What Does Your Cat Want from You? A Writer’s Thoughts

by Anis Shivani

Cats know death better than anyone.

It seems that the primary reason they domesticated us, at the same time as humans became domesticated to agriculture and a sedentary life, was to remind us of the sensuous things that keep escaping us. And what is more sensuous than death? What is more luxurious, what is more eventful, what is more poetic? A cat contains the poetry of death—and indeed it is the highest form of poetry, because this poetry comes from silence and ends in silence—like nothing else on earth.

The cat’s every movement and gesture and sound and hesitation and flurry and escape and approach is designed to embody the idea of death.

The idea of death is a furry softness we touch and grope and fondle, thinking we are touching a cat. Squeeze a cat in the belly and hear him utter that half moan, half mewl, half plea, half grump, squeeze him and feel how delicate and fragile he is, how absurdly small despite his usual proclamations to be a tiger in a cat’s little body. He is small and he knows it but most of the time he doesn’t want you to know it, except when you rub him a little too hard, he realizes then you have penetrated the membrane of forgettability, you have raised questions!

A cat does not want to answer questions. This explains why he’s often not around to take them. Or not take them at moments inappropriate for him. Or he takes them on sufferance. Or he takes them as answers in themselves, not bodies he’s accountable for.

A cat has the most fluid sense of accountability, like you should as a writer, a cat is unaccountable and unknowable and unchangeable as you were in your best moments as a child.

Remember when the ocean of gratitude washed over you in the playground, as you ceased for that moment to try to grow into something, a viable man or a viable woman, a bigger, taller, stronger, hardier being? You paused in the stillness of the midmorning sun, unable to calculate, unable to add two plus two, unable to remember your name even; all you knew was that you had shown up in the world just that morning, unmade, unborn, unreal.

A cat is born into the world anew each morning. (This is what you misinterpret as his need for luxury, for conspicuous ease, in fact you misinterpret all his gestures as his need for luxury.)

Each morning he tells you, the writer, he is shocked to be alive. Is any of it real? Is he actually breathing, beside the slant acrostics of the sun, under that revolving fan that throws kooky shadows over the walls, is he actually breathing? In and out, in and out, watch his nose flutter, watch his eyes purr in disbelief, yes he is breathing something of the air we all share. (Air is nothing but the volume of unreality that rises and falls in proportion to the quota of tragedy that has been your lot for the day. You don’t believe that the air is thicker or thinner on any given day? Then you haven’t been around cats long enough, sorry.)

A writer knows that a cat reincarnates more prolifically than a person. A single cat may die and reincarnate twenty or twenty thousand times, reappear in all the different hotspots around the world to put his foot down and throw his scent around and lay out the smartest paths of escape. But here’s the difference from people reincarnating: a cat has no choice but to relive his finest instincts each time, the failure of nerve, unfortunately common to people, not a shortcoming he needs to reappear to correct.

It’s quite possible that cats invented reincarnation.

My original Fu, who died Oct. 13, 2015, after two years of illness; he ate a poisoned rat, otherwise he would have gone on to live till twenty-nine.
Foolittle, who was born around the same time Fu died, at six months old. A case of reincarnation? You decide.

A cat looks at food and insects and birds and trees and flowers and grass and pillows and newspapers and dogs and bookshelves and drinking fountains and socks and purses as objects in the process of reincarnation, things that have been here before and will be again, things that have always existed, so that it is not possible to conceive of their non-existence. Shouldn’t you, as a writer, be paying at least that much respect to objects around you?

So what does your cat want from you?

He wants you to be as indifferent as he is to solving crossword puzzles.

He does not want you to go out in the rain, because you will get wet and antsy, you will bring in a trail of sodden worldliness, the world drenched in the excess of the weather, the world as weather, the world crying from happiness, he does not want you to remind him that other forms of being overwhelmed besides the one he wants you to know are possible, so he does not want you to go out in the rain.

Actually, nothing is sufficient to explain why a cat does not want you to go out in the rain.

But he does want you to write as though the world had ceased to exist.

He wants you to be alone, a lot more than you have ever managed to be. He means alone in the sense of forgetting how to speak, occasionally, alone in the sense of carving out that big hollow ball of cautious fur where you can lay down away from the tyranny of seconds and minutes and hours.

He wants you to fail, fail at everything you thought was yours for the taking, for only in failing is there the reminder of death which is the only point of life, his and yours.

But he wants you to succeed too, only not in the way you thought you were going to, but in a different way, different not to the world but to you, because you experience success, meaning the world noticing you, as…well, this is the hardest thing to define, so let me have him, the cat, step in for a moment, and take a direct shot at it:

“The world is rain. Or shelter from rain. When you feel the glow of success it’s as if you’re sheltering in the rain. But what I like about you is when you can be in two places at the same time. Or many, many places, too many to count. When you recognize other people you cease being in more than one place at a time. Then I find it hard to speak to you, until you come back to me. And it’s even worse when other people recognize you. Strangers who have never poked at your ribs or puffed in your ears or clawed at your eyes, strangers who think they know you. Do not write for them. I will never recognize you in that familiar way.”

There, good job, cat!

