Up here in the High Doganate, things are constantly falling out of books: bookmarks, clippings, author photos, Mass cards, old letters. … The names and field positions for a casual cricket team I once captained that called itself “Famous English Murderers.” … Pressed leaves and flowers. … A recipe from Mrs Balbir Singh. … Picture of an old girlfriend. … It is really not the world’s most efficient filing system.
A couple of weeks ago I attended a little lecture-and-social to celebrate the acquisition of Marshall McLuhan’s working books (some thousands of them) by the Thomas Fisher Library in Toronto, here. I enjoyed the slide show on the ephemera that fell out of his books. McLuhan’s son, Eric, is an old friend, and Eric’s son, Andrew, had the nightmare of cataloguing it all. (Little baby Andrew how he’s grown!)
Our great Canadian sage of “media” — and a real one, I might add — is himself also distantly remembered by me. He had a secretary who could remember where he’d put everything, but there are limits to all human understanding, and I doubt she could have told him in which of four or more heavily-annotated copies of Finnegans Wake he had entered some item of marginalia.
My own method of filing is to throw things out. This creates an impressively ordered environment, and saves time searching. No matter how clearly I can recollect some document, I can be reasonably sure it is gone. But in the course of discarding, I’m inclined to overlook anything that is hidden from immediate view. Well, that is enough on my filing system.
One thing omitted from my initial list, was poems in translation. It is something I do, like doodling, or knitting. Another old friend, with rather more gifts, shares this peculiar hobby, and we sometimes exchange our frivolous effusions. Indeed, George Jonas, for that is his name, got a whole book out of such efforts, which was published two years ago under the title, The Jonas Variations: A Literary Seance.
Now, George can speak and understand innumerable languages, and translate from one to another with facility. He is Hungarian after all. Whereas, I’m still working on my English. Therefore, unlike him, I specialize in translating from languages that I do not understand. Sometimes I use dictionaries. Sometimes I avail myself of other cheats. Sometimes I just wing it. (In my twenties, I actually won a prize for a poem-in-translation I had simply wung. Apparently the judges couldn’t read the original, either.)
Having nothing else on my mind today, with which to construct a more intelligent Essay, I attach below the latest but one of my translation efforts, to fall out from between the pages of an old book. (In fact, I’m beginning to think I can keep this website going for some time, in this way.) It is a sequence of ghazal — a Persian poetical form of short, Twitter-length couplets, in Sufi mystical relation with each other. These are by “Fena” (a pseudonym; forgotten his real name). Written in Urdu at Lahore during the Mughal dynasty, a few centuries ago (or so I would guess off the top of my head):
You came and peopled with desires
My heart that was so long deserted.
The path led into the thorns,
The one that had looked so easy.
If there is no burning in their chests,
How can we call them fully human?
The lips of the buds had hardly opened,
The gusts of autumn took them away.
The endless thirst that we must quench:
Who knows whither we are going?