30 June 2015

Tomato Tuesday 2015/8

Starting off with a random rose this week: this is Flower Girl, which produces billows of these classically simple flowers, massed together like pink clouds, nodding with the passing breezes. That plant has done quite well; sometimes you just stick a plant in a fortunate spot and it thrives. You also need a healthy plant to start with, of course.


I was taking pictures of the lavender in front of Flower Girl when a white butterfly fluttered through. I managed to get it in one of the photographs before it flew off. The lavender is planted by the side of the house, which gets a lot of afternoon sun at this time of year. That's why the flowers are all bending forward – that's where the sun is. I've also noticed that one of the trees on the front lawn gets its leaves earliest and loses them last on the side that faces that afternoon sun, leaving it with a lopsided look in spring and autumn.


We've had some hot days, of the sort in which my only consolation is to think, Well, it's good for the tomatoes, and also some overcast days, but those have been muggy rather than cool. The tomatoes are doing quite well so far with the reduced watering schedule (roughly two days a week). Once again, in the photo below Michael Pollan is on the left and Cherokee Purple on the right. You can see that they're both looking quite healthy, and Michael Pollan (34 inches this week, up from 30 last week) seems catching up in bushiness with Cherokee Purple (roughly the same height this week as last, 31 inches).


I'm in the middle of an extremely busy stretch of days and that was one reason I decided not to count blossoms this week. The other, more compelling reason is that while new buds are appearing on both plants the older flowers are starting to drop off and form fruit. I probably should have counted anyway, and now I'm thinking it's going to bother me that I didn't, but as I said: extremely busy stretch of days.

Here are some flowers on Michael Pollan:


And here are some on Cherokee Purple:


And look what happened to Cherokee Purple while I was off being extremely busy!


To give you a sense of scale, the larger tomato is 2 1/2 inches wide. You can see the interesting pleated shape that is one of the reasons heirloom tomatoes were abandoned by large growers (they're harder to ship and their fruit is not "picture perfect" unless you have a taste for grotesquerie and baroque pearls). I also noticed a little green oval fruit forming on Michael Pollan, so it's keeping up with Cherokee Purple on that front as well.

29 June 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/26

Little Lyric (Of Great Importance)

I wish the rent
Was heaven sent.

Langston Hughes

Some Langston Hughes to mark the halfway point of this year. There is an old tradition, going back to the Greek and Latin poets and no doubt even predating them among now-lost oral cultures, of the epigram, a concise and well-turned expression of a universal truth (sometimes in the guise of a personal jab). Hughes gives us an excellent example, combining his interest in colloquial speech – you can easily imagine someone actually saying this – in social justice, and in poetic form. I think we don't need much explication here; I'm sure we've all said or sighed the same thing. Hughes really hits home here (home, as long as you can pay the rent!).

I took this from The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, Arnold Rampersad, editor, and David Roessel, Associate Editor.

24 June 2015

fun stuff I may or may not get to: July 2015

BART Update
As I've been noting every month since April, BART had announced a track shut-down between Coliseum and Fruitvale, scheduled for several weekends a month from April to August. The good news is that they seem to have finished early. The I'm raising my eyebrow at you, BART news is that they didn't bother with more than a cursory announcement of that fact. You'd think they'd have something up on their website, if only to pat themselves on the back for finished ahead of schedule. Such an announcement would also be reassuring to people who have been thrown by BART's capricious way of suddenly announcing and then quietly changing the shut-down dates.

I did actually take the bus bridge one Sunday afternoon, because I had a ticket for a matinee I didn't want to miss. The bus bridge was, how shall I put this, surprisingly endurable? On both ends the buses were there waiting, and there seemed to be enough of them for the crowds, which was good because many people had no idea this was going on (and this was a month into the project) so ridership was probably close to normal Sunday levels. I don't know if I just got lucky with the buses – I definitely got lucky on the return trip, because if I'd reached the San Francisco station two minutes later I would have had to wait at least another twenty minutes for a train, though that is not really due to the shut-down problem and is more in the nature of just one of BART's regular problems, which is that they don't run enough trains. I also have to say: people move so slowly I cannot believe it. I'm not talking about elderly, very young, or disabled passengers, I mean adults who should be able to walk on an escalator or at least know enough not to block them. In the event of (God forbid!) some disaster striking, I am just going to shove people out of my way. Seriously. Or at least scream at them to speed up their strolling. Slow-moving is a particular problem in the many stations that have narrow staircases/escalators and not enough of them. Which is most of the stations.

In short: the bus bridge worked surprisingly well, but added enough time and trouble to the trip so that I would not want to deal with it late at night.

I think I was correct in guessing in my initial remarks on this situation that BART was going to be randomly announcing such track shut-downs for the next few years, because we have another one coming up, and since it involves the crucial area between the West Oakland station and the Transbay Tube, it is going to have an even bigger effect on riders. There will be buses between the 19th Street Station in Oakland and the Temporary Transbay Terminal in downtown San Francisco, but BART is presenting them as a last resort for desperate riders and is basically hoping you'll figure another way to do whatever you need to get done. The currently announced dates are the first weekend in August and all of Labor Day Weekend – but as repeatedly noted, and complained about, BART does have a history of changing their dates with little to no fanfare, so check their site as necessary and consider yourself warned.

As usual, July is a fairly quiet month for performances, but there are some fun things out there, particularly for opera fans.

Operatic
San Francisco Opera closes out the second half of its season with a few performances in July: one more of Berlioz's Les Troyens (1 July) and two more of Mozart's Nozze di Figaro (3 and 5 July; the 3 July performance is simulcast at Major Phone Company ballpark; the simulcast is free but you need to register).

San Francisco Opera's Merola Program for young artists starts up when the regular season ends; there is a concert (presumably of opera arias, though no specific program is given on the website) on 9 July at the Conservatory of Music and a repeat on 11 July (matinee) at Yerba Buena Gardens; then on 23 and 25 (matinee) Merola presents Puccini's Gianni Schicchi on a double-bill with Menotti's The Medium at Cowell Theater at Fort Mason (from a public transportation point of view, this is a difficult location; I'm not sure why they moved from the lovely auditorium at Everett Middle School that they have used the past few years). Click here for more Merola information.

At the other end of the month (and mostly into August), West Edge Opera holds its second summer festival, again presenting three operas – Monteverdi's Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria, Berg's Lulu, and Laura Kaminsky's As One, a new chamber opera exploring the life of a transgender woman. Each is in a separate and intriguing location: Lulu is in the abandoned 16th Street train station in Oakland on 25 July, and 2 (matinee) and 8 August; Ulysses is in the American Steel Studios at 1960 Mandela Parkway in Oakland on 1, 7 and 9 (matinee) August; and As One is in the Oakland Metro on 26 (matinee) and 31 July and 8 August (matinee).

I have conflicting feelings about these venues. On the one hand, they sound potentially exciting and even glamorous in a sort of necrotic Norma Desmond way, with lots of site-specific possibilities. On the other hand, they are not public-transportation friendly (and please note that some of the dates coincide with BART's latest track shutdown, as noted above). I have walked to the Oakland Metro (near Jack London Square) from the 12th Street BART station; it's a bit of a schlep but do-able, though I would not scoff at anyone who did not feel comfortable walking it alone at night. For the other two operas, West Edge will provide a shuttle ($10 round-trip; free if you buy a "gold" ticket) to the West Oakland BART station (again: BART's latest shutdown will effect the 1 and 2 August performances, and it's possible West Edge doesn't even realize this yet). But honestly – and this is more the fault of our inadequate public transportation than of West Edge Opera  – the thought of waiting up to twenty minutes late at night at the West Oakland station really does not thrill me. What is West Edge's fault is their persistence in starting evening performances at 8:00, even as more tradition-bound organizations (like the San Francisco Opera) bow to reality and start performances at 7:30. I'd be a little more open to the wait if I thought it wouldn't be approaching midnight and the final possible train. There's also the horrifying thought of having to wait in a crowd of opera patrons while they gather themselves, slowly oh so slowly, to get on the shuttle. And then having to listen to their so-called "thoughts" on what they saw! I'm impatient enough already without dealing with that! Well, at least West Edge did add the shuttle option; when I checked their site a few months ago, there was no information about public transportation at all. Too bad there's only one matinee per opera, since that seems like the best time for this particular adventure.

