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The light in Canada

Politics and art have been combined and comingled in the past, producing work that is powerful and provocative. Goya. Guernica. Beckmann.

But that isn’t the case for me and my way of working. In fact mixing the two is a toxic brew. Over the last week I have had to conscientiously firewall my studio from the acidic cloud emanating from Washington and polluting the summer skies in every direction.

So thank you Whiskey River for posts that helped me look out beyond my bunker. Maybe the water level rises a drop at a time.

I have been a lucky man. To feel the intimacy of brothers is a marvelous thing in life. To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and our weaknesses – that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things.

— Pablo Neruda

Burlap Sack

A person is full of sorrow
the way a burlap sack is full of stones or sand.
We say, “Hand me the sack,”
but we get the weight.
Heavier if left out in the rain.
To think that the stones or sand are the self is an error.
To think that grief is the self is an error.
Self carries grief as a pack mule carries the side bags,
being careful between the trees to leave extra room.
The mule is not the load of ropes and nails and axes.
The self is not the miner nor builder nor driver.
What would it be to take the bride
and leave behind the heavy dowry?
To let the thick ribbed mule browse in tall grasses,
its long ears waggling like the tails of two happy dogs?

–Jane Hirshfield

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One of my Christmas gifts from my friend Cindy was Full Woman, Fleshly Apple, Hot Moon, a book of poems by Pablo Neruda translated by Stephen Mitchell. Based on my preliminary reading of a few of my favorite Neruda poems in this volume, thumbs up.

Here’s a sample comparison of Mitchell’s translation with a popular translation of the poem, Ode to Ironing. See what you think.

Ode To Ironing
by Pablo Neruda

Poetry is white
it comes dripping out of the water
it gets wrinkled and piles up
We have to stretch out the skin of this planet
We have to iron the sea in its whiteness
The hands go on and on
and so things are made
the hands make the world every day
fire unites with steel
linen, canvas and calico come back
from combat in the laundry
and from the light a dove is born
purity comes back from the soap suds.

(Translated by Jodey Bateman)

Poetry is white:
it comes from the water covered with drops,
it wrinkles and piles up,
the skin of this planet must be stretched,
the sea of its whiteness must be ironed,
and the hands move and move,
the holy surfaces are smoothed out,
and that is how things are made:
hands make the world each day,
fire becomes one with steel,
linen, canvas, and cotton arrive
from the combat of the laundries,
and out of light a dove is born:
chastity returns from the foam.

(Translated by Stephen Mitchell)

“Holy surfaces.” “The skin of this planet must be stretched/the sea of its whiteness must be ironed.” “Chastity returns from the foam.” Yes.

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Osvaldo Golijov’s music speaks to me. Ever since the performance in Boston of his glorious La Pasión según San Marcos in 2000, I have followed his eclectic, unexpected and, for me, ever redemptive work. Recent favorites include his opera about Federico García Lorca, Ainadamar, and Ayre, his hauntingly beautiful work featuring his personal muse, the singer Dawn Upshaw.

This July he released a recording of a piece that premiered over ten years ago. Oceana is based on an excerpt from Pablo Neruda’s Cantos Ceremoniales. Here is Golijob’s statement about the work, from his website:

My aim in Oceana was the transmutation of passion into geometry. This is, in my mind, the clue to both Bach’s and Neruda’s work. …[One hopes that the emotion evoked by the work] is the emotion of hearing order, inevitable and full of light: every note in its place, as in Bach, every word in its place, as in Neruda.

Giants such as Bach are fated to be used as mirrors by composers and performers of every era, who will see their own image reflected there. …In their own ways they were all correct in their fruitful misreadings of Bach’s music, and I feel that Oceana is my own misreading.

Neruda is our Latin American Bach. Like Bach, he is Midas, able as if by magic to transform everything on this Earth into poetry. …I think I have discovered the clue [to setting his poems to music]: Neruda’s voice is a chorus, too powerful for a single voice to handle…

I do hope that water and longing, light and hope, the immensity of South America’s nature and pain, are here transmuted into pure musical symbols, which nevertheless should be more liquid than the sea and deeper than the yearning that they represent. And if I have misunderstood Bach, then so be it.