Dear Lily June,
I made it through the night, though I can’t say I didn’t lean a little on the blues. I mean this literally and figuratively. Multiple medical studies have linked quitting smoking–especially in those who experienced darkening depressive episodes before ever lighting up–to an increase in depression. What a shocker, huh? People who were more inclined to have a negative view of life might be more apt to pick up a habit where they slowly court death. The heart bone’s connected to the hurt bone.
But as I told your dad in an email this morning, we’re wrestling with our demons (withdrawal, depression, cravings and crankiness) today in order to get to our better angels tomorrow. One angel that sees me through is you, Lily. One angel is your father. One seemingly improbable angel is my own ex-alcoholic father.
At almost sixty, he put down the bottle he’d spent a lifetime crawling into. Has that put a smooth spit-shine on his halo? No, Lily. But the lesson of your Grandpa Edward’s late-life sobriety is this: One can always change, if one is so inclined. It is never too late to try and never impossible to surprise yourself with what you find can be achieved.
When I was just a girl, your grandfather introduced me, through the soulful sounds of a slide guitar, to an alternative blues musician who couldn’t, ultimately, overcome his own demons. Chris Whitley died at forty-five from lung cancer, and to see his interviews and concerts online now, I see the spectre of death always hovering over his lower lip. For some of us, the smoke rings are blown into handcuffs.
I listened to the gravel grit of his pain last night, playing his music over and over to remind me of an end I don’t want to see. One line always haunts me in a song that pulls as unconsciously at the back of my mind as my lungs unconsciously pull at air. In “Scrapyard Lullaby,” Chris Whitley croons in the chorus,
“Like a walking translation on a street of lies, / [I’m] singin’ these scrapyard lullabies.”
If I had one definition of poetry to offer to anyone, former students or current blog readers or you, my darling daughter, it would be this: “a walking translation on a street of lies.”
There are, in this life, literal truths everywhere: Nothing rhymes quite perfectly, in English, with the color “orange.” Gravity pulls our feet toward the earth. 2 + 1 = 3. Poetry trucks in some of these when a poet makes a pronouncement of some seemingly indisputable point, known as a “declarative truth.”
But poetry is also interested in the emotional truth, and this is what gets translated across the all-too-frequent lies of denial from those who would claim the literal is all that matters: To a girl attempting to understand how her father’s addiction both fit and didn’t into her own life, orange is the color of the light shining through the cracks in a door hinge to her past. Hope is a puppet string that yanks our heart’s love against the gravity of our beloved’s flaws. Two lovers plus one Lily equals infinity.
To use words to penetrate into the indisputable arguments of the mind and the memory and the heart? This, my darling daughter, is poetry.
To explain the “Poetry as Translation” theory to my former students, I would give them two assignments. The first was given to me by my own former poetry teacher, Ilya Kaminsky, at a writer’s conference in Port Townsend, Washington. Born in the former Soviet Union city of Odessa and partially deaf from a very young age, Kaminsky was no stranger to what it means not just to speak, but to live, in translation.
He would set a passage by Marina Tsvetaeva, written in its original Russian, down in front of his English-speaking students and say, “Make this a poem.” And we would stare at a language we couldn’t read and imagine the shapes of the letters themselves carried some secret truth. And we would translate, knowing the best of us would never get to Tsvetaeva’s truth, but even the worst of us would come to some sense of our own. Then, to revise this raw material, he would say, roughly, to take away or revise any line that didn’t make the poem more beautiful.
Lily, even if you don’t ever want to be a writer, engaging in an exercise like this can teach you the magic ticking behind every letter of every word of every sentence of every language. If you want a prompt, take any of the sentences below, written in languages that I know won’t be your first, and “translate them” into what you believe, by their appearance alone, they mean:
- Comme une marche dans une rue de traduction réside, je suis le chant ces parc à ferrailles berceuses.
- Wie eine Übersetzung zu Fuß auf der Straße liegt, bin ich singen diese Verschrottung Schlaflieder.