Symphonic
As a lagniappe to the San Francisco Symphony's June Beethoven festival, and as part of its summer programming of popular concerts, you can hear Edwin Outwater conduct an all-Beethoven program – the Leonora Overture No 3, the First Symphony, and the Violin Concerto with soloist Liza Ferschtman – on 11 July. Outwater also conducts the other program that looks particularly interesting, when Awesome Principal Trumpet Mark Inouye and his jazz quartet join the Symphony for variations on some old favorites; that's on 9 July. Both those concerts start at 7:30 rather than 8:00, an innovation that I would welcome during the regular season.

Theatrical
Shotgun Players presents Caryl Churchill's Top Girls, directed by Delia MacDougall, from 2 July to 2 August.

San Francisco Playhouse presents Sondheim's Company, directed by Susi Damilano, from 7 July to 12 September.

No Nude Men revives William Marchant's 1955 comedy The Desk Set, directed by Stuart Bousel. Yes, this is the play that was made into a Tracy/Hepburn film, and it's about four women researchers who are losing their jobs to technological advances. Gee, can't imagine why they'd revive that now! The show runs from 9 to 25 July at the Exit Stage Left Theater.


23 June 2015

Tomato Tuesday 2015/7

Nothing overtly dramatic, like a rainy night, happened this week. The usual early morning fog has been burning off fairly early. This is good for the tomatoes, if not for me. Due to the rain last week I've watered the tomatoes even less this week. It doesn't seem to be harming them or even slowing them down, which is making me think about how to water tomatoes in the future, assuming this drought ever ends (meteorologists are predicting an El Niño year, which should mean adequate rain, but there's quite a deficit to make up, and we still need to see if the predictions come true). Since I plant most of my tomatoes in pots I've always assumed they need more water, but perhaps enough gets retained in the pot to provide healthy tomatoes. I guess we'll see what the fruit is like when it appears. Certainly the only green spots in the back are circling the tomato pots, so there is water running out through the drainage holes.

Michael Pollan is on the left and Cherokee Purple on the right. This is another big growth week: both were 23 inches high last week; this week Michael Pollan is 30 inches and Cherokee Purple 31 inches (measurements are from the soil line to the top of the main stem). So they're roughly equal in height, but Cherokee Purple is bushier.


Paul Robeson, the tomato behind Michael Pollan, is actually taller than either, and just as bushy as Cherokee Purple. Yes, I often buy plants based on their names. Or not: several years ago I saw a beautiful pink rose, and that's not my favorite rose color to start with so it had to be extra lovely to catch my eye, and I was going to get it until I realized it was named Sexy Rexy. Uh, no. It must be a fairly old rose, too – I mean, not an official old rose, but dating from decades back when Rex "Sexy Rexy" Harrison was a star. And still sexy. Just couldn't do it, based on the name. On the other hand, Betty Boop is a fantastic rose, and even looks good once the flowers have blown. I'd put up some photos but it's not doing too well this year.

Below you can see the shadow of Paul Robeson behind the pale blue sheet.


Below is one branch of Michael Pollan. You can see the blooms. Last week there were about 46 (I'm combining blossoms and buds this week); this week there are about 50. The clusters of blossoms are spread around a bit more than before, but one stem with about six blooms on it has snapped. Not sure what brought on the breakage. I have not had problems with birds or suchlike eating my tomatoes (the birds head for the apricot and fig trees), but they do like to land on the tomato cages. And there are several cats that like to prowl around my yard, and squirrels that like to bury nuts in the pots, though come to think of it I haven't seen any squirrels this year, which is odd.

I had some Silas Marner-type thoughts about bonding with some of the cats, and a few times I left out bowls of milk for them, which something drank. But they all still bolt when they see me, though you'd think they'd be used to me by now. They're quite agile at jumping up on the walls.


Below is the Cherokee Purple solo shot. There were about 111 blossoms on it, up from about 60 last week.


Apricots are starting to drop from the tree, but they're not actually ripe enough to eat yet. Frustrating!


Below is a bonus shot of the passion flower vine – part of it, anyway. It seems to have recovered quite well from the cutting-back I had to give it a few years ago, when I realized it was doing what vines do and starting to choke everything in its path. But it does it so beautifully!

22 June 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/25

Crustacean Island

There could be an island paradise
where crustaceans prevail.
Click, click, go the lobsters
with their china mitts and
articulated tails.
It would not be sad like whales
with their immense and patient sieving
and the sobering modesty
of their general way of living.
It would be an island blessed
with only cold-blooded residents
and no human angle.
It would echo with a thousand castanets
and no flamencos.

Kay Ryan

From the first line you can see the speaker's mind heading towards what fancifully could be rather than what is: not just the usual island paradise of our humdrum daydreams, but one dominated by crustaceans, a category that includes crab, shrimp, and even barnacles, but here seems to be mostly that decorative and delightful creature, the lobster. Part of the poem's playfulness is Ryan's expert use of rhymes, slant rhymes (that is, words that almost rhyme), and other sound-echoes; for example, the way echo in the penultimate line comes partly back in the -encos of flamencos. We also have prevail / tails / whales and sieving / living.

The speaker swiftly gives us both a vivid picture of lobsters and a reminder that she has put them in a fantastical situation. The lobster lives generally on the ocean floor, a fact which puts this island in the land of make-believe. The island air is filled with the sound they make: click click, a sound that would be muted underwater.  The lobster as a specific, actual creature is brought to vivid life with a few incisive details. She cleverly highlights the details that make the lobster appealing and picturesque (over-sized claws, curling tail) while eliding their potentially creepier aspects (the tiny bulging eyes, the waving spider-like legs). She evokes their large front claws, those coupled thick and thin pincers that do look like mitts, and the hard exoskeleton that makes those mitts like china, and the articulated tails. In this context the main meaning of articulated is having sections connected by a flexible joint but the word can also mean clearly spelled out in words and when it modifies tails it's impossible not to sense a pun on tales: whatever their story (and it remains unspoken; we are given no reason why these creatures have emerged from the sea, and little indication of how they subsist), it is likely to be as crisp, as clear, as unambiguous as their clicks and their china mitts.

The speaker further defines her island paradise: it would not be sad. She has switched from the potential could to the more definite would as her island takes shape. She defines sadness: it is like whales. (It's interesting to reflect on the cultural shift in the image of whales, from the ominous ambiguity of Melville's Leviathan to the dullness of these monotonous beasts.) She makes them sound like the beaten-down bourgeoisie of the oceans: they live by immense and patient sieving, they live lives of sobering modesty. The sieving would refer to the species of whale who survive by straining the plankton from seawater through their baleen. Immense here refers to the patience required for these huge animals to get enough of the tiny swarming plankton to survive, but it also helps us visualize the whales themselves. The patience of the whales is indicated even in the line breaks: after their immense and patient sieving comes the break, and the conjunction and starts the next line in an orderly way. Contrast this with the impatient rush forward of the line ending with and in the first lobster section: with their china mitts and / articulated tails, as if the line couldn't wait to jump on to the next item.

