Thursday, September 11, 2014

Lament of the Farm-Wife of Wu

Su Tung P'o

Which in today's Chinese would be pronounced Soo Doong Bo, in the same way that Pekin has become Bei-jing and feudal totalitarianism has become... feudal totalitarianism, but under a different name. "The Lament of the Farm-Wife of Wu" could be written in any province of contemporary China, though unlike in Su Tung P'o's time it is unlikely that the Communist authorities would allow it to be published (see the final paragraph of this blog and my page on China in TheWorldHourglass) and probably today's Farm-Wife would end up as a despised migrant worker in the shanty-suburbs of Mei-shan rather than as a suicide in the local stream, though these two fates are not that easy to distinguish either.

We are all raised in the canons of our native literature, not much encouraged in schools to look beyond the geographical boundaries, and even less encouraged by publishers, unless they can see a greater profit in old-and-foreign literature than in the novelties of today in our own tongue. What a vast gap that leaves in our knowledge of the world. And who would think of travelling in literature while also travelling to beaches, churches, art galleries, museums? Read Marquez next time you are resting on the beach at Cartagena, after a day's snorkelling among the coral of Las Islas de Rosarios; or Thomas Mann in Venice; Kafka on a long-weekend in Prague; Jane Austen in a Bath café; or Chinese poetry, which is some of the finest in the world, while waiting for your take-away on Spadina Avenue.

Su Tung P'o, who was also called Su Shih (no connection with Japanese raw fish), was born in Sichuan province in 1036, designed the parks that surround Lake Si in Hangzhou, practiced Buddhism in poetry as well as life, witnessed the reigns of five emperors, and rose to the rank of President of the Board of Rites, giving him authority over all imperial ceremonies and acts of worship; roughly the equivalent of Biblical Joseph in Egypt, though there is no record of Joseph writing poetry. The portrait of him was painted two hundred years after his death, by Zhao Mengfu, the man whose name was later given to a volcanic crater on the planet Mercury, though why is not something I am able to explain.

The translations below are by Burton Watson in "
Selected Poems of Su Tung-P'o".

I Travel Day and Night

Past the places
where the Ying river
enters the Huai
and for the first time
saw the mountains along the Huai.
Today we reached Shou-chou.

I travel day and night towards the Yangtze and the sea.
Maple leaves, red flowers - Fall has endless sights.
On the broad Huai I cannot tell if the sky is near or far;
green hills keep rising and falling with the boat.
Shou-chou - already I see the white stone pagoda,
though short oars have not brought us around Yellow Grass Hill.
Waves calm, wind mild - I look for the landing.
My friends have stood a long time in the twilight mist.
Spring Night

Spring night - one hour worth a thousand gold coins;
clear scent of flowers, shadowy moon.
Songs and flutes upstairs - threads of sound;
in the garden, a swing, where night is deep and still.

Lament of the Farm-Wife of Wu

Rice this year ripens so late!
We watch, but when will frost winds come?
They come - with rain in bucketfuls;
the harrow sprouts mud, the sickle rusts.
My tears area ll cried out, but rain never ends;
it hurts to see the yellow stalks flattened in mud.
We camped in a grass shelter a month by the fields;
then it cleared and we reaped the grain, followed the wagon home,
sweaty, shoulders sore, casting it to town -
the price it fetched, you would think we came with chaff.
We sold the ox to pay taxes, broke up the roof for kindling;
we'll get by for the time, but what of next year's hunger?
Officials demand cash now - they won't take grain;
the long northwest border tempts invaders.
Wise men fill the court - why do things get worse?
I would be better off a bride to the River Lord.

Sadly I can't find a copy in Chinese of the Lament; instead, because one has to see this poetry in its Chinese characters, "
On Cold Meal at Huang-chou", a poem written after his banishment for taking the wrong side in a political dispute.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014


Ralph Waldo Emerson

There are writers who one knows one ought to read, and tries, eventually, but somehow they remain unreadable. Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of these: transcendental poet (the term itself is sufficient to put one off), essayist (who reads essays anyway, unless teachers who are forced to mark them?), poet of Nature ("In May, when sea-winds pierced our solitudes, I found the fresh Rhodora in the woods" - O spare me, please, the constant harvesting of nature images, the drowning-flood of reiterations of the pathetic fallacy), and virtual inventor of the self-help manual...

But wait, was it not Emerson who described, in precisely that self-help manual, "Self-Reliance", "the need for each individual to avoid conformity and false consistency, and follow his or her own instincts and ideas" (so Wikipedia tells me, and Wikipedia is never wrong)?

