Thursday, June 18, 2009


Even after all this time
The sun never says to the earth,
"You owe me."

Look what happens with a love like that -
it lights the whole world.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Monday, May 11, 2009

In Praise of Coldness

by Jane Hirshfield

"If you wish to move your reader,"
Chekhov wrote, "you must write more coldly."

Herakleitos recommended, "A dry soul is best."

And so at the center of many great works
is found a preserving dispassion,
like the vanishing point of quattrocento perspective,
or the tiny packets of desiccant enclosed
in a box of new shoes or seeds.

But still the vanishing point
is not the painting,
the silica is not the blossoming plant.

Chekhov, dying, read the timetables of trains.
To what more earthly thing could he have been faithful?-
Scent of rocking distances,
smoke of blue trees out the window,
hampers of bread, pickled cabbage, boiled meat.

Scent of the knowable journey.

Neither a person entirely broken
nor one entirely whole can speak.

In sorrow, pretend to be fearless. In happiness, tremble.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009


"I still believe, as many of us do, what the Exodus first taught:

-- first, that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt;

-- second, that we can make a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land;

-- and third, that the way to the land is through the wilderness.

There is no way to get from here to there, except by joining together and marching."

Friday, March 13, 2009

When the Time Comes for Singing

The water flings itself down insistently,
a thousand shifting mouths
gulping at the ground.
"You are like me," it says,
"hurtling from moment to moment,
atoms dancing and clinging,
full of vibration and crashing silence."
Do not be afraid, my darling!
Water falls,
and your body's samba dances itself.
Silence snags and catches in your throat,
but your heart still sings the song it knows.
When the time comes for breaking open,
you will break open.
When the time comes for singing,
you will fill your lungs and fling yourself,
in the only direction there is.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Precipice

I stand, within four shivering walls
and their wood plank door,
on top of a mountain,
trembling with fear and promise
at the roar of gushing wind
wrapping its arms around my sticks and plaster, screaming,
demanding everything.
The door rattles its latch, and each thunderclap cracks closer,
coming to claw at walls and proud defenses.
The storm rages nearer, and I stand alone, on top of a mountain,
trembling with fear and promise
under the cold fire of invisible stars.

Tonight, again, the world demands this of me:
that I stand with my whole self bare at the center of the storm
and feel it through to my bones-
that I surrender again and again
and even here, even on the mountaintop,
trembling before the precipice,
be willing to tumble end over end into this life.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Chiesi agli Dei

Several years ago, I began to learn an art song by Vincenzo Bellini called "Malinconia, ninfa gentile", which translates to "Melancholy, gentle nymph". The first verse (the text of which is by the Italian poet Ippolito Pindemonte) is as follows:
Malinconia, ninfa gentile,
la vita mia consacro a te;
i tuoi piaceri chi tiene a vile,
ai piacer veri nato non è.

This translates, quite clearly, to roughly:
Melancholy, gentle nymph,
I dedicate my life to you;
Whoever is afraid of your pleasures
is not born to true pleasures.

It seems to be simply an early emo song. "Life is so painful! I'll embrace pain! Look how dark I am!" And it is, obviously, all sung in a minor key. Whenever I have sung this song, that is the only attitude I have brought to it - Italian hyperbole of suffering. Yet treating the second verse this way has always been a bit of a cop-out. Because the embarrassing truth is that I never really translated the second verse. I had a vague sense of what all the words meant, and I had read others' translations of it, but I had certainly not internalized its meaning. Eighteenth century poetic Italian is not always easy to translate for a non-native speaker like myself, and while reading the translations of others is helpful, I believe that to truly make a song your own, you must bridge the space between the poetic Italian and poetic English yourself.

And the thing that kept bothering me was that, in the middle of the second verse, the key changes to major. "Why does it change?", my voice teacher kept asking me. "You have to decide why if you want to sing this song." But the text just didn't make sense, so I continued to gloss it over, singing notes and words rather than a song.

