From If/Jos
-Eeva-Liisa Manner (Finland)

If it’s true that when I go
I needn’t go alone,
that you’ll come too, riding on your horse beside me,
its coat shining earth in the moonlight
(half-earth itself, half-wind)

if it’s true what you promised, if
you’ll ride to the gate – it’s a gate of mist
(the gale’s dropped, the grass isn’t bending) –

I want to go now,
I want you now.

Jos on totta, että kun lähden
minun ei tarvitse lähteä yksin,
että tulet mukaan, ajat toista hevosta,
sitä jonka karva kiiltää kuun valossa maan värinen
(itsekin puoleksi maata, tuulta puolet)

jos on totta mitä lupasit, jos
ajat veräjälle: se on sumua
(ruoho ei taivu, tuulen pyörre ei palaa)

tahdon lähteä heti.
Tahdon sinut heti.



The Rest is Grace
-János Pilinszky (Hungary)

Fear and dreams
were my father and mother –
the corridor was
my unfolding landscape.

This is how I lived. How will I die?
What will my destruction be like?

The earth betrays me. She hugs me close.

The rest is grace.

Dishing it out, ripping it up and taking it


Lesson du jour: Never write anything down

I learned two things in junior high school that still come back to me in a flash, even as the middle-aged broad I am now:

  1. Never write anything down – at least nothing incriminating. I say I learned this, and I think of it all the time. But it does not always stop me from writing stuff down that I shouldn’t. I am writing here every day, and I am probably capturing stuff I shouldn’t.
  2. Everyone is insecure. This will drive each of us to do things we shouldn’t. Usually it plays out in my own life like so: a friend is devastated by life’s unfairness in some form or another; I heroically decide to take it upon myself to cheer them up; I do this by skewering the objects of the unfairness – usually in writing; someone else intervenes and decides to exploit the situation (and in doing so reveals their own mechanisms for dealing with their insecurities), and my written ‘therapies’ end up in the hands of these aforementioned ‘objects of unfairness’, exposing their insecurities.

Not to be oblique here. An example: It was junior high school (this will set the scene, of course, for how juvenile all of this is). My best friend was torn to pieces because her crush (let’s call him Kangaroo Racer) started dating (inasmuch as junior high kids ‘date’) a girl we already disliked (we shall call her Hurk). Hurk had come to the school as a new student that year and had been so unpleasant when we would actually do everything we could to be nice. But that’s the nature of junior high. People are lashing out left and right. I look back and think, yeah, maybe she was just unpleasant in general, but it’s more likely that she was insecure about being new in school, and while she didn’t give a shit what my nerdy friends and I thought of her, she was petrified about not being cool enough for the popular crowd.

When it came to light that she’d begun dating my friend’s crush (I know – this all sounds so ridiculous), becoming the object of life’s great unfairness, I desperately wanted to console my heartbroken friend, and I wrote a nonsensical caricature-poem about Hurk. I don’t remember exactly what it said any more – it was unflattering, designed as it was to make my friend feel … better? Superior? I don’t really know any more. Having committed this “poem” to paper and handing it off to my friend, it then became someone else’s property and problem. My friend gave it to another friend (the exploiter in point two above), who, through her own insecurity and desperate need to climb at least one rung higher on the popularity ladder, took the poem and gave it to Hurk. (Anyone else hearing the theme song of the original 80s Degrassi Junior High now?)

I was blissfully unaware of these exchanges until later, when Hurk herself confronted me, crying, with a pile of shredded paper in her hands, demanding, “Did you write this?” Of course I immediately knew what it was and was guilty, but I felt somehow like I had to be a sarcastic asshole in this moment, waving my hands in a condescending circle over the little pile as if to indicate that I could not possibly know what a pile of shredded paper had once been, replying casually, “I don’t know. What is it?”

