Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Kiktenko in Ozone Park

 Abstract post-graffiti calligraphy by Nuno de Matos / Image courtesy of Ozone Park Journal

Two of my translations of poems by Vyacheslav Kiktenko appear in the Fall 2010 issue of Ozone Park Journal, which is put out by the MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at CUNY's Queens College. Susan Bernofsky, a brilliant translator, spent the fall semester as a visiting professor in the program, which she describes in an article she wrote for Words Without Borders.

With any luck, Kiktenko's Cyrillic texts will be posted on the Ozone site soon. For now, you can read the originals here ("Заброшенный парк" and "Мальчик стоит и дивится").

Thanks to ALTA, Roger Sedarat, and Jolie Hale for making this happen!

Friday, December 24, 2010

A Nativity Poem by Joseph Brodsky

Photograph of Joseph Brodsky speaking / 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. 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 года

Спаситель родился
в лютую стужу.
В пустыне пылали пастушьи костры.
Буран бушевал и выматывал душу
из бедных царей, доставлявших дары.
Верблюды вздымали лохматые ноги.
Выл ветер.
Звезда, пламенея в ночи,
смотрела, как трех караванов дороги
сходились в пещеру Христа, как лучи.

1963 - 1964

*     *     *

Christmas, 1963

The savior was born
into fierce, brutish cold.
Shepherds’ small campfires blazed in the wasteland.
A blizzard seethed and battered the souls
of the humble kings who bore gifts for the infant.
The camels lifted their shaggy legs in sequence.
The wind howled.
The star, aflame in the night,
looked on as the paths of the three processions
converged on Christ’s cave like beams of light.


Translated from the Russian by Jamie Olson

Monday, December 13, 2010

Sketchy Poet

Untitled drawing by Joseph Brodsky / Image courtesy of the the National Library of Russia

Today in St. Petersburg, the National Library of Russia opened a new exhibit called "Hourglass: Drawings by Joseph Brodsky," featuring unpublished sketches by the Russian poet from a number of sources: the library's archives, the Anna Akhmatova Museum, and private collections. The exhibit also includes copies of drawings that Brodsky made during his years in the United States, as well as some of his photographs. According to the library's press release, "The drawings reflect yet another aspect of Joseph Brodsky's talent and are an important resource for the study of his life and work." Besides the images, the library has on display manuscripts of poems, excerpts from letters, and notebook entries.

As it so happens, the walls of my office at Saint Martin's University are adorned with printed copies of two drawings by Brodsky: a self-portrait and a sketch of Derek Walcott. Both come from Yale's Beinecke Library, whose website allows anyone to view a number of Brodsky's drawings and photographs from his manuscript collection. (Just search using the keyword "Brodsky.")

If any readers of this blog happen to be in St. Petersburg and find the time to drop by the exhibit at the National Library, I'd love to hear what you think! Unfortunately, the exhibit will be short-lived: it closes on December 31.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Bella: Woman of the 'Sixties

Bella Akhmadulina / Image courtesy of Novaya Gazeta

This past Monday, Russia suffered the loss of Bella Akhmadulina, another voice from that hugely influential generation of poets who emerged in the 1960s and quickly achieved celebrity status in the Soviet Union. Alongside Yevgeny Evtushenko, Robert Rozhdestvensky, and Andrei Voznesensky (who also died this year), Akhmadulina became, according to poet and Radio Svoboda correspondent Elena Fanailova, a “feminine symbol of Khrushchev’s ‘thaw’,” appearing on stage, in popular films, and in print.

One should not forget that many poets in the Soviet Union, even major ones like Joseph Brodsky, did not have the luxury of seeing their work appear on the printed page. In fact, Akhmadulina was not always in the good graces of the authorities either: her second collection, Chills (Озноб), could only be released in tamizdat—“over there”—by a Frankfurt publisher run by Russian émigrés. And after she contributed a poem to Vasily Aksyonov’s unsanctioned almanac Metropol in 1979, Soviet officials evidently “branded her a prostitute and drug addict” in retaliation. That’s quite a fall for someone who just a decade before had helped to fill stadiums with crowds hungry for poetry.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Erofeyev on Tolstoy

Photo of Leo Tolstoy by F. W. Taylor (c. 1897) / Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune just ran a piece by Victor Erofeyev to mark the hundredth anniversary of Leo Tolstoy's death. Erofeyev fascinates me: he has a way of writing clear, simple prose that nevertheless manages to get at profound truths. Two of his essays that appeared in The New Yorker have stuck with me for years, and both of them go right to the foundations of Russian culture: in one, he takes up the subject of vodka; in the other, Russian cursing. (Unfortunately, the magazine won't let you read them without a subscription to the digital edition. But for excerpts from the second essay, read this post by Languagehat.)

