Ten Poems from Russia

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On Thursday, May 24, I’ll be launching a pamphlet titled Ten Poems from Russia, which I was asked to compile by the kind, thoughtful editors at Candlestick Press and Pushkin Press. The event will take place at 7pm at one of my favorite venues, London’s Pushkin House.

Choosing ten poems to represent the great wealth of the Russian poetic tradition was, as you can well imagine, a considerable challenge. But as I write in my brief introduction, “Any anthology, no matter how expansive, is necessarily reductive. At its best, it is an entryway — a corridor full of inviting doors, which open onto rooms that contain many wonders, as well as many other doors…” The doors in my humble corridor bear the names of Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, Nikolay Gumilyov, Boris Pasternak, Yuri Kazarnovsky, Georgy Ivanov, and Julia Nemirovskaya.

And one of the most inviting lyrics in the pamphlet is surely Tsvetaeva’s passionate plea to her daughter Ariadna, whom she called Alya, which I describe as “a perfect expression of the Russian notion of freedom — heedless and unbounded.” It was written on June 11, 1917, between two revolutions, when Alya was not quite five years old.

To Alya

And when you too are dragged — as by a tide —
into a life of endless wandering,
justify your snakish pedigree:
put home — myself — my poems — out of mind.

Know one thing: you will be old tomorrow.
Drink wine, ride troikas, sing loud in the barroom,
be a blue-eyed gypsy, be a temptress.
Know one thing: you’ll never find an equal —
so throw yourself at every lover’s breast.

Oh, the blazing Paris boulevards!
(Do you see them? Millions of eyes!)
Oh, the thunder of Madrid’s guitars!
(I’ve written of them — oh so many times!)

Know one thing: (your gaze is wide and ardent,
the sails are swelling — on your merry way!)
Know one thing: you will be old tomorrow —
child, nothing else is worth the time of day.

You can read the original here. And if you happen to be in London on the 24th, I hope you’ll set your swelling sails for Pushkin House!

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Wit from Woe: The Poetry of Solovki

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(Cover of the journal SLON, nos. 9-10 [November-December 1924])

Andrea Gullotta of the University of Glasgow recently published an important work of scholarship, Intellectual Life and Literature at Solovki 1923-1930: The Paris of the Northern Concentration Camps. Instead of explaining the book’s significance myself, I’ll link to two excellent reviews: Robert Chandler’s in the Financial Times and Lydia Roberts’s in LARB. Roberts is a graduate student at UCLA, who is herself working on the literature of the Gulag. As she writes: “The benefit of Gullotta’s book to researchers like me is that we can now, for the first time, point to an ideal primer on our subject, which makes the case for camp literature’s intrinsic value.”

Both she and Chandler cite striking pieces of verse composed under the most horrid conditions. Roberts offers her own subtle, sensitive translation of a poem by Boris Shiriaev (1889-1959), while Chandler writes: “Remarkable poems were published in Solovki. Among them is a cycle of parodies by Yuri Kazarnovsky, who spent four years in the camp in the late 1920s. Brilliantly recreating their voices, he imagines what Pushkin, Mayakovsky, Yesenin and other poets might have written had they, or their characters, been sent to the camp. An example is his version of the first lines of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin:

“My uncle is a man of honour.
When he ‘fell ill’, quite suddenly,
He had to leave his Moscow manor
And serve a term on Solovki.
A man of property, he’d led
The easy life of lords and peers.
You know what rhymes with peers? Ten years —
And that’s what his wise judges said!”

Chandler continues: “The deftness and boldness of these lines, which closely track the original, are easy to appreciate. What I would not have known, without Gullotta’s commentary, is that they are biographically accurate. In Onegin, the narrator’s uncle simply falls ill and dies; in reality, Pushkin’s uncle was imprisoned on Solovki from 1827 to 1832. From its first years, the monastery had doubled as a prison.”

The translation of Kazarnovsky’s blackly comic “Faux-negin” is mine. I based my version on Stanley Mitchell’s brilliant translation of the opening stanza of Pushkin’s masterpiece:

My uncle is a man of honour,
When in good earnest he fell ill,
He won respect by his demeanour
And found the role he best could fill.
Let others profit by his lesson,
But, oh my God, what desolation
To tend a sick man day and night
And not to venture from his sight!
What shameful cunning to be cheerful
With someone who is halfway dead,
To prop up pillows by his head,
To bring him medicine, looking tearful,
To sigh — while inwardly you think:
When will the devil let him sink?

