Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Meetings – A Remembrance of Dawn Foster-Dodson

I wrote the poem you will read below for Dawn in 2002 and revised it in 2004; who knows, perhaps it is not truly finished. This poem is actually about Dawn and her relationships with her cello and with one piece of music, Max Bruch’s Op. 47, Kol Nidre. But really, it is about the will and freedom of the spirit to express beauty.

I had the honor and joy to hear Dawn play Bruch’s Kol Nidre each year on Erev Kol Nidre from 1997 to 2015 at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, most of those years in collaboration with organist Michael Secour.

Over those years, Dawn’s relationship with this piece and with her cello, as well as her ensemble with Michael, deepened and expanded. I was amazed to experience her cello’s voice growing in depth and expression, Dawn’s touch of the bow on the strings becoming so second nature into meditation – the experience of hearing her became more and more translucent, if that at all makes sense. The sadness of the melody really was an uplifted prayer, less sad than a balm of love, poured out for all in the sanctuary, and beyond the beautiful stained glass windows of the synagogue, released into the world.

In the early years, Dawn used sheet music. Over the years, I could see that piece of sheet music was well-loved; it became dog-eared and worn on the edges from use. One year, she came to services without the music. Of course, she didn’t need it anymore. She hadn’t needed it for years and years. The music stand and the music copy had long become superfluous – she always closed her eyes and just played. She had transcended that barrier.

Every year, Dawn and Michael would play that piece for an assembled congregation of at least a thousand or more, over the course of two evening services. And every year, she drew the congregation away from their cares, concerns, fidgeting, drew them into their prayers with her music. You could hear a pin drop, it was so quiet, as if the congregation was holding an uncharacteristic but necessary border of silence around Dawn and her cello, Michael and the organ, to protect the precious fragility of the beauty being recreated for them.

And every year, at the last note, a collective sigh of thanksgiving for that translucent, shimmering beauty sent all those prayers aloft to Adonai. Every year. When her illness kept her from us last year, another kind of sigh was heard. And this year, a different one yet shall be heard.

Dawn, Dear One, with tears, my soul sings the shimmering, translucence of your transcendence, as a prayer of thanksgiving for the beauty of your life among us.


Paper worn,
sheets so old
there's no rustle left in them,
more like felt under her fingers,
or softer yet,
like the worn cheek
of a beloved old friend.

Settling the pages,
making them comfortable,
she arranged herself,
just close enough
to see the signs and symbols,
and on them meditate.

Cradling the instrument
within her warm embrace,
she took a long, deep breath,
filling her being with its sweetness.

Fixing her gaze
on those worn pages—
old friends, revisited often;
“the rules of engagement,”
she had once heard;
an apt description,
the thought occurred
—she drew the bow,
forward over the strings.

Then she leaned back,
closed her eyes,
and let the bow find the strings,
the way that they would do,
just now.

Inner ear to mind,
mind to thought,
idea to quill,
quill to manuscript,
symbols dot paper,
shapes greet the eye,
horsehair strokes steel,
steel vibrates wood,
wood sings,
space hums,
body rejoices,
soul soars.

The sum
of all these meetings
is God’s voice,
heard as music.

© 2017 by Elisabeth T. Eliassen

Monday, July 24, 2017

Song IX from Nine Songs: The Mountain Spirit - a translation

By Qu Yuan[i]

There, in the cleft of the mountain[ii],
see the Spirit[iii], arrayed in wild fig[iv] and dodder vine[v],
beaming her enchanting gaze and lovely smile.
“Don’t you find me beautiful?”
Pulled by a red leopard[vi], followed by wild cats,
her magnolia[vii] chariot draped with olive branches[viii],
she is arrayed in orchids[ix] belted with wild ginger[x].
“My love left me on the mountain to gather herbs.
Living deep in a bamboo[xi] grove, we never see the sky.
The way up the mountain was long and difficult;
it is too late to return.”
There, at her summit throne,
she stands, at her feet a wreath of clouds[xii].
As the sun sets, light likewise retires;
the east wind blows up, spreading a holy rain.
“I awaited the return of my love until it was too late to descend.
Now that winter is coming, what shall bloom to clothe me?
I gather
lingzhi[xiii] from the mountainside,
where vines grow in a tangle over tumbled boulders.
Left by my inconstant lover, desolation bars my return home.
Though you did not come back, perhaps you gave me a thought.”

