Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Willis Barnstone's "The Secret Reader" (Accidental Poetry Month, Part 14)

Willis Barnstone is, I think, most widely known as a prolific translator of poetry from various languages, including Spanish, Greek and Chinese. (Barnstone was friends with Borges, and not only translated some of Borges's poetry, but has also published a book about their friendship and a book of interviews with him.) So far as I can tell (as an amateur monoglot), he's quite a fine translator from all of those languages.

But he's also a formidable poet in his own right. His most famous book of poems, I believe, is his collection The Secret Reader: 501 Sonnets, which is composed (just as the title says) of 501 sonnets of Barnstone's own authorship, plus (belying the title somewhat) another two-dozen-plus translations he did of others' poems used as epigraphs to various sections of the book (many but not unanimously sonnets; these are mainly from the Spanish, Greek and Chinese but also include poems from other languages, including Hebrew (Judah Ha-Levi), French (Louis Labé) and German (Rilke)). I've browsed rather than read through The Secret Reader, and I'd say that its quality is variable; but overall I like it a lot, and think it's well worth getting ahold of.

501 poems: here's the first. ("Apocryphon", incidentally, is the singular of "apocrypha")
The Secret Reader

I write my unread book for you who in
a life or day will find it in a box
or cave or dead man's pocket or the inn
of mountain light where we awake while cocks
of twilight scream our solitude. Our fate
is to be free. No public ink. No hot
or cold inferno of the previous wait.
Just this apocryphon which I forgot
for you, the secret friend. You are like me:
one soul fleshed out for ecstasy and night,
this planet's only birth and death, unknown
like everything. Saul lied about the light,
for no one rose again. We are alone,
alive with secret words. Then blackly free.

-- Willis Barnstone
For the other 500, see his book.

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