The original Fu, the most literary cat there ever was; he read more books than most human beings will ever encounter in a lifetime, and was the author of at least seven, perhaps eleven, books.

A cat wants you, the writer, to rethink all you thought you knew about love. Love is not a gift, it is not a treasure, it is not a possibility, it is not a heritage. You can only experience love to the extent that you’re determined not to experience it. If you want to be in love, you cannot be in love. A cat knows that better than anyone, because he is a connoisseur of death, and you can see it anytime you look in his eyes.

Foolittle, who hasn’t yet tried to get into reading and writing, is mostly interested in eating raw venison every couple of hours, chasing the laser beam and flying around the house, keeping me up all night and trying to eat my feet, and in general being a 24/7 cat YouTube highlight reel.

What exactly do you, dear writer, see in a cat’s eyes?

They are full of emerald beatitude, and the end of the world in a sunny explosion, and layers of truth in the moment of death, of course they are full of all these things, but what else do you see in a cat’s eyes?

A cat wants you to see in his eyes a trail of sadness and laughter that ends because it cannot end, the fluid glass container of grace that takes its own measure, glassy poetry that does not blink, does not pause for the sake of the pause alone.

A cat is, almost, a futurist, but not quite.

A cat moves from one thing to another without the blank aura of questioning. Do not ask the wrong questions. Do not waste time asking questions with no answers. In fact, do not ask any questions. This is the nature of a cat’s curiosity that a writer likes best. It is not about questions and answers, it is about not visibly and transparently moving from one moment to another, not traversing moments in a nuanced, atmospheric, observable way, but just being in one moment at a point in time and then reappearing in another at a different point in time—without transition!

This is the only thing that negates death. Well, not really, but the only attitude, this simultaneous reappearance in infinitely many guises, that plays death’s own game, does not try to cheat it but pays it due homage.

A cat is every moment paying homage to death. A writer should likewise always be paying homage to death. Together cat and writer grow into a languid sunflower that graces the noontime doorway, a rain that desires to idealize every evening as it accompanies the sun on its exit, a middlebrow butterfly that has yet to be called the sum of its parts, a bantering rabbi trying to discover the prayer that will negate all lazy prayers, a child playing in a doll’s house which is the only house that exists after the world has ended, a scholar tripping over a tower of books and laughing about atrophy and disappearance, a fish and a bird and a squirrel twisting this way and that in the sun over the churchly pond which will not abide intemperate moisture and grime.

A cat is not a puzzle to a writer. A writer is not a puzzle to a cat. A cat, when he takes you in his confidence, does so from the only heroism he knows.

AGNI Monkey

Fu4Anis Shivani’s recent books are Karachi Raj: A Novel, Soraya: Sonnets, and Literary Writing in the 21st Century: Conversations. His work appears recently in Black Warrior Review, Subtropics, The Journal, Boulevard, West Branch, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. He has previously been published by both AGNI’s print magazine and the blog. His forthcoming novel, A History of the Cat in Nine Chapters Or Less, imagines the evolution of the feline-human relationship at key turning points throughout history—all from the point of view of the most perceptive cat there ever was. See what he’s published in AGNI here.


Radical Sacrifices: Three Questions on Translation with Eugene Serebryany

American author Paul Auster has referred to translators as the “shadow heroes of literature.” Too often unsung, these linguistic cryptologists “make it possible for different cultures to talk to one another…to understand that we all, from every part of the world, live in one world.” Eugene Serebryany here discusses his English translation of a poem by Marina Tsvetaeva, featured in AGNI 87 under the title “Sunrise on the Rails.”

Lauren Peat/AGNI: Literary translation is frequently described as a game of gain and loss: when smuggling a text from one language into another, the freedoms and constraints of the “new” language often diminish certain nuances within the original, and magnify others. When translating Tsvetaeva’s poem from the Russian, how intentional was your reckoning with gain and loss? Was there a particular element within the original that you felt was most important to communicate in the English version, and if so, were any sacrifices made to achieve that end? 

Eugene Serebryany: There were plenty of sacrifices—if one takes a literal view of translation, then almost everything was sacrificed. The original poem has highly regular iambic meter and is divided into quatrains with the classic ABAB rhyming scheme. The translation keeps none of these things. Translators often say that a poem’s tone is the most important thing to convey—yet even the tone had to be subtly altered. “Sunrise…” is an emotionally intense poem. I judged that strong emotions are expressed in modern English poetry in a more subdued or indirect way than in the Russian poetry of Tsvetaeva’s time, so my translation has fewer exclamation marks than the original. There are a few images in the original that I downplayed in the translation; several others I emphasized. A few others I had to interpolate, either to make explicit cultural and historical allusions the original’s Russian reader would understand implicitly, or to recoup in another way some of the original’s tonal intensity.

What was gained in exchange for these radical sacrifices? A syntax more natural to English, for one thing. I felt that a poem this personal, this intense, could not stand with a stilted syntax or with word choice affected by meter or rhyme. A greater clarity was gained, I hope, because this poem is not only personal: it is journalistic, historical, and political, too. Those broader themes had to be conveyed—and where needed, clarified—if I were to avoid footnotes. Above all, I hope the translation gained a greater capacity for fostering empathy between the speaker and the reader across differences of time and place. I took care also to preserve or allude to the technical lexicon, drawn from civil engineering—that is, the railroad terminology Tsevtaeva’s original leans on. Something about this vocabulary seemed essential: the way it connects art and science, mental and physical construction; the way it grounds the poem in something solid, hard, and international.