Then the speaker returns to her crustacean island, again using the would be construction, only this time it is positive: it would be an island blessed. What does this blessing consist of? It is that the residents are cold-blooded. Not only does this imply no humans, we are even explicitly told that there is no "human angle" here – the cold-blooded calculations of the warm-blooded are banished. That is how far removed this island paradise is from us and our concerns; indeed, that very removal is what makes it an island paradise. We are left with the sound evoked earlier, the click click of the claws, sounding and re-sounding like castanets. But there is no accompanying flamenco dancing, with its passionate erotic fire, to go with the echoing sound.

In its fantasy and inventiveness and humor (as well as its keen sense of play with the natural world), this poem reminds me of Victorian "nonsense" verse by Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll (perhaps what specifically evokes this for me is memories of Carroll's Lobster Quadrille). And as with Lear and Carroll, the playfulness has a strong undercurrent of sadness, fear, and loss. Why does the speaker feel that paradise must specifically exclude warm-blooded creatures, their dances, their interests? The sad whales are also warm-blooded, and therefore excluded; the speaker turns away from the gray drudgery of their subsistence living as well as from the multiple angles (of self-interest, of ignorance, of insistence and ambiguity, of so many things, including of friendship and of love) that make up the human angle. The lobsters come as a relief from all that, they are clear and sharply defined: and yet there is something brittle, even fragile about them; the "articulated tails (tales)," so unambiguous in their separate sections; the staccato clicking, echoing endlessly over and over,without development or answering sound; the china (that is, easily chipped or broken) mitts of their claws; the static tableau of their island lives. Despite the speaker's attempt to ward off sadness in the shape of whales, sadness surrounds this island. What unmentioned event has led her to imagine this world, and to imagine that this fantastical cold and click-click-clicking world is what paradise must be?

I took this from The Best of It: New and Selected Poems by Kay Ryan. I see she has a new collection, Erratic Facts, coming out in October, so that is good news for her fans. Several years ago I heard her speak at City Arts & Lectures; my account of that can be found here.

19 June 2015

16 June 2015

Tomato Tuesday 2015/6

Surprisingly, we had actual rain this past week, enough to collect in the bottom inch or two of the various empty buckets and bins that I keep in the back of the yard. It's late in the year for rain in California, but this didn't feel like a California rain anyway; it felt like an eastern rain – a discharge from an atmosphere overloaded with humidity – rather than our regular winter rains, not that I'm sure I remember those all too well anyway. I lived in Boston for eleven years and even at the end of that time, after more than a decade there, it was deeply strange to me that it rained in the summer – that it could be stormy, pouring rain, with dark clouds piled up and not a spot of blue in the sky, and yet 90 degrees.

Our rain last week woke me up around 4:00 AM, which is roughly an hour before my alarm goes off anyway. I enjoyed hearing it fall, though I did get up and shut several windows before getting back under the covers and listening. I love the sound of rain falling. I had a conversation recently with someone who implied, if I understood her correctly, that she disliked the sound of falling rain. I sound uncertain because this seems so improbable to me. But I do know that there are people unbothered by sounds that drive me crazy. Barking dogs, for example: I detest the sound, have had many nights' sleep damaged by it, and would gladly silence every dog in the vicinity. Other people don't even notice it.

The rain meant that I skipped an extra day or two of watering. Things still seem to be progressing nicely, though, and the soil levels in the pots are dropping as the plants expand and use it up. So this week I augmented the compost in the pots with some potting soil (left over from last year). Towards the end of the season I just let the soil levels drop, but this early I try to keep the dirt levels up. Tomatoes are one of those plants that will develop roots out of the stem as up as the soil goes, so it's advantageous to keep them in fairly deep dirt.



I also put some mulch in all the pots, hoping to retain water, cut down on weeds – all the usual mulching reasons. I use cocoa shells, mostly because I like the smell. San Francisco's famous Ghirardelli chocolate, by the way, is actually processed here in San Leandro, and some mornings when I leave my house the air smells like chocolate.


Below we see our duo. Again, Michael Pollan is on the left and Cherokee Purple on the right. The plants are getting large enough so that these double-portraits may not be working anymore.


Below is a closer view of Michael Pollan. Last week he was 18 1/2 inches, measuring from the dirt line to the top of the main stem. This week he shot up to 23 inches, and I measured after adding soil (thereby raising the soil line), so the increase is even greater than the numbers indicate.


There were no blossoms on Michael Pollan last week, but this week there were 13 flowers and around 31 buds. It's actually kind of difficult to count them, and maybe I'm making things pointlessly harder by making a distinction between "blossoms" and "buds" – the dividing line can obviously be vague and a matter of personal judgment. This reminds me of one of the most illuminating science lessons I ever had: in high school biology, we had to take a drop of our own blood (I've been informed this is no longer allowed), put it under the microscope, and try to determine our blood type, using the illustrations in our textbook as a guide. Our smeary slides were much, much harder to figure out than the dapper drawings. The lesson taught me a lot about how blurry real-life science can be, and increased my respect for (as well as, to a certain extent, some skepticism towards) what scientists do and how they do it. I mean, it's tough to make some of these calls, and they're often less definite than the clear-cut sound of the results might make you think.


Above are some of the blossoms on Michael Pollan. I'm trying to figure out how to get clear close-ups with my camera. I think this one came out OK (with some cropping), but I'd like to get closer close-ups.

Below is Cherokee Purple. Last week it was 12 inches high, again measured from the soil line to the top of the main stalk. This week it was 23 inches, and, as with Michael Pollan, that was after raising the soil line. This seems like an improbable increase, but I'm not complaining. It's a much bushier plant than Michael Pollan, with more vines and tendrils, so there's also the possibility that some height has been added because "the top of the main stem" is in a different branch this week. I'm trying to be consistent, but I'm also figuring some of this out as I go along, so . . . I'll just try to keep the errors and variations to a minimum.


The blossoms on Cherokee Purple are even harder to count than on Michael Pollan, because on the latter they're all clustered in one place (so far), whereas they're on several different branches of Cherokee Purple, all over the bush. I counted them twice, so I think I ended up with a fairly accurate count: 30 blossoms, and about as many buds. Last week there were nine blossoms. The photo below was one of my attempts to take a close-up of Cherokee Purple's flowers; as you can see, it didn't quite come out, but I liked the looks of it, so here it is. Kind of a bug's-eye view of the plant.


The flowers on both plants look pretty similar. All my tomatoes have always had similar yellow flowers, and I've noticed when I've grown squashes and peppers (or attempted melons and pumpkins, which never have come out well) their flowers have always been yellow too. What gives? Something to do with a common origin to all these plants? Is there some advantage to them in having yellow blossoms?

Below is a view of the cocoa hull mulch. This tomato is Black Prince, which is flopping out of one side of the pot, thereby providing a better view of the hulls than do the two we're tracking. Frankly, a number of my other tomatoes seem to be doing better than either Michael Pollan or Cherokee Purple – taller, fuller, even starting to bear fruit – but we have to stick with the ones we started with.


Let's get a closer look at those cocoa hulls! Too bad you can't smell their delicious aroma. Yes, I also need to be more vigilant about weeding the pots, as you can see by looking to the right of the photo below.


Remember the heirloom "Freckle" lettuce from two weeks ago? Look at it now! I guess I'd better gather it before it goes to seed. I have a bad habit of growing stuff and not actually consuming it. I'm trying to get better about that.



Here's another random rose. This is Joseph's Coat, named after the Biblical coat of many colors because of the variegated colors streaking the flowers: reds, oranges, yellows, whites. These are past their prime, but I liked the way they all seemed lined up on the right.



And the apricots are ripening!



