Friday, July 07, 2006

From the Other Europe

Yesterday I wrote about Aleksander Wat and his memoir, My Century, and failed to mention a biography of the great Polish poet, Aleksander Wat : Life and Art of an Iconoclast , by Tomas Venclova. Thanks to Mark Thwaite at ReadySteadyBlog for reminding me. As I told Mark, the book is a bit academic and, as a result, brittle, but it remains an essential book for anyone interested in Wat, his work, Polish literature or the fate of the writer under Stalinism.

Venclova’s poetry is another matter. The book I know, Winter Dialogue, was published in 1997 and contains a forward by Joseph Brodsky, about 90 pages of Venclova’s poems translated from Lithuanian into English, and “A Dialogue About a City,” an exchange between Venclova and Czeslaw Milosz on the city they share – Vilnius (in Lithuanian) or Wilno (in Polish) – the capital of Lithuania. Since 1977, Venclova has lived in the United States. He is 68 and a professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Yale University. Brodsky provides a useful orientation to a writer from so little-known a European culture:

“In Venclova’s poems the reader will not find the slightest sign of hysteria or the slightest insistence on the uniqueness of the author’s fate, an insistence that logically presume’s the reader’s compassion. On the contrary, if his poems postulate anything, it is the awareness of despair as a habitual and exhausting existential norm, which is temporarily overcome not so much by an effort of will as by the simple elapse of time.”

And further:

“The lyrical quality of his poetry is fundamental, for as a poet he begins where normal people give up and where the great majority of poets, at best, switch to prose: he begins at the depth of consciousness, at the limit of joylessness.”

In other words, Venclova’s poems are not whimsical, lighthearted, amusing or glib. Be forewarned: He’s no Billy Collins. His sensibility is distinctly Eastern European. History is the great scourge. The human is dwarfed. Hope is never a promise. In “To the Memory of a Poet. Variation,” translated by Diana Senechal, Venclova links himself to another victim of Communism, and pays homage:

“In Petersburg we will come together anew.”
Osip Mandelstam

“Did you return to the once promised place,
The city’s skeleton, reflection, trace?
A blizzard swept the Admiralty away,
The geometric hue fades into gloom
Upon the surface.
Turning off the electric
Current, a shadow rises from the spectrum
Of ice, and rusty steam engines, like specters,
Near Izmailov Prospect rise and loom.

“The same tram, the very same threadbare coat…
The asphalt makes a shred of paper float
Above it, and the nineteenth-century cold
Submerges train and station.
Wailing skies
Enclose themselves. The decades turn to mist,
The murky cities pass, like storms adrift,
The gestures are repeated, like a gift,
But from the dead a man does not arise.

“He retreats into a February morning,
Which has encompassed Rome, sluggish and northern,
Into another space, choosing a rhythm
Approximated to the hour of snow.
He’s summoned to the she-wolf’s lair, now frozen,
The mental institution, filth and prison,
The black, familiar Petersburg, arisen
In someone or other’s speech some time ago.

“Not harmony, nor measure, once they’re quelled,
Returns to life, nor the crackling, nor the smell
Inside the hearth, which time has kindled well;
Yet there exists a timeless hearthlike focus
And optics, mapping destiny, whose essence
Consists of fortunate coincidences,
Or simply meetings and continuations
Of what is neither temporal or local.

“No image, but a breach in what is known,
An island, grown into the current’s foam,
The substitute for paradise unshown
Arise in living language. In the shower
Of clouds, above the stem of a ship afloat,
The pigeons move in a giant circle, not
Presuming to distinguish Ararat
From any ordinary hill in flower.

“Forsake this shore. It’s time. We will embark.
The lie runs dry, the stones are split apart,
But there remains a single witness: art,
Bringing light into the nights of winter’s depth.
The blessed grasses overcome the ice,
The mouths of rivers find the bays at night,
And a word, as meaningless as it is light,
Resounds, almost as meaningless as death.”

The poem retains Venclova’s distinctive sensibility and music, but is steeped in Mandelstam, his themes and images. Guy Davenport heard Rimbaud in Mandelstam’s verse, and explained, “By Rimbaud I mean the gnarled image which suggests a chord of meanings rather than a simple metaphor or simile, a classical form together with a bold originality, a hardness of poetic phrasing that defies translation into prose.” All of that applies to Venclova who, unlike Mandelstam, survived the Communist terror.

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