Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The firmament sheweth his handywork

There are just a little more than two weeks left to the semester, and I'm having a little trouble with the whole "keep calm and carry on" maxim. Perhaps it's not a fantastic idea to listen to Mozart's Requiem mass while reading my advisor's comments on my project... But, it's too late for that. What's done is done. The "Dies Irae" has never felt more a propos (at least, this draft isn't graded).
The project in question is a translation and commentary upon one of Jakob Balde's elegies. Now, you may ask, who is Jakob Balde and why am I wading through the trackless wilderness of his poetry? Well, the first question is simple enough: Balde was a 17th century German poet, who wrote in Latin. Actually, he was Alsatian. Should I make a distinction? Probably. Anyways, he lived and wrote for the most part in Germany, serving as chaplain to the elector Maximilian I.
The second question is a little more difficult. In the first place, it's a bit harsh of me to refer to his poetry as a trackless wilderness. It's really quite lovely, sublime even, when you're not completely perplexed by his eccentric word order and obscure references (thanks to Jakob, I'm developing a knowledge of 17th century botany). What's also exciting is that the poem I'm working with is hitherto untranslated and uncommented upon. I'm actually doing something that matters (at least, that's what I tell myself). I'm not just following in a chain of commentators and translators, all more intelligent than myself. Furthermore, I love the poem. It's beautiful and touching. The title, in English, is "The Garden of Gethsemane, representing the weapons of Christ’s Passion flowering in mid Spring, and allegorically described." Typical of his era, Balde's title is verbose and bland, compared with the content of the poem. But, the poem! Not bland at all. Rather, it is lithe and understated. Balde continually switches between three narratives: a description of the Garden of Gethsemane blooming in mid Spring, a description of Christ's Passion, and an exhortation to the Christian soul. He switches so effortlessly between his three topics that one forgets they are separate. In fact, so natural is his presentation that one begins to realize that they are not separate. Balde links Christ's Passion, and thus, the salvation of mankind, with the beauty of nature. He unites the God we discern in nature with the God we read about in scripture. And, in so doing, he reminds us that, not only scripture, but nature also, is an exhortation to virtue, a reminder of God's love and majesty. As the psalmist writes, "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork. Day untoday uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge" (Psalm 19:1-2).

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Cow Town Coffee Houses

Even though it's 2011, I still sing Bob Wills' classic song "Big Balls in Cowtown" pretty much every time I drive into Dallas or Fort Worth from my suburban haunt. Yes, D/FW is a far cry from a cowtown these days, but I like to affectionately think back to that time I don't remember.... Now, you go to buy feed, and they sell it in five (not fifty) pound bags to hipsters interested in organic, free-range eggs. Not that I really mind. I'm rather pleased with the trend towards Austinization in various neighborhoods of the Big D. Despite my pastoral nostalgia, I enjoy a good indie coffee house or shop selling ironic kitsch. So, here I compile a list of coffee houses I've dug up and explain their qualities and their deficiencies.

This is a charming little coffee house located in Uptown Dallas. It's situated in an old bungalow and is very pretty and cute from outside. However, on the inside, it's a little cramped and it can be quite difficult to find somewhere to sit. I find the feng shui of the interior a little off-putting. It purports to have a "living room" feel, but the organization of the furniture is a bit awkward and uninviting. The coffee is good, the baristas bearded, but the chai is obviously made from powder, which is very disappointing. The neighborhood is all right; you can't really walk to anything very interesting from the house, just some restaurants, bars, and residences, although there is an aged cemetery not too far away, where you can read and admire graves from the Civil War (I mean, The Late Great Unpleasantness) up to the present.

First started in the Bishop Arts District of Dallas, Espumoso Caffe is now also expanding to Las Vegas (randomly enough). The hipster in me cries a little at this. Ah local business! How swiftly you pass! It's a pleasant little cafe (oh, I mean, caffe, excuse me), not very large, but comfortable, with good coffee and friendly baristas. It's pretty small, but not terribly crowded, with nice, chill music that doesn't obstruct studying or chitchat. The area is fairly nice but small--a few blocks of interesting shops, but stray too far from the gentrified path, and, if you're a girl, you might yourself leered and whistled at.

