Gustav A. Richar - Issue 107

Shades of Passion

Canoeing among and camping on the islands of the northern Georgian Bay is, as every year, an earned vacation, a living within sight of the distant water-and wave-hemmed horizon, a time when my wife and I follow geological formations from island to island, count nesting pairs of warblers and sparrows on each visited remoteness, cook simple meals, read, write. During these weeks I always work on something I don't seem to find time for at home. This year I translated Kaschmir, a short story by the German author and film director, Doris Dbrrie. Perhaps someone else had previously translated the story, perhaps even published it in a collection orin aliterary magazine, butignorantof these possibilities I believed thetask was worth the effort. It would also give me hours of entertainment.

We hadjust finished lunch at our camp on Gooseberry Island (in the western section of the Bustard Islands) when, enjoying myself in the translation process, I stumbled on a word. "Leidenschaftlich," I said to my wife. "What's its counterpart in English?" She, still well acquainted with her mother tongue, stared at me as if I had asked for a translation into Swahili.

We knew the meaning of the word, but could not express it in English. Leidenschaftlich. Leidenschaftlich! It's on the tip of the tongue.

In a few days we would celebrate a wedding anniversary of several lecades and we, laughing when crying would have been more appropriate, stated with a swell of nostalgia that we had forgotten leidenschaftlich in our second language like the fading colour of a once magnificent ruby that had been exposed to the sun for centuries.

The translation progressed slowly. Not for want, but for personal restraint: 14 days canoeing - 16 pages of short story = 1.14 pages per day (mathematicians may express the numbers following the decimal point in lines or words). For the remainder of the pleasure time on those remote islands we read aloud Karen Blixen's Out of Africaand Bruce Chatwin's What Am I Doing Here?, and, something new that summer, the May and June issues ofSaturday Night. My correspondent in London/ON, B.D. Cehlate, had sent these magazines requesting my opinion about the 1995 short fiction and poetry winners of the Tilden/CBC/Saturday NightLiterary Contest. As if my remarks could influence the jury of future contests.

And we had another first on our voyage: a cellular phone.

B.D. Cehlate is a cultured, unobtrusive, and unpublished poet-a rarity in our time-who is intensely aware that her output is just everyday 1990s poetry. Since she longs to create something more lasting than a publication in a literary quarterly, she writes for friends only. Perhaps someday her patience and artistic seclusion will bring her the elusive, innovative style and wisdom (as it did, she points out often, to Rilke and Valéry) that will satisfy her, propel hertoward truly international recognition, move her above everyday poets.

Before we left the mainland, we parked our car at Stephen Welliver's in Britt. He, a painter, collector of rare books, restorer of wooden boats, and Lebenskiinstler (artist of life) had the luck to win in a raffle the use of a cellular phone for six months. Perhaps because of the country's economic situation, winning something outright has become unfashionable. Now the win is a time-trail; Sam Slick is coming back. Stephen, with his usual generosity, proposed that I should take the phone with me to establish the maximum transmission range between different islands and the mainland. Not to disappoint him, we, who don't even have a phone in our home, stuffed the gadget with packaged egg noodles and rolled oats in our provision bucket.

I had either forgotten both requests or conveniently parked them in an abandoned warehouse of my mind when, on the fourth evening of our island stay, my wife, who hadjustreadthe $10,000-award-winning poems of the contest, wanted to discuss them, and handed me the June issue of Saturday Night Kicheraboo, We Are, Dying by John B. Lee. Had he not been awarded the second prize in last year's CBC/Saturday Night Literary Competition? Obviously that dissatisfied the poet. The curiosity to win must have possessed him like a Catholic sin. At least he showed a remarkably good character trait by dismissing AIDS, sexual orientation, the Red Cross blood scandal, holocaust (too many authors are riding that camel) as a vehicle for his conquest. He selected racism, always a profitable theme for playwrights/poets/politicians. It's so everyday.

The open illustration of Julie Bell on the Saturday Night page with the award-winning poetry brought forth peals of laughter from me (these mixed well with the continuous cries of gulls and tems from their nearby nesting colonies). I had the notion of seeing a black astronaut waiting for his helmet, though the artist wanted to show a black slave with a neck shackle.

My wife was eager to compare my opinion of the poems with hers.

After reading the poems and before ploughing through them a second time, I dug into our provision bucket for the cellular phone, grabbed it and punched in Stephen's phone number on the mainland. My request surprised him. Unilingual Stephen, carefully repeating every letter of Leidenschaftlich, promised to look up the word in his 1873 English/ German dictionary; the one that even has explanatory hand-coloured engravings.