I'm glad that tree is producing, because the one that used to be the big producer seems to be dead, as you can see below. I've already cut off about half of the branches. If it doesn't revive next year after being trimmed back, I'll chop it down and put something else there. It didn't seem diseased, and the wood I've cut off hasn't been rotten, so I'm not sure what went wrong. Plants can be very unpredictable. Sometimes it's the plant itself, other times it's just that their position is slightly out of the sun, or in the sun, and that does them in. And of course there is always the slow, sometimes underground damage of this long drought.

the rosy buds all gone brown

So Thursday sixteenth June Patk. Dignam laid in clay of an apoplexy and after hard drought, please God, rained, a bargeman coming in by water a fifty mile or thereabout with turf saying the seed won't sprout, fields athirst, very sadcoloured and stunk mightily, the quags and tofts too. Hard to breathe and all the young quicks clean consumed without sprinkle this long while back as no man remembered to be without. The rosy buds all gone brown and spread out blobs and on the hills nought but dry flags and faggots that would catch at first fire. All the world saying, for ought they knew, the big wind of last February a year that did havoc the land so pitifully a small thing beside this barrenness. But by and by, as said, this evening after sundown, the wind sitting in the west, biggish swollen clouds to be seen as the night increased and the weatherwise poring up at them and some sheet lightnings at first and after, past ten of the clock, one great stroke with a long thunder and in a brace of shakes all scamper pellmell within door for the smoking shower, the men making shelter for their straws with a clout or kerchief, womenfolk skipping off with kirtles catched up soon as the pour came. In Ely place, Baggot street, Duke's lawn, thence through Merrion green up to Hollesstreet, a swash of water running that was before bonedry and not one chair or coach or fiacre seen about but no more crack after that first. . . .

And another Happy Bloomsday to my mountain flowers.

15 June 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/24

I Sit Carefree in My Drifting Boat

I sit carefree in my drifting boat,
a line cast into the green waters.
In the evening sun I delight in the rain
that patters on the bank of the clear river.
Let me get a willow branch
and skewer the fish I've landed.
We'll head for the wine shop in the village.

Cho Hon, translated from the Korean by Jaihiun Kim

I've never been fishing, which may be why I find it such a soothing and fulfilling activity; no doubt its present-day reality would rapidly disillusion me. This poem by a sixteenth-century Korean official, soldier, and poet shows fishing's appeal: what a pleasing pastoral interlude! The fisherman is carefree, his boat is drifting in the green waters (green is the only color mentioned here, and it spreads its calming sense of a generously healthy natural world through the whole poem). We can infer that the fisherman has some other occupation in life that makes this day on the river a relief for him: if he were dependent for his livelihood on what he catches, he probably wouldn't be letting his boat drift, nor would he feel so carefree. He might reflect on his hard luck when the rain starts to fall, instead of delighting in its gentle pattering on the banks of the river. The mention of the willow branch helps fill out our mental image of the scene (I wonder if the weeping willow as an image of sorrowful love, frequent in the English poetic tradition, also exists in the Korean? if so, perhaps – especially since it skewers the recently killed fish – it acts here as a reminder of the underlying sorrows of life, from which this day on the river is a momentary escape).

Fish are a frequent subject in Asian art for a number of reasons besides their natural appeal: the Chinese word for abundance is similar to the word for fish, so they suggest prosperity; they are also symbols of fertility, perhaps because of their numerous fry, or because some species travel in schools. Due to their scales, whiskers, and life in the water, some fish are associated with the powerful Dragon (which, in Chinese culture, is associated with good fortune and water, unlike the European dragon, often associated with evil and fire). And there is a famous Taoist text in which Zhuangzi and Huizi debate whether fish are happy and whether we can know it (for one version of this exchange, see here, and also click through to the interpretation, and see here for another interpretation, as well as more information on Zhuangzi). Although most of these fish connotations spring from Chinese culture, and this poem is Korean, they were spread to other Asian countries through literature, painting, and religion, so I think it's fair to see this poem in the context of these rich and multiple possibilities. On the surface the poem conjures up a pleasant idyll in the country, but given the connotations of the fish – its suggestions of bounteous Nature, of continued vitality, and of philosophical inquiry – we can see deeper implications: a suggestion of the restorative powers of contemplating Nature in solitude. (Yet there's no suggestion of loneliness; the day ends with a promise of conviviality, as the fisherman heads out of the gentle rain and for the village wine shop to share his catch).


Since I'm talking about my Platonic idea of fishing, let me recommend Izaak Walton's famous fishing manual, The Compleat Angler, which I read recently. It's as refreshing as a vacation by a lake, which is especially nice for me because I can't afford actual travel. Walton was born in England in 1594, a couple of years after Cho Hun was killed in battle on the other side of the world. Walton himself lived through the Puritan Revolution and the execution of King Charles I (a royalist, Walton found it prudent to retreat to the country). So both men lived in troubled, war-torn times, and found refreshment and meaning in fishing. Walton's book is a wonderful compendium of very specific information on how to catch different varieties of fish, what the fish are like, and how to cook them. He was an early father of Nature writing, recording the specific rhythms of Nature in his locale, with as keen an observant eye for weather and rivers and plants as for fish; and he interlards his text with poems and religious and philosophical thoughts. He has the appreciative but unsentimental view of animals common to people who live in the country, and death takes its place as part of the natural cycle. Here's a sample paragraph:
The gudgeon is reputed a fish of excellent taste, and to be very wholesome: he is of a fine shape, of a silver colour, and beautified with black spots both on his body and tail. He breeds two or three times in the year, and always in summer. He is commended for a fish of excellent nourishment: the Germans call him groundling, by reason of his feeding on the ground; and he there feasts himself in sharp streams, and on the gravel. He and the barbel both feed so, and do not hunt for flies at any time, as most other fishes do: he is a most excellent fish to enter a young angler, being easy to be taken with a small red worm, on or near to the ground. He is one of those leather-mouthed fish that has his teeth in his throat, and will hardly be lost off from the hook if he be once strucken. They be usually scattered up and down every river in the shallows, in the heat of summer; but in autumn, when the weeds begin to grow sour and rot, and the weather colder, then they gather together, and get into the deep parts of the water, and are to be fished for there, with your hook always touching the ground, if you fish for him with a float, or with a cork; but many will fish for the gudgeon by hand, with a running line upon the ground, without a cork, as a trout is fished for; and it is an excellent way, if you have a gentle rod and as gentle a hand.
Izaak Walton, from The Compleat Angler, Chapter XV

Walton combines very specific instructions (use a small red worm, on or near the ground) with acute observations of the fish's behavior (when the weather grows colder, they gather together and move into the deeper parts of the water) and physique (he's a leather-mouthed fish, with his teeth in his throat), along with an aesthetic appreciation of its appearance (beautified with black spots on both body and tail) and evocative descriptions of the natural world (the weeds beginning to grow sour and rot as winter comes). There's also the rhythm of the prose, which works its magic; when I first read this passage, I kept reading the perfect ending over and over: and it is an excellent way, if you have a gentle rod and as gentle a hand.


If you find that passage as satisfying as I do, you will probably want to read the whole book. I have a beautiful Folio Society edition with the Arthur Rackham illustrations (you can't go wrong with Arthur Rackham illustrations), but I bought it quite a few years ago and it seems to be unavailable now, so I'd head for the Oxford World's Classics edition. Cho Hon's poem comes from The Art of Angling: Poems About Fishing, edited by Henry Hughes, one of the many excellent anthologies in the Everyman's Library Pocket Poets series. The first photograph is a detail of Fish and Waterweed, painted by Lai'an in ink on a paper scroll in late thirteenth-century China, now in the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. The second photograph is of a dead trout from Costco.

