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Gilgamesh is Done

December 31, 2017 Leave a comment

RT thought he might never get to this moment, but at last he can say: Gilgamesh is done. All the 11 tablets and the envoi—all 3,900 lines—are complete, though some polishing remains. RT has begun assembling a master electronic file.

It is an amazing moment. When he wrote out the first stanza in October 2000, that’s right, more than 17 years ago, our author had no idea what he was getting into, or how much of himself he would invest in the enterprise. But then, Gilgamesh is one of the great portraits of the human condition—of our struggle, in the midst of a vast and inscrutable universe, for beauty and meaning. As the Ferryman tells Gilgamesh near the end of the epic:

Urshanabi addressed the king’s bitter remorse:

“Do not despair! For wisdom, the lion’s roar,

your heart’s divided genius, you have toiled.

The mouth of death is shut; it speaks no stay,

but out of the Deep Waters you bring your name,

a sign and wonder to all flesh bound by time.”

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Much remains to be done, of course: start looking for the book on Lulu and Amazon in the summer, and RT is planning a 100-copy private printing, when he finds the money.

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In the meantime, RT’s life has grown yet more complicated, but more of that in the next post. And if the author has one regret, it is that his mother is not here to share in the achievement with him. But then, there must be a reason…and certainly this is the happiest news for RT at year’s end.

Happy New Year!

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Photo: Stela of UrNammu. WikiCmns, Public Domain. 

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Tablet 11 & Other News

March 29, 2017 2 comments

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The fast and furious transformation that has overtaken RT since his mother’s death continues apace. He will start by mentioning that he has recently bought his first smartphone. That’s right, he just dictated, not typed, the previous sentence. And it was a lot easier than typing the current one.

On top of that, RT has recently moved, though not terribly far afield. His new digs are far larger and more comfortable than the old and not terribly more expensive. He has also been luxuriating in his new computer chair, which leads him to his next topic.

Tablet 11 of Gilgamesh is done. Yes, you heard that right: the tablet that RT started work on in October 2000 is finished, right down to the very last frisson of its apocalyptic vision. Chew them beans.

By way of celebrating  (insofar as one can celebrate the Flood), RT offers below a snippet of the great  catastrophe that inaugurated (at least in part) Western religious experience.

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iii. Warning

“Of gods most shrewd, Enki, Lord of Waters,

Schemed to save a man.  He spoke to me:

‘Reed hut, reed hut, wall, wall! Hear your father:

man of Shurrupak, son of renowned strength—  

abandon your house, renounce your wealth.

The life of all human flesh is forfeit!’

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“Urgent, he whispered news and secret guidance:

‘Build the boat a cube: a mile each side. 

Roof her straight and strong like heaven’s house.’

Appalled, I understood and pledged my part.

And still I recognized a flaw in the plan:

‘What will I tell my neighbors and the people?’

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“‘With these words you will quiet their speculation:

“Enlil of thunderbolts has condemned my life:

I escape into the waters, enjoying the deep,

Enki my compassionate father’s kindness.’ 

Say also: ‘To you Enlil sends true wealth,

a day of bright blessings and rich feasting.

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“‘The morning showers down angel’s bread;

the dusk bestows a rain of shining wheat.’

The god left me then, unseen as he had come.

I paused, reflected, planning this thing—

seven days was all I had to save our kind,

seven days to rescue our mortal wisdom.”

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iv. Ship

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“When dawn, when Utu climbs above the earth,

the skilled craftsmen assembled at my gate:

The carpenter carrying his hatchet and chisel, 

the shaper of reeds with his flattening stone,

the ingenious shipwright wielding his axe.

The children carried pitch; the women cooked.

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“The boat’s design was unfamiliar, elaborate;

the hull was immense, enclosing a perfect cube.

I built the vast decks, seven in number, 

six to store the seed of all the world’s life.

Partitions, exactly nine, each a shelter,

each to hold a different kind of beast.

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“In five days I finished, pitched and plugged the boat.

 I provisioned the ship with gear of every kind—

punting poles beyond count, ropes and blocks, 

pots and jars—endless quantities—of pitch,

and food for all—oil fresh-pressed and fine,

every kind of forage and meal for the beasts.

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“Sunset of the last day saw the boat complete. 