That’s the thing: I first, foremost and foolishly imagined she’d never see the thing. You can never count on this: again, don’t write anything down that you wouldn’t want everyone to see. And secondly, I never imagined, even if this too was me fooling myself, that even if she had seen it that she’d care. I suppose we all do care – we don’t want to be confronted with committed-to-pen-and-paper evidence that anyone finds us that unpleasant. We may consciously know that they do. But we don’t want to see it, feel it and experience it that directly and even clinically. Eventually I admitted that yes, of course, I had written it. I did so, if I recall, clinically. I don’t even know how I excused myself. Did I apologize? Knowing who I was then, I probably even wrote (again, committing shit to paper) an apology to her. Maybe I didn’t. I vaguely recall feeling defiant about this – why should I feel badly about offending or hurting someone who made such hearty meals of being a bitch to everyone around her (at least those whose ‘approval’ she didn’t need)? But that was the adolescent and often petty me. In the years since I have reflected on this event with some shame, thinking of all the ways I tried to justify it. It was 30 years ago, and it still pokes at my conscience sometimes. And, if most of what I know about the world is true, despite how it hurt her at the time, she probably does not even remember it.

In the same vein, and during the same time period, another close friend had been going through life-altering bad times, and the intensity and closeness of our friendship led me to try to cheer her up by writing critical, disparaging, but ostensibly comical, persiflage about people who had been our friends – or people who had peripheral connections to our circle of friends. I had written these things before the “Hurk” poem cited above. Once more foolishly, I had no idea that the friend I was attempting to console with my negative causticity would hang onto those notes, and more than a year later, wheel them out as the centerpiece of a slumber party she hosted, to which she had invited all the characters who had been so maliciously maligned in my letters. The attendees phoned me as a unit to give me a piece of their minds, and strangely, I again felt defiant – I justified it to myself (i.e. all total bullshit – “nothing I said was untrue, even if I did so in the most vicious way possible“) while listening to the slumber party guests. Nothing they said mattered to me. All that mattered to me was that whatever fragile trust I had had left with the friend was gone.

But the point of recounting this now (apart from having ripped up some papers and having my memory triggered by seeing the shredded pile), again more than 30 years after the fact, is that I still realize – perhaps even more than ever – the truth in the fact that we are all insecure. Especially as the raw, dewy not-children, not-adults whose bodies and feverish minds we try to navigate in adolescence. Despite my faulty tactics and hurtful actions (I take the blame there), in some ways, my heart had been in the right place in that I was committed, at all costs, to delivering comfort and pain relief to my friends. It is not that I was not sorry – I was and am. I did all the comforting and consoling entirely the wrong way – at other insecure people’s expense – which always backfired on me in the most instant-karma means possible. But I took the knocks on the chin. I’ve never been someone who can dish it out but not take it in equal measure.

But then, most other people are smart enough, or lazy enough, or both, not to commit their insults to paper.

Snow like feathers


A White City
-James Schuyler
My thoughts turn south
a white city
we will wake in one another’s arms.
I wake
and hear the steampipe knock
like a metal heart
and find it has snowed.


“Feathers” – disposable, melting feathers – is the only word I can conjure to describe the perplexing, disappointing late-April Swedish weather. It’s not all bad, locked away in semi-seclusion with books and warmth and soup.

Find yourself a reliable soup-maker, people, and this will imbue your life with great satisfaction and nourishment. And when I say “soup-maker” here I am referring to a person who makes soup, not some device that will whip up soup for you. I remember being in Russian class many years ago, and all of the students believed that the word defined as “dishwasher” (посудомойка) in our textbook referred to a dishwashing machine. When a Russian lecturer came to take over our class on a Fulbright fellowship, she laughed and disabused us of this radically foolish notion. Would Russians circa 1992 have had dishwashers (посудомоечная машина) in their homes? How silly we were, she laughed.

There is much beauty in simplicity – and in ironing out the misunderstandings.

Snow, soup, and loud New Order, not unlike a rare snow day in Seattle in my youth – staying awake all night hoping school would be cancelled.

killer bees


Tomas Tranströmer (Sweden)
The buildings of the capital, the hives of the killer bees, honey for the few.
He served there. But in a dark tunnel he unfolded his wings
and flew when no one was looking. He had to live his life again.

(the original Swedish read by the Nobel laureate himself)

Kapitalets byggnader, mördarbinas kupor, honung för de få.
Där tjänade han. Men i en mörk tunnel vecklade han ut sina vingar
och flög när ingen såg. Han måste leva om sitt liv.


Image by Boris Smokrovic

The same deep water as you


In between reading about physics, dictators like Pol Pot, Underground Railroad/slavery, addiction, and theology/comparative religion, I throw in easier reads. Last week it was the autobios of Kim Gordon and Carrie Brownstein, Girl in a Band and Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, respectively. I refer to them first of all by their names, even if they are not known to everyone, because… well, I don’t like it when I see something like “Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon”. Even if she is primarily known to the world as a member of Sonic Youth, I wonder if that is how she would want to be defined. Carrie Brownstein, by extension, could be identified with several different things, but for me, it’s just going to be the names by which they are known to the world, but not their associations. Sure, I get it that without these associations, these books wouldn’t have been published.

