Sunday, December 1, 1996

Letter to a bad tenant

 Dec. 1, 1996

This is one letter I regret writing, but we’ve several things to clear up before year’s end: you haven’t contacted me, so I’m sending this via your aunt, Mimi Albert, in the hopes that it will find you—since she assured me against my better judgment that you were “a most reliable and capable young woman.” You’d “leave my place cleaner than I left it.” Sadly, you didn’t come through on either account. I’d like to offer you a chance to clear up the matter so we’ll both feel better.

Justine, for you I cleaned my house, put on fresh sheets, took care of all details to ensure a smooth and pleasant stay—though I didn’t have much time to prepare for your unexpected stay. In return, you were to complete some small tasks which I documented for you: when the MBNA Visa bill arrived mid-June, you were to enclose my check for $165.47 and mail the bill (I even left stamps). You also were to pick up the mail and to water the plants. You did none of the tasks I asked you to do.

I even sent you a reminder card about the Visa bill in June. When I called you in July, you still hadn’t mailed my Visa bill. I asked you to do it ASAP. Then you asked me if you could stay at my cabin through August. I agreed, and said you were welcome to stay on through Labor Day weekend provided you pay me an additional $200 for rent. You assured me you’d do so. I even gave you an option to pay my bills which were Viacom—$25, the now outstanding Visa bill, and your phone bill ($7.75). And I said you could pay me the balance due in Sept. A pretty generous deal.

I arrived home on Sept. 13 to a dirty house and shower, filthy (new) sheets—stained with candle wax, oil and random bleach stains. (The sheets were new, used only a few times.) And you never watered my plants—at least $100 worth of plants that I bought in May, died. Both my next door neighbors Steve, and George, tried to keep my plants alive when they realized they were dying.

The thing is, most of this mishap might have been avoided if you’d only talked to them—as I was writing to them too about the plants & Visa bill. I gave you a very simple responsibility that George, Steve, Laurie (the landlady) would’ve gladly done for me. And through your negligence, you very nearly ruined my credit rating, and it cost me some begging & apologies to MBNA + $41.09 in late charges alone.

To add insult to injury, your one rent check for $200 bounced when I tried to cash it on Sept. 23rd, and you also neglected to leave me a second rent check for $200. I know that you were at my house until at least Aug. 17, because between Aug. 13 thorugh 17 you made 6 long-distance calls on MY phone. I was willing to throw in the last three weeks rent (Aug. 13 Sept 5) free. Instead, you cost me money and effort I would’ve preferred to invest elsewhere.


RENT: June 13 to July 13 $200

RENT: July 13 to Aug 17 $200

*Bounced check fee $3.

*Long distance phone bill $7.75

*Late fees on MBNA Visa $41.09

TOTAL: $451.84

I would like immediate reimbursement for last three items ($51.84) as they were unexpected out-of-pocket fees. Though I would prefer the $400 at the same time, I realize it might create a hardship for you as you’re going to school. Understand, I’m earning very little money at present, so this represents a large chunk of income denied to me, but I’m willing to work out a payment schedule on the $400 in rent you owe me: say, $100 a month beginning Jan. 1, 1997, ending April 1, 1997. I hope we can resolve this matter in a satisfactory manner as I accepted you in good faith and expect to be treated with equal respect.

P.S. You also left a blue scarf and shampoo items in the shower. Please pick them up or leave instructions before Jan. 1, as I’ll toss them out after that date.

No answer was the loud reply.

Wednesday, September 25, 1996

Letters to Frances Galloway

Frances Galloway/JLvan Schaik Publishers, S. Africa 9/25/96

Frances, I've an essay on Breyten Breytenbach & tr. (indepth w/ pix.) focus on ethics/general tr. issues & process. I just returned from A'dam—I still need to add quotes/examples on tr., or should I fax final draft ASAP? I think you'll like it.

Maureen Hurley

Frances, Did you ever receive my essay? I just got a card from Martin Mooij who received it. Said he was on his way to S. Africa. Ask him if he has any comments on my essay, or if it's ok.

I received replies from Miroslav Holub & Gert van Istendael—who offered two minor corrections: 

1. Fr Embassy in Belgium sponsored project. 
2. Breyten isn't a man w/o a country, but a French citizen. 

You may want to clarify. 

Maureen Hurley 2/5/97

Thursday, September 19, 1996

Journal fragments, Amsterdam, Brugge, Laon

Journal fragment: 19 Sept., 1996 (midnight insomnia)

Home, I am—and after a week of sunshine, I need dark glasses—unused as I am to so much concentrated light. The weather’s turning cold. Fingernail moon (and a total eclipse on the 26th—the last one of the millennium.)

Still suffering from acute jetlag & tunnel vision, disorientation by late afternoon is typical (6 PM is really 3 AM—and I wonder why I have no appetite for dinner!).

Driving is excruciating (asleep at the wheel is a reality). My cousin Dave’s having the same symptoms. We may have jumped into this culture/time zone but the bio-rhythms aren’t yet shifting. He said “I have to keep moving around, flapping my arms, just to keep awake at work.” I laughed at the idea of Dave flapping his wings in an airplane hangar with all those dismantled 747 planes.

At a lively Brazilian party in San Francisco, I made the mistake of sitting alone on the couch for a few minutes. My eyes may have been open, but that’s all. I couldn’t even speak, let alone understand the Brazilians’ Spanish (who speak with a Portuguese accent).

I drove Herman Berlandt & Verona home to Novato in Marin County, north of San Francisco, literally cross-eyed, thinking “I’ll never make it home” (an hour and a half’s drive) so I slept on their couch.

They say it takes a minimum of 1 day of suffering for each time zone. I remember how it took me weeks to recover from Russia. How long will I suffer this time? Someone said that in a Concorde jet, you travel so fast, you hypothetically arrive before you leave—earlier, that is, in New York than when one leaves Paris! Where’s Einstein when you need him?

In August, my cousin Dave Dinsmore came over to Amsterdam to visit me—he works for United Airlines—Dave, Charles McGeehan and his girlfriend Bertaijn and I went to France for a few days—

We took the coast route from Rotterdam to Zeeland islands—dunes marsh and grey sea—and the ferry at Vlissingen to Belgium. I saw the windmill and had that curious sensation of collapsed time, remembering our mad walk to the train station, wanting to visit Wim Hofman but we had so little time, having stopped overlong in Middleburg.

Dave was so amazed, we wound up staying overlong, and had to hurry to Brugge—which was even more amazing—we were so exhausted, we spent the night (in an inn) beneath the tower on the main square.

We got caught in horrible traffic in Lille—no road signs on the freeways, so we circled and circled the countryside for hours trying to avoid the toll roads and navigate our way east by following topographic clues and a certain slant of sunlight until dusk overtook us;

Lille, a real hellhole. Dunkirk ever to the west. The Battle of the Bulge was fought somewhere near here. You can still feel the ghostly reminder the blood-soaked fields at sunset when the light is right and the fog rises up like apparitions.

We wound up several times in a village where Reblais was born, Proust too. Closet hysteric Charles McGeehan forgot his passport (and his epilepsy pills) so we didn’t want to get caught up in a immigration control lines.

Dave and I, having no French money, didn’t want to take the toll roads. Asking a Frenchman directions in a village square was a farce worthy of a Monty Python comedy sketch. Only Bertaijn spoke French.

A 6-hour trip from Amsterdam to Laon took us nearly three days. Kafavy said the journey, not the destination, matters. On the way back, we stopped off in Antwerp; sat in the afternoon sun in front of that glorious Gothic cathedral quaffing strong Belgian beer. We earned the sight of spires piercing the blueness of sky.

