Sunday, 7 August 2016

A Sporting Chance for Brazil’s Finest Flower

 Carlos Drummond de AndradeAlmost 30 years after his death, the modernist poet, Carlos Drummond de Andrade is still regarded as Brazil’s greatest writer of the 20th century and his poem, A Flor e a Náusea – Nausea and the Flower - was read both in Portuguese and English during Friday’s opening ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

Drummond – despite maternal Scots ancestry – has hitherto been much better known in the Americas than Europe or the U.K. But I am convinced that the manner in which he is revered by his countrymen will now become universal.

I have spent an absorbing few hours reading about this truly astonishing personality and discovered that his prose works include Boitempo,  a book of poetic memories in which there is piece based on local legend,  The Uncomfortable Company of the Wandering Jew. Most intruigingly, the anti-hero is ‘Ahasverus’ – a variaton on the name of the Persian king who saved the Jewish community in the Purim story.

There are several available translations of the poem below and I rely on any Portuguese-literate readers to provide a different version if this one proves inadequate.


Nausea and the Flower

A prisoner of my class and some clothing, I walk, dressed in white along the gray street.
Melancholy and merchandise harass me.
Must I keep going until I collapse?
Can I rebel without arms?

Filthy eyes in the tower clock
No, the time of complete justice hasn’t come.
It’s still the time for dung, bad poetry, phantasms and hope.

A poor time and a poor poet
Melt together in the same impasse.

In vain I try to explain myself, but the walls are deaf.
Beneath the skin of the words there are ciphers and codes.
The sun consoles the sick but does not renew them.
Things. How sad things are, considered without emphasis. A flower bloomed in the street!

To vomit this ennui on the city.
Forty years and no problem solved, not even stated.
No letter written or received.
The men all return home.
They are less free but carry newspapers and spell out the world, knowing they are losing it.

Crimes of the earth, how to pardon them?
I took part in many, others I hid.
Some I thought clever, they were published.
Smooth crimes, that help one to live.
The daily ration of error, home-delivered.
The fierce bakers of wrong.
The fierce milkmen of wrong.

To set fire to everything, me included.
They called the boy of 1918 an anarchist.
But my hate is the best part of me.
With it I save myself
and give to a few a small hope.

Let the trolleys, busses, the steel river of traffic, keep their distance.
A flower still in bud
Eludes the police, pierces the asphalt.
Observe complete silence, stop all business,
I swear a flower grew.

You can’t see its color.
Its petals aren’t open
Its name isn’t in the books.
It’s ugly, but really--it’s a flower.

I sit on the ground of the capital of the country at five in the afternoon
and slowly pass my hand on this insecure form.
Beside the mountains, massive clouds pile up.
Little white dots move on the sea, chickens in panic.
It's ugly. But it's a flower. It breached the asphalt, the
ennui, the nausea and the hate.

© Natalie Wood (07 August 2016)

Monday, 4 July 2016

Yeats Saw This Coming

Even former British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Lord Sacks says the present worldwide political storm is like nothing he’s seen in his lifetime.

“What we are witnessing throughout the West,” he  wrote in an article for the Daily Telegraph and distributed to his email subscribers, “is a new politics of anger” that is hitting all western democracies, including the United States.

W B YeatsBut then in part illustration of his point, Rabbi Sacks did not use a Jewish source but remarked: “W B Yeats’s vision has come to pass. The centre no longer holds. Things fall apart. Anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

The phrase comes from the Irish Nobel laureate’s 1919 poem The Second Coming which has no Christian allusion but whose ‘rough beast’, suggests Nick Tabor in The Paris Review, is intent on wreaking universal havoc.

Tabor continues: “Yeats began writing the poem in January 1919, in the wake of the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and political turmoil in his native Ireland. But the first stanza captures more than just political unrest and violence. Its anxiety concerns the social ills of modernity: the rupture of traditional family and societal structures; the loss of collective religious faith, and with it, the collective sense of purpose; the feeling that the old rules no longer apply and there’s nothing to replace them.” These words, I suggest most respectfully, could well be those of Rabbi Sacks!

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?