What I took away from these books was not the cheap thrill of some kind of name-dropping exposé or a glimpse behind the scenes into some dubiously glamorous life. In both cases, I got a confirmation that most of us are awkward bombs of iffy self-esteem and comical self-doubt, right on the edge of lighting the fuse. Each of us trips through life, having our experiences, feeling silly and out of place, believing everyone else around us is so much smarter, more sophisticated, having it all together.

It struck me in these cases because Gordon makes a point, at least twice, of describing the mismatch between the persona and the person – people have perceived her as cool, standoffish, aloof – and that is, without a doubt, the image projected. But reading what she writes about herself, that illusion crashes down.

And in the case of Brownstein, it was all the more revelatory. She and I were classmates at The Evergreen State College, both during our first year. I can’t remember a time in my life that I felt more awkward and less like I belonged somewhere. I marveled every time she spoke during seminar because she seemed to have well-formed and passionate opinions. In the years since, I have sometimes looked back on that school year, and she stood out (not as a media image, musician, comedian/actress or all the things she has become since, but as a fellow student within that moment in time) in my mind as someone who appeared to know her opinions and was able to articulate them. Maybe we all have those “people” in our minds – they were not our friends or people we knew well, but from afar, we create an image of how cool we think they are. And for me, she represented that image.

Imagine my surprise, then, to read that she was nearly traumatized by the experience of having to speak up in seminar (she, like me, was told by professors that she was too quiet, not participating enough – and our professors knew we had valid, well-considered opinions because they read our papers). In class, her voice would take on the fever pitch of what most would interpret as conviction and passion, but as she wrote, it was nervousness at just trying to get the thought out at all.

“At Evergreen, I was too nervous to speak up in class. I knew what I wanted to say but didn’t know how to interject or insert myself in a conversation. By the time I got up the nerve, my voice would be shaking, so even if I was saying something relatively innocuous or factual, I sounded like I was full of passion, emphatic, on the verge of crying. It was humiliating and my professors often noted my lack of participation.) It took a very long time to catch up with my performer self, to draw from that strength.”

I can remember very clearly sitting next to her in one of the early seminars, when she spoke quite fervently about how and why she did not relate to particular passage in one of our readings. I admired this so much, being a shy, unassuming, invisible marshmallow myself. How could I have known that she was struggling just as much as I was to say what she wanted, when she wanted to?

She wrote about trying to impress people and ingratiate herself to people she met during those years.

“…showed up to Olympia a wanderer. I had about two months until school started. I spent the first few weeks walking around downtown stopping in at the State Theater or thrift stores or the Martin apartments, places I knew people I wanted to be friends with worked or hung out. I lingered and muttered, I waited around. I was desperate to insert myself into situations, to learn, to observe. I was an archaeologist of sorts but I wanted to be a participant, to be connected and engaged. I was shy, which didn’t help. Underneath that nervousness, however, I had a cunningness and intentionality, or at least a cluelessness that was intrepid enough to get the job done. I cared too much about what people thought but also not enough. I didn’t mind that I was just hanging around. I didn’t want to be discovered, I wanted to be part of the discovery.”

I could relate; I, like many of us, I went to college essentially friendless and was starting over again. I was constantly doing stuff like offering people rides (I gave her a ride somewhere once), hoping that they’d see that I was not as lame and awkward as I seemed on the surface. I was just barely treading water (as it turns out, so were they).

Maybe this should not surprise me, but at the very least, reading both books reminded me that we are all riding the same choppy waves, sometimes in really deep water.

Photo by David Forsman

Translation lie


Another of those times we (or at least I) must accept the lie and limitations of translation. I can look at the Polish original and glean what I think the meaning and ultimate English-language translation should be, but ultimately it could go so many ways. I fed this infernal despair and frustration with translation years ago by immersing myself in language study so that I could create reasonable simulacra of translations. Never ended up particularly happy with these seeming facsimiles or even with comparative studies of existing translations.

Yet, at the same time, I want people to see and read these works, even in translation, because there are so many works in the world that just scream out to be read!

