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(REVIEW) Isha Upanishad by Mario Petrucci


In this review, Nasim Luczaj considers the metaphysical wonders and linguistic oscillations of Mario Petrucci’s new translation of the Isha Upanishad (Guillemot Press, 2019). 

> You know when you walk into a museum and either breeze through or get hit and pressed down to the tiles by the sheer age of everything? The latter, in my experience, is best facilitated by mummies, even when these are considerably younger than standalone stone or coral in the cabinet next door. Their shape recalls you; you recall death. You’re ever so transient but if you really try, an outline of your body might remain.

> For an ancient text, like a mummy, to be ‘preserved’, it must be adjusted to its onlookers while offering just the right level of peep into its age. The balance between affirmation of time gap and making contemporary is crucial to how we receive the work – to whether we breeze through, get hit, or something in between. What the thing to be preserved is (the frame? the possibility of movement? the weight?) and how much dragging into the current state of our language it requires will depend on the text as well as personal taste.

> There’s not much I can say about the original text of the Isha Upanishad. I have only just walked into this particular museum on a whim. I am walking around reading the plaques and exploring its reverb. I have no knowledge of Sanskrit or much in-depth acquaintance with Hinduist texts. What I do have are insights of an observer in a new beloved space and some sense for how a text might be performing the balance between overtly archaic and openly present. I will approach Mario Petrucci’s new translation of the Isha Upanishad chiefly in relation to how I receive this performance.

> The Isha Upanishad is one of the shortest out of over 200 Upanishads – ancient Vedic texts, some of which were written in poetic form, which lay out the central ideas of Hinduism. Mario Petrucci’s rendition, recently published by Guillemot Press and contained in a near-square, thick-papered book the height of a child’s hand, neither allows you to breeze past the fact of its age and sanctity, nor lets you worry about it too much. Whenever I read it, it’s like looking at a stone I know is old and savouring the opportunity to hold it in my hand, to choose how tightly I hold on. It shines with the grease we put on it by asking it back into our palms via translation and reading. The persistence of its stillness, its parallel timespan, carves its way into us. Just what we want. A stone carried out of a river, cool with current, balancing quaintness with a sense of refresh. Coming back from old renditions is like going back to reading a Sappho not translated by Anne Carson having already read If Not, Winter. You want to believe the original is this flippant. You want to trust the calm density of the translation, much like that of a body of water, and play its brim like a glass with your finger. It’s that kind of thinking, that kind of prompting, that kind of whoa you’d like to receive.

> Here, perhaps slightly too much quaintness is reinforced by regular capitalization, then counterbalanced, in places, by neologism. Some stanzas shout novelty, others hardly suggest our century. There is a charm and controlled purposefulness to this oscillation. Nevertheless, it forms a rift between passages. Creases emerge in their unity. Depending on the verse, you’re either ignoring the age of things as you walk through the museum, or you have your forehead placed against the glass dividing you from that time and also allowing you to glimpse it. You’re on one side of the valley or the other – the stream in between inconsequential, only a letter – but somehow the vegetation is noticeably different on either side, and the presence of alternatives, within smell and sight, distract.  

Here’s one side – verse 3:

Ignorance is a form of possession

whose owner dons perfect sunlessness.

They follow death in procession:

those hollowed by flesh who bodily

deny consciousness.

The neological quality of ‘sunlessness’ adds to its no-caps feel, although this term is present in all other translations I have encountered and follows the original closely. The rhythm of the second stanza, too, oddens the verse – the sentence structure seems necessary but nicely impossible. It also withdraws our attention from death. Emphasis naturally falls on ‘procession’, the colon, the ‘hollowed’ sonically enacting the following. Then the denial is like a twig being bent very nearly to breakage but not quite allowing for it.

> That same death, in verse 14, surfaces capitalized:

The Eternal and its Effects –

those who place these two together,

by the Destructible need no rebirth,

by the Indestructible taste no Death.