LP/AGNI: Tsvetaeva led an intense and deeply tragic life: she lived through the Russian Revolution of 1917, as well as the subsequent Russian famine. In an effort to save her daughter Irina from starvation, Tsvetaeva committed her to a state orphanage in 1919. Irina died shortly thereafter. With her remaining family, Tsvetaeva then spent time in Berlin, Prague, and Paris, where they suffered increasingly desperate conditions. In 1941, upon returning to Russia, her husband Sergei was executed on charges of espionage; Tsvetaeva committed suicide that same year.

Written in October of 1922, “Sunrise on the Rails” recounts Tsvetaeva’s experience as a refugee from Russia. It is shot through with the pain of the grieving—of someone who has lost, but still harbors hopes of retrieval—as well as the pain of recognizing that things have irrevocably changed. “I can still keep Russia / Intact,” Tsvetaeva writes:

I can still stitch it together
From the drab fog, like a playhouse
For orphans—quickly now,
Before the switchman wakes.

I was certainly struck by Tsvetaeva’s biography. Do you think that your translation was marked by your own understanding of her life? Or were you more consciously motivated by the original Russian itself?

ES: Yes, certainly the tragedy of Tsvetaeva’s own life influenced the translation. Tsvetaeva’s daughter, as you mentioned, had died in an orphanage; her husband had been forced to flee Russia earlier (because, as a royalist military officer, he had fought against the Red Army during the civil war). So conveying the feeling of orphanhood was definitely important. The broader historical and political context of her life was very important also: her contemporary readers knew it and had lived it, but now, a century later and a continent away, I felt it needed some explanation. This is how the description of sunrise as a “red thumb” got into the translation—that’s not in the original at all, but was my attempt to briefly conjure up the history and outcome of the Russian Civil War and Tsvetaeva’s relation to it. The early stanzas, up through the passage you quote, were the ones where I took the most liberties of this kind, to set the stage; the latter ones hug the original more closely.

In fact, the passage you quote is a good illustration of the fairly radical approach I resorted to in those early lines. The original has no orphans in that particular stanza; what it does have is a juxtaposition of the word сырость (“syrost’,” dampness) and серость (“serost’,” grayness/drabness). The word сырость is repeated multiple times in the poem, building up the tension until it gets finally resolved by another wordplay that juxtaposes сырость and сирость (“sirost’,” orphanhood). By this language trick the one is “revealed,” in a sense, as the other. I decided not to attempt a comparable wordplay in English, so the notion of orphans had to be there from the start. Likewise, the original has no stitching and no playhouse; it talks only generally of “re-constructing” Russia. But the sense that the poet’s life as well as country had been torn asunder, and may yet be stitched back together by some furious feat of imagination—this made the choice seem natural (natural for English, that is!). And, of course, the entire poem is an act of constructing a sort of “playhouse for orphans”—an imaginary city, an imaginary home for herself, her remaining daughter, and her fellow refugees…. This stitching, this re-construction, is a self-consciously quixotic act, in a way: it recognizes itself as a game, a self-delusion, a stage of grief, even as, on a parallel level, it’s also an act of journalism, a show of determination.

LP/AGNI: Philosopher and biblical scholar Friedrich Schleiermacher (and later translation theorist Lawrence Venuti) famously entertained the idea of translation operating between two poles, even extremes: the first “foreignizing”—whereby a translation is made to reflect the “foreign” quality of its original—and the second “domesticating,” whereby a translation is made to fit seamlessly into the landscape of the new language. What is your own view of this theory? Do you align with either method, or do you have your own understanding of the relationship between a translation and its original?

ES: Yes, I was certainly conscious of where on that spectrum the translation would end up. After struggling through many drafts that preserved the form of the original (the rhyme, the meter, the exclamation points…), in the end I opted for a radically higher dose of “domestication,” as well as my explanatory interpolations. As you point out, there is an ideological choice involved. I am an immigrant myself, and Russian is my native language. So the greater challenge for me is usually to avoid over-foreignizing: creating a translation that is too syntactically awkward or culturally obscure for most of its intended readers to empathize with. A translation has to create cultural connection, this cross-cultural, cross-generational empathy, to convey the image of a mind or of a felt reality that is inaccessible without it. To create such a connection, especially with a text rooted in a specific cultural and historical moment, the translator has to intervene in the text in some ways, like a guide to a foreign landscape.

Such a “guided tour” might seem heavy-handed, but in cases like this I think it’s justified. Translation necessarily implies analysis, interpretation, explanation, and finally a new synthesis in another tongue. Even the most cautious translators can’t be completely transparent. They choose which poem to translate, and when, and for whom. I felt that the time and place that we inhabit needed this poem carried across, and that there was urgency in connecting to it. What if somewhere among the war refugees of our own time there is another Tsvetaeva? What if she could speak for some of them?