Odd, Laon’s hill fortress Gothic cathedral has no spires, just stumps.

I was able to spend some time at a friend’s dilapidated country house in France, in a tiny hamlet of Rogny on the Abbey Road (founded by Irish monks in the Dark Ages) between Marle & Laon, in Picardy, Ainse.

Charles (Bert Schierbeek’s translator) McGeehan’s exwife/girlfriend, Bertaijn’s farmhouse needs so much work, I’d love to stay there next summer in exchange for working on it—it reminds me of my grandmother’s house where I grew up in Forest Knolls.

A certain angle of light, red roses splayed against a wall, farm machinery from another era strewn in every nook and cranny. Triggerpoints of memory.

Charles is an interesting character, a GI stationed in Germany in the late ’60s, on furlough, who never left Holland; he’d met a Dutch girl on a train: Bertaijn. Now he’s 60 years old, an expatriate, neither wholly Dutch nor American.

Bertaijn was Bert Schierbeek’s sister-in-law; we met at Bert’s funeral my first day in Holland in June. We were 500 strong, the coffin, a barge dressed in flowers and sheaves of poetry—including our own Mother Earth Journal. Bert used to spend time at Bertaijn’s farmhouse. My cousin Dave & I felt his presence there. . .

1 Dec. Sun. I’ve been reading up on my ancestors, the Celts—I discovered that Laon (where I was in France) was an Irish monastery until ca. 1500 to 1700 AD.

My favorite mystery scholar whom I know little about, a founder of many of the continental universities, was Johannes Scottus Eriugena (or John, the Irishman b. 810).

He taught 25 years at Laon and at the Paris Court School for Charles the Bald (when he wasn’t being accused of heresy—which was often—for his radical doctrine preached the concept of free will. Note: this was long before Luther was a gleam in his great-grandparents’ eyes).

Here’s a little story about Eriugena: An emperor (Charles the Bald?) made a playful pun on two similar sounding words in Latin: sottum and scottum, and asked John what’s the difference between a fool and a Scot (Irishman) to which John replied, “Only the table.” (In Latin, of course: Quid distat inter sottum et scottum?). The king must’ve been seated across from the Irishman. I bet he was flabbergasted by the answer—talk about turned tables!

But then it is said in our myths, satire was the first art form invented in Ireland. I found this gem in my friend Vinz’s flat: Adversus stultitiam pugnare nil est laboriusius nulla enim auctonate vinci fatetur nulla ratione suddetor. Which goes something like: nothing is more laborious than to fight against stupidity for it won’t bend to any authority and it won’t be convinced by any reason. He must have had some very challenging students at Laon University!

I’m in the process of applying for an Irish passport (my grandparents left before Ireland became a republic, so I’m the last generation allowed to apply for a passport.) My uncle John was in Dublin this summer and got his inside of two weeks.

The passport allows us to work in the European Community, an important consideration. I guess I’m tired of having to always struggle to find work each year, with no future, retirement, or security—nothing at all, for this is the life of an “independent contractor,” outside the system, so to speak.

This is life in America for the struggling artist. Brains and talent account for little in the land where the greenback dollar is God. I think I’d like to work at one of the American schools in Europe—Poetry, English & Art. I want a life where I can spend time in Europe, as I am always unhappy to return to the states, where I need to earn money.

My 2nd night home, I was invited to a Sebastopol Arts Council meeting for the promotion of poetry in west Sonoma County, and I felt so jaded. “Been there, done that. Got the shirt. . .” Guess I should be glad poetry is so “in” but it just makes me bad-tempered and ornery—especially when they dream big, and haven’t a clue as to what goes on in putting on reading series and workshops, wanting more volunteer labor to make it happen. . .and I’ve got that shirt too—in several sizes. (And it’s got bloody holes in it by now!).

It feels a bit like a mausoleum here, in this poetry mecca of the world (and in my cabin too). I know I’ll grow used to it soon enough. I saw a bizarre English movie, The Draughtsman’s Contract, by Peter Greenaway, the director of The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover. At the end there were all these Dutch references—someone speaking Dutch which I could almost understand. It had the peculiar effect of making me homesick for the wrong country.

They say you always leave a part of yourself behind when you travel. Does that mean there’s less of me returning home each time I go away? (Hemingway said: Travel broadens the mind. Writing broadens the ass. I write standing up.)

Before I left Amsterdam, I got into a bicycle accident. As I was returning home to Oetgenstraat from Westerpark, some idiot took a curved wrought-iron flower trellis (the arch that goes over a gate) out of the back of his double-parked car on Prinsengracht (near Utrechtstraat), and swung it in front of me, cutting my right hand.

I tried to protect my face but smashed into a parked car, bruising my left wrist when I hit the back windshield. It was either smash into a parked car or fly into the canal—which to choose? The bike’s brakes were no good on wet cobblestone & brick.

I’ve been ignoring my wrist for the past 2 months—until it hurt so badly (I was smashing a clove of garlic with the flat of a knife; the little bones in my wrist made a crunching sound like potato crisps!).

I went to the doctor who put it into a splint to rest it—a bad sprain with injury to the ulnar nerve. I’m a slow typist wearing a wrist brace which looks (& is beginning to smell) like an old gym shoe, and as winter’s chill creeps in, my bones ache; injuries don’t heal quite as fast as they used to.

Thursday, August 22, 1996



I'm mulling Bert Schierbeek's 
Een Plek, in Tirade, vol. 32,
an essay on homesickness 
and lost youth, circa 1988,
in translation. What is lost?
Besides the words themselves?
But I don't understand Dutch
so this is all supposition.
What is homesickness? 
You left that place armed 
with a wooden sword 
and a flask of cold tea. 
Armed unto the road, 
you were, it was not negotiable. 
You had to fight for it. The distance.
A boy running away from home.
This place was never the place,
but places where the heart wanders off to.
The house of language 
is the same everywhere 
said Faulkner. A prison
of hypnotic rhythms, and cadence.
I would tell you more 
but I am not authorized, and
I can't tell you where Bert's words 
leave off, and mine begin. it's like that.
There are few gods left to contend with.
Think of transposition. Bert said:
The Beat Generation had to leave,
they had to go on the open road 
looking for a piece of lost America. 
A downtrodden culture. 
Looking for their own roots 
with their heads in the clouds, 
they were homesick for a place 
they made it for us, said Miller, in Paris. 
Hell, and the front door of paradise open. 
America is a dream of displaced Europeans, 
and the curious vagueness 
of the literature of place.
What is home, asked the traveler.
I am stranded no matter where I go.
I am homesick on both sides of the world.
it's an equal-opportunuty thing.

22 Aug., 1996?  some time before Aug 24.
slightly rev. 10/28/2015

‘Bert Schierbeek Een plek’ In: Tirade. Jaargang 32 

Thursday, August 15, 1996



Persistent whispering of cottonwoods 
praying for rain in the desert, 
trick the air into believing 
the deluge has come.
This far below sea level, 
the clouds dump torrents upon us. 
The street becomes rivulets 
weeping into the River Amstel.
The cottonwoods' promise 
is answered a hundredfold 
and in biblical proportions.
But this is an alien land, 
no sundance for the tree of life 
this far north from the plains 
of the Lakota Sioux.
No sun, for that matter.

Everyone complains 
that God has stolen summer.
Perhaps it's because on this continent,
they've forgotten how to dance to the sun. 
I read that Baal was the god of rain.
I thought he was the sun god.
I am reminded that Mesopotamia
wasn't always a desert.
But something is brewing.
The dust devils are restless.
The dry wadis channel flash floods
into standing waves, cresting at 6 feet,
sweeping entire villages out to sea. 
The streets are flooded in Amsterdam,
but I am safe here, below sea level,
in the canals of Amsterdam.
I am dancing in the rain,
dancing for the sun.