Then maybe, maybe there is another kind of writer, heir and disciple of Pascal ("Pensées"), Montesquieu, La Rochefoucauld, writers like Nietzsche and Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, whose works one does not need to read, because their genius does not lie in the totality of their writings, but only in their epigrams. Have I just invented, or discovered, a new genre?

In the opening paragraph I wrote that Emerson "was" one of those writers I had realised I would never read. But then, in 2012, I found myself teaching AP American Literature in a Baltimore high school, helping some 11th graders get the 2-year course done in a single year because the school was closing. Emerson was on the list of examined writers - poems (here and here), the Nature essays (here), and of course the Concord Hymn (here), the one he wrote for the ribbon-cutting ceremony in his home-town on July 4th 1837, for the Concord Monument, the obselisk commemorating the battle there, regarded as the "second shot" in the War of Independence, and therefore studied alongside Longfellow's account of the "first shot", in "Paul Revere's Ride".

Most of his "stuff" (student slang for "literary oeuvre") was way too "boring" (a high school euphemism for "challenging") for these students, who were trained to study examiners' rubrics in detail, in order to know where to look in Shmoop or Cliff's Notes for the minutiae for their essays, and rarely read the actual books at all, which is unnecessary in the epoch of the Internet. So I made the wall-poster that is reprinted at the top of this page*. So I found some recordings of actors reading his translations from the Persian Hafiz, and put them on as background music while the students constructed their A-grade essays without ever so much as opening a book.

* limited space obliged me to leave two of my favourites off that wall-poster, but plenty of room to restore them here:-

                   "As men's prayers are a disease of the will
                           so are their creeds a disease of the intellect."

                   "It does not need that a poem should be long. 

                               Every word was once a poem. 
                                           Every new relationship is a new word."

You can find David Prashker at:

The Departing

Heinrich Heine

Dusseldorf, Germany, 1797. The town is under the hegemony of the great, the glorious, the liberator Napoleon Buonaparte, whose Edicts of Tolerance and regime of emancipation have thrown down the ghetto walls and welcomed Jewry into Europe. Eighteen hundred years of pent-up intellectual and creative energy, devolved into Bible study and the painting of New Year's cards until now, are busting to get out.

Like every Jewish child, Samson and Betty Heine's little Chayim was a born genius, a ga'on, an il'ui. The boy would revive the family's fortunes - sadly his father did not have the acumen of others of his tribe - as a merchant, or a banker. No yeshiva bucher nor Holy Land pilgrim like his mother's uncle Simon van Geldern, Harry, as they called him in German, would go into his uncle Solomon Heine's business, after a proper Catholic education please. But sadly Harry's genius did not lie that way. Sadly Harry left his uncle bankrupt.

Still, there are many ways for genius to manifest itself, and if a boy cannot be a child prodigy, perhaps he can still become an adult one. But in philosophy? Who is this goyische Hegel anyway that he takes Jewish disciples? Can you earn a decent living from such a life? And poetry noch? Have you made any money from these Gedichte? At least he mixes with Jews, Peira (Sammy always insisted on using his wife's given name, not her German one). Cultured Jews at that - Edouard Gans, Moses Moser, Leopold Zunz. So who wants him mixing with Jews already? We're out of the ghetto now; let him mix with cultured goyim. Let him be baptised a Lutheran - I told you that Catholic education would come to nothing; and think of how much money we wasted on it. And then let him be ashamed. Ashamed? He's always ashamed. Of being a Jew. Of being a convert. And what did converting gain him anyway? He only did it to get his doctorate at Goettingen, and they still refused him. A Jew is still a Jew, even if he has converted. To the goyim, and in his own confused heart and soul.

Genius he was though - whatever that means. Read "Die Nordsee". Read "Buch der Lieder". Read his responses to the anti-Semitic polemics of Menzel and von Platen. Read the list of charges brought against him when they put him in gaol - a genius is always without honour in his own country. What do you mean it wasn't his own country? He was born there, wasn't he? Several generations native, nu? But a Jew, and a Jew is always a man without a country - as Gustav Mahler would put it, a hundred years later: "I am a threefold expatriate—a Czech among Austrians, an Austrian among Germans, and a Jew in the whole world." Perhaps you're right, Sammy. After Goettingen they turned him down at Munich too. The police were after him for his satires. The German Diet prohibited publication of his work. Yet he still thought of all those years in France as exile.

