Reading: A list of some observation by Joseph Brodsky

Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996), Russian-American genius and lover of poetry, should be part of our anthology. Sentenced to hard labor in northern Russia in 1964 and exiled to the US in 1972, he had suffered from what mother Russia had become in the twentieth century. He wrote this seemingly simple list of observations:

A list of some observation. In a corner, it’s warm.
A glance leaves an imprint on anything it’s dwelt on.
Water is glass’s most public form.
Man is more frightening than its skeleton.
A nowhere winter evening with wine. A black
porch resists an osier’s stiff assaults.
Fixed on an elbow, the body bulks
like a glacier’s debris, a moraine of sorts.
A millennium hence, they’ll no doubt expose
a fossil bivalve propped behind this gauze
cloth, with the print of lips under the print of fringe,
mumbling “Good night” to a window hinge.

Short observations building up to a poetic image of sorts is a poetic skill I could envy. We begin here with an innocent corner and a look that sticks, followed by an enigmatic statement about water that gets the reader’s attention. Public form: Instead of looking through it you are immersed in it. There is no here and there, no distinction between you and what you are afraid of. Perhaps that is why man is more frightening than his skeleton?

I see the winter wine and the black porch with the willow. The heavy ‘moraine’ body (I don’t like the ‘of sorts’). The glacier imagery might be inspired by his exile in Archelansk (also see his poem Polar Explorer).

Brodsky has a vivid imagination about a scene 1000 years later, when the protagonist of this poem is long dead and ‘they’ find some fossil mollusk behind the gauze cloth, so I assume the person was mourning. The print of lips under the print of fringe, mumbling good night to a window hinge, sounds spellbinding and beautiful in a way that defies explanation.

Josephy Brodsky has said that poetry should be part of everyday life, like gas stations or even cars. I think we can start with saying good night to window hinges.

Reading: A list of some observation by Joseph Brodsky was originally published on Meandering home


Learning fun: Odd one out

Dear Miru,

Everyday you are a little bit smarter. I try to catch up with you and come up with a suitable game. Today, I play ‘The odd one out’ with you. I mention four items and you tell me which one doesn’t belong in the list and why. You are good at it! We discovered that sometimes, there are multiple reasonings possible and there is no one correct answer. This is to show you that the ability to reason itself is more important than the answer, an important reminder when educational tests are reduced to multiple choice questions for the sake of efficiency. We begin with easy ones, like three colors and a chair, or any funny object that makes you laugh. Then we proceed to more ambiguous (remind me to teach you that word) series, such as

  1. eyes
  2. nose
  3. buttocks
  4. mouth

Buttocks, you say, and not only because you like to say that word. Because they are not on your face. This is indeed the predicament of most people, however according to some there are exceptions, usually involving people with a different political persuasion than their own.

What if I say the eyes are the odd one out, because they’re all made of skin and the eyes are not? I see you thinking (it is wonderful, can you believe me, to see your four year old child thinking!) about the reason. Which reason is more valid? How do you determine the oddest one out? Or can oddities not be compared to each other?

Learning fun: Odd one out was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: A Dream by Boris Pasternak

Boris Pasternak (1890-1960) was a hero of Russian literature, and not just for the famous Doctor Zhivago. He translated Goethe, Schiller and Shakespear and published influential books of poetry, including his breakthrough ‘My sister, Life’. The English Wikipedia page on Pasternak is has lots of details that I am not going to mention here. I read a poem about a dream, in an English translation whose authorship I couldn’t determine.

A dream
I dreamt of autumn in the window’s twilight,
And you, a tipsy jesters’ throng amidst. ‘
And like a falcon, having stooped to slaughter,
My heart returned to settle on your wrist.

But time went on, grew old and deaf. Like thawing
Soft ice old silk decayed on easy chairs.
A bloated sunset from the garden painted
The glass with bloody red September tears.

But time grew old and deaf. And you, the loud one,
Quite suddenly were still. This broke a spell.
The dreaming ceased at once, as though in answer
To an abruptly silenced bell.

And I awakened. Dismal as the autumn
The dawn was dark. A stronger wind arose
To chase the racing birchtrees on the skyline,
As from a running cart the streams of straws.

I found an alternative translation as well:

I dreamed of autumn through the glass half-lightened,
Of friends and you in their joyful band,
And, like a falcon, which took blood in fighting,
Heart was descending on your gentle hand.

But time did go, grew older, failed to hear,
And only slightly silvering the frames,
Sunrise was catapulting bloody tears
Of late September on the glasses’ panes.

