all this useless beauty
Spied yesterday on a T-shirta rare instance of clever jingoism:
rm -rf /bin/laden
So there's this translation conference happening, and W.S. Merwin kicked it off Friday night. There's something very patrician about himhe has the most incredibly glossy white hair and speaks in an American accent so refined that it almost sounds European. He read some new poems that he'd written since 09.11, mostly about nature and winter and the recurrence of seasons and so on. I was iffy on most of them, though there was a great one addressed to Zbigniew Herbert's bicycle (an item which, Merwin acknowledges, may never have existed), and a nice little elegy for Ted Hughes. Then he got into the translations, reading a splenetic Catullus piece and a long section from his new version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (the Christmas feast/first beheading scene). I guess not everyone was into the Gawain part, but I thought it was fantastic. Merwin grew up in Scranton but his family was Welsh, and this translation was a Reclaim-Your-Heritage opportunity for him since the original poem is written in a version of Middle English so Welsh-inflected that Chaucer would have found it unintelligible. Merwin's version was rhythmic and alliterative and all that, as standard, but the great thing was that as soon as he started talking he got so Welsh. He turned into Dylan Thomas. At that point it became very clear to me that not only was this poem meant to be read aloud, it was meant to be read aloud by Welsh people. Plus there was lots of spurting blood.
Next morning the translation conference moved to the memorial union at the heart of the heart of the campus, and William H. Gass talked about Rilke, whose elegies he's been translating. I faded in and out on this one, though it was interesting to hear the biographical background on his relationship with the painter Paula Modersohn-Becker, for whom he wrote "Requiem for a Friend," which I can't find a complete version of online.
And finally you saw yourself as fruit,
lifted yourself out of your clothes and carried
that self before the mirror, let it in
up to your gaze; which remained, large, in front,
and did not say: that's me; no, but: this is.
Gass's take on those lines was bettershe swam up to her gazebut he didn't read his version in its entirety either, so what the fuck.
And last night it was the Houston Ballet. The Firebird: yes, good, cool sets and everything. When King Kastchei first appeared in the palace a sort of giant frame descended from the ceiling and people wheeled in his throne attached to a giant egg, and it reminded me of the way a boss would show up at the end of a Blaster Master level. The egg swallowed Kastchei at the end, of course. The surprise highlight, though, was one of the introductory dances: a piece called "Indigo" choreographed by Stanton Welch to two Vivaldi cello concerti, for four men and four women. The choreography was very modern and erotic in a wholly stylized wayin particular when the men and women paired off, it was moving in a way that I'm not used to from ballet. But then most of my ballet experience comes from watching umpteen recitals, all featuring my little sister, as a child; so I'm probably behind the times.
Stay tuned for Denis Johnson.