AGNI Monkey

ES reading photoEugene Serebryany was born in Moscow, Russia, and moved to Massachusetts as a teenager. He attended Yale University, where he was strongly influenced by Peter Cole’s course on literary translation. His translations of XX century Russian poetry have appeared in AGNI, Cardinal Points, Inventory, and Modern Poetry in Translation. In his parallel life he is a scientist. He obtained his PhD in biochemistry from MIT and is currently a postdoctoral fellow in chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard University. His scientific interests include protein folding, protein aggregation, and cataract disease. See what he’s published in AGNI here.

Peat Photo


Native to the rolling British midlands and the great metropolis of Toronto, Lauren Peat is a current poetry MFA candidate at Boston University and an intern at AGNI.

Dick Talk

by Mark Dow

The decision to cut the dick was a no-brainer, and it might have been the wrong decision.

After my poem “With” appeared in The Threepenny Review thirty years ago—it’s the first poem in my new book Plain Talk Rising—a reader found my phone number and called to say she liked the poem and that it was brave of me to publish it. I didn’t agree, and I don’t recall asking what she meant, but I assumed she was referring to the fact that the poem’s protagonist (all right, author) describes rolling onto his side, in bed as a teenager, “to hide the erection” from his mother, who is there to wake him. The reader/caller was also interested in the biographical note, which said that I was working at a Boston-area school for autistic and developmentally-disabled children.

One of the “low functioning” children was a pre-pubescent twelve-year-old boy with the mind and language of a five-year-old. Or so we thought. One day when the girls and boys were separated, he asked me why some words for “private parts” were “appropriate” while others were not. I said something about adults needing to make rules. I was in my mid-twenties. I didn’t try to address connotation, much less tone, something I still struggle to characterize. “Tone” doesn’t refer to quite the same thing in music as it does in poems, but in both, I think, mastery of it is what separates the men from the boys.

My friend Laura Wittner, Argentine poet, sent me this message while translating “Perforated Evening,” which is also in Plain Talk Rising:

“I always have this problem when I need to translate ‘dick.’ Because here, in rioplatense Spanish, let us say, we have ‘pito’ (which sounds childish, really, it’s what little kids say, but also some adults—I’ve heard my dad say it once or twice), and ‘pija,’ which is what we adults say, though not all of us, because it can sound offensive in a way I don’t think ‘dick’ does. For instance, I always said ‘pija’ but when I met _________ I found out he almost never said it and can’t help but show some disgust when I say it. . . .

“Of course there are other words, like ‘verga,’ which is what I ultimately use in translations because it is understood everywhere. But, for me, it is even more gross (!) than ‘pija.’

“So. Does “dick” have at least a little element of grossness?”

Laura went with “pija.” In the English—“piss trickling from an old man’s dick”—the word was never in question.

In “With,” after several years, “erection” seemed problematic. “Hard-on” and “boner” were no better. But, really, the issue was larger than the single word. Readers of the earlier version might hear the testing of tonal boundaries, impossible to show clearly with excerpts:

Less often (more often) her hand on my chest,
to my shoulder then onto my back as I
rolled onto my side, knees up, then stomach,
to hide the erection, wanting her
or myself to not exist . . .
and always the smell, lipstick and coffee . . .
Hello again object of my hesitant infatuation . . .

Eventually I removed the word, the explicitness, and a couple of stanzas, including the lines now shown here. Was it out of embarrassment that I hid the hiding, or was I right about the faulty tone? Or are these the same question? I’m not the best judge. Maybe I didn’t make the poem better or worse but simply made an “alternate take,” a possibility and practice that always intrigued me on jazz albums.

Writing words which refer to things is one thing. Revising the words is another thing. And reflecting on reasons for the revisions is several more.

Johnson, willie, pee-pee, cock, prick, schmuck; genitals, Genesis, genius, pathogen, gentle, engender.

Plain Talk Rising opens with “With,” as a boy retreats from the mother’s touch. It closes with the prose “Water and Light,” in which a father-to-be is sent back home through time, to where someone snipped a clipping from his clapper just to show that he was hers.”

“I was a body inside of my body,” says one narrator in these poems.

I think he thought that the appropriate words might bring the two together. I can’t be sure of that either, though. It seems like he’s still hiding something.


Note: The Threepenny Review archives are available through JSTOR and the magazine’s website. “Perforated Evening” first appeared at Fascicle; “Water and Light” appeared on Word Riot. The latter two websites are, at this writing, defunct or on hiatus. I am grateful to all three editors: Wendy Lesser, Tony Tost, and Jackie Corley, respectively. Here’s a link to a PDF of the first version of “With.”

AGNI Monkey

FullSizeRender Mark Dow’s Plain Talk Rising was a finalist in the Colorado Prize, New Issues, and Yale Series competitions, and a semi-finalist for the St. Lawrence Book Award from Black Lawrence Press. Dow is also the author of American Gulag: Inside U.S. Immigration Prisons (California). He teaches English at Hunter College in New York. See what he’s published in AGNI here.


by Rick Bursky

If George Orwell hadn’t said “myths which are believed in tend to become true,” I would have. And you could probably say the same about truth in a poem: “poems which are believed in tend to become true.” Truth is important but never let it become an obsession. There are more versions of truth than lies.

