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