Saturday, April 12, 2014

An Hour (Czeslaw Milosz)

Leaves glowing in the sun, zealous hum of bumblebees,
From afar, from somewhere beyond the river, echoes of lingering voices
And the unhurried sounds of a hammer gave joy not only to me.
Before the five senses were opened, and earlier than any beginning
They waited, ready, for all those who would call themselves mortals,
So that they might praise, as I do, life, that is, happiness. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

another post from "Un idiot attentif"

I am glad to see that another informative blog post from "the other Fiodor" has appeared, on

The teachings of the Elder Zossima

"Elder Zossima," a character in Dostoevsky's novel, The Brothers Karamazov, is based on the author's memories of meetings with the monks of Optina-Pustyn, a monastery near Kozelsk, Russia. Above is a 19th-century view of Optina, with the river Zhisdra in the foreground.


On an October evening, in Sheremetyevo, where dust-bunnies hung hauntingly from odd metal cylinders affixed to the ceiling, my hostess hailed an off-white cab and haggled firmly with its driver.

"Oy!" grunted the driver, mangling my collection of suitcases into his trunk. I clasped eleven pink roses to my breast. The pair of young lovers who shared the back seat with me folded themselves into one another, rounded origami shapes. My hostess identified these first views of the dimly-lit suburbs of Moscow: schools, bakeries, the rectangular cement prisms of apartment buildings. Dark, snaking streets and alley-ways led to places inviting to be explored.

Down Gorky Street* we whizzed, nearly colliding with several passing pedestrians. I winced. We passed buildings marked Produkti, Kino-Teatr, Universalny Magazin, and endless rows of apartments, some constructed from brick or stone, while others displayed fanciful plaster facades.

We'd been driving for about half an hour, when V. exclaimed, "Look!" and there, appearing through the fog, were neon ruby stars, the towers of the Kremlin, its solid walls.

When I spied the baroque conglomeration of cupolas that forms St. Basil's Cathedral, the shiny paper around the roses crinkled as my grasp tightened. Is it necessary to admit that I gasped?

It was not long before we reached the Taganka, and the cab bumped to a stop. "Shhhh..." I was instructed. "In the apartment building, do not speak a word of English. I do not want anyone to know an American is here."

Y. kissed me three times at our first meeting; once on each cheek, and a third time for the Holy Spirit.

I opened my eyes in the morning and saw bone china behind glass, tulle and velvet curtains guarding tall hinged windows, and the shadows of lace flowers on the high ceiling: I had arrived.

*now Tverskaya

music says to me

"You can bear these burdens, I will act as your conveyance. Carry on, dear soul......."

Thursday, April 10, 2014

My first encounter with the writing of Vladislav Khodasevich...

...was through this poem, thanks to a friend. Such a sensitive soul must have been associated with Khodasevich's frail body. Seemingly simple themes such as bread were important to Khodasevich. Forgive any insensitivity in my attempt at translation.

...the word is flesh and simple bread is merriment and mystery.

--Osip Mandelstam, "Word and Culture"

I found the above quote while musing on Khodasevich, the Symbolists and Acmeists, and then felt a bit sad, considering the later fate of both poets.


Vladislav Khodasevich, 1918

In our kitchen, a blinding light appeared today.
You, in an apron, sprinkled with flour,
fairer than any Cendrillon* or Mignon,**       
        an artless beauty.

Around you, ministering visibly,
with a bundle of firewood, and a jug of milk,
dripping feathers, cherubim are attending...
        through the clouds

Radiance breaks through, and onto copper pans
bundles of arrows are flung--yellow rays.
The fire in the stove, in the light of day,
         gleams as if pale roses.
And these portions of future bread,
merging in a sonorous earthen vessel--
An angel swears--they are truths, like the sky,
       the earth, labor, and love.

* Cinderella

**a French term of endearment

(The title of the poem is actually Bread plural, but "Breads" doesn't sound quite right to me as a title.)

