We Wear the Mask

We present this work in honor of the poet’s 150th birthday.

06-27 Dunbar
Paul Laurence Dunbar
American
1872 – 1906

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!

Song

We present this work in honor of the poet’s 215th birthday.

06-26 Tompson
Charles Tompson
Australian
1807 – 1883

My Sylvia frowns on her love:
Ah! hope from this bosom is fled,
That syren that o’er my fond heart,
So lately her influence shed.

And must I for ever despair
To own the dear girl I adore?
And will the bright day-spring of love
Ne’er brighten my hemisphere more?

‘Tis past!—on the heart that is her’s
She frowns with contempt and disdain,
And seems to exult in the cause
That gives my fond bosom such pain.

Yet, trust me, dear Sylvia, this lip
That sighs nought but mis’ry and you,
Is the harbinger pure of a heart
That will ever—yes, ever prove true!

Life, Life

We present this work in honor of the poet’s 115th birthday.

06-25 Tarkovsky
Arseny Tarkovsky
Russian
1907 – 1989

 

1

I don’t believe in omens or fear
Forebodings. I flee from neither slander
Nor from poison. Death does not exist.
Everyone’s immortal. Everything is too.
No point in fearing death at seventeen,
Or seventy. There’s only here and now, and light;
Neither death, nor darkness, exists.
We’re all already on the seashore;
I’m one of those who’ll be hauling in the nets
When a shoal of immortality swims by.

2

If you live in a house – the house will not fall.
I’ll summon any of the centuries,
Then enter one and build a house in it.
That’s why your children and your wives
Sit with me at one table, –
The same for ancestor and grandson:
The future is being accomplished now,
If I raise my hand a little,
All five beams of light will stay with you.
Each day I used my collar bones
For shoring up the past, as though with timber,
I measured time with geodetic chains
And marched across it, as though it were the Urals.

3

I tailored the age to fit me.
We walked to the south, raising dust above the steppe;
The tall weeds fumed; the grasshopper danced,
Touching its antenna to the horse-shoes – and it prophesied,
Threatening me with destruction, like a monk.
I strapped my fate to the saddle;
And even now, in these coming times,
I stand up in the stirrups like a child.

I’m satisfied with deathlessness,
For my blood to flow from age to age.
Yet for a corner whose warmth I could rely on
I’d willingly have given all my life,
Whenever her flying needle
Tugged me, like a thread, around the globe.

 

Translation by Alex Nemser and Nariman Skakov

Isaac’s Dream

06-24 Rosernfarb
Chava Rosenfarb
Canadian
1923 – 2011

 

As I was standing, all set for my exile,
Doom staring at me from the road’s blinding end,
The door, like a book’s heavy cover, opened,
To bring forth a guest from the biblical land.

His body, half naked, a knife in his loincloth,
In sheep-leather sandals his tanned, bronze-like feet,
A bundle of firewood upon his shoulder—
He said, with a smile very boyish and sweet:

“Good morning, my girl; remember me, dearest?
You’ve waited for me so long—not in vain.
I’m Isaac, your bridegroom, ordained by the Heavens …
Through ages I’ve wandered to you, till I came.

Take off your dress. A sheet of plain linen
Is sufficient to drape round your navel and hips.
Undo your braids and let’s hurry, my sweetheart,
Your hand clasped in mine and a chant on our lips.

Thus will l lead you beyond the horizon,
Between north and south, through the west—to the east,
Until we will reach Mount Moriah, my dearest,
There to be married, to rejoice and to feast.

So come, let us hurry, the distance is calling.
Pray, why do you shiver with anguish and cry?
You’re asking why all that wood on my shoulder,
The glittering knife on my hip—you ask why.

Then turn your soul to my soul, my beloved.
Read your fate in my fate, while I explain:
Out of the wood I will construct an altar
And with love all redeeming set it aflame.

And the knife, my bride, I will file to its sharpest point
Up there, at the peak, on a rough mountain stone.
And who will be offered, you ask me?—then listen:
The offering, my dearest, shall be you, you alone.

A gift of life to the God of All Being,
As Abraham told me, his late-born son:
If you trust in love and love wholly trusting,
Then fear not, nor waver, dear girl, but come.

