Incognito Press

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Posts Tagged ‘poem’

So Badly My Eyes Hurt, So Badly – a Romanian Folk Song

Posted by E on February 4, 2016

I first heard this song when I was in Romania in the spring of 2015, digging into my family’s secret past. My family defected from Romania in the mid-eighties, before the Revolution that ended Ceausescu’s dictatorship, but there were Securitate records and secrets that I still had to uncover, so I returned to my old haunting grounds, my bullet-scarred Bucharest.

Perhaps I’d heard this song before, sometime in my lost childhood, because a curious sense of deja vu and aching loneliness came over me with those first notes. It was like I received a punch to the gut….and since I blocked so much trauma from my early childhood, I realized that I had something to learn from this experience. Impulsively, I grabbed a sketchbook and decided to set upon translating this old folks song, if only because I couldn’t find another translation into English anywhere online. Its Romanian title is Rau Ma Dor Ochii, Ma Dor – which roughly translates to Badly my eyes hurt, hurt me.

As a poet and someone who cares more about the feeling and meaning in the words, I chose to do a looser translation that focuses more on the meaning of the lyrics rather than the literal translation. I kept most of the authentic words wherever possible, but hopefully I succeeded in conveying the deep, bottomless longing and painful sadness that lingers in this song and makes it haunting…..at least to my own ears.

For the first week I kept listening to this song, I couldn’t stop myself from breaking into tears: it reminded me of the essence of why I was in Romania, chasing ghosts and demons and being unable to stop until I understood WHY. Why did my family’s path take the turn that led me into a cold and foreign country, and why did CNSAS, the authorities who inherited the Securitate Archives, prevent my father’s files from being released more twenty years after his death.

Could it have something to do with him being murdered within 24 hours of his return to Bucharest in 1988? Could it have something to do with the fact that I was followed by a plain-clothes agent in Bucharest and told in no uncertain terms that I should stop asking questions about my father’s death?

The song is called “So badly my eyes hurt, so badly.” There are countless renditions of it, but this one – sang by these two young women of the Romanian Armed Forces, haunted me the most – and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

As I mentioned earlier, I found no English translation online so I gave my best effort to convey the sentiment of this old, traditional Romanian folk song from the mountains of Transylvania. It’s pure heartache in song, a deep sadness and ache that I’m certain I failed to describe within the simplicity of this translation – but the melody transcends the language.

So badly my eyes hurt, so badly
From the brightness of the stars
And I go, and then again I go
Down to the river under the walnut tree
I make myself, and again I make myself
Chop wood from fir and wood from birch

So badly my feet hurt, so badly
From walking all the beaten paths
And so badly my eyes hurt, so badly
From witnessing the pain of those leaves

So badly does my heart ache
That you love another one
But I will leave without knowing
And I go, and then again I go
Down to the river under the walnut tree
And I make myself, and then again I make myself
Chop wood from fir and wood from birch.

Where you have gone, I do not know
Just that my soul is empty and hollow
And so I go, and on I go
to the river under the walnut tree
and again I make myself, and make myself again
chop fir and to chop birch
and so badly my eyes hurt, so badly
from feeling the pain of those leaves.

field haystacks

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The Parasitic Twin – a Poem about Mermaids

Posted by E on March 3, 2015

 

pearlsisters

Note on this poem: when I was a teenager, I belonged to an extremist group. By age 18 I turned against the group, gathered information on them, testified against its leaders and went underground because of threats to my life. In the meanwhile, another girl from the same white supremacist, neo-Nazi organization (who had done nothing to shut down the group) capitalized on speaking engagements, film and media opportunities. This poem is inspired by that situation.

