Saturday, August 31, 2013

Seamus Heaney 1939-2013

Across that strand of ours the cattle graze
Up to their bellies in an early mist
And now they turn their unbewildered gaze
To where we work our way through squeaking sedge
Drowning in dew. Like a dull blade with its edge
Honed bright, Lough Beg half shines under the haze.
I turn because the sweeping of your feet
Has stopped behind me, to find you on your knees
With blood and roadside muck in your hair and eyes,
Then kneel in front of you in brimming grass
And gather up cold handfuls of the dew
To wash you, cousin. I dab you clean with moss
Fine as the drizzle out of a low cloud.
I lift you under the arms and lay you flat.
With rushes that shoot green again, I plait
Green scapulars to wear over your shroud.

From "The Strand at Lough Beg"

Jacket photo by Virginia Schendler, from Selected Poems 1966-1987

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Cortázar: Of piantados and idos

Julio Cortázar's essay, "Del gesto que consiste en ponerse el dedo índice en la sien y moverlo como quien atornilla y destornilla," the title of which translates as something like "On the Gesture that Consists of Placing One's Index Finger to One's Forehead and Moving It Like Someone Screwing and Unscrewing," appears in the second volume of his collection La vuelta al día en ochenta mundos. Being a bit culture- and language-specific, the piece hasn't (as far as I can tell) been translated into English, and isn't included in the North Point Press volume (translated by Thomas Christensen) entitled Around the Day in Eighty Worlds, which gathers other pieces from La vuelta al día as well as from another Cortázar miscellany, Último Round.

The essay is dedicated to a consideration — in fact, a celebration — of a variety of eccentric characters, including such key figures in the Cortázar universe as the French postman Ferdinand Cheval, a folk architect who constructed a homemade edifice using the stones that he gathered on his daily rounds; Ceferino Piriz, the utopian whose bizarre schemes were incorporated into the pages of Hopscotch; and the pseudonymous poet El Santo, who versified Argentine history in an epic composed of hundreds or perhaps even thousands of unbearably pedestrian lines.

One section of the essay, entitled "Los piantados y los idos," discusses some of the terminology that Argentines employ to describe people who are what we would in English might call "eccentric," or "crazy," or just plain "nuts." What follows is a brief excerpt; rather than try to find English equivalents for some things, I have left them in the original. (This translation could no doubt be improved, so corrections are welcome.)
The word piantado is one of the cultural contributions of the Río de la Plata; readers north of the 32nd parallel will note that it derives from piantare, "to scram" in Italian, a usage illustrated by the sonorous tango where one can also hear the sound of broken chains: Pianté de la noria... ¡se fue mi mujer!*

Note that someone who goes [va] is ido [gone], a word that in proper Spanish means chiflado [crazy]; in giving more importance to and imposing the piantado in detriment to the ido, we Argentines reiterate one of our most cherished aspirations, which, as everyone knows, is to replace a Spanish word with an Italian one whenever possible and above all when it isn't. I, for example, was an ido when I was very small, but around the age of twelve someone referred to me as a piantado and my family adopted the neologism in accordance with the aforementioned sound principle. Naturally the interior of the country is less exposed to these terminological substitutions, and it is fair to say that if the capital can boast of a commendable percentage of piantados, our provinces on the other hand remain full of idos; the linguistic quarrel has no importance in the face of the hope that the total of idos and piantados may someday manage to overcome the influence of the cuerdos [sane people, squares], of whom we've had it up the you know where...

I always take piantados very seriously because they represent the heteroclite among the normal patterns, the earth of the salt, the humus of the future that is incorporated mysteriously into that crystalline substance composed of sodium chloride, usually of a white color and characteristic acrid taste, which is very useful for soups and stews but which has something about it of the sterile, the boring, the Valley of Death.
* "Hear the sound of broken chains" alludes to a line from the first stanza of the national anthem of Argentina: Oíd el ruido de rotas cadenas. The quotation from the tango "Victoria" ("Victory") means, roughly, "I have escaped my yoke... My woman has gone!"

