Willis Barnstone’s The Secret Reader: A Tour de Force Kept Secret Too Long

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I’d like to chat with you about The Secret Reader: 501 Sonnets, a tour de force that’s been kept secret too long. Though Dad has been recognized as a translator—he wears what he calls “the scarlet T of the translator”—he has not been lauded as one of our most magnificent political and historical poets—and this is ironic in so many ways, most poignantly because my father’s capacity as a poet to empathize and voice the secret lives of so many people, particularly in The Secret Reader, motivates his outstanding accomplishment as a translator.

No less than Walt Whitman, Willis Barnstone contains multitudes, and secretly reads the whole population of the cosmos. Because consciousness is autobiography, the voice in The Secret Reader internalizes texts, songs, world events and makes them personal, whether the subject is a family member or friend, Robert Frost, Paul Robeson, Borges, Spinoza, Jesus, Buddha, the Great Depression, or Auschwitz. Here’s one of my favorites that can serve as a microcosm of the strategies and vision of the book:


Gospel of Clouds

On cloudy Sundays clouds are in my heart as if my brother came, as if the rain lingered among the mushrooms and the art of freedom washed into the murder train or rinsed the peat bog soldiers of the camp. On cloudy Sundays clouds are with Joe Hill (last night I dreamt he was alive); the tramp was mining clouds for thunder. And uphill into the clouds I feel that time descends, as if my mother came, as if the moon were flowering between the thighs of friends and gave us fire. On Sundays when the swan of death circles my heart, the cloudy noon rolls me gaping like dice, though I am gone.

The poem is based on the song “Cloudy Sunday,” which is an anthem of the Greek people and their suffering. Written by the Rebetika composer Vassilis Tsitsanis during the German occupation, it was popularized by Manos Hadzidakis, who was a friend of Dad’s. The phrase “peat bog soldiers of the camp” is taken from a famous concentration camp song, composed in German, in which the inmates speak of themselves as peat bog soldiers, carrying spades instead of rifles. Paul Robeson, among others, made this concentration camp song popular after the war. Robeson, Pete Seeger, and Joan Baez sang the “I dreamed I saw Joe Hill Last Night,” the tribute to the martyred labor leader. All these materials of culture are woven into a personal dirge to Dad’s brother and mother, and indirectly to his father. My grandfather was huge fan of Paul Robeson, and when my dad was a boy, he took him to see Robeson play Othello in New York.

My father does not sharply divide the imagination from the real or the individual from the body politic. One of my first encounters with world vision came when I was in about second grade. “What did you do in school today?” “Oh, we wrote poems,” I answered, “but they were just dumb rhyming poems.” “Not all rhyming poems are bad,” Dad said, and he took my hand and read me “Tyger, tyger burning bright in the forests of the night.” And through Blake, he taught me about the mistreatment and the sorrows of the chimney sweep and the little black boy and the prostitute on streets of London, as well the beautiful innocence of infant joy, the little lamb, and the echoing green.

Dad has told me several times not to stress the fact that he’s a Jew, because he wants to be a poet, not limited bu group identity. This is conundrum of identity. Carl Phillips writes that “from Robert Hayden‘s poetry, I learned that the only obligation of the poet is to write honestly from that part of identity that is the essence of self past race, sexuality, gender. Which is to say that I see such aspects of identity as simultaneously crucial to and incidental to our individual versions of being human. In Hayden’s work, I find everywhere the particular and what transcends it intertwined.” It’s “both/and” as my mentor Michael S. Harper would say. Like Michael, Dad never forgets where he came from:

Gas Lamp, 1893

In brownstone Boston down on old Milk Street, up two gray flights, near the gas lamp, the tailor waits glumly for the midwife. August heat has worn the woman out. Amid the squalor she looks around the bed, clutching a cape she brought from London as a child. It’s dawn and dirty. The dark tailor wants to escape to his cramped shop. The woman’s sheets are drawn below her waist. She isn’t hollering now. Her eyes are dark and still; blood on her thumbs. Her name is Sarah. No. I’m guessing.  How, untold, am I to know? Hot day has worn into the room. The midwife finally comes. Grandmother bleeds to death. My father’s born.

