I See Them In My Dreams

achebe
Chinua Achebe (1930 – 2013)

Art is man’s constant effort to create for himself a different order of reality from that which is given to him.

Chinua Achebe

Refugee Mother and Child

by Chinua Achebe

No Madonna and Child could touch
that picture of a mother’s tenderness
for a son she soon would have to forget.
The air was heavy with odours
of diarrhoea of unwashed children
with washed-out ribs and dried-up
bottoms struggling in laboured
steps behind blown empty bellies.

Most mothers there had long ceased
to care but not this one; she held
a ghost smile between her teeth
and in her eyes the ghost of a mother’s
pride as she combed the rust-coloured
hair left on his skull and then –
singing in her eyes – began carefully
to part it… In another life this
would have been a little daily
act of no consequence before his
breakfast and school; now she
did it like putting flowers
on a tiny grave.

 


There are times I come across poems that make the hair on the back of neck stand up.  So it was with both of these, the words creating an indelible imprint of empathy for the hard road of poverty that so many endure. It’s hard to fathom all of the secondary effects of this pandemic, to truly quantify how it will make hard lives even harder, but its a certainty that more people will wake up hungry in the coming year because of it. And already strained humanitarian efforts in many parts of the world will be stretched even further.  Hunger is a universal issue as prevalent in the affluence of the United States as elsewhere.   As we search for medical solutions to help us address this global issue, let’s not lose sight of other basic needs like access to clean water, clean air and food that should be the right of human being on this planet, not a privilege reserved for the wealthy.  How should governments work to make a better future for the least among us, not just the most powerful and connected?


Dream-Children

by Syned
(South African Poet)

I see them in my dreams. Their tiny hands
Clutch feebly at the air; upon my face
Blows their sweet breath; a little voice demands
My eager kisses. In that soft embrace
A sense of aching, though I know not why,
A sense of some forgotten, longed-for joy,
A joy that thrills me through, yet makes me sigh,
That time could never change, nor death destroy;
Still in my dreams I clasp them to my breast,
Their soft warm presence folded close to mine;
And o’er me steals the balm of perfect rest,
And through my veins a gladness like to wine.
I murmur, shiver–then, as cold as stone,
Awake–and oh, dear God! awake alone.

We Are The Men of Soul

fela-anikulapo-kuti
Fela Kuti (1938 – 1997)

“A radical is he who has no sense…fights without reason…I have a reason. I am authentic. Yes, that’s what I am”

Fela Kuti

Beware, Soul Brother

by Chinua Achebe

We are the men of soul
men of song we measure out
our joys and agonies
in paces of the dance.
Beware, soul brother, beware,
for others there will be
lying in waiting, leaden-footed, tone deaf,
passionate to despoil the devour.
Take care then, mother’s son, take care
hanging a lame foot in air like the hen
in a strange unfamiliar compound.
Protect this patrimony to which
you must return when the song is finished
and the dancers disperse;
Remember also your children
for they in their time will want a
place for their feet when they come of age
and the dance of the future is born for them.

 


The concept of artist transforming society is most visible among rock stars.  But when those artists change the way we think there is something profound that goes beyond their music.  Bob Dylan never wanted to take credit that his music had a message.  Fela Kuti did.  Kuti didn’t pull any punches in regard to what he was singing and why.  Kuti wanted to bring down the corruption endemic in politics in post colonial Africa and move Africa forward.  So did Achebe.  Poetry and music is most powerful when it moves beyond the words to a regenerative truth. When it strives to create a new understanding, even an imperfect understanding of ways to improve our world.

Tony Allen was the rhythm that drove Fela Kuti’s sound for decades. Allen died in April at age 79.  If you don’t recognize the name, you should recognize the beat, because it has been imitated by drummers in jazz and rock and roll for the past 50 years. Allen created the Afro beat and was the coolest jazz drummer of our generation.  No one played a lick like Allen. His timing, his rhythm is sheer poetry, sheer jazz.  I have shared a few links below.  Enjoy.

 

 

 


Beasts of No Nation

by Fela Kuti

Ah- Let’s get now into another, underground spiritual game
Just go to help me the answer, go to say, “Aiya-kata”- Oh ya
O’feshe-Lu
AIYA-KATA *(after each line)
O’feshe- g’Ba
O’feshe-Woh

AIYA-KATA *(after each line)