Gratitude (links to a different translation, which might be useful for comparison’s sake)
Wisława Szymborska
I owe a great deal
to those I do not love.

The relief with which I accept
they are dearer to someone else.

The joy that it is not I
who am wolf to their sheep

Peace unto me with them,
and freedom with them unto me,
and that is something that love cannot give
or contrive to take away.

I do not wait for them
from window to door.
almost like a sundial,
I understand
what love does not understand,
I forgive
what love would never forgive.

From meeting to letter
passes not an eternity
but merely a few days or weeks.

Travels with them are always a success,
concerts heard,
cathedrals visited,
landscapes in sharp focus.

And when we are separated
by seven mountains and rivers
they are mountains and rivers
well known from the map.

It is thanks to them
that I live in three dimensions
in a space non-lyrical and non-rhetorical,
with a horizon real because movable.

They themselves do not know
how much they bring in empty hands –

“I owe them nothing,”
love would say
on this open question.

Here’s the original if you’d like to put your skills to work deciphering its code and interpreting its meaning and unveiling it in English as well.

Wisława Szymborska

Wiele zawdzięczam
tym, których nie kocham.

Ulgę, z jaką się godzę,
że bliżsi są komu innemu.

Radość, że nie ja jestem
wilkiem ich owieczek.

Pokój mi z nimi
i wolność mi z nimi,
a tego miłość ani dać nie może,
ani brać nie potrafi.

Nie czekam na nich
od okna do drzwi.

prawie jak słoneczny zegar,
miłość nie wybaczyłaby nigdy.

Od spotkania do listu
nie wieczność upływa,
ale po prostu kilka dni albo tygodni.

Podróże z nimi zawsze są udane,
koncerty wysłuchane,
katedry zwiedzone,
krajobrazy wyraźne.

A kiedy nas rozdziela
siedem gór i rzek,
są to góry i rzeki
dobrze znane z mapy.

Ich zasługą,
jeżeli żyję w trzech wymiarach,
w przestrzeni nielirycznej i nieretorycznej
z prawdziwym, bo ruchomym horyzontem.

Sami nie wiedzą,
ile niosą w rękach pustych.
“Nic im nie jestem winna” –
powiedziałaby miłość
na ten otwarty temat.

Image (c) Stephen Donaghy

The urgency of now


We were walking through Wrocław, a place he knew better than I did. It was only my first visit, but he had been living there part time, on and off, for months. During our walk, he grabbed my hand, with some urgency and purpose, less as a tender gesture and more as the take-charge guide, leading me to the next spot on the tour he had apparently planned and perfected.

“Poland,” he said authoritatively, “is a hidden gem.” I smiled but said nothing. Poland is a kind of hidden gem. I had no argument and nothing to add. It’s an especially bright gem once you start being able to pronounce the words. Say it with me: Wrocław. Could you do it? No? Give it time.

I didn’t tell him how much I had once dreamt of visiting Poland, at the apogee of my “Slavic/eastern-central-southern European studies” life. In fact I shared so little about myself because that was not the nature of things. This was not going to be one of those ‘confessional’ entanglements. Revelations about ourselves were doled out not as linear narratives but as footnotes to what we observed around us. Strolling past a courthouse, for example, he might comment, “It was total drudgery practicing law”, which would lead to a lecture on corruption in the legal system where he came from and the complete sense of helplessness and anger that arises from being unable to do anything but quit (which he did… and moved to Europe). But this was not deep or personal reflection on his vocation or life events that led him to or from it.

In this way, we knew each other incrementally, just as we came to know the city. Nothing of the roller-coaster arc on which most stories jaggedly rise and fall. Even more liberating, there was nothing of the “who-I-was” and “who-will-I-be”. No, there was only right now. Fortuitous, given that the “right now” of those moments filled quickly with the challenges of mastering the idiosyncrasies of basic Polish: dziękuję. Or most useful of all for two itinerant non-Poles wandering around together: nie mówię po polsku.

Photo (c) 2014 Nico Trinkhaus used under Creative Commons license.

misfired words


All those wounding words we can’t – and others can’t – take back: misfired words.

-Ocean Vuong
The stars are not hereditary. —Emily Dickinson

Turn back & find the book I left
for us, filled
with all the colors of the sky
forgotten by gravediggers.
Use it.
Use it to prove how the stars
were always what we knew

they were: the exit wounds
of every
misfired word.

Photo by Tobias Polinder.