Here is the text of the second verse:
Fonti e colline chiesi agli Dei;
m'udiro alfine, pago io vivrò,
né mai quel fonte co' desir miei,
né mai quel monte trapasserò.
(Trapasserò, né mai, né mai, co' desir miei,
trapasserò, né mai, né mai, trapasserò,
né mai, né mai, trapasserò.
No, no, mai.)

And here is the sense of the words, with no (or at most vague) meaning, that I had:
Fountains and hills, churchs to the Gods;
I will hear myself at last, I pay I will live,
never that fountain with my desires,
never that mountain I will pass.
(I will pass never, never, with my desires,
I will pass never, never, I will go beyond,
never, never I will pass.
No, no, never.)

Clearly there is some meaning in there, and clearly these words do not capture it. It turns out, of course, that I had made four crucial errors, and with them resolved, it turns out this song is not emo and angsty, but rather Buddhist and paradoxically joyful! (Which I am a big fan of.)

**The following is a detailed, perhaps tedious explanation of what these mistakes were, and how I fixed them. If you aren't interested in languages and translation, feel free to skip the next four paragraphs.**

The first mistake was "chiesi agli Dei". I initially translated it as "churches to the Gods", thinking "chiesi" was the plural of "chiesa", which does mean church. Of course, the plural of "chiesa", a feminine noun, is actually "chiese", and the 'i' at the end in fact turns the word into the first person past tense of "chiedere", which means "to ask". "Agli" is a compound of "a" and "gli", and Italian being a romance language, "a" can actually mean "to", "of", "at", or "in", to name a few. So "chiesi agli Dei" actually means not "churches to the Gods", but "I asked of the Gods".

My second mistake was "m'udiro", a compound of "mi" and "udiro". I did correctly identify "udiro" as a conjugation of "udire", which means "to hear", but thought that it was either the first person present (which is in fact "odo") or the first person future (in fact "udirò"), with the required accent probably accidentally omitted. But with further investigation, I discovered that "udiro" is actually a shortened version of "udirono": the poetic texts of arias and art songs often drop syllables at the beginnings or ends of words to keep a better rhythm. "Udirono" is the third person plural past tense of "udire", and so the phrase is not "I will hear myself", but "they heard me".

The next error was "pago", which I translated as the first person present of "pagare", which it certainly could be. Of course, that makes little sense here, and I luckily discovered that "pago" can also mean "satisfied".

My final mistake was ignoring the "né" of "né mai". "Mai" on its own means "never", and the "né" is indeed important. It means "neither", and is always paired as "né...né...", meaning "neither...nor...". With these tiny words added in, it is possible to parse the second two lines into four phrases rather than two: "'neither never that fountain' 'with my desires' 'nor never that mountain' 'I will go beyond'" - and it is possible to see that the first and third are connected, and the meaning closer to "Neither that fountain nor that mountain I will never go beyond with my desires." And the repeated phrases at the end are more accurately "I will pass neither never nor never, no never."

**Translatophobes start reading again!**

With these flaws fixed, the second verse is now:
Fountains and hills I asked of the Gods;
They heard me at last, I will live satisfied.
My desires will never go beyond that fountain
nor that mountain.

With this translation, I now find incredible depth in the song. In these words I now hear, "I will accept suffering. Those who do not accept suffering cannot experience joy. The beauty of the earth, of the present moment that is a gift from God, is enough. I will not desire more." And in this spirit, the key change finally makes sense.

The change to major happens at the first "né mai", which is certainly strange if the line is interpreted as giving up: "I will never go beyond" as "it will never get better". But with the joy of acceptance, it perfectly supports the deeper meaning of the song: "I will never go beyond" as "this is enough", worthy of a major key, indeed.

One of the things I love about classical music is the incredibly richness of it that can be discovered with persistence and meditation. With some pieces, it only takes minutes to get inside them and get them inside me. With others, it takes years of patience, of coming back again and again to what seems random and unimportant before I can make them my own. But I am learning to trust that every piece of music will give to me what I give to it, and hopefully I in turn will be able to give something of it to others.