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.

Monday, September 25, 2017

two Mandelstam poems

Because moods flutter onto our shoulders like cloaks and then dart away, as the young Osip Mandelstam knew well. He wrote this at around age 20, while traveling in Berlin. 

I am not quite happy with this translation, but I'll put it out there, I'll let it go, while I wonder how the trees feel about letting go, at this time of year. 

Let the wild be what it will be.  

Hiding like a snake inside myself,
Winding like ivy around myself,
I rise up above myself:

I crave myself, I fly to myself,
With dark wings I thrash about,
Unfurling them above water;

Then, like a frightened eagle,
returning bereft of a nest
that slipped into an abyss --

I will cleanse lightning by fire
and, banishing the thunderbolt,
will dissolve into a chilly cloud!

-- Osip Mandelstam

August 2010

Here is another of Mandelstam's early poems:

I know how to release the soul
from all that is external:
I hear the song boil in my blood --
and am quickly intoxicated.

For my own matter,
when on the verge of melting,
is linked together again,
into its original rings.

There in the impartial ether
our essences are hung --
starry weights are cast
into trembling cups;

And in the joy of limitation
is the ecstasy of life:
the remembrance of the body
of its unchanging homeland.

July 1911

*              *                *

В самом себе, как змей, таясь,
Вокруг себя, как плющ, виясь,—
Я подымаюсь над собою:

Себя хочу, к себе лечу,
Крылами темными плещу,
Расширенными над водою;

И, как испуганный орел,
Вернувшись, больше не нашел
Гнезда, сорвавшегося в бездну,—

Омоюсь молнии огнем
И, заклиная тяжкий гром,
В холодном облаке исчезну!

-- Осип Мандельштам

Август 1910

Душу от внешних условий
Освободить я умею:
Пенье - кипение крови
Слышу - и быстро хмелею.

И вещества, мне родного
Где-то на грани томленья,
В цепь сочетаются снова
Первоначальные звенья.

Там в беспристрастном эфире
Взвешены сущности наши -
Брошены звёздные гири
На задрожавшие чаши;

И в ликованьи предела
Есть упоение жизни:
Воспоминание тела
О... неизменной отчизне...

Июль 1911

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Autumn Air

There, in a sea of
time-tossed exhaling,
longings are propelled,
high-flying like kites,
wind-washed and as pure
as polychrome streamers.

They flutter through a
cloud-dragon's jowls,
and fall, scattering
under bent branches.
No flame is ever lost
but leaves its mark on stone.

Monday, September 11, 2017

The mountains called to me.

And I answered.

After I had huffed and puffed up to the saddle between two peaks, I heard the sound of the headwaters of the eagles' favorite creek flowing in the valley ahead.

I sank into the moss. My fingers busied themselves with the task of plucking berries. They were so low to the ground, I found it best to assume a half-kneeling, half lying position where I could inhale all of the musky, fruity, nutty odors of the terrain.

A cloud passed over me, bathing me in a stinging hiss of mist. But it did not actually rain, and for that I was grateful.

Listening to the trickle of water, I was reminded of another mountain stream that I had frequently visited as a child. At around age 10, I christened it Tatiana's Stream. I had just finished reading Esther Hautzig's The Endless Steppe, and found myself fascinated by her recollection of the recitation of a portion of Evgeny Onegin: "An awesome dream Tatiana's dreaming..." (her translation) and her ultimate unfulfilled wish: to obtain a fufaika, a quilted jacket to mitigate the Siberian chills. As a veteran of the cold, I could relate. 

Those were the years when people wrote "BOMB IRAN" in the dust on dirty cars, and the Cold War tango was a slow burn. I was so painfully shy, that, when possible, I avoided social interactions, and instructed my imaginary and literary friends to follow me to the hills, where we could sit out the political storms. For good measure, we pretended to hide refugees from the Holocaust in our temporary Switzerland. And I dreamed, always, of visiting Russia. 

Little did I know that the dark blue, quilted Chinese jacket I had purchased at Salvation Army just before my first flight to Russia, so closely resembled the navy fufaikas or telogrekas, which were mainly worn by elderly villagers selling sunflower seeds, that I was nearly equated with one of them upon my arrival.

I laughed with no one and everyone at one of the grand jokes of my life: I had ended up finding a fufaika for Esther's sake, after all.

Years later, sitting on the opposite side of the mountains from Tatiana's Stream, I recalled her dream with a measure of amusement. Mountain-nymphs, do you hear me, I actually wore a fufaika!

The strangest dream Tatiana's dreaming
as if she is gliding through a snowy glade,
surrounded by a Cimmerian shade,
and in the drift before her, a shuffling,
where a dark and grey stream,
not restrained by winter's duress,
wreathes her with its rustling wave;
two perches fused by ice,
a trembling, fateful bridge,
are placed across the flow
and span the burbling creek;
and before the rumbling abyss,
burdened by confusion,
she stops cold in her tracks.

И снится чудный сон Татьяне.
Ей снится, будто бы она
Идет по снеговой поляне,
Печальной мглой окружена;
В сугробах снежных перед нею Шумит,
клубит волной своею Кипучий,
темный и седой Поток,
не скованный зимой;
Две жердочки, склеены льдиной,
Дрожащий, гибельный мосток,
Положены через поток:
И пред шумящею пучиной,
Недоумения полна,
Остановилася она.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

the head of the brother of Chernomor

Anyone familiar with the story of Ruslan and Ludmila will recall the Learned Cat, who appears briefly at the beginning of the Pushkin's poem, and then mysteriously disappears.

