Archive for the ‘International Poetry’ Category

Pablo Neruda (Chile, 1904-1973)

The People

Just as I’ve always thought of myself as a carpenter-poet. I think of Rafita as the poet of carpentry. He brings his tools wrapped in a newspaper, under his arm, and unwraps what looks to me like a chapter and picks up the worn handles of his hammers and rasps, losing himself in the wood. His work is perfect.

A little boy and a dog accompany him and watch his hands as they move in careful circles. His eyes are like those of Saint John of the Cross, and his hands raise the colossal tree trunks with delicacy as well as skill.

On the rauli wood beams, I wrote with chalk the names of dead friends, and he went along carving my calligraphy into the wood as swiftly as if he had flown behind me and written the names again with the tip of a wing.

Some Words for a Book of Stone

This stony book, born in the desolate coastlands and mountain ranges of my country, was abandoned in my thoughts for twenty years. It wasn’t possible to write it then for wandering reasons and the tasks of every year and day.

It is the poet who must sing with his countrymen and give to men all that is man: dream and love, light and night, reason and madness. But let’s not forget the stones! We should never forget the silent castles, advance to kill or die, adorn our existence without compromise, preserving the mysteries of their ultraterrestrial matter, independent and eternal.

My compatriot, Gabriela Mistral, said once that in Chile it is the skeleton that one sees first, the profusion of rocks in the mountains and sand. As nearly always, there is much truth in what she said.

I came to live in Isla Negra in 1939 and the coast was strewn with these extraordinary presences of stone and they spoke to me in a hoarse and drenching language, a jumble of marine cries and primal warnings.

Because of this, the book, adorned with portraits of creatures of stone, is a conversation that I open to all the poets of the earth, so that is may be continued by all in order to encounter the secret of stone and of life.

The Sea

The Pacific Ocean was overflowing with borders of the map.
There was no place to put it. It was so large, wild and blue that it didn’t fit anywhere. That’s why it was left in front of my window.
The humanists worried about the little men it devoured over the years.
They do not count.
Not even that galleon, laden with cinnamon and pepper that perfumed it as it went down.
Not even the explorers’ ship — fragile as a cradle dashed to pieces in the abyss — which keeled over with its starving men.
In the ocean, a man dissolves like a bar of salt. And the water doesn’t know it.
From Neruda’s book Isla Negra, published in 2001 and translated by Dennis Maloney and Clark Zlotchew.

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Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn (Russia, 1918-2008)

It is difficult to know what to post about a man whose life and work have reached such mythic proportions as Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn. In literature, he is best known for his novels Gulag Archipelago, written between 1958 and 1968 and published in 1973, and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, published in 1963.

The two novels are based on his years of imprisonment in a Soviet labor prison camp from 1945 to 1953. He was arrested and imprisoned for anti-Soviet propaganda and remarks made against Stalin discovered in correspondence to a school friend. After his eight-year imprisonment ended in 1953, he was sent into exile in Kazakhastan, on the fringes of Siberia. In 1956, he was freed from exile and exonerated. In trying to publish his work over the next 18 years, he was persecuted by the KGB, arrested again in 1974 and deported to West Germany. He then moved to Zurich, Switzerland, and later to Cavendish, Vermont. In 1990, his Soviet citizen was restored, and he returned to Russia in 1994.

Solzhenitsyn after his release in 1953. He smuggled out his padded jacket and number patches and had his photo taken.

In Solzhenitsyn’s book Voice from the Gulag, he said,Over a half century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of old people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened. Since then I have spent well-nigh 50 years working on the history of our revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”

And in his Nobel lecture, “During all the years until 1961, not only was I convinced that I should never see a single line of mine in print in my lifetime, but, also, I scarcely dared allow any of my close acquaintances to read anything I had written because I feared that this would become known. Finally, at the age of 42, this secret authorship began to wear me down. The most difficult thing of all to bear was that I could not get my works judged by people with literary training. In 1961, after the 22nd Congress of the U.S.S.R. Communist Party and Tvardovsky’s speech at this, I decided to emerge and to offer One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

Such an emergence seemed, then, to me, and not without reason, to be very risky because it might lead to the loss of my manuscripts, and to my own destruction. But, on that occasion, things turned out successfully, and after protracted efforts, A.T. Tvardovsky was able to print my novel one year later. The printing of my work was, however, stopped almost immediately and the authorities stopped both my plays and (in 1964) the novel, The First Circle, which, in 1965, was seized together with my papers from the past years. During these months it seemed to me that I had committed an unpardonable mistake by revealing my work prematurely and that because of this I should not be able to carry it to a conclusion.

