Photograph of Julia Nemirovskaya by Lizka Vaintrob.
Today is my mother’s birthday, and, serendipitously, this morning’s mail brought us both a gift: five poems by Julia Nemirovskaya, with my translations, just published by Caesura. In my introductory note, I try to account for the enlivening power of Julia’s poems and conclude that they “work their refreshing magic by awakening our impulse not only to see but to sympathize with the world around us, to feel the subtle energies coursing through it — an impulse that too often retreats and withers after childhood ends”: “In Julia’s imaginative oasis, discarded objects and the subjects of myth all speak for themselves, humbly voicing their pains, pleasures, and desires. Their voices are haunting because we recognize them — we’ve all heard them, before we ceased to listen.”
Today I am especially moved by “Eves,” in which Julia speaks in the pained, yearning voice of the Biblical mother’s descendants:
Underneath us the stones seem to weep.
We’re a burden to all, even snow.
Oh to run without touching the ground with our feet,
our selves never touching a soul.
Black specks from above and slim lines from the side:
we’ll be small – we won’t clog the Lord’s eyes.
And then He will say to us: Daughters, oh why
did I oust you from Paradise?
Last year Julia was asked to share her thoughts on the status of women in the arts and sciences, both in Russia and in the West. I wish I had time to translate the entire interview for this post, but I’ll satisfy myself with this wise and touching observation:
I think the main thing is that every girl should have confidence in herself, confidence that she can choose her own path. You probably know what the “glass ceiling” is — invisible obstacles. In their first years of life, little boys are expected to be funny, curious, adventurous, while little girls are expected to be obedient, sweet, helpful. We all like to be liked and try to meet the expectations of adults, even if these expectations go against our nature. This early experience, imbibed with mother’s milk, should be different. Adults should like boys and girls for who they are: nothing should be imposed on them — let them explore the world freely.
This commitment to free exploration uplifts each line of Julia’s verse. In my piece at Caesura, I mention some other poets who managed to keep their childlike curiosity alive, including Walter de la Mare, who, in his lecture on Rupert Brooke, describes the inner worlds of children with great warmth and understanding: “Children are in a sense butterflies. […] They are not bound in by their groping senses. Facts to them are the liveliest of chameleons. Between their dream and their reality looms no impassable abyss.”
I offer these translations to Julia, to my mother, who never imposed anything on me, and to my wonderful Jenny, who lets no impassable abyss or invisible obstacle stand in her way.
Эти камни как будто бы плачут под нами,
Всем мы в тягость, и даже снегу.
Вот бы тихо бежать, не касаясь ногами
Земли, а собой – человеков.
Сверху будем мы просто как чёрные точки,
Божьи очи не засоряя,
И как черточки сбоку, и скажет Он: дочки
Зачем я вас выгнал из рая?