Perhaps there is a difference between these ‘deaths’ that is supposed to be signalled here. In the Sanskrit original, however, this would not have been done via capitalization, which, to my knowledge, did not exist in their alphabet. The capitalization can be productive when demarcating ‘This’, ‘That’, ‘It’, which do require additional ballast for us to focus on them to the extent we focus on ‘Sun’ or ‘Cosmos’ by default. Nevertheless, Petrucci’s choice to capitalize more heavily in some verses than in others becomes stylistically confusing. I cannot read the original – perhaps there are differences in tone between parts of the Upanishad that are conveyed in this way, but I doubt it. You might end up longing for a striking off of pompous capitalization or for a more consistent marking of the more important concepts in relation to nouns of less stature, instead of taking the text in as a unified piece which does not admit tweaking. I found it dizzying to oscillate between verses, though each had a tremendously cohesive, complete, and self-contained air when read on its own. At times I would lose myself in testing comparisons – is this more like Anne Carson, Blake, Winnie the Pooh, or, God forbid, the opening paragraph of Lolita (an association I owe exclusively to ‘Pillar of All, / Lone Fire / Orchard-keeper’ – but still)?  

> To my mind, the greatest strengths of Petrucci’s translation lie in aspects in which he has the most poetic license – punctuation, line breaks, stanza division. You can tell he is free. You can tell he is purposeful. There are fantastic clusters of dashes and colons, and full stops that you would just like to thread between your toes to look down on as you walk. My previous encounter with Petrucci’s work involved not his translations, but a poetry collection – i tulips – which I remember mainly for the daze of its line breaks – smooth mirrors sharpening up both all in view and all out of it. I wanted to read this Isha Upanishad if only to see what happens to such an angular style when confronting the mould of ancient text, an entity we may be prone to conceptualise as claylike, earthy, elemental, but must resort to try to get in touch with via Spark-Note-sharp-dull renditions. The poetically-minded translator can cookie-cut to whim, but to do so with the same cookie cutter as they use for their own work would most likely amount to getting carried away (when professing to be a responsible driver of a metaphysical tour bus).

> What makes this Isha such a nourishing reread – I’m really not sure how many times I flicked through, tasting the same lines over and over without the slightest loss of pleasure – is its staccato. Sentences never stumble, yet they are persistently gritty in the way they call out, firm while exhibiting an awareness of the inherent issues with conveying truths in words. Our words are like those toy cars set in their own rink for kids to collide with. Sometimes they need seizing and readjusting to true roads. This driver is slow with moments of clutch and then perfectly eager acceleration until a pedestrian – another thought – pops up and we’re clutchy again. My favourite stanza, which demonstrates clutch to perfection, comes from verse 5:

It is action – yet It

remains dormant. Beyond

all reach – It

is more intimate than blood.

I find no mention of intimacy, not a dash of blood or even just a dash, in other translations of the Isha Upanishad. There’s nothing of the velocity, the gift of oceans, rivers, the multitudes of loud trees, the ‘Orchard-keeper / of Karma’ Mario Petrucci offers as generously as he can while staying true to the philosophical content of his source text. The world comes towards our mouths. The world is our eyes coming towards world. The world is modernised through elementality, not technical fervour. You get to it and it turns out to be compact, just as you want more.

> The free meat-grindery translations I glimpsed online didn’t have a tree in them. They merely made me skim and mourn the insistence on the persistence of a dichotomy between light and darkness which never does darkness justice. This still hurts me here but is inevitable, an essential part of the original message that I can get past through focusing on the wonders of everything else. For example, of how the lines in verse 5 stop at ‘It’ to change gear and keep ploughing up a hill – a hill which actually stands for encouragement to stop trying to make it up anywhere. I’m not sure how far up I park in the shade of Upanishad, but park I do. Nothing left to read. I open the door and air comes through from somewhere, at some angle, some temperature, at some leg of mine, which is hesitant at the touch of something holy. Light hits all manners of dust, especially the broken CD input. I like being here. A seatbelt gleams like a hiccough of holiday sea. Everyone has moved on and maybe they’re wrong. It can be so fast to stop. ‘Take stillness from stillness: / Stillness still remains.’ It can take you everywhere, the halt. Thank you.

Isha Upanishad is available to buy here via Guillemot Press.

Text: Nasim Luczaj

Image: Guillemot Press / Cover design by CF Sherratt.

Published 6/11/19


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