Saturday, November 18, 2017

The cosmic drowning.
A frozen person cannot recognize love.
I, a messenger from the North Pole, can tell you that.
Ice cannot register this softness.
Something must melt.

Painting by Fuyuko Matsui

I do not begin anywhere. I do not end anywhere.
I sit and notice the ice melting where once there was dark.

Euterpe's Gift (Jaclyn Alderete)

I tell you that we are thousands of wave-motions that converge to form what is now being called a "body." Water is the medium of our deliverance.

The core of human life is the inner sea that shapes us.

A Painting by Fuyuko Matsui

No one really knows the immensity of the fluid that pulsates within. What we can do is fully enter...the beckoning pool...and become the fluid, utterly and completely.

Sunyata (Jaclyn Alderete)

(Quotes from Emilie Conrad's Life on Land.)

There is a kind of dancer who can convert the body into a luminous fluidity, surrendering it to the inspiration of the soul. 

--Isadora Duncan
A fragment of a Fuyuko Matsui painting

be silent until the appearance of verses - Maria Sergeevna Petrovykh

(Apologies for technical difficulties, dear Reader.) 

One of my favorite lines from a poem written in 1971 by Maria Petrovykh could be translated as "be silent until the appearance of verses." This line was used as the title of a collection of her poetry which was published posthumously in 1999.

Maria Petrovykh (1908-1979)

There is but one grace in this world -
To give one's self, forgetting, to give
and to be annihilated without a trace.
There is but one path of glory -
To live like running water:
as lightly, as carefree, and as youthful,
for a wave is displaced by another
and abides without struggling,
all as one or always as the other,
and is always life-generating.

Although she was a poet prodigy, who composed her first quatrain at age 6, and entered the Yaroslavl Poets Union at age 14, and then moved to Moscow to attend university at age 17, Maria Petrovykh seemed to question her own identity:

With neither Akhmatova's meekness, 
nor Tsvetaeva's ferocity,
At first, because of shyness,
but later, due to old age.

Was it in vain that you lived
for so many years in this place?
Who, after all, who are you?
Answer me from obscurity!

From 1934 onwards, Petrovykh engaged herself in translations of Bulgarian, Yiddish, Lithuanian, Czech, Polish, and, in particular, Armenian poetry. She was known widely as a translator and editor. Anna Akhmatova said of her, "Marusya knows language, like God."

Maria Petrovykh married the musicologist Dmitry Golovachev in 1936, but in 1937, her husband was sentenced to five years in the camps, and she was left alone with a four-month-old daughter. During those years, her family's house burned, her father died, and the second world war began.

When unto the azure skies
you cannot lift your eyes,
to you in answer, despondency,
one word arises: daughter. 

In 1941, Petrovykh was evacuated with her child and a small group of writers to Chistopol. "It was a tragic and wonderful time. It was a time of extraordinary spiritual unity and unity. Everything separating us disappeared. It was a time of deep attention to each other," the poet recalled.

Maria Petrovykh's husband died in a camp in 1942. 

Osip Mandelstam,  who was also a translator, felt that the process of translation drained his skill as a poet, but he praised Petrovykh as a person, saying, "You, Maria, are a helper to the dying."

Anna Akhmatova and Maria Petrovykh

Although Maria Petrovykh was not a classic beauty, Mikhail Landman recalled in his memoirs: "Many fell in love with her. In addition to Mandelstam and Pasternak, Emmanuel Kazakevich, Alexander Tvardovsky and Pavel Antokolsky were fascinated by her at different times .... in a word, she was a woman who elicited strong feelings from many who were in contact with her .... and the reason for this was some elusive inner strength and charm which she possessed, not only of the mind, but of an astonishing childlikeness and severity, openness and restraint."

According to David Samoilov, Maria Petrovykh fell in love, in a literary fashion, with nearly every poet she translated. But in the consensus of those who remember her, the great love of her life was the writer Alexander Fadeev (a controversial and tragic figure, who perished by his own hand). Oy, Marusya .... sigh.  Korney Chukovsky wrote in his diary after Fadeev's suicide, "Conscientious, talented, and sensitive as he was, he was floundering in oozy, putrid mud and drowning his conscience in wine." 
Alexander Fadeev (1901-1956)
I had heard the song below (sung by Elena Frolova, with a guitar solo by Tatiana Aleshina) before, but was unaware that the writer of the lyrics was Maria Petrovykh. This was an unexpected discovery. For some reason, I thought Tsvetaeva was the author.