Though fire will blaze through the wood of the altar,
Flames licking your body, yet you shall see:
The knife will fall from my hand, and a miracle
Will happen to you, as it happened to me.

The rivers and seas shall sing Hallelujah!
The mountain pines, moved, will give praise to all life,
While the Voice Divine will, with thunder and lightning,
Proclaim me your husband, pronounce you my wife.

So hurry, my girl, the sky is already
Spreading its canopy, preparing the rite.
Come to the blue sacrificial fire—
Your last maiden stroll—to the altar, my bride.”

Thus he spoke. I smiled, then said in a whisper,
My eyes not on him, but fixed on the dark night,
Where another road was tracing its outlines
With the red of my blood, with signals of fright:

“Oh leave me, Isaac, you bronzed, sunny man.
This road is not yours, not mine is your day.
I head for those places you never have dreamed of,
Where altars do smolder with their unwilling prey.”

As I spoke a gale swept towards my threshold.
The tempest took hold of my hearth and my house,
Whistling through streets, through the yards of the ghetto,
Hissing with rage: “Juden raus! Juden raus!”

Thus I stepped forward with Abraham, my father,
Who wrapped his arm round me as if with a shawl,
While delicate Isaac, all tremble and flutter,
Pressed his tanned sun-kissed frame to the wall.

“You’re frightened, Isaac?” said I. “I’m your nightmare.
Awake and you’re back in your undying scroll,
Where Rebecca, your true betrothed awaits you,
To be taken with joy on her last maiden stroll.

Make haste, return to the Book that shall save thee.
Hide yourself in the Bible’s fairytale land.
For your God Himself walks with me and my father,
Right now, to the altar; with us—to His end.”

Precious Mahogany

06-23 Watson
Brigitte Zacarías Watson
Nicaraguan
b. 1961

 

I tried to defend you,
I thought there might be
Someone else who loved you
As I love you.

Here I am, beneath you
Caressing your precious timber,
Protecting you with my hands
From those who claim to love you.

Lies!
They see you bleed and they laugh as they stuff their pockets

With dollars, from your suffering.

 

Translation by Jessica Powell

Helen Betty Osborne

We present this work in honor of the Canadian holiday, National Aboriginal Day.

06-21 Dumont
Marilyn Dumont
Canadian
b. 1955

Betty, if I set out to write this poem about you
it might turn out instead
to be about me
or any one of
my female relatives
it might turn out to be
about this young native girl
growing up in rural Alberta
in a town with fewer Indians
than ideas about Indians
in a town just south of the ‘Aryan Nations’

It might turn out to be
about Anna Mae Aquash, Donald Marshall, or Richard Cardinal,
it might even turn out to be
about our grandmothers
beasts of burden in the fur trade
skinning, scraping, pounding, packing
left behind for ‘British Standards of Womanhood,’
left for white-melting-skinned women,
not bits-of-brown women
left here in this wilderness, this colony.

Betty, if I start to write a poem about you
it might turn out to be
about hunting season instead
about ‘open season’ on native women
it might turn out to be
about your face young and hopeful
staring back at me hollow now
from a black and white page
it might be about the ‘townsfolk’ (gentle word)
townsfolk who ‘believed native girls were easy’
and ‘less likely to complain if a sexual proposition led to violence’

Betty, if I write this poem.

I Cannot Complain

In honor of Argentina’s National Flag Day, we present this work by one of the most cutting-edge Argentine poets.

06-20 Urondo
Francisco Urondo
Argentine
1930 – 1976

 

I am left with only a few friends and those here
are usually far and I am left
an aftertaste I keep within close reach
as if a firearm. I will use it for noble things:
for defeating the enemy—God
willing—, for speaking modestly
about threatening possibilities.

I hope bitterness won’t intercept
forgiveness, that distant wind
of affections I am trying to describe: I hope the rigor of this
will not convert into the thick glass
of the dead, though I am curious to know the things
they’ll have to say of me, after my death:
to know which were your versions of love,
of those tangential meetings,
because my friends tend to be signals
of my life, by tragic luck, giving me all
that isn’t here. Prematurely, with one foot
on each lip of the crevice that opens
before me, at the feet of glory, I salute you all,
hold my nose and let the abyss surround me.

 

Translation by Julia Leverone

Those Winter Sundays

We present this work in honor of Father’s Day.

