Sunday, April 26, 2015

Irina Bragina sings Marina Tsvetaeva

Recently, I made the glad discovery of Irina Bragina's delicate interpretations of several pieces of Marina Tsvetaeva's poetry, set to music composed by Bragina herself. In honor of the occasion, I have decided to prove to myself, once again, that Tsvetaeva's poetry is nearly untranslatable.

Indulge me; listen to the song, read my attempt at a translation; and then judge for yourself. 

Thank goodness for music.


Of both quarreling and singing will tire--
even this mouth!
And then even time will deceive me
and sleep--will come.

And I will lie quietly, will close my eyes,
will close my eyes.
And I will lie quietly, and I will dream
of trees and of birds.

--Marina Ivanovna Tsvetaeva (1892-1941)

April 12, 1917
*Under this poem is a later note: "Written on the eve of the birth of my second daughter, Irina, born on April 13, 1917, died February 2, 1920, in Sretenie, from hunger, in the Kuntsevo orphanage. Snow; pine trees."

А всё же спорить и петь устанет —

И этот рот!
А всё же время меня обманет
И сон — придёт.

И лягу тихо, смежу ресницы,
Смежу ресницы.
И лягу тихо, и будут сниться
Деревья и птицы.

--Марина Ивановна Цветаева (1892 — 1941)

12 апреля 1917
* Под стихотворением поздняя приписка: «(Написано накануне рождения моей второй дочери — Ирины — род 13-го апреля 1917 года — умершей 2-го февраля 1920 года, в Сретение, от голода, в Кунцевском приюте. Снега, сосны)

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Clara Schumann (Piano Trio in G Minor, Opus 17, 3rd Movement)

Performed by alesiEnsemble Salzburg.

Clara Wieck Schumann was a noted 19th century musician and composer. She also had eight children. While listening to this music, I feel a bit like the Grinch -- my heart expands, growing three sizes larger!

Monday, April 20, 2015

The clouds are churning all day in a milky sky; I close my eyes and am wholly at home,

but to please my child, I drive out by the sea. 

The tide is out, and is rushing sidelong over toward the mouths of two great rivers.

We hear the glad chatter of a flock of wild ducks returning to their Northern nesting-grounds.

A haze hovers over the trees, which are ready to burst into gold-green flames.

On the way home, a foreboding seizes my innermost viscera. It has to do with my youngest; my fierce young phoenix has been having a day.

In the evening, while speaking to a friend, I glance out the window to the West in the direction of the departing sun -- 

there, between two trees, the inexplicable is occurring: the waving branch of one spruce to the left is describing a sloe-dark eye, while a parallel branch to its right depicts the other half of a pair of eyes, staring directly at me. A curling branch curves downward like the curve of a shawl, completing charcoal sketch of a most obscure, dignified, and nebulous beauty.

Not wanting to lose the enchantment of this moment, I hurry to tell the tale to my friend, who pronounces solemnly, "Do you not see that this is you, you are the dark mother. It is you."

I do not have the proper words to reply. All that I am -- I offer to this world, to this beauty, to this becoming.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Begemot sightings

Graffiti from the unofficial museum of Bulgakov in the 1990's.

One could not bring up the subject of The Cat in Russian Literature without at least a brief mention of Bulgakov's Begemot (from The Master and Margarita.) The characters of this novel appear to haunt parts of Moscow. Begemot, who had a legendary appetite, even has his own cafe.

"It is forbidden to talk to strangers" - a sign near the Patriarchal Ponds in Moscow.

Saturday, April 18, 2015


From this niche, my eyes follow
the swarming of the white bees,
an errant swirl of snowflakes
chased by a singing wind.

All day long, words are gathering.
They flee away from my fingers
and tangle in the willow branches,
before fluttering across the globe.

I wait for news, until, after dark,
Areté, wearing her silvery cloak,
holds a lamp to veiled inscriptions
still eluding my interpretation.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Persephone (Adam Zagajewski)

Persephone goes underground again
in a summer dress, with a Jewish
child's big eyes.

Kites fly, and yellow leaves, autumn dust,
a white plane, black crow wings.
Someone runs down the path clutching an overdue letter.

