Thursday, December 29, 2011

Not Just Pretty Words

Image courtesy of Gvideon

I have known for a while about Konstantin Gadaev’s film that shows Sergey Gandlevsky and Timur Kibirov discussing poetry as they drink tea on a Russian train, but only today did I finally get around to watching it. Midway through the half-hour film, Kibirov offers this definition of literature (and by implication, of poetry in particular), which I find compelling:

“В армии я понял, что - может, потому, что впервые на самом деле столкнулся по-настоящему с реальностью ... Я вдруг понял, что вот тот любимый мной ... ‘дискурс’, [то есть,] язык серебряного века, что он не может эту реальность описать. Я впервые понял, что такое ‘литература’, что это - не просто красивые слова, а нечто встреча реальности с индивидуальным языком.” - Тимур Кибиров
“In the army I understood – maybe because that was the first time I had really run into reality … I suddenly understood that … the very ‘discourse’ that I loved, [that is to say,] the language of the Silver Age – that it could not describe that reality. For the first time I understood what ‘literature’ was, that it wasn’t just pretty words, but some kind of meeting of reality with an individual’s language.” – Timur Kibirov

The film features Kibirov reading several of his poems, while Gandlevsky acts as interviewer, asking questions on art and politics that prompt Kibirov to reflect on decades of his poetic experience.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Nativity Poem by Joseph Brodsky

Joseph Brodsky as a boy in winter (undated) / Image courtesy of Yale's Beinecke Library

NOTE: My English translation follows the Russian text of this poem, which is one of the first "Nativity poems" that Brodsky wrote. (I posted another one last Christmas.) This poem does not appear in the collection that Farrar, Straus and Giroux put out in 2001 under the editorship of Pyotr Vail.

 *     *     *

Рождество 1963

Волхвы пришли. Младенец крепко спал.
Звезда светила ярко с небосвода.
Холодный ветер снег в сугроб сгребал.
Шуршал песок. Костер трещал у входа.
Дым шел свечой. Огонь вился крючком.
И тени становились то короче,
то вдруг длинней. Никто не знал кругом,
что жизни счет начнется с этой ночи.
Волхвы пришли. Младенец крепко спал.
Крутые своды ясли окружали.
Кружился снег. Клубился белый пар.
Лежал младенец, и дары лежали.

январь 1964

*     *     *
Christmas 1963

The magi had come. The infant soundly slept.
The star shone brightly from the vaulted sky.
A cold wind swept the snow up into drifts.
The sand rustled. A bonfire crackled nearby.
Smoke plumed skyward. Flames hooked and writhed.
The shadows cast by the fire grew now shorter,
now suddenly longer. No one there yet realized
that on that very night life’s count had started.
The magi had come. The infant soundly slept.
Steep arches loomed above the manger.
Snow swirled about. White steam rose in wisps.
With gifts piled near him, the child slept like an angel.

January 1964

Translated from the Russian by Jamie Olson

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Russian (Women) Poets

Detail from cover of An Anthology of Contemporary Russian Women Poets
Image courtesy of Carcanet Press

Recently, I’ve been enjoying reading a collection of Russian poetry whose very existence many of its contributors seem to object to: Daniel Weissbort and Valentina Polukhina’s Anthology of Contemporary Russian Women Poets. Actually, the anthology began its life as an issue of Modern Poetry in Translation (no. 20, 2002) and only later came out as a stand-alone book; the version I have is the journal issue. Reading between the lines as I moved through it, I got the distinct sense that the poets and critics involved on the Russian side were mystified by the Western editors’ desire to segregate the women from the men. (Polukhina, though Russian, lives and works in England. She is married to Weissbort.)

In one of the issue’s several prefatory pieces, Tatyana Voltskaya reminds readers that medieval theologians would often debate whether women even had souls, and she takes the demand for anthologies of women’s writing as evidence that the issue of sexism has not yet been settled, even if the writers themselves find it irrelevant: “I cannot escape the feeling that the shadow of that accursed question, formulated by pedantic theologians, still hangs over us, like the smile of the Cheshire Cat.” The anthologists’ urge to respond (“They do have souls!”) is especially perplexing when you realize, she says, that “if one ignores the very summit (Brodsky, in particular), women-poets in Russia, in recent decades, have been better writers.” There may be no injustice, she implies, that needs to be remedied. Likewise, Aleksei Alekhin, another preface writer, finds the need for such an anthology baffling: “It has always seemed to me that divisions according to gender should apply only to changing-rooms and public toilets—because of natural bashfulness. In poetry, there is nothing to be ashamed of.”