Thursday, July 28, 2005

More beach reading

My sister gave me a copy of The Essential Rumi last year. I immediately (and silently) questioned her motives. I hardly ever take time for fiction, so poetry is generally out of the question. I had a feeling she wanted to see me regain some of the tolerance I once possessed for Islam, back when my experience with it was limited to two trips around Morocco (on the positive side, mostly) and the Rushdie affair (negative, though I did get to stand in line next to Sigourney Weaver at a PEN meeting in support of him). After reading the book, and after thinking about it, I've decided my skepticism was misplaced. I shouldn't have questioned my sister's motives. I should have questioned the poet's.

Unbounded reverence for life-as-it-is, whether you consider it god's work or the result of nature and chance, is just a short step away from relativism and excusing the status quo. Rumi met his second great spiritual companion by dancing outside a blacksmith's shop to the rhythm of the pounding hammers. I know people who do things like that, and to me they're just annoying--and I refuse to see my annoyance as spiritual myopia. In terms of ways-to-spend-your-day, working in a blacksmith shop sucks. Certainly, there must be moments of great satisfaction to be had there, like putting the final touch on a perfectly crafted horseshoe, or like quitting time. But by and large, if you asked a bunch of blacksmiths if they'd trade places with a poetry-writing retired teacher, I don't think you'd get too many no's. You like the sound of the hammers? Put down the wine glass and pick one up.

That said, Rumi's poetry is extraordinary, and like all poetry, it has its place. Just don't take it too seriously. Rumi would probably agree with me on that, since the underlying message of his philosophy and of Sufism in general is that genuine connection with the glory of life comes from a kind of disconnection from the treadmill of daily worries. Including interpreting poetry, if that happens to be part of your treadmill.

The Essential Rumi is translated by Coleman Barks (with an assist from John Moyne and two others relegated to the title page). Sadly, Barks dispenses with what I consider an important translator's rule: Keep yourself out of it. Given the "anything-goes" nature of Rumi's poetry and philosophy, Barks has probably done nothing that would offend the author. Nonetheless, I found his introductory essays to his artificially constructed chapters nothing shy of irritating interruptions. In the context of Rumi's remarkable life and thinking, insertions about the life and thinking of his twentieth-century-translator-into-English come across as rude and presumptuous. Rumi wrote in Persian, and Barks' translations of the poems read as the unimpeachable essence of the originals. Turning Persian poetry into English poetry must be no easy task, and at that Barks succeeds so well that I imagine he must be a poet himself, and a good one. English is an exact language, one often maladroit at expressing the gentle subtleties of others. Yet Barks consistently amazes me. Here is an excerpt from a poem about a mouse and a frog bound together by a profound, spiritual friendship:
Remember the mouse on the riverbank?
There's a love-string stretching into the water
hoping for the frog.
Suddenly a raven grips the mouse
and flies off. The frog too, from the riverbottom,
with one foot tangled in invisible string,
follows, suspended in the air.
Amazed faces ask,
"When did a raven ever go underwater
and catch a frog?"
The frog answers,
This is the force of Friendship.

Barks exercises just enough freedom with his English to capture what I presume to be the beauty of the original--his inventions ("love-string" ... "riverbottom") never seem contrived, and his decisions (to use quote marks for the people but italics for the frog) reveal a surprising and admirable consideration for detail. If only he hadn't fallen so in love with Rumi and his poetry that he tried to slip into bed between them. In a typically superfluous chapter introduction, the translator reveals to us that one of his Sufi teachers was so amused by his last name that he would greet him by barking. Now when I look at the cover of the book, I can't think of anything else.

Back to the poet. Rumi was born in 1207 in what is now Afghanistan but what was at the time a tenuously-held Persian territory. When the Mongols got too close for comfort, he and his family decamped for Persia proper. There he worked as a teacher and scholar--well liked and respected, according to history--until he met Shams, a wandering Sufi dervish without a comb but apparently possessed of a considerable mystical power. Shams led Rumi into a Sufi-style annihilation of self through intense friendship, and from this spiritual metamorphosis we now have the blessing of Rumi's poetry. Shams ended up getting whacked by Rumi's jealous ex-pupils, but Rumi eventually found a reasonable Shams-facsimile in the aforementioned blacksmith. I happen to believe that poets should not be remembered for their lives, so that's enough of that.

Regardless of where it came from, Rumi left us a remarkable collection of stories, fables, and jokes. He tends to play fast and loose with metaphors--layering them one over another--which can be a little disconcerting for those of us overtrained in the art of writing and inexperienced in the art of reading. He invents a parable about restraint out of a tale of a servant who constructs a flange out of a gourd so that she can be safely topped by her master's donkey. Had Jesus attempted to relate self-restraint and bestiality in one of his hillside sermons, he would have met the cross years earlier. Or perhaps his adoring fans would have protected him until he reached a natural death.

Rumi is strangely adoring of Jesus, and Banks devotes a chapter to his poems on the topic. Though I am an ex-Catholic, I find it reassuring how much praise Rumi has for the philosopher of my upbringing:
Christ is the population of the world
and every object as well. There is no room
for hypocrisy. Why use bitter soup for healing
when sweet water is everywhere?

Apostasy if I ever heard it, though Rumi managed to save his neck from the Zarqawis of the day by heaping his poetry full of Allah and Mohammed as well. For all the beauty of Rumi's writing, it's still poetry about the glory of that which god--whichever god--has created. And as much as it makes me smile, or ponder, it's off the mark. Give me Whitman. Give me the glory of what we have made ... and the shame of the destruction we wreak. Read Rumi, but don't mistake his world for ours.


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