© Natalie Wood (04 July 2016)


Monday, 16 May 2016

The Right to Write in a Small, Still Voice

imageCharles Adès Fishman is a Pulitzer Prize nominated Jewish poet who lives in the United States. Smita Sahay, young enough to be his daughter, is an Indian English-language writer based in Mumbai.

The chances of their coming into contact, let alone enjoying  a  shared professional  commitment would once have been laughably small. But they’ve been somehow  conjoined by a terrible incident that  occurred in Delhi during December 2012.

Indeed, Sahay became only one of thousands of horrified citizens who marched the streets in protest at the gang-rape and murder of Jyoti ‘Damini' Singh Pandey.image 

It was then, she told The Indian Express, that she first developed the idea of an anthology of Indian-US verse that would address the huge array of social ills affecting women from everyday sexism and discrimination to heinous crimes like rape and murder.

She contacted Fishman after seeing his work at a poetry-writing workshop.

“His writing had a particular quality,” she says. “It was celebratory about women. It demands justice for social evils, and fits right in with the book I was envisioning.”

Then just as social networkers had first given Singh Pandey anonymity, so social media itself made it easy for the joint editors to get in touch with their contributors. Both say that one of their biggest challenges was a glut of material.

But nothing daunted, the completed work, **Veils, Halos & Shackles: International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women, was first released in India earlier this spring and includes 250 poems from more than two dozen countries. Many contributors are victims of gender crimes, others have witnessed them, first-hand.

Several men – including Fishman – are included in the collection. But, as Fishman  took pains to point out when he gave an extensive reading in Tzfat, northern Israel yesterday, the back story to the project has a wicked sting in its tail.

The rear jacket ‘blurb’ of the fine edition published by Kasva Press  insists that the collection “speaks to a global audience and gives a voice to the millions whose outcries have been silenced.”

That’s every woman bar one.

Fishman and Sahay have been actively prevented from using the work of the late Afghani poet, Nadia Anjuman, who it is generally believed, was murdered by her husband in an ‘honour killing’ for daring to write against his express command. Instead, Anjuman’s name is published, along with the title The Silenced, on a blank page in the book.


I have chosen the following poet and her piece as random illustration of the book’s contents.

Rita Malhotra is a mathematician and poet who believes women have been marginalised for too long. “Their bitterness at being exploited, day in and day out, naturally arouses the woman in me. Poetry is my medium, and I use it to reach out to others and awaken them to a woman’s sensibility. So one aspect of my writing is an emotional response to my social thought.”


we were brought up
by the rule book
that spelt love for us daughters
as immoral, infidel,
masked, contagious
dreams were cached
within constrained confines
the self remained dwarfed —
bonsai like —
unable to reach beyond its grasp
but a moment of wild defiance
unleashed a tempestuous will
to self-expression
i followed love’s trail
scanning the horizon of darkness
to arrive at the moonlit patch
of a perplexed night —
a night that witnessed
love’s intimate dance
in the sensual celebration of
intimacy between
soul, mind and body
with the first footfall of dawn
i tore all pages
of the book of norms
made paper-flowers out of them
this morning they have metamorphosed
into golden-orange chrysanthemums


image** Veils, Halos & Shackles, edited by Charles Fishman & Smita Sahay, is published by the Kasva Press @ US $24.95 (£17.50; ₪120 approx).


© Natalie Wood (16 May 2016)

Sunday, 8 May 2016

The DNA Election, 2016

With apologies to the Israeli poet, Zelda (Shneurson Mishkowsky)


Digital Camera



Everyone has a name for it.

They imbibe it from their mum,

who absorbed it from her mum,

dad and the great-great dodo,


Digital Camera

Everyone has a name for it.

They utter it in praise to their

favourite household god.

The one with ears that sling

a deaf ‘un; a nose that can’t

smell a rat and eyes so dim

they deny the very stumbling

block that trips him up.

Everyone has a name.

Too many to recite here.




They hurt like hell -

those wordy sticks, stones

chucked by thugs in streets;

yobs on soccer stands,

snobs at posh dinners;

tramps in parks, fellow-

travellers on trams; preachers

on pulpits; delegates at

talk-shops where a little

lingering fug clouds judgment,

distorts reason, snaps minds

most superior quite severely shut.



