Monday, February 25, 2013

Brodsky's Jig and Bop

Joseph Brodsky, by David Levine (1980) / Image courtesy of NYRB

Last week, The New Yorker surprised me by running a new translation of a 1967 poem by Joseph Brodsky, “In Villages God Does Not Live in Corners” («В деревне Бог живет не по углам»). Just when I start to think that Brodsky has been completely muzzled in English, his estate lets out a little squeak to remind me that they still have more in store for English readers. Sure, they’ve got a new collected edition in the works, but we’ve been hearing that line for almost ten years now. That’s a long silence for one of the great poets of the twentieth century – and a largely untranslated one at that. Let’s hope we see plenty more of his poems in English soon.

Naturally, the magazine has restricted access of the poem only to its subscribers, but if you squint just right you can make out at least its general shape. So you’ll have to take my word for it when I say that the translation, by Glyn Maxwell and Catherine Ciepiela, is masterful. And by that I don’t mean that they have stuck mechanically to Brodsky’s Russian lines, but that their translation came alive for me as a new work in English. In terms of prosody, the form of the poem remains more or less intact in their translation, especially in the slant rhymes, though they loosened up Brodsky’s iambic pentameter to the point where it’s no longer audible. Also, they unaccountably chopped up some of Brodsky’s sentences into fragments. I suppose the fragments are not too terribly distracting, but I’m still not sure what effect they were seeking to achieve with them.

Most importantly, the tone of Maxwell and Ciepiela’s translation hits right on the mark. Brodsky’s whimsical countryside theology comes through loud and clear, and if anything, the translators have even cranked up the whimsy. My favorite passage comes near the middle of the sixteen-line poem, when God has migrated from the icon corner to the kitchen:

He’s plentiful. In the iron pot there.
Cooking the lentils on Saturday.
He sleepily jigs and bops in the fire,
he winks at me, his witness…

(В деревне Он - в избытке. В чугуне / Он варит по субботам чечевицу, / приплясывает сонно на огне, / подмигивает мне, как очевидцу.)

Maxwell and Ciepiela may perhaps have taken an ever-so-slight liberty by jazzing up their God and having him “jig” and “bop” in the fire (in Russian, he basically just dances in place), but who can argue with the sound of that phrase? I love it.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

So Long Kept Out of Circulation

Yuri Kublanovsky / Image courtesy of Российская газета

I was struck last month by the opening paragraphs of a book review by Victor Leonidov in Ex Libris, the literary supplement to one of Russia’s leading newspapers, Nezavisimaya gazeta. The book under review was the latest collection by Yuri Kublanovsky, called Reading in Bad Weather (Чтение в непогоду), and Leonidov’s piece began with these two quotations:

“This is a poet who is able to speak of the history of the State with lyricism and of his own personal turmoil with the tone of a citizen. His technical equipment is amazing. Kublanovsky has perhaps the richest lexicon since Pasternak.”

“Kublanovsky’s poetry is characterized by an elasticity of line, a boldness of metaphor, a vivid sense of the Russian language, an intimate kinship with history, and an ever-present sense of God above us.”

Only then did we learn who had spoken:

The first quotation belongs to Joseph Brodsky, the second to Solzhenitsyn. Today Yuri Kublanovsky is probably the only contemporary poet who has received such enthusiastic praise from two Nobel laureates, two geniuses of Russian literature in the twentieth century.

Wow. So who is Kublanovsky? If these two Nobelists thought so highly of him, then why don’t his books accompany theirs on the shelves of American bookstores? (I mean, the three percent problem aside.) My first question is rhetorical, but my second isn’t: I really can’t comprehend why someone like Kublanovsky is not better known among English readers. Perhaps our market can’t bear much more poetry—I don’t know—but surely we can try to make room among the hordes of mediocre MFAs for some of the best international poets. And Kublanovsky certainly fills the bill.