I’m delighted to (belatedly) announce that my translation of the Old English poem “The Ruin” appears in the newest issue of Presence, a great journal run by great people.
I read the poem in the audio file below, but here’s some basic context too:
“The Ruin” is a poem found in the tenth-century Exeter Book, which is the first anthology of English poems and a great treasure of English speakers’ literary inheritance. The poem is spoken by an Anglo-Saxon as he stands before what seems to be a Roman ruin in Britain, and he meditates on the transience of culture and human life as he marvels at what the ruin suggests about the creative energies that once existed where he stands. In my translation, I take this scene and “update” it to a Euro-American standing in front of a Middle Woodland burial mound in Milwaukee, WI’s Lake Park, with the same kind of brooding on transience etc.
The picture below shows the Lake Park mound (the green slope between trees with the stone marker on top) and the audio provides a reading of part of the original Old English and of the whole Modern English translation.
I hope you enjoy what was an immensely rewarding project for me.
To maintain sanity, encounter the natural world in my area, and keep the literary instincts moving if not honed, I’m going to start a new project here and on Twitter. (Yes, I’m on Twitter now at @riyeff–those who know me personally will be shocked, I’m sure!)
I’m going to visit the State Natural Areas of Milwaukee County and the four adjacent counties to practice social distancing but also maintain an intimate connection to the natural spaces around my neck of the woods. Then to try to forge some kind of virtual connection with anyone who’s interested, I’ll take a photo and make an impromptu three-line poem (not a haiku unless by accident), posting them here and on Twitter. Maybe other folks will share theirs from other natural areas?
In this very strange time in the world, I’d like to offer at least a small bit of good news: my new book, an edition of the poems and shorter prose works on prayer and contemplation of Dame Gertrude More, is now available!
Dame Gertrude was a seventeenth-century Benedictine. A great-great-granddaughter of Saint Thomas More, she left home at 17 to co-found the Abbey of Our Lady of Comfort in what is today Cambrai, France. This monastery was part of a movement to revive monastic life among English Catholics after the Reformations and was so successful that the community continues today as Stanbrook Abbey back in England.
Dame Gertrude More was a strong, talkative, and likable woman who, under the tutelage of Dom Augustine Baker, also became a great lover of contemplation. She wrote poems, several shorter prose works, and a longer work sometimes called her “Confessions,” all of which were published in 1658, years after her early death. This book made her one of the earliest women published in the English language.
Her works celebrate and describe the nature of contemplation and divine union. With a plain style that was unconcerned with technicalities and intellectual hair-splitting, Dame Gertrude’s teachings on prayer and contemplation are beautiful testaments to the value of pursuing, as she puts it, “the one thing necessary” (experiential intimacy between the soul and its Maker).
She, Dom Augustine Baker, and the community at Cambrai more generally were instrumental in passing on the ancient and medieval teachings on contemplation in the Christian west, and I am delighted that both the community at Stanbrook Abbey and Gracewing have helped me to make Dame Gertrude’s works more readily accessible to a new generation.
I hope that in this uncertain time, we might find some solace in the kind of unwavering attention Dame Gertrude gives to what is most pressing and important in this earthly life.
This coming Tuesday, November 26th at 7 pm, anyone in the Milwaukee area who wants to support translators and/or the literary arts in general should come on down to Boswell Book Company on Downer Ave. (more details on their homepage).
I’ll be talking about and reading from my translation of Swami Abhishiktananda’s French poems (In the Bosom of the Father), along with Dr. Lorena Terando of UW-Milwaukee and former Boswellian Caroline Froh.
After brief readings from each of us, we’ll have a Q&A about translation in general and the works themselves.
A short poem for the weekend from my collection, Sunk in Your Shipwreck. Good tea has been one of the most constant companions thru-out my life, from early days going to the Teachery up in Madison, WI on Willie Street, to the long days and evenings I spent sipping at Dushanbe Teahouse in Boulder, CO over two years, to the visits to Red Blossom Tea in San Francisco, to everywhere else I’ve been. Good loose-leaf tea is it: the texture of its leaves, the color of its liquor against white clay, the smells that just don’t stop, the copious array of flavors is like nothing else. Black’s all right, but Dragon Well, Big Red Robe, Cloud Mist—that’s where it’s at.
Here’s a tiny suite of poems on tea culled from two lonely but beautiful nights from years past. (The text follows the audio file.) Happy long weekend—drink some tea!