09 June 2015

Tomato Tuesday 2015/5

At last we've had some hot and sunny days – and that introductory at last tells you how dedicated I am to my tomatoes, because this is not my preferred weather; my inevitable thought on these days is at least it's good for the tomatoes. I refrained from watering today, since I watered yesterday and, you know, the drought. Perhaps the reduced water will help them; one of my vivid memories of the drought during the 1970s is how abundant, striking, and luscious the flowers were. I thought this odd though visually appealing. Eventually, when I met V and the subject came up, she scientifically explained that the reason for the extravagant efflorescence was exactly because of the drought: the plants were, in fact, slowly dying of thirst, and that led them to burst forth blossoming in a desperate attempt to continue their line. (Their flowers are their sex organs: just a reminder.) Those gardens were Tennessee Williams dramas in miniature. It was a lesson with many possible applications.

As usual, Michael Pollan is on the left and Cherokee Purple is on the right. Michael Pollan, which was 13 1/2 inches last week (measuring from the dirt line to the top of the main stem), has shot up to 18 1/2 inches – I had to go out and measure again, it seemed like such a big leap. Cherokee Purple has stayed at 12 inches to the top of the main stem, but it is growing out and will be much bushier than Michael Pollan.

You may notice that tomato cages have been added this week. I should probably have put them in sooner. I'm a bit mixed about them anyway. Generally they help keep the plants from sprawling all over, but there is some sprawl anyway, and I often find myself tucking tendrils under the wires, sometimes breaking a branch in the process. The smell of tomato leaf that lingers on my hands is a powerful memory-scent for me, bringing me back to my childhood backyard, but I'd just as soon avoid the inevitable Proustian reveries and not break the branches, particularly if they're starting to bear fruit. Lifting up the fruits (when they appear) does protect them to some extent from snails and slugs, though I wonder how active such creatures will be in this dryness.


Below is a close-up of Michael Pollan. No actual blossoms yet, but the number of buds is increasing.


And below is Cherokee Purple. There are at least nine blossoms now, with sudden bursts of little buds spreading over the plant. Serious tomato season is starting.

08 June 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/23

Dido & Aeneas, redux

Last week's excerpt from the Divine Comedy showed us Dante meeting Virgil, who will guide him through Hell and most of Purgatory. Dante's decision to make Virgil his guide exemplifies the special status many accord the great Latin poet (another indication of the great esteem in which he is held: two of the translations below, the Dryden and the Day-Lewis, are by Poets Laureate of England). Hector Berlioz was among those who loved Virgil, and he based his great, epic opera Les Troyens on episodes from The Aeneid. The composer himself never heard his work as he wanted it to be heard, and the opera had to wait a century for a revival to reveal its magnificence. We have had to wait almost half as long for a local performance, so it was exciting news around here when, after years of rumors, San Francisco Opera put it on its schedule at last. So in honor of Dante, Berlioz, and of course Virgil, here is an excerpt from The Aeneid, sort of a sequel to the story of the opera, which ends with Aeneas, under orders from the gods, sailing off to get the Roman Empire started while the frantic Dido kills herself. In this passage, Aeneas is traveling through the underworld (as ever, at the command of the gods) when he sees the wandering spirit of Dido. He attempts to speak to her.

The Sychaeus who appears at the end of this passage is Dido's first husband; he was dead by the time Aeneas (himself a widower) showed up in Carthage. No one thinks of them as widow and widower, though, which is the point of the odd little joke in The Tempest when the elderly counselor Gonzalo refers to her as "widow Dido" (Act II, scene 1, ll 79 - 85).

First the original text from the Loeb Classical Library:

inter quas Phoenissa recens a volnere Dido
errabat silva in magna. quam Troius heros
ut primum iuxta stetit adgnovitque per umbras
obscuram, qualem primo qui surgere mense
aut videt aut vidisse putat per nubila lunam,
demisit lacrimas dulcique adfatus amore est:
"infelix Dido, verus mihi nuntius ergo
venerat exstinctam, ferroque extrema secutam?
funeris heu! tibi causa fui? per sidera iuro,
per superos, et si qua fides tellure sub ima est,
invitus, regina, tuo di litore cessi.
sed me iussa deum, quae nunc has ire per umbras,
per loca senta situ cogunt noctemque profundam,
imperiis egere suis; nec credere quivi
hunc tantum tibi me discessu ferre dolorem.
siste gradum teque aspectu ne subtrahe nostro.
quem fugis? extremum fato, quod te adloquor, hoc est."
talibus Aeneas ardentem et torva tuentem
lenibat dictis animum lacrimasque ciebat.
illa solo fixos oculos aversa tenebat
nec magis incepto voltum sermone movetur,
quam si dura silex aut stet Marpesia cautes.
tandem corripuit sese atque inimica refugit
in nemus umbriferum, coniunx ubi pristinus illi
respondet curis aequatque Sychaeus amorem.
nec minus Aeneas, casu concussus iniquo,
prosequitur lacrimis longe et miseratur euntem.
       Inde datum molitur iter. . . .

Next comes the Loeb translation, which is intended to give you a crib for the Latin. I think they have a more recent edition; you'll note the archaic language used in H R Fairclough's 1916 translation. It's always a dilemma for translators, particularly of Virgil, and particularly in a time like our own that does not have a recognized "grand style" in poetry: how do you both capture Virgil in the language of our time and give some sense of the grandeur and concision of the Latin original? Most of the translators below discuss their different approaches in the introductions to their work, so if you are inspired to read any of the full translations, as I hope you are, it's worthwhile reading the introductions as well.

Among them, with wound still fresh, Phoenician Dido was wandering in the great forest, and soon as the Trojan hero stood nigh and knew her, a dim form amid the shadows – even as, in the early month, one sees or fancies he has seen the moon rise amid the clouds – he shed tears, and spoke to her in tender love: "Unhappy Dido! then was the tale brought me true, that thou wert no more, and hadst sought thy doom with the sword? Was I, alas, the cause of death to thee? By the stars I swear, by the world above, and whatever is sacred in the grave below, unwillingly, O queen, I parted from thy shores. But the gods' decrees, which now constrain me to pass through these shades, through lands squalid and forsaken, and through abysmal night, drove me with their behests; nor could I deem my going thence would bring on thee distress so deep. Stay thy step and withdraw not from our view. Whom fleest thou? The last word Fate suffers me to say to thee is this!"

With such speech amid springing tears Aeneas would soothe the wrath of the fiery, fierce-eyed queen. She, turning away, kept her looks fixed on the ground and no more changes her countenance as he essays to speak than if she were set in hard flint or Marpesian rock. At length she flung herself away and, still his foe, fled back to the shady grove, where Sychaeus, her lord of former days, responds to her sorrows and gives her love for love. Yet none the less, dazed by her unjust doom, Aeneas attends her with tears afar and pities her as she goes.

Thence he toiled along the way that offered itself. . . .

Out of curiosity I ran the Latin through Google Translate, which gave me the following, which helps me appreciate further what human translators do:

Among them, with wound still fresh, Phoenician Dido
and wandered in the great forest. the Trojan hero
as soon as he stood near her and form amid the shadows
an obscure, such as, in the early in the month of
, one sees or thinks he has seen through the clouds the moon,
he let down his tears and with sweet love:
"Unhappy Dido, therefore, a true message
he had been extinguished, and wound extreme?
Alas! You have been the cause? I swear by the stars,
by the gods above, and if that 's true in depths below,
against my will, O queen, thy di shores.
But, by the orders of the gods, which now has to go through these shadows,
squalid and forsaken, and through abysmal night, in divers places,
their behests; neither able to believe
this so great grief to you by my departure.
Stay thy step and withdraw not from our view.
Whom do you fly? is our last chance to say to thee, that is. "
Aeneas, such as burning and grim event
soothe began to weep.
She kept her eyes fixed on
the matter of the attempt and the face, and moved no more,
than if hard flint or Marpesus.
At length she flung herself away and fled
the shady grove, where the former spouse
worries and equals her love.
nor the less, dazed by her unjust doom,
continues tears afar and pities she went.
       Thence he toils along. . . .