Слепящий свет сегодня в кухне нашей.
В переднике, осыпана мукой,
Всех Сандрильон и всех Миньон ты краше
        Бесхитростной красой.

Вокруг тебя, заботливы и зримы,
С вязанкой дров, с кувшином молока,
Роняя перья крыл, хлопочут херувимы...
        Сквозь облака

Прорвался свет, и по кастрюлям медным
Пучками стрел бьют желтые лучи.
При свете дня подобен розам бледным
        Огонь в печи.

И эти струи будущего хлеба
Сливая в звонкий глиняный сосуд,
Клянется ангел нам, что истинны, как небо,
        Земля, любовь и труд.

A Sulamith Wulfing painting.

If every poem is a lie,
then clothing and food are lies too,
as are the whole world and even clayey man.

--St. Columba

Vladislav Khodasevich - Through the Window (Read by Sergei Vinogradov, and Orpheus/Ballada--tr. Nabokov)

Sharing a bit of his particular version of madness, around 20 of Vladislav Khodasevich's poems are read by Sergei Vinogradov in this dramatic sampling, which begins,

"Entering into my house, bring your dreams,
or a devilish beauty, or God, if you are godly,
but your petty decencies--leave them, like a hat
in the entrance hall."

An article on Khodasevich can be found here (scroll down to Khodasevich: The Poet Dissolving in Acid.) I found an excellent article on the semantics of Khodasevich as well.

A great translation of a poem of Khodasevich's into English, "Look for Me," was published recently by The Guardian.

One of my favorite renderings into English is a poem of Khodasevich's translated (and for all practical purposes re-written) by Vladimir Nabokov, who was particularly fond of the poet, an early mentor of his:

Orpheus (Ballada was the original title)

Brightly lit from above I am sitting
in my circular room; this is I--
looking up at a sky made of stucco,
at a sixty-watt sun in that sky.
All around me, and also lit brightly,
all around me my furniture stands,
chair and table and bed--and I wonder
sitting there what to do with my hands.
Frost-engendered white feathery palmtrees
on the window-panes silently bloom;
loud and quick clicks the watch in my pocket
as I sit in my circular room.
Oh, the leaden, the beggarly bareness
of a life where no issue I see!
Whom on earth could I tell how I pity,
my own self and the things around me?
And then clasping my knees I start slowly,
to sway backwards and forwards, and soon
I am speaking in verse, I am crooning
to myself as I sway in a swoon.
What a vague, what a passionate murmur
lacking any intelligent plan;
but a sound may be truer than reason
and a word may be stronger than man.
And then melody, melody, melody
blends my accents and joins in their quest
and a delicate, delicate, delicate
pointed blade seems to enter my breast.
High above my own spirit I tower,
high above mortal matter I grow:
subterranean flames lick my ankles,
past my brow the cool galaxies flow.
With big eyes-as my singing grows wilder--
with the eyes of a serpent maybe,
I keep watching the helpless expression
of the poor things that listen to me.
And the room and the furniture slowly,
slowly start in a circle to sail,
and a great heavy lyre is from nowhere
handed me by a ghost through the gale.
And the sixty-watt sun has now vanished,
and away the false heavens are blown:
on the smoothness of glossy black boulders
this is Orpheus standing alone.

Magpie Spring

This is not a poem.

This is me, a cranky magpie, waiting for green,
seeing little sign of progress.
Waving willow-branches defiantly.

A brand-new iceberg turns blue
just after calving from the mother-glacier.
Do I have a similar excuse?

It's like that time, when, during Spring,
I marched down Leninsky Prospekt
to see what there was to see,
besides a titanium Gagarin,
in a state of being perpetually launched.

I found a line and stood in it,
purchased 1 kilo of frozen shrimp,
and a three-liter jar of birch sap.

With a shower of sparks and a horrific screech of metal,
an elderly indigo Moskvitch
lost an entire rear wheel assembly,
and careened to a halt near the sidewalk.

The driver got out, shrugged,
loped across the lanes to fetch the wheel.
I was impressed by his male confidence.

