On Saying and Meaningness

‘al-bidāyaẗu-l-mafqūdaẗu, The Lost Beginning

I painted it all tried to paint my thoughts / And caught so little / The world still grows it grows relentlessly / And yet there is always less of it
(From “The Old Painter on a Walk” by Adam Zagajewski, translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh, The New Yorker, 11-21-22)

Poetry! How do you translate it? I don’t know a word of Polish, but surely translator Clare Cavanagh has tapped transmissible gold from Adam Zagajewski’s poem? Look alone at how the transgressive run-on sentences evoke a perception of headlong welter!

Does winkeling out what a poem says shed light on what it’s “about”? A poet may say, “You’re asking the wrong question; the poem is about what it says. Just feel the burn, revel in the mystery!” Perhaps followed by tips on “how to read poetry.” My dinghy sails past these rodomontades with me lashed to the mast. Words that aren’t more than the sum of themselves are forgettable, and my project is to remember them.

Part 2 of Gilgamesh’s Snake (1) is titled ‘al-bidāyaẗu-l-mafqūdaẗu: “the beginning the lost,” i.e., The Lost Beginning.

(1) O master,
(2) don’t write history for nothing(ness).
lā tū’arriẖ li-l-^adami
Don’t write histories for no reason.
(3) Don’t say came who came
lā taqul jā’a man jā’a
Don’t talk about someone arriving
(4) and left who left.
wa ḏahaba man ḏahaba 
and someone else going away.
(5) Don’t draw back from eternity
lā takšif ^ani-l-ẖulūdi
Don’t let anyone glimpse that white shadow
(6) your pale essence.
called Eternity, which you cast.

Verses 5 and 6 say, “Don’t draw back from eternity / your pale essence.” Verb kašafa with preposition ^an means to draw back something like a curtain or veil, thus laying bare what it conceals, which in this case is “eternity” — ‘al-ẖulūd. The “curtain” sought by the speaker not to be drawn back is the apostrophized master’s “pale essence.” He’s a historian. In the Glenday-Iskander version (italicized), the historian’s pallor colors eternity, which is the shadow he casts. This gussies up an obscure conceit with razzmatazz, which may fit Borges’ notion that “a translator should seek not to copy a text but to transform and enrich it.” (2) But it’s also Transgressive. (3)

Postscript: I can’t stop fidgeting over that odd comma casting its shadow in verse 6.

Post-Postscript: I need a good calligraphy brush. The paintbrushes I improvise with splay and fudge the script hideously. I’m discovering that a brush is like string: you can pull, but not push it.

(1) Gilgamesh’s Snake and Other Poems, Ghareeb Iskander, Bilingual Edition, Translated from the Arabic by John Glenday and Ghareeb Iskander, Syracuse University Press, 2015. In text citations, the published translation is in italics beneath my literal rendering and transliteration.
(2) Jiayang Fan, “Han Kang and the Complexity of Translation,” The New Yorker, 1-8-18.
(3) My invented labels are Congruent (matches the source text fairly closely, with minimal liberties taken for readability); Omissive (suppresses elements of the source text without obvious justification); Expansive (adds interpretive structure or content not discernible in the source text but plausibly deriving from it); Inventive (carries the “expansive” element to a level not obviously supported by the source text); Transgressive (departs from the source text in a way that seems to betray the poem’s letter or spirit).

(c) 2022 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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Sensing the Presence of Vinegar: Food Poetry

Acrylic on cardboard. “Yoshino may be the only restaurant in New York that will slip cod semen into the middle of a very expensive tasting menu.”

(A squalid detail to put behind us: “vichyssoise” is misspelled in the review as “vichysoisse.” Slipshod, to be sure, but my esteem for Pete Wells’s writing remains intact. Even Homer nodded.)

Pete Wells said once that when he became restaurant critic for The New York Times he resolved not to write about food in a hackneyed way. Wells doesn’t seek umpteen ways to say a dish tastes good or lousy. That would be all about him and his feelings. He skirts foodie raptures as resolutely as poets shun sunsets.

