some trace, however faint, of this initial sanctity of the Word

Even the physical embodiment of a sacred text is numinous: it is wrapped in leather or silk, stored in a cupboard used for no other purpose, copied over only by special scribes. It may be raised in both hands as an offering before being opened; it may itself be offered fragrant incense and sweet milk. All written work retains some trace, however faint, of this initial sanctity of the Word: the inhabiting Logos and the breath of inspiration are the same, each bringing new life into the empty places of earth. It is no wonder, then that many different cultural traditions share an ancient prohibition against translation. As George Steiner has pointed out in After Babel, if a sacred text has been given to us directly by its divine source, surely it must remain exactly as it first appeared, each word preserved intact for the meaning it may hold. Whether in a sacred text or a contemporary poem, any alteration risks unwittingly discarding some mystery not yet penetrated.

Jane Hirshfield, “The World Is Large and Full of Noises: Thoughts on Translation”


What we regard must seduce us, and we it, if we are to continue looking

from “The World is Large and Full of Noises: Thoughts on Translation” by Jane Hirshfield

Knowledge is erotic. We see this not only in the Bible’s dual use of the term “to know,” but also, as classicist Anne Carson has pointed out, in the Homeric verb mnaomai, which means both “to hold in attention” and “to woo.” What we regard must seduce us, and we it, if we are to continue looking. A great poem creates in its readers the desire to know it more thoroughly, to live with it in intimacy, to join its speaking to their own as fully as possible. We memorize it, recite it over and over, reawaken it with tongue and mind and heart. Many translators describe their first encounter with their chosen authors as a helpless falling in love: a glimpse of a few translated fragments can lead to years of language study in order to hear directly the work’s own voice. And in matters of art, it seems, Eros is generous rather than possessive: the translator wants to reciprocate this gift received, to pass the new love on to others—and thus the work of translation begins.

Apiary 7 out soon, with 3 of my Shez translations!

Apiary 7 is coming out soon, with 3 of my translations of Shez’s poems. You can get your copy at Big Blue Marble, and many other locations in Philadelphia. APIARY 7: The POWER Issue is unique: our first collaboration with another organization, Decarcerate PA, to feature the work of a specific community (incarcerated authors), and our first themed issue, too.

And if you like to party with poets – read on!

APIARY 7 launches December 7th at Underground Arts with our signature dance extravaganza + high-energy reading. Come celebrate with us and Decarcerate PA! and boogie with writers and readers from all over the city.

The literary/dance extravaganza takes place Saturday, December 7th at Underground Arts, 1200 Callowhill Street. We promise music, dancing, refreshments, face-painting, APIARY-artwork-button-making, and most importantly,feeling Philly’s literary love.

At 7pm, local spoken word personalities Jacob Winterstein, Lyrispect, and Vision will be your guide through an all-ages evening of the freshest, most POWERful poetry and prose in Philadelphia. Power-Grooves will be provided by house band The Urban Shamans. After 10pm, everyone 21 and up can let loose as the renowned DJ Precolumbian spins until 2am.


To All of the Middle-class White Christian Women

To All of the Middle-class White Christian Women
Who Occasionally Consider Your Privilege:

Now you’re talkin about
owning your racism
and owning your classism
and owning your anti-Semitism
and owning your lesbophobia
and I’m supposed to be impressed

and the question I’ve got for you
is just how you plan
to pay for all this stuff you’re owning?
will you use your checking plus account
or cash in a CD
or get the money from daddy
or put it on your VISA?

and what happens
when all of this stuff you’re owning
gets a little old
and out of fashion?
what happens when you go to find something
new and improved
something that works easier
for you?
What then?
You just gonna pitch this stuff?
or you gonna try to sell it
back to us
packaged as our own desire
and try to make a profit for yourselves
in the process?

found in file, undated, probably from 1989 or 1990

The most difficult of all things

The most difficult of all things -the only difficult thing perhaps is to enfranchise oneself and – even harder – to live in freedom.

Anyone who is in the least free is the enemy of the mob, to be systematically persecuted, tracked down wherever she takes refuge.

I am becoming more and more irritated against this life and the people who refuse to allow any exception to exist and who accept their own slavery and try to impose it on others.