That something might have actually happened is not the most important part of truth. The emotional truth is what’s critical. With this said, every word I’ve ever written is true. I would swear on a blood-stained bible that each and every one of my poems happened as written…and my fingers are not crossed behind my back.

I used to date a lovely, young lawyer. We would often go SCUBA diving. In a poem, I once wrote: “Kathy…was futzing with her equipment.” She was angered by this line, claimed it never happened. (Imagine, a lawyer lecturing a poet on truth! That’s when I began making notes on what will one day be a book on truth, a book that will become a textbook in the most prestigious law schools.) I tried to explain to her that something didn’t actually have to happen for it to be true. What made the line of poetry true was she could have futzed with her SCUBA gear, and I knew her well enough to know that once we surfaced she was thinking of how she might readjust her equipment—she was thinking of futzing! And a thought is as close as you need to come to action to make something true. Of course, she argued that the entire poem had little to do with reality. I disagreed; the problem was that she was only aware of a small slice of the world.

Truth is much larger and includes what didn’t happen, it includes what could have happened, and more importantly what you wanted to happen. Kathy complained that literary journals should have a girlfriend rebuttal column. She now works for the government—go figure. Oh, Kathy might not be her real name because while I believe poetic justice gives me license, a lawyer suggested I tread carefully when writing about the truth––again, a lawyer lecturing a poet on truth…huh?

Truth is a poetic device. Use it sparingly. Lies, on the other hand, are boring. Use them even more sparingly.

Poetry occupies a strange place in the minds of literary civilians. Is a book of poems fiction or non-fiction? If you’re making stuff up, many would believe you’re writing a short story. People have a tendency to believe what’s in a poem. Though surrealism shows its hand and can’t get away with this. Confessional poetry runs into trouble with truth when it tries too hard to appear honest.

The difference between propaganda and poetry is not something I’m prepared to discuss. It should suffice to say that they share goals. A tuning fork struck against a line of poetry and a line of propaganda would sound strangely similar. That’s why intent is critical to understanding truth. Or, to be exact, intent is a more accurate stage for truth. When reality is at odds with even the most fundamental interpretation of emotional truth, reality always loses.

I write to discover truth. I write to remind myself of it. Everything you write in a poem will eventually happen to you. Write carefully.

When you write something honest with a fountain pen the ink dries faster. Pen a lie and the ink shines wet for hours. That’s probably the etymological root of the word smear.

Writing about truth in poems requires a different form of truth than writing a poem, an honesty altogether different from anything I’ve previously discussed. You can trust me.

AGNI Monkey

BurskyRick Bursky’s most recent book, I’m No Longer Troubled By The Extravagance, is out from BOA Editions. His next book, Where the Ocean Spills Its Grief, is also forthcoming from BOA. His poems have appeared in many journals including Field, American Poetry Review, Gettysburg Review, Conduit and Iowa Review. See what he’s published in AGNI here.

Reading the Epics in the Trump Era

by John Poch

I have returned to the United States from a study abroad trip in Spain where once again I read The Odyssey with my students. I often have students in my classes who are fraternity or sorority members. They call themselves Greeks, but most of them know little of Greek society or culture. This is your chance, I tell them. Let’s get to know what this Greek thing is all about. One of our sorority members in this study abroad class proclaimed she knew the Greek alphabet. It’s a start, I suppose. But the classics impact our lives more than we might think. Of the primary themes I tend to focus on, hospitality and the guest/host relationship come up nearly every day in our conversations. After the Trojan War, having been away for nearly twenty years, Odysseus is trying to return home. His story is constructed of one travel adventure after another. The ancient bards who recited the Homeric poems, literally singing for their room and board, had good reason to be concerned with the treatment of travelers. It is no coincidence that these poems again and again lay out the way in which a stranger should be received safely and generously on his journeys. We ask ourselves how are Odysseus and Telemachus treated as travelers, and how does this guest/host relationship work? We come to understand that guest and host are two sides of a coin, as even the words themselves come from the same root. Meaning: souls: ghosts or at least someone inhabited by one.

Now I’m in Taos, New Mexico, for the summer, and I am reading Virgil’s Aeneid for the first time in twenty years. Just a few decades before Jesus brought his good news, Virgil was finishing his great epic. Aeneas is traveling, but his wanders have a different impetus than Odysseus’s. “Wars and a man I sing” begins Fagles’s translation. Aeneas’s betrayal of the passionate Dido in pursuit of his duty to found the Roman Empire is less interesting to me than Odysseus’s desire to get home to his family. Aeneas is not as interesting or complicated a man as Odysseus. But Aeneas has no home to go back to, so that’s not an option for him. He can’t afford to be as complex, driven by the Fates as he is. He has familial duties to fulfill (his son before him and his father on his back) that are vaguely and precisely forecast in all kinds of signs, omens, prophecies, artwork he doesn’t understand, and mere high hopes of being his own man. People in his way will have to die or be overcome.

