they call our pain to us from on high

Back in 2006, when I first started poetry blogging, I would occasionally blog about national poets. In a post on Rasul Gamzatov, the national poet of Dagestan, I lamented the fact that I couldn’t find any decent English translations of his work — particularly of his famous poem, The Cranes.  Behold, nearly three years later, a kind reader posts his own English translation in the comments section of the original post! You can also read the translation on his blog. Many thanks, Iosevich!

More on Mazisi Kunene

Hm. I have no idea how the world of obituaries works, but I raised my eyebrows at this Sept 19 LA Times obituary of Mazisi Kunene, poet laureate of South Africa, who died August 11 – more than a month before the date of the obituary! (Thanks to Silliman’s blog  for heads-up on the obituary). Did it take the news five weeks to get the LA Times, or were they just waiting for a slow news day? Readers of this blog will recall reading about Mazisi Kunene here on August 25 as part of our ongoing national poet project. UCLA plans a memorial service for him October 12. 

Mazisi Kunene – South Africa

Mazisi Kunene
Mazisi Kunene

OK. That was a long derailment. Back to the national poet project. Today we’re in South Africa, which instituted the institution of poet laureate in 2005, selecting poet and scholar Mazisi Kunene as its first laureate. He died this year, so presumably a new South African poet laureate will be named at some point. He was born in Durban in 1930 and studied and taught in South Africa, England and California. Kunene draws on Zulu culture and oral tradition in his writing, I read, with his main influences being the praise poem, the dirge and the war song. His seminal work is Emperor Shaka the Great: A Zulu Epic (which it seems is available on, an epic poem published in 1979. Originally written in Zulu, it chronicles “a legendary rise to power and greatness matching the feats of Napoleon and the Caesars,” according to one reviewer. Shaka Zulu was most definitely no-one to be trifled with – funny how great warriors and personalities often have difficult and humiliating beginnings (am remembering what I wrote of the Arabian poet-warrior Antara here a couple of months ago) and how the very elements that bring them to greatness also end up sowing the seeds of their undoing. A biography here says: Shaka was born circa 1787, son of a minor Zulu chief, but his mother was an unranked woman, and Shaka was a humiliated and discredited child.Shaka reorganized the Zulu into a military clan, and he soon made them into a force unchallenged in Southern African kingdoms.After 10 years of unrelenting warfare that placed incredible strains on the Zulu nation, Shaka, always psychologically unstable and obsessively worried about being replaced by an heir, finally snapped into derangement after the death of his mother in 1828. He imposed a year of celibacy on his people and executed anyone who did not show enough grief at the death of his mother. He was murdered within the year by his half-brother, Dingane, who succeeded him as ruler. He was 42.

Fascinating personality, he sounds like. There seems to have been at least one movie and one TV series about him. Some scholarly analysis of Kunene’s work, should you be interested. I couldn’t find anything but snippets of his work on the internet – sorry! This is the longest thing I found – very politically committed stuff, with some interesting imagery. No title that I could find:

By Mazisi Kunene

Was I wrong when I thought
All shall be avenged?
Was I wrong when I thought
The rope of iron holding the neck of young bulls
Shall be avenged?
Was I wrong
When I thought the orphans of sulphur
Shall rise from the ocean?
Was I depraved when I thought there need not be love,
There need not be forgiveness, there need not be progress,
There need not be goodness on the earth,
There need not be towns of skeletons,
Sending messages of elephants to the moon?
Was I wrong to laugh asphyxiated ecstasy
When the sea rose like quicklime
When the ashes on ashes were blown by the wind
When the infant sword was left alone on the hill top?
Was I wrong to erect monuments of blood?
Was I wrong to avenge the pillage of Caesar?
Was I wrong? Was I wrong?
Was I wrong to ignite the earth
And dance above the stars
Watching Europe burn with its civilisation of fire,
Watching America disintegrate with its gods of steel,
Watching the persecutors of mankind turn into dust
Was I wrong? Was I wrong?

I wonder, as an aside, at how little “committed” poetry one seems to run into in one’s mainstream internet poetry life in the West – you always have to go to Africa or Asia or the Middle East to find that in the mainstream, it seems. Or am I wrong?

Vietnam has a national poet AND a national epic


Back to the national poet project. This is not a trick question. What do Daniel Defoe, the Abbé Prévost, Samuel Richardson, Nguyen Du and Thomas Hardy have in common? Answer: They all sat down and wrote down a long list of really bad things that could happen to a female protagonist, and then put them all into an epic narrative. Yes. Four of the protagonists are Moll Flanders, Manon Lescaut, Clarissa and Tess of the D’Ubervilles. Who is the fifth?

