First Published Translation

“…I’m sure it was a noble, / heavenly poet / heart made mature / by shadow and science.”

-Antonio Machado, “The Water Wheel”

By the time you read this, I will have just landed in London to begin a new chapter in my life. It seems fitting, as a celebration of my Americanness in the broadest sense of that word, that A River & Sound Review today published my new translation of Antonio Machado’s “The Water Wheel.” Like Umberto Saba’s “The Goat,” this poem takes up the sorrow of a domesticated animal as its topic.

I am sure that, if he were still alive, my poet-friend Sandford Lyne would have been pleased to hear this news. His poem “Machado, Lorca, Neruda, Jiménez” captures the sense of respect we both felt for the great Spanish-language poets. It took many years of writing my own poems in English for me to realize that I could combine my love of poetry with my knowledge of the Spanish language to bring new understanding of these poems to myself and others through translation.


Post-Postmodernism and Hope

“Every evening / words / — not stars — light the sky. // No rest in life / like life itself.”

 — Umberto Saba, “Three Cities,” trans. Stephen Sartarelli

“I hear that the axe has flowered, / I hear that the place can’t be named, // I hear that the bread which looks at him / heals the hanged man, / the bread baked for him by his wife, // I hear that they call life / our only refuge.”

 — Paul Celan, “I Hear That The Axe Has Flowered,” trans. Michael Hamburger


I find myself drawn to poets who survived The Second World War. This, in combination with frequently watching the remarkable BBC series Foyle’s War in the evening, as well as, on a more personal note, the recent passing of my wife’s uncle, Sven — a Marine who was at Normandy, and a man of whom I was fond — has got me thinking about the profound and continuing impact of WWII. Even as Czeslaw Milosz says that Communism was the only possible response to the atrocities of the Industrial Revolution, so, too, it occurs to me that Postmodernism may well be a kind of understandable, almost logical response to the atrocities of WWII.

Part of my thinking has been fueled by researching Seamus Heaney, including a number of essays in The Art Of Seamus Heaney wherein various critics attempt to place him, as an accessible, intelligent, lyric poet, within the context of the Twentieth century, and the decline of centrality, gentility, and structure. These abstract thoughts have gained specificity through reading selected works of Paul Celan and Umberto Saba. Both men, in the face of profoundly difficult personal circumstances, heightened their attention to language in their poems. Yet in the case of Celan, the attention presses ever more inward, into a symbolic and even cryptogrammic relationship to German; whereas with Saba, his Italian becomes more specific and spare in a way that promotes universal resonance.
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Umberto Saba’s Bleat

So much of contemporary poetry seems to be a reaction against sentimentality and self-aggrandizement. To this end, many poets seem to be attempting to remove themselves as a direct presence in their poems. Persona poetry is one device by which an interplay of consciousness can exist without the complications of the troublesome “I.” Yet without the poet in the poem, so many poems of consummate craft fall short of the ultimate aim — to touch on the human condition in a way that transcends intellectual tinkering.

Even as Adrienne Rich speaks of “a permeable membrane between art and society,” so, too, does a permeable membrane exist between the inner and outer realities of the poet. Expressing this interplay effectively requires not only skill and sensitivity, but self-awareness.

Consider the following translation (mine) of Umberto Saba’s “The Goat”:

I was speaking to a goat.
She was alone in the field, tied up.
Sated with grass, wet
with rain, she was bleating.

That selfsame bleat was brother
to my own pain. And I replied, at first
in jest, then because pain is eternal,
a constant voice.
This voice sounded
in the groan of a lonely goat.

In a goat with a Semitic face,
a sound to represent all other woes,
all other life.

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