Happy Old New Year

Posted on Friday, January 14, 2011, under ,

As it is called in the Orthodox Christian circles, namely Russian (‘Старый Новый год’). In Serbia they call it a Serbian New Year (‘Srpska Nova Godina’), and yes, you guessed it, it’s the new year celebration according to the old Julian Calendar, and which corresponds to January 13/14th of the modern Gregorian Calendar (in 20th and 21st centuries, that is). As Wikipedia reads
A large part of the population celebrates Serbian New Year in a similar way as the New Year on January 1. This time, usually one concert is organized in front of either City Hall or the National Parliament in Belgrade, while fireworks are prepared by the Serbian Orthodox Church and fired from the Church Cathedral of Saint Sava, where people also gather. Restaurants, clubs, cafe's and hotels are usually full-booked and organize New Year's celebrations with food and live music.
A traditional folk name for this holiday as part of Twelve Days of Christmas is Little Christmas (Мали Божић/Mali Božić). Some families continue with the procedures of Serbian Christmas traditions.
Being born and having spent my formative years in Belgrade in the 70’s and 80’s in the politically and economically highly experimental, and ultimately disastrous, style of Self-Governing Socialism, I look upon these festivities with a hint of nostalgia, but mainly as a outside onlooker, someone who has been out of the country way too long to be able to identify with its reawakened and ever-burgeoning religious rites, embraced thus by the population after 50-odd years of Church repression by Tito’s regime. It must be said, however, that repression was rather mild and half-hearted, and the Christmas and other religious traditions in the various regions of the former Yugoslavia were very much kept alive. I remember that even in those days people would greet each other during the Twelve Days of Christmas (January 7 – January 18), with ‘Hristos se rodi’ (‘Christ is Born’), to which a proper reply would be ‘Vaistinu se rodi’ (‘Truly He is Born’).

I recall wonderful, homely traditions such as the baking of a Christmas loaf česnica (roughly pronounced ‘chess-ni-tza’) inside which a coin would be inserted while it is kneaded. Once baked, the family members would break the loaf and whoever winds up with the coin is considered one lucky sod (the elders would often make sure the coin(s) end up in children’s hands). Here is a česnica I remember – sweet and crunchy – as it is made in Banat, northern Serbia where my folks come from:

This particular tradition has been extended to public events, i.e. česnica consumption on a large scale, which all fits in nicely with our age of austerity and empty purses. One such newly-cherished tradition is the breaking of a 50-kg česnica (the salty version) at Terazije Square in Belgrade. This year it took place last Friday, January 7th, on Christmas Day. The huge loaf was baked and delivered with three golden ducats hiding inside, the first of which found its way into the hands of a local pensioner, to everyone’s delight. Here are some pics from the event: from the all-smiles down to the last crumbs (courtesy of Beta agency)

Speaking of austerity and crumbs, this morning while browsing the B92 online (the famous Serbian media service) I come across this article about the findings of the organization called Gallup International who have been conducting global polls at the end of each year since 2000. This survey, according to their website, ‘is released around the world on the 1st of January, [asking] people whether they think the new year will be better or worse than the last one, both for themselves and for their country; whether they feel economic and employment prospects will be better or worse and whether the coming year will be peaceful or troubled’ [http://www.gallup-international.com/]. This year’s poll questioned 64.000 people in 53 countries. The citizens of Serbia are the greatest world pessimists when it comes to the overall expectations for 2011 (last year they were 3rd –placed on the pessimism scale). They are closely followed by Romanians, French and Icelanders. The biggest optimists are – would you believe it – Nigerians, followed by Brazilians, Vietnamese, Chinese and Ghanians. However, if you look at the BBC news page reporting on the same story [http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-12056250], you will find that it is actually UK citizens who are the most pessimistic about the economic prospects: 'The survey, conducted by leading pollsters associated with Gallup International, suggests the most downhearted country is the UK.' The article continues:
The UK was particularly downbeat in four key questions.
  • Will 2011 be a year of prosperity? UK - 8% Yes; World average 30%
  • Will unemployment rise? UK 37% Yes; World average 17%
  • Will you find a job quickly if you become unemployed? UK 17% Yes; World average 31%
  • Will 2011 be better than 2010? UK 23% Yes; World average 42%
Gallup says its findings suggest: "While wealth is still concentrated in Europe and North America, there is a shift in power and prosperity from the West of the 20th Century to the East".
To corroborate the above, here is the ‘employment fear’ chart from the Gallup’s Barometer of Hope and Despair 2011 (click to enlarge):

Interestingly, Serbia falls under ‘the countries less than 30% fearful of rising unemployment’ (24% to be exact). But this is more likely to do with the fact that the unemployment rate in Serbia is already at about 20% and it can hardly get worse than that now can it?! Dear me. The two countries I spent most of my life in, both with such rosy prospects. Would be interesting to see at the end of the year how right or wrong the respondents were.