 

On my knees for a thousand years at the bottom of the ocean,

I have finally began to reclaim myself – one fragment at a time:

innocence, loss, shame, guilt, anger, hate, redemption, LOVE

And now, a face takes shape within the mosaic

of a thousand pieces of shattered glass

 

My knees are bloody, glass is embedded in my barbed-wire hair

– my only gift from my Jewish father, who inherited the wire

and passed its thread of hate within my veins –

and yet (I don’t know how, or when, or even why)

I have begun to unspin the lies, at last;

I’m taking back my identity

Reclaiming what is rightfully mine:

 

The exploited, worthless little girl who was cast aside

In favour of the middle-class Canadian girl with the pretty pink bedspread

whose mother hand-sewn a mermaid costume and paid for university

(my mother left me in the numb hands of an unfeeling monster)

 

The “university student”, the “normal”, Christian girl loved by the media

who did absolutely nothing to stop the terror

– assaults, rapes, fire-bombings, stalking, wounding, destruction and more –

but who looked better on the news, precisely because

she was a “normal” child of the suburbs who had done nothing

except swim and lay with those who helped her get ahead,

 

The “normal”, middle-class girl who volunteered to impersonate

the girl with the scarred soul and the foreigner accent, who had nothing at all

and yet, the one who did everything.

Mermaid sisters

 

The scared, scarred girl who ate from dumpsters, rummaged for scraps in garbage,

looked into the eyes of evil men and put them in prison, and yet

had no profiteers and managers to barter for favours, for media gigs

and so the other, “better”, new-and-improved version

 

– the parasitic twin –

 

Reaped all the benefits with none of the dangers

and the world continued just as before,

ignoring, as usual,

the exploitation of the weak, the unconnected and marginalized

by those who capitalize on the bravery of others,

while the scarred-faced, barefoot girl with no pink bedspreads, no mermaid tails

and no well-connected managers to groom her for the spotlight

who never got something for free

became me.

 

But I am still broken, a mosaic of a thousand fragments of shattered glass

glued flimsily back together, at a crossroads

where nothing matters, except

falling from a great height into the greenery of the ravine – to see

nothing but vastness, the blueness of above and below.

I hate the world I was born in, a world where the unworthy

thread on the broken backs of those considered worthless.

 

The little girl who always stood on the outer side of the window

has run out of matches. The fire has been extinguished.

The breath inside my mouth has turned to ice

And I have nothing to lose but the truth

mermaid

In life, there are battles where you swallow your pride

and then there are those which – if you back down – can swallow your soul;

battles which, if not fought with all your strength and might,

will render you just as complicit as the conspirators of the initial injustice.

 

Years after the wreckage, I struggle to free myself from the boats and rudders

that weighed down my ribs and kept me at the bottom of the ocean.

I disentangle myself from the underwater reeds that had encircled my wrists,

spit out the dirty water that filled my lungs, swim up to the surface

and, peering at my reflection in a pearly cochlear shell, realize with wonder

 

that maybe I was the mermaid all along.

mermaid The_Mermaid

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Auschwitz: Remnants of Sunlight

Posted by E on January 27, 2015

Auschwitz photos birkenau camp pics girl krystina

Today is the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. I’ve thought for a long time about what I might be able to write, about what I could say to both honour and preserve the memory of such terror coming to an end. Do I write about the time when I was once surrounded by neo-Nazis and Holocaust revisionists who wove a network of neo-fascists across Europe, Canada, America and South America?

Do I write about old Steve Bendersky, who was like a beloved uncle to me when I was a child and whose arm bore the faded blue numbers that I once seriously contemplated tattooing onto my own wrist? Whose Shabbat candles I inherited after his death and which I still light every Friday evening?

Do I write about discovering my Jewish roots, and how my family tree research has come to an abrupt halt as I realize that it’s very likely most of my father’s relatives perished in the war?

If I started to write about the heartache that Auschwitz represents both to me and to Jews as a population, along with the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of gays and lesbians, gypsies and political prisoners in WW2, I would probably just sit here, start crying and be unable to stop, much less write a single word. So instead, I want to talk about my own memories of the concentration camp.

I visited Auschwitz once, during the summer of 2001, the year after I graduated university and worked as an English teacher in South Korea. Instead of doing something respectable like paying off my defaulted student loans, I decided that I had to journey back to eastern Europe that summer – I had to track down for myself the roots of the hatred that had surrounded my early life.

I took these photos at Auschwitz-Birkenau and I wrote this long poem, Remnants of Sunlight, which I published in my first poetry book. Today, on the 70th anniversary of the WW2 genocide that represents the worst of humanity, I can’t think of a better way to commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz than to republish this poem that is so close to my heart here, on my own blog.

