Monday, August 13, 2007



I don’t want to admit it
but I’ve been a sheep

but you let me lie down on the sweet lawn
helped me to speechless waters
restored my painful feet

you led me down garden paths that were not ironic
or filled with worrisome garden gnomes
but where I had to go

I’ve walked in death-shade, in night valleys
in places where invariably I was dark
yay! as my daughter says sarcastically
but I didn’t fear evil and wasn’t overwhelmed by death

When my thoughts were my enemies
you made reservations in a nice restaurant
and the entire staff was there filling my wineglass
picking up my napkin, feeding me salmon

Surely I will not dwell in the my parents' basement of life forever
but will soon take my place on cosmic TV where I shall be light


In the third line of this poem there is the word 'but'. It's a bit of an important question whether I delete this 'but' or not. It's the difference between the narrator being a sheep because he/she has accepted the help from the 'you' of the poem and, despite having been a sheep, he/she has been helped by the 'you.' And, in this, case, I'm assuming that being a sheep is negative. Obviously it isn't in the original "The Lord is my shepherd" context. (In 'translating' this Psalm, though I omitted the references to "Lord", I wanted it to be possible to read this poem both ways: with the you being 'You' and with the you being 'you' and open to interpretation.)

Here, by the way, is the original Psalm read in Hebrew.


I was talking to Greg Betts a while back about using sacred texts. Greg showed me this great poem that he'd written using only the opening lines from every (I think every) chapter of the Old Testament and the Koran. It makes for an interesting poem, one mixing a panoply of cultural and religious resonances. I don't know about the Islamic tradition, but I know that both the Christian and Jewish traditions often weave in allusions and quotations, even particular word uses, from their sacred texts. Texts are often paraphrased. (Many hymns are paraphrases of psalms.) It's not considered profane to use the texts in other contexts. I didn't think that it would be in any way offensive to most Jews or Christians for Greg to use the texts in a collage. I have the impression that, at least in the Jewish tradition, texts -- being the finite expression of an infinite God -- are open to infinite examination.

I didn't know how the Islamic tradition would respond. (Not that I was suggesting censoring the piece, I was just wondering how the tradition would regard such a use. Clearly part of appropriating a text is understanding how the tradition from which it was appropriated from would respond. And not that one has to in any way abide by --or be bound by-- the traditional or in indeed the orthodox response.)

Greg's piece, (published in the last issue of dANDelion), I've heard, has got an excellence response from readers. I understand that many people found the interleaving of texts from both traditions a powerful statement, opening up dialogue and understanding.


Yesterday, I attended the Hamilton Fringe Festival and heard "The Ballad of Monisch, a Yiddish/English Comic Operetta based on the classic poem by Peretz translated, set to music and performed by Marty Green."
Among the more remarkable things Green performed were Yiddish translations of country songs. They're on his album "A Boy Named Sureh) (i.e. a boy named Sue.) Check out the link to hear "My Way" and "The Ballad of Yankel Yisruel" (The Ballad of Jimmy Brown, also known as Three Bells.) Green explained how he translated this texts, creating great humour in the cross-cultural transformation. In "My Way," the narrator did it not 'his way', but 'His way'. The line refers to how he did it 'according the Torah.' In "The Ballad of Jimmy Brown," Green manages to weave in the opening words of the Jewish prayer for the dead. Green has a book, Tales of a Wandering Jew, a translation of Falk Zolf's memoir of life in Tzarist Russian that begins in English and then gradually turns to Yiddish. I unfortunately didn't get a chance to check it out, but the concept of a book gradually changing from one language to the other is beguiling.


functional nomad said...

Hey Gary -- ack, sorry for the long post -- but I wanted to offer a note on what I learned about the use of the Qur'an. From what I gather, from reading and conversations with my practicing Muslim friends, the Islamic tradition is more focussed on the oral dynamic than the literal/letteral/written. Mohammad, according to some traditions, could not read or write -- but recited the final word of God in perfect form. The word Qur'an itself is often translated as "recitation" or recital, and the book is decorated with a special character set designed to regulate pronunciation. Thus, rather than the character, it is the sound and tone that are perfect. Recitals of the book are considered high art, and are extremely precise performations.

For me, with the "Book of O" project, what this fixed oral context meant was that a certain degree of freedom entered into treatment of translations of the book. The Qur'an in its original Arabic is the perfect, untouchable object. Translations are outside of the tradition, and therefore not as susceptible to charges of blasphemy. It has been detached from the tradition.

So, the use of the Torah in the poem is the exact opposite of the implications of using the Qur'an. Like magnets, I was drawn to the possibility of balancing two oppositional bodies together to see whether they would bond or repel one another; whether they could become complementary texts and traditions, or remain oppositional.

gary barwin said...

Thanks, Greg. That's fascinating. The emphasis on the oral in the Qur'an is very interesting and you're right, the complete opposite of the Jewish tradition of the written form. I assumed that the written form of the Qur'an was also sacred in itself -- based on seeing verses of the Qur'an inscribed inside or outside mosques. This in some way is a sign/signifier thing. What exactly is represented by the written text? Is it a transcription of an oral text or is it something in itself? Or both. I think that both traditions are different in this from the various Christian traditions.

I'd like to find out how the Islamic tradition treats the recitation of sacred text. Is is used in different ways, the way, say Christian text is (composed sacred music from motets, masses, hymns, etc.)? I know very little about the Islamic music and sacred music tradition. From what I gather of the Jewish tradition, there's a lot of intextual play in sacred music. Stay attuned for further research.

In terms of your piece, there's the addition interest in the fact that the Biblical text is part of the Islamic tradition. And that both texts first appeared in different languages and not in English. Even the primary translation into English is a leap.

One other thing that fascinates me about sacred texts is the understanding of the enormous religious and personal contexts that they bring with them. In working with Psalm 23, I was aware of all the various contexts (many of them intensely emotional and significant for the people there) that I have heard that text. There's that remarkable piece of Schoenberg's, The Survivor from Warsaw, where he sets a text from a survivor of the Nazi assault on the Warsaw Ghetto. It describes, after the Nazis arrive intent on murder, a group of men, hardly devout, beginning to spontaneously sing the Sh'ma -- the central credo of the Jewish faith. They sing it not only because of what it means, but because of their deep understanding of its context and resonance.

Thanks again for the explanation.

gary barwin said...

Re: Psalm 23

I've been fiddling with the last two lines. I'm thinking:

"Surely I will not dwell in the my parents' basement of life forever

but will soon become light and take my place on TV"

...I would like to fit in the 'cosmic' though...

"but will soon turn to light and become cosmic TV."

not quite. It's somewhere there, though.

gary barwin said...

"Soon will be light and take my place on cosmic TV"?

Buy Kamagra said...

you are talkin about the ancient sacred books? this a intrigant theme, specially if you know how read in Hebrew, but is more fascinant when this scripts come in Aramaic language.