Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Finding Straight Talk in the English Translation of a Modern-Day Psalm


Katy Giebenhain, Poetry + Theology Editor, Seminary Ridge Review

Four translated poems from SAID were included in the Spring 2013 issue of Seminary Ridge Review. The full 99 Psalms was just published in English by Paraclete Press. You’ll hear more about the book in the Spring 2014 issue. Here’s a taste of what’s to come. As part of a Paraclete Press blog tour this week, I would like to look at the text of the fifth poem in the book by SAID, the Iranian poet who makes his home in Germany, translated from the German by Mark Burrows. It appears on page 21. Poems in this collection have a relationship to the three Abrahamic religious traditions, yet are entirely their own.

let me be a water puddle
that mirrors your heavens
and murmurs your prayers
so that the cicadas might understand me
show yourself o lord
even if you have no other choice
than to come in the fierce coursing of blood
and take in the refugees
because every fleeing ends in your eye
even if those who flee forget you in their time of need
because only those who doubt in you
seek you

The “psalms” we tend to repeat most often are chosen for comfort, but that’s not what a psalm is limited to. It can bring us closer to God and closer to seeing ourselves as people of God in the world. A psalm can wear spurs. This psalm, thanks to SAID and to the attentive translation of Mark Burrows does not make nice. It also does not criticize or posture. This psalm, like the others in the collection, feels genuine and it offers what I crave in poems and in sermons: straight talk.

I appreciate the cadence and brevity. I appreciate the tolerance of a complicated God. I appreciate the tolerance of complicated people. A puddle is not grandiose or beautiful. It’s just a puddle. Familiar and small-scale. I appreciate the reminder that I should seek to reflect God, even to be aware of the idea of that reflecting, rather than to stay in the scope of my routines and identity. The emphasis is on the seeking. I love the combination of unending reflecting, back and forth, and the presence of cicadas without mentioning their sound.

Other examples of straight talk: acknowledging that we forget God, in times of panic. We doubt. But we are supposed to doubt. We are thinking creatures! Faith, in its broadest sense is meant to be a living, developing faith. I am relieved when reading the last two lines “because only those who doubt in you / seek you.” What about the art of demanding without being bossy? How does SAID do that? How does Burrows keep this tone?

I could go on unpacking each line of the poem, especially for the indirect tangents it sets me off on, but I mostly react with gratitude. Herzlichen Dank. Unpunctuated, this self-contained poem leads seamlessly to the next one in the collection, and to each of its 98 lean siblings, related yet distinct in their straight-talking wisdom.

Visit Paraclete Press at www.paracletepress.com/.
Visit Mark Burrows at www.msburrows.com/.
Visit SAID at www.said.at.
Visit Seminary Ridge Review at www.ltsg.edu/SRP/Seminary-Ridge-Review


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