Mar 122012
 

John B. Lee is Poet Laureate of Norfolk County on the north shore of Lake Erie where I grew up on a tobacco farm smack in the middle of a geologic formation called the Norfolk Sand Plain. He lives in Port Dover, home of the peculiar fresh water fishing boat called the turtle back (photos provided upon request), also Fred Eaglesmith, the singer, and a bar called The Brig in the basement of which several American interlopers were held captive during the War of 1812 (not an unpleasant prison experience, one imagines, as these things go). John is an old friend and a prolific author of more than 60 books. These poems are part of a forthcoming collection entitled Let Us Be Silent Here (Sanbun Publishers, New Delhi, India, 2012). The poems were translated into Spanish by Manuel de Jesus Velázquez Léon for a recent reading John gave in Havana, Cuba, and we also have, here, the Spanish versions. But the poems themselves are based on a trip John made to the Holy Land and his reading of Palestinian and Israeli poets. This is a vast message loop–Canada, Israel, India and Cuba–something to get your minds around as you read these poems. But the poems themselves are gorgeous meditations on that thorny, dry land, birthplace of great world religions, refuge for the Holocaust remnant, where the geology is a book of prayer and story blossoms in the ruins.

this is the closest I will ever come
to seeing
through the eyes
of the Messiah
this mask of stars
this moon

John has contributed to Numéro Cinq twice before. See those earlier poems here and here.

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Book cover detail from The Rooftop, a painting by Israeli poet/artist Helen Bar-Lev

 

 

Linen and Wool

 a poem in honour of Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish[1][2]

“you must not wear a garment woven from linen and wool”  — Deuteronomy

I have retted the linen
and carded the wool
of two voices
and my hands are rich
and smooth
with the lanolin
of my work
anointed by the silkening
oil of the seed of the field

and from these
I have fashioned
a garment of sky
for the mind and the soul
imaginary blue
haunted by the absent dazzle
of stars in the dark

and next to my skin
I fasten a shirt of earth
where the heart
falls in green
through green
like the crimson drop
of a peach hooked high
in the sun
let loose from the pull
of a ripening stem
and it plunges and subsides
plunges and subsides
like the soften gone still
of fruit on a bruise

it releases its colour from form
like the fading
of rain on damp loam

this gloaming
inclusion of grey

this wearing away
of the tattering light

this dew
on a web in the heat

unwinding a glistening thought

old memories dream
in dry land

when the water’s the past
in a well

one thirst will empty the cup

another’s a cup
we must fill

 

 

Lino y lana

un poema en honor al poeta israelí Yehuda Amichai y al poeta palestino MahmoudDarwish[1][2]

“No usarás ropas tejidas de lino y lana” — Deuteronomio

He humedecido el lino
y cardado la lana
de dos voces
y mis manos se han vueltofértiles
y suaves
con la lanolina
de mi trabajo
ungidas por el sedoso
aceite de la simiente del campo

y de estas
he confeccionado
un vestido celeste
para la mente y el alma
azul imaginario
hechizado por el resplandor ausente
de las estrellas en la oscuridad

y cerca de mi piel
me abrocho una camisa de tierra
donde el corazón
cae en el verde
a través del verde
como una gota carmesí
de un durazno suspendido alto
en el sol
soltado del tirón
de un tallo que madura
y se desploma y decae
se desploma y decae
como la suavidad aquietada
de la fruta en el cardenal

derrama su color desde la forma
como el desvanecimiento
de la lluvia en la arcilla húmeda

esta inclusión de
gris crepuscular

este desgastarse
de la luz desgarrada

este rocío
en la telaraña del calor

desdoblando un pensamiento resplandeciente

sueño de viejas memorias
en la tierra reseca

cuando el agua es el pasado
en un pozo

una voluntad sedienta vacía la copa

es la copa de otro la
que hemos de llenar

 

 

A Sadder Music: meditation on YadVashem

“the sad music of humanity”
—William Wordsworth

I have entered into this place
of the lost
lost elders, lost children of Europe
with its death-grey
housefly-grey   burnt-ash grey
crematorium
what the cruel past calls
historical
once horror beat in the breast
like a great-winged bird
where its flame-shadow
fell in the blood
and its season’s plunge
was a sea of fire

how is it that we set the lists
in volumes tall as life
and learn where quiet ladders lean
to say the darkness in the names
that burn the pages through
with ink gone into smoke—sing
softly, softly, let’s be silent here—

oh reverent grief
that war is done
those lives
have lined the earth with bones
like rootwork of a thousand-thousand-thousand
wind-broken trees

the soul of man
grimes over
like a lamp of oil
and shame shines through
the tainted light we touch