It is almost always impossible to evaluate at the time events which you have already experienced, and to understand their meaning with the guidance of their effects. All the more unpredictable and surprising to us will be the course of future events.”

The following excerpt is from Solzhenitsyn’s novel An Incident at Krechetovka Station in his book We Never Make Mistakes, published in 1971 and translated by Paul W. Blackstock:

“Only the people who worked at the station were not driven away by the rain. Through a window a watchman could be seen on the platform near the rain-drenched cargo. Covered with a heavy tarpaulin, he stood there all wet and soaked from the rain without even trying to shake it off. On the third track, the switch engine was slowly moving a tank car, while the switchman, covered entirely with a hooded poncho, waved to him with his flagstick. The dark, dwarfish form of the wagon master could also be seen walking along the train formation on track two, looking and searching under each car.

And so — everything was rain-drenched! In the cold, persistent wind, the rain beat on the roofs and walls of freight cars and the engines. It cut along the fire-red, bent-iron ribs of two, ten-car skeletons (some for the boxes were still burning from the bombing raids, but the useful parts of those remaining had been brought to the rear). It drenched the four Artillery pieces standing on flatcars; it blended with the approaching twilight; it began to tighten and close in on the green, small circle of the semaphore, and on the livid, purple-red sparks which were flying out of the chimneys of the ‘heated’ cars. [These were boxcars adapted for troop transport which in cold weather were fitted with makeshift stoves, with long thin pipes for chimneys that extended through the roof.] All the asphalt on the first platform was covered with crystal-clear water blisters, which had not had time to drain. Even in the dusk the rails glistened and sparkled with bubbles, and all the gray storm covers shimmered with pools of water.

There was little sound besides the trembling of the earth, and the weak sound of the switchman’s horn. (Whistling by the engines had been forbidden since the first day of the war.) Only the rain trumpeted through the broken pipes.

Behind the other window of the Commander’s room, in the path along the warehouse enclosure, grew a small oak. Its drenched and trembling branches had held a few dark green leaves, but today even the last few had blown away.”

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Samuel Beckett (Ireland, 1906-1989)

Waiting for Godot is a tragic comedy in two acts that opened in Paris in 1953. The story revolves around two men, Vladamir and Estragon, waiting for someone named Godot. They wait near a tree on a barren stretch of road, and the drama circles around their conversation with each other. Godot never arrives, and his absence results in conversation and wordplay on poetic, religious and philosophical matters. It has been theorized the exchange of hats between the two is a symbolic desire in the two men for each others’ thoughts.

Beckett regretted calling the absent character Godot because of the theories involving God, which the name suggests. “I also told [Ralph] Richardson that if by Godot I had meant God I would [have] said God, and not Godot. This seemed to disappoint him greatly,” Beckett said. Then later, “It would be fatuous of me to pretend that I am not aware of the meanings attached to the word ‘Godot,’ and the opinion of many that it means ‘God.’ But you must remember – I wrote the play in French, and if I did have that meaning in my mind, it was somewhere in my unconscious and I was not overtly aware of it.”

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Yasunari Kawabata (Japan, 1899 - 1972)

The following excerpt is from the Kawabata’s novel The Old Capital, published in 1962:

The Flowers of Spring

Chieko discovered the violets flowering on the trunk of the old maple tree. “Ah. They’ve bloomed again this year,” she said as she encountered the gentleness of spring.

The maple was rather large for such a small garden in the city; the trunk was larger around than Chieko’s waist. But this ancient tree with its coarse moss-covered bark was not the sort of thing one should compare with a girl’s innocent body.

The trunk of the tree twisted slightly to the right at about the height of Chieko’s waist, and just over her head it bent even farther. Above the bend the limbs extended outward, dominating the garden, the ends of the longer branches dropping with their own weight.