Happy Old New Year

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New Year Poems, Resolutions

Posted on Monday, January 03, 2011, under , , , ,

Archaic Torso of Apollo  
by Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. Stephen Mitchell

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast's fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

A New Year's poem if ever there was one, as a mate of mine said. Yes, the call to arms for regeneration and betterment, if ever there was one. It’s the last line that really does it, and because of it a number of internet people, as well as certain critics, like to compare Rilke’s poem to James Wright’s

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year's horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

*You can hear Wright’s own rendering of the poem here: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/20112

Apart from the striking effect of their respective last lines, it is interesting that both poems contain a ‘head’ in the first line (I don’t think this was deliberate on Wright’s part). The critic A.Paulin went as far as to identify 'Archaic Torso of Apollo' as a direct source of Wright’s poem’s last line. This notion was demystified by Allan Williamson who at the same time admitted that
“…there is reason in [Paulin’s] error: Wright’s last line, like Rilke’s, forces the reader to go back and relive the previous, the apparently objective, part of the poem in order to come to terms with it.”
from Alan Williamson, "Language Against Itself: The Middle Generation of Contemporary Poets" (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard U P, 1984)
Wright’s source, as Williamson suggests, was more likely Rimbaud’s "J’ai perdu ma vie" [literally: "I have lost my life" or more fittingly ‘I have wasted my life/days] from the ‘Song of the Highest Tower’. Here is the first/last stanza:

Idle youth
Enslaved by everything,
By being too sensitive
I have wasted my life.
Ah! Let the time come
When hearts are enamoured!                   May 1872

translated by Oliver Bernard: Arthur Rimbaud, Collected Poems (1962).

Another version of the poem was published by Rimbaud in ‘Un Saison en Enfer’ (‘A Season in Hell’) in the ‘Alchemy of the Word’, chapter Delirium, in which he talks about hallucinations, the mind turning his words into visions, and – most importantly – the poet lying about idle,
“consumed by an oppressive fever: I envied the bliss of animals - caterpillars, who portray the innocence of a second childhood, moles, the slumber of virginity! My mind turned sour.”
So here we are: Rimbaud's persona idly lying about, envying the bliss of animals, James Wright's persona idly lying in his hammock, observing the apparent order in the animal kingdom, both wasting their lives. Wright himself has however described ‘Lying in a Hammock’ as the poem being ‘a description of a mood and this kind of poem is the kind of poem that has been written for thousands of years by the Chinese poets.
from Dave Smith, "James Wright: The Pure, Clear Word, an Interview" rep. from American Poetry Review (1980).

However, what Wright goes on to say in the same interview reveals his real concern with the spiritual waste in modern America, which he finds 'truly dreadful' and goes on to say:
“I have told my students that one of the most horrifying things to me is to stand, being my age, and look at a class of nineteen- and twenty-year old people who are trying to read a passage of, say, Milton or Shakespeare and to see their faces saying it is a waste of time. They don't see how precious their lives are."
Rilke’s 'Archaic Torso' ends on a high, emphatic note, Wright’s poem on a rather low, resigned one. It seems that Wright’s speaker, although realizing that there is an innate purpose to life be that what fills your day or what you come home to is not ready to fulfil this purpose himself. Perhaps the poem's last line's epiphany is a first step towards it. Rilke is embracing the pregnant forces of inner transformation with much more urgency, his poem so potent with unrealized beauty it's ready to burst on the page. Wright remains rather ambiguous, or put it another way, there is less intellectual fodder in his poem (and to its credit, it is not pretending to be intellectual), hence so many disparate, and at times desperate, over-interpretations of it.

It’s the New Year time, dear reader, need we be reminded of that? So, which poem works for you as the end-of-year wake-up alarm clock? Which one, if any, will go off in your little mind chamber? Do you have your own favourite New Year poem? If you do, let us know. Or would you opt for Rilke’s all-seeing torso aesthetically beckoning, as you heroically try to imagine its perfect head and limbs? Or would you go for Wright’s American bumming around on Duffy’s farm? You might also want to turn to another Duffy, Carol Ann that is, to her lovely poem ‘Snow’. In it you, the reader, are invited to visit a mystical thought-land of the dead (who have woken to meet you!), and remain there locked in. A scary prospect? Well, not that scary in fact.


Then all the dead opened their cold palms
and released the snow; slow, slant, silent,
a huge unsaying, it fell, torn language; settled,
the world to be locked, local; unseen,
fervent earthbound bees around a queen.
The river grimaced and was ice.

               Go nowhere-
thought the dead, using the snow-
but where you are, offering the flower of your breath
to the white garden, or seeds to birds
from your living hand. You cannot leave.
Tighter and tighter, the beautiful snow
holds the land in its fierce embrace.
It is like death, but it is not death; lovelier.
Cold, inconvenienced, late, what will you do now
with the gift of your left life?

source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/dec/24/snow-carol-ann-duffy

Cold, inconvenienced, late. Sounds familiar? Locked in this life, this half-life, this frighteningly beautiful iceland, what do you do? The last line harks back to Richard Wright’s words: ‘They don’t see how precious their lives are’.

Carol Ann Duffy has written ‘Snow’ as a British Poet Laureate. The 'most illustrious’ Poet Laureate, Lord Tennyson, is of course responsible for that phrase ‘ring out the old, ring in the new’. Here is the second stanza of "In Memoriam, [Ring out, wild bells]":

    Ring out the old, ring in the new,
    Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
    The year is going, let him go;
    Ring out the false, ring in the true.

The wild sky, the flying cloud, the frosty light: Tennyson’s statue in Lincoln, UK, December 20, 2010.
(source: Boston Globe)

Finally, here is my humble contribution, written earlier today.


These acorns here, my dear, I say
are beautifully spot on
on this footpath this special day our acorn
independence day.
You say donburi I say
isn’t that a famous dish you say
no I said don-guri
I say one slippy letter
on slippy surface makes all the difference
in Japanese
you say not a letter a sound –
yet call me Totoro instead
your hand on my aching belly
(filled with apple pie, wine, beans in couscous)
guess I am I say prematurely –
the slush has penetrated your slim black boots,
your sore toes render your eyes sore –
the wild boar I say it likes acorns too
you say really I say really
your eyes ask
will you still love me this year.
 January 2, 2011

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