In the new piece, Erofeyev claims to get a "physiological pleasure" from reading Tolstoy, since the novelist's words "generate smells, sounds, vibrations of feelings and moods." I suppose that's as good a definition of 'realism' as any. But most importantly, Erofeyev draws a distinction between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky that, from my perspective, hits right on the mark:
André Gide in an essay on Dostoevsky wrote that Tolstoy obscured the greatness of Dostoevsky. But with time, the prevalent view among intellectuals came to be that Dostoevsky’s mountain was higher than Tolstoy’s. Yes, Dostoevsky has clear goals and defined action. The curtain opens and we watch how a godless existence leads inexorably to sin and evil. Crime becomes punishment. By contrast, when Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina throws herself under a train, what is it? Her punishment? High tragedy? The fate of fallen women? A delirious stream of consciousness? There is no answer. For that, in Tolstoy’s logic, you go to the police, not to the writer. In Dostoevsky, life is subservient to thought. In Tolstoy, thought is in a constant spin, like the grenade that will explode and take the life of Prince Andrei Bolkonsky.
As I said, Erofeyev has a knack for expressing something simple, clear, and profoundly true. The next time I teach Russian literature, I may just have to assign this piece to my students.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The "Blackamoor" of Peter the Great

Statue of A. S. Pushkin in St. Petersburg (on Pushkinskaya St.) 

[Note that the original title of this post was "The 'Negro' of Peter the Great." See the comments section for details.]

Curiosity about Pushkin's lineage seems as strong as ever: Serge Schmemann writes in The New York Times that an African historian, Dieudonné Gnammankou, has discovered that the Russian national poet's great-grandfather, Abram Petrovich Gannibal, was probably born in the late seventeenth century in central Africa - not the more palatable Christian kingdom of Ethiopia, as Russians had thought. When he was seven years old, Gannibal was kidnapped, possibly by a neighboring chief, from the ancient sultanate of Logone-Birni (in what is now Cameroon), and given as a gift to the Ottoman sultan in Constantinople. The Russian ambassador then "acquired" him and presented him to Peter the Great.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Solzhenitsyn for School Kids

Alexander Solzhenitsyn and his wife Natalya / Image courtesy of Novaya Gazeta

[This is my translation of the first part of an article that appeared in today’s edition of Novaya Gazeta. The second part, which I do not give here, included an interview with Natalya Solzhenitsyn, the author’s widow.]

From Novaya Gazeta (October 29, 2010)

In December 1973, in Paris, the first publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s epic literary investigation burst onto the scene. His contemporaries wrote, “Maybe someday we will consider the appearance of Archipelago as marking the beginning of the fall of the communist system.” And, “This book could become the key book of a national rebirth, if the Kremlin manages to read it.”

The former came to pass. What about the latter? Actually, in September 2009 The Gulag Archipelago was incorporated into the federal education standard for Russian schools. And in January 2011 it will become part of the curriculum: the publisher “Prosveschenie” has put out a one-volume text, The Gulag Archipelago: Abridged Edition. This version is expressly for schools.

The one who spearheaded the introduction of Archipelago into the school curriculum was Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. In doing so, he has made the best investment in the battle against the falsification of Russian history.

But the prime minister's meeting with Natalya Solzhenitsyn in the summer of 2009; his words, “We must study and promote [propagandirovat'] your husband’s work”; her response, “Let’s just study it”; the decision to introduce Archipelago into the curriculum – all of this was described by practically the entire Russian press. And so was the initial reaction of the nation, the mournful howl of bloggers from the back row of the Russian Internet: “Wasn’t War and Peace enough?”

Maybe it wasn’t enough. Since 1905, when Dostoevsky and Tolstoy came into the curriculum, we have lived through quite a lot…  And it can’t be explained through War and Peace.