Kieu. Her name is Kieu. And the story told of her was the Tale of Kieu, written by Nguyen Du, the national poet of Vietnam. A near-genius poet and musician, the girl Kieu falls in love, denies love for family honor, is tricked into selling herself, and goes from one dreary form of prostitution and servitude to another, until she reaches a place of relative balance, a place of compromise, and wisdom. Lots and lots of things to be read about Kieu on the internet, and the tale is hectic and long. The one thing I come away with, for the moment, is how, for Nguyen, Kieu was Vietnam.

Nowhere are the unique vectors of East Asian nationalism and postcolonial identity more crucial than in Du Nguyen’s magnificent verse novel, The Tale of Kieu (1813), the national epic of Vietnam. A high-ranking mandarin who personally witnessed the tumultuous birth of the Vietnamese nation-state, Nguyen created a masterpiece equal to the greatest verse epics of Goethe and Schiller, but which has languished in relative obscurity.

I have no hope of conveying anything meaningful about Kieu in a single post on a flighty poetry blog. The best I can hope for is that you go off to find out the meaning stuff for yourselves. The themes are enormous – where did China end, and Vietnam begin? What are the ruptures and howls of nation-birth? What does it mean to cleave to your family, to your love, to your nation, or to yourself? Describe the dark of choosing between them.  What sound do you make when you realize you are just a raindrop – how do you value the tiny wetness that you bring? In Vietnam, every child studies the Tale of Kieu in school, adults refer to it in daily conversation, and even illiterate farmers know the whole work by heart. Some randomness: 

dream scene from the Tale of Kieu.

The Tale of Kieu, Bilingual Edition
Edited by: Huynh Sanh Thong

Book review of the Tale of Kieu, Bilingual Edition.

Excerpts from some of the opening stanzas, with illustrations.

Her voice was like jade, clear of guile


What is a floating cloud

compared with Thuy-Van’s flowing hair?


Like autumn seas her eyes,

her eyebrows like spring hills far away.


To part from Kim meant sorrow, death in life.

A raindrop does not brood on its poor fate;

a leaf of grass repays three months of spring.


Heroic Tu Hai, the icon of the national revolution and Kieu’s third love:

A tiger’s beard, a swallow’s jaw, and brows

as thick as silkworms – he stood broad and tall.

Carrying heaven on his head and trampling the earth,

he lived in the world, he was Tu Hai of Yueh-tung.

On rivers and lakes he roamed at large,

carrying a sword and a lute and plying one oar through 

hills and streams.

Check it out. I mean, check it out. 

The National Poet of Dagestan

Rasul Gamzatov
Rasul Gamzatov

A celebrated mountain poet from the ethnic outskirts of the Soviet empire, anyone? On with the national poet project. Today we’re taking a look at the national poet of Dagestan. And no-one need pretend they’ve heard of Dagestan or have a notion of where it is. Dagestan is situated in the North Caucasus mountains and is the southernmost part of Russia. It’s a republic, but is a federal subject of the Russian Federation. So it has a constitution and parliament and a president, but is represented by Russia in foreign affairs. And defense too, one would guess. Not an independent sovereign state, therefore. Its capital is Makhachkala.

And by the way, the word Daghestan means “country of mountains”, and is derived from the Turkic word “dagh” meaning mountain and Persian suffix meaning “land of.” (So now you what “stan” means.)

Our poet’s name is Rasul Gamzatov and I’m not going to share any of his poetry (except four lines below), because, frankly, it doesn’t work for me. See what you think. I suspect part of it is weak translation work, and part of that is probably the impossibility of translating Avar into English. Gamzatov wrote in the Avar language, which is only spoken by 600,000 people today. But what I do want you to read (please do) is Gamzatov’s biography, as it appears on his official website. Go on, read it. A little rough in the translation, but it’s like a fairytale in itself. His father was a bard!

The most famous thing he ever wrote were the words to what turned into a gigantically famous WWII Russian song called Zhuravli (The Cranes), written in memory of the Japanese girl, Sadako Sasaki . The memory of the paper cranes folded by the dying girl haunted him for months before he wrote it. Wikipedia says: White cranes have become associated with dead soldiers, so much so that a range of WWII memorials in the former Soviet Union feature the image of flying cranes and, in several instances, even the lines from the song. Unfortunately, haven’t been able to find anything of an English translation of Zhuravli that works for me, except these four lines, which are sticking:

From The Cranes

By Rasul Gamzatov

It seems to me sometimes that our soldiers

who were not to return from fields of gore

did not lie down into their beds of honor

but turned into a bevy of white cranes…

He died in 2003.