Lyn Coffin reads Jiri Otron
Crackling with passion
by Rachel Feldbin Urist
Last November, Lyn Coffin read from her translations of Jiri [YEER-zhi] Orten's poems, published last year under the title White Picture (Night Publishing). She was joined by the singer-songwriter, Laz Slomovits, of Gemini, who set some of the poems to music. They return on April 22. Coffin, whose voice crackles with passion, brings to poems to life. Slomovitz' melodies are enhanced by his lyric tenor voice, accompanied by guitar. The child-like clarity of his voice and musical purity of the songs capture the poems' haunting beauty.
Coffin, herself a decorated poet, was awarded first prize by the Academy of American Poets for her translations of Orten's Elegies. Orten, punished for the sin of being Jewish, closes a poem with: "I will not live long." That was 1939. Two years later he was hit by a speeding German ambulance that dragged him for five blocks before stopping. No hospital would accept him, because he was Jewish. He died on his 22nd birthday.
In the poems, Orten revels in nature. Flowers bloom, rivers flow, snow falls, and wild mustard fills the fields with color--backdrops, all, to death and destruction. He prays, pleads, and argues with God: "Is there nowhere in your compassion a place / where a wretched psalmist might find rest?" Expelled from the conservatory, banned from publishing his poetry, he writes: "I am guilty for the vain longing for my father...for love that's lost to me." He yearns "to be without pain."
Coffin, a master of poetic structure, has experimented with many forms: ballad, sonnet, villanelle, haiku. She often builds a poem around the form. When translating, she concentrates not on meaning but on how and why things are said. The meaning, she says, is under the literal words. "Intention is like notes you made about a certain region of the country--like maybe the region is famous for pumpkins. And you go out looking for pumpkins but it's the wrong season for pumpkins and
everywhere there are grapes." While she rues the loss of the original in any translation, she stresses that translations are everywhere. "When you get an idea and put it down on paper, you're translating it. When you speak, you translate your thoughts into words; you shape it for your audience--a child, someone who disagrees, someone who knows less or more than you do about the idea--which is everyone!"
Coffin's readings are punctuated with historical and personal anecdotes, and she holds her audience in thrall. This April reading promises to be as mesmerizing as the last. A CD is now available. For more on Lyn Coffin, go to Wikipedia. For more on Laz Slomovitz, go to http://geminichildrensmusic.com.
[Originally published in April, 2012.]