15 August 1996
transcribed and slightly edited 24 Oct., 2015


While looking in his wife's mirror
I admire myself, in his eyes? Or mine?
He is a photographer who tries to capture
the intangible soul behind the eyes,
but never will. He lives in a flat
that was once a bank vault, 
with thick impenetrable walls.
It's appropriate that he lives

next door to the YabYum Bordello
I'm just a housesitter with benefits.
There must be something in the air,
for tonight, even the luna moths circle 

the light leaking from the YabYum Bordello.
I'm watching Vanya on 42nd St., again,
suffering from an acute lack of sleep,
age is a creeping mirror in the darkness.
Under the cover of night, men queue up, 

the neon sign flashes, in red and gold,
a door slams, they enter slowly
and push back the thought 
of encroaching old age, 
threading denial with their cocks. 
A momentary respite. While I
live like a nun above the rooftops,
the vault of sky, my witness.
Sometimes it seems the gables 
shift and sway liike tall ships.
Any port in a storm, says
the lonely cry of a seagull.
who patrols the YabYum sign,
with folded wings so like a wimple.

15 August 1996
transcribed and edited 24 Oct., 2015

Wednesday, July 24, 1996


                   for Dave Hanson, painter

The cats lick red currant jam
from a Delft garden of breakfast plates,
bright poppies bleed beneath tulip tongues.

Seeking freedom of the street, silly creatures                 
lavish more lives off balconies—fallen angels
catapulting toward a dazzling span of birds.

Sentenced behind white walls, I am jailer & judge.
Imprisoned by the small accusations of rain,
they’re galloping nightmares in search of wings.

On a rumpled spine and ridge of rug, damp offering
underfoot—leaf litter dragged in by the tail—
I erode their landscape with a compulsion for order.

Alít retrieves crumpled paper, playing catch
and mouse with words I cannot return to, nor answer
her queries so carefully uttered in the tongue of cat.

Worn to a shadow scrutinizing closet corners,
Isis prowls the darkness for the lost pieces of Osiris,
meows at the door, knows the missing piece is in the street.

Alít curls, comma-hard, to sleep harder still
into the action of verb, as if shelter of rib and arm
held a consummate clause of breath and repose.

Clasping paws to head in a Gordian knot,
she’s a glottal stop at the end of a sentence,
purring a closed “O” to the sins of the street

Where fragile poppies bleed into canals reflecting
a veneration of church spires injecting
a venial anodyne well below waterline.

24 July 1996
rev. 2/2001

Sunday, July 21, 1996

Memory: Robin Williams

I'm sitting on a couch in Amsterdam watching David Letterman's guest, a former love, not a lover. That came later. How I loved him, still seeing him at age 19, love without words, without conversation.

At a party in Tiburon, he sat alone by the fireplace. The others all cozied up for the night. A cast party for Twelfth Night, I believe. I was the wardrobe mistress.

Just to be close to him, I toiled over the sewing machine to make costumes. They were so good that they went on to Scotland that summer for the Shakespeare Festival in Edinburgh.

Ah, Robin, that Malvolio of crossed garters. My young love, whom I followed across the campus as you did your silly walks, wearing little more than a green gym shorts and a woman's bathing cap with a strap dangling like a limp worm.

Ah Robin, once I knew you well, and I can't help but look at your face on the telly, those lips I once wanted to kiss, what but was too shy to let you know. And you, me. We circled each other like moths to the flame, singeing our wings and retreating off into the night. The danger, too present.

Once we met years later, you took me into your arms, sweating after performance at the Greek Theater, thousands of screaming fans. I lost your address on purpose. I couldn't reconcile the idol with the young love.

Now at age 43, I contemplate my lost youth. For what it's worth. Wondering where you are, where you've gone off to, behind that mask.

added 10/2015

Robin Williams' Magic Mirror

Robin Spotting

Tuesday, July 16, 1996


   I am architect: I am prophet: . . I am the cell. . .the opening chasm…
   And  my original country is the region of the summer stars….
                                       Taliesin of the Radiant Brow
                                                      —for Paul Evans

A lone heron stands vigil before the blind eyes
of windows, seeking the other trapped behind glass:
approaches the front steps in that leggy stance,
cranes his neck as if to see around the facade,

confronts stubborn brick and marble, the oblivious guest,
returns to his post—though the mating season has passed.
The sun slips behind a cloud, the other fades as if obscured by mist.
The fisher king sees through the camera lens, strides to the street,

impervious to the leaf clutter of courting pigeons beneath his feet,
he looks back a thousand years to when the Amstel held a consummate
knotted fist of migration. Geis: a bird from the left—bad omen—
still I touch him. He preens and bows so that the dance may begin.

Centuries from home, we wheel and circle these same canals;
mirrored in our eyes, ancestral fires take flight. In exile,
we each lean toward the other, as if having caught ourselves
’scryed in the veiled windows of the otherworld.


geis/gessa: a spell, or taboo
scry: to fortell, or see the future

Monday, July 8, 1996

Amsterdam, journal:

Yesterday I met with Paul Evans at the Café Winkler, but it was closed and I was late, having miscalculated the distance. I am sitting in the sun on court Prinsenstraat, having left my new address with Marcel Koops. I was going to invite him to dinner last night, but there was no answer. So I left a message with Vins as well.

Paul was more entertaining, he got my new number from Charles. And so we met up yesterday afternoon. I was so happy to see him that I'm feeling a bit scandalized, especially since I took a couple of days to write a long passionate letter to Waldo, half in Spanish, my first Spanish love letter, inviting him to come visit. But hey, he's married and life goes on in the streets of Amsterdam. I certainly prefer the views of Westerpaark and the Jordaan to the industrial area where I now live.

Paul and I went out to the Soundgarden, and he rode me on the back of his bicycle, sidesaddle. I found his face haunting me last night. The way he looks at me so intently is a bit unnerving. His eyes follow me, even in sleep.

Last night I banished his image from my eyes, saying, I don't want to fall in love with a poor young Welsh poet and translator living on the dole in Amsterdam. I'm trying to strike the matronly older sister approach, and nothing untoward has happened. I've only met him three times, but somehow we're we've covered a lot of ground.

And what of Waldo Rojas, snug in his petit bourgeois existence in Paris with the wife and position at the Sorbonne. A man not crazy in love enough to come when I call, for what I want is a man crazy enough to chase me through Europe, or at least through the streets of Amsterdam.

The glass sausage tourist boats patrol the canals, the narrow-eyed tourists categorize with commercial eyes, the inner vulva of the city. They've come to the right place to spend their guilders. A glass boat with a banquet table set with shining crystal and silver amid the snowfields of Irish linen, and where are the guests? The menu: tourists under glass.

Paul and I sit on Marnixstraat watching the ducks and mudhens. He notes that I'm hyperactive. And I tell him there are times when I break down and don't even answer the phone. He doesn't know it's because I'm nervous, afraid of the silence that fall between us like an ax to sever this tenuous connection, afraid of where it might go, afraid of where it might go. Foolish, and afraid of being vulnerable.

I sent on a canal bench where no one knows me, writing on the absurdities of love, knowing full well that Edwin Drummond might be waiting for me upon my return, and I'm not sure if I want him. Second time around? I don't think so.

The woman at the petticoat shop lets me have a turtleneck sweater, a scarf and two antique nighties for only 15 guilders because I'm such a good customer. The shawl perfectly matches my jacket. I bought it there in 1993 and she actually recognized it. It's a cold summer here this year, and I want my longjohns to sit in the sun that does not warm the skin.

