Saturday, December 16, 2017

The mountains held up the sky like pillars,
releasing plumes of pebbles, streams and silt
as far as my girlish eyes could follow,
and water drummed along hidden boulders.

It was a game to leap over rivulets,
to teeter from stone to stone in the rush,
to stroke the grey velour of polished driftwood,
to thread my fingers through the slate-grey sands.

And when I shivered in the spring breezes,
I pulled on the sleeves and buttoned the top of
a cardigan hand-knitted by my grandmother,
the day I first met a braided river.

Does a river know when it is laughing?
Are the sky's secrets swallowed by a cave?
Do the mountains patiently bide their time,
while we discover our own molten hearts?

Friday, December 15, 2017

#BiteSizeBallet No.5

Kitty Phetla, Joburg Ballet

If I were the Indian Ocean or the Atlantic Ocean, I'd sneak bits of myself up onto the back of a cloud, and whisper sweet nothings to the wind, till it gave me a ride to this show.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

all is translation (and every bit of us is lost in it)

Rilke (Leonid Pasternak, 1900)
Image credit to Wikimedia Commons


Sound, no longer measurable
with the sense of hearing. As if that tone
Outstripping us on every side
were space ripening.

--Rainier Maria Rilke (translated by Edward Snow from the German original)

Lately, I've been reading a collection of translations of the poetry of Rilke by Edward Snow.

Adam Zagajewski concludes his introduction to this collection with these enigmatic statements: "The Angel is timeless, and yet his timelessness is directed against the deficiencies of a certain epoch. So is Rilke: timeless and deeply immersed in his own historic time. Not innocent though; only silence is innocent, and he still speaks to us."

As a technical translator, I am perennially concerned with the question of whether meaning has been conveyed from one language to another. The answer is rarely exact, but one is eventually arrived at by whittling away; by shuffling pieces of the puzzle around; or, sometimes, through consensus.

While savoring the renewal of my acquaintance with the poet, I was surprised to come across the fact that Rilke also wrote poems in French: 400 of them, to be precise, during the four years of his life when he was living in a French-speaking area of Switzerland. Some of these have been recently translated by Susanne Petermann in the collection, Windows; below is an excerpt from one of them:

You ask me, strange window, to wait;
already your beige curtain almost stirs.
Should I accept, O window, your invitation?
Or resist, window? Who would I wait for?

Am I not intact, with this life that listens,
with this overflowing heart that loss completes?
With this road that leads on, and the doubt
that you’d share this excess whose dream makes me stop?

--Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by Susanne Petermann from the French)

Muzot Tower, where Rilke lived rent-free

Just think: without Switzerland, we would not have the Duino Elegies, or Sonnets to Orpheus. Without the kind hospitality of a friend, literary fans round the world might have been deprived of these verses. This fact did not escape one 20th century writer who wrote, while contemplating it:

Tonight in China let me think of one

Who through ten years of silence worked and waited,
Until in Muzot all his powers spoke,
And everything was given once for all.

And with the gratitude of the Completed
He went out in the winter night to stroke
That little tower like a great old animal.

--W.H. Auden

I found, and appreciated the musings of another English-speaking poet, James Merrill (1926-1995), concerning this "French" period. Below, Merrill engages in his own eloquent and rhetorical speculation on the prospect of Rilke "translating" himself:

How much of the sun-ripe original
Felicity Rilke made himself forego
(Who loved French words – verger, mûr, parfumer)
In order to render its underlying sense.
Know already in that tongue of his
What Pains, what monolithic Truths
Shadow stanza to stanza's symmetrical
Rhyme-rutted pavement. Know that ground plan left
Sublime and barren, where the warm Romance
Stone by stone faded, cooled; the fluted nouns
Made taller, lonelier than life
By leaf-carved capitals in the afterglow.
The owlet umlaut peeps and hoots
Above the open vowel. And after rain
A deep reverberation fills with stars.

Lost, is it, buried? One more missing piece?

But nothing's lost. Or else: all is translation
And every bit of us is lost in it
(Or found – I wander through the ruin of S
Now and then, wondering at the peacefulness)
And in that loss a self-effacing tree,
Color of context, imperceptibly
Rustling with its angel, turns the waste
To shade and fiber, milk and memory.

--James Merrill

Vincent van Gogh - Strohdächer in Auvers

Indeed. I would vote for enjoying the process as much as possible; not without a little help from our friends.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017


Kecharitomene: music and musings, with many possible layers of meanings, composed and performed by Loreena McKennit.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

two meandering poems (Maria Petrovykh)

The cold has decidedly arrived, and discovers me at my upstairs desk, perched like a hothouse orchid peering safely through the glass at the snow-covered canopy.  On a whim, I venture back into translation.

While wandering in the woods, suddenly
you'll be a witness to a mystery,
but all is opened in a chance glance round -
disclosures are always accidental.

Within the pine grove, the snow lies thickly -
winter settles in the forest firmly.
But dry foliage covers a slope nearby -
Autumn peeks through a clearing there.

The creeks are babbling, each runs to its end -
it's Spring, it's Spring! Yet in the grey-blue are
ringing and singing not only starlings -
oh Robin-bobbin, summer's come and gone.

I saw it there and heard with my own ears,
how that, in the thickets, often rustling,
Spring and Summer, and Autumn and Winter
conduct their secret negotiations.

The Masque of the Four Seasons (Walter Crane)

Oh, what sorts of seas there are I've dreamed of!
Artemisia whispers in the foothills.
Enough, my friend. You speak of this in vain.
It was just a theatrical tableau.
But I dreamed of this! I don't understand
why it was they seemed to mean something.
That's enough, my friend. It's all for nothing.
The universe has been fashioned again.
That whole tale had become rather stale,
the visions from before were all quite dull,
and it has long since already been time
for speaking, hearing, and comprehending.

-- Maria Petrovykh

Tile design of heron and fish (Walter Crane)

Here are Maria Petrovykh's originals, in case someone has a quibble with my translations:

Бредешь в лесу, не думая, что вдруг
Ты станешь очевидцем некой тайны,
Но все открыл случайный взгляд вокруг —
Разоблачения всегда случайны.

В сосновой чаще плотный снег лежит,—
Зима в лесу обосновалась прочно,
А рядом склон сухой листвой покрыт,—
Здесь осени участок неурочный.

Шумят ручьи, бегут во все концы,—
Весна, весна! Но в синеве прогретой
Звенят вразлив не только что скворцы —
Малиновка,— уж это ли не лето!

Я видела и слышала сама,
Как в чаще растревоженного бора
Весна и лето, осень и зима
Секретные вели переговоры.

О, какие мне снились моря!
Шелестели полынью предгория...
Полно, друг. Ты об этом зря,
Это все реквизит, бутафория.
Но ведь снилось! И я не пойму - 
Почему они что-то значили?
Полно, друг. Это все ни к чему.
Мироздание переиначили.
Эта сказочка стала стара,
Потускнели видения ранние,
И давно уж настала пора
Зренья, слуха и понимания.

-Мария Петровых

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 to victory -
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, 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 had assumed 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.

The mountains held up the sky like pillars, releasing plumes of pebbles, streams and silt as far as my girlish eyes could follow, and w...

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