You can read Kazarnovsky’s original, along with a selection of his other parodies, here.

“Oh, Buy My Bagels, Friends!”: Yakov Yadov’s “Bublichki”

In March of last year I posted a clip of Leonid Utyosov (1895-1982), the very soul of Odessa, singing his signature song, “Bublichki” (“Bagels”). I described it as “the sob story of a girl forced to sell bagels on the street corner” and compared it to “The House of the Rising Sun.” But two things — besides language — distinguish it from the American folk ballad. First, the melody, which is based on the Yiddish tune “Dus Zekele mit Koilen” (“A Little Bag of Coal”), is a good deal peppier. And second, we know the name of the song’s author.

The bagels were baked on order by the Odessan poet Yakov Yadov (1873-1940), to satisfy Grigory Krasavin, a popular singer of satirical songs. In 1926, Krasavin returned to his native Odessa for a series of engagements. On his way from the train station, he was accosted by a cavalcade of bagel-hawkers — “Buy my bagels! Buy my bagels!” He described his journey to Yadov, who broke out in laughter and asked to be excused. For about half an hour, Krasavin sat with Yadov’s wife, drinking tea and listening to the clacking of a typewriter in the next room. Then Yadov returned, brandishing the lyrics to “Bublichki,” which Krasavin performed a few days later. The song became a sensation, the soundtrack to Soviet life in the late 1920s — and not just. “Bublichki” was a standard in émigré cabarets, and the fabulous Barry Sisters even recorded a Yiddish version in the United States.

I’ve taken a shot at a couple of the song’s verses and the refrain, but first, to give you a sense of the melody… Here’s the Yiddish “Koilen,” recorded, not altogether coincidentally, by the Odessa-born virtuoso klezmer accordionist Mishka Ziganoff (1889-1967) in New York in 1919:

Here’s Utyosov performing “Bublichki” itself:

And here are the Barry Sisters, with their bluesy “Bagelah”:

I offer you my “Bagels”:

Oh, night is falling now —
and, swaying to and fro,
the lantern’s light
cuts through the gloom…
While little dirty me,
a child of poverty —
out in the street
I stand alone…

Oh, buy my bagels, friends —
hot tasty bagels, friends!
Spare a few rubles —
don’t be tight!
Oh, please, take pity, friends,
on a poor, innocent,
forgotten waif
this nasty night.

When papa hits the booze,
he howls and yells abuse —
mama’s got one foot
in the grave.
My sister’s awful loose,
out shaking her caboose,
and my kid brother —
a gonif!

Oh, buy my bagels, friends —
hot tasty bagels, friends!
Spare a few rubles —
don’t be tight!
Oh, please, take pity, friends,
on a poor, innocent,
forgotten waif
this nasty night.

Remembering Olga Kagan (1946-2018)

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Olga E. Kagan (December 25, 1946 – April 6, 2018)

(Photograph by Diane Hofland, Portland State University, 2010)

On April 6 the UCLA community lost Olga E. Kagan, a pioneer of heritage language education and an inspiration to countless students and teachers, including myself. I was honored to be asked to speak at Olga’s service, and to write a tribute to this extraordinary educator and human being. The tribute has been posted to a memorial website hosted by the UCLA Center for World Languages, which Olga directed, and now I am posting it here.

Some years ago, when I was teaching Russian under Olga’s direction, we discussed the strange phenomenon — familiar to language teachers — of students blithely sharing intimate information in a language they’re trying to master. These students, we conjectured, are so happy to have the words to express anything at all that they end up making admissions, with broad smiles of self-satisfaction, which might otherwise make them blush. I remember the look of kind wonderment, somewhat regal but not at all condescending, on Olga’s face as we spoke of this — she looked like a benevolent confessor. I had seen that look before, many times, at the Slavic department’s holiday parties, in Olga’s office, and as a student in her classroom.

As an undergraduate at UCLA I took a course for heritage speakers of Russian — a course Olga had designed — which provided a home for us Russophone émigrés, or children of émigrés, whose linguistic storehouses contained as little as “Дай кушать” (“Gimme grub”) or as much as a few memorized Pushkin poems. We all made constant mistakes in conjugation and declension, all struggled to produce flawless if unoriginal sentences. At one point, when practicing adjectives, I offered a simple statement that brought a look of wonderment to Olga’s face: “Я — осенний человек” (“I’m an autumnal person”). Olga smiled warmly and responded: “Я тоже осенний человек” (“I too am an autumnal person”). I suspect she liked the slight imaginative leap of the sentence, its figurative potential. She always inspired her students to take leaps, however small.

