Mother’s Day

I’ve mentioned before here that Laurie Anderson was one of the inspirations for this project. Even though I don’t closely mimic her Midwestern delivery, that subtle mix of the dry and the droll with muted pleasure in observation. It’s more at the idea that things put into a different context reveal aspects you never noticed before. And yes, she often did this mixed with music she composed.

We rarely go to mothers for new aspects. In the usual course of things, they are our original appreciation of reality — and one that we return to, or long to return to, when the novel has taken a bad turn.

That said — and I’ve said so much in the last few posts that you might welcome a break from my long-windedness — when I considered yesterday evening if I needed to make a post noting Mother’s Day, this song, “O Superman,”  by Laurie Anderson came bounding into my head. I recorded a version of it on a similar whim nearly a decade ago, just because it had remained well-balanced in the weird place between understandable and elusive. *

Because “O Superman”  is a work clearly under copyright, you won’t see an audio player today for that version I did. Though I’ve probably bent the rules a few times here, this project keeps away from using work the authors have some legal ownership of. Remuneration for almost all poets almost all of the time is tiny, and increasingly this is true of more musicians and artists more of the time. The YouTube video below is my compromise with that.

Yes, there’s a typo in the credits at the end. Embarrassing! I blame the late hour when I was cobbling this together.


My rough understanding is that if my video would ever rise to the viewership level of getting YouTube ads inserted, the owner of the rights could/might get the fraction of a penny that would generate. Anderson herself has this video made of her composition back in the day, and it’s worth observing her presentation of her own art, though I note one recent comment on her video:

I played this song at a party in my house once. Ever since then, no one’s even come near my house again.”

Perhaps that comes of the artistic trick in Anderson’s song as she performs it:  to make mom strange so that we may observe differently. Mother and strange don’t rhyme for many.

My version is an excerpt of the whole song with different instrumentation, and I’ve never been much for “just like the original record” covers anyway. My shorter version focuses more on the mother aspect and where and when we seek that. Call me a Modernist beset by sentiment, but the ending to Anderson’s song nearly always brings tears to my eyes.


*Want to read more about Anderson’s work? Here are two articles about it: this one about the creation of the original piece, and this recent one by Margaret Atwood about her experience of it.

The Dark Interval Version 2

The last post used my best effort at a faithful translation of Rainer Maria Rilke’s “The Dark Interval.”  Now, as promised, my alternative translation.

As I discussed, I first heard Rilke’s “The Dark Interval”  by hearing it. In the immediacy of that encounter, I heard it as a meditation on how our lives pass by while we do not speak up to them and use their singular moment, however imperfectly. Upon reflection, I now understand the poem was likely speaking of Rilke’s more impending death. The more literal translation I used for yesterday’s piece retains more of that focus.

Rilke and Tree

Rainer Maria Rilke. “A tree before my background”


Today’s version uses a freer translation, reflecting my original understanding of the piece. The original poem includes three or four images, which I sought to vivify in modern English. The first image, that of the “steep hour” (diese steile stunde) we know is a downhill slope, not a slow, steep incline one is ascending, because the next line includes a sense of rushing or hurrying (eilen). I have no idea if Rilke ever skied or otherwise could be thinking of skiing or sledding down a hill, but that was the concrete image that presented itself to me, and this choice helped me deal with most enigmatic image in the piece, the “I am a tree before my background” (Ich bin ein Baum vor meinem Hintergrunde). My choice in this translation is a risky one. I made the vaguest image in the German into the most immediate image in English, that not only am I sliding rapidly, but there is dangerous obstacle, a tree, to deal with. I now think my translation of “hintergrunde” to “my past” may be inaccurate. Given the poems concluding images, I think Rilke may been thinking of background more in the sense of “musical background”—but it was the choice I made then, and it works well in my first understanding of the poem’s intent.

Charles Adams' skier and tree

Like the skier with the light jacket, I may be puzzled.


The next image is also a bit obscure. “I am only one of many mouths, and the one that closes the soonest.” (Ich bin nur einer meiner vielen Munde/und jener, welcher sich am frühesten schliesst.”) I’m still unsure of which meanings Rilke meant to convey there. Is he saying, “I am only one of the multitude, and I’ll be dead (and silent) sooner than most?” Or is he saying “I could speak up in many ways (I can’t quite decide what is the right way to speak up), so instead I clam-up and never express myself?” In this translation, I chose the latter. I now think Rilke likely meant the former.

The last image is the most developed one, and the most attractive to a poet and musician like myself, because it’s an image out of music itself. I read “the dark interval,” that I use as the title for this piece, as a reference to the tritone, a dissonant interval that was being exploited widely in musical works contemporary with Rilke. And of course, music based on blues and jazz forms makes use of the dissonant intervals too, so I chose to use the more modern “funky.” And in developing this musical image I chose to use another informal term to vivify the “death tone” (Ton Tod), translating it to “wolf-tone,” which is the howling feedback sound a string instrument makes when the sounded note is the same as the strongest natural resonant frequency of the instrument’s body.

Keeping with my initial understanding of “The Dark Interval”  I was trying to say that we keep silent, and do not act, out of fear of “dissonance,” of fear of not fitting in with the expectations; or because we fear a “wolf-tone,” an unwanted, strong response; but that when we do, if we do, as can be done within music, the dissonance can be resolved, that musical consonance sounds even sweeter when dissonance shows it in contrast.

So, there you go, that was once my understanding of Rilke’s “The Dark Interval”  that I used in this second translation. As a piece, in English, it stands up, it has coherence, and I think it’s livelier than yesterday’s more literal translation—but I also think I got Rilke’s meaning wrong. How much does this matter?

I often consider translations of poetry like a musician doing a cover song

To the listener, it may not matter. If they don’t know the original in German or from another translation, they experience this work as it is. To art also, it may not matter. A misunderstood work is still a work of art, another one of many mouths that isn’t shut. I often consider translations of poetry like a musician doing a cover song, where there is value in recreating the song differently, just as The New Standards did with their Clash cover that I linked to yesterday. Still, I can’t shake off the thought that I was unfair to Rilke.

So here’s the second version of Rilke’s “The Dark Interval.”   It’s a different performance, with acoustic and electric guitar and bass, but it uses the same music as yesterday’s. Use the player below to hear it.