Today, I am afraid of spooking Spring.
But I am glad I am that girl any longer--
the one missing essential components.

The photo above is not mine--it's a contemporary view of the monument to the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. But--you get the idea.


Here is my willow branch -- Верба--soon it will be Вербное Воскресенье--in the North we don't call it Palm Sunday--because we don't have palms. :)

Chag Pesach Sameach! Happy Passover!

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Nana Peradze - Georgian Harmony Choir

In search of my Love 
I will go over mountains and strands;
I will gather no flowers, 
I will fear no wild beasts;
And pass by the mighty and the frontiers.

--St. John of the Cross

Monday, April 07, 2014

Margarita's Mouse

Attempt an interview with the voiceless, and you might discover what Hell is. What? you ask. How dare I proclaim the existence of such a space?

Let the length and breadth of my silence serve as your answer.

I never discard the bread of my hunger. Instead, I crumble any stale pieces onto the sill and watch turtle-doves approach through the casement windows.

Tonight, in my mind-meanderings, we have just left Mayakovskaya station and are walking briskly down Bolshaya Sadovaya. We turn a corner and enter a tall gray building with rounded bay windows. We hear a woman cry out, "Oh, the poor seagull!" and then there is a sudden crash: a book clatters down the cement steps and thumps near my feet.

I reach down to retrieve the book. I notice it is curiously bound in green velvet with red lettering, but another hand lifts it quickly out of mine, before I can even place the language of its title. "Come!" says the owner of the hand, a tall woman clad in a long purple gown. She lifts a brass door knocker, and a heavy black door opens and then closes decisively behind my back.

Glancing up, I find myself, alone, once again, in a dimly-lit basement apartment. I lean back on a worn chaise lounge and sigh.

A soft touch on my knee surprises me in the midst of my silence. I think, at first that it is Begemot returning to haunt me, and raise my hand, ready to slap his head. But no--it is a gentler, smaller creature. He tickles my knee until I kneel down on the parquet in an attempt to speak to him. We begin a quiet conversation, and discover that we are somehow old friends. I name him--most affectionately--my Mouse. The rain arrives, washing down the dusty streets, yet leaves me with the delight of his acquaintance.

I'm mad, you say? Before you pass a final judgment, come and meet my Mouse--or should I call him Prince Myshkin? Just grant me a bit of notice before you arrive, and I'll leave out a few extra crumbs for him, after the doves have finished their dinner.

Flight Path

Then only about a year old,
my daughter wouldn't remember
clinging to my shoulders
while the Aeroflot plane climbed.

Nervous fellow-travelers
sipped vodka and murmured.

She leaned into the crook of my arm,
avoiding a cloud of cigarette smoke, and slept.
My gaze was glued to a plastic porthole.

We flew into an extended sunset.
The horizon skipped elusively
along mountain ridges
until it skirted an endless frosty steppe.

At about a hair past the Article Circle,
near the edge of unbearable vertigo,
the real show began, the Aurora.

How to describe a memory of throbbing skies,
of hour after hour spent inside a dance of color?

How would I even have known where we were going, or why,
had I not been launched by a thousand tear-filled prayers?

Shivering, exhausted and in awe,
I followed the rippling ribbons of glowing green.
Astride surging waves of light,
we soared over the North Pole
in a close brush with infinity;
some soberly, while others slumbered.

Our World (Adam Zagajewski, honoring W.G. Sebald)

In Memoriam W.G. Sebald

I never met him, I only knew
his books and the odd photos, as if
purchased in a secondhand shop, and human
fates discovered secondhand,
and a voice quietly narrating,
a gaze that caught so much,
a gaze turned back,
avoiding neither fear
nor rapture;

                  and our world in his prose,
our world, so calm--but
full of crimes perfectly forgotten,
even in lovely towns
on the coats of one sea or another,
our world full  of empty churches,
rutted with  railroad tracks, scars
of ancient trenches, highways,
cleft by uncertainty, our blind world
smaller now by you.