Elena Frolova composed the musical accompaniment. While I listen, I wonder, how does Frolova manage to create such a sensation of both passion and weightlessness? 

My hope is that this perfunctory translation can convey a bit of the flavor of this poet. If you want to feel the poem, however, please listen to the video.  :-) 

Do not seek out my rude confessions,
For they are befitting to my fate.
My lips become parched
from the mere thought of you.

I will give this tribute to you:
a life of embodied supplication,
I lose control of my breathing
from the mere thought of you.

It matters not that my garden was flattened by storms,
that I live, struggling with my very self.
But my eyes are covered with tears
from the mere thought of you.

--Maria Petrovykh

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Here's gravity's softer cousin,
and the collapsing of the sky;
or the lift-off of a great bird
Twitching all its white feathers.

I peer out through the windowpane,
a frame-ful of flakes descending
but the massive bird flaps its wings -
and then I feel the room rising.

Friday, November 03, 2017

This whole week has been wrapped in fog.

The spruce trees have been weeping water-pearls.

Two of my daughters had birthdays this week. At times like this, I remember the strenuous negotiations of the body, the ponderous processes of bringing a child into the world. The exertion required in becoming a refuge.

What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open. 
-- Muriel Rukeyser

A painting by Irene Hardwicke Olivieri

Peering through the fog-curtains, and perceiving without seeing, I bless the children, and face the future that rushes toward us with its unknowable radiance.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

aere perennius - of poets and posterity

Nineteenth century Russia was a radically ebullient time and place to be a poet or an artist. The Russian culture and language were raw and ready to be shaped and sculpted into utterly new structures and fashions, with influences flooding in from Europe. The country had managed to chase off Napoleon, but could not shake its fascination for everything French. Poets such as Pushkin flexed their pens in multiple roles, for they were engaged in the writing of librettos for operas and scenarios for ballets; in the collection of new words for the lexicon; in the gathering and reinterpretation of ancient tales; all the while acting as the voice and conscience of the long-suffering Slavs. And not far beneath the surface, the embers of friendship and revolution were fermenting and fomenting.

I discovered a curiosity: a book of poems comprised entirely of the "last verses" of a lengthy list of Russian poets, and glanced through it.

Most sources, including this book, identify the poem below as one of Alexander Griboyedov's last pieces. (For those who are not familiar with his story, Griboyedov was a linguist, poet, musician, playwright, and diplomat, whose life was cut tragically short in 1829, when he was about 35--no one is quite sure when he was born--and much of his writing was lost, because it had been burned, in order to avoid being put in prison with the Decembrists. It appears that he wrote this after being held in jail for a couple of months, and had heard of his friend Odoevsky's fate, and therefore it was partly in Odoevsky's honor.)

Alexander Griboyedov
The Liberated

O silken meadow, peaceful forest, 
through your vibrant vaults
appears heaven's purest blue.
Water splashing quietly,
will I return to you, to
all of your hallowed delights?
Will I sip again from 
your cup of generosity?
As if, sweetly scented,
a stream spills into the air;
again, I'm drinking in
freedom and pure joy.

But where's my friend? I'm alone.
How long has this premonition
hung before my eyes, the bearer
of bad news? I run with him
to the furthest zone of captivity,
where the snow crumbles underfoot,
where one's jaws are clenched in sorrow,
and our hands are heavy with chains. 


Where bends the vale of Alazan,*
the cool air exhales bliss,
and tributes are gathered,
of bunches of purple grapes,
the light of day is shining,
they seek early, they love a friend,
do you know this country,
where the land knows no plow,
it shines with eternal youth,
and the gardeners are gifted
with gilded harvests?
Traveler, do you know a love,
not a friend to dead dreams,
frightened of the burning sky?
How the blood glows with her?
They live her and breathe her,
suffer and fall in battle
with her in their soul and on their lips.
That's how the Simooms** draw breath,
and then scorch the steppes.
That's fate, separation, death!


