With Only One Life
Hold with both hands
The tray of every day
And pass in turn
Along this counter.
There is enough sun
There is enough sky,
And there is moon enough.
The earth gives off the smell
Of luck, of happiness, of glory,
Which tickles your nostrils
So don’t be miserly,
Live after your own heart.
The prices are derisory.
For instance, with only one life
You can acquire
The most beautiful woman,
Plus a biscuit.
trs. Joana Russell-Gebbett with D.J. Enright
from The Biggest Egg in the World (Bloodaxe, 1987)
I came across this poem yesterday in my notebook of Lifesaving Poems, the project I began more than two years ago to celebrate my recovery from non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
The idea was simple. I wanted to have in one place a copy of one poem of every poet I had ever loved. It did not matter to me whether the poem or the poet was well-known. I wanted to celebrate life by writing out by hand poems I knew I had encountered and wanted not to forget. My notebook is not a big one, but it still took much longer to finish than I had anticipated.
I am so pleased I chose this one, by the Romanian poet Marin Sorescu. It reminded me of one of the first poetry readings I ever went to, a 24-hour sponsored ‘poethon’ at the ICA to raise funds for the then decrepit Moniack Mhor writing centre in Scotland.
The idea was that each participating poet had to recite from memory ten minutes of their poetry to qualify for sponsorship by friends and family, in the usual manner. (If you write in I will tell you who cheated by whipping out copies of their books).
Sorescu, whose English was non-existent, was accompanied by Alan Jenkins offering a line-by-line translation ‘for those of us whose Romanian [was] a bit rusty’. As I remember, it was the highlight of the evening, poem after wry poem delivered in declamatory Romanian, each line pursued by its after-echo in impeccable English.
It could be rose-tinted spectacles, but I clearly remember the audience falling around laughing at the final line of ‘With Only One Life’. Reading it again yesterday was to reconnect with the poem’s underlying seriousness, almost in spite of its utterly clear translation and plain-speaking tone.
On a day which marks for me the anniversary of a particularly unpleasant milestone in my journey towards diagnosis of cancer, the implied warning of the poem rings truer than ever.