Friday, October 1, 2010


An unusual advertisement appeared in the September 27 issue of The New Yorker. At the top of the page, readers saw a word printed in Cyrillic characters—«Cноб» (“snob”), though the «С» was backwards—followed by an intriguing sentence in English: “Ask your Russian friends to read it to you.” The ad also reproduced the cover of a magazine with the same word, Сноб, positioned as its title. All of the contents and contributors on the cover were listed in Russian. Likewise, the ad announced in Russian—and only in Russian—that the current issue could be purchased at Barnes and Noble. So who is the audience of this Russian-language publication that advertises in The New Yorker and addresses its potential readership in two languages?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

On “Unity” (of the Scatological Sort)

Russian toilet used in Mir space station / Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The State Historical Museum in Moscow has a curious exhibit running until October 3 called “Where the King Walked” (as opposed to where he “rode” or “was carried”). So where did the king walk? To the toilet, of course. That accounts for the exhibit’s subtitle: “Hygiene in Historical Context.” And the historical context that the curators have in mind runs from classical antiquity to the present day, with stops along the way at medieval Asian chamber pots, urine collection bags from the Mir space station, and brand new toilet bowls that can quickly analyze what you put into them and give you timely updates on your health. Russian readers can have a look at a full description of the exhibit here.

Monday, September 13, 2010

A Russian Journal Goes English

For the first time, the New York journal Cardinal Points (Стороны света) has published an issue in English. In fact, it's a double issue, and it's packed with great stuff. Compiled under the guest editorship of Robert Chandler, the new issue includes translations of works by Marina Tsvetaeva, Andrei Platonov, Varlam Shalamov, and Vasily Grossman, along with original poems by Chandler, Glyn Maxwell, and Ilya Kaminsky, among others. There is enough excellent writing here to keep you occupied for many days. Valentina Polukhina, for example, has an interview here with David Bethea about Joseph Brodsky, whom Bethea calls "the last poet in the Russian heroic tradition." And Chandler gives us his own essay on Platonov and Shalamov to accompany their stories.

But my favorite section of the new issue is the one called "The Art of Translation." This is a big section, with contributions by the likes of Daniel Weissbort, Sasha Dugdale, Elaine Feinstein, and Sibelan Forrester. As I see it, the must-read essay in this section is Stanley Mitchell's recollection of the work he did - and depression he suffered - while translating Pushkin's Eugene Onegin. There's no question but that any Onegin translation is a Sisyphean task, and Mitchell's took its toll on him. In the end, though, he turned out something to be proud of: "Repeating Pushkin’s self-congratulation on finishing a piece of work, I said of mine: ‘Well done, you son-of-a-bitch!’"

For a glance at the older issues, go to the journal's Russian-language page.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Good News for Those Who Read Russian

The chaos of the new semester has kept me from doing much with this blog lately, but I thought it necessary to put up a quick message: OpenSpace.ru is up and running again! They were on hiatus for several months, but now they're back online doing their usual excellent work. For Russian readers who are interested in culture (music, literature, art, theater), this site is among the best resources out there.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Ryan on Translation

Image courtesy of Jeff Birkenstein

As I was leafing through Kay Ryan's The Best of It again this morning, I rediscovered a little poem of hers that offers a metaphor on poetic translation which seems to me neither dismissive of the endeavor nor blind to its faults. In the poem, fittingly enough called "Poetry in Translation," Ryan describes an animal skin spread on the floor in such a way that it comes out shaped like the U.S.:

     One meditates
     upon a
     Florida-like flap—
     a forward leg
     which ran
     the Russian steppe

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Translation and the Laureateship

W. S. Merwin / Image courtesy of inkywretch

As I learned last week (perhaps belatedly) from the Poetry Foundation’s podcast Poetry Off the Shelf, W.S. Merwin has been named as the next U.S. Poet Laureate. He’ll take up the post this fall. At one point in the interview portion of the podcast, Merwin says that poetry is something we should naturally enjoy reading and hearing:
I really believe … that everybody really loves poetry. And if they don’t think they do, it’s because something has happened to deprive them of it. I think that just as children love to draw and to dance and to sing and do all those things, they also love poetry.
I hope he’s right. In fact, that hope is what keeps me teaching and translating poetry. And students who take my poetry courses often tell me they are pleasantly surprised that studying poetry isn’t as painful as they expected it would be. So there’s reason to be hopeful.

