A welcome reminder in this age of Russia-vilifying -- and it rhymes! Talk of Lenin and Putin, of course, but don’t forget Pushkin and Mandelstam. That would be like remembering Jefferson Davis and Richard Nixon while forgetting Emily Dickinson and Edwin Arlington Robinson. Boris Dralyuk goes on:
“Indeed, historically, Russian poets have borne a mammoth, all too often a crushing burden. They have been looked to – variously or all at once – as carriers of the national idea, voices of dissent, embodiments of personal freedom, and prophets of the coming day.”
Boris’ welcome reminder comes in his introduction to Ten Poems from Russia (2018), an elegantly designed pamphlet edited by him and published by Candlestick Press and Pushkin Press. Think of it as a compact Whitman (sorry) Sampler of a poetic tradition still too little known and appreciated in the U.S. The poets, from Pushkin to Julia Nemirovskaya, are translated by Boris, Peter France and Robert Chandler. Here is France’s version of a Mandelstam lyric from November 1920:
“Take from my palms some sun to bring you joy
and take a little honey - so the bees
of cold Persephone commanded us.
“No loosing of the boat that is not moored,
no hearing of the shadow shod in fur,
no overcoming fear in life's dense wood.
“And kisses are all that's left us now,
kisses as hairy as the little bees
who perish if they fly out of the hive.
“They rustle in transparent depths of night,
their home dense forests on Taigetos' slopes,
their food is honeysuckle, mint and time.
“So for your joy receive my savage gift,
a dry and homely necklace of dead bees
who have transmuted honey into sun.”
France tells us here that this poem and two others are suffused with “the South, the Crimea and thence to the Greece that meant so much to Mandelstam.” He was frequently the guest of Maximilian Voloshin in Koktebel. “Take from my palms . . .”, however, was “apparently written in Petrograd (Petropolis for Mandelstam) . . . . in the winter of 1920, in conditions of poverty, cold and hunger.” Nadezhda Mandelstam in Hope Abandoned (trans. Max Hayward, 1974) often writes of her husband’s love of the South: “The Crimea is mentioned in ‘Conversation About Dante’ in the passage where he says that, reflecting on the structure of The Divine Comedy, he had consulted the pebbles of Koktebel.” Of a later visit to the Crimea, the widow writes: “The Crimea we now saw prompted thoughts not of the genesis of our culture, but on the destruction and end of everything.”
Boris closes the pamphlet with two poems written by Russian émigrés, the second answering the first. Here is “I still find charm. . .” by Georgy Ivanov (1894-1958):
“I still find charm in little accidental
trifles, empty little things—
say, in a novel without end or title,
or in this rose, now wilting in my hands.
“I like its moiré petals, dappled
with trembling silver drops of rain—
and how I found it on the sidewalk,
and how I’ll toss it in a garbage can.”
And a response, “Bouquet,” from Julia Nemirovskaya (b. 1962):
“No, I won’t throw it out, for the sake of that tulip:
still fresh and so white, that satiny curl—
a sea-captain’s collar folded over his tunic,
a theatrical backcloth, like a windowless wall.
Its petals are like cupped and half-turned palms,
Its bloom a head, a gleaming cherry in its mouth.
“. . . if it must go, let somebody else throw it out—
As God will say of me when my turn comes.”