Many of the verses and imagery encompassed here were scribbled while I stood there, in the empty barracks of Birkenau – it was a sunny, beautiful day, in contrast to the horror that surrounded me. The planks underneath my feet snapped and crackled as I walked among the barracks, amid the three-tiered bunk slots, touching the worn, rain-soaked wood that had once let in the cold, bitter winter winds that killed thousands of malnourished prisoners.

I listened to the frogs and crickets singing through the knee-high grass, and imagined that the lush, verdant greenery of my surroundings had sprouted up from the ashes and crumbling bones of countless nameless victims. I felt the great big emptiness of those awful barracks corrode through my entire being and leave a huge, empty hole in my soul.

And then I wrote this poem.

REMNANTS OF SUNLIGHT

  1. BARBED ROOTS

Last night, my fate made an unannounced appearance.

She presented herself for dinner uncombed,

long hair spreading like a silver service set

upon my Hungarian lace and Polish linen.

Her lips made the sound of a struck match

and then she dissolved like the flame

and suddenly,

folded between napkins and candlelight,

in clotted ink behind all the spice jars,

I discovered a journey –

 

A pilgrimage of crumbling pages

with scribbles and margins ripped

and a big part missing,

the part about how, one evening in August

my return is inevitable.

 

The coarse grains of history

have become threads between my fingers

as I hold my father’s funeral suit in preparation

and the smell of mothballs finds another fragrance

of yellowed books, copper and sulphur

lingering soft as the light of opals

and the mouldy cellar smell of a dead grandmother

 

chemical powders and twisted letters

weave like high country roads on my tongue;

the sound of predestination

is the hush of waist-high grass among barracks

and the ribbit of frogs leaping

out of a pond of ashes

 

right after graduation I know I must find him –

breathe in the last days of my father’s essence,

find out his ending

I have to revisit the house where my grandmother lived

locate the little girl who was my sister, now missing

 

the boulders that rained upon my childhood

must be swept out

from the floorboards of this house

that I have carried on my back

for more than twenty years

 

The dark house of my memories

where my father who disappeared breathes

the house that nightly perches on my eyelids

and ropes my hair down through the pillow

into the black earth of a country

I left when I was ten

 

I arrange to fly from Toronto to Paris one-way

then train onward to eastern Europe

 

Unfolding in the silence pressed among suitcases

packed with blossoms

brittle like paper, like blouses

I wait

in the centre of the Black Forest

 

weeds protrude through the planks underneath

and I smell the sun and the moon being burned

 

I inherited the wire

my hair grows twisted like that, all black

charred like Romany wagons

and muddy villages

the same colour as the evening branches I reach toward

through the smeared window

of the Krakow-Budapest train

 

Brushing my fingertips against the corrosion of metal railings

I feel the echo of locomotives flowing through them,

the breathing of doves perched on wooden fences.

I pick up little white stones shaped like petals

and a fire is burning in my palms

 

2. KRAKOW, 5762

 

Two hours before you catch

the connecting train

in the middle of nowhere

the birds sing louder, gravel paves the horizon.

Two hours to put down your backpack and breathe in

the smell of corn and sleepless kilometres

lingering like murmuring chords

 

Shadows of firs line your closed eyelashes

pad riverbeds and uncombed hair

an unlit street, a colour

splashing over your shoulder

a bridge rail glinting in the sun

 

you arch, the metal between your fingers

rocking in your palm

a rocks skips across the shallow surface below

emerging on the shore

in the stubble of raspberries and grass against trees

 

like a bell, your mouth

opens to echo the air

swallowing another voice that breaks out

like a burning rash, over autumns without hours

and railroads that glint in the afternoon sun

 

shadows juxtapose across your forehead

cloth is reduced to threads, even-numbered and silent

and the direction of the winds commands

the distant vapour of wheat to start an insurrection

 

your two hands on the railing testify unknowingly

by virtue of their existence

about the arid landscape and the sharpness of language,

the language of grandmothers in old photos

and numbered suitcases in dark rooms;

a language you don’t even speak

of a place you don’t even know –

letters, epitaphs, barometers

are the only coordinates left

in this geography of asphalt.

