Tuesday, April 16, 2019


Nobel prize winner, Shirin Ebadi of Iran, has said that in order to have understanding of and peace in the world, we must read each other’s literature. I’d add that the emissaries of that mission are translators: think of Coleman Barks translating the Persian poet Mowlavi (Rumi); Jane Kenyon translating the work of the Russian poet, Akhmatova, Stuart Friebert translating the German poet, Karl Krolow…Think also of the independent press, Pinyon Publishing in Colorado, which often publishes international poetry translations, such as its recent release: a volume of selected poetry by M. Vasalis (1909-1998), a Dutch psychiatrist who specialized in treating children and whose work has been translated by Fred Lessing and David Young.

In the introduction to this volume, translators Lessing and Young emphasize that the poet Vasalis had little interest in promoting her work but that her poems “come out of her life, her experience of the natural world, her professional practice, and her family relations, arising from the press of occasion and necessity rather than from an ambition to originality or greatness…” That description alone impressed me because I admire the qualities of humility and modesty that inhere in a writer’s life mission.

Vasalis’s immediacy and simplicity in “Spring,” a poem describing the spring season readers in the northern hemisphere are presently experiencing, resonated with me early in the volume and is perhaps the most whimsical one in The Old Coastline: “The light gusts across the land in spurts,/waking the hard, brief glitter/of the blue, wind-ruffled ditches and canals;/the grass lights up, dims down, goes dark./Two newborn lambs next to a grizzled sheep/stand white, printing youth’s picture against grass./I had forgotten how this was, and that/the spring is not a quiet blossoming,/dreaming softly but a violent growing,/a pure and passionate beginning,/jumping up out of a deep sleep,/and dancing away without a thought.” Although Vasalis has been likened to the American poet, Elizabeth Bishop, I hear the voice of Emily Dickinson in this selection the translators included from her first book, Parks and Deserts (1940). 

A reading of selections from her third book, Vistas and Visages, published posthumously in 1954, reveals more serious poetic treatments as Vasalis probes the deeper subjects of suffering and loss arising from Vasalis’s own tragic loss of a child who lived only a year and a half. The imagery in “Star” carries this message of loss in a departure from any formalism and pivots on the figure of her lost child, then concludes in a pastoral scene featuring a cow, a powerful entry into the natural world. “Tonight I saw a star for the first time./He stood alone, he did not quiver./Instantly, he pierced me through./I saw a star, he stood alone, belief/made out of light: so young and from a time/before there was such a thing as grief./The meadows lie unspoken in the light./The cows, so often painted,/restrain, with a young wet eye,/any account of their warm mystery.” That one verse , so much akin to Japanese haiku, underlines the beautiful simplicity of Vasalis’s oeuvre.

In the same volume, Vistas and Visages, Vasalis reveals her love and appreciation of children and her journey as a psychiatrist dealing with youth. “Children Coming Home” evokes strong emotions in those of us who parented young offspring and welcomed them as they returned home from an all-day absence. Her description of them as “big flowers” coming out of the gathering dark, “the chilly evening air/that lightly drapes their cheeks and hair/they are so warm!” is neither Elizabeth Bishop nor Emily Dickinson but simply a mother experiencing intimacy with her young in an intense immediacy. Further, she writes: “Clasped/in the strong clamp of their soft arms/I glimpse the love, shadowless and full./ [not yet exposed to Jungian psychology about shadows that will beset them later] that lives at the bottom of their penetrating eyes,/It is not mixed with pity, which comes later,/and has its reasons — and its boundaries.” It is Vasalis who has the penetrating eyes and appears watchful about the boundaries of innocent children.

In The Old Coastline (2002), readers will enjoy some of Vasalis’s poems about older relationships; i.e., a poignant characterization of her grandmother, a cherished member of the poet’s family constellation in “Old Age”: “Grandmother/snow-white-lace on/her calm sweet, white-satin head/carried when she was in Holland, at home,/the smallest muff in the whole world:/inside a tiny bottle, no bigger/than an ampule./ There was just room/for her hands. Plus one child's hand,/oh, what a delicious nest of fur and/the very softest satin lining/…Her eyes were a constantly changing blue;/you could look into them as long as you liked:/as if you were seeing, through two small openings,/the calm sea on a summer day.” That intimate tribute is both exacting and graceful, two recurring components of the selections chosen by Vasalis’s translators.

Vasalis also gives readers a glimpse of her own ideas about mortality, one with which most of us in our eighties can identify: “I practice like a young bird on the edge/of the nest I must soon forsake/in little faltering flights/and open my beak.”

This translated work by Vasalis is a powerful addition to the canon of international expression and vision.Translator Fred Lessing, a Holocaust survivor, psychotherapist, and retired professor of philosophy, retained his native Dutch language after moving to America at age 12. His fellow translator, David Young, is a poet (Field of Light and Shadow, 2010) an editor of Field magazine, Oberlin College Press, and a translator who enjoys collaborative work with his long-time friend, Fred Lessing.

Thank you Gary and Susan for contributing to the mission of sharing international literature through expert translations! The Old Coastline is another occasion for celebration. 

