I’ve been playing around with various poetry writing prompts. I find that sometimes when I’m in a mood to write but don’t have any specific inspiration they can help to get things moving and I’ll find that I do have something to say after all.
“Translate” a poem into English from a language with which you have limited familiarity. Be attentive to the texture of the language and allow your immediate impulses about what the words mean inform your interpretation. Be sure not to look at an English translation until you have finished writing your imagined translation.
So I’ve studied Irish, but only for two years I’m far from fluent, but it’s not totally opaque to me either. I googled and found a poem by an Irish poet I heard read when I was at Boston College, Máire Mhac an tSaoi. My poem really has nothing to do with hers at all– I certainly wouldn’t even call it a translation!– except that I was sort of free associating with words from her poem, either playing with false cognates or just the sound and shape of the words, only rarely with the actual Irish meanings.
My poem is at least twice as long as hers because when I got an image or an idea that I liked I’d run with it for several lines or even stanzas and only go back to her poem when I started to run out of steam. I’m not entirely sure it works. But I like a lot of the images and phrases that turned up and some of the ideas. Maybe some day I’ll come back and find another, more shapely poem, hidden in the jumble. But for now it was a fun exercise and was satisfying to write. As I wrote I felt like I’d fallen into a sort of fugue state, the words just running from my fingers faster than my conscious self could keep up. There seem to be two different voices at first, a father and daughter. Their relationship has a little flavor of King Lear about it. I’m not sure where that came from at all.
Here and there here and there
in the waves of the restless sea
never anchoring, never setting a course.
My Father, where are you going tonight?
Why are you a stranger to me?
Oh my people, do you not know me?
The others, the strangers,
Am I one of them?
Here and there?
I hunger for sea brine and thirst for sea foam
far from the shore
never far from death’s dark song
Flowing when, before all other things,
the milky tide ran forth from creation’s first note.
Yesterday and every day when the thin spirits
drank the bowl of fear
Only the eagle
only the chosen nevermind nobody will grieve
It is it is I am I am gone beyond all telling
Alas, there it goes.
It hardly seems possible that the shroud of forgetting
and the shroud of buried memories
should have settled on this house
This war-torn patch of earth.
Will you stay with me here, fair one,
or leave me myself?
Is it here that you are leaving,
abandoned to the foreigner,
Passing into the unknown far away?
Here and there here and there.
The walls still remember the echoing laughter that filled
the air reverberating
so that the silence rang and rang with a sound
that could never die away
And the walls ran with griefs that no tongue could tell
the secret heart longings of
middle of the night wakings
when the heart knows what
the heart can never tell
nursing her sorrows by the light of a pale moon.
In a room where once companions sat and whiled away an afternoon
with stories and tea and sweet things to chew over
But now only the shadows flock to taunt the sleepless mother
telling over her sorrows like a set of beads.
The mother whose womb is empty now
whose children are sleeping soundly
long past the age of night wakings
She leans against her pillows and remembers the sound
of a baby breathing in the darkness
but the crib is gone, and in its place only piles
of boxes waiting to be sorted.
Her eyes stare out the dark window
to where the distant trees would be
if the night were not so dark
the house-surrounding dark
that holds all together in its strong embrace.
Be quiet and wait without sound, without words,
without strength— for that flowed out a long time ago
and will not come flowing back.
Your schemes and dreams have come to naught
spinning your fancies like a pale spider, seeking the peace of sleep
and finding it not.
The house shudders, the wind is picking up
the air blowing from another, colder world
invading the spring time with its wintry chill
a fairy caravan floating down the roads of the world
a neverending haunting.
But you would go with it if you could
to find out where the solitary wind dwells
You, mother, sick at heart with your piles of unmended
unfinished, unwritten, all the loose ends.
Now hardly possible that any nimble fingers could gather them
and drop them in your lap to be restitched into the places they dropped from
Hardly does it seem possible that any tear
can be mended, any eye dried.
Now, lacking the throat-scythe that will cut down all you hoped for–
It is nearer than you think, the cheater.
Give ear in earnest now, my dearest father
sit here and listen in this place.
Once I knew not and I dwelt in your house
but now your house is gone and only this insufficient
hospitality: no room for you, but only a place on the floor.
Oh the aged head should have more dignity
is this how you honor your father, ungrateful daughter?
Closing your door and snugging in your own great bed?
And when your spirit tugs you home at last
when your joy has been robbed and all that is left
in your house
When will you gather up what strength is left to you?
And will you put down what roots you can while you may
tend the garden you have been given and stop
striving for food that does not satisfy?
I see no reason to rejoice
We have forgotten our history
even our very name
our own selves
are gone like the spider’s web.
What is left now but the bone’s way?