She, Mountain Spirit, fragrant with pollia[xiv] flowers,
drinks from a stone-basin spring[xv], shaded by pine and fir.
You thought of me, my love, but you hesitated.
Thunder drums, “tian tian”, rain darkens.
Monkeys cry, “jiu jiu”, and wild cats howl all night.
Winds whistle, “sa sa”, the trees moan “xiao xiao.”
“Longing for you, lost love, I sorrow and suffer.”

Translation © 2017 by Elisabeth T. Eliassen

Reading through an enormous number of translations of this poem, I was struck by two primary aspects, each of which seemed to leap out at me, but to be overlooked by most translators rendering the text into English: The gender of the Mountain Spirit and the presence of herbal/plant medicines that indicate, among other things, the passage of time within the overarching theme of abandonment.

As audacious as it will seem to some, I have undertaken to offer yet another rendering, with a very short commentary and notes. At the outset, I must stress that my intent is to offer more context for the English language reader; I don’t expect that my effort has necessarily resulted in beautiful poetry.

The impression I have is that the Mountain Spirit is most definitely a woman, abandoned by her lover in the wilderness of the mountain. Unfamiliar with the terrain, she nevertheless becomes a part of it, and what plant knowledge she brought with her sustains and clothes her throughout the year. She is a shaman, and a powerful one. Many of the plants she uses support longevity and virility. While this is a poem about alienation and separation, the obvious passage of time does not age this soul. She follows the seasons, yet is timeless. She rises to the summit, and is cut off from the cares of the world below. She may still bemoan the loss of her love, and nature seems to join in her emotions. Does she collude with the mountain to bring on a storm to match her mood?

I leave the transliterated Chinese syllables for the sounds. There are many doubled sounds throughout this poem, lending to the music of it. 

See my notes, below, for information about the medicinal properties of the plants mentioned in the poem.

I owe a debt of gratitude to the 2008 annotated translation of this poem by Feng Xin-ming in a simplified Chinese script version with annotations. I must  have dug around and found more than fifteen renderings of this poem, each with a slightly different perspective. None explored or referred to the medicinal aspect of the plant life.

[i] Qu Yuan was a poet of the Warring States Period (467 BC - 221 BC) Qu Yuan is remembered as a patriotic poet, statesman, diplomat and reformer in ancient China. The traditional Dragon Boat Festival, held on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month commemorates his death by suicide. (As an aside, I happen to live in an island community that takes a great deal of interest in the Dragon Boat Festival.)  

[ii] Mountains are venerated in China, each has a resident god. In ancient times, it was believed the spirits of the dead lived in the mountains, and young girls were “married” to the mountain. Mountains create weather.

[iii] The gender of the Mountain Spirit is ambiguous. There is a general tendency, when translating this piece into English, toward conforming the text to either a Confucian or a shamanistic interpretation/convention. In either case, the emphasis is on creating a duality, yin/yang, between a god and goddess (perhaps mountain and river) or shaman and human. Most of the translations I have seen vary the gender of the speaker throughout the poem between male and female, artificially suggesting a conversation between two individuals. I have opted to have the reader be a participant-as-observer in the story the author tells; as such, I have the entity, to which I assign female gender, direct the spoken words to the reader. This may solve the ambiguity, while preserving the sense that there is interaction between two individuals. Not being a proper scholar of Asian poetry, I own the possibility that my approach may be problematical, if not downright incorrect.