By the way, her name wasn’t Sarah, it was probably Bessie. His maternal  grandmother was Sarah or Sorke. The fact that Dad’s father, who had the idea to change the family name to from Bornstein to Barnstone, was born in Boston rather than in Russia or Poland as it later became meant that my father was born Willis Robert Barnstone, not Velvel Bornstein:

A Kraut Scrawling in His Rainbow Tongue

Why do I feel distant from the German race? For starts it killed the Jews and I am one it missed; my midnight blood cannot erase disquiet. Were I in Warsaw and the sun was shifting through my ghetto window, I’d not bask for long in ‘42. Yet I am a bit of a Kraut, I fear, and were I fried, a German name would burn like kosher ham: Herr Velvel Bornstein. Even now I owe my tongue and heart to Saxon thorns, my speech to Old English (Insular Teutonic) prized and talked into my bones. So I beseech murders to fade. I talk a huge rainbow and scrawl a German clean and circumcised.

One’s group identity is an accident of birth, and whether you belong to a group that is persecuted and murdered is also beyond control. Yet the speaker in this poem asserts, “I talk a huge rainbow,” as do we all when we speak our transcendent truth.

Wang Wei and the Snow

Although Wang Wei is peaceful looking at the apricot, the moon gull and the frost climbing the village hills, or feels the mat of pine trees on the mountain sky, or lost in meditation loses nature and the outer light to sing his way through mist inside, although Wang Wei becomes the land and loitering rain, his mountain clouds exist as refugees from thought and turn like mills never exhausting time. Wang Wei also is stuck in life, and from his hermitage he tells a friend to walk the idle hills alone, to swallow failure like the age- ing year, to dream (what else is there?) of snow.

Born two years after Black Tuesday, which began the Depression, Dad’s personal history spans the greater part of a century, and his travels the greater part of the earth. He was in China during the Cultural Revolution and in Argentina during the Dirty War. He’s been close to such figures Jorge Luis Borges, George Seferis, Manos Hadzidakis, Vicente Alexandre, James Laughlin and has stories about everyone from Allen Ginsberg to Ruth Stone to Bill Bradley to the deposed royal family of Greece. With respect to the latter, in the early ‘50s, he was Constantine’s tutor until he got fired for telling the queen that he was opposed to monarchies, a typical move on his part to choose truth over propriety. Given all the people with whom he’s had personal encounters, it strikes my funny bone that he demurred when he had the opportunity to meet Ezra Pound. He writes in the poem, “Yale”: “With stupid discipline / I race through (gone for good the wandering bum / of Europe) yet among my peers I’m craven: / no pilgrimage to Ezra in his loony bin.

When you are The Secret Reader of the 501 sonnets you’ll travel across the globe and the millennia. You’ll learn Kabbala and look in the mirror with Akmatova. You’ll travel to China during the Cultural Revolution and observe open heart surgery in which acupuncture was used as the anesthesia. When he told American physicians that he’d seen a man drinking orange juice while the surgeons operated on his heart, they told him it was smoke and mirrors and propaganda. I could take up many more pages just enumerating the particulars of my father’s journey, artistically, philosophically, geographically, and historically. I hope that my praise of the scope of Dad’s vision allays some of his fears of being marginalized, a fear that I believe comes not just from the fact that he is a translator but that he is a Jew and grew up in a time when Jews could not attend most private schools, when there were covenants on the books that forbade Jews and blacks from living in certain upscale neighborhoods, and when career options were limited.

