It Isn’t Easy Being Green

An Italian pre-soprano adage cautions us: traditore, tratore–translator, traitor; the translator betrays the author. Indeed, rendering something from one language to another is no simple task.

Both our adventures in reading this week are in a real sense, translation. Each is from an earlier English language and sensitivity, one on the cusp of the Middle Ages, the other straddling continental and cultural borders.

Each “translation” is the retelling of something archetypal, taking us from early exposure–probably dating back to middle school–and framing the vision in modern clothing, allowing us to see simultaneously where we have been and where we may be headed.

The first of these adventures is “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” a work that could have been written around the time of Chaucer, but which seems not, as Chaucer was, to have been affected by the Norman Invasion.

Unless there is some mind-boggling discovery somewhere, it is unlikely we will even know who the individual was –if indeed it was a single author–that wrote the work. Scholars call him (or them) “the Gawain poet,” and let it go at that.

The archetype of Gawain comes out of the Arthurian legend, which seems to have originated in or near Wales. Depending upon who was writing accounts of the Round Table, Gawain was either an early promise of John Wayne or the Marlon Brando that terrorized Hollister as the leader of a motorcycle gang in “The Wild One.” Accounts from France tended toward the Brando version because of the ongoing plunder of the French countryside by knights errant.

“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is literally a fantastic morality tale. While King Arthur and his knights are feasting about the famed round table, the mysterious Green Knight appears, scoffs their entertainment and offers a game. He will accept one sword blow from any of Arthur’s knights provided that individual will accept a return blow from him a year and a day later.

Gawain, the youngest of Arthur’s knights, accepts the terms of the game, whereupon with one stroke, he severs the knight’s head from his body.

Imagine Gawain’s surprise when the Green Knight scoops up his severed head, reminds Gawain of their rendezvous a year and a day later, then goes riding off.

What follows is the stuff of chivalry (basically adventures and behavior of men on horses), the romantic tradition, and a peek into the culture of the Arthurian knights. There are some contemporary poets who could bring this thirteenth-century alliterative cadence to a more twenty-first century sound and sensitivity; Robert Fagles and Seamus Heaney come quickly to mind, but so also does W.S. Merwin. It is of his rendition that I write.

One way to get the sense of the meter of the original Gawain Poet is to examine some lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Looking at his poem “Spring,” we get:

thrush

Through the echoing timber does so rise and wring

The ear; it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing.

Hopkins’ so-called sprung rhythm helps shoehorn our ear back to the original Gawain text and meter.

Yet another way is to plunge into the original text, provided in the Merwin translation, then look at the magic Merwin has wrought with the strange-looking, no-longer-used letters and constructions of English as it was spoken and written then.

We read “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” to see how the bargain made with the Green Knight plays out, marveling at the bravery of the young knight over the seven hundred years of cultural shift, wondering at his thoughts as he seeks the appointed rendezvous at The Green Chapel, wondering about the symbolism of the color green, wondering about the outcome and the green girdle that is offered.

Gawain and the entire Round Table believe that as the year is up and the date with the Green Knight draws near, there can be only one inevitable result, and yet Gawain must go.

At so noble a one as Gawain going on that errand

To suffer a terrible blow and handle the sword no more.

Still the knight spoke cheerfully,

Saying, What should trouble me?

In the face of harsh destiny

What can a man do but try?”

The joy of finding out what and how Gawain tries, expressed in Merwin’s crisp and informed awareness of the nuanced complexity of the game, the bet, and the outcome, give this narrative a new, vital life and us a new, vital look back into the past.

The Body Electric Journal

Some poets have bad luck. Sir Thomas Mallory, for instance, spent a good deal of his time in jail. Paul Portuges is still able to spend much of his time in the classroom, inspiring UCSB or Antioch students, or at Peet’s, having coffee with friends. Or writing. His bad luck is manifest in the covers of his last two books, “The Flower Vendor,” and the latest, “The Body Electric Journal.”

Poetry publishers often reach for effect with cover illustrations that undermine the text within. Plain View Press has done Portuges no favor with its presentation of “The Body Electric Journal,” but once we are past that, we are in for another translation of sorts, an agreeable blend of formats that reflect interest and proficiency in text and image; short, pithy takes of awareness that flare up like matches lit to show us how much progress we’ve made navigating the depths of a tunnel. The poet has picked some rather remarkable tunnels to take us through, a kind of hip Virgil, demythifying the purgatory about us and showing us some prime spots as well.

“The Body Electric Journal” does what the title suggests, evoking memorable moments of awareness of the body in situations that range from amorous and erotic to frightened, spiritual, and political. These verses also show senses of irony and humor with which Portuges leavens so much of his political commentary. There is, for instance:

Knocked down

by skid row

all you want

is cardboard sleep

a clear night

drunken stars.

And:

After hot weeks

picking, shoveling

sleeping in junkyard cars

nos hermanos cross

the imaginary border

to their tossed away lives.

Portuges’ visions are highly visual; they vibrate like a silenced cell phone in a theater, letting you know someone is calling, making you want to find out who.