Friday, January 25, 2008

English Journal #8 (1/08)

The new issue of the English Journal is out. That's an image of the cover art, by Jessie Tsai. Sooner or later the issue will join its predecessors as a downloadable pdf (link to that page is in the list to the right). In the meanwhile, some of its contents will continue to appear here. What follows is an essay excerpt by Shelby Sisco.

America Pt.1: Summer Song

“Beyond the Palace hemi-powered/drones scream down the boulevard/The girls comb their hair in rearview mirrors/And the boys try to look so hard/The amusement park rises bold and stark/Kids are huddled on the beach in a mist/I wanna die with you Wendy on the streets tonight/In an everlasting kiss” - Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run

Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of Bruce Springsteen. Songs like “Dancing In the Dark,” “Growin’ Up,” “Born to Run”—songs that aren’t just cobbled mixes of melody, harmony, and lyrics, but anthems: symbols of a feeling, a place, a life just out of reach. These songs lead you to the edge of something great. Listen to them; you feel like you’re on the brink of something timeless, elusive, and real - in a way nothing else can be.

Turn up “Born in the U.S.A.” and suddenly it’s the summer before your junior year in high school again and you’re “holding on to sixteen as long as you can” (Bryan Adams), sun burnt nose and tan dark legs, lying around the neighborhood pool, the smell of Banana Boat sunscreen hanging in the air. Pale green long grass hay swaying in the breeze, air hot and damp and heavy, your heart light and buoyed up by excitement, all the way up to the corn-blue sky, where the mid-afternoon sun is burning bright and steady.

I know what each month of summer looks like. June is 11 A.M., sitting on the front step, hot sun baking down on you, eyes closed, face tilted up to the sky, earphones in, listening to John Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane” while Mom does the gardening nearby. July is hazy, humid, dark indigo nights, dancing barefoot on dewy grass to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” while fireworks erupt behind you, head flung back laughing at something he said, strong arms around you and the world at your feet. August is burnished sun rays through leaves in late afternoon when the air is heavy with change and you are both weighed down and buoyed up by all the things you could have done, should have done—the world so full of unused opportunities that it hurts. Your head spins and your heart settles as you listen to The Violent Femme’s “American Music.”

These songs speak to the long lost American summer. They speak to the girls wearing flowers in their hair and cotton sundresses; they call to the boys planting cherry bombs in their neighbors' mailboxes. They conjure up images of white picket fences, of 4th of July barbeques, of sticky sweet cherry popsicles and couples holding hands while they watch red, white, and blue fireworks explode in the summer sky. “A few American kids, growin’ up in the heartland” (John Mellencamp). These songs speak of a time that, because of the rose-colored glasses we see the past through, seems simpler, purer. Life, and all the chaos that goes with it, is distilled into the perfect nostalgia of a three minute long song. Summer is the only time such perfection can happen. Its magic lies in the possibility that hangs in the air. Opportunity. Change. The ability to be whoever you want to be, do whatever you want to do, unburdened by responsibilities or expectations. The chance to completely lose yourself and to see clearly in the here and now; when the truth does not lie in facts locked up somewhere in a library or text book, but in the dark, damp, clear heat of a summer night, when the air smells sweet and the world melts away, and you feel like right now, in this moment, life is everything it could possibly be.

Simply put, summer is freedom. These songs, these anthems of an endless summer, are about freedom, possibility, and change. They encapsulate the truest and most noble emotion that humankind possesses: hope. They impart the most important lesson we’ll ever learn: they teach us how to dream again.

Shelby Sisco, in English Journal 8 (1/08)

Saturday, January 19, 2008

John Alter's new book of poetry is out


He turns the corner, at last, that brings him
to the land of translation. Three small steps
bring him down to where Alice-in-Wonder-
­land waits, who is now an old lady whose

stories are like an elderly rabbit.
No—she is older than that, now, and he
later; what he finds—a boot with buttons,
desiccated mushroom pieces, a door

so small he mistakes it for a playing
card—and what he hears—forlorn, a small wind
blowing... these things he can gather up and
bring back, but here, in this gentle garden

he finds no way back; the three steps loom now,
larger and earlier, and he sits down.