But for Jews, the first to

grasp there’s an unknowable,

ineffable Name, the ancient

profanities are forever

the blindingly obvious,

name-shaming same.

© Natalie Wood (08 May 2016)

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Few Bees; Many Bonnets!

Even as Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales was advising the world how to deliver Hamlet’s best known lines, I was reading an anthology of bee poems.

ThIf Bees Are Fewe compilation** is certainly fit for a prince who’s ultra keen about conservation and who would be thrilled to learn that all book sales are to fund entomological research at the University of Minnesota, USA.

It’s a lovely if whimsical volume – a thoroughly engaging read - whose philosophy is aired early on, first by environmentalist, Bill McKibben and then journalist and poet, James P Lenfestey, who edited the collection.

McKibben, in his foreword, suggests that the swift and immense numbers of bee deaths in recent years is a “kind of early warning system” that conveys bad news about  how new chemicals, new weather and new patterns of habitation are adversely affecting the earth; putting society out of balance.

His view has been unknowingly echoed by Israeli Rabbi Natan Slifkin, director of the Biblical Museum of Natural History in Beit Shemesh,  who writes in his blog, Rationalist Judaism:

Bees in many countries are currently suffering from colony collapse disorder. The reasons for this are not well understood. It has been attributed to parasites, disease, pesticides, cellphone radiation, and a host of other problems. Some suggest that it’s due to the bees having allergies – they always have hives (ba-da-bum!). But it is generally thought that, whatever is causing colony collapse disorder, the reasons why bees are especially susceptible is that domesticated bees today do not have sufficient genetic diversity to cope with these threats. In order for bees to successfully cope with problems, they need genetic diversity – which means that bees must not be perfect, uniform, carbon copies of each other. This used to always be the case – despite the ostensible appearance of perfect uniformity, there is genetic variation in bee colonies. But domestic bees today are all descended from a very limited starter group. There is therefore very little genetic diversity, which renders them especially vulnerable to problems. It’s the artificial farming of bees that put them through a genetic bottleneck and made them too uniform.”

So I’m curious why there is no direct reference to any biblical bee stories like Samson’s riddle (Judges 14: 8) or acknowledgement that the great woman warrior-judge Deborah’s name actually means bee.

Instead it is left to Josephine Dickinson in B to ponder “when did you eat honey from the carcass of a lion?”

But the collection is named after a line from a verse by a yet more celebrated woman poet named ‘Dickinson’ - American ‘Emily Dickinson who wrote:

Part Two: Nature



To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,—

One clover, and a bee,

And revery.

The revery alone will do

If bees are few.

Osip.MandelstamBut I  close instead with a personal favourite by the Polish-Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam:

The Necklace

Take, from my palms, for joy, for ease,
A little honey, a little sun,
That we may obey Persephone’s bees.

You can’t untie a boat unmoored.
Fur-shod shadows can’t be heard,
Nor terror, in this life, mastered.

Love, what’s left for us, and of us, is this
Living remnant, loving revenant, brief kiss
Like a bee flying completed dying hiveless.

To find in the forest’s heart a home,
Night’s never-ending hum,
Thriving on meadowsweet, mint, and time.

Take, for all that is good, for all that is gone,
That it may lie rough and real against your collarbone,
This string of bees, that once turned honey into sun.


Since emigrating to Israel, Leave This Song BehindI have become re-acquainted with teenagers while serving as a volunteer English language mentor to local bagrut (matriculation) school students. I never cease to be astounded by how well they speak English, largely – they insist! - from watching English language television and movies.

Now I’ve enjoyed an entertaining  hour or so reading a selection of poetry by equally articulate US teenagers** in an anthology compiled by Stephanie H Meyer and her husband, John.

As a mere Brit I had not previously heard of the Meyers’ work and so was fascinated to discover that paradoxically, Teen Ink is more than 25 years old, during which period the Meyers and their colleagues have published the work of more than 55,000 teens. Leave This Song Behind is their first all-verse anthology.

Just as I received my copy, I saw an interview with the British teacher and poet, Angela Topping explaining how she encourages her students to love, not fear poetry.