Just below the large bend were two hollow places with violets growing in each. Every spring they would put forth flowers. The two violets had been there on the tree ever since Chieko could remember.

The upper violet and lower violet were separated by about a foot. “Do the upper and lower violets ever meet? Do they know each other?” Chieko mused. What could it mean to say that the violets “meet” or “know” one another?

Every spring there were at least three but no more than five flowers on the violets in the tiny hollows. Chieko stared at them from the inner corridor that opened onto the garden, lifting her gaze from the base of the trunk of the maple tree. Sometimes she was moved by the “life” of the violets on the tree. Other times their “loneliness” touched her heart. . . .

Japan's bell cricket

The Bell Crickets

Chieko had begun raising bell crickets four or five years earlier, long after she had first found the violets on the old maple tree. She had heard them chirping in the parlor of the home of her school friends, and had received several as a gift.

“The poor things, living in a jar . . .,” Chieko had said. But her friend had answered that it was better than keeping them in a cage and letting them die there. She said that there were even temples that raised them in large quantities and sold the eggs. It seemed there were many who had similar tastes.

This year Chieko’s bell crickets had increased in number. She had two jars. Every year about the first of July the eggs would hatch, and about the middle of August the crickets began to chirp. But they were born, chirped, laid eggs, and died all inside a dark, cramped jar. Still, since it preserved the species it was perhaps better than raising one short generation in a cage. The crickets spent their entire lives in a jar; it was the whole world to them. Chieko had heard the ancient Chinese legend of a “universe in a jar” in which there was a palace in a vessel filled with fine wine and delicacies from both land and sea. Isolated from the vulgar world, it was a separate realm, an enchanted land. The story was one of many such legends of wizards and magic.

Of course the bell cricks had not entered the jar in order to renounce the world. Perhaps they did not realize they were, so they went on living.

What surprised Chieko most about the bell crickets was that if she happened not to put in males from elsewhere, the insects that hatched were stunted and feeble, the result of inbreeding. To prevent that, cricket fanciers would often trade male crickets. Now it was spring, and the bell crickets would not begin to chirp until late summer. Still, there was some connection between the crickets and the violets blooming in the hollows of the maple tree.

Chieko herself had placed the bell crickets in the jar, but why had the violets come to live in such a cramped spot? The violets bloomed, and this year too the crickets would hatch and begin their chirping.
Translated by J. Martin Holman

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Miguel Angel Asturias (Guatemala, 1899-1974)

It was difficult to choose only one excerpt from Asturias’ book The Mirror of Lida Sal, Tales Based on Mayan Myths and Guatemalan Legends, so I am including excerpts from several chapters. This translation by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert was published in 1997. I begin with an excerpt from Juan The Whirler. A whirling dervish is a dancer who rotates in a precise rhythm as a form of meditation to release his spirit from his body.

Juan The Whirler

“Gullies covered with flowers. Gullies full of birds. Gullies drowned in lakes. Gullies. And not only flowers. Centennial pines. And not only birds. Pines centennial and tall. And not only lakes. Pines and pines and pines. Florid, avian, and lacustrine in the world of Whirling Juan. . . .

‘I am coming,’ he declared, ‘laden with the Whirler’s dream, the whirling dream of whirling worlds, whirling clouds, and whirling skies, and its weight shall accompany me always. . . .

‘It was as if I were being lifted off the ground, absorbing the delicious aroma of mountain flowers, hearing warbling birds and contemplating myself in the mirror of a lake . . . .’

The magic of the Whirlers. The Whirler had made a vow of poverty, a vow not to stay with any one woman, but to leave them behind to perpetuate the decent of the Whirlers, and a vow to help with his magic those in need.”

Cover art for book “The Mirror of Lida Sal.” Lithograph (55.88 cm x 76.2 cm) by Maximino Javier, 1983. The Circus.

Legend of the Singing Tablets

“After distributing the tablets, poems for singing and dancing, which were barely fragments from the mat of priceless words — hymns to the gods in the temples, war songs for the fortresses, flower songs for the houses — the Moon-Chewers lost themselves among the crowds at the markets, the ball games, the schools of white earth, or they hid themselves in the outskirts of the city to eat the frozen moon, the swelling moon which suddenly could no longer be contained either in their mouths, or their eyes, it being the first night of the full moon.”