*I believe this refers to a valley in Armenia.

**Simoon (самумы in the original) is a hot wind, bringing sands from the desert.

The two stanzas above have been placed together in books by several sources, but they do not seem entirely related.

There remains a fragment, written by Griboyedov to his friend, written to his friend, the Decembrist Odoevsky, whose fate he lamented:

For Odoevsky

I sang of friendship. When I touched its strings,
your genius hovered above my head.
In my verses, and my soul, I loved you,
and I called and felt tormented for you.
O my creator! Barely the dawn of the century,
and you already accept this pitiless deed?
Will you allow that this grave
of the living be hidden from my love?

When Alexander Griboyedov was given a choice, whether to serve the Russian mission in the United States, or Persia, he chose Persia. This was a fateful decision.

From prison, Alexander Odoevsky wrote, after he heard of the death of Alexander Griboyedov in 1829 (this is not Odoevsky's last verse, however):

On the Death of A.S. Griboyedov 

Oh where is he? Whom to ask for news?
Where is his spirit, his form? In a faraway land.
Oh, grant this bitter stream of tears
to be dewdrops on his grave,
to warm it with my breathing;
with insatiable anguish
I'll turn my eyes to his dust,
and fully conduct my loss:
a clump of clay from his grave
I'll hold as tight as my friend,

Alexander Odoevsky
like a friend. He's mixed with it,
and so the earth is dear to me.
I'll be there alone in my longing,
in unbreakable silence,
I'll surrender to the strength
of my love's holy affection
and grow into his grave,
a live monument to him.

But under indifferent skies
he was killed and was buried,
while I'm in prison. Behind these walls
in vain I'm bursting with dreams;
they will not carry me away,
no teardrops from a hot duct
to him on that turf shall fall.
I was in shackles, but held a shade
of hope to gaze into his eyes,
to see him, hold his hand, to hear
his speech if but for a moment.
This enlivened me, inspired,
and filled me with delight.
My confinement has not changed.
But of hope, as from a fire,
only smoke and decay remain.
They are my flame. For so long
they have burned whatever I touch;
the year, the day, the ties are torn,
it is not even given to me
to cherish a ghost in jail
to forget this in sweet sleep
or to dispel this heart's sadness
with the rainbow wing of dreams.

--Alexander Odoevsky (1929)

Alexander Pushkin was also a close friend of Griboyedov's, and he traveled to the Caucasus to pay homage to his friend's passing.

Pushkin, meeting with Griboyedov's widow in Georgia

Alex Foreman completed an excellent translation (and explication) of one of Alexander Pushkin's last poems, which he published here. The original was inspired by Horace's line, "exegi monumentum aere perennius" (I have erected a monument stronger than bronze):

I've reared a monument not built by human hands.
The public path to it cannot be overgrown.
With insubmissive head far loftier it stands
               Than Alexander's columned stone.

No, I shall not all die. My soul in hallowed berth*
Of art shall brave decay and from my dust take wing,
And I shall be renowned whilst on this mortal earth
               Even one poet lives to sing.

Tidings of me shall spread through all the realm of Rus'
And every tribe in Her shall name me as they speak:
The haughty western Pole, the east's untamed Tungus,
               North Finns and the south steppe's Kalmyk.

And long shall I a man dear to the people be
For how my lyre once quickened kindly sentiment,
I in a tyrant age who sang of liberty,
               And mercy toward fallen men.

To God and his commands pay Thou good heed, O Muse.
To praise and slander both be nonchalant and cool.
Demand no laureate's wreath, think nothing of abuse,
               And never argue with a fool.

--Alexander Pushkin (translated by A.Z. Foreman)

*The original line refers to a lyre, rather than a berth, but I shall defer to the translator's license here, in which rhythm and rhyme take precedent. "Lyre" could almost rhyme with "earth" .... but not quite.

A.Z. Foreman manages to capture a great deal of the cadence and momentum of the Russian original in his translation. The original has a mesmerizing quality: it begs to be half-chanted, half-recited, and memorized by millions.


The last portion of this post shall be devoted to the translation of a poem attributed to Griboyedov. Irregular in its form,  but lively in its sentiment, it could speak for this band of Alexanders, who were all plucked from this planet at far too young an age.

