Amir Khusrau (1253-1325), in hopes that even GT might pick it up.


The wise ought not to set their hearts

on the seductiveness the world displays.


Why fall in love with the phantasms

of this world? The mirror shows

the face to be a borrowed thing.


Don’t think the knots on your brow

are firm and strong. Fate takes note

of them only to untie them.


How vainly you say, ‘I will stand firm.’

If life itself won’t stand firm, how will you?


Living, a person resembles form and sense.

Through form one tends to the sense.


My heart is in ruins

and people have hearts of stone.

One shouldn’t rebuild

this edifice with such blocks.


Humankind is chaff.

How can it cling to gold?

Straw is naturally drawn to amber.


You’ll get no provisions

from worthless companions:

the camel is mated, but no foal is born.


When you speak bitterly, the answer will be the same.

If you curse an enemy, he won’t reply sweetly.


Seeking insight from the immature is like a fool

rubbing his head against unfired brick.


If you ask me truly

about the story of this world,

it’s an easy lie

that Khusrau sings.


(thanks to Danilo for sending me the article)

(I’ll have more to say about Khusrau soon, probably)

October 9, 2011

I, Other Words

Sorry I’ve been away. Out here in the real world, I had a big move on my hands.
Let me start this back up with a poem. 

I, Other Words

– for Vlado

the oboe ushers in twilight.
Silver wheels squeal
against the bending rail.
Twice blind, sleepy eyes
circulate as if veins under city skin.
Words freeze, numbing speech, and
creek under their own weight.
Cracks appear.

far beyond –
Sun stirs the day red
dances waves to shore
where flesh, warm within
from last night’s wine
effortlessly breathes
I, other words,
end of the world.

with the sky –
mauve, violet,
purple, magenta,
fuchsia, purpure,
byzantine, cerise,
lilac, fandango,
lavender, orchid,
mulberry, wisteria…

(photo stollen from Vlado Martinovich)

August 2, 2011

Yo-Yo and the Heart

Things are rarely simple. Even those simplest will be found complex in (at least) three ways. They have origins, precursors, stories of generation, a history; they can be broken down into parts, or certain aspects can be put in focus or privileged; if different cultures have it, it will vary in form and function – you can count on that.

So the yo-yo. I’ll tell you in a moment what prompted me to look this up, but right off the bat, the Wikipedia article on the yo-yo will complicate this simplest of toys. Certainly ancient, we don’t know how old it is exactly, but it dates at least back to 500 BC. One theory for the origin of its name is a language in northern Philippines, but this is disputed. Actually, even its names are multiple: yo-yo, bandalore, quiz, emigrette, joujou…

The other thing that struck me on the Wiki entry on yo-yos is that the toy has engendered its own jargon. There are tricks called ‘sleeper’ and ‘walk the dog.’ There is such a thing as off-string play (“in which the yo-yo is not attached to the string at all.” How does that work?), looping and freehand. And owing to the recent technical innovations, the engineering that goes into making various types of yo-yos is simply staggering.

There is a website dedicated to the history of the yo-yo: Lucky’s History of the Yo-Yo, by one Lucky Meisenheimer, M.D. There we read that “[d]ue largely to the efforts of Dale Oliver, the first modern  world yo-yo championships were held in 1992 and his leadership also resulted in the formation of the American Yo-Yo Association in 1993.” (We truly are the pinnacle of human civilization!)

yo-yo or bandalore in 1791

On the same website, we also find out that “[d]uring the late 18th century the yo-yo became very popular in France amongst the nobility.” And Lucky continues that “[b]eing a very fashionable toy of the French nobility during the time of the guillotine, when the heads of the nobility started being loped off [an image not unlike the yo-yo, I must interject here], many of the nobles wisely emigrated along with their yo-yos.”

This connection with the French Revolution brings me to the impetus of my inquiry into the yo-yo. I am reading Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s Erotic Poems, which is a bunch of filthy (if deliciously so) love poems. The Venetian Epigram No. 37 goes like this:

“What an agreeable toy! A disc on a string, I unwind it, 
Casting it out of my hand, and it rewinds in a trice.
That’s how I seem to be casting my heart at this and that beauty:
But it is never long gone, bounces straight back, as you see.”

The yo-yo: a simple toy and metaphor for a fickle heart.