To launch her needed straining, stretching strength; 

in dark she floated. I set a table for our men:

ale, oil, wine flowed as if at New Year’s.

After plate I brought on board beast and plant,

also my family and treasure we might require.”

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Copyright 2017, Eric Quinn

Image: Protective Geni, WikiCmns, Public Domain.

Du Fu, Winding River 1

January 24, 2017 Leave a comment

Introspection has not been much in vogue for, well, the last four or five centuries, at least in the West, anyway. The man of thought has become the man of action, the one who changes the world, makes things better. As we head pell-mell into the post-digital, post-handwritten, robot-manufactured world, the question of just where we might be going should give us pause for thought. Certainly the notion that the very act of thinking could itself alter the world, build its complexity and beauty, and of course its wisdom, would meet with a sceptical response these days. Yet RT suspects that something like this understanding lies close to the heart of Eastern religion and art. This is the world we dream of, the world which heals us and in which we have our true place. It is not magic, but a sense of a broader connection to our surroundings.

Du Fu seems to have started his career as a gifted poet, but one who had not met with profound suffering. The collapse of China in the mid-8th century forced him to flee the capital, and to confront in a basic way his life and the unfolding of history around him. Out of his despair he refashioned the possibilities of Chinese poetry, the Chinese people, and RT would argue, the possibilities of humanity as it today struggles with overwhelming change.

Winding River 1

Du Fu

 

a last petal falling marks the close of spring;

trees shed their 10,000 tears in contentious winds.

I’ll drink my wine, then, and examine

blossoms lying trampled in the mud.

 

and yet, in the abandoned riverside pavilion,

kingfishers flash and mate. At the foot

of high tombs in the park, stone unicorns

rest in conjugal silence.

 

all things live in their joy—

exiled from the palace, I wander,

fame forgotten.

 

PhotoStatues in the Imperial Tomb of Tang Emperor Gaozong. Zingaro. WikiCmns. CC BY 2.0.

Kameda Bosai, Old Trees

September 7, 2016 2 comments

Confucian Poem LACMA M.91.22.jpg

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RT has been resolutely ignoring his creative impulses (such as they were) in the face of the many tasks (not the least of which is grieving) that have followed on his mother’s death. Resolutely ignoring, that is, until a spontaneous visit to his local bookstore brought him face-to-face with an alluring poem by Kameda Bosai, a Japanese poet (or rather, scholar and literati painter) that RT had never heard of before. Well, the temptation proved too much for the sterner angels of RT’s nature, and he offers the results of his latest foray into translation below. He knows that mom would approve.

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old trees crimson at spring’s glance;

waterfalls icy, smash and echo.

imagine a mountain hermit swaying,

collapsing into laughter. water-stars, wind.

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(Dedicated to Andy and Janet)

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Image: Confucian Poem, Kameda Bosai. circa 1820-1824. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. WikiCmns. Public Domain.

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Du Fu, Take 2

April 8, 2016 4 comments

This poem, by Du Fu, China’s greatest poet, continues to haunt RT. The version below isn’t his first attempt at bringing the poem over into English, and certainly the poem’s reputation (its opening lines are generally considered to be the greatest ever written in Chinese poetry) has something to do with his interest. Or it may simply be that the poem is being given to RT slowly, line by line. An improvement over his previous attempt? RT will let his readers judge …

Spring Thoughts

 

The Great Palace lies in ruins;

mountains reflect, rivers pass on.

In cities, weeds like silk pile up,

and rain slaps the flower’s cheek.

But enough of this!

Birdsong astonishes my heart.

 

Three months have passed

and still the beacon fires burn.

I’d pay pure gold for a letter.

Raking my head, exasperated,

I pull loose my scholar’s knot.

The hairpin dangles.

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PaintingEmperor Xuanzong of Tang fleeing to Sichuan province from Chang’an; painter unknown. 11th century. WikiCmns. Public Domain.

The Fire In Your Hearts

October 1, 2015 2 comments

RT has been struggling with some problems, not least of them an invasion of the local bug population… running through all the distractions like Ariadne’s thread has been the work on his mother’s memoirs. A Daughter’s Song and Dance is now at the proofing stage, and RT hopes to have the first bound copies in the next week or two. Then it’s publication on Lulu and fundraising for a larger paper run to distribute in bookstores nearby.