Order from Pinyon Publishing, 23847 V66 Trail, Montrose, CO 81403.

Sunday, April 7, 2019


I never argue the fact that one picture or photograph is worth more than a thousand words. Yesterday’s walk through the Huntsville, Alabama Botanical Garden inspired me to prove that adage through the following photographs, snapped by botanist Victoria Sullivan. This fantastic presentation of “The Wild,” is a lantern festival produced by Hanart Culture, a company whose purpose is to present Chinese art and culture to the world. The visual production shown here focuses on the imaginative art of a traditional Chinese Festival, which falls on the first lunar month of the year, and at which time many types of lanterns decorate the streets in China.

Lantern making originated with the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to 220 A.D.). In the initial phases of this art, lanterns were only used for lighting, but they evolved into colorful art forms as seen in the Garden display. Artists utilized bottles, rags, paper, and rayon to create the art, lighting their creations with colored bulbs and moving parts. 

The artist of the peacock shone here created this form from colored medicine bottles. Pieces of china plates, as well as paper and silk were used to make myriad shapes and sizes of wildlife displayed throughout the park. Seventeen vignettes fascinated onlookers, “enchanting in the sunlight” and “magical in the moonlight” as the show was billed. We watched children exclaim and name the wildlife forms, and if they stayed for the nighttime show with music and sound effects (which we didn’t), they must have been further enchanted. My favorite vignette featured the peacock, but I’d have been challenged to award a prize to the most fantastic display.

The Chinese Lantern Show sent me scurrying to Barnes and Noble of Huntsville to hunt for Chinese poetry where I discovered an international anthology entitled A Book of Luminous Things edited by Czeslaw Milosz. I liked Kenneth Rexroth’s translation of Tu Fu’s eighth century poem, “Another Spring:”

White birds over the grey river.
Scarlet flowers on the green hills.
I watch the spring go by and wonder
If I shall ever return home.

Huntsville Botanical Garden has as its mission to blend traditional botanical garden elements, the aesthetic heritage of the region, the conservation of natural resources and a significant thrust into the future.This 112-acre garden also boasts of containing the nation’s largest accredited trillium collection.

Someone such as naturalist Susan Hester Edmunds of New Iberia, Louisiana would find this place and its displays awesome, especially the Master Gardener’s Demonstration Garden maintained by the Master Gardeners of North Alabama. Food produced is donated to Food Bank of North Alabama.

Photographs by Victoria Sullivan 

Tuesday, April 2, 2019


Dog damage to garage

Sunday, I preached on the Parable of the Prodigal Son, and as an aftereffect of the delivery, at lunch with the Sisters of St. Mary, Sewanee, the conversation centered around the profligate son finally getting a job feeding pods to pigs. I don’t know whether the phrase “pods for pigs” was some kind of biblical alliteration created by an early translator of The Word, but the botanist in our crowd, Vickie Sullivan, and others around the table Googled and found that the pods were actually a chocolaty bean from the carob tree that pigs must have relished. 

The conversation caused me to wonder if perhaps a pig had been the culprit that damaged the siding on a corner of the garage door while we were sojourning in Louisiana. A photograph of the damage is shown above. I mean, if boa constrictors can proliferate, move around, and damage properties in Florida and nutria migrated and proliferated in Louisiana, could pigs do the same in Tennessee?! 

According to the manual, Wildflowers in the Smokies (lead author, Peter White), during the late 1940s European wild hogs escaped from a game farm in North Carolina and entered the Great Smoky Mountain Park of Tennessee and North Carolina, and attempts to remove them have failed. Now, these are no ordinary pigs; they’re large babies that root up wildflowers and create wallows in lower elevations in beech gaps, damaging trout lilies and other spring wildflowers, decimate forests by rooting for bulbs and tubers, leaving the beech gaps looking as if they’ve been plowed up. Park officials are worried about long-term effects of these hogs that they actually call wild boars. 

Since the late 1980s, large populations of the boars have been trapped or shot by park crews, but officials claim that total elimination of the hogs is almost impossible. Coyotes like to eat wild hog piglets and red wolves also like to take on full-grown boars, but I’m wondering if there are some park runaways who have managed to migrate to The Mountain here at Sewanee, and are foraging for food near residences.

A repairman who arrived to give an estimate for repairs to the damaged siding told us that there are toothmarks on the siding, and he thinks a large dog (whose owner cleaned up the siding and took it away) chased a chipmunk that crawled inside the corner siding, and tried to make a meal of the little critter. Since part of the siding had been taken away, we surmised that it was a dog whose owner decided repairs might be costly (estimate of $275), so he/she didn’t leave a note. No chipmunk skeletons or missing siding have been found in the woods either.

Unlike some cultures, I don’t have an appetite for roast dog, but I do like cochon de lait —roast pig — Cajun cooking at its best — but there are no carob pods around, and I guess we’ll have to stick to the story of disrepair by a dog who was supposed to be on a leash but got out of control when a chipmunk crossed its path. Sigh. 

We always come home to some kind of damage to the property when we leave Sewanee for the winter, and we once thought the Sewanee campus a safe place to live, but we’ve been taking a ride every day lately… looking for country acreage where we might keep a pen of pigs?…