To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Monday, May 11, 2015

Inrasara: from The Purification Festival in April, with translation from Cham/Vietnamese & note by Alec Schachner

[from Inrasara, the purification festival in april, The Culture & Literature Publishing House, Vietnam, 2015]

                                                Cham (Vietnam & Cambodia)

Not a few friends have scolded me for wasting time on Cham poetry
is there even a trifling scarcity of readers? Will there be anyone to
yet I want to squander my entire life on it
though there may only be around a quarter dozen people
though there may only be one person
or even if there’s not a single living soul. 

One line of proverb – one verse of folk song
half a child’s lullaby – one page of ancient poetry
I search and gather
like a child seeking a tiny pebble
(pebbles that adults carelessly step past)
to build a castle for only myself to live in
a castle one day they’ll use for shelter from the rain – it’s certain!


Sunshine begins to warm the hills of April
starting earlier than many centuries past
when the ocean had yet to awake
earlier than all the memory of the elder ceremony priests. 

Earlier. The sun opened its warming rays
bright astride the ka-ing dancing master’s rattan rod
rousing the baranung drums still lying dust-covered in the attic
awake the crows of a pair of roosters waiting through the last
        night before their sacrificial offering. 

Faster. I see the sun breaking
athwart the footsteps of the shaman hurrying down the hill
even faster. I see the sunlight spilling across
no time for the dewdrops to linger in sleep
sunshine encircling the hair of a crowd of girls headed down to
        the river to get water, the columns of trees, the flat landscape,
        the multicolored garments, the sweeping calls to return to the
to build the ceremonial kajang

the sunlight falls catching at the folds of the old dancer’s mutham
flying across 365 days coated in the impurity of this world. 

The purification festival is beginning. 

On this same day this same month for everlasting millennia past
the same anxieties, infatuations, this uneasy waiting
only the repetition is present
the same sacred texts, hymns of worship are unfurled. 

Fire blazes red
red pomegranate flowers bought at yesterday’s market red Royal
        Poinciana flowers freshly plucked red summer sun
red garb red He
fire burned red into the labyrinthine skeins of every waiting soul
candles lit aflame many sticks alight glinting in the midday
before the door of the kajang there fire blazes red. 

He sees
He raises his rod up high, high above the old centuries
He flogs two feet, two feet taciturn since the dynasty past
feet that for 365 days only know to follow the plow’s furrows
feet that yesterday danced sluggishly to the rhythms of Cei Dalim,
        Cei Tathun
feet hardened by acidity. 

The Purification Festival is beginning
sound of the rite-master’s chants rumbling devotion the beating
        baranung booms
still not yet enough – the scriptural orisons recited
not enough for His contentment. 

Our storehouse is brimming with words - words worn and dull
full of words/ still not a single phoneme to praise delight
one word strives to soar up level atop the flames’ shoulders
level atop the purification festival. 

No more words to name. He roars out. The words fold their
       wings and slip away
only His roar floods the empty world 

A... U... M...
He roars out
the roar echoes to a buffalo herd grazing on a faraway hill
        straining to listen

wronged ghosts forgotten for a thousand years sit up from
        ashes and coals
flocks of birds startled rise up circling hastily and returning
as if afraid of vying lost within the wellspring of joyous

He has seen
the door of the heavens open like the embrace of his wife
        of previous lifetimes open
the fleets of monsoon clouds returning like a lock of his future
        son’s hair flying back
He spreads His arms
He steps forward, treading to match the mud-drenched feet
        of yesterdays

heedless the fires crackling along with the sounds of hands
        clapping ahei crackling
heedless of the ginang drums beating urgently pursuing
        chasing off fear
He transforms into fire He dances with fire He is fire
clean the final time, clean numberless thousands of more times
for the world a single time cleaned. Such it is. 

Swift. Swifter
smoke rises into clouds, human faces flock through clouds, hair a
        thousand strands of cloud, all space dimly pillared
        into titanic columns of rainclouds.
they are crumbling, crashing apart and about to toss down floods
        of rain. 

The Purification Festival in April has ruptured. He feels
the earth fracture, sound of the eulogies
shattering the jubilation of anticipating secrets hidden deep. 

Life no longer hesitates, no more wavering
swift, swifter
but slow too slow as if no possible way to be slower. He feels the
language of the hymns spill into millions of millions of cells
        living or dead
overflow and stir them awake never to let them sleep again all
the millions and millions of sprouts are stretching their shoulders
        to raise their heads. 

Steps stomping more sturdily. I see – more firmly
the world fragmented and rejoined by an urgent breath
the fire at its last gasp. 

He is cast out freed from the flames – his body covered with wounds
all the world wounded – only the smile untouched
            the bliss untouched
millions of millions of water drops fly down to extinguish a surviving
            spark straining to flicker one last time
extinguish misery, hopelessness on the faces. I see. 

On the far side of elation
Resilience untouched they begin to take root once again. 

Bis bis wok wok
once more people move
once more once more life moves. 

translator’s note. This collection represents a broad range of Inrasara’s poetic oeuvre to date, tracing his diverse journeys through storytelling, his forays into a varying array of narrative modes and transitions through lyric and narrative verse. Like all great storytellers, Inrasara pulls from a wide network of experience, weaving together the past and the present into a tapestry of the personal and collective, blending the real and the mythical. Wandering across history, literature, folklore, music, philosophy, Hinduism, Buddhism, pop culture, myth, war, peace, harvest, community, tradition, dream, language, ritual, epic and the everyday, Inrasara’s poems sing not only the song of the Cham people in modern Vietnam, but also of all human experience – of our imagining of self and of the myriad innermost emotional lives of globalization and modernity.  Deeply rooted in his readings of the Cham epics, Inrasara’s verse somehow also resonates with the flowing lines of Whitman and Hughes, a montage of human experience and insight, capturing essences both singular and universal. 

Inrasara’s use of the Vietnamese language is highly complex and philosophical, and naturally impossible to translate into English to its full extent. All Cham language terms have been italicized and left in the original, with an index of notes provided at the back of this book. This collection meanders through the languages of the classic Cham and Vietnamese epics, colloquial Cham, modern Vietnamese, Sino-Vietnamese, Sanskrit, classical Chinese, Zen philosophy, folksong, physics, ecology and beyond.  Through use of linguistic elements which do not exist in English, such as bound morphemes and a complex pronoun address system, Vietnamese contains a multitude of subtleties which are essentially untranslatable. I have attempted to retain the original flow of the language wherever feasible, translating on a line-to-line basis when able and often retaining the Vietnamese order of information, to stay as true to the original narrative architecture as possible. I hope that the reader will find this bilingual edition not only a guidebook to Cham culture, tradition and daily life, but also a useful tool to engage with the depths of the modern Vietnamese language. Inrasara’s epical lingual explorations wander through lyric verse to freeform, short odes to long narratives, across the geography of native land and soul, inviting the reader into a world both known and unknown, foreign and familiar, ordinary and wondrous.


Bryan Sentes said...

Very interesting post: how does one however come across this volume? Not even comes up with any results!

Jerome Rothenberg said...

note from Alec Schachner in response: "This volume is widely available at bookstores in major cities in Vietnam. There are select copies available at Book Culture (536 West 11th Street, NYC - and Berl's Poetry Shop (126A Front Street, D.U.M.B.O. Brooklyn - the translator can offer a very select number of copies for shipment this July (contact:"