July 15, 2011

Somewhere in Between

Suheir Hammad’s Drops of This Story slips through my fingers. I do not know what to do with it. There’s no story, but the half-page sketches (?) add up to a life. A young life, but a life nevertheless. There’s no narrative, but each sketch alludes to events beyond itself. I can’t tell if it’s poetry or prose: the sketches are too incomplete to be prose, but form a whole too coherent for each to be poetry. At moments it seems to be directly autobiographical, in others, I feel she could just as easily be making things up or embellishing. And it’s somewhere between traditional writing and slam, spoken word poetry.

Somewhere in between, like the poet herself. Palestinian, born in a refugee camp, raised in Brooklyn and later Staten Island. She laments being American when she visits her Palestinian cousins, and Palestinian when she’s in New York. (That is, when she’s allowed to be Palestinian, when her teachers aren’t telling her that there is no such thing as being Palestinian.) She’s also somewhere in between genders. “…my father really did raise me as a boy. I was encouraged to think, to ask, to figure out. […] My father raised a strong human being, but when when he realized I wasn’t gonna grow a penis, he changed his mind. Thank God it was too late.” When me meet her, the opening line, she says “I told her to chop it [her hair] all off.”

The drops of story are a great metaphor: each are a tiny bit, but together they add up (and they don’t always blend the way they’re supposed to). And the fluidity of the story reinforces the fluidity of her identity: slipping in and out of contexts, not being sure which side to belong to…all this I get. But all that in between is not why it slips through my fingers.

I understand now my father really thought he was doing me good. Education means a lot to Palestinians. We’ve become some of the most educated people in the world through our diaspora. We’ve had to be. When you ain’t got land, your degree may be your only solid ground. May father felt (feels) that being a doctor would give me security. How can I explain that I’m not safe from anything if I don’t write?

When I read that passage I thought a-ha! so that’s what she wants to do: she wants to solidify her identity through writing. She doesn’t want to find herself in either the oppressive Palestinian tradition of her father, nor in the racist tradition of her adopted country (US). She is going to will her own identity, with he own words, against the traditions that would both claim her in a way that she is not and reject her for what she is. Great.

Except that that effort is belied by her constant defense of one tradition to the other, by her attempt to be both forgiving and condemning her mother for staying with her abusive father; by her attempt to both side with the youth she’s surrounded with, and stand apart from their self-destructive drug, alcohol, violent tendencies; by her attempt to both fit in with the boys (when playing hand ball), and not be seen as a girl watched by boys’ eyes walking down the street.

She wants to fit in with the traditions that surround her (one or the other, or both), but also stand for herself. She wants to be seen as the sum of her own experiences and defend Palestine, except she has never been there, this is not her experience. “You are what your experiences make you… […] spirit of dance slave who bathed in the Nile”. This is her story, but “before I knew how to write, this story was around, waiting to let me know it was there.”

Suheir Hammad – somewhere in between her own story and two larger stories, not her own, to which she wants to belong.

June 30, 2011

a poem

They’re saying that the Universe
Is not accelerating. Rather,
Time slows down.

Day it will unfold completely
And freeze. Into one image
Of nowhen.

If anything, does this mean?
And who will be there to
See the end?

We wrong in our forethought?
Or in our being, tied as it
Is to time?

This moment, and this – vague
As it is – an illusion between

Strange then: from an unreal
World issues thought of its own
Final end.

A solution to a riddle nobody
Posed, whispered in darkness
To no one.

Here, in this timeful present
Not just our thoughts are

And look again, the world
Blurs, and blurred shimmers

Too, unequal to themselves
No longer solid in their

Run together like water,
But for those translucent cups –
Words – which

Back the night its disquiet
And fill time to the brim
With this Now.

June 28, 2011

Freddy’s Little Ball

This is a poem written about the Writing Ball, on a Writing Ball, by (none other than) Friedrich Nietzsche.

The Writing Ball was invented in 1865 by the Dane Rasmus Malling-Hansen as a device to speed up and mechanize writing. The initial designs were a little too large and clunky and lost out to the more sleek and simple Sholes-Glidden designed typewriter produced by Remington. But by the World Exhibition in Paris in 1878, things were a little different. One journalist compared the two devices.
“In the year 1875, a quick writing apparatus, designed by Mr. L. Sholes in America, and manufactured by Mr. Remington, was introduced in London. This machine was superior to the Malling-Hansen writing apparatus; but the writing ball in its present form far excels the Remington machine. It secures greater rapidity, and its writing is clearer and more precise than that of the American instrument. The Danish apparatus has more keys, is much less complicated, built with greater precision, more solid, and much smaller and lighter than the Remington, and moreover, is cheaper.” (source)
This is the 1878 model.