I. Dushanbe Tea House—Boulder, CO 2001
The seats are strangely cool
tonight, the tea is not:
its yellow-green mass
coddled in white clay.
New sounds splash on the air,
and still there’s quiet inside.
II. 3rd Street and Highway 101—San Rafael, CA 2005
My wife and I just returned from the Big Sur coast where I led a retreat at New Camaldoli Hermitage with Fr. Cyprian Consiglio on Swami Abhishiktananda‘s life and wonderful legacy. The weekend was filled with deep conversation and joy in the Spirit.
The Hermitage offers nourishment for soul and body, with a tremendous view of the Pacific (and attendant cloudscapes) from its mountain perch. The liturgy, meditation, and space for silence and presence of mind and spirit were all exactly what my wife and I needed after a busy school year and the recent publishing push and . . . everything!
My sincerest thanks to the Camaldolese monks at New Camaldoli, and especially to all the retreatants who came along for the ride–I hope our paths cross again soon!
In continued celebration of Swamiji’s work, here is a translation of a poem from Swami Abhishiktananda’s journal that is in my collection; I read this at the retreat during a session on Swamiji’s use of poetry to gesture at his profound advaitic and mystical experiences.
“You have seen the lightning” addresses its own author and all those who have glimpsed the root unity of things beyond appearance, with a kind of fatherly caution. It speaks to the intimacy of such experience and the inadequacy of words in its face–and yet our desire to speak or sing of it despite this. Enjoy!
While my first literary love is Old English poetry, I am a fan of Middle English too. In my new collection, I have a few translations of poems from Geoffrey Chaucer. I like to remind folks in general, my students, and myself from time to time that Chaucer did things aside from The Canterbury Tales (as great as they are).
So here’s one of his shorter lyric poems, “Truth,” done in the forme fixe of the ballade, a French verse form that was popular in the 14th and 15th centuries. Contemporary English poets (Chaucer himself and John Lydgate preeminent among them) liked to use it too, and later English-language poets have continued the tradition. I’ve retained the verse form over literal meaning, to preserve the musicality of Chaucer’s original. (In my translation I also omit the “envoy,” the final stanza that is addressed to a particular person, to “universalize” the poem–for better or worse.)
I like especially his image of the futility of “kicking the point of an awl.”
The texts follow the audio file of my reading of the Middle English and translation.
Truth: Balade de Bon Conseyl
by Geoffrey Chaucer
Flee fro the prees and dwelle with sothfastnesse;
Suffyce unto thy thing, though it be smal,
For hord hath hate, and climbing tikelnesse,
Prees hath envye, and wele blent overal.
Savour no more than thee bihove shal,
Reule wel thyself that other folk canst rede,
And trouthe thee shal delivere, it is no drede.
Tempest thee noght al croked to redresse
In trust of hir that turneth as a bal;
Gret reste stant in litel besinesse.
Be war therfore to sporne ayeyns an al,
Stryve not, as doth the crokke with the wal.
Daunte thyself, that dauntest otheres dede,
And trouthe thee shal delivere, it is no drede.
That thee is sent, receyve in buxomnesse;
The wrastling for this world axeth a fal.
Here is non hoom, her nis but wildernesse:
Forth, pilgrim, forth! Forth, beste, out of thy stal!
Know thy contree, look up, thank God of al;
Hold the heye wey and lat thy gost thee lede,
And trouthe thee shall delivere, it is no drede.
Truth: A Middle English Ballade of Good Counsel by Geoffrey Chaucer
Flee the crowd and dwell securely in trueness.
Let your own suffice, though it not be much,
for greed leads to hate and grasping to coldness;
the crowd leads to envy, and wealth deceives such
as hold too tightly everything they touch.
Rule yourself well, that others clearly see,
and have no doubt: the truth shall set you free.
Don’t try to amend all that is amiss,
trusting that Lady who spins like a ball;
true rest lies in spurning busyness.
There’s no sense in kicking the point of an awl
nor in the crock’s struggle against a wall.
Rule yourself, you who rule others’ deeds,
and have no doubt: the truth shall set you free.
Take what is sent to you in obedience;
struggle, for this world surely begs a fall.
We have no home here, only wilderness.
Go forth, pilgrim! Go forth, beast, from your stall!
This is one of the more recent pieces collected in my first book of poems, Sunk in Your Shipwreck. The dominant trope of the collection is the archetypal movement of “pilgrimage,” and this poem falls directly in that ambit.