The Sarah Ruden translation (2008); in her version, she attempts a line-by-line equivalent of the original:

Phoenician Dido wandered in that broad wood,
Her wound still fresh; and when the Trojan hero
Encountered her and recognized her dim form
Through shadows, as a person sees the new moon
Through clouds – or thinks he sees it – as it rises,
He wept and spoke to her in tender love:
"Poor Dido, then the messenger was right –
You stabbed yourself and brought about your own end?
And it was my fault? By the stars, the high gods,
And any truth below the earth: my queen,
It was against my will I left your country,
And by the orders of the gods, who now
Compel me to pass through this shadowed squalor,
These depths of night. No, I did not believe
That I would bring you so much pain by leaving.
Stay here – don't back away, but let me see you.
Who are you running from? Fate gives this last chance
To speak to you." She only glared in fury
While he was pleading, while he called up tears.
Here eyes stayed on the ground, her face averted,
As changeless in expression, while he spoke,
As granite or a jagged marble outcrop.
At last she darted bitterly away
To the dark forest, where her spouse Sychaeus
Felt for her sorrow and returned her love.
Aeneas too was shaken by her hard fate.
His long gaze and his pitying tears pursued her.
On the appointed path he struggled forward.

The Robert Fagles translation (2006):

And wandering there among them, wound still fresh,
Phoenician Dido drifted along the endless woods.
As the Trojan hero paused beside her, recognized her
through the shadows, a dim, misty figure – as one
when the month is young may see or seem to see
the new moon rising up through banks of clouds –
that moment Aeneas wept and approached the ghost
with tender words of love: "Tragic Dido,
so, was the story true that came my way?
I heard that you were dead . . .
you took the final measure with a sword.
Oh, dear god, was it I who caused your death?
I swear by the stars, by the Powers on high, whatever
faith one swears by here in the depths of the earth,
I left your shores, my Queen, against my will. Yes,
the will of the gods, that drives me through the shadows now,
these moldering places so forlorn, this deep unfathomed night –
their decrees have forced me on. Nor did I ever dream
my leaving could have brought you so much grief.
Stay a moment. Don't withdraw from my sight.
Running away – from whom? This is the last word
that Fate allows me to say to you. The last."

Aeneas, with such appeals, with welling tears,
tried to soothe her rage, her wild fiery glance.
But she, her eyes fixed on the ground, turned away,
her features no more moved by his pleas as he talked on
than if she were set in stony flint or Parian marble rock.
And at last she tears herself away, his enemy forever,
fleeing back to the shadowed forests where Sychaeus,
her husband long ago, answers all her anguish,
meets her love with love. But Aeneas, no less
struck by her unjust fate, escorts her from afar
with streaming tears and pities her as she passes.

From there they labor along the charted path. . . .

The Robert Fitzgerald translation (1983):

Among them, with her fatal wound still fresh,
Phoenician Dido wandered the deep wood.
The Trojan captain paused nearby and knew
Her dim form in the dark, as one who sees,
Early in the month, or thinks to have seen, the moon
Rising through cloud, all dim. He wept and spoke
Tenderly to her:
                           "Dido, so forlorn,
The story then that came to me was true,
That you were out of life, had met your end
By your own hand. Was I, was I the cause?
I swear by heaven's stars, by the high gods,
By any certainty below the earth,
I left your land against my will, my queen.
The gods' commands drove me to do their will,
As now they drive me through this world of shades,
These mouldy waste lands and these depths of night.
And I could not believe that I would hurt you
So terribly by going. Wait a little.
Do not leave my sight.
Am I someone to flee from? The last word
Destiny lets me say to you is this."

Aeneas with such pleas tried to placate
The burning soul, savagely staring back,
And tears came to his eyes. But she had turned
With gaze fixed on the ground as he spoke on,
Her face no more affected than if she were
Immobile granite or Marpesian stone.
At length she flung away from him and fled,
His enemy still, into the shadowy grove
Where he whose bride she once had been, Sychaeus,
Joined in her sorrows and returned her love.
Aeneas still gazed after her in tears,
Shaken by her ill fate and pitying her.

With effort then he took the given way,
and they went on . . . .

The C Day Lewis translation (1952); he too attempts a line-for-line version; his translation was commissioned by the BBC and intended to be read aloud over the radio:

Amongst them, with her death-wound still bleeding, through the deep wood
Was straying Phoenician Dido. Now when the Trojan leader
Found himself near her and knew that the form he glimpsed through the shadows
Was hers – as early in the month one sees, or imagines he sees,
Through a wrack of cloud the new moon rising and glimmering –
He shed some tears, and addressed her in tender, loving tones: –
Poor, unhappy Dido, so the message was true that came to me
Saying you'd put an end to your life with the sword and were dead?
Oh god! Was it death I brought you, then? I swear by the stars,
By the powers above, by whatever is sacred in the Underworld,
It was not of my own will, Dido, I left your land.
Heaven's commands, which now force me to traverse the shades,
This sour and derelict region, this pit of darkness, drove me
Imperiously from your side. I did not, could not imagine
My going would ever bring such terrible agony on you.
Don't move away! Oh, let me see you a little longer!
To fly from me, when this is the last word fate allows us!
Thus did Aeneas speak, trying to soften the wild-eyed,
Passionate-hearted ghost, and brought the tears to his own eyes.
She would not turn to him; she kept her gaze on the ground,
And her countenance remained as stubborn to his appeal
As if it were carved from recalcitrant flint or a crag of marble.
At last she flung away, hating him still, and vanished
Into the shadowy wood where her first husband, Sychaeus,
Understand her unhappiness and gives her an equal love.
None the less did Aeneas, hard hit by her piteous fate,
Weep after her from afar, as she went, with tears of compassion.
Then he passed on the appointed way. . . .

The classic Dryden translation (1697):

Not far from these Phœnician Dido stood;
Fresh from her Wound, her Bosom bath'd in Blood.
Whom, when the Trojan Heroe hardly knew,
Obscure in Shades, and with a doubtful view,
(Doubtful as he who runs thro' dusky Night,
Or thinks he sees the Moon's uncertain Light:)
With Tears he first approach'd the sullen Shade,
And, as his Love inspir'd him, thus he said.
Unhappy Queen! then is the common breath
Of Rumour true, in your reported Death,
And I, alas, the Cause! by Heav'n, I vow,
And all the Pow'rs that rule the Realms below,
Unwilling I forsook your friendly State:
Commanded by the Gods, and forc'd by Fate.
Those Gods, that Fate, whose unresisted Might
Have sent me to these Regions, void of Light,
Thro' the vast Empire of eternal Night.
Nor dar'd I to presume, that, press'd with Grief,
My Flight should urge you to this dire Relief.
Stay, stay your Steps, and listen to my Vows:
'Tis the last Interview that Fate allows!
In vain he thus attempts her Mind to move,
With Tears and Pray'rs, and late repenting Love.
Disdainfully she look'd; then turning round,
But fix'd her Eyes unmov'd upon the Ground.
And, what he says, or swears, regards no more
Than the deaf Rocks, when the loud Billows roar.
But whirl'd away, to shun his hateful sight,
Hid in the Forest, and the Shades of Night.
Then sought Sicheus, thro' the shady Grove,
Who answer'd all her Cares, and equal'd all her Love.
Some pious Tears the pitying Heroe paid;
And follow'd with his Eyes the flitting Shade.
Then took the forward Way, by Fate ordain'd. . . .

