The classroom next to my office has been booming all morning in Russian, a language I don't speak at all: I recognize it when the students respond to the teacher, in unison, by shouting "Spasibo!," though the other frequent shoutouts wouldn't be phonologically possible in any of the (too few) languages I read: one of them sounds like "Ktonk!" and the other like "Adgno!"
The din not only made me wish I had a true gift for learning foreign languages (especially for learning ones relatively remote from English), rather than just for scrounging up facts about them (you can see new features of English-language poetry, for example, if you learn about aspect, a.k.a. the distinction between completed and ongoing action). It also made me take another look at the enormous new anthology of contemporary Russian poetry, out now from Dalkey Archive, whose facing-page versions remind me of how much I'm missing-- while making available, to my mild surprise, a number of poems that seem to work in English. Examples below the fold...

On the evidence of the gazillion poets included, Russian contemporary poetry scenes became much more hospitable to women in recent years-- most of the folks at the front of the book (it's organized chronologically) are guys-- and also became much less focused on avant-gardist disruptions, subversions, explosions, etc. My favorite (English-language versions of) Russian poems here are quieter works by youngish writers such as Marianne Geide: here's the moving, only slightly awkward-because-translated, first sentence of an untitled poem, rendered by Sibelan Forrester:
Like a schoolboy who, armed with a flashlight
under a woolen blanket,
sinks into some kind of illicit reading
during a nocturnal vigil,
like a schoolboy who probes his palate with his tongue,
wishing to awake the possible tonsilitis,
I imagine the day when I'll vanish from the world,
and I mix black bread with milk.
"Possible tonsilitis" would be comic or impossible in English-- it doesn't sound right-- but the modulation from schoolboy's secretive reading (homely-pathetic childhood as vehicle) to death as tenor, and then back to homely-literal food and drink-- that could work in any language on Earth.
F.D. Reeve finds language that sounds great in English for a piece of poetic impersonation by Svetlana Bodrunova, whose first poem here claims to come from Marie Curie's diary-- she adddresses the already-deceased Pierre: "If they go looking for you under the earth, they'll find milk/ from my glass and bread crumbs and honeysuckle air." If the anthology had hit stores in time for Christmas (it didn't), we would have had a new hit Christmas poem, Polina Barskova's "The Magi" (trans. Catherine Ciepiela), in which the pity and power we feel at any infant, divine or human, collides with the grotesqueness in all flesh:
[Joseph] protests and protects his wife,
And her infant spits up drool in its fear...
So here he is the reason for all the fuss.
He lies in her lap crimson as a mushroom.
Only the abstract clinical mind would detect in him
He Who Brings Order to Chaos, In Whom we Live and Die.
Maksim Amelin's quatrains about Paris must rhyme in Russian, though Mark Halperin and Dinara Georgeoliani put them into sleek and unostentatious free verse:
The myth of Paris is greater than Paris itself,
more colorful, more resonant, tastier, more fragrant and sleeker,
deeper than underground cemeteries and higher than roofs,
Paris is lost irretrievably, and for sale;
on sale are its exhibits, its comparatives,
the original worse than this list, I'm convinced,
less deep, plainer, emptier, poorer--
nothing resembles the original, nothing's even close.
At least he didn't go looking for Rome in Rome.
Back in America, at least for now (and on our way to New York), is anyone else already reading Jenny Browne, whose book I like more the more time I spend with it? Or Chris Martin's American Music (an earlier, chapbook-sized version of which got reviewed at length in an international magazine), whose book-length prickliness I like more now than I did when I first picked it up? Or-- and I'm sure I'll have something to say about this one, either next week or in print someplace or both-- Ray McDaniel's ambitiously political, only slightly One Big Self-esque, Saltwater Empire? I like McDaniel's attentive critical efforts, didn't like his first book at all, and like this second one enough to thrust it at strangers in the street, though of course giving new books of poetry to people you don't know at all is more likely to annoy the people than to get the poems a hearing. Otherwise there would be no literary journalists or reviewers, just interns from publishing houses, standing on corners, waving new paperbacks frantically at passersby. Which sounds familiar, come to think of it. See you in this space next week.

Originally Published: January 31st, 2008

Stephanie (also Steph; formerly Stephen) Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of [her] generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published four collections of poems: Advice...

  1. January 31, 2008

    I quite randomly and recently picked up a book--and then stayed with it--of poems called Field Russia, by Gennady Aygi (1934- 2006). I had not read him before. The translator is Peter France, and the publisher is New Directions, a press I admire. It is a beautiful book which I keep picking up and chewing on. I find it awfully compelling. Here's a bit from a poem called "And: Moments-In-Birches"
    in the face
    to grow heavy
    and cut
    with the part that pulls
    as if into trustfulness of kin close by--into heavy and moist adoration
    of brightness (as of brain) of birches
    with a part
    to cut
    and in-clots-in dampness
    there from here
    in tears as in bones in adoration
    into whiteness-God! into deeper than a groan

  2. February 1, 2008

    Hey, I blogged Gennady Aygi (or Aggi or Aigi) last month! He's fascinating. Apparently Peter France's translation is not to be trusted... if you want to know more, you might consider contacting Brian Reed.

  3. February 2, 2008

    Ah, I didn't catch your previous Aygi post. It sounds like there is some mystery or controversy surrounding this translation; I wonder if there is ever NOT w/ translations? Don't know what to think about that--this book seems beautiful. Oh well. A fascinating poet in any case, to be sure. cheers!

  4. February 3, 2008
     Don Share

    If you'd like to know what things look like from the perspective of an actual Russian poet, check out the wickedly funny piece by Alexei Tsvetkov in the February issue of Poetry.
    We also chatted with Alexei on our soon-to-be-posted Poetry magazine podcast, so stay tuned for that: he describes the Russian poetry scene, and (now that he's come to the US) what he thinks of American poets and poetry.

  5. February 6, 2008
     Lucas Klein

    "only slightly awkward-because-translated..."
    If we don't know Russian, how can we be sure that it isn't awkward in the original, and that the awkwardness of the translation isn't a faithful reproduction of the Russian awkwardness into English?
    We can all think of so many moments of awkwardness in translation that we might think that translations can only be awkward, but then, aside from that, when should a translation be awkward? When and why should a translation not be awkward? Do we read awkwardness differently in an original poem than in a translation? Are our standards for poets and translators different--as in, do we want our poems to sound like poems, but reel when translations to sound like translations?--and are we blaming translators for perceived missteps when, if we thought it were a poem, we'd be more likely to think about artistic effect? Can translators ever be allowed to achieve artistic effect?
    Whom do we trust to tell us that a translator's work is not to be trusted?

  6. June 6, 2008

    Thanks for saying what you've said on 'Mary's Diary' :)