September, 2003:
Autumn Day, House Cleaning


Editorial Notices Books Received

That giant sucking sound you heard in August was an enormous, soulful sigh emanating from San Diego along with the words "Who needs this malarkey?" I have freed up time and energy for some serious publishing, editing, and writing as the days of the year get shorter. In the words of one of my all-time favorite poets, whom I translate thus1:

Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los.

Befiehl den letzten Früchten voll zu sein;
gieb ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage,
dränge sie zur Vollendung hin und jage
die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein.

Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.
Wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben,
wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben
und wird in den Alleen hin und her
unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben.

Lord: it is time. Summer was huge.
Lay your shade over the sundials
and in doorways loose the winds.

Order the last fruits to ripen,
Give them yet two southerly days,
Press them to ripeness and chase
The last sweetness into the heavy wine.

Who by now has no house won't be building one.
Who now is alone will long be alone,
Will lie awake, read, write long letters
And will wander restlessly on the avenues
here and there through circling leaves.

--Herbsttag (Autumn Day, Rainer Maria Rilke, Buch der Bilder, 1902).

We all do some significant spiritual and psychological house-cleaning once in a while. No better time than the advent of Autumn, when old leaves fall away, and the air is clean and crisp with new energy. Some see it as a time of going to sleep and dying, but I see it as a time of preparing to awaken. We bury the seed in the ground not so that it will be dead, but so it will flower in the spring. Autumn has always my favorite and most productive time of year, since at least my teenage years in New England, and probably since my childhood in Europe.

Often, the hidden inner change manifests itself outwardly, in seemingly simple things like cleaning out the garage, straightening up the attic, or doing yard-work. The symptom to look for is that the change has been long overdue and feels most welcome. In August, I decided to flush away a lot of extraneous little nonsense from my life, including memberships in a number of writing related organizations. Without dwelling too long on details, I swept the decks clean by eliminating my annual payments to similar organizations that have not delivered anything of value to me as a writer, publisher, whatever. They may deliver the world unto others, and I do not wish to take away from any writer's organization the good that they do—but this is my personal decision. Why pay to be accorded second class citizenship (associate or affiliate, whatever they call it) in some genre writing organization that doesn't even list you (or your publication) on their website? No link, no shizzle. Or they let your link get so old that it hasn't been valid for years. Or you haven't had that email address since we still had an elected U.S. President. Or they cannot get your name straight no matter how many times and how many years you send them emails. Who needs this drizzle?

One organization asked me why I had resigned, and this was my answer, dashed off at the speed of thought:

Thanks for asking. If you are over 50, as I am, then you will probably understand my reasons. I have lived a full life, with more adventures than many people can imagine. I was born overseas, have lived in various countries and cultures nearly half my life, have lived and traveled all over the US, served six years in the Army, have read nearly every book ever written that's worth anything, have had and lost a child and parents and friends and loved ones, have raised a great boy who loves his parents, is a genius, and could become president but probably will just own his own company and organize softball games for his happy employees (of all races, colors, and persuasions as long as they aren't illegal, immoral, or fattening) on long summer afternoons in the heart of America.

I was a small child in the ruins of Germany [and] in France where you could still smell and taste the aftermath of Hitler, and [years later] as a soldier I bore arms on the cobblestones of Berlin looking over at those enigmatic and crazy bastards on the other side, just like our guys are doing right now in Korea while most Americans have never served in the military and spend their time running each other off the road for petty reasons when they aren't beating each other over the head with their plastic shovels in the intellectual sandbox of sleazy hate shows, formerly known as news stations.

And we've got more guys sweating and knock-kneed and bleeding over alien sand and oil [Afghanistan, Iraq, you name it] so that little monkey with the crooked leer can grin and wave to his fans, those who have forgotten history and condemn the rest of us to relive it. I've been to the elbow joints and turbid blood vessels of history, and I remember how my spine went cold as I stood outside a garishly ornate Victorian brick building in Berlin where not too long ago psychotic doctors did horrific experiments on children. History isn't TV. History is real, and some of us have had brushes with it.