Here is one of RT’s reconstruction based on material in the Gospel of Thomas… he hopes it will lift the reader’s spirit, as it has lifted RT’s:

Saying 3. Jesus said, “Do not listen to those you have trusted. If they tell you, ‘Look, the Kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds will get there before you do. If they say, “Hey, the Kingdom is in the ocean,’ then the fish will swim into it first. And if they say, ‘The Kingdom is in the earth,’ the dead will get there before you. But I tell you that the Kingdom is the fire in your hearts, so that you may precede all others.

© 2013, The Rag Tree

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Photo: burning match. Heidas. WikiCmns. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Du Fu and the Greatest Line in Chinese Poetry

July 9, 2015 1 comment

Dong Yuan. River landscape.National Palace Museum, Beijing.jpg

Sometimes things come undone. There’s always a reason, but the important thing is to work through the problem, however long that might take. The opening line of this poem (which RT has divided into two lines), by the master poet Du Fu, is generally considered the greatest in Chinese poetry. Suffering sometimes brings wisdom, and even beauty. RT

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Spring and Autumn Report

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The great palace lies in ruins;

mountains and rivers look on.

Weeds like silk piled high

adorn empty cities—

in the chaos, even flowers weep.

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I’ve heard nothing from my family—

but enough of this!

The alarum of birds soothes my heart.

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Three months have passed

and still the beacon fires burn;

I’d pay gold for a single letter.

Frustrated, I scratch my head,

pull loose a handful of hair.

The hairpin dangles.

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version, © The Rag Tree, 2015

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Painting: River Landscape. Dong Yuan, 10th Century. National Palace Museum, Taipei. WikiCmns; Public Domain.

Turning 55: the Proposal Scene from Jane Eyre

File:Charlotte Bronte coloured drawing.png

Dear readers, RT for the last several weeks has been exploring 19th century British romantic prose; where else could he possibly find himself, on his 55th birthday, but washed up on the shores of Charlotte Bronte‘s great novel, Jane Eyre?

It goes without saying that this novel is primarily addressed to women, relating as it does the search of a sympathetic and intelligent young lady for the earthly paradise of marriage. “Reader, I married him,” she reports as the novel reaches it conclusion. Few sentences in the English language can have had as widespread an impact on our culture as this one.

But fellow men, take note: we can only wish that we were capable of the profound passion that Mr. Rochester evinces during the novel’s proposal scene. Rochester’s language here reaches the intensity of poetry, as does, in an entirely more feminine way, Jane Eyre’s:

Excerpts from the Proposal Scene, Jane Eyre

“Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you?  Do you think I am an automaton?—a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup?  Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless?  You think wrong!—I have as much soul as you,—and full as much heart!  And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you.  I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh;—it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal,—as we are!”

“And your will shall decide your destiny,” he said: “I offer you my hand, my heart, and a share of all my possessions.”

“You play a farce, which I merely laugh at.”

“I ask you to pass through life at my side—to be my second self, and best earthly companion.”

A waft of wind came sweeping down the laurel-walk, and trembled through the boughs of the chestnut: it wandered away—away—to an indefinite distance—it died.  The nightingale’s song was then the only voice of the hour: in listening to it, I again wept.  Mr. Rochester sat quiet, looking at me gently and seriously.

“My bride is here,” he said, again drawing me to him, “because my equal is here, and my likeness.  Jane, will you marry me?”

Still I did not answer, and still I writhed myself from his grasp: for I was still incredulous.

“Do you doubt me, Jane?” “Entirely.”

“You have no faith in me?” “Not a whit.”

“You, Jane, I must have you for my own—entirely my own.  Will you be mine?  Say yes, quickly.”

“Mr. Rochester, let me look at your face: turn to the moonlight.” “Why?” “Because I want to read your countenance—turn!” “There! you will find it scarcely more legible than a crumpled, scratched page.

Read on: only make haste, for I suffer.”

His face was very much agitated and very much flushed, and there were strong workings in the features, and strange gleams in the eyes.

“Oh, Jane, you torture me!” he exclaimed.  “With that searching and yet faithful and generous look, you torture me!”