My vacation plan had included the reading of two books and the translating of a short story. Now the main objectives became crowded by a discussion about poetry, competitions, greed. The translation progressed as expected; the readings, however, limped into the evening where we finished the scheduled pages by the campfire, swatting mosquitos.

Asked to give an opinion about these poems, my memory began the process by offering support, selecting comparisons, proffering wisdom of dead writers. When these windows of knowledge open and spill their accumulations into the present where I try to formulate an intelligent reply to my wife's and also B.D.'s requests, I find this knowledge more curse than help. Somewhere (happily, I had forgotten that source) Thomas Mann had written that in literature you know only what you imagine. Oh, stated another memory-fleck, but Balzac stated, wrest words from silence (remember Rilke? Valéry?) and ideas from obscurity. And Yeats added also somewhere-

Suddenly my wife yelled from the shoreline. I dropped my notes to rush to her defence against water-dragons or granite-lions, but before I could jump up, I understood her shouts. Passionately. Passionately! Her mind had spat the missing word of my translation from the tip of her tongue. Finally. Bless her.

Here, for reason unknown to me, I thought of an uncle of mine, now in his nineties, still translating poems from Swedish into German. Just for he intellectual challenge, he once wrote me. For almost sixty years he also has been writing poems of his own, poems reflecting collected experience, personal observations, war reflections, humanity's hope. His writings are without artificiality, pomposity, rhyme, or rhythm, but show clarity that non-poets can follow. He has never published a poem-and never willnor submit his labours to a magazine, or God forbid, to a competition. He is the epiphany of European culture and all his poems reflect his experience. The pre-screening experts of the Tilden/CBC/Saturday Night Literary Competition would never consider his poems.

To hear the sound of a phone in a bucket filled with packages of egg noodles, dried fruits, pancake mixes on an island at an evening when the sun is setting behind a long sulphur cloud from INCO's superstack in Sudbury/ON (80 km distance), is a marvellously shocking experience. Totally unnatural. I did not have the heart to tell Stephen that I knew the problem word already. He added a few advisory remarks about aging, long marriage, and passion for which I thanked him. Being my junior, he lacks almost 10 years of experience in the progressively increasing default of life.

My wife wanted to know if I had come to a conclusion about Kicheraboo, We are Dying.

I, who wanted to continue my reading of Out of Africa, offered an answer that circumvented the main theme, started on detours vaguely related to the forthcoming opinion; probably a tedious process, but she had, to a certain degree, accepted my form of a critique long ago. And not out of compassion.

Perhaps a public commission or the arts' community should advise the administrators of the Tilden/CBC/Saturday Night Literary Competition to set restrictions for entering the contest. Wasn't this country-wide and reputable contest once a vehicle for young, talented, but unknown writers to fetch that all-important national exposure? It's obvious that to become a winner nowadays (at least for poetry) one has to have an international reputation (however overblown that expression is in Canada), and have 12 books plus two other awards to one's name. As an observer who has never entered this competition, I have to summarize Mr. Lee's obsession to win over other, yet undiscovered and perhaps better poets, to be monetary greed-certainly unworthy of a man who proudly considers himself a cultured (or maybe that should read cultivated) shepherd, a knowledgable man from rural Ontario.

In April 1898 the German, then highly-acclaimed poet, Stefan George, met R.M. Rilke in the Boboli Gardens in Florence. George advised young Rilke not to publish hastily because all influences on an artist's life should first dissolve in his memory and experience before being presented in the artist's work. This memorable meeting returns to my mind whenever I think of the Archive in Hermann Kasack's novel The City Beyond the River. Not a common archive, but the final collecting ground for everything written, a place I call the Library of Babylon, an imaginary underground cavern that every essayist, novelist, playwright, and poet has to enter in the last moment of life. Here the Archarchevist evaluates the newly-ar-rived literary works before the writer's eyes. Most fashionable authors of the past saw their works crumble to dust, as will the novels and scripts of present giants of the pen. Other writers were luckier when the eternal process stored a single sentence of their works, perhaps even an entire poem or story. Much of what the present finds original, the past had known, written, and forgotten.

