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POEM of the SEA
Holly Tannen - yearbook photo Manhattan, 1962. My father is an accountant, my mother is a secretary. They work for firms with names like Batton, Barton, Scarfenbarfer and Wooflestein. I have no idea what these companies do. My parents send me to a psychiatrist. They don't go: they're normal. They can't figure out why they have this crazy kid.

     In high school, French literature is being inflicted upon us. One spring morning, three-quarters of the way through the 19th century:

As I came floating down impassive rivers
I felt myself no longer guided by the bargemen's hands
Howling natives hauled them up for targets
Nailed them naked onto painted poles.

What did I care I for any crew?
Traders of Flemish wheat or English cotton
When they were through with all their noisy grief
The rivers let me wander where I would

Out on the angry splash of winter tides
Emptier than children's minds I ran!
And no unmoored peninsula ever knew
More triumphant uproar than I made...

...And since then, I've been bathing in the Poem of the Sea,
Milk-white, infused with stars...

I know the sky split wide by lightning, tides,
And surf, and waterspouts; I know the night,
And dawn exalted like a flock of doves,
And sometimes I have seen what man has thought he's seen!

click to see Holly's translation of the whole poem
     The guy who wrote that was sixteen! My school is all girls. I don't know how to talk to boys. Here is this boy my own age, speaking to me from a century ago.

     I find his two little books, "Illuminations and "A Season in Hell." "Illuminations" has his picture on the cover: wild hair, weird eyes. The left side of his face full of light; the right, drawn and dark.

I've seen the setting sun light up the shiv'ring purple waves
Like actors in some ancient tragedy
I've dreamed the evening green with dazzled snow and singing phosphor
And kisses rising slowly on the eyelids of the sea.

I've touched the shores of Floridas where flowers mingle
With the eyes of panthers in the skins of men
And monstrous serpents eaten up with lice
Drop down from trees entwined with black perfume.

Pacific Dawn -- photo by John Birchard
"Pacific Dawn" © John Birchard 2000

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     Holly Tannen teaches folklore and anthropology, and has lectured on contemporary magic at U.C. Berkeley and at Yale University. Her recordings include "Invocation", "Between the Worlds", and "Rime of the Ancient Matriarch"

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Michael Potts, webster updated 11 June 2001 : 17:28 Caspar (Pacific) time

All text, translations, and songs copyright © 2001-2004 by Holly Tannen