The Soul

Am I alive?
Am I dead?
And what is this strange vision?
In a home above the stars,
with twilight all around,
the world gives birth to my will.

And then away from sleep
the soul is lured
to the earth, decrepit and cramped.
Where are my friends,
my infinity of spry servants?
The choir, airy and enthralling?

No, I'll live.
And will manifest
a carefree, better life:
it's there I will go,
to there I will fly,
where I will inhale freedom forever!

Saturday, October 28, 2017

A translation by Nina Kossman

As an early birthday gift to myself, I ordered a copy of Nina Kossman's translations of Marina Tsvetaeva's poems: In the Inmost Hour of the Soul.

Anyone who has attempted the translation of a poem, would acknowledge how problematic the process can become, and the difficulty of conveying meaning and sensation from one language to another.

Here is my favorite translation in the book so far:

The hour of bared riverheads

The hour of bared riverheads,
The hour when we look into souls and into eyes.
This--the yawning sluice-gate of blood.
This--the yawning sluice-gate of night.

Blood gushes forth like a torrent of night
Blood gushes forth-like a torrent of blood
The night gushes forth! (The hour of listening sluices:
When the world gushes through ears as if through eyes)

The pulled-off shroud of vision!
The distinct lull of time!
The hour when, having opened our ears like eyelids,
We no longer weigh, nor breathe: we listen.

The world has acquired the shape
Of an ear: the shell that sucks in
Every sound--a sheer soul!
(The hour when we walk into souls as into arms).

--written by Marina Tsvetaeva in Russian in 1923, and translated by Nina Kossman into English

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

I visited the eagles briefly today. They watched me intently, turning their heads, and then unfolded their wings, testing the air currents between the trees. 

To pray you open your whole self
To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
To one whole voice that is you.
And know there is more
That you can't see, can't hear;
Can't know except in moments
Steadily growing, and in languages
That aren't always sound but other
Circles of motion.

-- Joy Harjo (from her Eagle poem)

One of the eagles returned to its original perch before I left.

Our hands full or not:
The same abundance.
Our eyes open or shut:
The same light.

--Yves Bonnefoy

Snow is a form of light. 

--Yves Bonnefoy

Saturday, September 30, 2017

when trees as gilded as bees

Above the 61st parallel, the colors of Autumn mark our parting with the bees, and the last days of real warmth.

I had begun to translate another poem of Mandelstam's which I enjoy, but then I discovered an excellent translation/adaptation (it's not an exact translation, but more of an artistic rendering) of the poem by someone named Christian Wiman, which I liked better than my first attempt, or W.S. Merwin's version, and so I am sharing it here:

The Necklace

Take, from my palms, for joy, for ease, 
A little honey, a little sun, 
That we may obey Persephone’s bees.

You can’t untie a boat unmoored. 
Fur-shod shadows can’t be heard, 
Nor terror, in this life, mastered.

Love, what’s left for us, and of us, is this 
Living remnant, loving revenant, brief kiss 
Like a bee flying completed dying hiveless

To find in the forest’s heart a home, 
Night’s never-ending hum, 
Thriving on meadowsweet, mint, and time.

Take, for all that is good, for all that is gone, 
That it may lie rough and real against your collarbone, 
This string of bees, that once turned honey into sun.

-- Osip Mandelstam (translated/adapted by Christian Wiman)

Here is a link to the original, in Russian, which was written in 1920.

Christian Wiman wrote an eye-catching editorial on poetry, entitled "In Praise of Rareness," which is posted here

"I think a strong case can be made that the more respect you have for poetry, the less of it you will find adequate to your taste and needs." 

The various translations of Antonio Machado's famous poem about bees, when they have washed up on on my shores, have appeared like a breath of heart's ease to assuage the sting of the recollections of my own mistakes (literary or otherwise):

Last night as I lay sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.

One of the most memorable dreams I've had during the past year was of a huge bee buzzing among scarlet poppies. It came to me on a cold winter night. I'd like to invite it to visit me again, any night, to gather nectar.

The cosmic drowning. A frozen person cannot recognize love. I, a messenger from the North Pole, can tell you that. Ice cannot register th...

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