Besides re-reading The Aeneid and a few other books, I’m trying to write some poems, hike (though they just closed the forests until further notice due to severe drought), and spend time with my family. The other day we dropped our kids off at a place called High Altitude for open gym, and my wife and I had a lunch-date. Looking up at me from her sandwich, she suggested I not wear my Texas Tech baseball cap. It took me a second, and then it dawned on me. Rosy-fingered dawn. Some of our TTU Greeks (namely, the head of our interfraternity council, codename Cocaine Cowboy!) just made national news when they were exposed for their racist social media posts having to do with shooting Mexicans on the border for sport. They were just joking, they claim, but their fear and intolerance of strangers, their racism, lurks beneath the surface of their tasteless and menacing insults.

While the misogyny and violent nationalism inherent in The Odyssey and The Aeneid are apparent to a modern reader, the heroes’ finer qualities can teach us a few things about noble behavior if not plain manners. And though I live in the Bible belt, it seems lost on so many of my fellow citizens that, around three dozen times, the Torah suggests to God’s people that they should not oppress or vex a stranger, “as you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” And everyone knows that the teachings of Jesus command and teach how to love thy neighbor and even enemy. A few decades after Jesus’ ministry, Hebrews 13:2 instructs: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” In both The Aeneid and The Odyssey, we see Aeneas and Odysseus in disguise, and how they are treated by their unwitting hosts during these visits provides the reader with great dramatic irony. It’s a thrill to open up these classical texts to discover with the students the best and the worst of who we might be, and all the complexities, beauty, comedy, romance, and tragedy in between.

Reading about these persecuted hero-wanderers and their troops, one might consider the plight of migrants all over the globe, even the Latinos in our own backyard, looking for a better life in this world of extremities. Due to irrational fear of the stranger and Rumor and Discord (see The Aeneid), many Americans hunker down into a defensive patriotism and exclusive nationalism, when many of our own families are made up of immigrants who were at one point persecuted, exiled, or just looking for a better life. We’d have the Statue of Liberty hold a sword against the air rather than a torch to light the way to shore. This summer, our Supreme Court held up an immigration ban that anyone can see is based on religious difference.

One of the final lessons of The Aeneid is that human violence rages unending. The Odyssey ends with a kind of peace, but that’s only because the gods tire of the bloodshed and descend (deus ex machina) to stop it themselves by making the Ithakans oblivious. I teach my students that the failure of language often results in violence. The inability to describe, develop pathos, realize complexities (of language and life), or negotiate leaves a vacuum that physical might tries to fill. How awfully ironic that the recent American epidemic of gun violence has been aimed at our schools. I am against the increase of armed guards in our places of education because I know that the antidote to violence is more fluent practice of language, not weaponry. Violence is costly. The Iraq/Afghanistan conflicts (we can’t even legitimately call these wars because of our spineless politicians) have cost close to three trillion dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives, millions of maimed bodies and broken souls, much more if you consider how all this has spilled over into Syria. The gods of Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, and Halliburton preside, sometimes competing among themselves as in ancient times, and they call it good. Their less-than-fleet-footed messenger with the winged-hair and fake tan, our flag in his lapel, daily tweets us the bad news from on high. I shouldn’t insult Hermes, the Thief, by comparison. The new gospel we are hearing from Mount Pentagon via the White House is less than theological. It’s not poetry. It is not even good grammar. When I think of mythic leaders, I am reminded how far our President is from being a man who knows war firsthand (bone spurs) or one who could understand poetry. Not that these days anyone sane wants a man of war, mind you. Our representative man of war, our current commander-in-chief, tweets his empty threats almost daily against other national leaders and the free press. Trash-talking is an art, and one might look to the Aeneid, if only for this instruction. I should mention that of his military deferments, only one was for bone spurs, and four were for education. The irony.

At the end of The Aeneid, after their epic one-on-one battle, Turnus finally reaches for the words of peace, but it is too late for mercy. Aeneas’s final move is sometimes characterized as savage, but the way I see it, Turnus could not possibly be trusted. Forgiven perhaps, but not trusted. Maybe this scenario of Aeneas achieving his wrath finally can teach us something. There is no hope for any of us if we ultimately live quid pro quo. As I mentioned earlier, hard on the heels of Virgil’s epic, a radically different hero emerges in world history, and His epic is told by a host of unlikely writers in a collection of stories called gospels. Like the heroes of The Aeneid and The Odyssey (or more recently in The Sopranos or Breaking Bad), the actions of the central protagonist are for the purposes of safeguarding both a nuclear family (in his case, a group of disciples) and a larger kingdom rooted in nonviolent revolution. If you don’t know the other epics, you might not understand the radical nature of the New Testament story that would, as Luke said in The Acts of the Apostles, “turn the world upside down.” If you don’t know these stories that have lasted the longest, your first reaction might be to fear a stranger rather than to see in him or her a soul and a destiny.

AGNI Monkey

John_Poch_4John Poch’s most recent book, Fix Quiet, won the 2014 New Criterion Poetry Prize. His poems have appeared widely in journals such as Paris Review, Poetry, The Nation, The New Republic, and Five Points. He teaches in English Department at Texas Tech University. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.