It looks cooler, was more ergonomic, faster, lighter and cheaper…so what happened? The problem was that it was hand-crafted in Denmark and shipped individually. Before producing typewriters, Remington produced sewing machines and fire arms. They not only had factories that could mass produce their product, they had an established market, and could display examples of their machine in windows of stores. Between Remington’s marketing, mass production and possibly home turf of the English-speaking market, the Malling-Hansen design, though better, didn’t stand a chance.

In 1881, while living in Genoa, Neitzsche ordered a Writing Ball from Copenhagen because he was going blind. However, that poem aside, Freddy never really used the machine all that much. Apparently it was damaged on the trip to Italy, and then further by the mechanic who was supposed to fix it.

The poem reads:

Schreibkugel ist ein Ding gleich mir: von Eisen
Und doch leicht zu verdrehn zumal auf Reisen.
Geduld und Takt muss reichlich man besitzen
Und feine Fingerchen, uns zu benuetzen.

Or in English:

The Writing Ball is a thing like me: of iron
Yet twisted easily – especially on journeys.
Patience and tact must be had in abundance
As well as fine [little] fingers to use us.

visualization of Nietzsche's Writing Ball made by a German student, Felix Herbst

More photos and info here and here.

June 17, 2011

The Brandy Glass

The Brandy Glass
– by Louis MacNeice

Only let it form within his hands once more  – 
The moment cradled like a brandy glass.
Sitting alone in the empty dining hall…
From the chandeliers the snow begins to fall
Piling around carafes and table legs
And chokes the passage of the revolving door.
The last diner, like a ventriloquist’s doll
Left by his master, gazes before him, begs:
‘Only let it form within my hands once more.’ 

March 7, 2011

Memories of Paris

Broullard sur le Pont-Neuf, Brassaï, 1932



– for Emma and Gabriel

In Paris
my love for him
shone in her Dorset accent
“What is Gabriel like?”
– and I went mute
How curious
Yet today I suture the moment differently
Like an itchy sweater
grown into
like her hand
familiar in mine
fingers kneaded
and laces tied
over restless feet
(more winged
than Mercury’s
bronze sandals)
shuffling about museums
I wrote these words for her
“Make me remember my body.”
How did I know
that her broad shoulders
and his dancing legs
would be mine
only strewn and sinewed
in these lines
Restless feet indeed!
(more winged
than Mercury’s
bronze sandals)
traveled the worldover
And only rarely
in some vertical
and horizontal lines
chance crossing
Nairobi, Sao Paulo, Belgrade
our innocences gone
I wrote these words for him
“With clean hands to love
Would be too much”
But why
Are we like some,
eyes tired
ears dulled
tongues no longer speak us?
Or are these hands
a different age
mapped out
in New York
they dance under the streets
recalling a generation of 20s
so lost
that we are forever looking for it
and looking still
goggled eyes
puffed red faces
wildly playing
trained rhythm
Gabriel’s horn
into another infinity
among too many places
dirty hands
blindly feeling for my arms,
Gauche and Gabriel,
outspread ’round the world


March 1, 2011



Pierre Dubreuil, A la chance du dé, c. 1932

– za Filipa


Ova čudna igra
Sama sebi ulog
Sa dva pobednika.
Poražena kocka
gubitka svedoči

Svaki potez dvostruk
taktika prišiva
potez je’n za drugi
potez za igrača
U tom šavu spleten
karakter igre i čoveka.

Lažovska izvesnost
neumoljivo se dušom
dvaput kocka:
jedan žeton, samac
usamljen na polju
nikad ne opstaje

Igrači kameno
upisani stoje
u sopstveni ulog
Ta ih igra igra
ta ih kocka baca
Kao reči koje ih kažu

Dvostruke šestice
opasuju kocku
Pravila su takva
samo čovek i reč
od nužnosti beže
U slogovima je magija.