 

 

Una música más triste: meditaciones sobre YadVashem

“La triste música de la humanidad”
—William Wordsworth

He entrado a este lugar
de los perdidos
los ancianos perdidos, los perdidos hijos de Europa
con su crematorio
gris como la muerte
gris como las moscas   gris de cenizas quemadas
lo que el pasado cruel llama
histórico
una vez que el horror golpeó en el pecho
como un gigantesco pájaro alado
donde su sombra flameada
cayó en la sangre
y el desplome de su época
fue un mar de fuego

como es que fijamos el listado
en volúmenes tan altos como la vida
y comprendemos donde se apoyan las quietas escaleras
para decir la oscuridad en nombres
que queman a través de las páginas
con tinta convertida en humo—cantar
suavemente, suavemente, hagamos silencio aquí

oh la aflicción reverente
por la guerra que ha acabado
esas vidas
han cubierto la tierra de huesos
como el trabajo de raíces de mil millares de millares de
árboles fertilizados por el viento

el alma del hombre
se enturbia toda
como una lámpara de aceite
y la vergüenza resplandece a través de
la luz mancillada que tocamos

 

 

Night Sky Over Jerusalem

this is the closest I will ever come
to seeing
through the eyes
of the Messiah
this mask of stars
this moon
pale as a sickly child
and in the daylight
blue heaven blooms
with those invisible
constellations
subsumed by the sun

my son asks
“why did Christ make no mention
of dinosaurs?”
American critic Harold Bloom
says, “Christ was a mortal
god—and we humans
are immortal animals …”
one Toronto theologian suggests
“Christ’s life is the same
as the life of ancient
Egyptian god Horace
and the Beatitudes are
plagiarized
from mythologies
far older
than the gospels”and I
looking up at Cassiopeia,  at
Orion’s belt
at the inconstant drift of the milky way
with my contemporary
contemplation
of this much-storied universe

consider Aristotle, Copernicus
Galileo, Newton, Einstein
Hawkins, the resonant
music of cosmic strings
living here in these entropics
on this event horizon
my life like a snowflake
falling onto the surface
of a great water
or an ember
briefly breath-crimson in the grey glow
of a larger ash

pull the bow on the arrow of time
from nock to tip
at this motionless moment
the quiver is full
as a clutch of ornamental reeds
and the one wound I make is doubt
and the other
pure belief, and I feel
in the presence of placeless place
and in the absence of timeless time
a common faith
in the sorrowful joy
of letting the arrow      sing

 

 

El cielo nocturno sobre Jerusalén

esto es lo más cerca que alguna vez estaré
de ver
a través de los ojos
del Mesías
esta máscara de estrellas
esta luna
pálida como un niño macilento
y a la luz del día
el cielo azul florece
con esas constelaciones
invisibles
subsumidas por el sol

mi hijo pregunta
“¿por qué Cristo no mencionó
a los dinosaurios?”
el crítico americano Harold Bloom
dice, “Cristo era un dios
mortal—y nosotros los humanos
somos animales inmortales…”
un teólogo de Toronto sugiere
“la vida de Cristo es igual a
la vida del antiguo
dios egipcio Horacio
y las Beatitudes han sido
plagiadas
de mitologías
mucho más antiguas
que los evangelios”
y yo
mirando a Casiopea, al
cinturón de Orión
y la deriva inconstante de la vía láctea
con mi contemplación
contemporánea
de este universo tan celebrado por la historia

considero a Aristóteles, Copérnico
Galileo, Newton, Einstein
Hawkins, la música resonante
de las cuerdas cósmicas
viviendo ahí en los entrópicos
sobre este evento de horizonte
mi vida como un copo de nieve
cayendo hacia la superficie
de un agua magna
o una pavesa
brevemente alentada hasta el carmesí en el fulgor gris
de una ceniza más vasta

tiro del arco en la flecha del tiempo
desde la muesca hasta la punta
en este momento detenido
el carcaj está lleno
como un puñado de cañas ornamentales
y la única herida que hago es dudar
y la otra
creencia pura, y siento
en la presencia del lugar sin lugares
y en la ausencia del tiempo sin tiempo
una fe común
en el júbilo triste
de dejar a la flecha    cantar

 

 

In the City of Megiddo

 “in the city you didn’t find the city”
—Mahmoud Darwish from “Hoopoe”
 