She'll be cold underground in cork
sandals and her hair won't shield
her from the blind wind, from oblivion—

she disappears into the chestnut trees
and only the ribbon on her braid
shines with resignation's rosy glow.

Persephone goes underground again
and again the same thread of indifference
binds my tiny bird-heart.

--Adam Zagajewski

A. S. Pushkin - Lukomorye

Whilst on the subject of cats....

Prologue to Ruslan and Lyudmila

(Translated by Tony Kline)

There’s a green oak in Lukomorye,* 
on the oak a chain of gold:
a learned cat, night and day,
walks round on that chain of old:
to the right – it spins a song,
to the left – a tale of wrong.
Marvels there: the wood-sprite rides,
in the leaves a mermaid hides:
on deep paths of mystery
unknown creatures leave their spoor:
huts on hen’s legs you can see,
with no window and no door.
Wood and valley vision-brimming:
there at dawn the waves come washing
over sands and silent shore,
and thirty noble knights appear
one by one, from waters clear,
attended there by their tutor:
a king’s son passing by
takes a fierce king prisoner:
a wizard carries through the sky
a knight, past all the people there,
over forests, seas they fly:
a princess in a prison pines,
whom a brown wolf serves with pride:
A mortar, Baba Yaga inside,
takes that old witch for a ride.
King Kaschey grows ill with gold.
It’s Russia! – Russian scents unfold!
And I was there and I drank mead,
I saw the green oak by the sea,
I sat there while the learned cat
told its stories – here’s one that
I remember, and I’ll unfurl,
a story now for all the world…

*The translator originally rendered this as "by the bay" which is literal, but does not capture the sense of the thrill of the word, "Lukomorye."

A Tale of Two Plays - Part II

--Счастливые часов не наблюдают.

--Those who are happy do not watch the clock. 

(A.S. Griboyedov, Woe From Wit)

This phrase was first introduced to me by a person who has always boasted that he has read less books than he possesses fingers on one hand, when I asked what time it was one evening. I mention this fact, in order to illustrate the impact of Griboyedov's writing on the Russian language, which extends far beyond the narrow circles of the intellectual elite. For the non-Russian speaker, one would need to explain that the syllable "chas" appears to act as the root for both "schastlivye" (the happy people) and "chasov" (the clock) in this instance -- it is a rather clever play on words.

Griboyedov's play does not yield itself easily to translation. There is a mysterious subtext, a chemistry between the main characters, Sophia and Chatsky. It is as if they secretly adore one another, but would go to any extreme in order to avoid making this clear. All of the characters, in fact, seem to be engaged in a wicked scheme calculated to alienate one another at the first opportunity.

Apparently, when Griboyedov's contemporary Alexander Pushkin got his hands on a hand-written copy of Woe From Wit, he immediately predicted that approximately half of the play would end up in everyday speech. At the time, Pushkin was engaged in the composition of a play of his own: Eugene Onegin.

Pushkin wrote of Griboyedov, "I met Griboyedov in 1817. His melancholy character, his embittered mind, his good nature, his very weaknesses and vices, which are the unavoidable companions of mankind--all of this was in him extremely attractive. He was born with an ambition equal to his gifts, but for a long time he was tangled in a net of petty problems and lack of notoriety. He was capable of governing but this ability was not put to use; his talent as a poet was not recognized; even his cold and bright bravery were not recognized right away. A few friends knew his true value, and saw that suspicious smile, that stupid, unbearable smile, when it happened that someone spoke of him as someone not unusual. People only believe in glory, and don't understand that among them might exist some sort of Napoleon, who has never lead a single battle, or another Descartes, of whose writing not even a stroke has appeared in the Moscow Telegraph. However, our respect for glory arises, perhaps, from self-esteem: within this very glory is the echo of our own voice."
In 1829, while traveling in the Caucausus, Pushkin wrote,

"What a pity that Griboyedov did not leave any notes! It should be the job of his friends to write his autobiography; but it is the most wonderful people who disappear without leaving a trace..."

