# 005/ Babylonische Leiter


A Test of Poetry

Charles Bernstein

 

What do you mean by rashes of ash?  Is industry
systematic work, assiduous activity, or ownership
of factories?  Is ripple agitate lightly?  Are
we tossed in tune when we write poems?  And
what or who emboss with gloss insignias of air?  

Is the Fabric about which you write in the epigraph
of your poem an edifice, a symbol of heaven?

Does freight refer to cargo or lading carried
for pay by water, land or air?  Or does it mean
payment for such transportation?  Or a freight
train?  When you say a commoded journey,
do you mean a comfortable journey or a good train
with well-equipped commodities?  But, then, why
do you drop the 'a' before slumberous friend?  And
when you write, in "Why I Am Not a Christian"
You always throw it down / But you never
pick it up — what is it?  

In "The Harbor of Illusion", does vein
refer to a person's vein under his skin or
is it a metaphor for a river?  Does lot
mean one's fate or a piece of land?  
And does camphor refer to camphor trees?  
Moreover, who or what is nearing.  Who or
what has fell?  Or does fell refer to the
skin or hide of an animal?  And who or what has
stalled?  Then, is the thoroughfare of
noon's atoll an equivalent of the template?  
                                        
In "Fear of Flipping" does flipping mean
crazy?  

How about strain, does it mean
a severe trying or wearing pressure or
effect (such as a strain of hard work),
or a passage, as in piece of music?  
Does Mercury refer to a brand of oil?

In the lines
shards of bucolic pastry anchored
against cactus cabinets, Nantucket buckets
could we take it as — pieces of pies
or tarts are placed in buckets (which
are made of wood from Nantucket)
anchored against cabinets (small
rooms or furniture?) with cactus?  

What is nutflack?  

I suppose the caucus of caucasians
refers to the white people's meeting
of a political party to nominate candidates.
But who is Uncle Hodgepodge?  
And what does familiar freight
to the returning antelope mean?  

You write, the walls are our floors.
How can the walls be floors if the floors
refer to the part of the room which forms
its enclosing surface and upon which one
walks?  In and the floors, like balls,
repel all falls — does balls refer to
nonsense or to any ball like a basket ball
or to guys?  Or to a social assembly for
dancing?  Falls means to descend
from a higher to a lower
or to drop down wounded or dead?  
But what is the so-called overall
mesh?

Is the garbage heap the garbage heap
in the ordinary sense?  Why does
garbage heap exchange for so-called
overall mesh?  Since a faker is
one who fakes, how can
arbitrary reduce to faker?  

Who or what are disappointed
not to have been?
 
Does frames refer to form, constitution,
or structure in general?  Or to a
particular state, as of the mind?  

In the sentence,
If you don't like it  
colored in, you can always xerox it
and see it all gray
— what is it?  What does
colored in mean?  

A few lines later you write,
You mean, image farm when you've got bratwurst
Does bratwurst refer to sausage?  
Does the line mean — the sausage
you saw reminded you of a farm which you imagined?

Does fat-bottom boats refer to boats with thick bottoms?
Is humble then humped used to describe the actions of one
who plays golf?  In the phrase a sideshow freak
the freak refers to a hippie?  Sideshow refers to secondary
importance?  Or an abnormal actor in the sideshow?
Then, who or what is linked with steam of pink.  And
how about the tongue-tied tightrope stalker
does the stalker refer to one who is pursuing
stealthily in the act of hunting game?  The stalker
is a witness at first and then a witless witness?  

You write The husks are salted:
what kind of nut husks can be salted for eating?  
What does bending mean — to become curved,
crooked, or bent?  Or to bow down in submission
or reverence, yield, submit?  Does bells
refer to metallic sounding instruments or
a kind of trousers?  

Just a few lines later you have the phrase
Felt very poured.  Who felt poured?  Toys?  
Is humming in the sense of humming a song?  
Stepped into where?  Not being part of what?  

In "No Pastrami" (Walt! I'm with you in Sydney / Where
the echoes of Mamaroneck howl / Down the outback's
pixilating corridors) — does the pastrami refer
to a highly seasoned shoulder cut of beef?  Is  
Mamaroneck a place in the U.S. where wild oxes howl?  
I take it corridors refers to the passageway
in the supermarket?  Could I read the poem as —
The speaker is doing shopping in a supermarket
in Sydney; he is walking along the eccentric
passageways among the shelves on which goods
are placed; he does not want to buy the pastrami
as he seems to have heard the echoes of wild oxes
howling in the U.S. while he addresses Walt Whitman?

                                          
In No end to envy, does the envy refer to admire or
in the bad sense?

 

Übersetzungen

 

 

“A Test of Poetry” was written in 1992 and published in My Way: Speeches and Poems (University of Chicago Press, 1999). The poem is based on a letter from the Chinese scholar Ziquing Zhang, who translated poems from Rough Trades and The Sophist for Selected Language Poems (Chengdu, China: Sichuan Literature and Art Publishing House, 1993); quotations from the poems are italicized.  It seemed to me that Ziquing Zhang’s questions provided both an incisive commentary on my poems and also raised a set of imponderble yet giddy, not to say fundamental, translation issues. Several  poets have take up the task of translating this poem, and we here compile the results: Ernesto Livon-Grosman into Spanish, Collective à Royaumont dans le cadre de l’Atelier Cosmopolite into French (originally published as a pamphlet by Format Américain), Haroldo de Campos into Portuguese, and Leevi Lehto into Finnish.



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