Another fashionable poet, but also dramatist, essayist, librettist, and novelist, of Rilke's days was Hugo von Hofmannsthal. He did not think Rilke was a poet. Yet today, in the Library of Babylon, the works of Rilke stand beside Catullus and Saigyõ Hõshi, whereby only the operas of Richard Strau&azlig;

save Hofmannsthal from total obscurity. And Stefan George? I could neither quote a single line of his poetry nor remember having read anything of his for a long time in any book except in an index as a reference.

My wife, becoming restless, wanted to know the reason for this lengthy detour.

Only in solitude can one follow one's line of thoughts without being disturbed.

Though I wanted to lessen her general view of the (as she called it) blood, shit, and sweat poetry, I did not argue about the poems' message to the population-whatever that meant-since only 0.6 percent of the Canadian reading public shows interest in poetry. They-the noisy, unliterary majority-may understand a line, perhaps even a fragment of a paragraph, or at least enjoy the last stanza (Is such a definition still an acceptable term for a learned accumulation of words?) of Lee's third poem, The Banning of The Drum:

         Dumb poets
         We were banging
         Our tongues like rain.

The general theme of the six poems, old and accepted by humanity until the early days of our century, should apparently induce displeasure in today's readers, provide a thimbleful of shame for past atrocities of nameless American slave merchants, buyers, and keepers; remind us of past misfortunes of our black neighbours. These us are only the few descendants of white families who probably dislike tracing their family trees. For the real Canadianus of 1995, historical and national racism belongs to a past filled with legal cruelties and disadvantages. We cannot and should notjudge from our vantage point in time the centuries, decades, and years that are forever beyond the sphere of our influence.

Why did the poet not write about the discrimination toward Canadian aborigines, the racism they encountered, still have to endure? One answer towers above all others. Racism against blacks is a more international problem and since the byline calls Mr. Lee an internationally-known poet, he hoped that with these poems he might actually become one.

Whenever reading such poetry as offered in the 1995 June issue of Saturday Night, I believe that the poet is a closet-novelist who doesn't have the endurance and power to write a lengthy prose work. It's obvious and it saddens me that the author forgot to add passion to his poetic efforts. There are metaphors-the kind used in any reputable poem since the beginning of modem-day poetry-jumps in thoughts, unfinished expressions, and unexplainable cuts, in short everything expected in a 1995 poem. But why not passion? Why only a researched account of the past that comes forward like a rejuvenated collection of found poems, once so fashionable?

There are poets who write because they see, there are others who write because they hear. How often have I thought about that aphorism when reading the poetic offerings in literary quarterlies or freshlypublished, thin books. Oh, what an ocean of words and no ship above that turbulent sea.

In the story Kaschmir I was translating, a once passionate relationship between a man and a woman became an everyday affair where, at times, the past sent forth ambassadors to remind the couple of previous, hai)Dier days. Unfortunately, the arrival of these delegates was inappropriate and, instead of furthering a better relationship, it damaged and belittled the existing one. Something that has occurred between today's poets and their readers.

The phone rang again. Stephen had remembered our anniversary and congratulated us. We thanked him for that, though he was unaware of our true feelings. I wanted to return to Out of Africa, feel the passion of Kikuyu dancers, the proud aloofness of Masai Morans, the heat and rhythms of the continent from where the human freight with their life-long agonies came to the Americas. How many of these slaves came from Dahomey, through the hands of Dom Francisco Felix de Souza, chacha of Ouidah, the man immortalized by bruce Chatwin's novel The Viceroy of Ouidah and Werner Herzog's film Cobra Verde? But my wife, unaware of the distance my mind had travelled, called me back to the island evening and insisted I finish my review of Lee's award-winning poetry. It's unusual nowadays to receive such a large sum for six poems, particularly poetry where a master craftsman pulled all registers of the poetic organ, wrote in a learned style, used fashionable arrangements of words, aimed strictly for the win. How many nights did the author, a prosperous and well-fed white man, sitin his chamber writing about slaves and ships and the disadvantages of the coloured race? Where are the activists that verbally demolished the African exhibition at the Toronto Royal Ontario Museum, causing the nervous breakdown of its curator? Apparently none of them reads poetry or could not care that a white man enriched himself again on their ancestor's plights.

Recently I read that senior citizens, who lacked the strength to walk without a cane, improved after a few days of weight-lifting to such an extent that they could walk without a cane. There is hope for Mr. Lee to write such award-winning poetry that might survive the inevitable process in, the Library of Babylon.

  Passion, passionate, passionately, impassioned.
  Passion, passionate....