Saturday, August 15, 2009

Wandering with Empedocles.

Ever since our visit to Sicily, Beth and I have been talking about going to Tunisia to see ruins, mosaics, Carthage, desert and mountains. I have been searching out poets from the northern coast and mountains of Africa, looking for English translations. One poet I am interested in is Habib Tengour, an Algerian who has written about the voice of the Maghrebian writer, and has written an essay on "Maghrebian Surrealism".
Asking "who is Maghrebian" he writes:
Indeed there exists a divided space called the Maghreb but the
Maghrebian is always elsewhere. And that's where he makes himself
come true.
Duration Press has published Tengour's long poem Empedocles's Sandal, translated by Pierre Joris, as a chapbook. The poem begins with a quote from the German poet Friedrich Holderlin, from Holderlin's unfinished tragedy The Death of Empedocles:
this country where the violet grape once loved
to grow for a better people, and the golden fruit
in the dark thicket, and noble wheat, and some day
the stranger will ask, treading through the rubble
of your temples, if that's where the city

This led me to a new translation of Holderlin's Odes and Elegies, translated by Nick Hoff and published by Wesleyan, which contains this Holderlin poem for Empedocles:
You search for life, you search, and a divine fire
Gleams and wells from deep within Earth to you,
and with a shuddering urge you
Hurl yourself down into Aetna's flames.

Thus the whim of the queen once melted
Pearls in wine - and well she should have! If only
You, O poet, hadn't sacrificed
Your wealth to the fermenting cup!

But you're holy to me, like the powers of Earth
That seized you away, the boldly killed!
And if love no longer held me in its grasp,
I'd gladly follow this hero down into the depths.

Empedocles threw himself into Sicily's volcano Mount Etna,Holderlin, at age 36, is declared insane and spends the last 37 years of his life living in a tower room in Tubingen, Germany.

We have also received a new translation of Holderlin's only novel - Hyperion - translated by Ross Benjamin and published by Archipelago Books. Friedrich Nietzsche said of Holderlin's novel "It makes an impression upon me similar to the beat of the waves of the troubled sea. Indeed, this prose is music, soft melting sounds interrupted by painful dissonances, finally expiring in dark, uncanny dirges."
The cover blurb also claims that " it was reading Holderlin that gave Rilke the impetus for his Duino Elegies."

Habib Tengour's poem ends:
the visible and invisible world is decomposing
science assures the poet of his wording
the risks hidden in the hands' palms

let's leave tears and blood
our friends are everywhere
the voyage completes itself
by day as by night
all things astounded

out they glitter under the moon

the white armed virgin flies over the offerings.

(translation by Pierre Joris)