[iv] 薜荔 bi` li`: ficus pumilis, a member of the fig family. Also known as creeping fig, throughout Asia, the fruit and leaves are galactagogue and tonic; they are used in cases of impotence, lumbago, rheumatism and anemia.

[v] 女萝 nv' luo': custcuta chinensis, the twining dodder herb. It is commonly used as an anti-aging agent, anti-inflammatory, pain reliever, and aphrodisiac.

[vi] Leopards are rare and elusive, so their appearance and disappearance is associated with changing seasons. In China, whereas lions are associated with the sun, leopards are associated with the moon.

[vii] 辛夷 xin­ yi': magnolia liliflora, the flowering magnolia shrub.  The flowers and unopened flower buds are analgesic, anodyne, carminative, febrifuge, sedative and tonic. The main effect of this herb is to constrict blood vessels in the nasal passages; it is most often taken internally to treat sinusitis, allergic rhinitis and catarrh. The flowers are harvested in the Spring, and can be used fresh or dried.

[viii] gui`: this is 桂花 gui` hua­ , osmanthus fragrans, the miniature olive shrub. In traditional Chinese medicine, osmanthus tea has been used to treat irregular menstruation. The blossoms are associated with the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival. Osmanthus used as a flavor for wine, confections and teas, is symbolic of reunions.

[ix] 石兰 shi' lan': cymbidium virescens, an orchid.  Blooming in the Spring, this orchid is used in Korean folk medicine to stop bleeding and promote urination, as well as for skin issues, such as insect bites.

[x] 杜衡 du` heng': asarum forbesii, a pungent variety of wild ginger that grows in moist, shady forests and valleys at elevations below 3000 feet. In traditional Chinese medicine to relieve pain, induce fever, promote sweating, as a diuretic, and to lower blood pressure. Prolonged use of the plant gives the body a fragrant aroma.

[xi] In China, bamboo is symbolic of the summer season, simplicity, humility, flexibility, and integrity, equanimity. Bamboo is used in Chinese medicine to speed healing and reduce infections. Bamboo is also used for divination.

[xii] Clouds are a union of yin and yang, mean good fortune, suggest intercourse, and also hint at wu-shamanism.

[xiii] It is unclear whether this is “Three-Flowers” or “Thrice-Blooming” herb. The former does not suggest any reference that I can find, but various texts have suggested the latter. If that is the case, “Thrice-Blooming” is a fungus zhi, perhaps lingzhi or “spirit herb”, better known in the West as Reishi mushroom, revered in ancient China as a magic herb. I cannot verify this, but merely offer the possibility. This fungus is symbolic of longevity and immortality, and the name is mentioned in poems from the earlier Han and Wei periods. The character for ling is made of ideographs for rain, shaman, and praying, and zi speaks to its spiritual potency, and that it is used to prepare elixirs.

[xiv] 杜若 du` ruo`: pollia japonica, a herbaceous plant with longish leaves and white flowers. The rhizome of pollia japonica is used to influence lung, liver, kidney and bladder function, is sedative and carminative, and is used to treat colds and vertigo.

[xv] Springs are yin semantically connected to the concept “origin,” and associated with the moon and night. Water, in general, presents a paradox: One of the most powerful of nature’s forces, it is soft and yielding. Hence, the aphorism in Tao te Ching, “Weak overcomes strong; soft overcomes hard.”

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Afternoon at the Lake

There is a moment,
in the depth of the afternoon,
when the summer sun is hottest,
that the soft light of peace gathers
to settle the dust of day.

The tread along the footpath
does not disturb the hum of hushed bees,
nor the meandering of dragonflies
from shore over the center of the lake,
coasting on any errant breeze.

While the blue green algae rests
in a shaded nook along the far shore,
the black crowned heron stands,
motionless, watchful,
awaiting the slightest stir
in the shallows that might signal lunch
—food to fuel night flight.

© 2017 by Elisabeth T. Eliassen