I was being honest: I am an autumnal person. And I believe she too was being honest. When I think of Olga, I imagine her in autumn, possessing all the attributes and moods I associate with the season: thoughtful, somewhat rueful, warm — taking the time to look back, but ready to move forward. Ready to move forward because, in the academic calendar, fall is the start of things, not their end. And throughout my years at UCLA, one of the things to which I could always look forward was reconnecting with Olga at the beginning of that first quarter. Olga — who was always full of projects but never seemed to be in a rush, whose door was always open, who always remembered everything about you, about every student she had shepherded into the world. Olga — with whom you could always be honest in any language, and who would offer the perfect advice, smiling in kindness, never condescending.

A year without Olga is as unthinkable to me now as a year without autumn. But of course Olga will always be present — present in each of those whom she taught and trained to teach. Many of them will greet their students and colleagues next fall, passing on her warmth and dedication.

You can read Olga’s life and career, and watch a brief clip of her speaking about her work, at the UCLA Slavic department’s website, as well as in the Daily Bruin.

Tokarczuk and Croft on FLIGHTS, and a Few Words on Ostashevsky’s PIRATE

My brilliant partner Jennifer Croft’s translation of contemporary Polish master Olga Tokarczuk’s “constellation novel” Flights has rightly won praise from all quarters. In a recent list of “50 Writers You Should Read Now,” The Guardian called it a “dazzling novel of fragments [that] makes a passionate plea for connectedness through stories that somersault through time and space.” Last month Flights was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, and the committee has just posted a concise, insightful double-interview with Olga and Jennifer!

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Meanwhile, I’ve taken a headlong flight through Russian-American poet Eugene Ostashevsky’s uproarious epic The Pirate Who Does Not Know the Value of Pi.

“All Progress Is Common to All of Us”: On Arthur W. Ryder, George R. Noyes, and the Art of Translation

Last month I found myself greatly missing a rare, handsomely printed book I had checked out of the UCLA library many moons ago, when I was still an undergraduate. I ordered a copy online and it arrived last week. I’m not sure how I first learned of the book’s existence. I may have simply run across it in the library stacks, where I spent the better part of my college career. It’s titled, quite unassumingly, Original Poems; Together with Translations from the Sanskrit, and contains many more of the latter than of the former. Its author was the supremely eccentric Arthur William Ryder (1877-1938), instructor in Sanskrit at Berkeley, who died the year before it was published. The volume was compiled by Ryder’s colleague George Rapall Noyes (1873-1952), one of the pioneers of Slavic studies in the United States, who also furnished it with a moving biographical essay.

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Both men are heroes of mine — skillful, inspired translators, who recognized that they could make a more significant contribution to the world of letters by rendering the works they loved into English than by explicating them. In fact, Noyes fostered an entire “school” of literary translators from Polish and other Slavic languages at Berkeley. In another volume I treasure, a festschrift for Noyes that bears the equally unassuming title Slavic Studies (1943), his British colleague Sir Bernard Pares (1867-1949) writes: “There is no question in my mind that the Berkeley School of Slavic verse translations is easily the first in the English-speaking world. We on our side of the Atlantic have been as much the practical gainers by its work as you on yours, for in such a domain all progress is common to all of us.”

Noyes was a kindly man, Ryder less so. As Noyes puts it — rather delicately — in his essay, his colleague sometimes “passed the bounds of discretion in expressing his scorn for very worthy men.” Among his indiscretions was a polemic with Harvard University Press, which had raised the price of their publications: “Ryder addressed to the Press violent letters of protest and was not appeased by the explanations offered him. He published and distributed the documents in the case, sending to the Harvard University Press a sarcastic bill for ninety-five dollars for ‘printing and distributing matter designed to raise the moral tone of the Press.’” This curious publication, Noyes concludes, proves Ryder’s “singular wrongheadedness and singular command of vituperative language but also his own honesty of purpose.”