The poem I quoted earlier, “Gas Lamp, 1893,” alludes to the fact that my father’s side of the family came to America through the port of Boston the late 19th Century. My great-grandfather, Morris Bornstein, was a tailor. My grandfather, Robert, was a jeweler, whom Willis’s sister, Beatrice, described as a “magician with diamonds.” Robert had an 8th grade education, but he was an autodidact. He loved Rembrandt and hoped that Billy would be like him. Dad says his father always encouraged him and gave him confidence. You might say that my grandfather Robert’s legacy is the legacy so many of us carry on. It’s not that easy and often maligned American dream, not just hope for the coming generations but a responsibility to the children of the future. It occurs to me as I write—it’s this idea of responsibility that connects Michael S. Harper vision to my father, and perhaps accounts for how keen I was to figure out what Michael was trying to impart (and anyone who knew Michael knows this was impossible). It’s the title of Michael’s book and poem “nightmare begins responsibility.” That responsibility extends from the personal and familial to the body politic and the unfamiliar, from ordinary daily life to historical and generational trauma, from the past to the future that will be shaped by those who come after.

That sense of responsibility made my father a caring mentor, who perhaps because of his own feelings of alienation has devoted himself to helping others move from the margins to the center of attention. He and our mother inspired me and my two brothers with their example, generosity, and encouragement. My father offers that ethos not only to his children, but to countless friends, students, and colleagues. When he was at Indiana University, he welcomed students into his office day and night, no matter what he was working on. In fact, when I was in town and we were working together on projects, I got frustrated and finally said, “Dad, post office hours. It’s great to talk to students but it’s hard to work when we’re interrupted so often.” He reluctantly complied. Anyone else, would have had a hard time being so prolific devoting so much time to students.

He loves to teach and to this day says that the biggest mistake he made in his life was retiring from Indiana University at the age 66. When he’s come to visit me at UNLV and the University of Missouri, the first thing he’s wanted to do is to come to class with me, to hold conferences with students, and invite them over for meals and conversation. As a father and mentor he instilled faith in ourselves, constantly insisting that we kids and everyone could do anything if only we believed. I remember so many instances when my father would talk about a student, for example, and say, “So-and-so is brilliant but their parents don’t support them, so they doubt themself. If only they would believe, they could”—and now you can fill in the blank—write poetry, paint, go into politics, become a scientist—and he would set about to fill the fearful dark spaces of doubt in that person’s heart with the light of hope.

Because we’ve worked so closely together all my life, the poems in The Secret Reader, which we chatted about over the 18 years of their composition have shaped my vision, which is shaped by the fact that I am descended from a Jew and a Greek, my mother, Elli Tzaloupoulou Barnstone. Dad jokes that he’s Greek by blood, after all, his children are half-Greek. Here are the last lines of “Two Souls Meet on a Windy Night and Worry about a Marble Face,” which is based on a line in the poem “Mythohistorema”—by Willis’s good friend, George Seferis. The line is “I woke with a marble head in my hands,” and deals with the burden and beauty of bearing one’s ancestry:

I met a soul one windy night. Paris embraced us with her laugh. She was a Greek. She gave me an ancient statue that hurt my arms. The cheekbones almost pierced the skin. ……..It’s so heavy, where can I put it down? I say to her. ……..Don’t ever put it down, she says. We Greeks wake ……..with a glaring marble head in our arms. Hold it up or it will roll ……..away.

Dad does feel the imperative to “hold up” two ancient cultures, one he was born with, the other he adopted through my mother – and, of course, I feel it, too, though differently, as a daughter, and my father has always encouraged me, personally and professionally. We shared many conversations about injustice toward girls and women. He dreamed up the idea for us to edit A Book of Women Poets from Antiquity to Now, and to bring unknown voices to the English-speaking world, a project that speaks to my father’s commitment to equality among people, to bringing forth forgotten and silenced voices.