The Pearl Cup

Situated in Lower Greenville, the Pearl Cup is a lovely coffee house. It has a modern, almost industrial, feel, which, granted, is not my favorite style. But, the square metal tables that you share with folks all walks of life are conducive to studying and tuning out the hubbub of people ordering lattes or paninis. The coffee is good and they offer a fine selection of teas. What's more, the neighborhood is lovely. Nearby are interesting shops, old houses, bars, organic grocery stores--the works.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Horace 1.24

Last Fall, I foolhardily undertook to translate Horace's Ode 1.24 (Quis Desiderio) into perfectly crafted, metrical stanzas. It was impossible. Not only is English imperfect for imitating the sound of Latin verse, but Latin words frequently bear a wealth of independent but interrelated meanings that can be conveyed by no one English word.
But, the poem, written to Vergil upon the death of a friend, is simply so beautiful that English speakers, who don't have time to learn Latin, should enjoy some slender shade of its beauty. Below, I quote the Latin and various translations of it.

Quis desiderio sit pudor aut modus
tam cari capitis? Praecipe lububris
cantus, Melpomene, cui liquidam pater
uocem cum cithara dedit.

Ergo Quintilium perpetuus sopor
urget? Cui Pudor et Iustitiae soror,
incorrupta Fides, nudaque Veritas
quando ullum inueniet parem?

Multis ille bonis flebilis occidit,
nulli flebilior quam tibi, Vergili.
Tu frustra pius, heu, non ita creditum
poscis Quintilium deos.

Quid si Threicio blandius Orpheo
auditam moderere arboribus fidem?
Num uanae redeat sanguis imagini,
quam uirga semel horrida,

non lenis precibus fata recludere,
nigro compulerit Mercurius gregi?
durum: sed leuius fit patientia
quicquid corrigere est nefas.

The following is a translation by William Gladstone (pictured to the left), the 19th century British liberal statesman, who served as prime minister four times between 1868 and 1894 (Ah, I weep for our world leaders now! I doubt that any of them could even read Horace, much less translate him!).

What bounds can Shame, can Moderation, set,
For one so dear, to yearning and regret?
Lead thou the dirge, for Jove, Melpomene,
Gave lyre and song to thee.

[Fairly solid first lines, though the last two are a bit errant; translating "vocem [voice]" as "song" takes so much charm from the stanza.]

Shall then unending sleep Quintilius bind?
O bashful Shame, O Truth's transparent mind,
Pure Faith and Justice, twinborn sisters dear.
Where shall ye find his peer?

[It's not bad, but I'm wondering where he gets "transparent mind" and "twinborn sisters" and some other meter-completing adjectives that creep in.]

What cause he left the good for sorrowing pain !
What cause to thee, my Virgil! who, in vain
Devout, hast sought him from the gods of heaven,
But he was lent, not given.

[This stanza is awkward and inaccurate. Eheu!]

If sweetlier than Threician Orpheus thou
Could'st touch the chord that made the forests bow.
The blood returns not to the senseless clod,
, For Mercury's stern rod,

[This I find rather pretty and well-crafted, if not entirely accurate.]

Inexorable guard of Fate's command.
Hath fast conjoined him to the spectral band.
Alack! But what the iron laws impose
By patience lighter grows.

[Not accurate and anti-climactic. The final two lines pack none of the punch that they have in Latin.]

The following is a translation by John Conington, an English Classical scholar in the mid 1800s.

Why blush to let our tears unmeasured fall
For one so dear? Begin the mournful stave,
Melpomene, to whom the Sire of all
Sweet voice with music gave.

[Not accurate at all, but it's charming.]

And sleeps he then the heavy sleep of death,
Quintilius? Piety, twin sister dear
Of Justice! naked Truth! unsullied Faith!
When will ye find his peer?

[Piety is an awful translation of "pudor" and Horace merely writes "sister" not "twin sister."]

By many a good man wept. Quintilius dies;
By none than you, my Virgil, trulier wept:
Devout in vain, you chide the faithless skies,
Asking your loan ill-kept.