06-19 Hayden
Robert Hayden
American
1913 – 1980

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

Elegy III

z 06-18-22
Maximianus
Italian
6th century

 

It is now worthwhile to recall some of my youth
and say a bit regarding my old age,

from which a reader may uplift a mind undone
by change and try to grasp a sad affair.

Seduced by love for you, I went mad, Aquilina,
morose and pale, seduced by love for you.

I did not know what love or fiery lust was yet;
instead I suffered from my awkwardness.

She, smoldering, not any less love-struck than me,
would wander unrestrained all through the house.

Beloved carding combs, raw wool were tossed aside,
and love alone became her heart’s obsession.

She found no method that would feed the hidden fire,
no guidance for response with two-way signals.

She showed so much affection in her foolish gaze
with just one glance reliving anxious feelings.

Her tutor chased me. Her grim mother guarded her,
a second punishment for such misfortune.

Throughout it all they scrutinized our eyes and nods—
and coloring that tends to signal thoughts.

When possible, in silence we both stifled longing
and hid our sweet deceits in different ways,

though after modesty emerged on her young face,
deep hidden passion failed to be concealed.

Soon both of us began to seek out times and places,
to converse with eyebrows and our eyes,

to dupe the guards, to put a foot down gingerly,
and in the night to run without a sound.

But not for long! Her mother sensed our secret love
and, getting set to treat the wounds with wounds,

she nagged and slapped; the blaze was kindled by her slaps
like tinder tossed on pyres to stoke the flames.

Our fiery hearts ignite a doubled frenzied passion,
and so an anguish mixed with love is raging,

then, with a panting heart, she looks around for me,
who she believes her purchase through her pleas.

She’s shameless rolling back stained clothes to recollect;
joyful, she even credits them to me.

She says, “I’m glad to suffer pains endured for you.
You’ll be the sweet return on so much blood.

Just let your faith be certain and your will unbroken;
passion that ruined nothing never was.”

I constantly endured these goads, and while in love
I languished, and I had no hope of rescue.

Unthreatened, I was bothered by a silent wound,
though shock and wasting took the place of words.

Boethius, great searcher of important things,
only you, showing pity, bring assistance,

for while you often saw me focused on my worries,
you could not know the reasons for my woes.

Sensing at last that I am gripped by violent sickness,
you softly order opening what’s closed:

“Speak! From whom did you catch this new ignited fever?
Speak! And accept the cure for your claimed pain!

There is no treatment for undiagnosed disease,
and caverns bellow more with smothered flames.”

When it was shameful to confess and talk of sin,
He recognized clear signs of silent pain.

He quickly said, “The matter’s cause is clear enough.
Don’t fret; great strength will give you much forgiveness.”

I broke my shamefaced silence, prostrate at his feet,
while through tears sharing everything in sequence.

“Do it,” he said, “Or could a ‘gift’ of beauty please you?”
“Honor avoids such wishing,” I replied.

He broke up laughing, shouting, “What a wondrous will!
Speak up! When was a love from Venus chaste?

Young man, refrain from sparing your delightful girl!
If you’d be ‘proper’ here, you’ll be improper!”

Tender affairs are fed by scratches and a bite;
a violent business does not shun more blows.

Meanwhile, he pacifies her parents’ hearts with “gifts”
and lures soft touches to my goal with cash.

Blind love of money overcomes parental love;
they both begin to love their daughter’s guilt.

They give us room for secret sings; they acquiesce
to holding hands and filling days with play.

A sanctioned sin becomes cheap; lust becomes depleted.
Exhausted hearts defeated their disease.

She, seeing no pursuit advancing, hates the cause
and leaves dejected with an unspoiled body.

I banished phantom worries from a chastened heart
and quickly found out what a wretch I was.

I said, “Hail holy chastity, and always stay
untouched. Through me you’ll be most modest.”

Once everything had been conveyed to this great man
and he observed I rose above my moods,

he said, “Well done, young man, the lord of your own love!”
and “Gather up some trophies of your scorn.

To you may Cupid’s bow and arms of Venus yield,
and even bold Minerva yield to you.

And so a sanctioned license stole my zeal for sinning,
and even longing for such things departed.

We split up, equally resentful and unhappy;
the reason for the split was modest life.

 

Translation by A.M. Juster