 

III. THE HIVE

 

The old woman with the glassy green brooches

today forgot to pencil in her brows

not that it makes any difference;

her eyelids still sag under the thick black India ink

but she doesn’t stop writing –

If I am dead, who will write these verses for you?

 

Now enters the smell of white chrysanthemum

carrying the musk of narrow wardrobes

and yellowed newspapers rustling underneath.

 

Outside the open window, bees are humming;

sunshine dust gathers languorous and heavy –

a few slender rays spread like fingers

across my rumpled blue bedspread.

 

From this high window I can see the entire city

how pretty Wawel castle is, how loud the wail

of the dying trumpeter across Rynek Glowny Square

 

and how empty of voices

although on another frequency that only stray animals make out

pressed between the dying weed and cobblestones

there is singing

 

no matter how many hot the day, she remains cold

papery like a delicate leaf in the morning rain

and still here, through the sunshine and foliage

climbing over the windowsill

the fingertips of ghosts continue to cling from the edge

 

in every vacant place, on every park bench

there is a hollowness that becomes testament,

then turns into voice

and the voice speaks the names – all of them

every one of them

 

Darting through my black hair

Auschwitz’s bees search for their stolen honey

buzzing through tall cannibal grass

buzzing in and out of the barracks

 

Don’t touch, don’t search my soul,

she leaves me a folded message on the table

not on such a beautiful day

so hot, so full of brightness

when the circumference of summer

becomes a fragile eggshell

with its yolk missing

 

IV. AT SUNRISE THE FORGOTTEN WILL WEEP

 

At sunrise the forgotten will weep

big tears of stone.

 

So heavy their tears,

they will roll down hills as great boulders

 

and smash into the grey buildings that had crushed

the beating hearts of the nameless

 

such great rocks will fall – thick like rain in the valleys

and the forgotten will once again weep

 

So wet will their tears be

that they will moisten the earth

and make it easier for fingers to dig out

 

fathers and grandmothers

brushing the dirt from their clothes

picking up suitcases, ready to come home

 

So hot the sunrise will be

that it will dry the blood on their faces

and clear a sadness fringed with eyelashes

 

It will call them by name

reacquainting them with the heat of the loved

with the sensation that somebody remembered

 

the names and the dreams they once carried

folded like secret letters

in the depths of their shirt pockets

 

V. FAR FROM THE APPLE ORCHARD

 

In my classroom in downtown Seoul, the windows are always open with voices.

Little kids squeal and climb up my back; we sing about the dog named Bingo

eat kimchi together for lunch, the heat of searing Korean spices

wafting away that other smell of smoke

 

On vacation in Beijing I climb the Great Wall through stinging air,

running up the steps as fast as I can, like a Tibetan mountain goat

trying to reach the heights of Tibetan mountain-dwellers

where the North wind rages so loudly, it silences everything

 

A year later, along the Ponte Vecchio in Florence,

I listen as Michelangelo would have, to the sound of hammer and chisel

drifting across the Arno. Here, the clang of iron is an invocation of beauty,

not the screech of a train coming to a stop, the crash of gates closing

 

Then, on the bus to Mombassa, along the bright coast

women with round syllables and laughter

sing a song of bronze bracelets and colourful khangas

 

So far from the dark, endless woods where songs turn to screams

where the faces of locals are stout and red

as though stained by the blood underneath their feet.

 

As far down as Cusco I feel the breath of cliffs on my back,

The spit of hot springs at Aguas Calientes. Up the trail to Macchu Picchu

I smell chickens in the alpine air: wild fowl, wet feathers, muddy paths.

 

I am like an apple, there are five parts to me –

seed, core, meat, skin, and stem.

Like an apple, I leave parts of myself everywhere.

 

I am the shell of a seed eaten up by villages of rock and dirt along the Danube –

swept along rivers rampaging out of their beds

there is nothing left but my war –

a forest of wolves.

 

The shaman anoints my forehead with red liquid.

His hands smell of fermented herbs, berries, cocoa leaves, leather.

You are a bird that refuses to feed or to fly/

but there is something in you which will not die.

 

My ears pick up the noise of the jungle, rushing water and tall blades of grass.

The heat inside the enclosed hut makes my body sticky;

The air is viscous and green with thunderstorms.

