The poetry of Coleman Barks is the poetry of a face that reminds me of the relationship between the wind and an old bluff. 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.