Paul has lived here for six years, when he isn't in SF mooning over an ex-girlfriend or two. Am I to be added to that list?

As for poetry, he is a purist, having read the modern poets. He can quote at length any poem. And he writes and measured beats, he knows the syllabic structure, while I can't even diagram a line, as he so aptly notes. He queries me how can you write in iambics when you don't even know how to measure a line?

I answer, I physically walk my poetry, I speak English, my body knows the rhythm of language.

He said, I wanted to know what's happening first, that's why I studied structure. Of course, structure is nothing without the emotion of the poem. He pays very careful attention to his craft, his poems are beautiful, and they take my breath away.

I tell him gull is a Cornish word and we have a Celtaholic attack, deciding that everyone who writes poetry is a Celt, regardless of their racial background. I tell him that poet is a maker of truth in the various Celtic languages, but it means liar in the Germanic languages. There you have it.

We talk of prosody and whether or not it's possible to lie within a poem. Sometimes the lie within a poem points to a greater truth. We don't mean the lie within the poem is a lie, but the construct of a poem itself is a lie. In this manner, three hours pass, what's to be the outcome?

We make tentative plans to meet at the Winston kingdom tonight. He's to make a chapbook of the readers to be out in a fortnight. And I am caught up in his accent, unfamiliar, but not quite, and the words that I might not use. He says I hee-ard and I answer I usen't to, or amn't I. Our little Celtic works pepper the English syntax of the enemy.

Paul grew up in a village of 8000, in the Rhondda Valley, a former coal mining valley in Wales, and spent most of his time hill-walking in the forests and vales of Wales, somewhat like me. I still live in the country, while he has traded the Welsh countryside for the low lands, low.

I tell him about Irish mythology, and he tells me of Gaulish history, how Caesar slaughtered an entire Helvetii tribe. Men, women, children, 40,000 of them, and later, another 80,000. We agree that the Roman Celtic genocide predates the English attempts.

Paul talks about the first Gaulish group in Britain, the ginger-haired Goidelic speakers. I counter with the Celt-Iberian migrations. And we we argue over P Celtic and Q Celtic languages.

I hold out my long hair, saying, Look at us, we could pass for cousins in a policeline. We're dark-haired Celts, but our hair, look at our hair, it's fire red in the sunlight, even though it's dark. He confesses to having an Irish grandmother. I say aha. I have many ginger-haired cousins.

I ask, What does this all mean, the British are quick to appropriate us if we become famous. Take Joyce, Francis Bacon, or even Samuel Beckett—which leads us on a lively chase to Catullus and Virgil. Celts writing in the tongue of the oppressors.

This is where the life of all poets as being Celts comes in, he says. I ask if I'm born in the US, and you're born in Wales, and if we become known as writers in Amsterdam, who will claim us, the British, the Dutch? To whom to whom do we belong to and owe allegiance, as poets. Ancestry and nationality. We are poets of the world.

I walk home along Prinsengracht observing the beautiful light. When I came upon the Amstel River and the  M XXX bridge on Karlstraat, I thought to myself,  you have to earn this view to really appreciate it, and walking this far I really did earn the view. My payment was exquisite light trapped on water.

And I thought to myself as I peered down Utrechtstraat, Vins is right, this city does have its hold upon me. What does it mean? I recognize the buildings and the light from my dreams all right, this mythical city, I dreamed of it long before I ever visited here. Was I a Sephardic Jewish refugee hidden here in a past life, a factory worker, or a street worker? Poet.

Waldo calls me at Charles' house, and I'm surprised to hear the news.

Sunday, July 7, 1996

Amsterdam Journal: Sarphatistraat 7/7

7/7 1996 Amsterdam, Sarphatistraat

Ah, what I've always dreamed about, a balcony with full morning sun. Sunday morning, little traffic. A sea of rucksacks and well-wheeled luggage clatters over the cobblestones like the hooves of cart horses. The next wave of tourists from Japan has arrived. 

I'm house/cat-sitting at Dave Hansen's flat, a few doors down from Adam and Eve Avenue on the F17 tram line, a low-budget hotel, of course. 

First sunny day in Amsterdam. What to do?

Somewhere someone is whistling a Nat King Cole song, a full deep-throated whistle. Okay to listen to outdoors that is. Not like Herman Berlant's thin reedy trill that drives me crazy within seconds. On my own, shall I wander through this wonderland alone? Play Misty for Me becomes my instructions for the day. After a shower, I find the sun has nearly abandoned me again.
I was awaken by cramps at 7 AM, not enough sleep. I worked on a letter to Waldo Rojas in Spanish most of the night. It takes so long to write a letter in a language not my own, when I have to look up every fifth word for spelling.
Herman commented about a woman who learned in several languages by having lovers from different countries.Yes, well, one is motivated in a different way than in school. 

As I mended my flowered dress, I got my first phone call from a Welsh poet Paul Evans, wanting to go out for coffee at the Café Winkler at 2 PM. I'm going mad from sirens and trams, the incessant city noises are so irritating. Sarphatistraat, at the intersection of three different tramlines is noisy. And the woodpigeons are eating the cat food. 

At Charles McGeehan's house, it was quiet, but living in that chaos was more than I could bear. I am glad to be out of that place.

Sunshine to the east, Stornes clouds to the west. Seagulls over the Amstel River portend a storm, or so they say. Paul tells me that gull is a Cornish word. His lilt is so different than the Irish, but definitely related. He didn't grow up speaking Welsh and so he's not got all the cadence. 

A sudden squall turns the wheel of the day into night.

Sunday, June 30, 1996

Poetry International


Poetry is what gets lost in translation
—Robert Frost
As you die/ you meet the light/ of before creation
—Bert Schierbeek

“Sometimes poetry is literally a matter of life and death,” said Martin Mooij, founder and shy godfather of Poetry International in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. A central focus of the 27-year-old literary organization is to liberate poets incarcerated by oppressive governments due to his or her literary work. The annual Poetry International Award “to distinguish an imprisoned poet, was established in 1979 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Poetry International,” said Mooij.

At the 1996 festival, exiled South African writer and political prisoner Breyten Breytenbach, who received the Poetry International Award in 1981, was also the recipient of this year’s translation Vertaalproject where world-class poets participating in the festival translate a selected poet during the annual two-week event. Breytenbach is the only poet to receive both honors.

 Like many of the poets chosen for the Poetry International Award, Breytenbach lives in exile, borderless, without a country, having only his mother tongue to sustain the roots of his art and culture. We began our translation workshop honoring those imprisoned poets—Breytenbach painting the name of the latest recipient of the 18th Poetry International Award, Iraqi poet, Adnam Abbas Salman al-Sayegh, on the Poetry Wall mural on the corner of Niewe Binnenweg and Gaffelstraat in Rotterdam. It is hoped he’ll be released from prison to collect his award.

Executive director Mooij explained, “The Poetry International Award began as a fluke. I'd published some Turkish children's books, and I mentioned the name of an imprisoned poet, Nevzat Çelik.” Mooij said he was merely wondering aloud what had happened to the Turkish poet. Surveying Kruisplein from the squat, modern post-war De Doelen building in Rotterdam, Mooij explained, “The editor promised to write to a government official, and in 1987. . . the poet was set free!”

Mooij continued, “We cooperate closely with PEN International, and the Index on Censorship.” Without the political pressure and media exposure wielded under the auspices of the Poetry International Award, the voices of world-class poets might not be with us today—

Past recipients have included 1979 recipient Moroccan poet, Abdellatif Laabi (confined from 1972 to 1980); 1988 winner Jack Mapanje of Malawi (1987 - 1991); Vasili Stus of Russia (1972 - who died in prison camp in 1985); South Korean poet Park no-Hae (in prison since 1991); Song Lin (1989 - 1990; rumored to be in Paris); and 1981 recipient Breyten Breytenbach of South Africa who went into self-inflicted exile in 1969, and was later arrested for crimes against the state: he was accused of “resistance against apartheid” when he made a secret, illegal visit to his homeland in 1975. He was imprisoned for seven years until 1982. He was released one year after he received the Poetry International Award.)

