Monday, October 27, 2008

"Purring" by Coleman Barks

by Coleman Barks

The internet says science is not sure
how cats purr, probably
a vibration of the whole larynx,
unlike what we do when we talk.

Less likely, a blood vessel
moving across the chest wall.

As a child I tried to make every cat I met
purr. That was one of the early miracles,
the stroking to perfection.

Here is something I have never heard:
a feline purrs in two conditions,
when deeply content and when
mortally wounded, to calm themselves,
readying for the death-opening.

The low frequency evidently helps
to strengthen bones and heal
damaged organs.

Say poetry is a human purr,
vessel mooring in the chest,
a closed-mouthed refuge, the feel
of a glide through dying.

One winter morning on a sunny chair,
inside this only body,
a far-off inboard motorboat
sings the empty room, urrrrrrrhhhh

Coleman Barks is better known for translating Rumi’s poems without following the rhythm and rhyming of their original Persian. Instead he does something new, something unheard of, possibly deemed sacrilegious by die-hard Rumi fans: he turns them into modern free verse. Regardless of this, critics have to agree he still manages to capture the essence of Rumi’s verses.

In this piece, from a new collection of his own works, Winter Sky: New and Selected Poems, 1968–2008, published by University of Georgia, where he once taught poetry and creative writing, Barks attempts to explain to us how a cat purrs. 

Like most of us he depends on the Web for answers. Even scientists haven’t found out, assuming it’s the animal’s larynx that’s vibrating.  He underpins this using the r, p and b sounds in "purr, probably/a vibration of the whole larynx,".  When it comes down to how we humans sound he dismisses all those previous sounds: "unlike what we do when we talk."
Then, in the second stanza, he sums up what he thinks it is about purring, in two lines, scientifically indeed, even if he himself is not sure ("Less likely"), as “a blood vessel/moving across the chest wall.”

It appears Barks himself has been making empirical experiments to get some answers. In the third stanza you get a cutesy image of him as a little boy coming across cats and “stroking” them “to perfection”, to get the purr out of them; which is a miracle to a child.  Here, there are more "purr" alliterations in "miracles,/the stroking to perfection."

Whether the cat is happy or wounded, he still purrs. Apparently he does this to “ strengthen bones and heal/damaged organs”. Personally this writer has seen cats heal themselves by finding and ingesting certain plants, regurgitating the bolus later.

In stanza six Barks compares poetry to purring, but of a human kind. Here, he repeats "say", from the first stanza, where "The internet says", as we humans "say", not "purr", unless if it is poetry.  He gives us an image of a vessel moored in the chest. You “feel” it “glide through dying.”: poetic purring apparently heals.

In the last stanza we see what this “vessel” looks like: a motorboat. Its “purring” is so audible, humming (“sings”) in “the empty room” of “One winter morning on a sunny chair”. We have "this only body" because only cats have virtually nine.   There is such joy picked up in "inboard motorboat/sings the empty room".  This vessel doesn't merely "sings" in "the empty room".  The transitivity of the verb includes the empty room in the singing. It’s like some operatic aria, building up from a little sound, like “a blood vessel”, to an actual vessel (note the repeating of vessel as a rhyme), a motorboat.

The final lines realise this purring. Reading out loud the “urrrrrrrhhhh”s is like a chorus singing a prayer, or an incantation.

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Saturday, October 11, 2008

"The Mole"

Here is yet one
more life that we see only from outside
from the outside

not in itself but later
in signs of its going
a reminder
in the spring daylight

it happened when we were not noticing
and so close to us
that we might not have been here
disregarded as we were

see where we have walked
the earth has risen again
out of its darkness
where it has been recognized
without being seen
known by touch
of the blind velvet fingers
the wise nails
descendants of roots and water

we have seen them
only in death and in pictures
opened from darkness afterward

but here the earth
has been touched and raised
eye has not seen it come
ear has not heard
the famous fur
the moment that finds its way
in the dark without us

by W.S.Merwin
From The Shadow of Sirius

After Leon’s topical post in memory of the passing of Paul Newman, mine comes oddly off timing, somewhat late, but the reasons of it being late, I will let you discover in this poem on your own. :)

“The Mole”, being the title of this poem, we read about how we do not actually see the mole. All we notice are the “signs” The raised soil of the earth that it has left behind, as it burrows underneath the ground, underneath our feet.

This poem, however, is more than just about the mole. Reading carefully, this poem is about “one/ more life that we see only from outside”. Although the word “one” refers to the mole, the use of enjambment or run-on line emphasizes that there is “more life” here that just the mole. Apparently, the word “one” encapsulates this ambiguity, that there is more what we “see only from outside”, the literal words of the poem.

We read that this life “happened when we were not noticing”, and that it works ever “so close to us/ that we might not have been here”. Indeed, the mole digs with its “blind velvet fingers” deep down in the “darkness” underground, close to our feet, yet disregarding that we are even there at all. We also read that “the earth has risen again/ out of its darkness”. Here, we see the ambiguity of the poem again. The earth, as raised by the mole, and the earth that “has risen”, not just out the “darkness” from underground, but out from the “darkness” to the present “spring daylight”.

Yes, this poem is also about spring, about the life of spring, which grows “when we were not noticing”. This is the beauty and craft of this poem, its ambiguity, and the suggestiveness with which it brings together the mole in its unseen ways and that of spring, as the life buried underneath the “darkness” of winter now springs out before us. It is this magic of the unseen, as well as the magic of this poem that the mole, not typically the most poetic creature one writes about, becomes enjoined with spring. Like the humble mole, the poem, quiet and unintrusive, goes about without any commas, full stops or punctuation, allowing the words to speak and come alive on their own. This absence of punctuation is also what gives the poem its ambiguity

Finally, the word “outside”, repeated twice at the beginning, both coming at the end of the lines, points out that we, as readers and as humans, stand “outside”. But, it also on this “outside” that we begin to quietly marvel at the mystery of nature, “touched” by its gentle, invisible lightness, as that of this poem.

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