This poem is from the collection Eternal Enemies, by Adam Zagajewski, translated by Clare Cavanagh.

I posted it because I'm in the midst of reading W.G. Sebald's Vertigo--and am being seized by a spasm of appreciation for both writers, whose readers find themselves borne along satisfyingly by the steady movements of thought lurking within/behind the words on the page.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Igor Sid's Video-Poem: Voice, Word, Verb. (Голос, Логос, Глагол)

Igor Sid is a Crimean poet. He wrote a poem entitled Voice, Word, Verb in 1993. The multimedia project I share below was created by a team of artists (from both Moscow and the Crimea.) I stumbled on the video-poem through Google, when it occurred to me to write a poem of my own with a similar title in English, because the three words in Russian fit together like a Chinese puzzle: Голос, Логос, Глагол. Although I share his enthusiasm for words, my own poem is a much more subdued affair. It occurs to me that his poem may be a message from history to the present, as timely today when it was written.

Here is a fumbling attempt at a translation of the text, please excuse any mistakes:

Voice, Word, Verb.

Voice, word, verb: glossolalia from a child's cradle,
and washed over the world, vertices born spinning.

In a Cyclopian gesture of blue and azure
dividing heaven and sea, we lay without strength,
hermeneutics and frontists in the battlefield of the surf,
but old man de Kullè noticed us, and blessed
the World Tree — let rootlings sprout into a colorless
parallel world, expressed as magma under Aetna's slopes,
the Stymphalian larva of boiling stone! And Zhlya*                      *an ancient Slavic goddess
circles forest and steppe, dividing into green and more green .

Or like this: settling into the negative cone of Hades,
I said: grapes. A cubist mustache, meander,
the embryo of the Labyrinth, Thessaly, yet Thebes,
concentric terror of the square of Mytilene.

Freeze frame:

Into a fire-breathing ravine, in the iris of the poor Cyclops,
along its vast spine Europe is serving back to the New World,
made doubly lonely by loudly boiling seas,
tossing Cadmus becomes a burning Vulkanalia;
for incense-filled Sinai, where lava spilled as tablets,
and in the brine lurks the golden Black Sea sturgeon,
there is constructed in a cube consisting of termite song
a full-fledged Kaaba, a skinny Adam's Apple
of land for Basurmen *. Adobe phrases of walls.                                      *i.e. Muslims
And a double Jihad, as the land is both burned and barren.

And still farther each continent moves from the other,
yet they remain obedient, the Muslim and Proteus, many-faced,
and thus is Hera tearing her hair up in an electronic amnesia—
the way Weissmann howled from thirst to drink from the crater,
and Alyosha's tadpole freezes in the ice in the winter.
Nostalgia draws blessed paintings: we are together.
And it is not clear just who we are. Already on the way
to the metropolis we feel that something is wrong. We fly up home:
along the erased avenues--an RNA transcription won't save us—
a six-pawed brave backbone of nonverbal jazz,
three centuries of vertebrae, an injection aimed at the heart,
And yet a child continues to speak, calling: voice, word, verb.

Canonical texts are nasty in that they weave, today,
on the eve of the end; Doryphoros, an empty pyramid
and dry Baalbek, in the absence of the Holy Sepulchre
of indubitable patristics. But — no guesswork — soars
in six-jazzed colors, the continent over the holes of hell.
And inside, like a Doric order, stands a cannonade.

The black stone in the wall — it's like trying to fold
spear-bearing wings and lay down a new song
as if a medal for the motherland, suddenly turned Maltese,
proprietary lame-footed Hephaestus gestalt:
mechanical servant, mechanical servant, mechanical servant.
Still better the falcon than the copper bulls for King Tethis,
and the angry King revokes the screening machines, learning
that his treacherous daughter, tossing out Poetania,
the ocean, is once again in trousers. And a century of wolfhounds
is slept through: as in single file I leave, walking along the corridor.


--Igor Sid


the song of a shell sapphire melting inside jade a color unnamed Ofra Haza's version of this song defies categoriz...

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