Ryder’s “honesty of purpose” was also evident in his approach to teaching. He “loathed the formal features of academic life; he detested the machinery of courses and grades, examinations and degrees.” What he enjoyed most was “reading Sanskrit privately with his students or ex-students. […] He would listen respectfully to the opinions of the lowliest student, and he never tried to force his way of thinking upon anyone; for, although he might condemn with vehemence the actions or opinions of another, he staunchly upheld the right of every man to make his own mistakes in his own fashion.” In many ways, Noyes’s description of Ryder and his thinking reminds me of the poet Yvor Winters (1900-1968), who taught at Stanford, about an hour’s drive down the coast from Berkeley. I also see shades of Winters’s poetic technique — as well as that of J. V. Cunningham (1911-1985), Winters’s student — in Ryder’s wonderful translations from the Sanskrit.

All three were influential teachers, and all three seemed to regard themselves as men out of step with their era. Compare Cunningham’s witty “For My Contemporaries” with the final epigram in Ryder’s pamphlet of translations titled Women’s Eyes, first published in 1919 and included in Poems:

The critics all were jealous,
The patrons full of pride,
The public had no judgment;
And so my poems died.

And Winters’s “On Teaching the Young” resonates with Ryder’s sense of learning as a long, largely self-guided journey. Another poem from Women’s Eyes reads:

When I knew a little bit,
Then my silly, blinded wit,
Mad as elephants in rut,
Thought it was omniscient; but
When I learned a little more
From the scholar’s hoarded store,
Madness’ fever soon grew cool,
And I knew I was a fool.

Yes, I’m comparing original poems with translations, but like many natural translators Ryder seems to have expressed his own personality most clearly in the poems he rendered. There are even lovelier and wiser poems in this volume than those I’ve already cited, for instance:

“Two Kinds of Friendship”

The friendship of the rogue or saint,
Like shade at dawn or shade at noon,
Starts large and slowly grows more faint,
Or starting faint, grows larger soon.

Ryder certainly had a saint of a friend in Noyes. The copy of Poems that arrived at my home last week is inscribed by Noyes to another Berkeley colleague, Arthur E. Hutson.

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“Surka” and Boris Only Cash Café

Rooting around in Calisphere, the “gateway to digital collections from California’s great libraries, archives, and museums,” my girlfriend and I came across some photographs of Boris Sapiro — actor, director, restaurateur, and who knows what else? — in front of his eponymous café in Shanghai in the late 1930s. These photographs are part of Loyola Marymount University’s Werner von Boltenstern Shanghai Photograph and Negative Collection, which documents, among other things, the fascinating life of the city’s Jewish ghetto. The photograph below, which appeals to me for obvious reasons, reminded me of a line from one of my beloved Odessan criminal songs: “we ducked into a rundown little joint.”

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The song is “Surka” (a diminutive of Sarah), a Jewish parody of the infamous “Murka” (“Moll”), which I mentioned in an earlier post. I was so inspired by the photo of my namesake in front of his greasy spoon that I translated the song’s lyrics. You’ll find several versions of the original here, and a recording of Vladimir Vysotsky’s take below the lyrics. So here’s to Surka, that hell-raiser! (In “Rabinovich,” the emphasis is on the “o.”)

We went to pull a job, me and Rabinovich,
but Rabinovich had to knock one back —
after all, why shouldn’t a poor Jew wet his whistle,
if he ain’t as busy as all that?

So’s to get a stiff one, and a bit of tzimmes,
we ducked into a rundown little joint;
there we saw her — Surka — and she had a pistol
underneath her skirt, loaded with shot.

We thought we were done for, so we took a powder,
vowing that we’d make that Surka pay:
in a darkened alley by the local temple,
we’d take Surka’s wretched life away.

So we called up Moyshe (he’s a hardened convict),
and Moyshe loaded up his trusty gat.
In a darkened alley by the local temple,
he was gonna lay that Surka flat:

“Greetings, my sweet Surka — greetings, little darling.
Greetings, my sweet Surka — and goodbye!
You ratted on poor Shlomo, ratted on poor Aron —
it’s time for you to eat my lead and die!”

Rabinovich drew his crooked-barreled heater,
tried to hold it steady in his paws —
first he screwed up one eye, then screwed up the other,
then he cocked the hammer with his schnoz.

Rabinovich fired — but he missed a bisl,
and his bullet dinged my head instead.
Now I’m getting stitches — meanwhile, Rabinovich
and Surka have been painting the town red!