Isabelle Eberhardt, 1902

Isabelle Eberhardt as Si Mahmoud Essadi

Isabelle Eberhardt as Si Mahmoud Essadi

from the blog Julie Unplugged:

Isabelle Eberhardt’s short life was anything but everyday.

What else could describe a French female journalist who masqueraded as a man, was the first European to be admitted as a member of a Sufi brotherhood who died during a flash flood because her clay home basically fell to the ground upon her?

She was born in Geneva, a child conceived outside of marriage. This not only lead to a life of emotional instability, but also financial instability because she could not gain access to her inheritance. She was a very smart woman, multilingual, and enjoyed spiritual study with her father. They poured over the Koran together and had lively discussion about what they read.

Her choosing to dress as a man started as a young age, primarily because she knew men had more freedom than women. She could move about freely as a man. She could travel alone. When her brother joined the French Foreign legion and moved to his post in Algeria, Isabelle and her mother joined him. What no one could have known is not only would Isabelle convert to Islam and become a part of a Sufi Brotherhood, she became known as Si Mahmoud Essadi and fought against the foreign legion. She is reported to have used hashish and before her marriage she enjoyed a lusty and fulfilling sex life with a variety of men.

She wrote of herself,

As a nomad who has no country besides Islam and neither family nor close friends, I shall wend my way through life until it is time for everlasting sleep inside the grave.

A poem I’ve kept for years, clipped from a feminist newspaper, now yellowed but still true

Friends Would
by Meg Brigantine

rather she cut
her tendons
the shambling stoop
that was her before this

they would rather
silence her mid-speech
what she speaks of
wimmin are forbidden to speak of

they would prefer
to strike her blind
than see what she has become

her friends would rather
go to the movies
than come over for tea

she laced up her shoes
for action
gained second sight
tore the gag from her brain
hurdled the wall
& lived
as if her life depended on it.

I think I found this in the Minneapolis wimmin’s paper Lesbian Insider/Insighter/Inciter. I hear those last four lines in my head every time I am in a space where I have to muster my the core of my courage.

classics found on a dusty bookshelf – “i have a good digestion and there is a god after all”

the robin and the worm

a robin said to an
angleworm as he ate him
i am sorry but a bird
has to live somehow the
worm being slow witted could
not gather his
dissent into a wise crack
and retort he was
effectually swallowed
before he could turn
a phrase
by the time he had
reflected long enough
to say but why must a
bird live
he felt the beginnings
of a gradual change
invading him
some new and disintegrating
was stealing along him
from his positive
to his negative pole
and he did not have
the mental stamina
of a jonah to resist the
process of assimilation
which comes like a thief
in the night
demons and fishhooks
he exclaimed
i am losing my personal
identity as a worm
my individuality
is melting away from me
odds craw i am becoming
part and parcel of
this bloody robin
so help me i am thinking
like a robin and not
like a worm any
longer yes yes i even
find myself agreeing
that a robin must live
i still do not
understand with my mentality
why a robin must live
and yet i swoon into a
condition of belief
yes yes by heck that is
my dogma and i shout it a
robin must live
amen said a beetle who had
preceded him into the
interior that is the way i
feel myself is it not
wonderful when one arrives
at the place
where he can give up his
ambitions and resignedly
nay even with gladness
recognize that it is a far
far better thing to be
merged harmoniously
in the cosmic all
and this comfortable situation
in his midst
so affected the marauding
robin that he perched
upon a blooming twig
and sang until the
blossoms shook with ecstasy
he sang
i have a good digestion
and there is a god after all
which i was wicked
enough to doubt
yesterday when it rained
breakfast breakfast
i am full of breakfast
and they are at breakfast
in heaven
they breakfast in heaven
all is well with the world
so intent was this pious and
murderous robin
on his own sweet song
that he did not notice
mehitabel the cat
sneaking toward him
she pounced just as he
had extended his larynx
in a melodious burst of
thanksgiving and
he went the way of all
flesh fish and good red herring
a ha purred mehitabel
licking the last
feather from her whiskers
was not that a beautiful
song he was singing
just before i took him to
my bosom
they breakfast in heaven
all s well with the world
how true that is
and even yet his song
echoes in the haunted
woodland of my midriff
peace and joy in the world
and over all the
provident skies
how beautiful is the universe
when something digestible meets
with an eager digestion
how sweet the embrace
when atom rushes to the arms
of waiting atom
and they dance together
skimming with fairy feet
along a tide of gastric juices
oh feline cosmos you were
made for cats
and in the spring
old cosmic thing
i dine and dance with you
i shall creep through
yonder tall grass
to see if peradventure
some silly fledgling thrushes
newly from the nest
be not floundering therein
i have a gusto this
morning i have a hunger
i have a yearning to hear
from my stomach
further music in accord with
the mystic chanting
of the spheres of the stars that
sang together in the dawn of
creation prophesying food
for me i have a faith
that providence has hidden for me
in yonder tall grass
still more
ornithological delicatessen
oh gayly let me strangle
what is gayly given
well well boss there is
something to be said
for the lyric and imperial
believe that everything is for
you until you discover
that you are for it
sing your faith in what you
get to eat right up to the
minute you are eaten
for you are going
to be eaten
will the orchestra please
strike up that old
tutankhamen jazz while i dance
a few steps i learnt from an
egyptian scarab and some day i
will narrate to you the most
merry light headed wheeze
that the skull of yorick put
across in answer to the
melancholy of the dane and also
what the ghost of
hamlet s father replied to the skull
not forgetting the worm that
wriggled across one of the picks
the grave diggers had left behind
for the worm listened and winked
at horatio while the skull and the
ghost and prince talked
saying there are more things
twixt the vermiform appendix
and nirvana than are dreamt of
in thy philosophy horatio
fol de riddle fol de rol
must every parrot be a poll