According to Mooij, “With much public fanfare, the selected poet is invited to attend Poetry International to receive the Poetry International Award which also includes a prize of ∫10,000 Dutch guilders. If he is unable to attend, the award is postponed until the following year. . . . Most awards have been collected.”

Unfortunately Mooij, age 65, poetry pioneer and extraordinary civil servant who has had a profound effect on so many poets around the world, faces compulsory retirement this year; he’ll be sorely missed. One hopes his sucessor, Tatjana Daan, will keep alive the vital poetic traditions Mooij has instated.

Past poets commemorated in the translation, or Vertaalproject include Belgian poet Paul van Ostayen (1972); Tomas Venclova (Lithuania—1980); Remco Campert (The Netherlands—1983); the 1995 Nobel Laureate, and this year’s Poet Laureate of Britain, Seamus Heaney (Ireland—1986), Yehuda Amichai (Israel—1988); Lucebert (the Netherlands—1989); Bert Schierbeek (The Netherlands—1991); Roberto Juarroz (Argentina—1993); Hugo Claus (Belgium, 1995; and of course, this year’s poet, Breyten Breytenbach (South Africa).

As we watched Breytenbach paint the finishing touches on the Poetry Wall, and descend the ladder, I recalled that in his Mouroir: Mirrornotes of a Novel, Breytenbach once wrote a story to establish a monument, or a grave of the Unknown Poet, “to be built into the back wall of a nightclub” in Rotterdam: “Thus I believe it is best situated in some public enclosure or thoroughfare of R’dam—within the confines of de Doelen—on the Kruisplein—along the Lijnbaan—in such a way that it can become a rallying point easily accessible, a place of pilgrimage where resident and visiting poets may leave their ex-voto.”

He envisioned a dedication ceremony with Mother Earth in a gaily decorated coffin filled with poems during a Poetry International festival. “Personally I prefer a grave. . . Why a grave? the body of the poet is her or his poetry. The corpse of the poet is her or his poetry. It can even be argued that every poem is a grave for the unknowable Poem. . . .” With the dedication ceremony over, we took obligatory photographs beneath the mural. And a body of lively poets strolled into the nearest pub to slake the exquisite corpse of our terrible thirst.

Perhaps tongue-in-cheek, Breytenbach wrote from prison, “Poets aren’t incarcerated or tortured for their poetry—at least not very often: the powers that be prefer to lobotomize their poetry, and it is a more refined form of torture.” The Rotterdam Poetry Wall bears ample witness to those incarcerated poets. Chilean poet Neruda once said that the poet’s “. . . function is no more important than other functions, except when he dares to confront the forces of social reaction. And that is dangerous too, because the poet speaks as the custodian of truth.” (Clarín literano, 1971). Breytenbach was incarcerated for being “a custodian of the truth” for South Africa.

One of South Africa’s leading literary and artistic figures, poet-novelist and painter Breyten Breytenbach was born in Bonnievale, Cape Province in 1939. His first collection of short stories, Katastrofes, was published in 1964. Other publishing credits include Collected Poems: 1964-1969; In Other Words: Poems; and In Order to Paint a Sinking Ship Blue (1972, tr. into English, 1983); A Tree Behind the Moon, and House of the Deaf Person (1974); A Season in Paradise (1977, tr. 1980).

In a collection of his drawings smuggled out of prison, Finger Moon: Drawings from Pretoria, Breytenbach uses ordinary objects: a cup, a box of matches, cigarettes, prison-issue blankets, insects—surreally juxtaposed against images of tortured men and hermaphrodites—where he employs a distorted dreamlike perspective of twisted logic reminiscent of Belgian painter René Magritte. (Finger Moon also has text by Rutger Kopeland, Gerrit Kouenaar, Lucebert and Bert Schierbeek). Eclipse (1983); and Mourior: Mirrornotes of a Novel, composed during a horrific period of incarceration in his homecountry’s prisons. Nadine Gordiner wrote of Mourior: “Prison irradiates this book with dreadful enlightenments; the dark and hidden places of the country from which the book arises are phosphorescent with it.” Also published that year: The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist (1983). Perhaps playing a sleight of tongue on racial issues with the pun, “horse of a different color”, he said, “No, it’s all one horse in” All One Horse (1989);

* * *
We commenced our 27th international gathering of poets—dedicated to Bert Schierbeek and Joseph Brodsky—on a somber elegiac note by paying homage to dead poets—Brodsky (who died in January), and Schierbeek, a co-founder of the COBRA* movement, who died June 9, right before the festival began.

Bert made me, an unknown poet, feel welcome at the 1992 and 1993 Poetry International festivals, and he sent poems to our Mother Earth International Journal, giving us creedence, and, more important, the courage to go on.

At the crematorium, Bert’s translator, Charles McGeehan, and I stood between Dutch poets Jan Wolkers, Willem van Toorn and Simon Vinkenoog, and several hundred other poets coming together. We sent Bert off with words that burned like the stars; his coffin, an arc in search of a new art, covered with flowers and poems for safe passage to meet the light of from before creation. This, our tribe. Remco Campert read a poem entitiled Bert:
. . .
So fragile
his legs
in his trousers
his chest
in his shirt
his hands bruised
from the work
of death

yet suddenly
a glimpse of a wink
never say die
let somebody else
say it
not Schierbeek. . . (tr. Linde Voûte)

* * * *
In the crowded elevator at Poetry International headquarters, I thought of failing cables, and surrealistically quipped, What does one call a group of world-class poets? A gaggle of poets, a heard of poets, a weight—an audacity of poets? We settled on a Genius of Poets and the elevator didn’t crash. Perched in the roof garden foyer of the De Doelen building we were a Genius of Poets from the six continents: the collective brain power exponentially exceeding the sum total of some 200 poets gathered at the festival. An Imagination of Poets belatedly rose to my lips, but I was wedged between Czech immunologist, the doctor-poet Miroslav Holub, Mexican eco-poet Homero Aridjis who founded the environmentalist El Grupo de los Cien, and the 1993-94 U.S. Poet Laureate, Rita Dove (the youngest and only Black woman poet to be so honored), thinking, Omigod, they’ve made a terrible mistake. Somebody pinch me: I’m in the wrong dream. Like the one I had in 2nd grade—where I removed my beautiful red princess coat only to find I was in my holey underwear. My only consolation was that being an Imagination of Poets was the reason we were gathered here, the sum total of my resources: a poet writing poetry.

The art of translating poetry raises some ethical questions: How to approach it? Who is qualified? If a poet who isn’t bilingual or literate in another language, qualified to “translate” poetry into his or her native tongue? Is it unethical? What about integrity? Or imagination? Not everyone can take years to learn another language or two—as did the exiled Russian poet and translator, Joseph Brodsky (1940 - 1996), who studied Polish and English in order to translate Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert, John Donne and W.H. Auden into Russian. It’s almost impossible to have equal command of two or more languages; one language always interferes with the other. But both Brodsky and compatriot poet-novelist Vladimir Nabakov were unusual in that they both later wrote in English with equal fluidity—though Nabakov only wrote prose in English.

“Literature reflects the whole of human experience. . . . Bilingualism is not simply a matter of language learning; it involves the culture” states The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. A translator must “see the author’s use of language in the contest of language as a whole.” Or as poet T.S. Eliot put it, “A case of walking languge’s borders.” Most translators agree that translating poetry is an exacting art form compared to that of prose, which is more forgiving.