The French hailed him immediately as a genius, gave him space in Allgemeine Zeitung and Revue Des Deux Mondes, made him the leader of Jungdeutschland - still not what one looks for in a nice Jewish boy, though it was good to see his picture in the newspapers. And such friends, such cultured goyische friends - Honoré de Balzac, Théophile Gautier, Ferdinand Lassalle, George Sand, Karl Marx. He's getting married, Sammy. I don't want to hear. Eugénie Mirat - he calls her his Mathilde; isn't that sweet? I don't want to hear about a shiksah. She's a lovely girl. She's an illiterate shop-assistant. And Heinrich the greatest writer in Europe. Heinrich? Since when he is called Heinrich? It killed your father, Chaymele. He made me swear, on his death-bed, never to give you a pfennig if you say a single bad thing about the family. That's a good boy, I knew I could depend on you. Now come back to Germany. I can't mutti. Not because of Germany. My spine. Attacks of paralysis. I am condemned to a mattress grave. At least I can go on writing. Bury me in a Jewish grave, mutti. O, and mutti - we were wrong about Napoleon; we thought he liberated us from anti-Semitism and set us free in Christian Europe. We were wrong. They still spit on us. When we spit back, they burn our books. Take my word for it, where they start by burning books, they will sooner or later end by burning people.

Der Scheidende (The Departing)

It has died in me, as it must,
Every idle, earthly lust,
My hatred too of wickedness,
Utterly now, even the sense,
Of my own, of other men’s distress –
All that’s living in me is Death!
The curtain falls, the play is done,
And my dear German public’s gone,
Wandering home, and yawning so,
Those good folk are not stupid though:
They’ll dine happily enough tonight,
Drink, and sing, and laugh – He’s right,
The noble hero in Homer’s book,
Who said once that the meanest schmuck,
The lowest little Philistine there,
In Stuttgart (am Neckar), is happier
Than I, son of Peleus, the hero, furled,
The shadow prince in the Underworld.

Not Heine's best poem, but irresistible in the context of this piece. The translation is by A.S. Kline, and you can find many more at Poetry In Translation.

A Pilgrimage to Beethoven

Rainer Maria Rilke

The title belongs to Wagner, but the essay below to Rainer Maria Rilke, whose "Der Panther" is already on these shelves (here), and who will be making a third appearance shortly, in a piece comparing his advice to the young writer with Ruskin's to the young artist.

Beethoven died in 1827; Rilke was born in 1875, so his witnessing of the great man was not his live face but his death mask - a poor copy actually, on the outside wall of a Parisian shop (he had come to Paris to serve as personal amanuensis to the sculptor Auguste Rodin), next to that of a young woman who had drowned in the Seine; years later, Rilke commissioned an improved version for his own Private Collection. The original was cast by Josef Dannhauser, two days after the composer's death.

"His face, which knows," Rilke wrote. "That hard knot of senses drawn tightly together. That inexorable self-condensing of a music continually trying to evaporate. The countenance of a man whose hearing a god had closed up, so that there might be no sounds but his own; so that he might not be led astray by what is turbid and ephemeral in noises - he who knew in himself their clarity and permanence. So that only the soundless senses might carry the world in to him, silently, a world in suspense, waiting, unfinished, before the creation of sound.

"World-consummator: as that which comes down as rain over the earth and upon the waters, falling carelessly, at random - inevitably rises again, invisible and joyous, out of all things, and ascends and floats and form the heavens: so our precipitations rose out of you, and vaulted the world with music.

"Your music: it could have encircled the universe; not merely us. A grand-piano could have been built for you in the Theban desert, and an angel would have led you to that solitary instrument, through mountain-ranges in the wilderness, where kings are buried and courtesans and anchorites. And he would have flung himself up and away, for fear that you would begin.

"And then you would have streamed forth, unheard, giving back to the universe what only the universe can endure. Bedouins in the distance would have galloped by, superstitiously; but merchants would have flung themselves to the ground at the edges of your music, as if you were a storm. Only a few solitary lions would have prowled around you at night, in wide circles, afraid of themselves, menaced by their own excited blood.

"For who will now withhold you from lascivious ears? Who will drive them from the concert halls, these corrupted ears whose sterile hearing fornicates and never conceives, as the semen spurts out onto them and they lie beneath it like whores, playing with it; or it falls onto the ground like Onan's, while they writhe in their abortive pleasures.

"But master, if some pure spirit with a virgin ear were to lie down beside your music: he would die of bliss; or he would become pregnant with infinity, and his fertilised brain would explode with so much birth."