— … Two mini-slabs of monkfish-liver terrine… are impossibly soft for something that has edges and corners.
— … Karasumi, mullet roe that is salted, pressed and aged into something that tastes like fish-egg ham.

What telegraphs the passion is disdain for low-hanging ecstasies in favor of down-and-dirty detail. Close naming of ingredients, process, presentation and ambience serves to instantiate food in a gustatory headspace shared with the reader, who stands to attention as if summoned by bugle before mysteries such as monkfish liver and cod semen.

— In late fall and into the winter, there may be shirako, sacs of cod milt in loose white coils over ponzu sauce.
— The rice will be just sticky enough to hold together for a few seconds on its way to your mouth. It will be just tart enough that you can sense the presence of vinegar without quite tasting it.

(Pete Wells, “Restaurant Review: Four Stars for Yoshino, Where the Omakase Stands Alone,” New York Times, 11-15-22)

(c) 2022 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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Less Democrazy, More Malumacy: El señor Fútbol señala al insigne artista colombiano

Acrylic on cardboard. ‘iḏā-l-mar’u lam yadnas mina-l-lu’mi ƹirḍu-hu / fa-kullu ridā’in yartadī-hi jamīlu (As-Samaw’al ibn ƹādiyā’)

“I will say something which is crazy, but less democracy is sometimes better for organizing a World Cup. When you have a very strong head of state, that is easier for us organizers.”

(FIFA secretary general Jérôme Valcke, 2013)

Nota Bene: The style of the benemérito presidente of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) is “His Excellency.”

(c) 2022 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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Is Soccer Sick? I Keep Hearing of Catarrh

Acrylic on cardboard.

“We all have difficult lives…”


Bent like Beckham, rich as Croesus.
This Bud’s for you, now let ‘em fleece us.
He marinated in the sauce,
pronounced himself the biggest boss.
“I’m fed up with your utter gall.
Zip it now and kick the ball.”

The arc of history tends to rhyme:
Look away, there is no crime.

Postscript: Breaking news from Colorado Springs, USA. Massacre at a gay club: 5 dead, 18 wounded, and counting.

(c) 2022 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Sober Soccer

FIFA’s president, Gianni Infantino, during his pre-World Cup news conference on Saturday in Doha, Qatar. Fabrice Coffrini/Agence France Presse — Getty Images.

“I feel 200 percent in control of this World Cup.”

(FIFA lord Gianni Infantino)

With four games per day in the opening group stage, all played in what is effectively a single city-state, Infantino said the movement of large groups of fans within such a compact environment carried greater risks if they were fueled by beer.

(Tariq Panja, “On Eve of World Cup, FIFA Chief Says, ‘Don’t Criticize Qatar; Criticize Me,’” New York Times, 11-19-22)

Two-hundred-percent control is a lot of clout. History is on Infantino’s side. Booze is recorded as uncorking a bit of hyper fan-zest in annals of the beautiful game.

(c) 2022 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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Hardcore Arabic: ‘Treble Formation’

firaq(un), ‘afrāq(un)

The language has astonishing sweep and granularity that are explicit and penetrative to a degree redolent of lore and legend. The open-sesame to Arabic’s magic for this English speaker is Wright’s majestic grammar. (1) Here, of an early morning on this date in this place, settling with a mug of coffee and oat milk into my ongoing tour of the broken plurals, I encounter the following:

“Sometimes there is even a treble formation; firqaẗ(un), a band, a party or sect…”

The “treble formation,” meaning the three possible plurals for the term, are: firaq(un), ‘afrāq(un), ‘afārīq(un).