What if the translators aren’t themselves poets? Brodsky said, the poet is language’s servant: language is not the poet’s instrument, but he is its vessel. The same adage must hold true for translators of poetry. Obviously, the best combination is to have a poet/translator working with the original author. We at the Poetry International translation workshop were poetry’s dedicated servants working under the most ideal of conditions.

At the beginning of the Breytenbach translation workshop, Francis Galloway (of J.L. van Schaik Publishers; one of Breytenbach’s South African publishers), and French translator Georges Lory and Dutch translator Robert Dorsman, who each gave a brief overview on Breytenbach’s work, and, more importantly, gave us carte blanche to use images and ideas different from what appeared in the original Afrikaans.

To feed the spark where words rub shoulders, Breyten often coins new words. Francis described how Breyten, who is also a painter, uses visual imagery with brushlike surreal juxtapositions, and said that he is interested in all possible meanings, the root origins of words, or “multinaety” of layers (to coin a word) buried within language. Though English and Afrikaans are both official languages of South Africa, English is the dominant language. Breytenbach uses street, or worker’s Afrikaans (sometimes called kitchen Dutch), the youngest branch of the Germanic language tree, evolved from 16th century Dutch and a creolization of several African languages.

Some three-dozen of us sat at the tables—unlikely schoolchildren: marxist professor and activist Edoardo Sanguineti, who championed Italian avant-garde poetry of the ‘60s, sat in one smoke-filled corner, toothlessly chewing his cheroot like a pencil; Cairo poet and experimental playwright, Zein al-Abadin Fouad, who suffered years of imprisonment for his outspoken humanitarianism, sat in another. In the sidelines were Arab-Israeli poet Salman Masalha who translated Mahmoud Darweesh into Hebrew, journalist and cultural attaché, Moshe Dor of Israel, with Barbara Goldstein, Moshe’s translator, from New York. Taiwan painter-poet Lo Ch’ing who studied in the U.S. and has brought a new voice to both American and Taiwanese poetry.

Also present was griot Niyi Osundare who chairs the English Dept. at Ibidadan University of Nigeria, exiled Chilean poet Waldo Rojas who teaches the study of history at the Sorbonne in Paris, Henri Habibe of the Dutch Antilles, Afrizal Malna of Indonesia—the only poet who was confined to his “esoteric” tongue—and Linde Voûte, his door, his translator. With not one language in common, we met every morning for a week and translated Breytenbach’s poems into 32 languages including Chinese, Yoruba, and Indonesian. The room contained a Tower of Babel where the common tongue was poetry. Waldo Rojas compared our converstational bedlam in many lenguas to that of Tarzan and Jane in the jungle of ultramodernist constructions.

Linde Voûte and Afrizal Malna of Indonesia
Afternoons and evenings were filled with public readings and lectures that spilled into the midnight hour; informal caucuses rarely ended when the pubs closed. When the summer solstice arrived at the 52nd parallel, with time slipstreaming away into the future, sleep was a luxury.

In night’s meager darkness, we quaffed resevoirs of strong Dutch genever and coffee, only to catnap between readings, on banquet tables, or while waiting in line for dinner—especially after Seamus Heaney discovered the neck of his uisge flask had sprung “a terrible leak.” We, of course, helped him with his problem, the cap, our elegant shotglass; Flemish poet and M.C., Geert van Istendael, was soon proclaiming all poets were Celts, Ogaga Ifowodo of Nigeria giddily raising his cap, nodding in agreement.

Outings to the Pilgrim’s Pub in Delftshaven, where the pilgrims left for the New World, the lovely Belvedere inn on the river dijk in Schoonhaven often ended in singfests. A group of us led by the two Adrians (Henri, and Mitchell, who invented the British “pop poetry” scene with the Beatles), and (Pink Floyd “The Wall” guitarist) Andy Roberts, hopped a tram singing “Poetry, poetry. . .” to a bemused, if captive, Surinamese audience. O brave new world. . . .

Earlier in the week, many of us did mental calisthenics in preparation for the Breytenbach workshop by participating in a “young translator’s workshop”. Dutch translator and workshop leader Rob Schouten, said, “English has become the lingua franca of poetry translation.” (English is an official language in over 50 countries.)

My partner was Lo Ch’ing from Taiwan—my job was easy for he spoke English. We discussed other levels of meanings hidden in the Chinese characters and, due to my dyslexic bent, came up with one of those rare and lucky wordplays that worked in both Chinese and English: Crossword, with the hidden portmanteau or word play of crossed swords. A fortuitous koan for the translation process:

One jet fighter
a single dove
bisecting the sky
an invisible cross (tr. Maureen Hurley with Lo Ch’ing)

Danish philologist Rasmus Rask (1787 - 1832) observed, “Language is a natural object and its study resembles natural history.” But Victor Stevenson in Words (1982), wrote that language is living, continually evolving from parent stock; it spreads far from its native soil, blends with other languages to create a vigorous hybrid (as did English). “A language has no life of its own, it exists solely on the lips of its speakers.” Today’s fresh language is tomorrow’s cliché. Breytenbach said he wasn’t interested in word-for-word accuracy; he wanted a strong new poem to be born out of the process, not a hybrid—leaving the barn door wide open, so to speak. I didn’t know whether to bolt, or imagine a fire in the stable.

Philology traditionally focuses on the historical development of language with two schools of thought: conventionalist and naturalistic—neither accurate in its extreme form. An ancient Greek philosopher wrote (Hermogenes?) the relationship between words and things is arbitrary, “For nothing has its name by nature, but only by usage and custom.” Aristotle also held the former viewpoint. “No name exists by nature, but only by becoming a symbol.” Another philosopher Cratylus evoked the idea of divine origin to support that language came into being naturally, the intrinsic relationships between words and things. “There is a correctness of nature existing by nature for everything.”

Dionysius Thrax (c. 100 BC) wrote first formal Grammar, hammering out a doctorine on the proper usage of correctness and stylistic excellence according to the classical style of Homer. This led to two styles of writing, classical for literature, and the vernacular for poetry. Story of the bible in classical vs vulgate..

My native tongue is American English. I live on the San Andreas fault in Northern California where West meets East, where the Pacific plate creeps north at the rate of two inches a year past the westbound Atlantic plate. I like to compare the growth of language to that of tectonic plates, inexorably shifting. Each time I come to the process of translation, or writing for that matter, I bring with me the subtle shift and evolution of my understanding of my own language buried deep inside me.

What is language? Can one think without a language? Dutch painter and translator Linde Voûte who has translated poets including Lucebert into Indonesian, and Rendra into Dutch, noted, “I’ve been a translator for 20 years. I notice myself change and develop with the language. Your thinking changes because your life changes; it teaches you and influences your way of thinking. Language is continually developing each season, blossoming like a child.” The Indonesian poet she translated for at the conference, Afrizal Malna, is monolingual. “I don’t have this instrument of language. Linde is my door, she opens it, but we have to go through it together.” Afrizal described himself as, “a person living with language.” Both Charles McGeehan and Linde agree the translation process is a kind of alchemy. It requires a certain empathy and a life-long committment to the pursuit of language.