I stand in the slipping heap
on the rocky berm
of a seven-thousand
year old excavation
and evidence is everywhere
that we vanish when we die
as in ashes
as in dust
on the sun-blackened stone
not one scrap
of bone, nor tool
to thrill the tell
the shovel turns
its voice on basalt
broken from a broken wall
imagine here
a house, and here        a well
wherein the water’s ghost
descends
beyond the darkest dark
to dry the falling cup

and yet, see here
they lived—
these ancient people
of a former time

they loved and thrived
and bore their children
out of hope
they worked the fields
and flailed the grain       and died
to keep their store
as heroes die and die again
in endless war

the sun
improves my shadow
with a sharp-edged light
what drums I hear
are of my living heart
please take my word
that I was here
and thought of you
as dry wells
think on rain

 

 

En la ciudad de Megiddo

“en la ciudad no encontraste la ciudad”
—Mahmoud Darwish de “Hoopoe”

estoy parado en el cúmulo resbaloso
sobre el borde rocoso
de una excavación de
siete mil años de antigüedad
y las evidencias están por todas partes
de que nos desvanecemos al morir
bien en cenizas
bien en polvo
sobre la roca ennegrecida por el sol
ningún pedacito
de hueso, ni de utensilios
que haga el relato emocionante
la pala devuelve
su voz sobre el basalto
roto de una rota pared
imaginen aquí
una casa, y aquí    un pozo
en el que el fantasma del agua
desciende
más allá de la oscuridad más oscura
para enjugar la copa que cae

y sin embargo, miren aquí
vivieron ellos—
estos antiguos
de un tiempo remoto

amaron y prosperaron
y parieron a sus hijos
desde la esperanza
trabajaron los campos
trillaron el grano    y murieron
por mantener sus provisiones
como héroes murieron y murieron otra vez
en una guerra sin final

el sol
perfecciona mi sombra
con una luz afilada
los tambores que escucho
son los de mi corazón viviente
por favor reciban mis palabras
de que estuve aquí
y pensé en ustedes
como los pozos secos
piensan en la lluvia

 —John B. Lee & Dr. Manuel de Jesus Velázquez Léon

——————————————————-

John B. Lee is the author of over sixty published books.  His most recent book, Let Us Be Silent Here, is forthcoming from Sanbun Publishers in New Delhi, India.  He is currently working on a memoir of his life in hockey. Under the working title, You Can Always Eat the Dogs: the hockeyness of ordinary men, it is forthcoming from Black Moss Press in the summer/fall of 2012.  Inducted as Poet Laureate of the city of Brantford in perpetuity, he was also recently appointed Poet Laureate of Norfolk County where he now lives in Port Dover, a fishing town located on the south coast of Lake Erie.  A recipient of over seventy prestigious international awards for his writing, the poems taken from Let Us Be Silent Here, were inspired by an eighteen day journey through Israel and Jordan.  He and Manuel have collaborated on translations on several occasions, the most substantial project being Sweet Cuba, a bilingual anthology of Cuban poetry in original Spanish with English translations.

Manuel de Jesus Velázquez Léon is a professor at University of Hoguin.  A co-founder of the Canada Cuba Literary Alliance, he is editor-in-chief of the bilingual literary journal, The Ambassador.  He and John B. Lee collaborated on the 360-page bilingual anthology Sweet Cuba: The Building of a Poetic Tradition: 1608-1958, (Hidden Brook Press, 2010).  Sweet Cuba has been called “the most significant book of translated Cuban poetry ever published.”  He lives in Holguin, Cuba, with his wife and their young son and is the publisher of Sand Crab books which recently printed a bilingiual editon of Saskatchewan Poet Laureate Glen Sorestad’s book, A Thief of Impeccable Taste.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. … the poetry of Yehuda Amachai is a challenge to me, because we write about the same place.  … so we have a competition: who is the owner of the language of this land?  Who loves it more? Who writes it better?  — Mahmoud Darwish, Palestinian
  2. “the linsey-woolsey of our being together…”  is  from a poem by Jehuda Amichai inspired by the concept of ‘shatnez’
  3. … la poesía de YehudaAmachai es un reto para mí, porque escribimos acerca del mismo lugar. …así que tenemos una competencia: ¿quién es el dueño de la lengua de esta tierra? ¿Quién la quiere más? ¿Quién escribe acerca de ella major? — Mahmoud Darwish, palestino
  4. “la tela de dril de estar juntos…”  — de un poema de JehudaAmichai inspirado por el concepto de ‘shatnez’

  3 Responses to “Let Us Be Silent Here: Poems in English and Spanish — John B. Lee/Manuel de Jesus Velázquez Léon”

  1. I am stirred by Linen and Wool. And love its translation as Lino y Lana.

  2. Great work, a great poet.

  3. A very fine group of poems, amplified by the aspect of translation. That singing arrow and the breadth and depth of tangled bones sure stick to the ribs. Exceptionally vivid, thank you.

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