Legend of the Crystal Mask

“He took refuge behind the mask. He didn’t realize what was happening. He believed that it was he himself, still unaccustomed to the underground world, who bumped into the things used for his work. And to quell the assault, he paused quietly, and stood still, stubbornly glancing from side to side, as if asking all those inanimate beings the whereabouts of his smoking tube. It was nowhere to be found. As if to confirm this, he raised a fistful of tobacco to his mouth and chewed it. But there was something strange. The serpent and the jaguar began to move from his wooden drum, the drum with which he greeted the morning star, the light of precious lights. And if the tablets, rugs, benches, jars, baskets, mallets, and chisels had been quieted, now the giants of stone began to raise and lower their eyelids. Agitated by the tempest, they began to flex their muscles. Each arm became a river. Advancing against him. He lifted the quenched stars of his hands to defend his face from the punches of one of these monsters. Battered, winded, sternum caved in by a blow from the immense fist of him in the jaw. In the greenish darkness that wanted to be shadow, but couldn’t, that wanted to be light, but couldn’t project, squadrons of archers created by him, born by his hands, from his artifice, from his magic, arrayed themselves in order of battle. First flanking him, then forming a file at his front, without war cries, they bent their bows, and fired their poised arrows. A second group of warriors, also made by him, sculpted in stone by his hands, spread out with the points of their cane spears to the slats of the bed on which he had set his marvelous mask. There was no doubt. It must save him. He put it on. He fled.”

Maximino Javier (born 1950). Lithograph (76.2 cm x 55.88 cm), 1983. Alphabet Tree II.

Legend of the Silent Bell

That morning in June — a June of trays of fruit — there were hurryings and scurryings, comings and goings, murmus and whispers, in the convent of Clarisas, as if the zzz-zzz of the rain drizzling outside were prolonging its murmurings in the vaulted galleries of the convent. Cartoned, crated, in their wimples, collars, dickeys, and handruffles of starchy linen, nuns and novices spoke, one to another, of the jewels that their families had brought to enrich the crucible of the bell commissioned from the founders of Oviedo. It was to be precious and sonorous, worthy of the shrine of Santa Clara of Celestial Clarisas, so new it still had not left the hands of its builders.

The stone was like living song, porous, not yet dry, nipped and tucked with scissors of grace at its cornices and capitals; the fragrant wood of the panelwork on the ceiling, like the prow of a celestial ship which navigates by the light on the highest windows; then there was the defiant cupola, and the cabalistic, platersque façade, sensual and fugitive, offset by the prodigious architectonic audacity of the four arches sustained by a single column.

Santa Clara of Celestial Clarisas had still not entirely left the hands of the builders, and what a contrast there was that morning in June between these slender Indians whose dark flesh was covered by so little linen that they seemed to be clothed in air, made more for flying on scaffolds than for walking on land; and the Asturians, giants with red faces and hands like hammers, occupied day and night with founding the bell for the Clarisas.

The last bell. The one for these hills would be the last that would be made before they returned to Oviedo or perhaps new Spain. And it was so extolled. In fretful meetings by starlight and lamplight, it was said that they had accepted the commission grumblingly, grudginly, and only the insistence of the nuns who had promised to call the bell Clara if its timbre was like that of gold, Clarisa if it sounded like pearls of silver, and Clarona if it spoke with a voice of bronze.”

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Nelly Sachs (Sweden, 1891-1970)

The following biographical excerpt and poem are from After Every War, Twentieth-Century Women Poets published in 2004:

“Nelly (Leonie) Sachs was born in 1891 into a comfortable Jewish home in the fashionable Tiergarten suburb of Berlin. . . . As a young girl of fifteen she began a correspondence with Selma Lagerlof, the Swedish writer, a connection that would prove crucial to her survival when the war years began in Germany.

Sachs continued to live in Berlin with her mother after the death of her father in 1930. But as the Nazi grip tightened in the city and Jews became more vulnerable to the new laws of exclusion and persecution, she and her mother determined to escape. Through the intervention of Selma Lagerlof, Sachs and her mother were granted asylum in Sweden in 1940. There they lived in a two-bedroom apartment while Nelly Sachs made a modest living translating Swedish poets into German.

