What grows

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

I remember as a child being especially fond of songs with accretionary verses. You know, like the “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” “Children Go Where I Send Thee,” or “Hole in the Bottom of the Sea.” A collection of Pennsylvania German songs in the book Pennsylvania Songs and Legends (edited by George Korson, Johns Hopkins Press, 1949), which I picked up at the same used book sale where I found Gerard’s Herball last month, includes some charming examples. Here’s one I especially liked.

I have, perhaps foolishly, mucked with the rather stilted translation a bit, despite my complete ignorance of the source language. According to the modern German-English dictionary I consulted, the verb wachs-en (wachst) means grow, sprout, come up, extend, increase, thrive. This verb is dropped in the middle verses (in favor of is), then reappears in the last two. Though in the latter case I have elected to go with “lies (with),” the choice of the original (and possibly prudish) translators, I think the shared meaning-element of growth and extension is a key to the whole song. Complimenting this verb, the noun Hecke also occupies a pivotal position, and seems to mean copse, thicket, hedge, underbrush, and also branch or twig by synecdoche, as with the English wood (a cognate of wild) coming to mean lumber. This simple song speaks volumes about the pre-modern European way of seeing the forest. I’ll give the German for the first and last verses and for each new noun as it crops up.

Was wachst in diesem Wald? (What Grows in This Wood?)

Sung by Emma Diehl at Freiburg, Snyder County, Pennsylvania, 1938. Recorded by Thomas R. Brendle and William S. Troxell.

Was wachst in diesem Wald?
En wunderscheener Bí¢m.
Bí¢m in di Hecke,
Zwishich Lí¢b un Schtecke.
Was wachst in diesem Wald?
Hecke schtandee,
Das wachst im grienen Waldee.

What grows in this wood?
A very beautiful tree.
Tree in the thicket,
Among sticks and leaves.
What grows in this wood? A dense thicket.
That’s what grows in the greenwood.

What grows on this tree?
A very beautiful limb (Nascht).
Limb on the tree, tree in the thicket,
Among sticks and leaves.
What grows in this wood? A dense thicket.
That’s what grows in the greenwood.

What grows on this limb?
A very beautiful branch (Heck).
Branch on the limb, limb on the tree . . .

What grows on this branch?
Very beautiful leaves (Lí¢b).
Leaves on the branch, branch on the limb . . .

What is in these leaves?
A very beautiful nest (Nescht).
Nest in the leaves, leaves on the branch . . .

What is in this nest?
A very beautiful egg (Oi).
Egg in the nest, nest in the leaves . . .

What is in this egg?
A very beautiful bird (Vojjel).
Bird in the egg, egg in the nest . . .

What is on this bird?
A very beautiful feather (Fedder).
Feather on the bird, bird in the egg . . .

What is in this feather?
A very beautiful bed (Bett).
Bed in the feather, feather on the bird . . .

What lies in this bed?
A very beautiful woman (Dí¢m).
Woman in the bed, bed in the feather . . .

Was wachst in diesem Dí¢m?
En wunderscheener Schatz.
Schatz im Dí¢m, Dí¢m im Bett,
Bett im Fedder, Fedder am Vojjel,
Vojjel im Oi, Oi im Nescht,
Nescht im Lí¢b, Lí¢b am Hecke,
Hecke am Nascht, Nascht am Bí¢m,
Bí¢m in di Hecke, zwischich Lí¢b un Schtecke.
Was wachst in diesem Wald?
Hecke schtandee,
Das wachst im grienen Waldee.

Who lies with this woman?
A very beautiful lover.
Lover in the woman, woman in the bed,
Bed in the feather, feather on the bird,
Bird in the egg, egg in the nest,
Nest in the leaves, leaves on the branch,
Branch on the limb, limb on the tree,
Tree in the thicket, among sticks and leaves.
What grows in the wood? A dense thicket.
That’s what grows in the greenwood.

Two translations

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall


by Du Fu (712-770 C.E.)

A breeze stirs the small grass
as the night ferry’s tall mast floats by.

Stars stretch above the endless steppe,
moon bobs in the river’s sluggish current.

My name as a man of letters – how can it last?
My post – I’m old & sick enough to quit.