“Poetry”, she says, “is brilliant for reluctant readers because a poem is a complete text and gives an instant hit. I don’t approve of cheap laugh type poetry for children though. I think they deserve the best and they should have choice by being given excellent anthologies. I loved William Blake, Walter de la Mare, Eleanor Farjeon and Milton when I was 8. Reading and hearing good poems is a sensuous thrill and even babies enjoy patterns in language.”

The collection, with a foreword by Todd (‘The Wave’) Strasser, includes about one hundred of the poems that have been published in the magazine during the past five years. Believe me, far from being scared off poetry, the young contributors are most auspiciously adept at what they do.

I conclude with another paradox: the first poem in the collection is Clothesline by Ariel Miller who explains that he wrote the piece about “other people’s lives during a year when two friends and I challenged ourselves to write a poem every day.” Now, that’s writerly commitment!


She liked to sit in the backyard

And watch the neighbor's laundry

Swing on the clothesline, crisp pale

Blue button-downs of the husband

Wrinkling in the half-wind, Summer

Sighing across the silky surface of

The twisting sundress, first one way,

Then the other, like soft hips

Swinging, one way, then the

Other, and when they were just

Washed and still wet they would

Flap and flick beads into the grass

That would flash fast down like

Little silver raindrops, one way,

Then the other.

** If Bees Are Few: A Hive of Bee Poems is to be published by  the University of Minnesota Press on May 30  2016 @ $24.95 (£17.25;  ₪94.00 approx.).

**  Leave This Song Behind is published by @ $12.95 (£8.90; ₪48.60 approx.).

© Natalie Wood (28 April 2016)

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Israel: Poetic Friends and Enemas

Benny ZifferI have just spent a fruitless half-hour searching for an English translation of any poetry by the Israeli writer, Benny Ziffer.

But it’s as well  that I’ve drawn a blank because if his poetry is anything like his journalism, this blog would be swiftly boycotted by any and all decent-minded writers between Metulla, northern Israel and Manchester, U.K.

Ziffer, who holds twin Turkish-Israeli nationality, is the long-time literary editor of the left-wing Israeli newspaper, Haaretz. He  has caused universal outrage by appearing both to condone and actively encourage paedophilia in the name of art.

According to Haaretz’s political polar opposite, Israel Hayom, 90 poets have so far vowed to boycott this year’s Metulla Poetry Festival  while Ziffer remains as its artistic director. This follows a column in which he allegedly stated that “artists must be allowed ‘base and primal’ experiences -- including sleeping with young fans”.

Indeed, this current week is proving to be quite shameful for Israeli artistic endeavour. Israel Hayom was also among many news outlets to report that a performance artist named Ariel Bronz ‘created a storm’ at  Sunday’s Haaretz Cultural Conference by inserting an Israeli flag into his rectum while on stage! Bronz was later questioned under caution on suspicion of breaking Israel’s Flag Law but was later released on bail.

© Natalie Wood (09 March 2016)

Monday, 22 February 2016

What Katie Did First!

The year was 1988 and a 14-year-old London school girl named Kate Moss was on her first fashion shoot. 
Photographer Owen Scarbiena advised: 'Pretend you're bored waiting at the bus stop." The rest became international fashion history and the early pictures snapped by Scarbiena are now on display at the Zebra One Art and Photography Gallery, London.

Bus Stop

Gimme your best pout, love.
The sort you’d offer any
passing lout, pet.

Pretend you’re bored stiff, sweet.
It’s a rainy Tuesday after school,
doll. Lean like so against the bus
stop pole, let its metalled frame
lay you back; we’ll fast-track you
to the stars, chuck.

You’re desperate to ape cool,
hon’. Let me see you drop that
lower lip; the one that as a rule
makes Mum itch to slap your
bloody face, scrub off all trace
of forbidden fun.

Try ‘fed up’, dear; the already
twice around the block; done
it all; ‘I’m past fourteen; don’t
nag; I’ll snort it up, spit it out –
nothing tastes as good as
skinny feels’ look.

But when you’re forty-plus
and suddenly understand
that all flesh is grass, you’ll
pout again, love. 
This time, for real.

© Natalie Wood (22 February 2016)