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Living the disaster

Takashi Sasaki is a retired professor specializing in Spanish philosophy, with a number of translations into Japanese of the works of Unamuno and Ortega y Gasset to his credit. For a number of years, he has been blogging in Japanese under the nom de plume of Fuji Teivō (derived from the Spanish fugitivo, "fugitive"), and his posts have been collected in a series self-published books under the title Monodialogues (the word is borrowed from Unamuno). On March 11, 2011, he was at home where he lives in the city of Minamisōma in the prefecture of Fukushima, when the region was struck in quick succession by a severe earthquake, a massive tsunami, and the consequent nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Fukushima: Living the Disaster, which thus far has been issued in Japanese, Spnaish, and a few other languages but not apparently in English, reprints the blog posts he wrote in the aftermath of those events. The handsomely produced edition shown above, the only one in a language I can read, was issued by the Spanish publishing company Satori Ediciones, which specializes in books about Japan.

The book begins with a post on March 10, the eve of the earthquake, and then, except for the text of a brief note hand-written on the 12th, breaks off until the 17th, when Sasaki was able to resolve some computer issues and resume blogging. By then, a great deal had transpired, but one of the curious things about this book is that Sasaki has relatively little to say about the tsunami, which devastated large parts of Minamisōma and claimed many lives there, and this may be due in part to the fact that he apparently lives a few miles inland from the coast. The book isn't really about the chain of events that made up the disaster, but about living through the aftermath, which of course was itself a kind of ongoing catastrophe (and still is) because of contamination from the damaged power plant. Rather than an eyewitness chronicle (though it is that to some extent as well), it is a moral examination centered around two questions: how the nation that had suffered the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki came to jeopardize the safety of its people by promoting nuclear power in one of the most seismically active regions on Earth, and how one chooses to act in the face of catastrophe.

Sasaki, though he makes no pretense of being an expert on nuclear energy, has some understandably scathing things to say about the actions of various Japanese politicians, scientists, and corporations both before and after the crisis. But as a student of philosophy, he also rigorously examines his own actions, and that examination is made more pertinent by his own particular circumstances.

At the time of the disaster, Sasaki, who is in his seventies, was living with his wife, who suffers from advanced dementia, his elderly mother, his son, and his granddaughter. Though the area where he lived was designated by the Japanese government as an exclusion zone (one of several, with varying degrees of restriction) after the nuclear accident, he elected to stay put and continue to care for his wife in their home, arguing that leaving would be both cowardly and irresponsible (he alleges, and I have no reason to doubt it, that a number of elderly citizens died from the trauma of being evacuated). Though the remainder of the family eventually relocated, he and Yoshiko stayed, and much of the book amounts to a chronicle of their efforts — and the town's efforts — to regain something approaching normal life. He is quite blunt about the frustration, and often fury, he feels in the face of what he sees as the duplicity and lack of humanity of various elected officials, bureaucrats, and corporate employees who stand in the way of that objective. When the book ends, in July 2011, he and Yoshiko are still at home, he continues blogging, and Minamisōma is slowly making a recovery, even as its future is shadowed by radioactive contamination and the still unstable state of the damaged nuclear reactors.

A final side-note: there is much wringing of hands at present about the future of the publishing business, and of the printed book. Fukushima: vivir el desastre is printed on good paper in a sturdy paperback format with French flaps and a nice cover painting by the artist Eva Vázquez. From what I've seen of the company's catalog, they seem to be producing a steady stream of high-quality, carefully focused books — and this in despite a Spanish economy that has itself been little short of disastrous. Granted, in Spain, as in a number of other European countries, books tend to be held in greater esteem than in the US, but perhaps more of our domestic publishers should take note of the example.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Mary Jane (The Vulgar Boatmen)

This song began its life on the Vulgar Boatmen's 1989 debut album You and Your Sister, where it was performed as a full-tilt rocker and sung by Robert Ray. I like that version, but the heartbreaking, minimalist one above, from the band's compilation album Wide Awake, is the one that gets under my skin. Here it's sung by Dale Lawrence, and accompanied starkly by guitar, organ, and Kathy Kolata on viola. Ray and Lawrence are the songwriters.

Wide Awake was issued in 2003 by No Nostalgia Records, the Boatmen's own label, which sadly no longer seems to exist, and the CD also seems to be unavailable,* but downloads are available in the usual places. This band deserves better than the obscurity that largely seems to be its fate.

* As is the above video, as of 2017.

