Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Got to keep talking to be real

Rip up the day I was born
and the night that furnished a bed
with people to make me

the pillow from every night I lived
smother that day __ cover its light
so God can forget it

let death's shadow
hold the ether mask there
clouds obliterate it

a total eclipse
swallow it a tiny pill

and that sweat that night beginning me
black oil absorb it
a hole drilled deep in calendars

shrivel that night in the hand of history
let it soften in impotence
turn off its little shouts of pleasure

every science unsex it
genetic biology __ advanced psychology
nuclear bomb

So begins Job, in A Literary Bible: An Original Translation by David Rosenberg (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2009). (Blogger won't let me put in a caesura, so I've had to put __ where there should just be an open space.) A bold retelling, and not only in its use of language: it starts at Job 3. The "brief prose tale" which frames it is mentioned in a preface, but Rosenberg has "focused on Job's speeches, the heart of the book." Accordingly, he renders Job 3, 6, 7, 9, 10, 12, 13, 14, 16, 17, 19, 21, 23, 24, 26-7, 29, 30, 31. Not only Job's friends but God never gets a word in edgewise. Other interpreters have carved away bits of Job, but this is among the most pared down - unsurprising, perhaps, from the co-author of the Book of J.

I'm as interested in the language Rosenberg uses for those parts of Job he considers treating.

Our airwaves are just as filled with contending superstitions and folklore (disguised as commercials, propaganda or homily) as were the newsbearers of the ancient Middle East. Like many of the biblical poets and prophets, the poet of Job was a master of the satiric use of officialese.
In search of an English equivalent to the complex illusion of spokenness in Job's speeches, I found it suggested in American poetry's struggle with natural speech, especially as it absorbed the influences of jazz composition in the twentieth century. The shifts and changes in the flow of ordinary conversation, the often surreal collage of overheard imagery, heightens the sense of timing in the ear of William Carlos Williams - as it does for the jazz musician-poet, who composes as he performs. John Coltrane famously said, "You got to keep talking / to be real." I think the quotation is apt for the character of Job.

There's something to this. It is in any case an exciting poetic tribute to Job. Here's how it ends (489-91):

this is my voice
reaching out for the ear
open to hear it

where is the hearing the time and place
to make my suffering real
an indictment a list of crimes

even if it were longer than a book
I'd carry it on my shoulders
with honor

I'd wrap it around me like a royal robe
bind it around my head
like a royal turban

I'd walk up to my judge
and lay out my heart like a map
before him

this incredible gift of a heart
my true thoughts

hlding the history book of my life
open to this light
light is my defense!

as confident as a prince
I'd put my life on the line
in the words that are given me

in this court invisible to me
transparent as clean air
before the judge I live to hear

and if my land cried out against me
indicting me with the tears
that ran down its furrows

man made
on the face
of the earth

if I plucked the riches
its fruit
__ filling my mouth
and gave back nothing

not even a thought
in gratitude

if I have planted
any cause for anger
in the minds of its tillers

if one migrant worker cried out
because I forced the breath
of integrity out of him

then instead of wheat
let my hand reap

let it force to no end
this thistle of
of a pen

let weeds grow
and cover this page
instead of words that grow wheat

and here for now is ended
the poem
Job speaks.

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