05 June 2015

02 June 2015

Tomato Tuesday 2015/4

This may be the only time I actually take the photographs and write the entry on Tuesday.

The weather has continued to be cool and overcast. Yesterday San Francisco sidewalks were actually slick with drizzle, so that was a bit unexpected as well as slippery, though I doubt it did much to relieve the drought. Afternoons have mostly been sunnier, and even on the warm side, though cool if you're in the shade. It's been quite windy as well. It tends to be warmer and sunnier here in the east bay than in San Francisco, though San Leandro is on the water so it's still cooler than towns farther in from the coast. It's now late morning and the sun is starting to come out. Maybe I should have waited to take the photographs!

I continue with the limited watering: every two or three days, sometimes using the "warming up" water saved in a bucket from the shower. Again, Michael Pollan is on the left and Cherokee Purple is on the right.


Here is a solo shot of Michael Pollan, now 13 1/2 inches high (up from 11 inches last week, and again, this is measuring from the dirt line up to the top of the main stem). He's turning out to be a slender fellow.

Still no blossoms, but since last week a cluster of about seventeen little buds has developed. Some are still so tiny it's hard to tell whether to count them yet.



And below is a solo shot of Cherokee Purple. It is now twelve inches high, up from 11 1/2 inches last week. So it's not shooting up the way Michael Pollan is, but it does seem to be developing into a bushier plant with thicker stems, so the growth is happening, but in a different direction.


No new blossoms, but the seven from last week are starting to wither. Tomatoes on the way!


Despite the cool weather and the reduced water, things are growing. Take a look at the heirloom lettuce today and compare it to last week's photo:


Here's a random rose for this week. This is Ebbtide, which produces these beautiful dark red-purple roses. But it's quite low to the ground in an odd way, as if we're getting full-size roses on a dwarf plant.

01 June 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/22

Dante meets Virgil x 10

Dante Alighieri turns 750 this year. He was born in Florence in 1265; the exact date of birth is unknown, but he mentions that it was under the astronomical sign Gemini, which puts him between 11 May and 11 June, so 1 June is the midpoint there, a symmetry which seems suitable for this poet. In his honor, today we have the passage from the opening of the Inferno in which he first encounters Virgil, who will be his guide through Hell and Purgatory (up to the point beyond which even virtuous pagans cannot go).

First comes the original Italian, then ten English-language versions, two of them in prose and eight in verse. Dante wrote his famous epic in terza rima, an interlocking set of rhymes making ever-present the mystic Trinitarian significance of the number three: aba bcb cdc and so forth. Italian is notably richer in rhymes than English, so finding an equivalent for this significant rhyme scheme is a famous challenge, and each translator has a different way of tackling it. Most try to use some version of the original, often relying on what we might call inexact rhymes in order to stay closer to the meaning as well as to avoid a jog-trot sound.

Mentre ch'i' rovinava in basso loco,
       dinanzi a li occhi mi si fu offerto
       chi per lungo silenzio parea fioco.
Quando vidi costui nel gran diserto,
       "Miserere di me," gridai a lui,
       "qual che tu sii, od ombra od omo certo!"
Rispuosemi: "Non omo, omo già fui,
       e li parenti miei furon lombardi,
       mantoani per patrïa ambedui.
Nacqui sub Julio, ancor che fosse tardi,
       e vissi a Roma sotto 'l buono Augusto
       nel tempo de li dèi falsi e bugiardi.
Poeta fui, e cantai di quel giusto
       figliuol d'Anchise che venne di Troia
       poi che 'l superbo Ilïón fu combusto.
Ma tu perché ritorni a tanta noia?
       Perché non sali il dilettoso monte
       ch' è principio e cagion di tutta gioia?"
"Or se' tu quel Virgilio e quella fonte
       che spandi di parlar sì largo fiume?"
       rispuos' io lui con vergognosa fronte.
"O de li altri poeti onore e lume,
       vagliami 'l lungo studio e 'l grande amore
       che m'ha fatto cercar lo tuo volume.
Tu se' lo mio maestro e 'l mio autore,
       tu se' solo colui da cu' io tolsi
       lo bello stilo che m'ha fatto onore. . . . "

Dante, Inferno, Canto 1, ll 61 - 87

The Charles Singleton translation (1970). This is a prose translation meant to provide a helpful scholarly guide to the Italian, which is on the facing page. Each of the three books in this version of the Divine Comedy comes in two volumes; the first has Italian text and English prose translation, and the second has notes. (Most of these editions have notes of some sort explaining Dante's references; annotation has been considered essential to his work from its first appearance). I'm putting this translation first as a guide to what the Italian says, so you can see how the other translators work with it.

While I was ruining down to the depth there appeared before me one who seemed faint through long silence. When I saw him in that vast desert, I cried to him, "Have pity on me whatever you are, shade or living man!"

"No, not a living man, though once I was," he answered me, "and my parents were Lombards, both Mantuans by birth. I was born sub Julio, although late, and I lived at Rome under the good Augustus, in the time of the false and lying gods. I was a poet, and I sang of that just son of Anchises who came from Troy after proud Ilium was burned. But you, why do you return to so much woe? Why do you not climb the delectable mountain, the source and cause of every happiness?"

"Are you, then, that Virgil, that fount which pours forth so broad a stream of speech?" I answered him, my brow covered with shame. "O glory and light of other poets, may the long study and the great love that have made me search your volume avail me! You are my master and my author. You alone are he from whom I took the fair style that has done me honor. . . ."

The Henry Wadsworth Longfellow translation (1867). Dante was little known in (mostly Protestant) America when Longfellow, the writer of American epics, did his blank-verse translation:

While I was rushing downward to the lowland,
       Before mine eyes did one present himself,
       Who seemed from long-continued silence hoarse.
When I beheld him in the desert vast,
       "Have pity on me," unto him I cried,
       "Whiche'er thou art, or shade or real man!"
He answered me, "Not man; man once I was;
       And both my parents were of Lombardy,
       And Mantuans by country both of them.
Sub Julio was I born, though it was late,
       And lived at Rome under the good Augustus,
       During the time of false and lying gods.
A Poet was I, and I sang that just
       Son of Anchises, who came forth from Troy,
       After that Ilion the superb was burned.
But thou, why goest thou back to such annoyance?
       Why climb'st thou not the Mount Delectable,
        Which is the source and cause of every joy?"
"Now, art thou that Virgilius and that fountain
       Which spreads abroad so wide a river of speech?
       I made response to him with bashful forehead.
"O, of the other poets honor and light,
       Avail me the long study and great love
       That have impelled me to explore thy volume!
Thou art my master, and my author thou,
       Thou art alone the one from whom I took
       The beautiful style that has done honor to me. . . ."

The Dorothy L. Sayers translation (1949):

Then, as I stumbled headlong down the track,
       Sudden a form was there, which dumbly crossed
       my path, as though grown voiceless from long lack
Of speech; and seeing it in that desert lost,
       "Have pity on me!" I hailed it as I ran,
       Whate'er thou art – or very man, or ghost!"
It spoke: "No man, although I once was man;
       My parents' native land was Lombardy
       And both my citizenship were Mantuan.
Sub Julio born, though late in time, was I,
       And lived at Rome in good Augustus' days,
       When the false gods were worshiped ignorantly.
Poet was I, and tuned my verse to praise
       Anchises' righteous son, who sailed from Troy
       When Ilium's pride fell ruined down ablaze.
But thou – oh, why run back where fears destroy
       Peace? Why not climb the blissful mountain yonder,
       The cause and first beginning of all joy?"
"Canst thou be Virgil? thou that fount of splendour
       Whence poured so wide a stream of lordly speech?"
       Said I, and bowed my awe-struck head in wonder;
"O honour and light of poets all and each,
       Now let my great love stead me – the bent brow
       And long hours pondering all thy book can teach!
Thou art my master, and my author thou,
       From thee alone I learned the singing strain
       The noble style, that does me honour now. . . ."