[Good, a little overly flowery... faithless skies, really?]

No, though more suasive than the bard of Thrace
You swept the lyre that trees were fain to hear,
Ne'er should the blood revisit his pale face
Whom once with wand severe

Mercury has folded with the sons of night,
Untaught to prayer Fate's prison to unseal.
Ah, heavy grief! but patience makes more light
What sorrow may not heal.

[Really quite good; the last two stanzas are devilishly hard to translate well. But Conington's last line reads a bit too much into Horace's delightfully simple line, "quidquid corrigere est nefas."]

Monday, October 10, 2011

i can't get no (Stevie Jackson)

Stevie Jackson, best known as the guitarist for the Scottish indie group Belle and Sebastian, has come out with his own Solo LP this month. The album is already available to buy online, but the hard copy won't be released until October 24. If you're curious, you can hear some of his songs here. Judging from these samples, I would warrant that Jackson's album is not the same quality as Belle and Sebastian, but that's not to say that Jackson's music won't be enjoyable. It's pleasant, rather reminiscent of the Beatles, sometimes a little too synthesized, in short, a chipper album with some pleasant songs but nothing terribly outstanding or inspiring. Some of the refrains become annoying and grating after a little while, but, all in all, it's not a bad album.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Need of Being Versed in Country Things

Being confined to a city, my room surrounded on three sides by highways, I find myself being stifled by the incessant whir of cars. At night, I wonder at God's promise that He would make Abraham's descendents as countless as the stars at night for, here, I can count about seven. Living in a city makes me especially conscious of the beauty of country life: I miss the grey October pastures, spotted with grazing cows and the yellow remnants of summer flowers. I miss the quiet of the days and the darkness of the nights. I miss tromping in muddy boots through rain soaked trees with a filthy little dog at my side. Living here makes me realize the need of being versed in country things, and the need of keeping Robert Frost ever at my side. So, I quote for you his delightful little poem, for which this post is named, and say no more about it. Let the poet speak for himself.

The Need of Being Versed in Country Things

The house had gone to bring again
To the midnight sky a sunset glow.
Now the chimney was all of the house that stood,
like a pistil after the petals go.

The barn opposed across the way,
That would have joined the house in flame
Had it been the will of the wind, was left
To bear forsaken the place's name.

No more it opened with all one end
For teams that came by the stony road
To drum on the floor with scurrying hoofs
And brush the mow with the summer load.

The birds that came to it through the air
At broken windows flew out and in,
Their murmur more like the sigh we sigh
From too much dwelling on what has been.

Yet for them the lilac renewed its leaf,
And the aged elm, though touched with fire;
And the dry pump flung up an awkward arm;
And the fence post carried a strand of wire.

For them there was really nothing sad.
But though they rejoiced in the nest they kept,
One had to be versed in country things
Not to believe that the phoebes wept.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Something Wicked This Way Comes

As we near the end of summer, I begin to notice the tinges of Fall on each breeze and fluttering leaf. Frankly, I can't wait--tweeds, cardigans, bare trees, and Halloween! All the lovely things that make my skin prickle with excitement. And, to top off my excitement, I just finished reading Ray Bradbury's exquisite novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. The book, set, as we are right now, between the end of Summer and the coming of Fall, tingles with schoolboy thrills and excitements, but it also resonates with comfort and wisdom for facing whatever life presents.
The basic plot is that an eery carnival arrives at a small Midwestern town at three o'clock in the morning. Two boys begin noticing strange things about it, people disappearing, a mirror maze that shows you yourself when you are old, a carousel that takes away or gives years to your body as you ride forward or backward.
But, there is so much more to the novel than a melange of freaks. In Something Wicked, Bradbury draws attention to the unique position of human beings, "We are the creatures that know and know too much. That leaves us with such a burden again we have a choice, to laugh or cry. No other animal does either. We do both, depending on the season and the need" (208). The "season and the need"--the entire novel seems to pivot around these two words. Throughout Something Wicked, Bradbury emphasizes how everything comes at its proper time; we are boys when we should be boys, and men when we should be men. To seek to change this is vain. If we actually could change this, we would cease to be human... "finally you wind up owner of the carousel, keeper of the freaks... proprietor for some small part of eternity of the traveling dark carnival shows" (305). But, how does one protect oneself from the vain desire for youth, from ennui, and from self-loathing as the years slowly peal away your ability to accomplish your dreams? Laughter. "Death's funny, God damn it!" (300).