Neglected Poets at The Odessa Review

The kind people at The Odessa Review have published my brief essay on two Odessan poets who never achieved the success they seemed destined to achieve: Semyon Keselman (1889-1940) and Anatoly Fioletov (1897-1918). In the piece I offer my translation of Keselman’s jewel-like pre-Revolutionary lyric “I wait for love as for a tram at night,” which made a great impression on his contemporaries. I reproduce it here, below his portrait, along with the Russian original.

 

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I wait for love as for a tram at night,
peer through the dark while tears slip down my cheeks —
saying a spell, willing a point of light
to flare up somewhere down the street.

I wait. Quietly, like stars within a cistern,
reflections stir within my soul.
I wait and dream that in the damp of evening
light glides towards me through the cold.


Я жду любви, как позднего трамвая,
Гляжу во мглу до слёз, до боли глаз,
Творя волшбу, чтоб точка огневая
В конце пустынной улицы зажглась.

Я жду. В душе, — как Млечный путь в цистерне, —
Лишь отраженья зыблются одни.
И грезится, что в сырости вечерней
Уже скользят прозрачные огни.

Consider the Lilies: John Cournos, Anna Akhmatova, and H.D.

On my visit to Northampton I had coffee with my friend Marilyn Smith, scholar extraordinaire, who has spent years researching the career of John Cournos (né Ivan Korshun, 1881-1966). The abstract of Marilyn’s excellent essay “The London Making of a Modernist: John Cournos in Babel” summarizes the scope of the man’s achievement as a critic, journalist, editor, novelist, poet, and playwright. But as Marilyn rightly notes, Cournos “is remembered today, most frequently, as a translator from the Russian.” Unfair though this may be, his translations are indeed very artful; they are certainly worthy of closer — and more generous — attention than they have received. (I discuss one of his translations, briefly, in my essay “The Land of Columbus: Echoes of LA’s Russian Past.”) Of course, it stands to reason that I have special affection for him: we were both born to Jewish parents in Ukraine, and both emigrated to the United States at roughly the same age.

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Today I’d like to present one of Cournos’s original poems, which was born of his work as a translator. Cournos visited Revolutionary Petrograd in 1917 and 1918, where he met with a number of poets and writers, including Anna Akhmatova. He presented Akhmatova with a poem, titled “To A.A.,” which was long thought to be lost. In fact, the typescript is safely stored in Akhmatova’s archive, and was reproduced in an article by Roman Timenchik in 1994. In the 1910s, Cournos was quite close to the Imagists, especially to his fellow Philadelphian H.D., and his poem to Akhmatova reads like a subtle synthesis of the Russian and American poets’ styles:
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To A.A.
 
O lily,
Frail white flower,
A joy to behold!
 
The hurricane blows,
Felling huge trees,
The beech and the oak,
And the tall sycamore.
 
O lily sweet,
Dear and frail,
Will you still stand
When the winds cease to blow?
Will you still hold high
Your fair proud head?
Will you look with pity
On the beech and the oak
And the tall sycamore
That lie stretched on the ground
When the winds cease to blow?
 
Compare this to H.D.’s “Sea Lily.” In subsequent years, a number of scholars would remark on Akhmatova’s similarity to H.D., and on the general affinity between the Anglo-American Imagists and the Russian Acmeists. Here, a poet-translator who knew both H.D. and Akhmatova brings them together in his own lyric. And think of how prescient the poem is: Akhmatova, the delicate lyricist, would outlast so many of her seemingly hardier contemporaries. What are Requiem and Poem Without a Hero but the proud, pained songs of the lily, looking down on the felled beech, oak, and tall sycamore?

Raising Hell and Falling for Crooks

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On Monday, February 26, I’m giving a talk on my translations of Isaac Babel’s stories at Smith College. I hope my spiel will be worth my hosts’ time. I certainly don’t want them to feel cheated… Speaking of cheating, whenever I think of Babel’s Odessan crooks, it’s to the soundtrack of Soviet criminal ballads (blatnye pesni) of the 1920s, about which I’ve written before. The one perking me up at the moment may be the simplest of all: “Mama, I’ve Fallen for a Crook!” (“Мама, я жулика люблю!”) The title tells most of the story: a young woman is in love with a thief. How will she and her paramour support themselves? Simple: the crook will rob and steal, and she’ll peddle the ill-gotten goods. Here is a recording of the song by the legendary Romani singer and guitarist Alyosha Dimitrievich (1913-1986), a star of the Paris cabarets:

As a bonus, here is another recording of Dimitrievich, performing with his friend Yul Brynner: