Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Gandelsman, Pasternak, Poesy


Portrait of Boris Pasternak by his father, Leonid Pasternak (1910) / Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The latest issue of the New York literary magazine Новый журнал (The New Review) includes a small selection of poems by Vladimir Gandelsman, a Russian-American poet I have written about on this blog before. What particularly caught my eye in this recent batch was Gandelsman’s first poem, “Pasternak” («Пастернак»), where he muses on the great modern poet, novelist, and Nobel laureate – whose birthday, it just so happens, was yesterday. When one poet writes about another, of course, we readers get a chance to eavesdrop on a conversation about poetics, one that often reveals more about the writer than about his ostensible subject. In this case, the poet’s observations concern Pasternak’s codependence with an anthropomorphized poetry, or as I like to think of her, Poesy. (In Russian, поэзия is grammatically feminine and thus necessarily more human than a mere “it.”) 

Here is my rough-and-ready, free-verse translation of the poem:

by Vladimir Gandelsman

With her, he is lonelier
than when alone, yet with her
the path to the pleasures
of art is half as long.
Stranger than a stranger,
she stands nevertheless
equal to him, familiar
as words suffered through. 
Only with her can he see
that certain slant of light
where his life outweighs
love. Which hardly exists.
Love remains on the verge
of breakdown, since it allows  
no rest for the mind at all
from its mindless madness.
But his wide open spaces
contain memory, stillness,    
words that hurt, and depths
we all should seek to plumb.
So, language of his suffering,
with your line ever sturdy, 
describe for us the stranger’s
familiar distant shores.

Translated from the Russian by Jamie Olson

As an ars poetica, Gandelsman’s poem surprises me both in its depiction of an estranged poet-poetry relationship and in its emphasis on poetry as something that must be “suffered through” («выстраданность»). While the poem may bring to mind Emily Dickinson’s notion that “After great pain, a formal feeling comes,” for Gandelsman’s Pasternak poetry does not come after the “great pain” but rather occupies the same space as it does. And yet poetry grants him access to “a certain Slant of light,” to use another Dickinsonian turn of phrase, that lets his mind move through pure emotion toward linguistic expression.

The closing lines of Gandelsman’s poem, where the poet directly addresses Pasternak’s poetry (“language of his suffering” / «выстраданность слова») as if she were a person capable of agency, calls to mind the last lines of one of Pasternak’s own poems, entitled, appropriately enough, “Poetry” («Поэзия»). There, with poetry personified and feminized just as in Gandelsman’s text, Pasternak picks up a poetry/rainfall metaphor he had established earlier in the poem and urges poetry to “flow!” («струись!») like water from the tap onto the pages of a notebook:

Поэзия, когда под краном
Пустой, как цинк ведра, трюизм,
То и тогда струя сохранна,
Тетрадь подставлена - струись!

The clearest translation of those lines that I have found was done by Andrei Navrozov, though its fits and starts may be confusing on the first reading:

When, poetry, under the faucet,
Truism, like bucket zinc, lies low,
Then, even then, the stream is glossy,
Some paper underneath, and – flow!

Translated from the Russian by Andrei Navrozov

As inspiring as Pasternak’s last stanza may be, I find Gandelsman’s closing lines to resonate more completely as a contemporary sentiment: the difference between the two is the difference between egoistic self-expression and genuine communion with the other. To Gandelsman’s mind, poetry provides us with a path to that oxymoronic ideal, “the stranger’s / familiar … shores” («чужого / родные берега»).


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