Leonard Kress

 

Poets as Translators - Leonard Kress

 

Poems:

(1) Spiritual Exercises
(2) Redhot
 

Essay:

 

(1) A Note On Translating Jan Kochanowski's Threnodies
 

Translations from the Polish:

 

(1) Threnody 5
(2) Threnody 6
(3) Threnody 14

 

 

Leonard Kress

Spiritual Exercises

             after Saint Ignatius

Try this next time. Walking home from the elevated train
pay close attention, as you always do
to sights along the way. Like the abandoned
lace mill, its red bricks floating mortarless

on shaky foundations, the whole structure crumbling.
Like the Gypsy Church, silent now--
no young brides in parade, no men
puffing away on the stoop, no queen taking

possession of the neighborhood after a slow
and regal descent from the bus. Hear -- if you can --
the tambourine snap and sizzle. Let all chords
be augmented. Match your step to its summons.

Like the produce depot. Loiter
by crated Jersey tomatoes bursting
through their scars, the last
of them this year. Cradled corn,

unshucked. Cannonball stacks of honeydew. This one,
though, is somewhat different. It has
three stages. First, scatter their seed
so that enough roots in the sidewalk cracks

enough to make of this neighborhood
a verdant garden. That done,
place yourself irrevocably outside
as if some corner tough or bouncer were hanging out

like the Archangel Michael, barring the way
back in. Then make that same fruit rot.
Choke on the stench of fermenting nectarines
wafting through the alleyways. Lured bees

and yellow-jackets, their sting. Lessons
like these are easily learned--
so it's time. As you hoist yourself up
to the el platform, up

the ante, board the train. Avoid
the chatty word processor, the drowsy teller,
the fidgety account exec. If one is available
take a seat. A large youth occupies

no more than half of it. His hair is trimmed
so close his scalp shines through. Rock music
seethes in his ears, a garish tie lassoes
his neck. Bookless on his way to school

he will not budge, not even when the Little Flower
girls embark, their stiff hair, icon nimbuses
gilded by the morning sun. And on his one slab-like hand,
the only limb exposed, note the wound:

a football spike, almost fresh, encrusted.
It's really there, bright as lipgloss, round as a token.
The trick to this exercise is seeing
that it's not an exercise. At all.

 



Leonard Kress

Redhot

The spoil-sport breaks the magic world. . .
he is a coward and must be ejected.
                            --Johann Huizinga,
 Homo Ludens

Always the post-practice fear -- Redhot
smeared all over your balls. Starters,
they're the ones who'll do it, linebackers
left back, at least a year too big,
hungry to match the coaching specs.

Those who in and out of scrimmage
hurl their bulk like moral imperatives
into the blocking sled unjustly
weighted down by three unmoved movers,
the barking assistant coaches' heads.

Hustle up for wind sprints, bear
down in three-point crouch to get
some cleat of praise: Your name son?
I like the way you hit.
 But when
the molded mouthguards float in locker

pools of salivated sweat, it's something
altogether different. Between
the steamy shower and the hop-on
athlete's foot dispenser, hidden
in a wadded towel that may or may

not mean more comradely whipcracking
horseplay -- the can of Redhot lifted
from the trainer's bag. The spoil-sport
is the coward who must be eliminated
from the game. Or else he must

eject himself. Ask the cheerleaders,
marching band, fans in the bleachers howling;
the pep rally and scores piped to every
classroom. There's no way out but unfaked
injury: groin or hamstring, shoulder

separation, hero's limp off field
refusing teammate prop; the pain
walked off, shrugged off, transformed
to vengeful sack or clip, roughing
excused -- all violations impossible

from my place on the bench. And so
I have to injure myself. At home I let
the five-pound barbell drop from dresser
down to smash my propped-up wrist,
unable even to raise a bruise -- though later

the unshattered arm begins to throb.
Into the night the soreness stays.
The next day, because it is the Day
of Atonement, my parents make me go
to synagogue, where old men rue

the passing of time: when they
can buy a cock and by swinging it
around their head three times and muttering
a prayer, transfer their sins to it.
As the pain subsides, displaced by

fasting pangs, I realize I'll have to make
a story up, borrow my mother's old
ace bandage and talk my sister
into binding up my wrist, succumbing
to the strains and dislocations and

the succor of the Kol Nidre, forgiving
us again from debt and contractual
obligation. A young optometrist
plays the fiddle. And the engineer's
widow with the trained voice sings.

 



Leonard Kress

A Note on Translating Jan Kochanowski's "Threnodies"


   I FIRST BECAME interested in translating the work of Jan Kochanowski (1530-1584) a decade ago. I was studying, among other things, Polish literature with Professor Samuel Fiszman at Indiana University, and was involved in a desperate struggle to translate Pan Tadeusz, the 19th century Polish romantic epic of Adam Mickiewicz -- a prodigious task to say the least, ten thousand rhymed couplets of Polish alexandrines. In order for me to understand Mickiewicz's line, Fiszman suggested I would have to know what preceded it, which to him and most other students of Polish literature meant Jan Kochanowski. In fact, Czeslaw Milosz claims that Kochanowski's verse was a "perfect ordering of language" that flowed "naturally. . . without any apparent effort;" a "pure breathing of Polish."

