The book was stained, its pages rippled and dried after a soaking, some of them stuck together. An orange circular sticker had OWSL scribbled on it in black marker and so did the top of the book, across the edge of the closed pages. Whomsoever’s it was before, now it belonged to the Occupied Wall St. People’s Library in Zuccotti Park. Selected Translations, 1968-1978 by W.S. Merwin was still in one piece and I like Merwin’s poems so I picked it up to read it.
I could have taken it home; one guy was worried he wouldn’t have time to finish a Lawrence Block book before he had to return to Phoenix so a volunteer librarian told him to take it with him and donate it to Occupy Phoenix when he was finished with it. I read Merwin on a convenient wooden chair in the park because I thought I might read some of these daily books in bookstores and libraries and Occupy Wall St.’s library has a very nice vibe.
Merwin has done a lot of translating—Pablo Neruda, Dante, Osip Mandelstam, Muso Soseki, Euripides, Rumi, Garcia Lorca, Basho and others. This book is one of several translation collections, ambitious in its range. He includes poems from Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Russian, Swedish, American Indian, Quechua (Incan), Txeltal and Tzetzil (Mayan), Eskimo, Malgache (Madagascar), Korean, Chinese, Sanskrit, Persian, Turkish, and Urdu. There are a few lines from Michelangelo, the loveliest: “…even if I were quite blind, I would find you…”
Nicanor Parra wrote in Spanish:
“I’m sad I’ve got nothing to eat / nobody cares about me / there shouldn’t be any beggars / I’ve been saying the same thing for years…”
Osip Mandelstam wrote in Russian:
“Your thin shoulders are for turning red under whips, / turning red under whips, and flaming in the raw cold.
Your child’s fingers are for lifting flatirons / For lifting flatirons and for knotting cords.
Your tender soles are for walking on broken glass, / walking on broken glass, across bloody sands.
And I’m for burning like a black candle lit for you…”
In the preface to the translations, Merwin says of his work: “Without deliberately altering the overt meaning of the original poem, I wanted the translation to represent, with as much life as possible, some aspect, some quality of the poem which made the translator think it was worth translating in the first place.”
This was a departure from the advice Ezra Pound gave when Merwin visited him in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the Insane where Pound was incarcerated for twelve years as an outspoken and unapologetic political dissident. Pound said to get as close to the original form and language of the poem as possible. Merwin’s ‘possible’ is always infused with the music of the English language he writes in and colored by the music of the poets whose work he translates. The romance languages flow in English; the Mayan translations have the particular rhythm and magic of Mayan myth and syntax; the Asian poets resonate with exquisite imagery and rich symbolism.
A delightful thing about rummaging in tubs of old books for something to read is the inevitable out-of-print gem you will find to taste and savor. Despite the occasional high-energy chants, the constant jazz combo enlivening a nearby circle, the camera-wielding tourists and the difficulty of quiet reflection, you can read in the middle of an occupied park. And the words may make a different kind of sense to you—reading revolutionaries, rebels, nonconformists and passionate poets surrounded by a few yet to find their way into print.
W. S. Merwin Selected Translations, 1968-1978 Atheneum 1980