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!

When the wind is out of breath, I retreat to the mother-roots, to the heartwood, through dragon-whispers of darklight to the song of th...

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