I have owned cats, dogs, birds, fish, and other pets, each with its wonderful personality. I have seen the cities of Edward Hopper, and made love to the mysteriously smiling women of Leonardo da Vinci (Mona's secret is that she is thinking about how it's nearly 4:30 so she can go home and get laid with her beloved paisano). I was a boy sailing ocean liners in North Atlantic storms in the 1950s, a memory that strangely came back when as a man I heard La Mer by Debussy. When my child was dying, I had the horrifying and crucifixional honor to stand among the silent and shadowy white steel basinets of a German hospital, and I have intimate experience with the cancer wards of two continents and far-flung cities, because half the day is night.

I have written some books, stories, poems, and essays that have been, for the most part, well received by their readers. This worked well enough because I am proficient in half a dozen languages ancient and modern, have a solid understanding of grammar theory and mechanics, can diagram sentences because I was taught by nuns, and was told great stories on my grandfather's knee while the night wind whispered in the pear trees outside.

I've had a chance to order framboise by the arcades of the amphitheater at Nîmes, and I practiced my Luxembourgish in the sunlight of the Petrusse. I have witnessed the frozen horror at Verdun, many times, and stood in the place where Kohl and Mitterand held hands and vowed before the cameras of Europe that it would never happen again, while Bush was doing lines of cocaine in his incredibly microscopic seedy selfish and stultifying little life that no light or wisdom has ever touched.

I have journeyed to the ends of the universe with Olaf Stapledon and James Tiptree. I have walked by night the banks of the Thames in a deep fog with Watson smelling the mud and hearing the crunch of his cane tip. I entered the great cold pine forest of Huwawa with Gilgamesh and watched the fires of Carthage from the wine-dark sea while Juno wept and Aeneas set sail for Latinum. I heard syncopated jazz on Gatsby's lawn, watched the stars blaze over Arles, and smelled the hot August wind on the Tiber. I've fixed a car in Winesburg, walked the docks of Cannery Row, looked through binoculars from Nob Hill, and had a cold cerveza with lime and salt in Ensenada.

I could go on and on, because it's been a wonderful life, both of blood and intellect, and I plan to live a good many years yet if the God of cathedrals and shuls and minarets and stupas will allow me in his infinite grace. As Roy Batty says in his dying moments sitting on the Hotel Bradbury or Unterwasser, if I may paraphrase, "...you cannot imagine the wonders that I have seen."

All of which is to say, I joined your organization several years ago, thinking it would be something, and it really hasn't been anything much. Which isn't to say that it isn't a lot for you, and I hope it is.

Meanwhile, I'm just cleaning house, simplifying things, because I have more worlds to travel, loves to love, and books to write, and there isn't time for sodas that don't sparkle, beers that don't foam, and burgers that don't sizzle much.

Thanks very much, and have a wonderful life. Best Wishes, John T. Cullen

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Notices

Editor's Note: We welcome books and announcements. Please give us at last 3 months lead time so we can present your announcement in a timely fashion. We take no responsibility for the content, format, contributors' editorial opinions, or other characteristics of this information which we publish in community interest.

2004 Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop At the University of Dayton (Ohio). Humor columnist Dave Glardon calls the workshop "...the world's finest humor writers' conference." After attending the last workshop, Reg Henry (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist and deputy editorial page editor) said, "At last, an institution that respects the art of humor writing." Contact Tim Bete Director, Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop, University of Dayton, 300 College Park, Dayton, OH 45469-1679. Tel: 937-229-4960. Web: bete@udayton.edu and http://www.HumorWriters.org

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Books Received

Received: The Speckled People Memoir of an Irish/German childhood by Hugo Hamilton (HarperCollins/Fourth Estate 2003, London, 312 pp, ISBN 0-00-714805-4). With a German mother and Irish father, a young boy has to grow up in Dublin where he is the victim of ignorance and prejudice. The father wants him to speak only Gaelic, the mother teaches him German, but what he wants most is to speak English. Having lived this sort of scenario myself, I'm enjoying this book immensely for its excellent telling and its unusual point of view.