   But it wasn't Kochanowski's polonized versions of the Psalms of David, his verse-playThe Dismissal of the Greek Envoys, or his mock-epic Chess that interested me. Instead, it was his intensely personal poem-cycle of laments, Treny (or Threnodies), composed after the death of his two-and-a-half year old daughter Urszula, that seemed to me to be his most crucial work.

   By the time he was forty, Kochanowski had given up his life as a roving student (having spent time in such renaissance centers of learning as Padua, Konigsberg, Paris and Marseille) and his life as a courtier (having risen to the position of secretary to King Zygmunt August), and had retired to his ancestral state in eastern Poland. It was there atCzarnolas (Blackwood), away from the intrigue of the court, that he dealt through poetry with the death of his small daughter.

   These translations, culled from the nineteen laments which make up Kochanowski'sTreny, represent a multi-stage process too complicated for me to describe adequately, but one with the intention of producing something that might engage a contemporary reader of poetry in English. I began with the original Polish text, dictionaries, and literary histories, hoping to replicate or at least approximate Kochanowski's rhyme schemes and stanzaic patterns, while remaining true to his imagery and tone. Following the various stages of translation (or is that grief I'm thinking of) delineated by so many translators before me, I produced what I now might term successful pseudo-historical imitation artifacts. However, I felt somewhat defeated or foiled. My insistence on a particular type of faithfulness to the original poems (the rhymed syllabic couplets standardized in Polish by Kochanowski) seemed to lead me in English toward a stiffly baroque sophistication found in John Dryden, writing more than a century after Kochanowski:

Why are we then so fond of mortal life,
Beset with dangers, and maintained with strife.Clearly, this sort of dignified command and elegant control of language and couplet might be appropriate for a classical elegy, even a classical renaissance elegy -- but certainly not for the intensely troubled and almost wailing grief of Kochanowski's Treny. He is, after all, mourning the loss of his two-year old, not a military leader or head of state. Rather, he employs the ancient death/wedding thematic coupling often found in Slavic folklore, a strategy more likely to be found in the works of a Romantic poet like Keats. Even a similar lament by a near contemporary, Ben Jonson (1572-1637), reveals itself to be working on a more controlled level, devoid of underworlds, grotesque and bathetic imagery, madness and peasant songs:Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy:
Seven years thou wert lent to me, and thee i pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.And, besides all this, a poet/editor once asked me -- what do you do with all those nightingales?

   In the end, I seem to have decided, perhaps by default, on versions or adaptations or imitations of the originals. Most of what I present would, I'm sure, pass an interpreter's scrutiny. However, I have introduced various stanzaic patterns not found in the original-terza rima, for one, which rarely occurs in Polish, even though the Renaissance in Poland was very Italian. Moreover, rhyming -- and especially end-stop rhyming -- in Polish is a relatively simple matter, since it is a highly inflected language with seven case endings, similar in this regard to Latin. But, since rhyme is always a tricky issue in English, I opted for less obtrusive ways of capturing the sound of the original. I have also cut some of the images that might seem stale to my contemporary readership (a few of those nightingales perhaps). But the most controversial changes may be that in a few places (surely not many), I have inserted biographical details and bits from other Kochanowski laments and poems (the ancient linden tree on his estate in "Threnody 6," for example) and tinkered ever so slightly by adjusting the tone. In any case, I hope the resulting translations convey something of the "pure breathing" of Kochanowski's 16th century poems, a breath both beautiful and tortured. --Perrysburg, Ohio, August 20, 1995

 



Jan Kochanowski

Threnody 5

Like a tiny olive tree
in some vast orchard
Following the path
of its mother upward
Not yet with branch or leaf
barely a sprouted shoot
That some zealous gardener
might clip to uproot
Prickly thorns
or a dense patch of nettle--
Soon it will drop
losing the struggle
Limp by the foot
of its beloved mother.
And so my Ula
my own sweet daughter
How did you get so tangled up
in Persephone's anger and her grief
That you fell to our feet
like some pruned leaf?
(Translated from the Polish by Leonard Kress)

 



Jan Kochanowski

Threnody 6


My Slavic Sappho, you stood to inherit
Not only Czarnolas with its great linden
But my craft as well as my lute.

But what am I saying--
Barely two, chatterbox by day,
Singer of your own songs all night.

Songs I could never get enough of,
Songs for which I paid dearly,
Songs like a village bride sings,

Kissing her mother before vows:
Oh mother farewell, I can no longer help,
Or in this house dwell, no longer sit

At your gracious table. . .
Take back your keys, for now I am able
To leave my beloved parents forever.

(Translated from the Polish by Leonard Kress)

 



Jan Kochanowski

Threnody 14


If only the gate where Orpheus descended
To the underworld were left unattended
Like him I'd bring my beloved back.

If I could only find that path, ford
That river, calm the ferryman's wrath,
Rushed along with other pale shades

To my Urszula, lost in the cypress glades.
And if, when I'd go, I'd bring my lute
And knock at the chamber of the dread Pluto

Perhaps its plaintive suit
Might persuade him to release her,
Too soon a ghost, to halt once and for all

This uncontested grief. I know that he won't
Relinquish her for good. Perhaps a distaste
For unripe fruit might let him allow it ripen.

Or better yet, perhaps I could remain
In this underground nation, losing my soul
As well as this preoccupation.

(Translated from the Polish by Leonard Kress)

 


 

 

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