Many readers of this blog already know John Alter, and at least some of his poetry; they may have even heard him read his work at a Coffee House or on another occasion. There is now a selection of his poems available from Xlibris, entitled Hanuman’s Home; it is filled with verse that John has produced while living in Washington, CT for the past few years. The poem above immediately struck a chord with me; in the case of poems with references to India (where John was born and raised) and Hinduism, I’m more like an avid tourist − one leaning forward into the page, transported by the visions woven there. After having had the book here for several days, I can say that both the un- & the already-initiated are in luck, because the pleasures of reading these poems are many, and grow with each return to the page.

As I was beginning to read, or reread, the poems of Hanuman’s Home, I was also rediscovering the Mark Strand essay “Translation,” in Strand’s entertaining book of essays The Weather of Words (2000). Toward the end of this short essay, Strand has the apparition of Borges say to his poet-narrator: “It is you who must be translated…” – which is not, the reader understands, to disavow the multiple ‘problems of translation’ the essay veils in fictive translators who pop up in the unlikeliest of places and persons, beginning with the narrator’s four-year-old son, who (unbeknownst to the Strand-narrator) has been translating Palazzeschi – and encountering some difficulty, to which the son (four years old, I repeat) admits with an amusingly erudite admixture of shame and resentment. I read this essay when the book came out, and subsequently forgot about that oddball choice of Italian poet; now that I’ve been translating Palazzeschi myself, and somewhat inevitably thinking about translation & the myriad opinions written about it, my rediscovery of this essay brings with it an admixture of glee, identification, and embarrassment.

In any case, the Borges apparition confirms the Strand narrator’s surmise that translation should be thought of as “a transaction between individual idioms, between say the Italian of D’Annunzio and the English of Auden” − a notion that obviates or renders “irrelevant discussions of who has and who hasn’t done a correct translation.” Such a comment neatly curtails all debate, at least for the time being, and in fact the essay swiftly vanishes, along with Borges’s ghost. A plain-language sequential summary of this essay's implications might look like this: translation begins at home; its issues manifest themselves regularly in familiar (even literally members of the family) ways; disagreements and divisions will occur regarding translation choices; the imaginative work itself is elastic enough to handle all of this (i.e. the Kundera-esque narrative, in which the characters voice a broad range of opinions on the matter of whether translation is possible).

Anyway, John's book, and the poem above, got me thinking of these matters in a committed, but concentrated manner ("and he sits down"). Coincidentally, the other day John handed me a CD of Borges lectures from the 60’s that is truly transporting, to the point that I am convinced I was there, or that I heard Borges speak at some point, although the first is impossible and the second is probably a memory malfunction. In any event, all of these circumstances are at least reminders of the recurrence of the ineffable appearing in distinct yet fantastic forms. For me, John’s poem above operates like a fairytale equivalent, a metaphorical treatment of existential (life as translation) quandaries. I think of the three steps as stages in the work of translation, but the metaphor broadens as its language becomes more precise. This magic is typical of the poems in Hanuman’s Home – their scope emerges from their particulars and the subjectivity of the narrative, an only apparent paradox that will certainly be familiar to readers of poetry (I think of Whitman first of all). Most of the poems are more explicitly tied to time and place than the one quoted above, and some address religious and secular existential matters more explicitly. In one of his lectures Borges says "We all must put up with the mythology of our times," by which he meant not so much to dismiss it as to opine its poverty relative to the imaginative and conceptual wealth of other mythologies, of other times. In these poems, John calls on a wider world of meaning and association without stretching, and without ever distancing the reader. ‘Shantih shantih shantih,’ for example, commemorates and meditates on 9/11; others were written for family members, or on occasions of special import for the family, and others meditate on the meanings of rituals of the religious calendar, like ‘Advent, Ramadan.’