Monday, July 11, 2011

"Alors soyez gentils!"

Sometimes, I come across a piece of music that I just can't stop listening to. Right now, it's the Adagio from Arcangelo Corelli's Concerto Grosso Op. 6 No. 8. The piece is exquisite, striking in its cleanness of melodic movement and lack of excessive ornamentation. The simplicity of the melody combined with the harmonies of the various strings is indescribably beautiful. It feels both tragic and content at the same time, hinting at a certain understated nostalgia; it does not rage against the dying of the light, but merely accepts that some things have passed on and feels grief at their loss, not inconsolable grief but still noticeable.
In Cities of the Plain, in a conversation between an aging man and a young cowboy, Cormac McCarthy writes:
...There's hard lessons in this world. [says the old man]
What's the hardest? [replies the cowboy]
I don't know. Maybe it's just that when things are gone they're gone. They aint comin back.
While this is unmistakably true, it's not really complete. All the things that we miss once they have passed away would simply become garish and monstrous if they remained forever. An end is perhaps the greatest (and most painful) blessing we have been given. Even the loveliest piece of music or the most delicate flower would become nauseating and dull if it continued indefinitely.
At the end of Le Petit Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery writes, "
Ca c'est pour moi, le plus beau et le plus triste paysage du monde. C'est le même paysage que celui de la page précédente, mais je l'ai dessiné une fois encore pour bien vous le montrer. C'est ici que le petit prince a apparu sur terre, puis disparu. [That is for me the loveliest and the saddest landscape in the world. It is the same landscape as the preceding page, but I drew it a second time so you could see it well. It is here that the little prince appeared on earth, then disappeared.]" The landscape is beautiful, not just in itself, but because of what transpired there. All good things must end, but because they end, they stay beautiful.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

And Lot lifted up his eyes...

As a remedy (or perhaps an irritant) for my homesickness, I started reading Cormac McCarthy's perfectly crafted novel, Cities of the Plain. As a Texan currently confined to speaking only in Russian, it's refreshing to read McCarthy's quintessentially Texan dialogues and smile at his characters' use of unexpected similes, the kind of things I hear while sitting in my grandmother's living room. But, it's also a bit frightening. The violence and corruption of McCarthy's Western, set near the Texas-Mexico border in the 1950's, could easily be events taking place today. Just this evening, I read a New York Times article about more than 20 people shot dead in Monterrey. Alejandro Poire, Mexico's national security spokesman, hardly broke the surface of this issue when he commented that this "violence is the product of this criminal rivalry, characterized by mistrust, vengeance, the intent to control all illegal activities of a community and profit not just from that activity but also the possible control of drug shipments to the United States" (quoted from NYT article). What Mr. Poire would be wise to admit is that this violence is the product of much more than just criminal rivalry. In Cities of the Plain, McCarthy describes the 16-year-old prostitute, Magdalena, who was "sold at the age of thirteen to settle a gambling debt" (139), ran away from her pimp first to a convent which gladly returned her for a little cash and then to the police who, after raping her, sold her back to the pimp. The point of referencing this is not to shock the reader with the horrors of human trafficking, but to point out that corruption is not simply the result of "criminal rivalry," but of an entire society. It is not just the pimp that keeps Magdalena in her horrific situation; it is the Mexican society that for a little cash gladly winks at the horror, but equally important, it is also the society across the border that helps pay for the corruption. When we look at Mexico and think how we need to improve border security, perhaps we should instead look inwards. The violence that wastes Mexico right now is not just the product of Mexican corruption, it is also the product of "upstanding" Americans who succumb to this corruption by paying bribes when they are obliged to work or travel to Mexico. It is also the product of all of us who simply think of the violence across the border as "their problem." It is our problem as well, and we have helped perpetuate it by our complacence.