From early age I became fascinated with the feminine divine, and my first glimpses of Her came from the Greek myths my mother told us and in Sappho’s fragments, which Dad translated. My father shares the  conviction of the Gnostics that Eve was framed and is our heroine because she gave humanity knowledge. He empathizes with my disappointment and anger about God the Father, a tyrant who shuts me out of the conversation and deprives me of agency. When I was college searching for a way into the metaphysical realm, I gained perspective working on our project of editing A Book of Women Poets Antiquity to Now and translating women poets, beginning with Enheduana, a Sumerican moon priestess and the first writer known to the world. I wasn’t alone because women poets gave voice to the feminine divine.

This is another way in which The Secret Reader is a revelation: the sonnets read biblical women as seekers and revealers of truth, rather than as faithful and submissive to the doctrine.

Mary Who Held Her Dead Son in Her Arms

In Mexico the Indians on their knees bloody the earth and crawl to her. She sighs eternally to them. Her huge tears freeze against the kohl below her dazed moon eyes. Like God she seemed a miracle. But God was busy fabricating more and more believers and their laws. She scorned the rod of suiters, neither virgin nor a whore but a mother who gave birth. Joe stuck by her despite the cracks. A woman in her bed, she bore the infant Joshua and she had to scratch her way out of a shed. And then she bore him from the spikes. He moaned and bled while she embraced him dying among men.

Strange to say, Dad’s portraits of Jesus in The Secret Reader made me love the Jewish rabbi, who above all loved and cared for the poor, healed the sick, and fed the hungry, as Leviticus commands, who in direct contrast to the distortions of patriarchal doctrine, defended women, the prostitute, the Samaritan, and the Magdalen, chose a woman as his first evangelist, and revealed himself to women as the risen Messiah. Dad even imagines Jesusa the Woman:

Jesusa the Woman

Some say it is a man the Romans tacked up on the cross. A man with naked breasts? And that he screamed in pain when they attacked him with a spear. I haven’t screamed. Their jests and insults pierced me more than labor on the wooden beams. They lie about my sex, yet you believe a gospel decades gone after they spiked me up? And they perplex me with their lofty souls, granting me slime. I am a whore or witch or mother—not a priest. Even the Pope cracked his Pole joke saying I chose the apostles male. So choke away up there. Millennia in the same spot. I’m sick of rotting. Take me down. It’s time.

The sonnets of revisionary theology in The Secret Reader lay the groundwork for another tour de force, Dad’s translation, The Restored New Testament, restored because it corrects the mistranslations and reveals that the bible is a book written by, about, and for Jews. Thus, despite my stated intent to steer away from translation, I’m ending with it. The poet-translator dichotomy is one invented by audience and reception. To apply it to Willis Barnstone’s body of work, which is polyglot and travels the world, is to miss the ways that he translates us to the “constancy of the common person, who is the human everywhere and in all time.” In Yeshua, Dad sees that common person who is or is not God. The words he writes in the preface to The Restored New Testament, “Jesus and the Poor,” might also describe the poetics of The Secret Reader, and so I will close with his voice:

Some call it humility and modesty….In that surrender and humiliation is the pathos, which makes this picaresque, episodic book perhaps the most evenly powerful work about the poor in body, soul, and hope. All politic, doctrine, beautiful poetry, parables, aphorisms, and even an ultimate drama and agony of crucifixion pale before the constancy of the common person, who is the human everywhere and in all time. Therein lies the ordinary art and the plain universal passion of the people in the gospels. The picture of primal nakedness covered by a colorless mean cloth, of hurting bodies that speak with needs of the weak and poor, ensures that the gospel tale, independent of faith, doctrine, commandment, fearful warnings, and metaphysics, will always reach those with eyes to hear and feel the human condition of the spirited body waiting on the earth” (5-6)

Work Cited

Willis Barnstone. The Secret Reader: 501 Sonnets. Hanover: UPNE, 1996
—-. The Restored New Testament: A New Translation with Commentary, Including the Gnostic Gospels Thomas, Mary, and Judas. New York: Norton, 2009.