This passionate exercise in acolyte idolatry can be found in "The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge" (here).

My own "A Pilgrimage To Bayreuth", alongside a narrative version of Wagner's Ring Cycle, "The Book of the Ring", are published by TheArgamanPress.

You can find David Prashker at:

Copyright © 2016 David Prashker
All rights reserved
The Argaman Press

Monday, September 8, 2014

Gateaux and ale

Sir Walter Scott

Speaking of great food in literature (see the previous blog entry: Speed-Reading), I have already shared Colin Thubron's gastronomic waverings over Chinese python (Number 63 With Rice)… but no one does it better than Sir Walter Scott, and Scott was also the first to point out that we use Anglo-Saxon names for animals on the farm and still alive, but French names once they reach the table: calf becomes veal, pig becomes pork, bull becomes beef, sheep becomes mutton, deer becomes venison, snail becomes escargot, beer becomes wine, melted chocolate becomes mousse, and uncouth face-stuffing turns surprisingly quickly into bourgeois grande bouffe. 

Among the Waverley tales are literally scores of menus, described in minute detail, of which my favourite is his account of a proper Highland breakfast:

   “Waverley found Miss Bradwardine presiding over the tea and coffee, the table loaded with warm bread, both of flour, oatmeal, and barley-meal, in the shape of loaves, cakes, biscuits, and other varieties, together with eggs, reindeer ham, mutton and beef ditto, smoked salmon, marmalade, and all the other delicacies which induced even Johnson himself to extol the luxury of a Scotch breakfast above all other countries. A mess of oatmeal porridge, flanked by a silver jug, which held an equal mixture of cream and buttermilk, was placed for the Baron’s share of this repast.”

Lots more examples can be found at

Virginia Woolf was probably anorexic, though they didn’t have the term in her days. This did not stop her "salivating copiously", to use Samuel Beckett's mouth-watering phrase, in "To the Lighthouse":

   “…an exquisite scent of olives and oil and juice rose from the great brown dish as Marthe, with a little flourish, took the cover off. The cook had spent three days over that dish. And she must take great care, Mrs. Ramsay thought, diving into the soft mass, to choose a specially tender piece for William Bankes. And she peered into the dish, with its shiny walls and its confusion of savoury brown and yellow meats and its bay leaves and its wine . . . ‘It is a triumph,’ said Mr. Banks, laying his knife down for a moment. He had eaten attentively. It was rich; it was tender. It was perfectly cooked.” 

And then there is the decidedly non-kosher Bloomsday breakfast in Joyce's "Ulysses":

   “Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”

All of which you can cook and prepare yourself, following the very recipe that Joyce would have known and loved, by visiting TheOldFoodie at

He also provides details and recipes of other of Bloom's favourite repasts at

The plum-pudding on the Christmas table offered as a redemptive gift by Ebenezer Scrooge to Bob Cratchit is the one best remembered from that great literary cartoonist, perhaps because his other exemplar of food with a bad conscience belongs to Miss Havisham in "Great Expectations", the cake that was still on the table all those years later when Pip was dragged into the Ariadne web of the gruesome Estella; leading one to wish to rename that novel Great Expectorations:

    “As I looked along the yellow expanse out of which I remember its seeming to grow, like a black fungus, I saw speckled-legged spiders with blotchy bodies running home to it, and running out from it . . . ‘I can’t guess what it is, ma’am.’ ‘It’s a great cake. A bride-cake. Mine!'”

I could, and would happily go on, for there are thousands of these lyrical accounts of menus carnivorous and vegetarian, of appetisers as well as desserts, of fish as well as fowl, but my lunchtime snack is ready (crèpes in blé noir, one with melted Brie and Parma ham, the other with some of those fruits de mer illustrated above, lightly fried in a Bechamel sauce)... so instead I am pleased to recommend you to read Dinah Fried's delectable "Fictitious Dishes", which catalogues innumerable of them; a work that no self-respecting kitchen library should be without. Heidi's burnt toast and the Mad Hatter's Tea-Party are too good to be missed; the plate of cheese and pickle with toast in "Catcher in the Rye" is simply "phony", but as I can't offer you any of my lunch, why don't you try an avocado stuffed with cottage cheese, tomato and chives, in the style of Sylvia Plath's "The Bell-Jar". 

B'tei avon, as we say in Hebrew. Bon appetit in French. Apparently the Anglo-Saxons don't have an equivalent expression.