Wednesday 6 October 2010

Rumi, Strange Fruit and others

STRANGE FRUIT by Helen Moffett

This slender volume of poetry seduced me before I’d even opened it. The enticing cover drew me in; the wide range of emotions conveyed by the selection of poetry kept me there. From the playful to the melancholy, the raunchy to the sublime, the searing honesty of this Capetonian poet conveyed images and emotions I could easily relate to.

As I haven’t a maternal bone in my body (seriously, the maternal gene fairy was absent at my birth) I was surprised that the poems that shook me the most were those dealing with the poet’s discovery of her infertility. The painful process of mourning moved me deeply and made me review my own choice not to bear children.

This aching cry was well-balanced with the comforting warmth of parental love and the heat of erotic love. Perhaps the only poem where I felt the poet slipped into unawareness was “In Praise of Younger Men”. For all the valid reasons she prefers those delicious younger men, she didn’t explore the most obvious: do these young men also meet some of her maternal yearnings?

From the exploration of a parallel life to the unexpected joys of nature, this volume packs punch after punch. It deserves a second read, so that one is not lead “to wonder how many other epiphanies we miss because we can’t believe they might materialise in our particular path.”  Click HERE to buy.


For a little book, this simple story packs a huge wallop. As you follow the innocent explorations of nine-year-old Bruno in a world that is so evil even innocence is tarnished, you come to see the Holocaust from a child’s na├»ve view. A Father who is a stern, but loving man, and also the Commandant at an extermination camp. A Mother who can’t bear to raise her children in such a horrible place, but who escapes into her medicinal sherries, leaving her children in the care of servants. And a lonely young German boy who, delighted at their similarities, doesn’t question the differences between his life and that of his new friend, the Polish Jew Shmuel.

In the plainest, least complex language this story raises the most complex questions about a dark period in history. I don’t want to say too much, in case I spoil this gem for anyone who wants to read it. All I’ll say is that I couldn’t put it down until the second last chapter…and then I could hardly bring myself to continue because I knew what was going to happen. With a powerful ending so inevitably heartbreaking, so cruelly just, this book has lingered with me for days. I have the DVD as well, but I’ll only watch that on a day when I’m feeling very strong. Click HERE for a must buy!

RUMI: The Book of Love (Poems of Ecstasy and Longing)  Translation and commentary by Coleman Banks

The problem with translations is that one never knows how much of what one is reading is the translator’s voice, and how much is the original artist’s voice.

Banks is credited with “popularising” Rumi’s works in America. That’s the essence of the difficulty I had with this translation. To “translate” a work, one “expresses the sense of (a word, book etc) in another language”, while to “popularise” a work is to “present a specialised subject in a popular or readily understandable form”.

In his note on the translation, Banks admits that in “translating Rumi into American” he may have distorted what Rumi searched for in his poems: the ecstasy of Divine Love.

Having watched both live and DVD performances of the Whirling Dervishes (a spiritual meditative dance based on the teachings of Rumi), I approached this volume with the expectation of experiencing that same sense of immersion in – or union with – the Divine beloved. Instead, I was left with a weird sense of dislocation.

While Banks’ intentions in attempting this translation were clearly a sincere attempt to express the ecstasy he has found in Rumi’s original words, this reader was unable to share in that lyrical ecstasy.

Contemporary images celebrated sexual union, but not ecstatic union. While there’s nothing wrong with celebrating sex, Rumi celebrates sex in the same way that Kabbalists would on a Sabbath: as a ‘tikkun’. In this translation, the idea of “sex as Divine union with the Other” was lost in modern crudity. For example, “Is this the way a man prays, with his balls? Does your penis long for union like this? Is that why her legs are so covered with this stuff?” [Pg 85] Stuff? Stuff?

The modern language, too, was conveyed without any mystical rhythm. In musical terms this would be the steady cadence of a liturgical chant (the exquisite sound of the Gregorian or Benedictine chants). In seeking to convey the lightness of the mystical trance in simple, modern (popular!) terms, the language in this translation became heavy and, with a few notable exceptions, left me sadly earthbound.  Click HERE to buy.


I’m including this book in the reviews as it delivered exactly what it promised: a light-hearted romp and easy, pleasant reading. Bombed out with antibiotics for a throat abscess, feeling sick and sorry for myself, I couldn’t concentrate on anything and remembered when my sister had given me this book she’d said “It’s cute!” It was. Perfectly easy reading for the time I read it. The rollicking story, likeable heroine and delightful secondary characters (both evil and kind) kept me well-entertained. I’ll certainly consider this author when next I need an undemanding and entertaining read.  Click HERE to buy.


Judith Mercado said...

Thanks for introducing me to Rumi, whom I have yet to explore, but look forward to doing so.

Robyn Campbell said...

Great reviews, Judy. I have been wanting to get,The Boy In The STRIPED PYJAMAS, now I know I want it. I hadn't heard of THE UNDOMESTIC GODDESS but I want it too.

Problem is, I still have to buy Glam's book. Money has been a bit tight. But I will eventually get to them. I DO have a list. :)

Hugs and we love you. Christopher differs with you on the not having a maternal bone. :)

Bish Denham said...

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas sounds like something I'd want to read and weep over.

Anonymous said...

I too love Helen's book. I heard her read The ovary in the arm at the 2009 CTBF and found it so poignant

septembermom said...

Great reviews Judy. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us about these works. I'm intrigued to read Helen Moffett's poetry based on your insights. The John Boyne book also looks like one I should put on my list. I'm always shaken by Holocaust fictions, but I know that it is important to keep remembering the suffering and individual triumph of that difficult time.