Drifting, drifting, what kind of life is this?
Caught between earth & sky, a solitary gull.



anonymous Pima Indian, 20th century

Shining Water lies
Shining Water lies
Mudhen goes wandering through it

come & see
how gracefully
he floats

An expanse of muddy water
for me to circle

laced with the greenest algae
arrayed in zigzags

it pleases me so much I pluck a strand
wind it around my head
encircle myself

My heart turns giddy
I wander in a daze
ai-ya my heart
an unbearable feeling
running toward this toward that
an unbearable feeling

A wind springs up
& carries me off
sets me down in the distant Place of Reeds

there the wind runs through
with a flute-like sound

there where songs are kept
forever fresh

Do you hear me do you hear me
the land everywhere resounding

dance on it

blow gently over it

a piece of eagle down
a wisp of cloud

go in


The Pima (Akimel O’odham) songs are my versions, based upon two sets of English translations – one word-for-word, the other slightly freer – in Ants and Orioles: Showing the Art of Pima Poetry, by Donald Bahr, Lloyd Paul and Vincent Joseph. Bahr’s detailed commentary gives the patient reader sufficient tools to turn his transliterations into something resembling poetry, although his identifications of plants and animals are often suspect, according to Gary Paul Nabhan (Cross-Pollinations).

The anonymous composers of these songs credited their inspiration to the spirits of the ants. The versions translated by Bahr et. al. were sung by Andy Stepp and Claire Seota on the Salt River Reservation, Arizona, 1972.

Flowerless flower

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

I thought for sure we’d get the killer frost predicted for the night before last, but the thermometer read 33 (F) at dawn; there was just one, little patch of white down by the stream. But friends in the valley told us it got down to 26 degrees there. I had picked all the green tomatoes and brought them inside to ripen, but now, who knows how much longer the growing season might last? Very few of the certainties about the weather that I learned growing up in the 70s seem to apply anymore.


Yesterday I cracked out my trusty Chinese character dictionary and attempted a translation for y’all. I have left the subject ambiguous, as it is in the original. (The standard interpretation says the poem is about a woman.)

Flowerless Flower
sung to the tune of a popular song with the same title
Bai Juyi (also known as Po Chü-yi, 772-846)

Flowerless flower,
Of mist yet not of mist,
Comes around midnight,
Goes away at daybreak.
Comes like a dream of spring: so brief.
Goes like a cloud in the morning sky: no trace.


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Honduran poetry


Dibujo uno
de Claudia Torres (Mariposa Amarilla / Yellow Butterfly, Ediciones Navegante, Austin, TX, 1996)

La tarde teje su silencio
en los pequeños bordes de las casas.
Esconde aristas abruptas
al son de la noche espesa.

Las vigas abrazan las soleras y sus tejas.
El amarillo de los rayos se encoge
hasta volverlas nada.

El ovillo azul intenso
se convierte en zumbido titilante,
suspira la luz de la mañana.

El ojo anhela;
apenas un reflejo en la profundidad interna
que batalla los sentidos.

El miedo salta victorioso.
Hace suyo el momento.
Tiembla, treme, tiembla.

El susurro es un largo grito sin ruido.

Sketch #1

Evening weaves its silence
along the narrow borders of the houses.
It conceals sharp edges
with the advancing sound of dense night.

The rafters tighten their grip
on crossbeams, roof tiles.
The last yellow rays dwindle,
return to nothing.

Skein of vivid blue becomes
an arousing hum, the light
of morning on its breath.

The eye hungers:
scarcely a single glimmer
in the deep core
at war with the senses.

Fear leaps up,
overwhelms the moment.
Trembling, quaking, trembling.

A whisper is a long scream without a sound.

Claudia Torres is a linguist and a native of Tegicigalpa, Honduras, born in 1951. In the above poem, I like the images of weaving, and the way its synaesthesia evokes a confusion of emotions perhaps best understood by someone who grew up under a dictatorship, where a midnight knock might mean two, almost opposite things.

Another poem by Torres, “Caballero de Noche / Gentleman of the Night,” includes the following explanatory note: “Gentleman of the Night and Love for a Day are the literal translations of flowers that are common in the author’s native country of Honduras.” This time I’ll put my translation first.

Gentleman of the Night

Shy caresses
all over my skin,
scent of cinnamon,
of guava.

In my tangled hair
there dreams
the dry stroke
of a tender hand.

Gentleman of the night,
love for a day,
lemon tree in blossom,
unpollinated orchid.

You went away,
and it was killing me.

Caballero de Noche

Sobre de la piel
caricias hurañas,
olor de canela,

En el pelo
enredado sueño
el sonido seco
de una mano tierna.