To Pushkin, Griboyedov was not only close literary competition; he was a slightly older and more experienced mentor and friend. By the time Pushkin had appeared on the scene as a teenage poet, Griboyedov was an experienced officer already returned from war, had learned more languages than one could shake a stick at, and was poised on the razor's edge of a generation ready to change the world.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

L'vitsa (The Lioness Among the Ruins - Valery Bryusov)

At first glance, one's domestic feline might seem quite a simple cozy comfort, an inconsequential bundle of fur-and-flesh, curling up near our toes while we read. But what if between our cats and ourselves a scarlet thread were entwined, a connection not unlike that which binds us to our children, and the rest of our surroundings? For example, my youngest daughter's fierce requests to be born, before she was even conceived, were just as concrete, to me, as the red branches of the dogwood bush in my yard, which burn like brands each winter against the snow.

The (mostly) silent bond between myself and my tortoiseshell cat has deepened over the years, has steeped me in a nearly Purrfect Cat-ness. The other morning, I felt a pressure, as if it were her paw on my foot -- before setting off on a journey in my vehicle -- and then I realized that one of my tires was as flat as a pancake. Was it you, Tortie, warning me? I wondered.... 
A gilded, leonine mood crept up on me last night, settled itself like a cloak around my shoulders, luring me further into its spinning, silken expanse. Who or what was I becoming? The boundaries began to blur...between my cat and myself...could it be that I was being quietly transformed into a feline...? For who would be more likely to hear a whisper from "Lev," the kingly Lion-Being Himself, than L'vitsa, the Lioness? Perhaps I am unique in my fancies; or perhaps not.

Lioness: Susan Seddon Boulet

This train of thought leads me by the paw to a poem by Valery Bryusov (1873-1924), a Russian Symbolist poet, critic and novelist which I have the fancy of translating today. Bryusov was (as most poets are)  quite a character. He began his career by translating the works of poets such as Poe and Verlaine into Russian. He wrote under approximately thirty three pseudonyms while "finding himself" as a writer; part of the curious purpose of these pseudonyms was to create the illusion that an anthology, for example, had been written by more than one individual. He was also fascinated by stamps, and became an avid philatelist.

One of Bryusov's notable quotes could be translated like this, "Talent, even genius, will give only slow success, if even that. It's not enough! Not enough for me! It is necessary to choose something find a beckoning star in the fog. And I see her: it is decadence!" Unlikely thoughts for someone who became one of the first Soviet bureaucrats in the Ministry of Culture of the USSR. He didn't last long in that the time of his death from pneumonia and (and a possible drug overdose) his writing had become "incomprehensible" to the masses. But perhaps his work deserves a second, or third glance.

The Lioness Among the Ruins

(Subtitle: An Engraving)

A chilly moon hangs above Pasargadae.
The sands are flecked by a translucent sunset.
The king's daughter steps in her dream-anguish
Onto the pavement - to breathe in the cool night.

Before her, a familiar world: arcade upon arcade,
And towers, and pillars, transparent and light,
Bridges, dangling above the silver river,
Home, and the temple of Bel; solemn, significant.

The princess is all a-tremble. Her eyes are shining.
She clenches her fist painfully and angrily.
Her thoughts dwell on the centuries of the future.

And then it seems to her as if, in the night sky
A mute strand of shattered columns rises,
And in the midst of the ruins - like the shadow of the desert --
A Lioness.

Winged Man, Pasargadae, Iran

Львица среди развалин


Холодная луна стоит над Пасаргадой.
Прозрачным сумраком подернуты пески.
Выходит дочь царя в мечтах ночной тоски
На каменный помост — дышать ночной прохладой.

Пред ней знакомый мир: аркада за аркадой;
И башни и столпы, прозрачны и легки;
Мосты, повисшие над серебром реки;
Дома, и Бэла храм торжественной громадой...

Царевна вся дрожит... блестят ее глаза..
Рука сжимается мучительно и гневно...
О будущих веках задумалась царевна!

И вот ей видится: ночные небеса,
Разрушенных колонн немая вереница
И посреди руин — как тень пустыни — львица.

Here is a tidbit from one of Bryusov's "experimental" poems:

The shade of an un-created creature
Is quaking in its sleep
Like a palm-frond flickering
On an enamel wall.

Violet hands
On the enamel wall
The drowsy marks of sound
In a ringing silence.


Тень несозданных созданий
Колыхается во сне
Словно лопасти латаний
На эмалевой стене.

Фиолетовые руки
На эмалевой стене
Полусонно чертят звуки
В звонкозвучной тишине.