Last night Katy and I went to hear Coleman Barks read some of his Rumi translations at the Palace of Fine Arts.
I acquired one of Barks’ Rumi books the last time I was in Europe and it stabbed me in the heart a few times, as books occasionally do. Rumi was a thirteenth century Sufi mystic; not someone you would expect to speak so clearly to a twenty-first century agnostic dog journalist, but there you have it, art is surprising. And part of the reason why the poems spoke to me — maybe the whole reason, for all I know — was Barks’ clear, simple translations.
I expected Barks to be stuffy and staid, like someone who chose to bury himself in thirteenth century poetry. Instead, he was merry and charmingly self-conscious. He made silly jokes and talked about his family. In retrospect, he was exactly the person you would expect to bury himself in the dizzy, drunken world of Rumi.
The readings were backed by a trio of musicians and accompanied by a “story dancer,” and mostly I found these accompaniments distracting rather than enhancing. But there was one poem that worked. The poem is about that moment when the sun begins to rise and you’ve been up all night talking with friends; it’s an attempt to define that state of being. And suddenly the lighting was right and the music was right and the dancer was quietly spinning instead of windmilling her arms and in my mind I saw a man coming out of a tavern into the first light of morning, and I thought about the fact that this man who spoke these words had been dead for all these centuries and here I am with my living ear catching these words, and just for a moment I had one flash of understanding of what that might mean. And I think that moment was worth the ticket price.
This lovely illustration is by Lisa Dietrich.
Incidentally, here are some of my favorite Rumi lines — not the lines that most move me, but the ones I’d like to live by:
Work. Keep digging your well.
Don’t think about getting off from work.
Water is there somewhere.
Submit to a daily practice.
Your loyalty to that
is a ring on the door.
Keep knocking, and the joy inside
will eventually open a window
and look out to see who’s there.
If ever I have a study of my own, I will paint “SUBMIT TO A DAILY PRACTICE” in big letters on the wall.