Neka me bacanje
ovo, bez imalo
nade svog sadrži.
Nek me izvan table
i van polja nema
Takav je moj gambit.
February 24, 2011

Crossing Paths

Once upon a time, on the old Telemachus, I wrote a little post about a couple of letters of Joris-Karl Huysmans. A French writer of Dutch origin (hence the name), he is best remembered for his novel A Rebours, which is usually translated into English as Against Nature. The novel was a reaction against Emile Zola’s L’Assomoir (1877). Until that point, Huysmans was Zola’s example of a true naturalist writer, the writing style Zola aggressively advocated. When A Rebours came out, the split with the then and now much more popular Zola – who was also known to go after his ideological and aesthetic opponents with his sharp journalistic pen – was highly publicized.

However, the two men knew better. Here are the two letters I was referring to earlier. (In my translation, anachronistically.)

J.K. Hysmans’ letter to Jules Destrée (Nov. 22, 1884):
As far as the split between Zola and myself, shouted from the rooftops, it’s idiotic. We often discuss amicably questions in which we disagree completely, but we are old friends from before L’Assomoir. I take it as proof of quality of our friendship that all the claims of the press to the contrary have not been able to chip away at it.

E. Zola’s letter to J.K. Huysmans (May 20, 1884):
There, my dear friend, are all my reservations. I didn’t want to hide them, for you know me well enough, don’t you, to know that the fictional is not my cup of tea. Luckily, there is in you something else, a sort of outrageousness of art that excites me, an originality of strong feelings that is enough to set you apart, put you on a high pedestal. Bottom line is that I spent three happy evenings with your book. It will count at the very least as a curiosity in your oeuvre. And you should be proud of it. What will people say? If they don’t calm down, they might very well celebrate it ecstatically. Or they will throw it back at you, at us, as the latest rotting corpse of our literature. I smell nonsense in the air.

I bring this up because I found out that Huysmans is credited with something else as well. According to (a certain) Dorothea von Mücke, he is responsible for bringing back to light the Renaissance painter Matthias Grünewald (c.1470-1528). Says Mücke, over at
But around 1900 the French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans made a passionate plea for the relevance and modernity of Grünewald. In his description of the altar at Isenheim, Huysmans called attention to Grünewald’s shocking insistence on the physical details of Christ’s suffering, alerting its beholder to the disgusting marks of torture and the signs of dying and decomposing flesh. Such a Christ, Huysmans observed, is no longer the well-groomed, handsome man who has been venerated by the rich and powerful throughout the ages. Grünewald’s Christ is rather the “God of the Poor. The one who chose the company of those in misery and of those who had been rejected, of all those for whose ugliness and need the world could only feel contempt.” And it was exactly this approach to pain and suffering highlighted by Huysmans that subsequently became a point of reference for many artists who invoked Grünewald’s work, especially when they cited the triptych from the Isenheim altarpiece or The Mockery of Christ from the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.

Here are the two works she is referring to:

Isenheim Altarpiece, First view (Crucifixion), c. 1512–15, Musée d’Unterlinden, Colmar, France. Limewood, 269 x 650 cm

The Mockery of Christ, c. 1503–05, Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

Grünewald also liked to put his self-portrait into his paintings. It can be found in many of his works, including these two. In the Mockery of Christ, he is the Commiserator, the only one not attacking Christ. In the altar piece he is St. Sebastian, the figure on the left.

Self-portrait, c. 1512–16 Nürnberg, Germany.

Commiserator, detail from Mockery of Christ

St.Sebastian, detail Isenheim Altarpiece









What brought all of this to my attention is W.G. Sebald’s After Nature. It is a triptych in verse with the enigmatic motto “As the Snow on the Alps… .” The first part is about Matthias Grünewald, and at the very beginning Sebald tells us that
“… The face of the unknown
Grünewald emerges again and again
in his work as a witness
to the snow miracle, a hermit
in the desert, a commiserator…
…Always the same
gentleness,  the same burden of grief,
the same irregularity of the eyes, veiled
and sliding sideways down into loneliness.”

Right after that Sebald wraps up my entire post of curious connections throughout history.

Grünewald’s face reappears, too,
in a Basel painting by Holbein
the Younger of a crowned female saint.
These were strangely disguised
instances of resemblance, wrote Fraenger
whose books were burned by the fascists.
Indeed it seemed as though in such works of art
men had revered each other like brothers, and
often made monuments in each other’s
image where their paths had crossed.”