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.