Birch Brook Press, 2018
Art by Helen Febbo
I was about to say that grief is best
Gotten over. That's wrong. Do not dread it.
Grief's not bad, not because such distress
Is necessary (though it is), but instead
Because grief is how we keep the dead,
How we can postpone that certainty,
Like waving at a train. But I've lost the thread.
Trains leave little time for waving, and certainly
At least some of the passengers must be planning to return.
It might be best to say that grief — but wait!
I don't mean grief. Grief is not a noun.
It lacks a nouns fixity and cultivation.
Grieff is verb, active verb, a shouting out —
Where is he? what have you done with him? and how? —
And grief's an asking of the dead — please,
My love, please let me go. And about
That train, it is the living on that train.
And it is the dead who stay behind, and wave.
"Grief" originally appeared in Stickman Review in 2015.
As if toward Beauty
Birch Brook Press, 2015
Art by Helen Febbo
In the wake of sleep they walk to where the mill run
runs through gnarly grasses, to where tomorrow’s cows
will clamber down, making water dark and wide,
making muddy puddles, which like little fears,
draw upon a larger water. They cross to where
the horses stand, heads hung down, leaning in
upon themselves. What would it be to ride, to nuzzle
flat against a smooth warm neck? What would it be
to jump the fence, to go where air grows deep? Beyond them
lies a curve of farmhouse and its stubbled field,
and in the field a fox, high-tailed, alert, stands soft
among the brittle stalks, listening for a mouse,
aiming at a sound. And overhead there is
a filament of moon, the best of all the moons,
partial and complete, beyond the reach of ruin.
A letterpress edition by Birch Brook Press, 2011 (a second printing in 2012)
Art by Helen Febbo
Myself am hurt. I bleed
the shy in me.
Not a scab
to pick, but sea
I cannot lean across.
Child is best.
Will it remember
me no more?
But the lava moves,
its pale taste
not yet worn,
on the tongue
and belly stung.
Alda Merini’s linguistic and thematic passion, intensity, and mysticism made her one of the major Italian poets of her generation. She was born in 1931, and by the time of her death in 2009, had published more than 60 collections of poetry and an autobiography, L'altra verità. Diario di una diversa (The Other Truth: Diary of a Dropout) (1986) in which she explored madness in creative expression.
She was nominated twice for the Nobel Prize in Literature, once in 1996 by the Académie Française and again in 2001 by the Italian PEN Club. Her work is well-loved in Italy but is only beginning to be known in the English-speaking world, most especially with the recent publication of Susan Stewart’s Love Lessons: Selected Poems of Alda Merini (Princeton, 2009).
Jensen has a partner in this work, Chiara Frenquelluci, who was born in Rome and has been teaching language and literature for over twenty years. She has published articles on Italian theater, fiction, opera and poetry, a critical edition of 17th c librettos, as well as textbooks and multimedia eBooks. The translation below is by Frenquellucci and Jensen and appeared in tearsinthefence (U.K.) #63, Spring 2016, p. 57. Jensen's most recent book, Graceful Ghost, includes a generous selection of translations of Merini's work.
Quando ci mettevano il cappio al collo
e ci buttavano sulle brandine nude
insieme a cocci immondi di bottiglie
per favorire l'autoannientamento,
allora sulle fronti mandide
compariva il sudore degli orti sacri,
degli orti maledetti degli ulivi.
Quando gli infermieri bastardi
ci sollevavano le gonne putride
e ghignavano, ghignavano verde,
era in quel momento preciso
che volevamo la lapidazione.
Quando venivamo inchiodati in un cesso
per esser sottoposti alla Cerletti,
era in quel momento che la Gestapo vinceva
e i nostri maledettissimi corpi
non osavano sferrare pugni a destra e a manca
per la resurrezione degli uomini…
When they would slip a noose around our necks
and throw us on naked cots
along with filthy bottle shards
to push us toward self annihilation,
then on drenched foreheads
appeared the sweat of sacred gardens,
of those damned olive gardens.
When the bastard nurses
would lift our putrid skirts
and sneer, sneer green,
it was in that precise moment
that we wanted to be stoned to death.
When strapped onto the crapper
to undergo the Cerletti,*
it was in that moment that the Gestapo won,
and our goddamned bodies
dared not strike to the right and to the left
for the resurrection of mankind…
*Cerletti invented electric shock treatment.
KAROLINE VON GÜNDERRODE
Karoline von Günderrode (1780-1806) was born in Karlsruhe to an impoverished family of the lesser nobility. Her meditations on love and death drew upon and advanced mythological scholarship. She wrote abundantly, often publishing under a male pseudonym, and had three loves in her life, each ending badly. After the third she killed herself on the banks of the Rhine.
The poem below was translated by Jensen and Monika Totten. Totten is a retired scholar whose doctorate is from the Harvard Department of Germanic Literatures and Language. The translation appeared in Tears in the Fence (U.K.), no. 57 summer 2013.
Vorzeit, und neue Zeit.
Ein schmahler rauher Pfad schien sonst die Erde.
Und auf den Bergen glänzt der Himmel über ihr,
Ein Abgrund ihr zur Seite war die Hölle,
Und Pfade führten in den Himmel, u zur Hölle.
Doch alles ist ganz anders nun geworden,
Der Himmel ist gestürzt, der Abgrund ausgefüllt,
Und mit Vernunft bedekt, und sehr bequem zum gehen.
Des Glaubens Höhen sind nun demolieret.
Und auf der flachen Erde schreitet der Verstand,
Und misset alles aus, nach Klafter und nach Schuen.
THEN, AND NOW
Once earth seemed a rough, tight path.
And in the mountains Heaven glowed,
And at earth’s side, a deep abyss was Hell,
And paths led up to Heaven, and to Hell.
But now everything’s entirely altered,
Heaven has collapsed, the abyss filled in
And paved with reason, and very easy walking.
The heights of faith have been demolished.
And knowledge strides across the smooth flat earth,
And measures everything, in fathoms, cords, and feet.
Gwendolyn Jensen was born in 1936 and grew up in Lansdowne, PA. She began writing poems when she retired in 2001 from Wilson College (Chambersburg, PA) where she had served as president for ten years. Her Bachelors degree is from the University of Hartford, her Masters from Trinity College (Hartford), and her Ph.D. from the University of Connecticut.
After teaching history at the University of New Haven she moved into administrative work serving as graduate dean at the University of New Haven, and then as academic dean, first at Western State College (Gunnison, CO) and then at Marietta College (Marietta, OH).
Her poems have been widely published in both electronic and print journals, including The Beloit Poetry Journal, The Harvard Review, Tears in the Fence, The Malahat Review, Measure, Salamander, and Sanskrit Literary Arts Magazine.
Birthright is her first book of poems. It was published in 2011 in a letterpress edition by Birch Brook Press and had a second printing early in 2012. Her second book, As if toward Beauty, also with Birch Brook Press, was published in 2015. Her third book is Graceful Ghost, also with Birch Brook Press and in a letterpress edition.
She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Tuesday, May 1, 2018, 6:30 pm
Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America
Saturday, June 2, 2018, 2:00 pm