Friday, October 15, 2010

`The Better You See the Earth'

For this Western reader Russian poetry is a scattered range of Urals surrounded by vast, empty steppes – a geography charted by my ignorance. There’s little between Pushkin and the cursed generation of Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Pasternak, Esenin and Tsvetaeva – and later, Brodsky. How different from my understanding, via translation, of Russian prose, from Pushkin to Nabokov and beyond.

One small exception is Mikhail Lermontov, born on this date in 1814 and so inducted into our celebration of Poetry Month. Verses and Versions (Harcourt, Inc., 2008), a gathering of Nabokov’s translations from the Russian, includes two brief prose pieces on Lermontov composed in the first years after Nabokov’s move to the United States in 1940. He writes:

“Though decidedly patchy, he remains for the true lover of poetry a miraculous being whose development is something of a mystery.”

Like his idol Pushkin, Lermontov died in a duel – “at the quite ridiculous age of twenty-seven,” Nabokov says, on July 27, 1841. Verses and Versions includes nine translations of poems by Lermontov, one in two versions. To add yet another layer of translation, linguistic and cultural, here is “Imitation of Heine”:

“A pine there stands in the northern wilds
alone on a barren bluff,
swaying and dreaming and clothed by the snow
in a cloak of the finest fluff—

“dreaming a dream of a distant waste,
a country of sun-flushed sands
where all forlorn on a torrid cliff
a lovely palm tree stands.”

The sentiment is conventional but I like its plainness and wistfulness, and the contrast of pine and palm. Lermontov was a soldier and fought in the Caucasus. Nabokov neatly distills Lermontov’s gift and diagnoses generalizing hacks:

“To be a good visionary you must be a good observer. The better you see the earth the finer your perception of heaven will be; and, inversely, the crystal-gazer who is not an artist will turn out to be merely an old bore.”

Among those who saw the earth best is another poetic birthday boy, Publius Vergilius Maro – Virgil -- born Oct. 15, 70 BCE. This is from David Ferry's translation of the second of Virgil’s Georgics:

“That man is blessed who has learned the causes of things,
And therefore under his feet subjugates fear
And the decrees of unrelenting fate
And the noise of Acheron's insatiable waters.
“He neither looks with pity on the poor
Nor does he look with envy at the rich.”

Between them, Lermontov and Virgil at their best define the poetry of precision and attentiveness to the physical world, with another world hovering nearby.

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