 

This may well be the first time I can see /

this strength that has always evaded me

the will of a body to survive in spite of itself –

a drowning rat clawing out of its own frailty.

 

How much determination is required to breathe?

There are certain things a body will do with or without approval;

(take in air, for example).

A body will fight for survival.

A body will survive pogroms, refugee camps, beatings

while the mind, just a seed raw and torn from its shell

stays wrapped in a peel of green apple skin

around a tea cup glazed with a Spanish windmill,

the last one of a set.

 

 

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Like Ink in Water – the sensual, surreal process of creation

Posted by E on April 11, 2008

 

A photographer friend recently asked me about motivation. What motivates me to write? I told her that it all depends on what it is I am trying to convey and express. Some things are easier so they come forth smoothly; other subjects I try to write about are deeper, harder to translate into words, and by default the process is painful and tedious. But my biggest motivation is feeling compelled that I have to record something on paper – I selfishly want to re-experience, regurgitate a moment, whether lived or imagined.
I used photography as an analogy. I asked her, When you have a camera in hand and you see a magnificent image, you feel that you just have to take that shot, right? That there is no time but this moment, and you can somehow capture it and the essence of it, all in this one snapshot. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t. But you just have to take that shot.

For me, writing is just as compelling. There are times when I am tired or lazy or just can’t figure out how I’m going to capture that shot (the feeling/the story/the imagery) but I still know that I have to do it. If not today, then tomorrow – but that story still needs to be birthed, to come into reality, to have a life of its own. And if I try to look away from it and ignore it, it pecks at the back of my head like an insufferable, invisible chicken until I’m breathless – and I write in order to release that thing inside me onto paper, and then I can breathe again.

This is how I would describe this sensual, surreal process so it is palpable to a reader.

You drop a splash of dark blue ink into a large vase full of water, and watch the swirl take shape – you wait, tantalizingly slow, like a word on your lips that has yet to be formed and takes unbearably long to crystallize, like a fragrance that hovers over your head.

You must watch carefully, for the shape could be interpreted as anything and you must allow it to discern its own life, be borne into its own identity before you can paint it as its genuine self, before you can attempt to capture it into a description, before you can glue it into the confines of a preposition.

You wait.

The swirl of ink becomes a dancer with a ribbon stretching her back. Her silent aquatic ballet steps are capricious like the flicker of a flame, or the whirl of smoke rising out of an opium pipe.
The ink undulates inside its water trap, refusing to be assimilated.
It is as oily as blood, integral to itself.
The woman’s hair flows in slow motion, blue veins traversing across her face like sand spiders in an alien desert, in a place where there are no words, no punctuation other than a peculiar clustering of stars against an indigo horizon.
The solitude of a swirl uncoiling, rippling, a snake of ink dissolving into ether, furious and fragile all at once. It has both the fury of a summer thunderstorm against an evening sky, and the fragility of a little girl in a blue nightgown.

In the intensity of a moment without time, you wait to capture it, you await under the tree of your story, your face upturned, waiting for the words to descend onto your eyes like white blossoms in spring.

How will you know what it feels like when you are ready to begin writing? It is as though the most magnificent bird in the world is about to perch on the branch of the tree sprouting up just in front of you, and you have only one last exposure in your camera to imprint it upon. You wait for that moment, that moment of sweat and trepidation when your heartbeat becomes one with the pulse of the wind, the screech of a northern goose, the pounding of rain against a window pane. And then you write.
You take it.
You take this moment.
You give it this one shot left in you, the moment you have waited for forever, and it doesn’t matter whether you will capture its full feathered body or just the edge of a wing in flight – you don’t think about those things anymore, you are past them.

You only write.

Because it no longer matters whether you give birth to that sensation inside you, whether your portrayal can do it justice. This moment is not about you taking a photo, drawing a nude, writing a story. It is about that opening in you – the space inside the crevice of a tree, inside the fold of a feather – from which something with a life of its own can crawl out.

Your purpose here is only to give birth. You are a channeler, a midwife who enables that which cannot be spoken, to take form.

The story already exists – it has its own predetermined shape. Given enough time, it will use your body, use your bloodstream, use your life force to carry itself out into the world. Given sufficient space, it will birth itself.

All you have to do is wait patiently at the gates of the unknown.

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