Osip Mandelstam / Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
This blog owes its existence to another blog on Russian literature: Lisa Hayden Espenschade’s Lizok’s Bookshelf. The difference between this one and that one is quite simple: while Lisa focuses on fiction, I intend to focus on poetry. I have been reading Lizok’s Bookshelf for many months now, and I count myself grateful for the insight that Lisa gives me into contemporary Russian novels and stories. Unfortunately, no English-language blogger seems to be providing the same readerly view into contemporary Russian poetry. In an e-mail exchange a few months ago, Lisa suggested that, since I’m the one who noticed the gap, I might as well be the one to fill it. So I’ve decided to take her up on that challenge.
If I’m going to use Lizok’s Bookshelf as a model, I’ve got my work cut out for me. Lisa seems to read just about every piece of fiction being published in Russia, and I’m afraid I may not be able to present such a comprehensive view of poetry. Translating Russian poems into English is something that I do almost every day, but I don’t typically read widely in contemporary Russian poetry, as Lisa does in Russian fiction. The sort of reading that I do as a translator is much narrower—scanning new poems to get a quick sense of their nature and keeping always on the lookout for writers whose poems somehow resonate with me. Then I go deeply into the work of those kindred poets. But I will need to broaden my reading habits if I want to give English readers a taste of what’s out there in the world of Russian poetry. I’ll do my best.
Still, I want this blog to be as much a record of my translation efforts as it is a record of my reading encounters. At the moment, I’m translating three poets who write in Russian: Irina Yevsa, Timur Kibirov, and Vyacheslav Kiktenko. I plan to post excerpts from some of their poems here soon, accompanied by my own musings on their work. (So far, only my translations of a few poems by Kiktenko have been published.) I’ll post links to other translators’ English versions of Russian poems as they become relevant, and I’ll try to report on news items from Russia that have to do with poetry. I also hope to make some connections between Russian and American poetry, since the American literary context is the one that I’m translating into.
By the way, the title of this blog, The Flaxen Wave, derives loosely from the final stanza of a late poem by Osip Mandelstam, where the great modern poet describes the role that poetry plays (or ought to play) in our lives. Here is my translation of the whole poem:
I’m now in a spider-web of light—
a raven-haired or light-blonde web.
The people need light and sky-blue air,
they need bread and the snow on Elbrus.
But I have no one to get advice from—
I don’t expect to find anyone, either:
Transparent, weeping stones like these
do not exist in Crimea or the Urals.
People need poetry kept close, kept secret,
so that they can wake up to it forever,
and in its sound, as in a flaxen-haired,
chestnut wave, bathe themselves.
January 19, 1937
Translation by Jamie L. Olson