During this time she also worked on new poems which were first seen in the volume In Den Wohnungen des Todes (In the Habitations of Death) which was published in Berlin in 1947. . . . [In her poems] elements of Hasidic mysticism were crafted together with German Romanticism and echoes of the Psalms into signature elegies. Describing her own project Nelly Sachs said it was ‘in this night of nights to give some idea of the holy darkness.’

After the war, and following the death of her mother in 1950, she remained in Stockholm. Although she had several breakdowns, she continued to write and publish.

If I Only Knew
(translated by Eavan Boland)

If I only knew
where you put that last look.
Was it on a stone,
a blind stone,
which had taken in so many last looks
that they fell blindly on its blindness?

Or was it on a shoeful of earth?
Already black
with so many partings,
so many killings?

Or was it on your last road
saying farewell to you from all the other roads
you once walked?

A puddle? A glitter of metal?
The buckle of your enemy?
Some other spirit-augury
of the world to come?

Or did this earth which lets
no one depart without its love
send you the sign
of a bird in the air,
reminding your soul
that it flinched just so
in it charred and tortured body?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Shmuel Yosef Agnon (Israel, 1888-1970)

Here are the opening paragraphs from chapter two of Agnon’s book In The Heart of the Seas, published in 1948 and translated by I.M. Lask:

“The greater part of Adar had already passed. The clouds which had been obscuring the sun’s course began to shrink, while the sun grew gradually larger. What only yesterday had been the time for the Evening Prayer became the time for Afternoon Prayer today; while yesterday’s getting-up time became the time to start saying the Morning Prayer today.

The snow warmed up and began to melt, and the trees of the field grew black. One day they were black as earth; the next, they would be putting forth leaves and blossoming like the Lebanon. The pools and marshes were covered by a film, and the birds began to chirp. Every day a different kind of bird would come around and there began a cheeping on every roof. Our men of good heart started going out and asking when the road would be fit for travel; they meant the month, of course, when the road would be fit for wayfarers.

Never in all their lives had these good folks so feared death as at that particular period. How great is the sanctity of the Land of Israel though it be in ruins! And what is the body’s strength even at its height? For after all, suppose a man wishes to go up to the Land of Israel and does not go up, what if his soul should suddenly depart from his body and he be left lying like a dumb stone without having gone up. What would become of all his hopes?”

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Mikhail Aleksandrovich Sholokhov (Russia, 1905-1984)

Sholokhov won the Nobel for his epic novel series that deals with the Cossacks living in the Don River valley prior to WWI. Cossacks were members of military communities in the Ukraine and southern Russia. The first book Tales from the Don was published in 1926. The second And Quiet Flows the Don took him 14 years to write and was published in 1940. The novels are examples of socialist realism, a style of realistic art that depicts figures as they appear in everyday life without embellishment or interpretation. The term is also used about works of art which, in revealing the truth, emphasize the ugly or sordid.

Here’s a clip from the 1958 film:

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Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980)

Jean-Paul Sartre (France, 1905-1980)

Bad Faith

Bad faith is a condition people suffer when they deny to themselves that they are radically free, when they think their pasts determine their future. They turn themselves into inert objects rather than free beings who can make choices. The classic example of bad faith from Sartre’s book Being and Nothingness, published in 1956, is of a cafe waiter:

“What are we then if we have the constant obligation to make ourselves what we are if our mode of being is having the obligation to be what we are? Let us consider this waiter in the cafe. His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He bends forward a little too eagerly; his voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer. Finally there he returns, trying to imitate in his walk the inflexible stiffness of some kind of automaton while carrying his tray with the recklessness of a tight-rope-walker by putting it in a perpetually unstable, perpetually broken equilibrium which he perpetually re-establishes by a light movement of the arm and hand. All his behavior seems to us a game. He applies himself to changing his movements as if they were mechanisms, the one regulating the other; his gestures and even his voice seems to be mechanisms; he gives himself the quickness and pitiless rapidity of things. He is playing, he is amusing himself. But what is he playing? We need not watch long before we can explain it: he is playing at being a waiter in a cafe. There is nothing there to surprise us.”