Sunday, August 11, 2013


He sought out inconspicuous things that could be only be found by those who already knew that they might be there. He learned that in early spring, if you looked carefully, where the back roads wound through woods, the little flowers of hepatica, unfolding from delicate stems, might be discovered rising a few tentative inches above the remains of last year's fallen leaves, barely visible even to those who passed that way on foot. In the weeks to come they would be joined by anemone and bloodroot, Dutchman's-breeches and trillium, Jack-in-the-pulpit and columbine and dog's-tooth violet, all of them hidden away on shadowy slopes or at the edges of swamps and streams. There was an old cart path, long disused, that ran for a mile or so through the deepest woods, past great outcroppings of rock, and if you were lucky and knew where to look you might come across lady's-slippers, sturdy yellow or pink orchids, sprouting up in tiny colonies here and there, just a few, concealed by boulders and brush until you were almost upon them. Where the brush had been cleared and the canopy opened to let in the full strength of the sun, the colonies disappeared, and it was said that the plants were impossible to cultivate, no matter how hard you tried.

If you crouched down at the base of beech trees, whose giant, smooth trunks, unless they were very well concealed, were invariably scarred with the initials of putative or intended couples, you could often find Indian-pipes, pale, waxy saprophytes that had no chlorophyll of their own and seemed relics of a radically different world. Unassertive and opaque, they did no harm and offered nothing. On the trees and the forest floor there were mushrooms in all sizes and shapes. He knew none of their names nor which would be infallibly fatal if eaten, and so he left them all alone.

On some afternoons, when he climbed to an elevated clearing surrounded by decaying paper birches, he knelt down on the moss that covered the weathered stone and found the red-capped stalks of the lichen they called British soldiers.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Death of a Translator

Dora Knowlton Ranous's English version of Flaubert's L'Éducation sentimentale doesn't have much to recommend it (other than the magnificent daguerrotype on the cover of this New Directions reprint), but it did make me curious to learn more about its background, since it was the edition through which, years ago, I first encountered Flaubert. The New Directions edition credits it, obscurely, and, as it turns out, inaccurately, as the "Brentano translation, edited by Dora Knowles [sic] Ranous," and in fact the Brentano's bookstore in New York did issue the same text in 1922, but by then Ranous had already been dead for six years (more on that below). The version she "edited" apparently originated in the first decade of the 20th century, and the extent to which she was responsible for the actual work of translation is unclear. According to Rossiter Johnson's Dora Knowlton Ranous, Author — Editor — Translator: A Simple Record of a Noble Life,
In 1903 she was engaged to assist Robert Arnot, a learned Oxonian, in editing sets of books for the subscription business of M. Walter Dunne. They thus prepared the works of Benjamin Disraeli in twenty volumes, those of Guy de Maupassant in fifteen volumes, and those of Gustave Flaubert in ten volumes. By far the larger number of translators, while understanding the foreign language sufficiently, are defective as to any mastery of idiomatic and graceful English; and a great part of the work performed by Mrs. Ranous consisted in correcting existing translations so as to supply that quality and increase the readableness of the books. Besides this, she read all the proofs and was expert in managing the "make-up."
Johnson* (who was a collaborator with Ranous on other projects) also tells us that "in 1909-10 Mrs. Ranous was with the Pearson Publishing Company and edited sets of Flaubert and Maupassant, which carry her name on the titlepage." The Brentano's text may have been based on either the Dunne edition or the one created for Pearson (if indeed they were not identical). Whether it was Ranous or another hand who, in effect, vandalized Flaubert's text by removing dozens of brilliant descriptive passages, is unclear; publishers in that era were not as scrupulous about respecting the integrity of an author's work as we would, perhaps naively, like to think that they are now.

Be that as it may, Ranous (above), who was born in Ashfield, Massachusetts in 1859**, appears to have been an extraordinary woman in many respects, and Johnson's brief memoir, published in 1916 in a limited edition by the Publishers Printing Company, is a moving tribute. After working for many years as a writer, editor, and translator (and following an earlier career on the stage***), Ranous, by now a widow, suffered a stroke in December 1914, and another the following year. Her health and — perhaps most crucially — her sight declined, and in January 1916 she gassed herself, leaving behind a despondent note in which she referred to the "blackest misery" that was overcoming her. In addition to Johnson's memoir, details can be found in The Bookseller, Newsdealer and Stationer for February 1, 1916, and the Meriden Morning Record for January 20, 1916.