But I have long been fascinated by another character in the saga: a disembodied head (this time it is a human one, not a feline one resembling the Cheshire Cat.)

Let's pretend that, instead of wearing Ruslan's battle boots, we slip ourselves into the silken tufli of Ludmila, who has become a bit bored (and let's admit it, she might have, shockingly, gained a few extra pounds from munching on Turkish delight and sipping cordials) of life in the castle of the wicked wizard Chernomor. Let's face it, even the beards in this story are given a more active role than that of the female protagonist. 

So Ludmila steals the wizard's hat (she has already discovered its magical properties because she has been snooping in his library, ha!), and puts it on backwards, which renders her invisible. Then she marches off the hills, where her tufli are naturally encrusted by mud. Off in the distance looms the Head, intriguingly.

Bilibin's version

Even if you don't understand Russian, this video clip of Ruslan meeting the Head may be rather diverting. The Head seems to threaten the hero at first, until Ruslan gives it a smack, then the Head tells him he has actually been waiting for him to revenge himself on his brother ("I will live until I am avenged," he says), and out pops an enchanted sword, a handy tool for Ruslan to prove himself against Chernomor, who turns out to be a midget who had utilized the blade to remove his big brother's head, but the sword had somehow kept the Head alive until the arrival of the squeaky-clean hero.

The Head is just begging to be asked more questions, I think. 

What if Ludmila came upon the gigantic Head and spoke to it, and then decided that she was a bit sleepy, and so she nodded off while leaning against him. Then, while they both were snoring (as in the clip above), what if she had a dream. In her dream, it was revealed to her that both she and Ruslan, and the Duke of Kiev, and even the serving ladies tasked with taming her hair and pinning the kokoshnik on her head on a daily basis -- were all playing the parts of characters in a play inside the Head's dream, and that she was parading about as one of his embodied thoughts. What then? Would she be so quick to run back to her place in the story, or might she choose an alternative script? 

The images of the Learned Cat and the Head (let's not even go there with the midget wizard who is all-powerful but possibly impotent - we are never quite sure) lend Pushkin's tale certain quality of ambiguity that Alan Watts liked to call the yetzer hara, or the Element of Irreducible Rascality. Their appearance is a signal designed to stir up the archetypes in the psyche.

Above is a portion of a lecture by Alan Watts, who surely must have possessed the virtue of Irreducible Rascality. Can't you just see it in his eyes?

An unfinished sculpture at Peterhof which may have inspired Pushkin.

I am still curious about the Head of the brother of Chernomor, a mysterious giant who seems to speak to us from far before the 19th century. I think that perhaps I, too, shall pay him a visit, but only on my way to talk to the Learned Cat. 

Thursday, August 31, 2017

the laughing stones

Yesterday afternoon, after I had gathered the usual batch of raspberries, it seemed like a fitting time to pick a bouquet of yarrow and mint.  My favorite of the three varieties of mint in my garden, happens to be the chocolate mint. I took a snippet and breathed in its rich, burgundy-rimmed scent.

It struck me that I was almost memorializing my garden, while it was still growing. It's far too early to do this: there are snap peas still on their vines, there are Saskatoons and apples yet to harvest. And I cannot forget the thorny issue of the gooseberries, which hang like emerald jewels, waiting to reach the correct tinge of amber before they are ready to be picked.



All week, I've been remembering a state that I don't want to forget, the thought of which is partly associated with a recent drive to the mountains. The road to the summit was open, and as it had been closed the last time we happened to be there, I decided to turn in that direction.

I will digress for a moment, to admit that it has not always been easy for me to acknowledge or feel my emotions. In my later years, I've had to re-learn how to open my senses, to gather impressions, to allow sensations to register in the book of my consciousness, rather than blocking them out.

I walked around the lake to greet the creek that hurries down the other side of the mountain pass. 

I sat on a large stone in front of the lake at the summit. The air smelled of snowmelt, crow-berry bushes, nutty-scented lichens, and the dust of dark slate. I closed my eyes and let the cool breeze touch my face.

I am not sure how to explain what happened next. Either I am completely mad, or I felt that the very rock I was sitting on, was communicating with me, sending an electric jolt through me, which felt curiously like a soft embrace, or an omnipresence of love.

Technically, I was sitting on a solid object. But I felt as if I had ceased to be solid in relation to it. All that was, was warmth and an unseen flow, whether up, or or down, in or out, it is difficult to say. The stones seemed to be laughing, and to be communicating to me, quite emphatically, that a universe of kindness was awakened and cognizant, and that it recognized me.

Believe it or not, those stones were on cloud nine!

On the way home, the grace of strangers was made manifest to me, when the van overheated, and I was offered water and assistance, not once, but five separate times. My cup of gratitude overflowed.

I have had more chances to recall that good-will this week, when I have seen images of strangers rescuing flooded folk from rooftops and living rooms, and even of men saving carp stranded by moving waters.


And now, we return to regularly scheduled broadcasting.

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 transl...

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