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Giorgos Seferis (Greece, 1900-1971)

Mythistorema 15

Sleep wrapped you in green leaves like a tree
you breathed like a tree in the quiet light
in the limpid spring I looked at your face:
eyelids closed, eyelashes brushing the water.
In the soft grass my fingers found your fingers
I held your pulse a moment
and felt elsewhere your heart’s pain.

Under the plane tree, near the water, among laurel
sleep moved you and scattered you
around me, near me, without my being able to touch the whole of you —
one as you were with your silence;
seeing your shadow grow and diminish,
lose itself in the other shadows, in the other
world that let you go yet held you back.

The life that they gave us to live, we lived.
Pity those who wait with such patience
lost in the black laurel under the heavy plane trees
and those, alone, who speak to cisterns and wells
and drown in the voice’s circles.
Pity the companion who shared our privation and our sweat
and plunged into the sun like a crow beyond the ruins,
without hope of enjoying our reward.

Give us, outside sleep, serenity.
(translator unknown)

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John Steinbeck (USA, 1902-1968)

John Steinbeck is my favorite novelist. In college I became obsessed with his novel East of Eden. The story centers around the Hamiltons, who are based on Steinbeck’s own family. Below is a section from that novel and three clips from the 1955 movie East of Eden, starring James Dean and Julie Harris. The middle clip is a scene between James Dean and actress Jo Van Fleet, who won an academy award as best-supporting actress in that movie. Van Fleet’s resemblance, mannerisms and attitude so remind me of my mother I cry each time I see it.

Here is the section from the novel on the Hebrew word timshel:

“Do you remember when you read us the sixteen verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis and we argued about them?”
“I do indeed. And that’s a long time ago.”

Samuel Hamilton was Steinbeck's grandfather, who died in 1904. He came to the U.S. from Ireland in 1846 and moved to Salinas, California in 1873.

“Ten years nearly,” said Lee. “Well, the story bit deeply into me and I went into it word for word. The more I thought about the story, the more profound it became to me. Then I compared the translations we have—and they were fairly close. There was only one place that bothered me. The King James version says this—it is when Jehovah has asked Cain why he is angry. Jehovah says, ‘If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.’ It was the ‘thou shalt’ that struck me, because it was a promise that Cain would conquer sin.”
Samuel nodded. “And his children didn’t do it entirely,” he said.
Lee sipped his coffee. “Then I got a copy of the American Standard Bible. It was very new then. And it was different in this passage. It says, ‘Do thou rule over him.’ Now this is very different. This is not a promise, it is an order. And I began to stew about it. I wondered what the original word of the original writer had been that these very different translations could be made.”
Samuel put his palms down on the table and leaned forward and the old young light came into his eyes. “Lee,” he said, “don’t tell me you studied Hebrew!”
Lee said, “I’m going to tell you. And it’s a fairly long story. Will you have a touch of ng-ka-py?”
“You mean the drink that tastes of good rotten apples?”
“Yes. I can talk better with it.”
“Maybe I can listen better,” said Samuel.

The Hamilton family. There are nine children in the Hamilton family in the novel.

While Lee went to the kitchen Samuel asked, “Adam, did you know about this?”
“No,” said Adam. “He didn’t tell me. Maybe I wasn’t listening.”
Lee came back with his stone bottle and three little porcelain cups so thin and delicate that the light shone through them. “Dlinkee Chinee fashion,” he said and poured the almost black liquor. “There’s a lot of wormwood in this. It’s quite a drink,” he said. “Has about the same effect as absinthe if you drink enough of it.”
Samuel sipped the drink. “I want to know why you were so interested,” he said.
“Well, it seemed to me that the man who could conceive this great story would know exactly what he wanted to say and there would be no confusion in his statement.”
“You say ‘the man.’ Do you then not think this is a divine book written by the inky finger of God?”
“I think the mind that could think this story was a curiously divine mind. We have had a few such minds in China too.”
“I just wanted to know,” said Samuel. “You’re not a Presbyterian after all.”
“I told you I was getting more Chinese. Well, to go on, I went to San Francisco to the headquarters of our family association. Do you know about them? Our great families have centers where any member can get help or give it. The Lee family is very large. It takes care of its own.”
“I have heard of them,” said Samuel.
“You mean Chinee hatchet man fightee Tong war over slave girl?”
“I guess so.”
“It’s a little different from that, really,” said Lee. “I went there because in our family there are a number of ancient reverend gentlemen who are great scholars. They are thinkers in exactness. A man may spend many years pondering a sentence of the scholar you call Confucius. I thought there might be experts in meaning who could advise me.