In 2006, my older brother and I went on a fairly random two-week trek around Ireland and Great Britain, focusing on southwestern Ireland, London, and Cornwall. We have ancestors from Cornwall (around Camborne), and we spent a good bit of our UK time in the western-most part of Cornwall, Penwith.
The poem’s text follows the audio file of my reading, and I hope you enjoy (and visit Penwith someday!).
We railed it from Holyhead to Birmingham,
sleeping splayed across three seats like vagrants,
a Welsh child crawling down luggage racks
to case us out, hills rolling by outside.
Eyelids like metal traps resisting peregrinations
but the world springs back to form and clarity
over trestles in mine-ruin Redruth,
downtown Camborne—and little did we suspect
ancestral hamlet Gwillanwarthas a stone’s throw away.
Our uphill tramp along Penzance soaked cement
to the wrong hostel almost too much to take.
Back down petunia-lined lanes of thatched roofs—
who knew they still took the time?
Bags thrown on bunks that make you sad
how wet they are—we’re told that’s just Cornwall, mate—
and our clothes, our shoes did not dry for four days’ time,
despite the hostel dryer’s heroic and repeated attempts.
The rock, the seabirds too many to number and shades of difference,
another car cramped and rented, sitting in inverted seats,
but the same stick: we had that.
And you drove up the curb off Alverton Street
to the horror of several Cornish folk passing by
to their morning papers and pasties.
We kept the sea to our left on our circumambulation
always moving, the next fountain, the next cairn
and dolmen and churchyard, the next pond with
white streaks of swan and springs swallowed up
by time, padding up the A-30 to Bodmin Moor,
making wrong turns down claustrophobic lanes
toLamorna Cove with housewives’ sidelong glances
as they potted plants with strangers driving slowly past
and tossing off the world, the forest strange in these parts and sopping.
Why did we careen down backways, narrow and hard as rock
to find standing stone rings in farmers’ fields,
searching miry paths hung with moss for baptistries
left standing since the Reformation? Why the restless
surge to moor and field and shore in damp and rain,
in hard grey midmornings and no food ’til teatime?
The cracked and bristling grass that welcomed our feet,
the draughts from Iron Age wells and flowering club moss?
How can we know? The last bleak
stretch of path down unknown woods, opening out into clearings
lined with mud and lichen, into centuries, then turning ’round,
was more than enough—circling Penwith into the dawn
I’m excited to announce that I’ll be co-leading a retreat this summer in lovely Big Sur, CA at New Camaldoli Hermitage. Along with Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam. I’ll be sharing a weekend of poetry, music, cinema, liturgy, prayer, and meditation with any and all who wish to join us. Good times will abound, the Spirit willing!
The description of the retreat is below, and you can see the Camaldolese monks’ site here and register for the retreat by following the directions here. I’m very much looking forward to spending the weekend with the monastic and oblate communities at the Hermitage.
And a quick note to thank the monks and oblates of The Monastery of the Ascension in Jerome, ID for hosting me late last year for a retreat on the deep Benedictine contemplative tradition!
“Wake Up! The Legacy of Swami Abhishiktananda in Poetry, Song and Film”
Swami Abhishiktananda (Fr. Henri Le Saux) was a Benedictine monk who spent much of his life in India immersed in the contemplative traditions of Christianity and Hinduism. By the time of his death in 1973, Swamiji had become a prophet of interreligious dialogue, an accomplished spiritual writer, and one of the twentieth century’s great mystics. Swamiji sought and desired to lead others to the realization of Absolute Reality, drawing together Christian teaching on the Trinity and Hindu teaching on non-duality (advaita).
Though he, like so many of the great mystics, called seekers to go “Beyond!” (beyond concepts, beyond words, beyond images), he also understood the necessity of words and signs in our everyday reality. In that spirit, New Camaldoli Hermitage is excited to offer a retreat focused on Swamiji’s life and teaching. While we will make space for the silence Swamiji loved so well, we will also celebrate his life and teaching in various arts: New Camaldoli’s own Prior Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam will lead us in chant and song, Benedictine oblate and poet Jacob Riyeff will give a reading of Swamiji’s newly-translated poetry, and we will view the new documentary of Swamiji’s life, *Dawn of the Abyss: The Spiritual Birth of Swamiji*.
In addition to these multimedia sessions, traditional conferences on Swamiji’s teaching will offer a more detailed encounter with his profound insights into the contemplative life. Please join us for this joyous event!