Ghost Blues

The story this time is failure, diversion, randomness, and Dada. Some of it’s mine.

After the largely pleasant interruptions of the holidays, I’ve been finding it hard to concentrate extensively on new pieces. This hurts the more intricate musical compositions, research on the context of their original creation and reception, and my fresh translations of poetry not originally in English.

I’m fairly good at limiting one scourge of the modern artist: social media. I get behind on responding to comments here (bad form!), I usually put off reading the blogs I follow to once every week or so. I’ve never dived into Twitter much and have entirely avoided Facebook and the rest. Other artists have other types of engagement with these things, I wouldn’t call myself a model in that regard. Indeed, I’m sure I’ve done this project no favors with my avoidance of these things. I ascribe a great deal of the growth of this audience to random searches and the intentional work some of you have done spreading the word about the Parlando Project. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

So, I’ve carved out the precious time for this. And then, I get to work, a blessing many never get. And sometimes, it just doesn’t happen.

I’ve started and broken off three or four translations this month. I’m often drawn to the more hermetic poets with translation: the ones with wilder syntax, unusual metaphor, elusive meanings. I think what draws me is the same that causes one to open the most mysterious wrapped gift first. What could it be? Sure, it could turn out to be the wrong size or color, or a complete misreading of your interests, but that desire to jump into mysteries is undeniable.

But this predilection does lead to issues with my translations. My goal as a translator is to make vivid to a contemporary audience the images in the original poem. I will not usually make any attempt at carrying over the sound-music to English, but I do like to honor the thinking-music of it, the order and cadence of the original poet experiencing the matter of the poem. This intellectual melody is a great deal of the pleasure I get out of a poem that works for me: that the poet would think and express this first, then this, and finish with that. If each of those is a surprise that I can share, art has happened.

But when taking on a Surrealist or Dada poem, or a poem that claims to be based on disordered sensations,* how can I be sure enough that I grasp the metaphor, divided as always by time, language, culture, but in addition with an aesthetic that seeks to confuse or confound the reader, at least at first.

That sort of thing takes a lot of attention, more than most close readings, even before the task of finding the new English words comes in. And this month, I get only partway in and then feel lost or discouraged—and something interrupts, or my energy flags, and the house of cards doesn’t necessarily fall down, it just remains a bunch of playing cards with no architectural reason to exist.

The closest I got to completing a new translation was this poem by Hugo Ball, one of the original Dadaists. It was the fifth in his series 7 Schizophrene Sonette.

Here’s the original:

Das Gespenst

Gewöhnlich kommt es, wenn die Lichter brennen.
Es poltert mit den Tellern und den Tassen.
Auf roten Schuhen schlurrt es in den nassen
Geschwenkten Nächten und man hört sein Flennen.

Von Zeit zu Zeit scheint es umherzurennen
Mit Trumpf, Atout und ausgespielten Assen.
Auf Seil und Räder scheint es aufzupassen
Und ist an seinem Lärmen zu erkennen.

Es ist beschäftigt in der Gängelschwemme
Und hochweis weht dann seine erzene Haube,
Auf seinen Fingern zittern Hahnenkämme,

Mit schrillen Glocken kugelt es im Staube.
Dann reißen plötzlich alle wehen Dämme
Und aus der Kuckucksuhr tritt eine Taube.

At the point I set aside the translation, here’s what I had tentatively and incompletely rendered in English:

The Ghost

It usually happens when the lights are on.
It rattles the plates and the cups.
On red shoes it slides in the damp
Swaying nights, and you hear its flames.

It seems to run around from time to time
With trumps, likely to play the ace.
It’s careful with the ropes and pulleys
And is recognizable by its noise.

It is busy in the Gängelschwemme
And then its white crown wavers in the wind,
Its tines tremble like cockscombs

With shrill bells it spins in the dust.
Sudden exploding dams are torn apart
And a dove emerges from the cuckoo clock.