American readers of Russian poetry also know Merwin through the translations of Osip Mandelstam that he produced in the early 1970s with Clarence Brown. Like most Russian poets, even those writing nowadays, Mandelstam wrote formal poetry, but Brown and Merwin translated his poems into free verse. As a translator myself, I probably wouldn’t have made the same choice, but I don’t see it as an error. On the contrary, their versions of Mandelstam are marvelous. Brown and Merwin’s free verse (and I suspect we can credit Merwin alone with the sound of the poems) comes alive in English in a completely singular way. As an example, consider the last few lines of Mandelstam’s  1915 poem “Insomnia. Homer. Taut sails…” Бессонница...»), whose literal meaning would be something like this:
… And behold, Homer is silent,
and the Black Sea, orating, groans
and with a terrible din approaches the headboard.
(… И вот, Гомер молчит, / И море черное, витийствуя, шумит / И с тяжким грохотом подxодит к изголовью.)

Friday, July 30, 2010

Brodskiana: A Tractor Driver Named Bulov (Not Burov)

Brodsky in Norenskaya / Image courtesy of Музей Иосифа Бродского в Интернете

Just as I was about to skip town and put this blog on hold for a month and a half, a curious little article appeared in Ex Libris, the literary supplement to the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta. The idea behind the article, called “Brodsky’s Grandmother” («Бабушка Бродского»), was simple: the writer of the piece, an film actor who calls himself Yandané, would visit the village where Joseph Brodsky was exiled in the 1960s and talk to the locals about him. The results that Yandané’s experiment yielded were rather interesting. But more about that in a minute.

This episode of Brodsky’s life has become a key component of the personal mythology that influences how readers approach his poetry: after being put on trial in 1964 for tuneyadstvo, or “social parasitism”—basically, freeloading—Brodsky was exiled to the tiny village of Norenskaya in Arkhangelsk province, where he stayed for a year and a half. (The original sentence was five years.) This was the first of Brodsky’s two exiles—the second one was more permanent—and the alienation that an outcast suffers is central to Brodsky’s poetics. But even before he was sent to Norenskaya, the “exile” theme appeared in his work. Take, for example, this poem (in my translation), written in 1961:

You’re finally coming home again. So what?
Just take a look around and see who needs you.
Yes, take a look: who now might be your friend?

(Воротишься на родину. Ну что ж. / Гляди вокруг, кому еще ты нужен, / кому теперь в друзья ты попадешь?)

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Blogus Interruptus

Sidewalk in Petrozavodsk / Image courtesy of Christian

Here I've just begun this blog, and now I'm off to spend five weeks in provincial Russia. Expect a new post in late July!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Way of the Dodo?

Logo of the National Library of Russia / Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Today is National Library Day in Russia, and like everywhere else, the fate of libraries in Russia remains uncertain. The editors of Literaturnaya Gazeta offer their take on the situation in this week’s issue:
The library is a treasure.

Its death will be a tragedy. Because knowledge, memory, and the bond between eras will die with it. The universe itself will be destroyed, leaving humans defenseless before the fury of those who have lost their human form and the madness of the elements. Don’t be stingy with libraries! We understand: they aren’t nanotechnologies. But the future of the nation will depend on libraries nonetheless.

The library is a sanctuary. It is a salvation from the bustle of the world and the malice of others. Remember yourself in childhood. If, of course, your childhood was normal, and not filled with gunfire against computerized monsters. With whom could you seek consolation when your mama unjustly scolded you, when they teased you in school and nobody, nobody understood? Right, with them, with the heroes of books, amid the rustling pages. And books consoled you, taught you how to live, little by little showing by clear example how you should make peace with friends and with that very same mama, how to be brave and honest. And the trip to the local library was almost the first act that allowed you to feel like a grownup.
In any case, wherever you are today, do the simple thing: check out a book from the local library and read it.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Memorial to the Mandelstams

A sculpture dedicated to Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam, entitled “Monument to Love,” was unveiled yesterday in Saint Petersburg during the city’s Mandelstam Days celebration. The Dutch sculptor who designed the new piece, Hanneke de Munck, has posted video footage of it on his website, along with the Russian text of Mandelstam’s poem “Oh how I wish…” (“О как же я хочу...”). He told Radio Svoboda that the sculpture is “far more life-affirming than they expected in Saint Petersburg,” since they had in mind something that “would have expressed all the tragedy of Osip and Nadezhda’s life.”