Writing and the Tibetan Book of the Dead

by Ann Tashi Slater

I think a lot about death and faith and the creative process. This started some years back when I began writing a novel related to the Tibetan Buddhist belief in bardos, between-states when everyday life is suspended. Or maybe it started long before: on a winter day in 1912, my Tibetan great-grandfather was coming down to India from Tibet by pony. He and some of his party were buried in an avalanche. My great-grandfather thrust his arm up through the snow and waved his prayer beads, calling to his beloved Guru Rinpoche: “Save me, Guru Rinpoche, save me!” The men aboveground saw him and he was saved.

Guru Rinpoche, the eighth-century Indian saint who brought Buddhism to Tibet, is believed to have concealed his teachings under rocks and in lakes, in trees and the sky and the mindstream, to be revealed to future generations when most needed. The Bardo Thodol, or Tibetan Book of the Dead, is one of these teachings; when someone dies, monks sit next to the body and read from the text, exhorting the deceased to acknowledge reality but not give up as she journeys through the terrifying after-death bardo, wondering what will happen. Intended as much for the living as the dead, the Book of the Dead encourages all of us to persevere, whether in the after-death bardo or one of the difficult bardos experienced in life, like accident or illness.

In 2010 I lay in a hospital near death, an experience I write about in “Traveling in Bardo” (AGNI 86). I remembered the story of how my great-grandfather survived in the snow, and this helped me to accept what was happening yet not despair. The Book of the Dead was discovered centuries after being buried in Tibet; in a similar way, I felt, my great-grandfather’s lesson about faith came to me from where it had remained hidden in our family’s mindstream.

The Book of the Dead says that in bardo, we encounter blood-drinking, flame-spouting wrathful deities as big as the sky. Holding human corpses and brandishing axes, they shriek and howl. We’re told not to abandon hope: the deities are only emanations from our subconscious. W.Y. Evans-Wentz, editor of the first English translation of the Bardo Thodol (1927), called the deities “airy nothings woven into dreams”; the moment we recognize their true nature, they dissolve. Thus, we are the creators of our experience in bardo. As the Buddha said, “All experience is preceded by mind, led by mind, made by mind.”

Writing is a kind of bardo because ordinary life recedes as we create a universe on the page. The fears and doubts that can derail us while writing are like the wrathful deities. The uncertainty about where our hours at the desk will lead; whether, or how, a poem or an essay or a book will be realized. Recognizing that our worries are only our own “thought-forms,” as the Book of the Dead says, we have the chance to break free of them and engage fully with our creative work. In the bardo of writing, we make our experience.

AGNI Monkey

Ann Tashi Slater--AGNI blogAnn Tashi Slater’s work has been published by The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Tin House, and Granta en español. Her writing appears in Women in Clothes (Penguin) and American Dragons (HarperCollins), and her translation of fiction by Reinaldo Arenas was published in Old Rosa (Grove). Current projects include a bardo-related novel based on her Tibetan family history, a memoir about a pilgrimage to her ancestral homeland, and multimedia events at NYC’s Rubin Museum, including an October 2018 talk about her AGNI essay, “Traveling in Bardo,” and Tibetan wisdom in everyday life. A longtime resident of Tokyo, she teaches at a Japanese university. See what she’s published in AGNI here.

Frost and Gilmore: Poets of Humanity

I’ve always liked Robert Frost as a poet of humanity but, until very recently, I didn’t understand how important his poems were to me. When I write poems I want to stand in that little horse’s shoes (“Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening”) and feel an easy wind and downy flake and wonder why my owner has stopped in the woods. I want the surprise ending that emanates from “The Road Not Taken.” The one that made all the difference! Surely, if I can create these sensations, my reader will experience them, too?

This came to me as I made an early spring walk around The Point, a piece of land that juts out from my town into Long Island Sound. The pathway is edged by sea water on one side and forest growth on the other. Both absorb my attention. There are migratory birds checking in but, right now, the trees and shrubs on my right are bare. Where do the deer, usually hidden by summer foliage, go in winter? Why can’t I see them?

Robert Frost would be able to skilfully capture my questions and observations, but I must find another way, not a Frost way, but my own way. How could I pen something like these lines below, which bring my senses to a standstill? There is nothing complicated here, yet my heart almost stops in contemplation of their perfection.

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
“Nothing Gold Can Stay,” Robert Frost (1874-1963)

The mind wanders when one walks, sometimes creatively. There are many contemporaries of Frost whom I admire but I tried to think of women poets who also captured an identical humanity. Elizabeth Bishop and Emily Dickinson certainly delve into a well-spring of emotion in their individual ways but, because I was born in Australia, I recalled an Australian poet of the twentieth century, Mary Gilmore (1865-1962). Her insightful poetry addresses down-under life, landscape and history.

Gilmore was born nine years before Frost and they died within a year of each other yet I doubt they ever met. Without going into their respective experiences, suffice it to say they were both a product of rural life, of travel (he to U.K, she to Paraguay), and of the two world wars that consumed the literary mind of the twentieth century. Each of these familiarities gave them plenty of writing material and became the poetry tangle and mesh of their lives. Both wrote hundreds of poems, some more brilliant than others. Many are truly memorable. I rushed home to see what I could find. Would I hear Frost in Gilmore or vice versa?