- Jak spacery tłumaczenie na ulicy kłamstwa, ja śpiewam te złomowisko kołysanek.
- Como una traducción caminando en una calle de mentiras, estoy cantando estas nanas depósito de chatarra.
Now, in your “poem”–as in your life–take away or change anything that doesn’t make it more beautiful.
The other assignment I would give my students would be to read a poem, actually about angels, and quite literally translated into English from the original poet’s, Tadeusz Rózewicz’s, Polish by another poet, Joanna Trzeciak.
The poem is called “Homework Assignment on the Subject of Angels,” and you can scroll down on the link above to read it, if you’re so inclined.
Like the translation of “foreign” languages into poetry above, this poem takes a subject, angels, and “translates” it simile by simile into something we can imagine. There is a competition going on between the fallen angels and the angels still in heaven, but the war of the poem rages in how these unimaginably divine creatures must appear when they’re translated into the everyday ordinary images of humans. The language itself is simple, the spiritual imaginings anything but in lines like these about angels in heaven–
“like stars / they shine in shameful places / they are pure like triangles and circles / with silence / inside them” (ll. 20-24)
–or these about the fallen angels–
“fallen angels / are like the open windows of a morgue” (ll. 25-26).
There is no concept so complex, Lily, like angels or addiction or love, that you couldn’t “translate” in this way, seeing the otherworldly through the imaginative eyes of the literal. In my translation of faith, I do not see this as an act of blasphemy. There is something so frail, so sad, so tender, so pitiable and pathetic in the poets’ attempts to translate angels into cabbage leaves and bird skeletons. The angels appear all the more unknowable when compared to things which can be known, and thus their beauty shines all the more brightly when set up against the terribly real and the brutally mundane.
If you want the second prompt, it would be this:
- Title your poem “Homework Assignment on the Subject of _______________.” Fill in the blank.
- Then, write a poem in which you “translate” a complex topic into simple similes with each image getting to the truth of the subject matter.
Love lives in translation, too, Lily. Today, your father, even while repeatedly slamming his head against the struggle button of addiction, sent me an email thanking me for his life and for yours. That email says more than its words, Lily, which were heartbreaking and helpful as I, too, am struggling. They speak of years worth of priceless memories and moments that brought us to this point in our lives where we want, truly want, to break our bad habits. Every small word in a great love affair is a metaphor for the momentous ones that go unspoken, that maybe are unspeakable.
And though I wrote something loving back to your father, I couldn’t say all the meanings that were behind my words to him. I couldn’t tell him how, despite our inevitable fights and failings during our quitting process, I know, this time, we will make it to the other side. Because I do not have the words myself, I must steal them, Lily (as writers are wont to do).
To take one of my favorite passages of Abraham Lincoln ridiculously out of context (they were from an inaugural address in 1861 regarding the South’s unimaginable choice to secede from the Union), I offer this up to your father, who I know is reading this letter–maybe to you in his lap, maybe near you as you sleep soundly as a baby angel next to him on the couch–
“I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory…will yet swell…when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
P.S. Blog Reader Challenge: Last time I did a Creative Writing post, I put my money where my mouth was and actually wrote a sestina. I will, indeed, write a Homework Assignment poem if anyone reads this post and offers me up a subject to fill in the blank with. I will also link to any and everyone who would take up the prompt themselves.
And Lily, if you, someday, read this post and write a poem yourself, I promise to hang it on the fridge proudly and beam at it repeatedly to the point where it may become my new addiction. You are poetry.
- “Paradiso Canto 31” by Gustave Doré – Alighieri, Dante; Cary, Henry Francis (ed) (1892) “Canto XXXI” in The Divine Comedy by Dante, Illustrated, Complete, London, Paris & Melbourne: Cassell & Company Retrieved on 13 July 2009.. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Paradiso_Canto_31.jpg#/media/File:Paradiso_Canto_31.jpg