O’feshe-Weng
Aiya kata
Aiya Koto
Aiya Kiti
Aiya Kutu
O’feshe-Lu
AIYA-KATA *(after each line)
O’feshe- g’Ba
Oh—–…
Basket mouth wan start to leak again, oh-
BASKET MOUTH WAN OPEN MOUTH AGAIN, OH
Abi** you don forget I say I sing, ee-oh **(is it not)
BASKET MOUTH WAN OPEN MOUTH AGAIN, OH
Oh, I sing, I say, I go my mouth like basket, ee-oh, Malan Bia-gbe-re
(2x)
Basket mouth wan start to leak again, oh-
BASKET MOUTH WAN OPEN MOUTH AGAIN, OH
Fela, wetin you go sing about?
DEM GO WORRY ME… *(after each line)
(3x)
Dem go worry me, worry me– worry, worry, worry, worry
DEM GO WORRY ME *(After each line)
Dey wan to make us sing about prison
Dem go worry me, worry me– worry, worry all over da town
Dey wan to know about prison life
Dem go worry me, worry me– worry, worry all over da town
*(repeat stanza)
Fela, wetin you go sing about?
DEM GO WORRY ME
Dem go worry me, worry me– worry, worry, worry, worry
The time weh I dey, for prison, I call am “inside world”
The time weh I dey outside prison, I call am “outside world”
Na craze world, na be outside world
CRAZE** WORLD *(after each line) / **(crazy)
Na be outside- da police-i dey
Na be outside- da soldier dey
Na be outside- da court dem dey
Na be outside- da magistrate dey
Na be outside- da judge dem dey
Na craze world be dat
Na be outside- Buhari dey
Na craze man be dat
Animal in craze-man skin-i
Na craze world be dat
Na be outside- Idia-gbon dey
Na craze man be dat- oh
Animal in craze-man skin-i
Na craze world be dat
Na be outside- dem find me guilty
Na be outside- dem jail me five years
——————I no do nothing
Na be outside-dem judge dey beg ee-o
Na craze world be dat, Na craze world be dat
Na be outside- dem kill dem students
Soweto, Zaria, and Ife
Na craze world be dat, ee-oh
Na craze world be dat
Na be outside- all dis dey happen
Na craze world be dat, ee-oh
Na craze world be dat, ee-oh
Na craze world be dat, ee-oh
Na craze world be dat, ee-oh
Na craze world be dat, ee-oh…
Make you hear this one
War against indiscipline, ee-oh
Na Nigerian government, ee-oh
Dem dey talk ee-oh
“My people are us-e-less, My people are sens-i-less, My people are indiscipline”
Na Nigerian government, ee-oh
Dem dey talk be dat
“My people are us-e-less, My people are sens-i-less, My people are indiscipline”
I never hear dat before- oh
Make Government talk, ee-oh
“My people are us-e-less, My people are sens-i-less, My people are indiscipline”
Na Nigerian government, ee-oh
Dem dey talk be dat
Which kind talk be dat- oh?
Craze talk be dat ee-oh
Na animal talk be dat

 

For Every Drop of Water

miguel_angel_asturias
Miguel Ángel Asturias (1899 – 1974)

“It is not society that is to guide and save the creative hero, but precisely the reverse.  It is the hero or artist who is the true avatar of civilization; the individual, not the group, preserves and advances culture.”

Joseph Campbell – The Hero With A Thousand Faces

The Fortune

by Miguel Ángel Asturias

To give is to love,
To give prodigiously:
For every drop of water
To return a torrent.

We were made that way,
Made to scatter
Seeds in the furrow
And stars in the ocean.

Woe to him, Lord,
who doesn’t exhaust his supply,
And, on returning, tells you:
“Like an empty satchel
Is my heart.”

Caudal

Dar es amar,
dar prodigiosamente
por cada gota de agua
devolver un torrente.

Fuimos hechos asi,
hechos para botar
semillas en el surco
y estrellas en el mar

Y ¿ay! del que no agote,
Señor, su provisión Y al regresar te diga:
¿Como alforja vacía
está mi corazón!


The concept of a poet diplomat may sound foreign to our current world view of where artists fit into political discourse, but it was common 100 years ago and  a requirement 1,000 years ago to be recorded in history.  The idea that oration and words, creativity and inspiration were a personal trait of leaders to get a mandate from the populace to be fit to lead seems incredulous given the way some of our leaders torture the English language and have abandoned all measure of civility.  If good leadership and poetry in the way a leader – leads, the way in which they speak, the way in which they think, is something to be admired, respected and even required than how should we evaluate the fitness of the candidates we will be choosing from this fall in the upcoming election?  An idea that poetry is not something foreign on pages of obscure books, but lives and breathes in the words we use, is a concept I would argue that is precisely what is in short supply in our current endeavors.

If you do a search on google on Miguel Ángel Asturias and click on images, there is not a one that I could find where he is smiling.  His was not an easy life.  Born and raised in Guatemala, he was forced to live in exile much of his adult life abroad, so dangerous were the socialist notions of social justice and importance of protecting indigenous cultures in Latin America that he espoused and were prominent themes in his poetry, novels and plays.  His most famous novel El Senor Presidente, was a scathing description of life under a ruthless dictator, common to much of Latin America unfortunately both then and now.