The John Ciardi translation (1954):

And as I fell to my soul's ruin, a presence
       gathered before me on the discolored air,
       the figure of one who seemed hoarse from long silence.
At sight of him in that friendless waste I cried:
       "Have pity on me, whatever thing you are,
       whether shade or living man." And it replied:
"Not man, though man I once was, and my blood
       was Lombard, both my parents Mantuan.
       I was born, though late, sub Julio, and bred
in Rome under Augustus in the noon
       of the false and lying gods. I was a poet
       and sang of old Anchises' noble son
who came to Rome after the burning of Troy.
       But you – why do you return to these distresses
       instead of climbing that shining Mount of Joy
which is the seat and first cause of man's bliss?"
       "And are you then that Virgil and that fountain
       of purest speech?" My voice grew tremulous:
"Glory and light of poets! Now may that zeal
       and love's apprenticeship that I poured out
       on your heroic verses serve me well!
For you are my true master and first author,
       the sole maker from whom I drew the breath
       of that sweet style whose measures have brought me honor. . . ."

The Allen Mandelbaum translation (1980):

       While I retreated down to lower ground,
before my eyes there suddenly appeared
one who seemed faint because of the long silence.
       When I saw him in that vast wilderness,
"Have pity on me," were the words I cried,
"Whatever you may be – a shade, a man."
       He answered me: "Not man; I once was man.
Both of my parents came from Lombardy,
and both claimed Mantua as native city.
       And I was born, though late, sub Julio,
and lived in Rome under the good Augustus –
the season of the false and lying gods.
       I was a poet, and I sang the righteous
son of Anchises, who had come from Troy
when flames destroyed the pride of Ilium.
       But why do you return to wretchedness?
Why not climb up the mountain of delight,
the origin and cause of every joy?"
       And are you then that Virgil, you the fountain
that freely pours so rich a stream of speech?"
I answered him with shame upon my brow.

       "O light and honor of all other poets,
may my long study and the intense love
that made me search your volume serve me now.
       You are my master and my author, you –
the only one from whom my writing drew
the noble style for which I have been honored. . . ."

Seamus Heaney, from Dante's Inferno: Translations by 20 Contemporary Poets (1993):

While I was slipping back, about to sink
       back to the depths, I caught sight of one
       who seemed through a long silence indistinct.
When I saw him in that great waste land
       I  cried out to him, "Pity me,
       whatever you are, shade or a living man."
He answered me, "No, not a living man
       though I was once alive, and had Lombards
       for parents, both of them Mantuan.
Although I was born sub Julio, my prime
       was spent in the heyday of the false gods
       when I lived in Rome, in good Augustus' time.
I was a poet, and I sang of that just son
       of Anchises who came out of Troy
       after the burning of proud Ilion.
But why do you face back into misery?
       Why do you not keep on up the sweet hill,
       the source and cause of all felicity?"
"Oh, are you then Virgil, are you the fountainhead
       of that wide river of speech constantly brimming?"
       I answered and for shame kept my head bowed.
"You are the light and glory of other poets.
       O let it avail me now, the long devotion
       that made me love your book and cleave to it.
You are my master, my authority.
       I learned from you and from you alone
       the illustrious style for which they honor me. . . ."

The Robert Pinsky translation (1994); this one has the Italian on the facing page:

While I was ruining myself back down to the deep,
       Someone appeared – one who seemed nearly to fade
       As though from long silence. I cried to his human shape
In that great wasteland: "Living man or shade,
       Have pity and help me, whichever you may be!"
       "No living man, though once I was," he replied,
"My parents both were Mantuans from Lombardy,
       And I was born sub Julio, the latter end.
       I lived in good Augustus's Rome, in the day
Of the false gods who lied. A poet, I hymned
       Anchises' noble son, who came from Troy
       When superb Ilium in its pride was burned.
But you – why go back down to such misery?
       Why not ascend the delightful mountain, source
       And principle that causes every joy?"
"Then are you Virgil? Are you the font that pours
       So overwhelming a river of human speech?"
       I answered, shamefaced. "The glory and light are yours,
That poets follow – may the love that made me search
       your book in patient study avail me, Master!
       You are my guide and author, whose verses teach
The graceful style whose model has done me honor. . . ."

The Robert Durling translation (1996); this is another prose version, meant as a guide through the Italian, which is on the facing page:

While I was falling down into a low place, before my eyes one had offered himself to me who through long silence seemed hoarse.
When I saw him in the great wilderness, "Miserere – on me," I cried to him, "whatever you may be, whether shade or true man!"
He replied: "No a man, I was formerly a man, and my parents were Lombards, Mantuans both by birth.
I was born sub Julio, though it was late, and I lived in Rome under the good Augustus in the time of the false and lying gods.
I was a poet, and I sang of that just son of Anchises who came from Troy when proud Ilion was destroyed by fire.
But you, why do you return to so much suffering? why do you not climb the delightful mountain that is origin and cause of all joy?"
"Now are you that Virgil, that fountain which spreads forth so broad a river of speech?" I replied with shamefast brow.
"O honor and light of the other poets, let my long study and great love avail me, that has caused me to search through your volume.
You are my master and my author, you alone are he from whom I have taken the pleasing style that has won me honor. . . ."

The Robert Hollander & Jean Hollander translation (2000); this also has the Italian on the facing page:

While I was fleeing to a lower place,
before my eyes a figure showed,
faint, in the wide silence.

When I saw him in that vast desert,
"Have mercy on me, whatever you are,"
I cried, "whether shade or living man!"

He answered: "Not a man, though once I was.
My parents were from Lombardy –
Mantua was their homeland.

"I was born sub Julio, though late in his time,
and lived at Rome, under good Augustus
in an age of false and lying gods.

"I was a poet and I sang
the just son of Anchises come from Troy
after proud Ilium was put to flame.

"But you, why are you turning back to misery?
Why do you not climb the peak that gives delight,
origin and cause of every joy?

"Are you then Virgil, the fountainhead
that pours so full a stream of speech?"
I answered him, my head bent low in shame.

"O glory and light of all other poets,
let my long study and great love avail
that made me delve so deep into your volume.

"You are my teacher and my author.
You are the one from whom alone I took
the noble style that has brought me honor. . . ."

The Ciaran Carson translation (2002):

       I too was driven by that lupine brute
       to stagger back, as down a broken stair,
to where the sun becomes irresolute;
       and in that lower place, a shape appeared
       to glide across my vision, pale and mute
from long restraint. As through that wasteland weird
       he skimmed, I cried: "O pity me, you shade,
       or man! Whate'er you be, please make it clear!
"Not man, though formerly a man," he said.
       "My parents, you must know, were Lombards true,
       for both in Mantua were born and bred.
Under Julius I was born, and grew
       to fame in Rome when good Augustus reigned,
       and bogus pagan gods were all we knew.
I was a poet, and to some acclaim
       I sang of bold Anchises' son, who sailed
       from Troy when Ilium went up in flames.
But as for you, why have you left the trail?
       Why look so down? Why don't you climb the Mount
       of Joy, where every happy thing prevails?"
"Are you then Virgil, that superior fount
       which spouts so generous a verbal brook?"
       I bashfully replied to his account.
O you, to whom all other poets look!
       may that long study and great love endure
       which brought me first to delve into your book!"
You are my paragon, my favourite author –
       you, the very one from whom I stole
       the noble style that critics praise me for. . . ."