It is a lovely thing to hear a bird,
And hear it through the leafy shadow of
The night! To seek a wing that goes unheard,
And trace its flight through some dim place above!
“The Mopoke”

Here’s a similar stanza:

The west was getting out of gold,
The breath of air had died of cold,
When shoeing home across the white,
I thought I saw a bird alight.
“Looking for a Sunset Bird in Winter”

Which poet wrote each stanza? The rhyme schemes for both are standard for poems of that era, and both poems describe the beauty of a particular landscape as a bird takes flight, using the senses to appreciate the act. In fact, there is very little to differentiate each writer. However, the Mopoke is an Australian bird, while Frost’s reference to snow in the third line of the second stanza gives away his northern location. One cannot distil the complete oeuvre of the two poets in these small examples but there is ample evidence in each body of work to show how similar they were in their writing styles and subjects.

In “The Soldier,” Robert Frost writes:

He is that fallen lance that lies as hurled
That lies unlifted now, come dew, come rust
But still lies pointed as it plowed the dust.

The poem goes on to say that, despite the man falling too soon in battle, the forward trajectory of his spirit is a far greater accomplishment.

Gilmore’s patriotism is equally moving:

And we swear by the dead who bore us,
By the heroes who blazed the trail,
No foe shall gather our harvest,
Or sit on our stockyard rail
“No Foe Shall Gather Our Harvest”

Significantly, the two poets dovetail in their use of language itself—language that could be described as unsophisticated but which exhibits a superb mastery of technique. Both poets capture the core of human nature, while simultaneously exploring more obscure concerns. In “Devotion,” Robert Frost recognises the infinite relationship between shore and ocean, but also appears to question a life spent upholding a single idea

The heart can think of no devotion
Greater than being shore to ocean—
Holding the curve of one position
Counting and endless repetition

In her poem “Nationality,” Mary Gilmore recognises the value of the unity of mankind but, when it comes to sharing, her kin must come first.

All men at god’s round table sit,
And all men must be fed;
But this loaf in my hand,
This loaf is my son’s bread.

Both poets were members of literary groups: Frost of the Dymock group, which included Edward Thomas and Ezra Pound, and Gilmore of the Bulletin school, a radical literary group in Sydney. It is clear that the influence of other writers was a factor in their work. Frost’s mark was made early though his volume “North of Boston” published in 1914. He received four Pulitzer Prizes, and the Congressional Medal in 1960.

Gilmore’s rise to fame took longer although she published about the same amount of poetry as Frost. Her patriotic poems ensured her popular place in Australia’s history, and in 1937 she became the first Australian to be awarded the Order of the British Empire for services to literature.

Did they read each other’s work? I tend to think that Gilmore would have been aware of Frost’s poetry, especially through his early volumes published in the U.K., which would have been available in Sydney bookshops. Still, I can’t be certain of this. Did Frost read Gilmore’s work? Perhaps. As she became more famous down under, her work would have reached the eyes and ears of Frost’s literary circle. Even so, she was, and still is, largely unknown in the United States.

While there are a number of parallels in their poems in terms of topics and technique, Frost is undeniably American, Gilmore as equally Australian. Frost speaks of northern seasons: of trees, of birds of the East coast, of farms and stone walls. Gilmore’s work is peppered with indigenous words, with Australian native birds, with outback life and the seasons of the southern hemisphere.

But it’s the merging of their resemblances that stirred me to return to these poets and inspires me to write in a way that is unpretentious yet distinct from them. A paradox of a goal, I must admit. But a writer must write in his or her own way. The language of Frost and Gilmore has moved on, even the many things they were concerned about have changed, but it is not difficult to find examples of their practical language with regard to issues of importance.

In “Mending Wall,” Frost takes us on a journey with his neighbour as they walk each side of their wall, replacing fallen stones as needed. Frost’s speaker speculates as to why they need to do this—

My apple tree will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says “Good fences make good neighbors.”

As the poem progresses, we learn that the neighbor inherited this phrase from his own father and the time spent rebuilding parts of the wall, while not truly necessary to the well-being of the farm, is what binds each man to the other and, consequentially, each following generation to his neighbor.

The desire to be a good friend is also the theme of Gilmore’s much shorter poem, “The Wish,” in which the poet asks not for “wealth, nor length of days, nor pride, nor power, nor worldly praise”—

But just a little quiet place
Where a friend may come
Laying his hand on the door
As though it were home.

Both poems demonstrate very simply how friendship is reinforced, Frost with his refrain of “Good fences make good neighbors” and Gilmore with her quiet welcome to a friend “as though it were home.”

Those deer in winter. I’ve been told they’re hidden in forest depths. They’re conserving their energy, waiting for Spring; waiting for me to reflect on how best to describe not theirs but any quandary. Putting the finger on the keyboard is only one step. Reading Gilmore and Frost can ensure that we don’t lose what we already have—a way of engaging with the world using language that is both unaffected and lasting.

AGNI Monkey

Rowley406612007-010Judy Rowley, who was born in Australia, began her writing life while living in South Korea as a “trailing spouse.” To deepen her commitment to poetry and literature she completed a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies at Manhattanville, NY, and an MFA in Poetry at Bennington Writing Seminars, VT. She writes poetry and essays, which have been published in several journals, and has recently published a memoir called Expected Home, A Memoir and a Mystery. See what she’s published in AGNI here.