E. Powys Mathers’ “Black Marigolds” and Joan Grigsby’s “The Orchid Door”

I have already mentioned poet Joan Grigsby, who adapted Korean poems in accordance with her own poetic vision, in a previous post. On Brother Anthony’s site there is a page linking many of Grigsby’s freely adapted poems to some of the literal translations from which she drew.

Grigsby’s contemporary in England, E. Powys Mathers, did something similar with a Sanskrit poem called the “Chauraspanchasika,” which he adapted freely into a piece called “Black Marigolds.” This page offers a full text of “Black Marigolds,” including Mathers’ preface (linked from a physicist’s personal poetry archive here). The pages Translating: Bilhana 1 and Translating: Bilhana 2 discuss differences between Mathers’ free translation and more literal translations. This page has a complete text of Barbara Stoler Miller’s literal translation of the “Chauraspanchasika.”

I am interested in particular to discover the differences between these free translations and the originals: what these Eastern-minded poets conserved, and how they wove it with their own visions. This kind of study is different from that of occidental haiku or sijo. Those works are not directly grafted onto another poet’s vision, though some of them respond to Eastern poets. The grafted poems are distinctive to me because their essences are still partially derived from an earlier source. This kind of response of Western poets to Eastern work seems distinctive for two reasons: they’re leaning toward a different, perhaps opposite ideology, to their native system, however loosely or tightly they adhere to that system, and they are, in some cases, expressing more generally the emotional truth of an original than a literal translation into English can for those without extensive knowledge of the culture.

My interest in Grigsby stems from that first point: how she creates a cohesive feminist vision from traditional patriarchal works by inserting the female perspective into them, as with “Rainbow Sleeves.” And in Mathers, without having studied any Sanskrit poetry, I feel I have come suddenly close to complex aspects of Indian literature by reading “Black Marigolds.”


“scruffy sparrows” from Favor of Crows

scruffy sparrows
chatter outside the bakery
raisin scones

Gerald Vizenor, Favor of Crows

Common and perhaps worse-for-wear birds center an outdoor scene. The rumpled sparrows contrast with the sleeker concept of a baker’s shop, while their chatter invites personification. Then, the viewer’s gaze falls on something heartening, perhaps on the other side of the bakery window in a more exclusive space, where all is cozy. Does the chatter of the sparrow center around the scones, maybe a favorite treat of theirs, since they have gathered here before?

By mentioning the human-like “chatter” of the sparrows, the speaker invites the viewer to regard the world through their eyes as, just for a moment, the speaker, and reader, both gaze on the inviting scones.

The briefly-sketched scene evokes empathy in a shared desire for comfort and warmth between human and animals, and tenderness in its charm, while also keeping the desired object at a distance. Will the sparrows have a chance to taste the scones? Will a human hand offer them a bite, or will someone leave a few crumbs behind in a discarded wrapper?

“Rainbow Sleeves” from The Orchid Door: Ancient Korean Poems

The book online: HTML, PDF

According to Brother Anthony’s site, The Orchid Door is a book of poetry by Joan Grigsby adapted from Korean originals. The poem “Rainbow Sleeves” below is from this collection.

Rainbow Sleeves (Anon.)

Her rainbow sleeves are gay as golden wine
Poured from a silver flask to porcelain bowls.
Between the guests she moves. Their wet lips shine.

Their eyes grow dry and hot as burning coals,
Watching her bend to pour their perfumed wine,
Watching her rainbow sleeves above the bowls.

One gives her amber beads like honeyed light,
Another, coral drops for her to wear
Like folded peach buds in her ears tonight,
While one sets bright blue feathers in her hair.
Gay are her sleeves!
Yet, in the lanterns’ light,
Her face — a peony flower — reveals despair.

The description “rainbow sleeves” recalls the brightly-colored striped sleeves of the traditional Korean women’s hanbok. The fixed cheerfulness of her sleeves is analogous to the joy-inducing quality of the wine she pours. She gives, while her guests, apparently male, consume the wine, as their “wet lips,” suggest.

The guests’ eyes, “dry and hot as burning coals,” suggest their desires for consumption have turned to the server. Their shining lips and burning eyes lend a darkened contrast to the innocent vibe the server projects. Hoping, probably, for favors, the guests bestow the server with sumptuous gifts. The gifts, however, only serve to adorn her beauty and enhance their pleasure in observing her. As “one sets bright blue feathers in her hair,” she is transformed into a bird, albeit a caged one.

The speaker reiterates the woman’s bright sleeves before revealing the “despair” of her “peony flower” face, a condition the false brightness of her adornments and the lewd encroachment of her “guests” has suggested.

The overall situation and “rainbow sleeves” remind me of the old English poem Greensleeves.

A new Courtly Sonnet, of the Ladie Greensleeves.
Alas, my love, you do me wrong
To cast me off discourteously
And I have lov-ed you so long
Delighting in your companie

(Chorus)Greensleeves was all my joy
Greensleeves was my delight
Greensleeves was my heart of gold
And who but my Ladie Greensleeves

I have been ready at your hand
To grant whatever you would crave,
I have both waged life and land,
Your love and good-will for to have.


I bought thee kerchers to thy head,
That were wrought fine and gallantly
I kept thee both boord and bed
Which cost my purse well favouredly


I bought thee petticoats of the best,
The cloth so fine as might be;
I gave thee jewels for thy chest,
And all this cost I spent on thee.

The speaker of “Greensleeves” continues to list his expenditures on the lady, who will not bestow favors despite accepting his gifts. Meanwhile, the green of her sleeves suggests gaiety or promiscuity misconstrued by the speaker. In both poems, the woman’s colorful sleeves serve as a false indicator of joy in contrast to her disconnection from the male admirer(s).

Yet, “Greensleeves” retains her independence, while “Rainbow Sleeves” wades through nights of despair. The fixedness of her costume and position suggest that she is locked into her dilemma with no hope of escape.

It also suggests, in a broader sense, the falseness and spiritual barrenness of a society structured entirely around exchange of materials and services.