Asturias was involved with the Surrealist movement in Europe while living abroad and is credited with bringing the concepts of magical realism and a modernist style to Latin American literature, inspiring a generation of writers. After years of exile and marginalization for his political views he received broad recognition in the 1960’s when he was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize from the Soviet Union and the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature, becoming only the second Latin America Nobel winner, following Gabriela Mistral who I showcased in the previous blog.

What lessons could poetry teach us about how to speak at this uncertain and difficult time?  What examples can we take from difficult periods in the past and how did poets and poet diplomats navigate those times with their words to inspire change and point a direction to a hopeful future?   What words should we be using to avoid marginalization of the powerless and keep hope where it belongs, in our minds and hearts? For our problems are man made, and can be solved by man….And we are all mortal.

 


Gesture with Both Hands Tied

Marcelo Hernandez Castillo (1988 – )

I’m going to open the borders of my hunger

and call it a parade.

But I’m lying if I said I was hungry.

If dying required practice,
I could give up the conditions for being alone.

I undress in the sun and stare at it
until I can stand its brightness no longer.

Why is it always noon in my head?

I’m going to run outside and whisper,
or hold a gun and say bang,

or hold a gun and not do anything at all.

The lamps that wait inside me say
come, the gift is the practice,
the price is the door

 

Our Poor Eyes, Knowing Only

Death Sonnets I

by Gabriela Mistral (1889 – 1957)

From the icy niche where men placed you
I lower your body to the sunny, poor earth.
They didn’t know I too must sleep in it
and dream on the same pillow.

I place you in the sunny ground, with a
mother’s sweet care for her napping child,
and the earth will be a soft cradle
when it receives your hurt childlike body.

I scatter bits of earth and rose dust,
and in the moon’s airy and blue powder
what is left of you is a prisoner.

I leave singing my lovely revenge.
No hand will reach into the obscure depth
to argue with me over your handful of bones.

Los Sonetos de la Muerte

by Gabriela Mistral

I

Del nicho helado en que los hombres te pusieron,
te bajaré a la tierra humilde y soleada.
Que he de dormirme en ella los hombres no supieron,
y que hemos de soñar sobre la misma almohada.

Te acostaré en la tierra soleada, con una
dulcedumbre de madre para el hijo dormido,
y la tierra ha de hacerse suavidades de cuna
al recibir tu cuerpo de niño dolorido.

Luego iré espolvoreando tierra y polvo de rosas,
y en la azulada y leve polvareda de luna,
los despojos livianos irán quedando presos.

Me alejaré cantando mis venganzas hermosas
¡porque a ese hondor recóndito la mano de ninguna
bajará a disputarme tu puñado de huesos!


Gabriel Mistral was the pseudonym for Lucila Godoy y Alcayaga, Mistral began writing poetry in her early twenties following the tragic death of her lover. Mistral was an educator by profession, teaching elementary, secondary school until her poetry made her famous. Her status in Latin America literature afforded her the opportunity to become an advocate for education in both Mexico and Chile. Mistral was active on cultural committees of the League of Nations, becoming the Chilean consul in Naples, Madrid and Lisbon. Mistral later taught Spanish literature in the United States at Columbia University, Middlebury College, Vassar College, and at the University of Puerto Rico.

Mistral’s Sonetos de la muerte (love poems in memory of the dead), made her known throughout Latin America, but her first heralded collection of poems, Desolación [Despair], was published in 1922. Mistral wrote poetry about many themes, but her volumes published in 1924 and 1938 dealt with childhood and maternity and tenderness. Mistral was recognized for her contributions to literature and won the Nobel Prize in 1948.

I share below two translations of her poem Alondras, one by Langston Hughes and one by Ursula K. Le Guin.  It’s interesting to see how each poet approached the poem and their different interpretations. I regret that my Spanish is not good enough to read it in the original and understand it more fully, but I am grateful that Mistral’s work inspired great minds to translate it into English.  Do you have a favorite Mistral poem?


Alondras

by Gabriela Mistral

Bajaron a mancha de trigo
y al acercarnos, voló la banda,
y la alamede sd quedó
del azoro como rasgada.

En matorrales parcecen fuego;
cuando suben, plata lanzada,
y passan antes de que passen,
y te rebanan la alabanza.

Saben no más los pobres ojos
que passó toda la bandada,
y gritando llaman “alondras!”
a lo que sube, se pierde y canta.

Y en este aire malherido
nos han dejado llenos de ansia,
con el asombro y el tremblor
a mitad del cuerpo y el alma….

Alondras, hijo, nos cruzamos
las alondras, por la llanda!

 

Larks

by Gabriela Mistral

translated by Langston Hughes

They came down in a patch of wheat,
and, as we drew near,
the flock flew away
and left the startled field quite empty.