The translation question becomes complex: language continually shifts with the passage of time. One evening Herman Berlandt and I sat drinking wine on the Bolinas Mesa (that small scrap of Pacific plate on the westernmost edge of California that nurtured many writers—including members of the Beat generation—from Robert Creeley to Gary Snyder and Richard Braughtigan) reading from two translations done several years apart of the Gallo-Latin poet Caius Valerius Catullus (c. 84 - 54 B.C.). Sometimes we didn’t even recognize the same poem. Take # 94 “Mentula moechatur.” moechatur mentula certe. . . Mantool fornicates; he fornicates; why not? You know what they say: “For the potherbs, a pot!” (Roy Arthur Swanson 1959 Bobbs-Merrill) Or Frank L. Copley’s rendition (1957 Univ. Michigan Press) Dickie-boy Trill loves somebody’s wife/ o somebody’s wife loves Dick/ which is just so/ (as who doesn’t know)/ as to say that a sticker will prick. Compare these renditions with Frank Bidart’s (1980s??? Linde Voûte suggested the timeless poets need to be retranslated every generation. In this case, the language radically shifted within a decade.

To find the voice of the poem beyond the limitations of our own voice, Linde said, “when you get close to an interesting poet, then you can play a bit. I use different voices to act it out. Touching my lips, I taste the words.” My own ethics (or stubbornness) requires me to be as accurate as possible to the music, the sound, rhythm and nuances, as well as the larger meaning. In each poem, something is sacrificed, or, lost in the translation. If we’re lucky, something is gained. Ultimately it’s all poet’s work—I do believe that it’s necessary to be a poet in order to translate poetry well.

Copies of Breytenbach’s work were available in Afrikaans, Dutch, French and English accompanied by a fleet of dictionaries and thesauri, gallons of coffee and broodjes, paper, pencils, but no erasers. Frankly, I was leery of peeking at the English translations of Breytenbach’s poems. One reason is that I’m too easily seduced by language, I might accept the translation as is, and lazily twaddle with a few words and syntax, then call it a day. What’s the challenge in that? I wouldn’t earn the poem. No blinding insights, or epiphanies. Besides, I feared previous knowledge of bad translations would pollute my mind—translators do make mistakes. Ironically, what I had to go by for comparison were the English translation of poems displayed at Poetry International which were, politely speaking, roughshod. I hate to see my own native tongue so cruelly brutalized. It’s rare translators who can truly translate poetry outside their own mother tongue. There are too many pitfalls. As co-editor of Mother Earth International Journal, I’ve spent countless hours unwrapping poems from poor translations (with poets’ permission) because I could sense a poem imprisoned behind the obstinate opacity of language.

Translating and editing poetry has taught me a thing or two about language. The other language I am conversant, but not literate, in Spanish, I also learned because of poetry—spending time in Latin America with poet friends, I wanted to know what everybody was gossiping about and what those marvelous cadences meant. I also have 15 years of uninvited Sunday Latin (from church) floating around in my head, a few words of nursery school French, and turn-of-the-century Irish—all of which I have no real access to—but they do help me to understand root origins of words. I’m the kind of person who can look up one word in the Oxford English Dictionary and, 30 words (or hours, whatever comes first) later, and completely lose track for what I was originally looking for.

My journey to the process of translation is a circuitous back-door route that encompasses half the globe. I have no formal training other than as poet—and even that profession was self-taught. I’m trained as a painter; I respond to the world in terms of visual images and metaphor. As a self-appointed cultural ambassador, I found myself in Cherkassy, Ukraine, in the former Soviet Union, one hot August night in 1989, where 60 poets had spontaneously gathered via word-of-mouth, with only an afternoon’s notice, for a poetry reading. I was astounded by the power poetry had on Soviets. After my reading, others read their poems, my friend Oleg Atbashian interpreting them to me as I furiously scribbled lines down. I was filled with the Russian cadences, I wanted to know more, and poets plied me with kilos of poems.

My poet friends and I translated poems from the Russian and Ukrainian. The next three years I traveled back and forth to the USSR (later Russia), and rendered, wrestled (or in some cases, abandoned), poems into English. This resulted in a samizdat publication, Soviet Poetry Since Glasnost (San Francisco National Poetry Association, 1990), which gave birth to a global regional poetry publication, Mother Earth International Journal. (Then, as the Glasnost pond rippled, Eastern European poets heard of our publication (Romanians and Albanians??) and began sending us work (Yugoslavia fractured as we went to press), and Latin American poets sent us work, and so on. . . )

The other experiences that have prepared me for translating Breytenbach’s work is spending several seasons (1991 - 93, & 1996) living within the Dutch culture in Amsterdam and Noord Brabant, and over a year editing the African issue of Mother Earth Journal—which required familiarizing myself with the tradition of African poetry, corresponding with poets, and reading hundreds of submissions. During this time, my teachers (and regional editors) were the great African poets Niyi Osundare, Tanure Oajaide, Chenjerai Hove, Kofi Anwoor, Frank Chipasula, Syl Cheney-Coker, Mohammad Afifi Matar, Zein al-Abadin Fouad, and others.

First I did a visual, or imagined, transliteration of Breytenbach’s poems—literally guessing at the meanings of words from their shape, texture, and sound. Of course, it helped to hear Breyten read his poems: the timbre of his voice as he leaned forward, the breathy sculptural Afrikaans words nuzzling in my hair, resonating in the frail shell of ear, to drowse in the nacreous crenulations and folds of brain—all added a powerful stimulus to the translation process—giving me the sibilance and rhythm of the poems (as well as some delicious goosebumps).

Then came the laborious process of looking up, and double-checking every word in the Afrikaans dictionary. I was surprised at how often my guesses were accurate. I think it’s a unique accident that the Afrikaans has a closer connection to American English than, say, Dutch or Frisian. Is it because South Africa and America share a similar history with slavery central to the core? No poems were translated into Frisian, so I can’t make a true comparison. On one poem I did work from the Dutch, and found I was farther away from the meaning of the words than working from the original Afrikaans. Because I didn’t trust myself, I then gave copies of the poems to several Afrikaans/Dutch/English speaking poets and had them back-translate for accuracy’s sake. Only then did I allow myself to play with the language. Only then did I look at the English, and queried Breyten as to other possible levels of meanings.

When I relaxed, I found blinding insights came—the levels of meaning not immediately obvious in the words themselves, but in the extensive lists developed by looking up the Afrikaans words, and by divergent thought processes. The most notable insight came with the translation of The Mouth-Opening Ritual. The Afrikaans dictionary defined the verb, los te tor as a clod, something thick, or an insect—on the tongue?—it didn’t make any sense until I asked myself what death, dirt clods, Africa and insects had in common. What kind of insect? The dictionary didn’t elaborate. Nor did looking at the Dutch translation shed any light: los te torren; a non-existent word; the verb to loosen is los te tornen. Was it a typo, or quite possibly an invented word?

Breytenbach often uses neologisms, he coins words such as “outgasm,” he portmanteaus and “verbs” nouns—for a multinaety of meanings, making straightforward dictionary work challenging business. (And me, a dyslexic!) The English translation of the poem gave no clue whatsoever. I was a struggling Sisyphus pushing words uphill: I idly doodled a ladybug in the margin of the poem. Wait a moment: a dung-hill beetle? A scarab! YES! The Egyptian tradition of death? Then I was plauged with self-doubt: I was the only one to get that connection. Surely it must be wrong. But then came the conviction that it was the right word. Why? On what authority? Of the poet’s intellect, borne of a compulsive necessity to gather obscure facts? Maybe, but unlikely. On an emotional, gut-level I just knew it was right. It resonated. With that insight, the poem fell into place: los de tor, to scarab? No, “scarabing loose the tongue.”

