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 Roger Clarke)

In Lukomorye a green oak stands;
to the oak a chain of gold is tied;
and at the chain’s end night and day
a learnèd cat walks round and round.
Rightwards he goes, and sings a song;
leftwards, a fairy tale he tells.
There’s magic! It’s a wood sprite’s haunt –
a rusalka sits among the boughs –
on footpaths no one has explored
are tracks of beasts no one has seen – 
a hut stands there on chicken’s legs,
no windows in its walls, nor doors –
unnumbered wraiths stalk wood and dale –
at dawn the ocean waves roll in
and surge across the empty sands,
while from the limpid waters strides
a troop of thirty champions,
fine men, and their sea-tutor too –
a king’s son passing by that way
takes prisoner an awesome tsar – 
up in the clouds for all to see
above the sweep of woods and waves
a wizard hauls a warrior brave –
a princess pines in prison there,
a brown-haired wolf her loyal page –
a mortar in a witch’s form
moves to and fro as if alive –
frail Tsar Kashchéy wilts by his gold.
The place breathes Russia… reeks of Rus!
I was there once: I sipped some mead; 
I saw the green oak by the sea;
I sat beneath it, while the cat,
that learnèd cat, told me his tales.
One of those tales I still recall,
and this I’ll share now with you all…

*The translator originally rendered this as "by an arc of sea" which is literal, but does not capture the sense of the thrill of the actual 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.

Monday, April 13, 2015

A Tale of Two Plays - Part I

For some reason today, I found myself wishing to discuss the merits of a Russian word with the 19th century playwright, Alexander Griboyedov. Our imaginary conversation might wander around to the word in such a fashion: Griboyedov could triumphantly wave his latest manuscript in my face, and I might respond, pretending to be surprised, "How totally клёво, Sasha!"

(Kлёво (klyovo) is a slang term which basically means, "cool!" It would not be considered the best of manners to use the word with a person one does not know well. The term was likely derived from a word denoting the bite of a fish on a hook.)

At this juncture, I should explain that I would have been hoping to get a rise out of Sasha, in anticipation of the appearance of a characteristic crinkle on his forehead, and a crease at the corner of his mouth that would signal his impatience with my impertinence. In short, I would be waiting for him to contradict me with a freshly-spawned witticism emerging from his formidable internal lexicon.

However, since the likelihood of myself holding a conversation with Griboyedov in the 21st century is not high, I must be satisfied with the teasing out of a historical enigma, merely for my own entertainment and/or gratification.

During the 19th century, two plays were written by liberal aristocrats which forever altered the landscape of Russian literature and vocabulary; their influence and impact is discussed by philologists, historians, and literati to this day. The author of one of these plays was Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin. The author of the other was Alexander Sergeevich Griboyedov.

The first of the two plays to appear in written manuscript form (although it was not welcomed by Imperial censors, therefore its publishing was delayed) was Griboyedov's Woe from Wit. Ivan Goncharov, the 19th century literary critic described the play like this, "The salt, the epigrams, the satire; the colloquial verse one feels will never die, any more than the sharp, biting, lively Russian intelligence which is sprinkled throughout and which Griboyedov locked up, as a wizard might some spirit in his castle, where it bursts into peals of malicious laughter."

Act A, Woe from Wit (Original)

Sunday, April 12, 2015

the holy fire

I visited my piano today. It responded to my timid touch with a light flutter. One of the ivory veneer pieces flaked off while I played. I placed it in a neat stack that has begun to accumulate over the past year, according to my friend, who has so kindly been sheltering it in her home (and, I hope, has enjoyed playing it as much as possible.) I resolved to hire a piano master soon, to take the instrument in hand, and repair it. The piano was built in 1907, after all, and deserves some careful attention. It once survived a long journey north, years ago, in the back of an old International; a sojourn in the Bush, and several moves since then. Its sound board remains intact, and its tone is intriguing, even though all of the felt is in dire need of being replaced.

I opened a yellowing book of sheet music and began to fumble through Schubert's Serenade. At this point, it might be better to draw a curtain over that attempt, and redirect the listener to Horowitz's version. He adds a few extra flourishes, which are not in my book. Snazzy. (Blows kisses in Horowitz's general direction.)

In my hand I hold a laurel leaf, collected from the floor of the church. I pinch it and inhale its clean, lemony pungency. Laurel leaves whisper to the senses of ancient victories, of heroes, of the priesthood, nobility, of a myth about a forest nymph who ran from the sun god, and was transformed into a tree.

Today marks the holiday of Pascha in the Eastern church, where it is not uncommon to memorize Paschal greetings in 12 languages and to garble them, or not, according to the amount of sleep one has had recently. A light shining from the cupola cast an eerie four-armed shadow into the ice fog before dawn this morning. Gathered together, quietly, in the dark, we passed a flame from candle to candle until the church was filled with light and, then formed a slow, shuffling procession around the building. 

I recalled an early account of how this story began:

"When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus' body."  (Mark 16:1.) 

It was the women who were there at the last, and at the first. Not the male apostles, but the women, to whom not very many pages of the scriptures are devoted. This coincidence may well have registered with some other thoughtful persons, including the writer Mandelstam, and the painter, Nesterov.

I find it poetically fitting that while the women were engaged in one of the most earthly, mundane, and heart-wrenching of tasks, a bright angel appeared to them, and them alone.

Mikhail Nesterov, The Empty Tomb

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