Liza Hamilton was Steinbeck's grandmother.

“They are fine old men. They smoke their two pipes of opium in the afternoon and it rests and sharpens them, and they sit through the night and their minds are wonderful. I guess no other people have been able to use opium well.”
Lee dampened his tongue in the black brew. “I respectfully submitted my problem to one of these sages, read him the story, and told him what I understood from it. The next night four of them met and called me in. We discussed the story all night long.”
Lee laughed. “I guess it’s funny,” he said. “I know I wouldn’t dare tell it to many people. Can you imagine four old gentlemen, the youngest is over ninety now, taking on the study of Hebrew? They engaged a learned rabbi. They took to the study as though they were children. Exercise books, grammar, vocabulary, simple sentences. You should see Hebrew written in Chinese ink with a brush! The right to left didn’t bother them as much as it would you, since we write up to down. Oh, they were perfectionists! They went to the root of the matter.”
“And you?” said Samuel.
“I went along with them, marveling at the beauty of their proud clean brains. I began to love my race, and for the first time I wanted to be Chinese. Every two weeks I went to a meeting with them, and in my room here I covered pages with writing. I bought every known Hebrew dictionary. But the old gentlemen were always ahead of me. It wasn’t long before they were ahead of our rabbi; he brought a colleague in. Mr. Hamilton, you should have sat through some of those nights of argument and discussion. The questions, the inspection, oh, the lovely thinking—the beautiful thinking.

Olive Hamilton was Steinbeck's mother.

“After two years we felt that we could approach your sixteen verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis. My old gentlemen felt that these words were very important too—‘Thou shalt’ and ‘Do thou.’ And this was the gold from our mining: ‘Thou mayest.’ ‘Thou mayest rule over sin.’ The old gentlemen smiled and nodded and felt the years were well spent. It brought them out of their Chinese shells too, and right now they are studying Greek.”
Samuel said, “It’s a fantastic story. And I’ve tried to follow and maybe I’ve missed somewhere. Why is this word so important?”
Lee’s hand shook as he filled the delicate cups. He drank his down in one gulp. “Don’t you see?” he cried. “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?”
“Yes, I see. I do see. But you do not believe this is divine law. Why do you feel its importance?”
“Ah!” said Lee. “I’ve wanted to tell you this for a long time. I even anticipated your questions and I am well prepared. Any writing which has influenced the thinking and the lives of innumerable people is important. Now, there are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.” Lee’s voice was a chant of triumph.

Adam Trask is based on Steinbeck's father John E. Steinbeck.

Adam said, “Do you believe that, Lee?”
“Yes, I do. Yes, I do. It is easy out of laziness, out of weakness, to throw oneself into the lap of deity, saying, ‘I couldn’t help it; the way was set.’ But think of the glory of the choice! That makes a man a man. A cat has no choice, a bee must make honey. There’s no godliness there. And do you know, those old gentlemen who were sliding gently down to death are too interested to die now?”
Adam said, “Do you mean these Chinese men believe the Old Testament?”
Lee said, “These old men believe a true story, and they know a true story when they hear it. They are critics of truth. They know that these sixteen verses are a history of humankind in any age or culture or race. They do not believe a man writes fifteen and three-quarter verses of truth and tells a lie with one verb. Confucius tells men how they should live to have good and successful lives. But this—this is a ladder to climb to the stars.” Lee’s eyes shone. “You can never lose that. It cuts the feet from under weakness and cowardliness and laziness.”
Adam said, “I don’t see how you could cook and raise the boys and take care of me and still do all this.”
“Neither do I,” said Lee. “But I take my two pipes in the afternoon, no more and no less, like the elders. And I feel that I am a man. And I feel that a man is a very important thing—maybe more important than a star. This is not theology. I have no bent toward gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed— because ‘Thou mayest.’”

Here are three clips of James dean with:

Julie Harris

Jo Van Fleet

Raymond Massey

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