When you engage in a reading of this book, you begin a dialogue with an author whose presence is as unmistakable and generous in the poems as it has been in our midst for the past several years. It’s my hope that we’ll have a couple more (and lengthier) poems from Hanuman’s Home on the blog in the coming weeks, with comments from other readers and admirers of John’s poetry.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Journal Entries by 133

I’ve tried day in and day out to show the world that I’m worth something, that I can prevail through all of the stress and b.s. revolving around me. It’s hard, sure it is, what isn’t nowadays? You wake up at 6:30 a.m., brush your teeth, wash your face, get dressed, make sure everything in your room is put away and all the lights are turned off, lock your door, take the key out, look back and see that your book is still on your desk, so you put your keys down and grab the book, and walk out again. You walk down the dark hallway, because no one ever wakes up as early as you, and the light switch is at the other end of the hall. Down the stairs, slowly and quietly, making sure not to wake anyone else up. Open the door and step outside into the freezing, bitter cold air, stop! - and then realize you left your keys in your locked room - on the desk where your book was. I’ve started more days like that, more than I can count on both hands. I’ll go eat breakfast, see my friends, and realize that somehow, in the six hours of sleep I got the previous night, I did something “terribly, unforgivably wrong” with my girlfriend, and have to endure countless, never-ending hours of being ignored and having to think about what it was I could have possibly done - while I was sleeping. As soon as I get to my classes I notice that I have the wrong binder, and because of this, don’t have the homework for the day. Lunch comes quickly, and there again I’m greeted with cold eyes, and a shrug of the shoulder. After my classes are finished, I go back to my dorm, call my parents to say “hello,” and get bombarded with “did you finish your college essays?! Did you send them in?! you can’t come home until they’re done! Get moving! Maybe we can find a college for you that doesn’t have homework, haha!”
So let’s recap: 1) locked out of room because I left my keys on my desk; 2) girlfriend is mad at me for something I did while I was asleep; 3) didn’t turn in my homework because I brought the wrong binders to class; 4) girlfriend is mad at me for something I did while I was asleep; 5) parents are pushing me too hard to get college work done, and now can not come home or do anything else until they are, in fact, done. Of course, I’ll be able to get into my room later, all I have to do is find my dorm parent. I’ll send my homework via e-mail, and still get some sort of grade. I’ll sit down at my desk for twenty minutes and finish my essays. And hopefully I’ll realize what I did wrong, and apologize for the right thing later that same night. I’ll always be able to handle the pressure, it’s just a lot to deal with all in one sitting.

I’ll do what I can
Do my own thing
Listen to no one but myself
I’ll prove them all wrong
It’s my destiny
And mine alone.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

What I Will Have (Re)Read By The End of Next Summer

I’ve been asking all of my students for a list of at least four books they’d read or reread over the summer. Here is a compendium of titles/authors:
The Alex Rider series
Soldier X
Splinter Cell
Tuesdays with Morrie
Mitch Albom
The Catcher in the Rye
Ink Heart
The Secret Life of Bees
To Kill a Mockingbird
The perks of being a wallflower
Romeo & Juliet (girls; boys ‘would rather die’)
Eclipse (girls)
Peaches (girls)
The Kite Runner
Fahrenheit 451
Into the Wild
The Lovely Bones
Little Women
Of Mice and Men
Lord of the Rings (any/all)
A Thousand Splendid Suns
Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy
Anne of Green Gables, Lucy Maud Montgomery
Ender’s Game
A Separate Peace
Watership Down
The Iliad
Life of Pi
The Book Thief
The Things They Carried
Flowers for Algernon
Angels & Demons
Jodi Picoult books
Harry Potter (any/all)
How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents
The House on Mango Street
The Lovely Bones
Life of Pi
The book thief
To kill a mockingbird
Autobiography of Frederick Douglass
Of Mice and Men
Black Boy
The Jungle
The Outsiders
Huckleberry Finn
Diary of Anne Frank
Me Talk Pretty One Day
The Kite Runner
Ender’s Game
Robinson Crusoe
Sherlock Holmes
A Separate Peace
Lord of the Flies
The Catcher in the Rye
Animal Farm
The Secret
An End to Suffering
Zazie in the Metro
Mehmet, My Hawk
Poems of Rumi
Short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Great Gatsby
The Bourne Supremacy, etc.
(oh yeah, and the image above is of Marty Feldman in "The Adentures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother," 1975)

Saturday, January 5, 2008