Caballero de noche,
amor de un día,
limonero abierto,
orquídea fallida.

Te fuiste,
y yo me moría.

Man doesn’t exist

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Last night I went for a walk around 10:00, and kept pausing to notice how the branches of various trees seemed to stretch caressing or imploring arms toward the second-quarter moon. A very thin cloud cover meant that the moon was virtually alone in the sky – Venus was just setting behind the ridge – and there were no shadows. I stood on the little wooden bridge down at the forks and listened to the stream for a few minutes, enjoying as always the braiding together of so many watery voices.

When I got back to the house, emerging from the trees I saw for the first time the dark hoop of the moon’s halo. It was difficult to escape the impression of a monstrous celestial eye. The pupil was small and bleary-yellow; it was almost unsettling. I found myself unconsciously reaching for my fly. What do I do with this? Oh, right – time for another leak.

Female readers might find this a little hard to understand, but most of us men have a deeply instinctual response to the threatening, the awe-inspiring or the liminal: we mark territory. (Ideally while whistling, or pondering baseball statistics.) I suppose I could have mooned the moon, but that would’ve made me feel utterly ridiculous. Well, I was ridiculous, of course – but that’s simply an existential condition. I pee, therefore I am. Or am I?

translation of “No existe el hombre,” by Vicente Aleixandre

Only the moon guesses the truth.
And it’s that man doesn’t exist.

The moon gropes its way across the plains, fords the rivers,
penetrates the woods.
It fleshes out the still warm mountains,
runs into the heat from erect cities.
It forges a shadow, slays a dark corner,
drowns in shimmering roses
the mystery of caves where no scent can be found.

The moon keeps moving, seeing, singing, going on and on without a pause.
A sea is not a mattress where the body of a man can stretch out all by itself.
A sea isn’t a shroud for an otherwise shining death.
The moon keeps going; it soaks, sinks into, gullies out the beaches.
It sets the calm green murmurs to rocking crazily.
The standing carcass of a man sways for a moment, wavers,
lurches forward – green – stays put – stiff.
The moon takes note of its broken-down arms,
its disapproving glare at a couple of cuddling fish.
The moon sets fire to sunken cities where one can still hear
(how enchanting!) the clear bells,
where the last echoes of the surf still ripple over sexless breasts,
over soft breasts some octopus has worshipped.

But the moon stays forever pure and dry.
It comes from a sea that remains forever a box,
a block whose limits no one, no one can measure,
a sea that isn’t a hunk of rock glowing on top of a mountain.

The moon comes out and chases what once had been a skeleton,
what once had been the blood vessels of a human being,
once had been its resonant blood, its tuneful jail,
its distinct waist that splits life in two,
or its light head bobbing on the breeze, facing east.

But man doesn’t exist.
Never has existed, never.
But man doesn’t live, just as the day doesn’t live.
But the moon makes up his furious metals.

I have always loved this poem, one of several by Aleixandre that I’ve almost memorized despite my very imperfect Spanish. However, I have always relied on the crutch of Lewis Hyde’s translation (in the bilingual A Longing for the Light: Selected Poems of Vicente Aleixandre, Harper & Row, 1979). Only this morning, when I decided to try and come up with my own version, pondering every word with the help of my trusty Spanish-English dictionary, did I discover just how inadequate Hyde’s translation really is. What seems to have happened is that Hyde assumes more randomness in choice of words and images than the poem in fact possesses – an understandable error for a translator of a surrealist poet, to be sure, but I have always felt Aleixandre to be among the most logical of surrealists. For example, Hyde’s version doesn’t really bring out what seemed to me to be fairly obvious sexual imagery in the second stanza. At one level, this is a song of sex and death, like so many poems from that brilliant generation that came of age around the time of the Spanish Civil War; the moon is like a witness or an accessory to a crime whose face we scrutinize for signs about what really happened.

There were some delightful surprises: “stiff,” which translates “inmóvil,” also of course means “corpse” or “person” (as in “working stiff”) – precisely the right nuance for an English version, I thought. The image of a block of immeasurable dimensions evokes, intentionally or not, the Daoist image of the uncarved block that symbolizes original purity. I also wonder why Hyde chose to translate “mar” as “ocean” throughout, considering that the moon has so-called seas, but not oceans.

I welcome corrections and suggestions for improvement. I’ve no great ego wrapped up in this. You can find the original Spanish on the web. Click on “escuchar la poema” to listen to a recording of Aleixandre himself reading the poem. (His reading doesn’t get very animated until the next-to-last stanza.)