Wright continues:

“Such secondary plurals can be properly used only when the objects denoted are at least nine in number, or when their number is indefinite.” (1)

“Properly used”: be still my heart. What this rule has in common with poetry is that it seduces with strangeness, yet eludes unspooling into paraphrase and applicability. What exactly are the “objects” to be counted? Bands themselves, or the individuals comprising them? But does it matter? What’s gleaned about another language culture’s approach to multiplicity is glorious: To describe several of a thing is contingent on the measure of its more-than-oneness.

It’s possible that Wright’s record on this point, as on others, is archaeological; the linguistic fact, however, and the wonder of it, stand recognized and felt. It broadens the mind and quickens the sympathies to take note of distinctions that fellow humans have made, and do make, in talking about their world.

(1) W. Wright, A Grammar of the Arabic Language, Simon Wallenberg Press, 2007. Reprint of the classic work first published in 1874, and updated in 1896, ii, 232, D.
(2) My character set is this: ‘ a ā A i ī u ū ay aw b t ẗ ṯ j ḥ ẖ d ḏ r z s š ṣ ḍ ṭ ẓ ^ ḡ f q k l m n h w y

(c) 2022 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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View from the Low Side of Town

Acrylic on cardboard.

My illustration is an abstraction derived from the layout of structures and spaces on my squat down by the Big Muddy. The turgid Waddy Loopy is a conduit of Texas Hill Country drainage that lumbers past me on its way to do a bay dump south of here. (See note.)

What a body wanted for his abstraction was clout: hard-edge pigment-power with boss saturation. What a body got was the loose-goose-dookie translucency of tinted water, aka acrylic. Fool, gesso up the cardboard first! Ignore that voice. The point of smearing cardboard is to smear cardboard.

Say “waddy” in Arabic, you’ve said the word for “river valley.” Guadix, Guadiana, Guadalquivir, Guadalete, Guadarrama, Guadalajara, Guadalmena, and yes, Guadalupe are rivers in old Spain. The “lupe” part may be from Latin “lupus” for “wolf,” a mashup from the elbow-rubbing of Semitic and Latin dialects in the good olde tymes. I christen my river The Guadalobo. The etymology has the pleasantly bogus plausibility of popular wisdom.

(c) 2022 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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The Charm of Sharm Is Lost Upon the Gentleperson from Sweden

Sharm el-Sheikh.

“It’s like being in Las Vegas, but somehow worse.”

(Swedish COP27 Delegate)

It’s possible the fossil-lobby-infested, desultory yak-a-thon held at a glittering tourist watering hole in The Tonino Lamborghini International Convention Center — let me repeat that for its delicious music: The Tonino Lamborghini International Convention Center — will sing from the same hymn sheet as the previous 26 COP-outs. The name of the tune is “What Happens in Sharm el-Sheikh Stays in Sharm el-Sheikh.”

Even the cloud cover of a sickened planet can have its silver lining, however. This one is the opportunity afforded to learn more Arabic, ever to be seized upon by your humble blagueur who is devoted to the monuments of poetry in this “infinitely rich and highly articulated language” of “a people so conservative and tenacious of antiquity as the Arabs.” (1)

The verb šarama (yašrimu) means to split, slit or slash something. Its verbal noun šarm (pl. šurūm), meaning cleft, crack, split, rift, slit, slot, can also be taken as a “cleft,” etc., in a coastline, hence the extended sense of small bay, inlet.

The title šayẖ (pl. šuyūẖ, ‘ašyāẖ, mašyaẖa(ẗ), mašāyiẖ, mašā’iẖ) comes from verb šāẖa (yašīẖu), to grow old, attain a venerable age. Hans Wehr’s first translation for it is an elderly, venerable gentleman. It has wide application as an honorific in various guises across the Arabic-speaking world. Sheik, adopted by English, is one of the 13 possibilities listed by Wehr.

Sharm el-Sheikh.