* An active opponent of women's suffrage, he wrote a pamphlet entitled Why Women Do Not Want the Ballot.

** Her grandfather Dr. Charles Knowlton, a noted freethinker, was an early advocate of birth control. Rossiter Johnson dryly notes that the doctor's daring Fruits of Philosophy "subjected him to intemperate criticism from many strictly conventional thinkers."

*** Dora Knowlton Ranous's youthful adventures in Augustin Daly's theatre company were recounted, decades later, in an anonymously published memoir, Diary of a Daly Débutante. A subsequent tour with a traveling company brought her to Cincinnati, where she mounted a live elephant in an adaptation of Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days.

Sunday, August 04, 2013


Every autumn the fire department put on a turkey shoot as a fund raiser. No turkeys were involved — or rather there were turkeys but they were already firmly dead, frozen solid, and stowed in the back of the rescue truck. Instead, the men paid a dollar, lined up, and took turns firing shotguns at a beer coaster attached to the end of a wooden arm. As soon as a shot was fired, the arm would be swiveled away behind a protective barrier, and a man hidden from sight would set a fresh target into place. The coasters were marked with numbers, and once all of the shooters had taken a turn the results were tallied; the contestant who had pierced his target with the greatest number of pellet holes was awarded a turkey, and another round began. There was beer in abundance, cola and hot dogs for the kids. The women, who didn't shoot, stood off to one side.

The boy had never fired a gun before, and could barely wield the heavy shotgun, even though it was the lightest gauge. The kick from the exploding shell left his shoulder sore for days. He competed three times, and never nicked the target.

Many of the men in the neighborhood were hunters, and some belonged to hunting camps upstate where plumbing wasn't part of the package. One winter a man shot a bear, brought it home, and slung it over a tree branch that overhung the road in front of his house. The schoolchildren walking down the hill to the bus stop in the morning gazed up at the icicle of frozen blood that descended from the animal's snout. Someone must have said something to the man because the bear had disappeared by the time the kids came home.

Two houses up the road lived another man and his family, three or four little kids including twins. He had poor vision and an out-of-state driver's license, and he belonged to a patriotic group that sometimes left leaflets on parked cars. It was said that he owned a mortar and had once demonstrated its use to some of the neighbors by firing a can of peas into a nearby pasture full of cows. Once some boys playing in the woods behind his house found a wooden crate with stenciled markings; it seemed to contain some kind of canisters or shells. The boys left it alone, and kept their discovery to themselves. The man dug a fallout shelter deep beneath his lawn and stocked it with provisions in case the Russians attacked. One morning the state police came, seized a quantity of firearms and materiel, and led the man away in handcuffs. A year or so later the family moved away.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Memorial Day

The children were darting in all directions, in blue Cub Scout uniforms with yellow neckerchiefs if they had them or play clothes if they didn't, giggling and hollering and playing tag in the clearing beneath the high pines, ducking behind the enormous trunks, tracing circles around the hulking clapboard frame of the community house. They had marched in the parade, following the band, and had kept as still and silent as they were capable of doing while a bugler played "Taps" and the white-gloved firemen stood crisply at attention. The brocaded flags, borne on poles by the color guard in white helmets, hung laxly, barely stirring in the diffident afternoon breeze. When the riflemen shouldered their arms and aimed into the distance, the children had plugged their ears, then gasped as each salvo of blanks echoed around their heads. The cloud of smoke soon thinned but the smell of gunpowder, acrid but alluring, continued to filter through the crowd.

Later, when the coolers were hoisted out and set down on a patch of lawn, they lined up two by two for sodas, grape or root beer or orange, fishing them out of the melting ice and waiting while the grown-ups plunged can openers through the tinplate tops. Through the triangular holes they sipped the sweet cold liquid that tasted of wounded metal and gingerly waved off the yellow jackets that hovered around their hands. Finally they lined up again for paper cups of vanilla ice cream, which they scooped out, quickly before it could melt, with little wooden spoons. Then they ran off again to play until it was time to go home.