“How can I do that?  If you are true, and your offer real, my only feelings to you must be gratitude and devotion—they cannot torture.”

“Gratitude!” he ejaculated; and added wildly—“Jane accept me quickly.  Say, Edward—give me my name—Edward—I will marry you.”

“Are you in earnest?  Do you truly love me?  Do you sincerely wish me to be your wife?”

“I do; and if an oath is necessary to satisfy you, I swear it.”

“Then, sir, I will marry you.”

“Edward—my little wife!”

“Dear Edward!”

RT suspects that the need for romance becomes more insistent as we grow older. Perhaps, visual impairment notwithstanding, we grow more clear-sighted as we age. Energy is everything, and what better energy can we hope for than affection? Marriage may not be the only answer; we should remember that we are always falling in love with each other. Passion pursues us right up to the grave, and perhaps beyond it. A better fate is hard to imagine.

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Drawing: Portrait of Charlotte Bronte; Evert A. Duyckinck (based on a drawing by George Richmond). 1873. University of Texas; WikiCmns. Public Domain. *

Far From the Madding Crowd–Worlds Apart

RT hasn’t seen the new movie adaptation of Thomas Hardy’Far From the Madding Crowd, but news of its release, plus a lucky encounter at a used book store, has gotten him to finally read the novel.

Actually, RT hasn’t finished the book, but is far enough into it to have fallen under the novel’s spell. Certainly the world its author presents captivates a world-weary heart; here we find a fresh, untrammeled beauty, a poet’s tribute to nature and man…and woman.

Let any doubts about the book’s style be settled by this sample from chapter 2:

“To persons standing alone on a hill during a clear midnight such as this, the roll of the world eastward is almost a palpable movement. The sensation may be caused by the panoramic glide of the stars past earthly objects, which is perceptible in a few minutes of stillness, or by the better outlook upon space that a hill affords, or by the wind, or by the solitude; but whatever be its origin, the impression of riding along is vivid and abiding. The poetry of motion is a phrase much in use, and to enjoy the epic form of that gratification it is necessary to stand on a hill at a small hour of the night, and, having first expanded with a sense of difference from the mass of civilised mankind, who are dreamwrapt and disregardful of all such proceedings at this time, long and quietly watch your stately progress through the stars. After such a nocturnal reconnoitre it is hard to get back to earth, and to believe that the consciousness of such majestic speeding is derived from a tiny human frame.”

Visionary, massive, gorgeous–and it helps to remember that Hardy’s father was a stone mason.

The plot couldn’t be more attractive. It’s a love story, thank heavens, filled with all the twists and turns you would expect, driven by human foible and heartbreak, illuminated with satirical sketches, and yet deeply aware of tradition, dignity, and the possibilities for happiness.

Then we have the story’s lovers–the shepherd Gabriel Oak, an old-fashioned hero, more than equal to the difficulties set before him, and Bathsheba Everdene, a lady alluring, intelligent, and prone to impulse. She enters the story a milk-maid, rises far in her fortunes, and then encounters a gentleman well-suited to be her husband. But Hardy writes in such a way that it isn’t clear which of the suitors will win Bathsheba’s hand–what is clear to the artist might for others be obscured by the world’s commotions.

As lovely and shrewd as all of this is, the novel’s setting and worldview have made the deepest impression on RT. Did a way of life as simple, communal, and breathtaking as this ever really exist? Hardy’s Wessex may not be the southern England of actual fact, but RT has enjoyed spending some time there. We need more handcraft, more confidence, and more romance. RT

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Painting: Thomas Hardy (1893); Thomas Strang. WikiCmns; Public Domain.

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Kingfishers and Dragonflies–Hopkins and the Grail

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RT offers here a powerful and enigmatic poem by the great Victorian poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. By way of unraveling these tightly bound lines, RT notes that kingfishers suggest the Fisher King, that emasculated keeper of the Grail. This is a physical poem, one that embraces the beauty and sheer substance of the world, and the acts of men, that handsome, tremendous spectacle.

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AS kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme

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AS kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:                       5

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.

 

Í say móre: the just man justices;

Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;                          10

Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—

Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

 

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PaintingHopkins, painted 24 July 1866; unknown. WikiCmns; Public Domain.

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