Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Counting on Gandelsman

Vladimir Gandelsman / Image courtesy of Стороны света

This week, poet and translator Vladimir Gandelsman won the Moscow Count award, an annual prize of fifty thousand rubles (about $1800) given for the best book of poetry published that year by a Moscow press. The book in question is Ode to a Dandelion (Ода одуванчика), which was put out by Russkii Gulliver and includes poems that the poet wrote between 1975 and 2007. Gandelsman cut his teeth among the Leningrad poets in the 1970s, who were under the sway of Joseph Brodsky, and since he immigrated to the U.S. in 1990, he has divided his time between New York and St. Petersburg. Besides writing his own poetry, Gandelsman has translated many English and American poets into Russian (though none of those translations appear in the new book), including Lewis Carroll, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, W.H. Auden, Anthony Hecht, and even Dr. Seuss (Кот в шляпе). Radio Svoboda listeners may also know him from his frequent contributions – often about contemporary poetry, especially Brodsky – to Alexander Genis’s American hour on the program “Over the Barriers” (“Поверх барьеров”).

English translations of Gandelsman’s poetry have appeared in Modern Poetry in Translation, Metamorphoses, and John High’s Crossing Centuries, but none of those texts are available online. Therefore, to give you a taste of Gandelsman, I’ve translated (very hastily) the final two stanzas of “Ode to a Dandelion,” the title poem of his prize-winning book:

If you move at all, fluff will fly from
the dandelion, that unlucky flower.
I remember my mother’s whisper:
“Giving birth…” (about my aunt) “…she died.”
And then she’d do some sewing.
Or, let’s say, she’d sweep the floor.
An act of dispersion.
There, she’s done it.

Like a lamp, flickering as it hangs,
I’ll carry it off into a vacant lot,
and just then the light of
the dandelion will meekly fade.
Gone, beyond our ken.
Blow! It will tremble just a bit,
you’ll hear a distant clatter,
and out it will go.

(Шевельнись - и слетит с одуванчика / пух, с цветка-неудачника. / Помню шепот / мамы: "...роды..." - (о тетушке) - "...умерла". / Села штопать. / Или, скажем, пол подмела. / Распыления опыт. / Вот он, добыт. // Точно лампу, моргнувшую на весу, / на пустырь его вынесу, / и вот-вот свет / Одуванчика сгинет безропотно. / Там, где нас нет. / Дуй! - он дернется крохотно, - / в мире что-нибудь лязгнет, - / и погаснет.)

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Laureate for the Little Ones

J. Patrick Lewis / Image courtesy of the Poetry Foundation

As I learned from a podcast yesterday, the Poetry Foundation has named J. Patrick Lewis the new Children's Poet Laureate, a role he will fill for the next two years. (He was preceded by Jack Prelutsky and Mary Ann Hoberman, whose speculative stuff I love reading to my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter.) The poetry excerpted in the podcast had immediate appeal for me  as it apparently does for kids as well, once it makes its way past those whom Sylvia Vardell calls the "adult gatekeepers in between"  but what really caught my attention was Vardell's description of Lewis as a former "professor of economics in Ohio and a scholar of Russian history as well." It turns out that several of Lewis's books for children have been inspired by Russian folklore, including At the Wish of a Fish, an adaptation of the classic tale По щучьему велению (As the Pike Wishes). In his scholarly days back in the 1970s, Lewis also helped to compile a volume called The USSR Today : Current Readings from the Soviet Press. This is clearly a man of great talent and wide interests!

One of Lewis's best known poems seems to be this one, "One Cow, Two Moos" (you can also watch him read it here), though he admits in the podcast that sometimes younger children find it bewildering:

     We used to have a single cow,
     We called her Mrs. Rupple.
     But she got struck by a lightning bolt,
     And now we have a couple.

     She's walking sort of funny now,
     Oh pity her poor calf.
     Old Mrs. Rupple gives no milk,
     She gives us half-and-half.

As a reader of poetry, Lewis says, "I am always looking for that ‘ah ha!’ moment, and I like to bring that to children as well." I think that the 'ah ha!' moment must come in this poem with the rhyme-word "couple," which seems to me a fine example of Lewis's technical proficiency and sense of timing. Pushkin would be satisfied. In fact, if someone wants to make a connection between Lewis's Russophilia and his calling to write children's poetry, as Curtis Fox and Sylvia Vardell tried half-heartedly to do in the podcast, this just may be it: while the vast majority of Russian poems are formal, what audience is there in mad-for-free-verse America for that sort of thing? Children may be the only ones left.