RIA Novosti, quoting the press service of Saint Petersburg State University, describes the new sculpture, which stands in the courtyard of the university's Twelve Colleges Building, as a “tribute of respect to the great poet and his wife Nadezhda for their devotion to independent creativity and to each other. Many poems by Osip Mandelstam reached us only thanks to his spouse.” As is widely known, Nadezhda Mandelstam memorized countless poems by her husband in order that his work would survive when the manuscripts were stolen or destroyed by the Soviet authorities.

A Stream without a Main Current? On Russian Poetry after Brodsky

Joseph Brodsky / Image courtesy of magictoken

Had Joseph Brodsky not died in 1996, he would have been 70 years old this past Monday. The Russian-speaking Internet is abuzz with opinions about the Nobel laureate’s birthday and what it means for his body of work. Many commentators focus on the tragedy of his untimely death—a death particularly painful to Russian readers because Brodsky is almost universally recognized as a genius who breathed a new kind of life into the Russian language. How ironic, then, that he ultimately became U.S. Poet Laureate! (Brodsky was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1972, after which he taught at American universities for over twenty years, beginning with my alma mater, the University of Michigan.)

Brodsky’s friend and fellow poet Anatoly Naiman, writing in Kommersant, argues that “observing—much less celebrating—the 70th birthday of a person who died at 55 is, generally speaking, absurd. That several of his peers who were close to him in his youth are alive confirms without a doubt that he certainly could have been alive now. And that he left us means that it was not written in the book of fate, or written at his birth, or wherever such things are written, that he would reach seventy. For such figures after death another kind of counting takes over in the calendar: the next date is set at 100, then 150, 200.” If there is a bright side to any of this, Naiman continues, it is that Brodsky the person—as opposed to Brodsky the poet—hasn’t yet been forgotten: “Today’s date is simply an occasion to reminisce about him while there are still those who can remember.”

Another Leningrad poet and contemporary of Brodsky’s, Yevgeny Rein, writes in Literaturnaya Gazeta that Brodsky left a gaping hole in literature that has yet to be filled: “And now, fourteen years after his death, in Russian poetry there invariably continues to be felt a certain emptiness. Poetry seems to have persisted, but it has come to look like a stream on whose bed rush a few dozen rivulets. This stream no longer has a main current, so swimming out into deep waters is impossible.”

Friday, May 21, 2010

Chronicler of the Blockade: Olga Bergholz (1910-1975)

This month marks the centenary of Olga Bergholz (Ольга Фёдоровна Берггольц, sometimes transliterated as ‘Berggolts’), a Soviet writer best known for the poems she composed, not to mention the radio broadcasts she delivered, from besieged Leningrad during the Second World War—what Russians call the Great Patriotic War. Her most familiar poems from those blockade years are “February Diary” and “A Leningrad Poem,” both of which depict the harsh realities of survival in a city completely cut off from the world, where one might have had to trade a loaf of bread to get a coffin for a dead child.

Indeed, bread is a central image in “A Leningrad Poem,” since those without it were doomed to starve, yet “people listened to poems / as never before—with profound faith / in dark apartments, like caves / beside mute loudspeakers.” (“И люди слушали стихи, / как никогда,— с глубокой верой, / в квартирах черных, как пещеры, / у репродукторов глухих.”) As Americans did in the weeks and months following the attacks on 9/11, the people of Leningrad, Bergholz implies, found solace in poems despite their misery. Of course, most New Yorkers could still put food on the table in late 2001; tragically, one couldn’t say the same for Leningraders during the 900-day siege.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

No Russian Doppelgänger for Ryan?

Yesterday, Washington City Paper ran an "Exit Interview" with outgoing U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan, whose book of new and selected poems, The Best of It, has been steadily blowing my mind. Ryan is a master technician of language and imagery. Her interview got me thinking: why doesn't Russia have its own poet laureate? (At the peak of his popularity, Yevtushenko may have been the closest thing.) Does Russia lack a laureateship because the role of the poet there has traditionally been defined in opposition to the state? Not that American poets are lining up to write another "Praise Song for the Day." Not even Ryan.

When the Washington City Paper interviewer asked Ryan what plans she had for the near future, she replied, "I plan to do a lot more bicycle riding. I got a beautiful new bike and am looking forward to riding it more. I also want to do more woolgathering—idle rumination, daydreaming—which is absolutely essential for poetry, and which I can do on the bicycle."

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Origins (with a nod to Lizok and Mandelstam)

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.