The physical sound and taste of poetry is a powerful, visceral force. When listening to a poet recite in a language I don’t know, the arousal of goosebumps on my arms and neck, has been for me, a signal of a good poem—even when I can’t understand the words. During one of the evening readings, Egyptian poet, Zein al-Abadin Fouad, read a poem with a repeated word that sounded like echalym, that literally had my hair standing on end. Brodsky’s litanies also had that effect upon me. One afternoon in the De Doelen Hospitality Room, where numerous impromteau translations were simultaneously combusting tête à tête, we rough-translated Zein’s prison poem, Dream, and it still had the same effect on me in English! In prison,/ dreams enter the body of the day/ Dream and reality having the same face. . . my condemnation are equally balanced . . . I am the prisoner, the judge, and the guard. (Upon my return home to California we watched the total Lunar eclipse, Paul Bowles translator and biographer Jeffrey Miller brought his new Moroccan wife, Nazette. When I mentioned Fouad’s name and said the Arabic word Echlam(Dream) she recited from memory, giving me goosebumps anew.)

In the process of translation, I need to say the words out loud, walk the rhythm of the lines until my body and mind are in accord, walking in time with each other. In Breytenbach’s “Une Vie Sans Ailleuers”: and that strangled cry/ like the blackbird ribboning back from the reeds. . . . I was the madwoman gesticulating and pacing the catwalk on the roofgarden until the words slid into place.

Breytenbach uses surrealistic images as brush strokes, toying with syntactical language structures. Though he gave us permission—no limits—to alter poems or change the images, I found my integrity to the images wouldn’t let me stray too far from what I presumed to be the primal tension and definitive form of the original poem. I had to stretch and grow to make choices outside my own sense of poetics to convey his poetic structure in English. In a milieu of comic relief, I toyed with the idea that anything—especially poetry— can be translated—is an absurdism like counting the angels on the tip of my pencil lead. But I was reminded of what my Dutch translator, Vincent van Neerven, said over a glass of genever, “Translation is never exact to begin with—yet in poetry, you need the exact right word. One word—and one word only—will do.” Neruda’s translator, poet Ben Belitt in Adam’s Dream: A preface to Translation, (Oak Grove, 1978), said every word is a confrontation, every choice, a visible committment. This is where a translator’s integrity comes into play with the poet’s imagination—a return to my own poetic checks and balances so greenly mirrored in multiple images. Do I choose the very literal: where the dying bind/ breath condensed on the windowpanes or go with: where the dying contract with our breath/ on the windowpanes? Ironically, I sometimes came up with the same coined words: the blackbird ribboning back from the reeds, though it took me a long, long time to get there.

The idea is to lose as little as possible of the form and content: the emotional/ visceral, visual/ primal and intellectual/abstract, imagery of a translation, yet owe poetic allegiance to the heightened resonance of one’s mother tongue: I thought of Vinz’ story of a truck he saw in Athens withΜεταφορα Transport Company blazoned on the sides—getting the idea across. And then, back to the elevator metaphor raising an imagination of poets skyward where life and death are forms of exile. I began the translation workshop thinking I wasn’t dressed for the occasion, only to discover in my nakedness, I was appropriately dressed after all. Dream with our eyes in the flames. . . where, letter by letter, long -forgotten words splutter into sparks. . . I noted that when Herman Berlandt reduced Breyten’s poems to veritable haikus, Breyten stroked his beard, and responded with, “Hmmm. Well, you’ve certainly taken some poetic license!” So there are limits—even for Breytenbach.

Below are my translations from the Afrikaans. Aubade (Eerste Lig), and Snow in Paris,1 (Sneeu in Parys), are my visual translations—or transliterations in the “Poundian” tradition where I guessed from the sound timbre and pattern of words what the poem was about. The second translation of Eerste Lig (First Light) and Sneeu in Parys (Snow in Paris) are wrested directly from the Afrikaans as are Une Vie Sans Ailleurs (A Life Elsewhere) and Die Mond-Oopmaak Ritueel (The Mouth-Opening Ritual). I discovered that by the third poem I was becoming familiar with the Afrikaans language, and the abstract visual translation process no longer worked. I did use the English to compare and contrast, once I’d translated the poems. After I’d finished working on the poems, having taken Breyten to task on the opacity of some of the English translations, I found out they were his own translations!


but why is the heart always compelled
to think with darkened wings
from where does this wind arise in the clear sky
that makes the trees noiselessly bend and stray?
and that strangled cry
like the blackbird ribboning back from the reeds
and all those blind houses
where the dying contract with our breath
on the windowpanes?
no matter the color of the nightwatchman’s coat
or how long feathers have swirled in the courtyard?
What’s the point in remembering
incoherent ramblings at dusk
behind the sun in a woman’s eye at dawn
the woman in the sun beneath the hanging branch?
how many dead, open-mouthed on the mesa
is there anything left to be known?

the crusted blood, the ashes of bone-fires
forgotten on the cold ground—
from the roaring forest or glacial stars
the wind unfurls its dark wings
but what will the heart still sing?

translation from the Afrikaans

then death comes
you must be at hand
you must recite from the book
you must isolate yourself, mumbling
you must make-believe true words will explode
spurting white, suckling the night
the dying man whose gaping mouth
rills and quivers hoarsely
retching outgasms
and then:
to the rattle of straining wings
you must, with one finger, lean forward
articulating the sacred gesture,
scarab loose the tongue
a leap. a curl, comma, sigh
for then life goes
like sparrow flight voraciously
keening in the woods
devouring the orchards
of memory
in naked song.

translation from the Afrikaans


Dawn light strokes the sky of the sea
chasing shadows from our heads
urgent dreams, bright, restless
against the lingering slumber
of your body next to mine.

The uneasy origin of poet’s work
trapped within the childish speech
wants to reinvent the world
where flight was not lost to the struggle of defeat
Our mouths open, tonguing
the fleeting warmth of your throat

How certain love seemed in the morning
I held the fading eye of your body
against that deeper sleep

But you threw open the balcony windows
the blind angel trampled
the circle of light

scattering mirrored words
on the new song of the wind

visual translation from the Afrikaans


In the darkness
after the seasons have touched us
snow over Paris
becomes a pyre of light
beneath grey conversation

the sky dead
with all the damp colors
bleached by the language of strangers
we reminisce without the clarity
neglected memory leaves a trail
verdant islands amid drifts of paper

in viscous gutters
handwritten notes scored by bird’s script
escape into the blank silence
like fresh voices of eastern verse

So you made it out of the labyrinth?
with one eye on the drowned flame
the holes in the wall
trap the words that escaped
letter by letter from other prisons

open window in the fog
the road clothed in white sheets
in the white-dark scribble
leads to shuttered rooms of empty houses
how will love find us again?

visual translation from the Afrikaans


first light furrows the spume
on the dark-tonsured crest
the dreams foundering
on listless wings
your slumbering body next to mine

the polished brilliance—blinding
how the child in me
remembers the careless memory
of the known world
where birds soared in and out
the oldman within me recalls the child
like the abandoned memory
of a warm throat

how soft your body pulses in the morning
all your sloe-eyed flesh

are you still with me?
you who opened the balcony window
so the purblind angel might stumble out
only to fade behind the light

all is mirror/
we must find each other again

translation from the Afrikaans


out of all the darkness
and the many seasons
snow over Paris
this morning, a sheet of light
beneath grey blankets

the damp skies
saturated color
dusted beneath a strange tongue
with the noiseless memories
etched lines vanish into drifts of paper

thick chimney smoke
a bird composes hand-notes
a flight in the white stillness
of fresh eastern verse
and a sleeve smudges it

shall we build a fire in the hearth?
dream with our eyes in the flames
how the hollows and imprints
of long forgotten words,
letter by letter, splutter into sparks

and go up in smoke
to whirl away
over the white roofscape?
shall we not forget the dead houses
yet, breathe love in again?

Maureen Hurley translation from the Afrikaans

© 1996, Maureen Hurley

An earlier version of this article.