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Notes on my Rilke translation:
  1. Thanks to Andrew F. Cullen for helping me by embedding the Fett Fraktur type font, a derivative of the typical German Gothic face in which Rilke's poems were most likely published in early editions starting around 1902;
  2. I had the coincidental privilege after doing this translation to discover a Chinese? website carrying nearly two dozen translations from around the world, covering the more than a century since this world-famous poem was first published, so that I could compare my own translation with those of others;
  3. Many fine points to consider—among them, that "Flur" has two primary translations, up for grabs here, a feminine form referring to agricultural fields and a masculine form referring to halls and corridors; perhaps controversially, I chose "doorways" to cover sense of thresholds, entrances, and transitions between home (or farm) and nature, which further links the image of "house" in the last stanza; in this less expected meaning, "Flur" can also refer to a "Vorplatz," or courtyard, which to me neatly ties together the entire first stanza in a coherent image. The second stanza then shifts away from the domestic to the prudence and productivity of vinyards. The last stanza then invokes melancholy images of failed domesticity and failed prudence (overall, the material is abundant, but the spiritual is impoverished). The last stanza, in fact, invokes an urban image in contrast to the bucolic first two strophes. As Ezra Pound noted, "Transitore, Traduttore."
  4. Also salient is the opening word, "Herr," uniquely set off by a vocative colon. I am sure translators have grappled with whether this is a religious or secular (emotional) exhortation. For my taste there are both Christian and Classic pagan ghosts in this poem. My personal preference in the meaning of "Herr" is as a reference to an emotional inevitability that is simply overwhelming (sehr groß) in a range from pleasant to melancholy punctuated in the last stanza. Can Pflicht and its dire Warnung ever be far? The image of the dissipated student or young man is one I remember from fin-de-siecle German and Austrian romances my grandmother and her elders read in Luxembourg, and which I found and read in the attic (along with Little Nell type emotional catharses). I have, also, on an entirely separate but again European note, a postcard by my side, depicting a watercolor done by Charles Pears in 1930 and now in the London Transport Museum, which shows a youth immediately recognizable even today as a university student; hands in pockets, scarf trailing, book in sweater pocket, he wanders along windy and hazy city streets deep in thought; the caption reads "The Student travels Underground; Reduced Season Ticket Rates for Students." I picture the same eternally wandering student, mindful of Rilke's youth at the time of writing this poem, and find there some compass references to growing up as well as fears of dissipation later in life if one does not follow that biological imperative to find one's soulmate, settle down, put shoulders in harness, and sow in order to reap (a conceit offset by dead, twirling leaves).
  5. I first translated this work around 1968 and then again in the 1970s, now in the 2000s, and may approach it again—each time with faintly different nuances but overall the same effect. This is an exceptionally rich poem, even for Rilke, and generations of readers around the world have been attracted to its power. The notion of town vs. country (just further vapid marketing noises and shopping mall labels today) plays a cardinal role in European history. In German, uniquely, the expression "Stadtluft macht frei" continues to thrive in the popular idiom, though generally divorced from its original Medieval denotation. The latter meaning, in fact, contains, further, a ghost of the Medieval division of legal jurisdictions between Church and Manor, and by extension, City. It is significant that Rilke was writing at a time of industrialization and the weakening of the rural demographic, and I see this reflected in the dialectic between the first two stanzas vs. the last. Many other undercurrents: Rilke's own financial and emotional distress about this time; the impending dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (he was born in Prague, but moved to Berlin, changing his first name from the French Renée to the German Rainer, with underlying themes that can only be surmised; faint parallel does not escape mention, of Hitler's movement from Austria to Germany, not specifically relevant but interesting). Symbolist movement; "Sachlichkeit;" "das Ding."
  6. On a whimsical note, I let the auto-translation functionality of Internet Explorer 6 translate the entire page from German to English via the Asian website, and the results are humorous and surprising:

    Gentleman: it is time. The summer was very large.
    Put your shade on the sonnenuhren,
    and on the corridors the hoist releases.

    Instruct the last Fr¨ıchten to be full;
    gieb them still two s¨ıdlichere days,
    urge it to the completion and hunt the last S¨ısse into the heavy wine.

    Who has now no house, no more builds itself.
    Who now alone is, it will for a long time remain,
    becomes are awake, long letters read to write
    and becomes in the avenues back and forth
    move jerkily, if the sheets float.