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July 2004

Speaking In Tongues: Religious Literature

For the high travel season, WWB will take you on some inward as well as outward journeys. The divine is perhaps the oldest source of literary inspiration, and many-tongued. Yet our idea of religious literature has been cheapened by pious equivalents of pulp fiction. WWB offers renewal. Vijay Dan Detha's True Calling makes us think twice about true and false holiness; Paola Capriolo's Brothers retells the story of Cain and Abel with modern psychological insight; David Hinton's translations of Wang Wei and the late Jerome W. Clinton's translations of Sohrab Sepehri display the rich allusiveness and delicacy so abundant in the Buddhist and Sufi literary traditions, respectively. Peter Cole's translations of three medieval poets, Moshe Ibn Ezra, Yehudah HaLevi and Avraham Ibn Ezra, speak from the mystical heart of Judaism. In V. Y. Mudimbe's Shaba Deux, a young nun in Zaire struggles with faith in the midst of personal and social chaos. Not to ignore religious conflicts while we celebrate the harmonies, Richard Murphy translates and introduces a contemporary Pakistani sermon about the battle of Karbala, the decisive event in the rift between Sunni and Shi'a Muslims. In August, Part II will bring you more of this liturgy: both chapters and verse.

Illustration by Dina Pearlman, courtesy of Institute of Advanced Theology,

A cloudless sky, no breath of wind, I sit beside the courtyard pool. The slow stirrings of the goldfish, the radiance and I, the earth and water--- Life…
Translated from Persian
Let's not muddy the water. Imagine that close by a dove is drinking from it, or in a distant grove a finch is washing its wings in it, or in some village…
Translated from Persian
“Where is the friend's house?” asked the horseman just at dawn.The Heavens paused. A wayfarer took the bright branch from his lips, conferred it on the darkness of the…
Translated from Persian
A True Calling
By Vijay Dan Detha
Nothing happens to a story if all you do is listen. Nothing happens if all you do is read, or memorize word for word. What matters is if you make the heart of the story part of your very life. This story…
Translated from Rajasthani by Christi A. Merrill & Kailash Kabir
from Shaba Deux: Les Carnets de Mère Marie-Gertrude
By V. Y. Mudimbe
Sister Marie-Gertrude is the only black nun from Kolwezi in a French-run Franciscan convent in Zaire (now once again the Democratic Republic of Congo). The time period is that of the May 1978 uprisings…
Translated from French by Marjolijn de Jager
He Who Always Knows
He who always knows to which god he prays, will never be heard.
Translated from Polish
Buddha, Christ
Buddha, Christ, in vain you are hiding in so many incarnations.
Translated from Polish
Job’s Guilt
Everything was fulfilled, I was spared nothing. Who will forgive me.
Translated from Polish
Who Doesn’t Exist
Fear God who doesn't exist in your heart.
Translated from Polish
This Year
This year I bore no fruit only leaves that give no shade I'm afraid, Rabbi, I'm afraid, Lord, that a hungry weary man curses me on the endless road to Jerusalem
Translated from Polish
(from Meister Eckhardt or Zohar?)
nothing, God
Translated from Polish
Fragments from the year 1989
. . . Mute, my head covered, I stand with a pebble on my lips in front of a wall of fire and oblivion counted among the helpers of death . . . Take the ash from me, take the weight from me it's not…
Translated from Polish
Save Me, Guide Me
Save me, shield me, faithful journey, from my own lies and from our era. Protect me, you, Angel and Guardian, but you, White Cloud, guide me. Keep me from thunder, hurricane, immaculate truth, give me…
Translated from Polish
A Dove in the Distance
By Yehudah HaLevi
A dove in the distance fluttered,   flitting through the forest—      unable to recovershe flew up, flustered, hovering,   circling round her lover.  …
Translated from Hebrew by Peter Cole
By Moshe Ibn Ezra
Why is my beloved so haughty,     and why is He so angry with me?Before Him why do I shake like a reed?He's forgotten how I walked in the wildernessafter Him—and doesn't respond,…
