Coleman Barks

The poetry of Coleman Barks is the poetry of a face that reminds me of the relationship between the wind and an old bluff. Or the relationship between a fallen log in the forest, the moss that grows over it and the insects that drill holes into its sides. I say this with admiration. Looking at him the phrase weathered face makes sudden and vivid sense. It is hard not to be drawn to a face like that. The way it is hard not to be drawn to a snow-capped mountain or a gorge. I take note of his grizzled white beard, reminiscent of Santa Claus, and also his unkempt hair. These things endear him to me because Santa is an endearing figure and kempt hair has eluded me all my life. When he speaks his voice is slow and heavy, yet musical like a rain-cloud. Or like an old poet whose bones are given to aching when it is the season for rain-clouds. When he utters the name of his hometown, Chattanooga, Tennessee it makes me happy. All those double consonant and double vowel sounds. Delicious as a spoonful of ice cream under the midday sun.

When he was a boy of six Coleman Barks memorized all the countries and capitals in the 1943 Rand McNally atlas. In the evenings as he crossed the quadrangle to the dining hall his teachers would shout country names into the darkening air. “Uruguay?” one might cry out, “Montevideo,” the boy Barks would call back not missing a beat. “Bulgaria?”, “Sophia.” “Mongolia?” “Ulan Bator.” Perfect answers every time…until his Latin teacher decided enough was enough, and dug up from his basement the name of a country not found on any map he knew of. And the next evening as the undisputed Boy Champion of Countries & their Capitals crossed the quadrangle, a name he had never heard before flew into the air above him like a prophecy, “CAPPADOCIA?” … silence….and a look on the boy’s face that his teacher would say named him forever. The man we know as Coleman Barks goes by “Cap” short for Cappadocia in his hometown. “What I did not know, named me,” he says serious and smiling. Years later he would learn that the capital of Cappadocia was Ikonium, also known as Konya. The place where Rumi lived and now lies buried.

“What I did not know, named me.” And perhaps, one thinks, wisdom is but that which arises from our perfectly embraced ignorance.

It is sobering to consider that had I been assigned to browse through the faces of the world’s poets looking for Rumi’s translator, had I been assigned to identify the genie that emancipated his poems with their fast-beating hearts, from their ‘scholarly cages’, I might not have picked Coleman Barks out from the crowd. No. Foolishly I might have looked for someone slender and lithe, someone with dark hair and a face like pale moonlight. The kind of face one might imagine shining steadily above whirling feet and wide white skirts. I fear I might have sought out someone who looks the way Rumi’s poetry sounds. Instead of someone capable of bending the bars of scholarly cages with work-roughened hands. Someone capable of coaxing long-captive birds into flight again with music that rumbles forth from the mountain of his soul. Unstoppable and inexplicable as spring.

Let that then be a lesson to me. May that which I do not see always name me.

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11 responses to “Coleman Barks

  • Gayatri

    Poetic indeed!

  • arunampc

    There is a certain essential quality to this piece of laying bare the intellectual demons – those that we fight daily to suppress the ignorance lurking just below the surface of that “expertise”. The nuance of discovering Coleman Bark while search for Rumi’s translator could not be a better metaphor and quite remarkable to have found such a nuanced succinct way of dealing with a deeply inherent flaw of human ego that is at once beautiful and disingenuous.
    Your writing stays very long if not forever once read – like the piece on South India, this too is a special gift. Thank you for sharing the talent you have.

  • Pavithra K. Mehta

    Thank you all :)

  • Aryae Coopersmith

    Bravo!

  • Pancho

    Your tribute to brother Cap, beloved hermana Pavititita, arrived with the wind and liberated love energy for all the beings in the Universe. And indeed, “that which you didn’t see named you”, since 95% of the (observable)Universe we live in is dark energy/matter. So while you are Pavithra as the “one who is holy purity”, you are also named after this delicious mystery, the Sweet Darkness that allows the stars and galaxies to shine! :-) If you were an ancient deity –not that you are not– you were the goddess of Invisible Love. IN-visible. May your stunning silent-and-vocal balanced-and-dynamic fierce-and-gentle bright-and-dark visible-and-IN-visible invincible-and-surrendering baeuty ;-) keep reminding us that we are Love.

    You are a tongue-spirit-twister and the child’s joy of articulating it for the first time; you are also the child’s excitement and the shining eyes that just are in uttering awe making no sounds but shouting with love; you awaken in us the paradox of life holding the Tao that emanates beyond the world of words. Let this energy that we love be what we are. It was when I lit up my life on fire and you keep fanning the flames!

    And, in the spirit of paying-it-forward: May that which I didn’t articulate, name me.

    Huuuu! :-)

  • Saphire

    “Someone capable of coaxing long-captive birds into flight again with music that rumbles forth from the mountain of his soul. Unstoppable and inexplicable as spring. “

  • athomeawayfromhome

    that voice saying those words of Rumi… is one of my favorite in all the world of my knowing… imagine… and him having a name like Barks…

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