In the thicket they look like fire;
when they rise, like silver darting.
And they go by even before they go,
cutting through your wonder.

Our poor eyes, knowing only
that the whole flock has gone,
cry “Larks!” to those who rise,
and are lost, and sing.

In the sorely wounded air
they leave us full of yearning,
with a wonder and a quiver
in body and in soul…

Larks, son! Above us sweep
the larks across the plain!

Larks

Translated by Ursula K. Le Guin

They were in the scattered wheat.
As we came near, the whole flock
flew, and the poplars stood
as if struck by a hawk.

Sparks in stubble: when they rise,
silver thrown up in air.
They’re past before they pass,
too quick for praise.

Eyes are too slow to see
the whole flock’s taken wing,
and we shout, “Larks!”
at what’s up–lost–singing.

In the air they wounded
they’ve left us with a longing,
a tremor, a wonder
half of the body, half of the soul.

Larks, child–see,
larks rise from the wheat!

Do Not Remember Me With Pity

Le Guin

“I love translation because I translate for love. I’m an amateur. I translate a text because I love it, or think I do, and love craves close understanding. Translation, for me, is discovery.”

– Ursula K. Le Guin

Looking Back

by Ursula K. Le Guin

Remember me before I was a heap of salt,
the laughing child who seldom did
as she was told or came when she was called,
the merry girl who became Lot’s bride,
the happy woman who loved her wicked city.
Do not remember me with pity.
I saw you plodding on ahead
into the desert of your pitiless faith.
Those springs are dry, that earth is dead.
I looked back, not forward, into death.
Forgiving rains dissolve me, and I come
still disobedient, still happy, home.


Anniversary

by Gabriela Mistral
Translated by Ursula K. Le Guin

And we go on and on,
Neither sleeping nor awake,
Towards the meeting, unaware
That we are already there.
That the silence is perfect,
And the flesh is gone.
The call still is not heard
Nor does the Caller reveal his face.

But perhaps this might be
Oh, my love, the gift
Of the eternal Face without gestures
And of the kingdom without form!

The Dark Abounding

Ursula-le-gouin-by-rebecca-clarke
Ursula K. Le Guin (1929 – 2018)

That deeper meaning is where poetry approaches music, because you cannot put that meaning in words in an intellectually comprehensible way.”

Ursula K. Le Guin

Hymn To Time

by Ursula K. Le Guin

Time says “Let there be”
every moment and instantly
there is space and the radiance
of each bright galaxy.

And eyes beholding radiance.
And the gnats’ flickering dance.
And the seas’ expanse.
And death, and chance.

Time makes room
for going and coming home
and in time’s womb
begins all ending.

Time is being and being
time, it is all one thing,
the shining, the seeing,
the dark abounding.


I first came across Ursula K. Le Guin as a teenager in one of the new/used bookstores in Minneapolis. These were combination comic book, sci-fi fantasy, news stand and porn  that existed back in the 1970’s and 1980’s. They were a little seedy and exactly the kind of thing as a teenager I found exciting. I came across a well read copy of the The Left Hand of Darkness and from there I looked to read Le Guin when ever I bumped into her again.

Le Guin wrote fantasy, children’s books, novels, poetry and translations and did it all brilliantly.  She won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel, becoming the first woman to do so. Her book Cat Wings was a favorite of my daughter when she was little. Her translation of The Tao is completely unique of all that I have come across and the details around her choice of words in the translation provides insight that goes far beyond any other translation I have read. ( I think I own 4 or 5 different translations.) Her novels explore themes that are as relevant today as when they were written on topics like the environment, social justice, sexual liberation, gender equality, technological responsibility,  and a moral code of right and wrong even if right does not always prevail.

Le Guin’s writing career spanned more than 60 years and in that time she published 12 volumes of poetry along with everything else.  If you know her for only her science fiction or novels, I recommend you check out some of her poetry, including her final volume of poetry – Finding My Elegy.  Le Guin wrote poetry in a variety of styles, both highly structured and free verse. I completely agree with her sentiments that writing sonnets is difficult in part because so many brilliant ones already exist, its hard to think anything you write is unique. In several interviews, Le Guin shared some of her approach to writing poetry, here’s a quote from one below.

The sonnet is probably the form most people think of when you talk about poetic form, and I find them terribly difficult. I write very, very few anymore.  Maybe because there are so many very very good sonnets.  I don’t know, that does’t usually worry me. It’s just not a form that I work with very well. The quatrain, on the other hand, is a straight form in a way – just four lines, that’s it. There’s no other definition, but you can make it just as strict as you please with rhythm and rhyme and so on.

Ursula K. Le Guin

The Fine Arts

by Ursula K. Le Guin

JUDGING BEAUTY, which is keenest,
Eye or heart or mind or penis?
Lust is blindest, feeling kindest,
Sight is strongest, thought goes wrongest.