“How a Poem Means” class takes on Terrance Hayes’ “Sonnet”

Last night in my workshop “The Art of Craft” we began our discussion about how a poem means. Not “what it means,” but how poems work, how to pay attention to music, rhythm, sound, repetition, what happens at the end of lines, tenor, tone, and all such matters. The first poem we took on was Martín Espada’s “Alabanza,” and we talked our way through it for a good long while. (Watch Martín read it if you don’t know it already!)

Next we took on the Terrance Hayes’ poem “Sonnet”:

Terrance Hayes

We sliced the watermelon into smiles.
We sliced the watermelon into smiles.
We sliced the watermelon into smiles.
We sliced the watermelon into smiles.

We sliced the watermelon into smiles.
We sliced the watermelon into smiles.
We sliced the watermelon into smiles.
We sliced the watermelon into smiles.

We sliced the watermelon into smiles.
We sliced the watermelon into smiles.
We sliced the watermelon into smiles.
We sliced the watermelon into smiles.

We sliced the watermelon into smiles.
We sliced the watermelon into smiles.

Everyone read it aloud (which you should do, too, because the experience of reading the poem out loud is very different than having your eyes glance over it!). A few things about the poem we discovered:

1. By the time you are done reading the same line 14 times, you are SO over smiling. Which is, of course, one of the meanings of the poem.

2. Each line jerks you back and forth between two pairs of sounds, “we” and “watermelon” and “sliced” and “smiles.”

3. The similarity in sounds between “sliced” and “smiles” makes the latter seem not so much smiley at all.

4. The separation of the first twelve lines into 3 stanzas creates cycles of repetition, which both pace the poem and trap you in the nearly-never-ending cycles. And the last two lines, home of the volta in a traditional sonnet, promise a change or resolution. But this doesn’t happen in the words or sounds of the lines, which stay in the same, but in the finality of them. After the reading the line in sets of four, reading it only twice stops you, breaks the pattern, and that breaking IS the resolution of the poem. (or, as Ezra said, “We are SO not slicing watermelons and smiling anymore).

5. Watermelons are the physical and emotional center of the poem. If the slicing and smiling are over by the end, the softer sounds of the “we” and “watermelon” remain hanging in our ears.

6. And this (thanks, MJ!) which I had NEVER seen in the poem: the sounds of the word “sonnet” appear in order across each line. S in slice, ON in watermelon, T in into. Hayes is clearly using the sonnet form, by breaking it, to make a new kind of meaning, but at the same time harnessing the power of the form. Wow.

Next week we take on two different villanelles will discussing how syntax and voice create the spine and joints of a poem. There’s still space in the class if you want to join in! Register here: The Art of Craft Series