So in šarmu-š-šayẖi, which is “Sharm el-Sheikh” transliterated with case endings and the definite article assimilated to the sun letter, we have initially “the small bay of the elderly, venerable gentleman.” Shall we Vegas-ize Sharm el-Sheikh and call it “Sheik’s Cove”? Cocktails at 5 in the Rudolph Valentino Room. (2)

(“‘Like Vegas, but worse’: Sharm el-Sheikh fails to charm COP27 delegates,” theguardian.com, 11-11-22)

(1) The words are those of Sir Hamilton Gibb and R.A. Nicholson, respectively, quoted by A.J. Arberry in the introduction to his Arabic Poetry: A Primer for Students, Cambridge University Press, 1965.
(2) An old rule of proper composition says you shouldn’t number your notes unless you have more than one. Here’s the second note.

(c) 2022 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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‘A Writer Who Composed Prose Like Poetry’

Acrylic on cardboard.

Considering the toll it takes on me to construct a writing boiled down to within an inch of its life about something I think, punctuate it punctiliously, then figure out too late what I’ve said, much less thought, if anything, it got my attention when Darryl Pinckney said that Elizabeth Hardwick was “a writer who composed prose like poetry.” This doesn’t mean her prose was “poetic,” God grant. I prefer it to mean that her prose partakes of the “exquisite compression and technical precision” that Dwight Garner elsewhere attributes to poetry. That way in my dreams go I on the page.

Of several delicious reminiscences cited in the review of Pinckney’s memoir about Hardwick, there’s one whose sprightly wickedness on the part of a woman who loved gossip keeps cracking me up (note the parentheses; they enhance the mischief):

(“Gossip, according to Hardwick, was merely ‘analysis of the absent person.’”)

Then there’s this: “As Hardwick once put it, ‘Reading was such a wonderful thing that to have made a life around the experience was almost criminal it was so fortunate.’” That’s for you, cherished reader. You know who you are.

(Maggie Doherty, “”Elizabeth Hardwick’s Master Class on Literature and Life,” New York Times, 10-23-22; Dwight Garner and Parul Sehgal, “19 Lines That Turn Anguish Into Art,” New York Times, 6-18-21)

(c) 2022 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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‘It’s More Than It Initially Appears’

Curators have increasingly come to recognize the depth and complexity of Jennifer Guidi’s art. “It’s more than it initially appears,” said one museum director. Credit… Alex Welsh for The New York Times.

The comment attributed to a museum director about Jennifer Guidi’s painting reminded me of Mark Twain’s remark that Wagner’s music is “better than it sounds.”

“I’m thinking of color as a way to connect — a way to engage — that invites people into a sense of aliveness,” Guidi said. “More colors. More dots. More energy. More vibrant. More vibration.”

A bit of fun can be had with the dulcet, polka-dot-and-moonbeam language of this review. Where’s the harm? Gentle bemusement is the rhetorical reward when movers and shakers of the arts community rally around an artist in furtherance of the addition of zeros to her work’s financial accomplishments.

One of her paintings, “Elements of All Entities,” sold last fall at Christie’s for $625,000, more than four times the low estimate of $150,000 (her work sells privately for $100,000 to about $500,000).

“Till Sunbeams Find You (Painted White Sand, Orange, Pink, Hot Pink, Yellow, Turquoise, Lavender and Purple, Black Fill),” 2021-22. Credit… Alex Welsh for The New York Times.

“She is straddling the space between the spiritual and the hallucinatory… They’re very much these meditations on the ambience and the atmosphere of our West Coast environs — where the sky meets the sea”… “She quietly absorbs the world around her and distills it into meditative and hypnotic, often pulsating imagery.”

“The Various Planes on Being and Life (Painted Natural Sand, Red-Orange-Yellow-Blue-Purple-Dark Purple Mountain, Painted Black Sand, Yellow, Red, Pink, Green and Orange, Painted Black Sand, Blue, Yellow, Green, Pink, Black Ground),” 2022. Credit… Alex Welsh for The New York Times.

(Robin Pogrebin, “Where the Sky Meets the Sea: Jennifer Guidi Leans Into Beauty,” New York Times, 11-4-22)

(c) 2022 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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