Almost done, but I couldn’t figure out that word “Gängelschwemme.” Any reader here have a good solution for that?**  It seems a compound word, the start having some sense of walk or lane I’m thinking and the last part may have some water connection, but as it became hard to continue my focus, the meaning seemed to tumble further away.

And so there I was, days have past, and there’s no new audio piece to post here. It was then that it was like someone spread butter on all the fine points of the stars, and things started to slip.

The image of that exploding dam. I thought of Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie’s “When the Levee Breaks,”  a song about impending disaster. The Blues have their own Dadaist streak,*** but this song is one of those that has a fairly easy to follow plot: a singer who tells us that no matter what he (and others do) to hold back an impending flood, when it comes he will be driven from his home, child, and spouse. There’s an undercurrent to that story if you look at it a second time. He says he has a “happy home.” And surely this great flood (the song is likely a reference to a significant and damaging 1927 American flood) will be destructive. But why is he not taking his spouse and child and fleeing with them at the point when there is nothing else that can be done to stop the flood? Because he can’t? Is he an imprisoned worker forced to work on the last defenses against the flood, or is he racially or economically constrained to leave the area? Is it because even if he knows there’s little chance that his labor on the levees will keep the flood in check, he must try to his upmost anyway? Could it even be possible that he has absorbed the impending disaster in his soul and he’s ready to leave that all behind as the flood has “intended.” Maybe his happiness isn’t as certain as the awesome disaster is.

One could write a novel or short story from that song. In one’s imagination one might link that specific situation to other things. But let’s stay with the lyric impulse, the exultation of the moment.

My new diversion was to turn Ball’s sonnet into a blues. This freed me up to make some more audacious adaptations as I merged the feeling of the lyric of “When the Levee Breaks”  into another re-visioning of Ball’s poem. Doing this in a week of loud yet underexplained**** international explosions creeped into the resulting lyric too. Ball was writing his poem in 1924, but this week it seemed that a “a dove emerged from the cuckoo clock.”

Here’s the blues interpretation inspired by Ball’s sonnet:

Ghost Blues

The lights is on people, but it happens just the same.
The lights is on, happens just the same.
In the swaying nights, you can hear the flames.

Seems to run around, sometimes you see its face.
You see it time to time, see it face to face.
But when it’s got its trumps, likely to play the ace.

It’s careful with the ropes and pulleys, I can tell you boys.
It’s careful with those ropes and pulleys, I can tell you boys.
But no matter how careful, you can recognize it by its noise.

It’s busy at the spillway, white crown wavers in the wind.
It’s busy at the spillway, white crown wavers in the wind.
Peaks are trembling like a rooster’s comb when it begins.

I heard those shrill bells, there was spinning in the dust.
When I heard those shrill bells, there was spinning in the dust.
When the levee breaks, the dams is torn apart.

When the levee breaks, the ghosts begin to walk.
When the levee breaks, and the ghosts begin to walk,
I dreamed a dove emerged from the cuckoo clock.

You can hear me take it on with a quick musical interpretation using the player gadget below. In another week, it might be better performed, but it felt good to get it out during this one.



*Yes, some of my translation failures this month have been with Rimbaud.

**Even though my draft had a tentative idea for “erzene Haube,” I really couldn’t figure that one out either, even if I had put something down in English that I could develop as a comprehensible image. But what comprehensibility did Dadaist Ball intend?

***Part of Bob Dylan’s genius was to not only borrow from Modernist page-poetry but from the Modernist Afro-Americans and some strange folk-songs to create his revolution in song lyrics. Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart) also did this extensively.

If one wonders where are the Afro-Americans doing what Pound, Eliot, W. C. Williams, Sandburg, H. D. etc. were doing in the first part of the 20th century—well, the bards of Blues and the creators of Jazz were making their own revolution we are still incorporating and absorbing.

In terms of page-poetry, much of the Harlem Renaissance is still to come into public domain availability, but this insight was one I share and partially derive from them. Also, see literary figures like Fenton Johnson.

****Could it have been a poltergeist that Ball’s poem seems to be referencing?