Translated from Hebrew by Peter Cole
In Reply to P’ei Ti
The cold river spreads boundless away. Autumn rains darken azure-deep skies. You ask about WholeSouth Mountain: the mind knows beyond white clouds. From Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient…
Translated from Chinese
In the Mountains, Sent to Ch’an Brothers and Sisters
Dharma companions filling mountains, a sangha1 forms of itself: chanting, sitting ch'an2 stillness. Looking out from distant city walls, people see only white clouds. 1A community of Buddhist practitioners.…
Translated from Chinese
In Reply to Su, Who Visited My WheelRim River Hermitage When I Wasn’t There to Welcome Him
By Wang Wei
I live humbly near the canyon’s mouthwhere stately trees ring village ruins.When you came on twisted rocky paths,who welcomed you at my mountain gate?Fishing boats frozen into icy shallows,hunting…
Translated from Chinese by David Hinton
Mourning Yin Yao
Returning you to StoneTower Mountain, we bid farewell among ash-green pine and cyprus, then return home. Of your bones, now buried white cloud, this much remains forever: streams cascading empty toward…
Translated from Chinese
BirdCry Creek
In our idleness, cinnamon blossoms fall. In night quiet, spring mountains stand empty. Moonrise startles mountain birds: here and there, cries in a spring gorge. From Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry…
Translated from Chinese
Adrift on the Lake
Autumn sky illuminates itself all empty distances away toward far human realms, cranes off horizons of sand tracing its clarity into mountains beyond clouds. Crystalline waters quiet settling night. Moonlight…
Translated from Chinese
On Returning to WheelRim River
At the canyon's mouth, a far-off bell stirs. Woodcutters and fishermen scarcer still, sunset distant in these distant mountains, I verge on white clouds, returning alone. Frail water-chestnut vines…
Translated from Chinese
In Reply to Vice-Magistrate Chang
In these twilight years, I love tranquility alone. Mind free of our ten thousand affairs, self-regard free of all those grand schemes, I return to my old forest, knowing empty. Soon mountain moonlight…
Translated from Chinese
The Promise
I don't look over my shoulder, no idea where I'm going and not an ounce of fear, falling like fluff from an eiderdown quilt and piercing the afternoon air, real as an hour of solitude or the fragrance…
Translated from Slovenian
Karbala as Court Case
Karbala is a medium-sized city in central Iraq, recently the scene of violent clashes between U.S. troops and Iraqi militants loyal to the young Shi'a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. But for Shi'a Muslims…
Translated from Urdu
Two Poems
The Oracles of the Virgin Music is the art which is most nigh to tears and memory.–Oscar Wilde Buried inside us were the sounds of the words our parents managed to utter in the moment of intercourse…
Translated from Greek
By Paola Capriolo
Two brothers, the first two brothers. Conceived on the threshold of paradise, so to speak, when Adam and Eve, driven out by the cherubim with the flaming sword that turned every way, took up residence…
Translated from Italian by Lawrence Venuti
from Songs of Friendship and Love
By Pavel Lembersky
Snoopy Goes to KasimovI used to torture myself over the question, I was baffled by it: to what could I attribute the incontrovertible fact of my total lack of literary talent? A fluke of nature? Blind…
Translated from Russian by Jane Ann Miller
Unanswered Plea
I learn things by myself, which is why it takes so long. I'm asking you to be patient. That's not asking much. I learn by myself, learn to cross the village, it's not every day I recognize…
Translated from Slovenian
How to Read a Translation
By Lawrence Venuti
Among the many pronouncements that have shaped our understanding of literary translation, perhaps none is more often echoed than John Dryden’s preface to his version of the Aeneid. “I have…
Mourning Meng Hao-jan
My dear friend* nowhere in sight, this Han River keeps flowing east. Now, if I look for old masters here, I find empty rivers and mountains. *Meng Hao-jan was another of China's great poets and Wang…
Translated from Chinese