I don’t want to analyze this poem any more than I’ve done already, but it does occur to me all of a sudden that my mission here at Via Negativa is to make unknowability as comprehensible as possible. Does that make any sense? I ask you!

Oops, gotta go take a leak . . .

Mysterious mountains

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

(Cue up Alan Hovhaness)

The search for universal themes in human psychology and culture tends to focus either on the most basic elements (sex, security) or the most abstract (hero-worship, fear of death). But I wonder if we wouldn’t do better to look at how humans relate to the landscape? Seeing how people of different times and places have related to forests or to mountains, for example, seems to reveal more similarities than differences. But even if this were not the case, the exercise strikes me as much more worthwhile than cross-cultural comparisons that focus on purely human realities. Hell, the latter approach probably does violence to most indigenous ways of understanding, according to which humans are far from the only sentient beings.

All this is simply by way of introducing a couple of translations from the classical Chinese. Poems celebrating cosmic mountains aren’t hard to find in the Chinese tradition. Both Li Bo and Du Fu – revered as the two greatest Chinese poets of all time – wrote poems in which mountains teach us how to see. In Du Fu’s poem, the first four lines of the second stanza of my translation (lines 5 and 6 in the original) have given scholars headaches for centuries. A totally unprecedented expression is, in the Chinese tradition, a very rare thing. Surely the poet couldn’t have meant what he wrote?

Gazing at Tai Shan
by Du Fu (712-770 CE)

This mountain of mountains – how
to put it in words?
Throughout Qi and Lu, a blue
that never fades. The Maker fills it
with power, unearthly beauty.
North face, south face divide
the dark from the dawn.

Heaving lungs
give birth to layered clouds,
straining eyes join the birds
returning to the peak.
Someday I swear I’ll climb
clear to the summit,
watch all other mountains
shrink into
a single


Jing Ting Mountain, Sitting Alone
by Li Bo (701-762)

Flocks of birds climb out of sight.

The single cloud journeys on alone.

Absorbed in each other’s gaze, never tiring,

now there’s nothing left but Jing Ting Mountain!

Memento mori

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

The Brutal Lovers (Los Amantes Brutales)
translated from the Spanish of Roberto Sosa

strangers came
from other worlds
to this ground that saw our birth.
We are the light they said without mincing words.

They came calculating
body count times betrayal, saying our friends.
They came to eat, ate everything and wouldn’t leave
this ground that saw our birth, men
of metal, of straight edges, they
the brutal lovers of Death.

to that Death!

(El llanto de las cosas, Editorial Guaymantes, Tegucigalpa, Honduras, 1995)


Prompted by an article in The New Yorker called The Casualty I take my cheap edition of The Works of Wilfred Owen off the shelf and begin to read. My god, what a poet! Contemporary of Rilke and Yeats and every bit their equal, killed in 1918 at the age of 25, one week before the Armistice.

The last poem in the book, “Strange Meeting,” describes a Ulysses-like journey to the underworld. No doubt the editors, by placing it there, had the same banal reaction as I did: this could have been a foreshadowing. It’s all here, the feyness of the poet who accepted his own death as the price for understanding “the pity of war.” Who knew his own poems to be beautiful, bearers of “truths that lie too deep for taint.” One does not dare to speak of sacrifice, but certainly Owen knew better than anyone what was at stake when he re-enlisted in August 1918, leaving the hospital where he had been recovering from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. Almost all his poems, including I presume “Strange Meeting,” had been written during his year-long convalescence. The slant rhymed AA’BB’ scheme is particularly effective in this context, like the shell and its aftershock, forcing a doubletake. Not quite the rhyme one had expected.

Strange Meeting
by Wilfred Owen

It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.

Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,-
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.

With a thousand pains that vision’s face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
‘Strange friend,’ I said, ‘here is no cause to mourn.’
‘None,’ said that other, ‘save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled,
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery,
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.

‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now….’


Anon. 14th century

Erþe toc of erþe, erþe wyþ woh,
Erþe oþer erþe to þe erþe droh,
Erþe leyde erþe in erþene þroh –
þo heuede ere of erþe erþe ynoh.

Earth took of earth, earth with woe,
Earth other earth to the earth drew;
Earth laid earth in earthen trough,
Then had earth of earth enough.

(Additional notes, including a possible interpretation, here.)