But time did go, grew older. And the crumbled,
Like ice, was thawing and breaking sofa’s silk.
And suddenly you stopped and stayed the silent,
And dream, like echo of a bell, did sink.

I waked. The dawn was, like the autumn, blackened,
The passed by wind was carrying far away,
Like a straw rain running behind a hay-cart,
The crag of birches running the sky’s gray.

The imagery of the falcon is convincing (I am reminded of a bird Dostojewski described in his Notes from the underground). The metaphor for time is beautiful and I would have to quote the original Russian here (anybody can help?) As for late September, I think of the October revolution, and how Pasternak, like so many other Russian intellectuals ‘awoke to a blackened dawn’. And then the final metaphor of the hay-cart disappearing from our view, and the silhouettes of the birches against the horizon.

Eureka! I use reverse translation of some peculiar words to find the original Russian. And “falcon” does it! Here is the original poem, first written in 1913:

Мне снилась осень в полусвете стекол,
Друзья и ты в их шутовской гурьбе,
И, как с небес добывший крови сокол,
Спускалось сердце на руку к тебе.

Но время шло, и старилось, и глохло,
И, поволокой рамы серебря,
Заря из сада обдавала стекла
Кровавыми слезами сентября.

Но время шло и старилось. И рыхлый,
Как лед, трещал и таял кресел шелк.
Вдруг, громкая, запнулась ты и стихла,
И сон, как отзвук колокола, смолк.

Я пробудился. Был, как осень, темен
Рассвет, и ветер, удаляясь, нес,
Как за возом бегущий дождь соломин,
Гряду бегущих по небу берез.

I don’t have a ‘feeling’ for the Russian, but something tells me that the “Гряду бегущих по небу берез.” sounds much more haunting than the translation. Perhaps a Russian friend can weigh in on this?

Reading: A Dream by Boris Pasternak was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: Beautiful Youth by Gottfried Benn

German poet Gottfried Benn (1886-1956) supported Hitler when he came to power, but changed his mind after the ‘night of the long knives’. Still, he was naive enough to join the Wehrmacht, where some officers respected his disaproval of the regime. I don’t care too much about the details, but it wasn’t pretty. The nazis, by the way, called his earlier poetry “degenerate and homosexual”. Much of that poetry was inspired by his work as a pathologist in 1912-1913. For our anthology, I picked a poem called “Schöne Jugend”, that was rendered in English by Michael Hofmann:

Beautiful youth
The mouth of the girl who had lain long in the rushes
looked so nibbled.
When they opened her chest, her esophagus was so holey.
Finally in a bower under the diaphragm
they found a nest of young rats.
One little thing lay dead.
The others were living off kidneys and liver
drinking the cold blood and had
had themselves a beautiful youth.
And just as beautiful and quick was their death:
the lot of them were thrown into the water.
Ah, will you hearken at the little muzzles’ oinks!

This poem has probably been dissected plenty of times. My first impulse upon reading such lines is to see some symbolism: The girl’s body is society that is rotten and the rats are the dark elements feasting on it, that are ultimately purged in an act of barbarism that seems inevitable. Given that this was written before World War I, the great war that everybody ‘saw coming’ but nobody believed would actually happen, what do you think of this kind or reading? I think such dialectics of barbarism, where the killing of ‘the youth’ is done to save the image of society – was absolutely perverted by the nazis. You can’t say this kind of things ‘after Auschwitz’ I say with a nod to Adorno.

The dramatic last line benefits from the use of “hearken” but can’t mimic the original “Ach, wie die kleinen Schnauzen quietschten!” Here is the entire poem in the original German:

Der Mund eines Mädchens, das lange im Schilf gelegen hatte,
sah so angeknabbert aus.
Als man die Brust aufbrach, war die Speiseröhre so löcherig.
Schließlich in einer Laube unter dem Zwerchfell
fand man ein Nest von jungen Ratten.
Ein kleines Schwesterchen lag tot.
Die andern lebten von Leber und Niere,
tranken das kalte Blut und hatten
hier eine schöne Jugend verlebt.
Und schön und schnell kam auch ihr Tod:
Man warf sie allesamt ins Wasser.
Ach, wie die kleinen Schnauzen quietschten!

Reading: Beautiful Youth by Gottfried Benn was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: Autopsychography by Fernando Pessoa

I, or at least several of my heteronyms, am a ‘fan’ of Pessoa (1888 – 1935) and noticed some similarities to Nietzsche (their fathers died when they were five and they both developed cherished alter egos). I read a famous poem that I have encountered before, while living in Lisbon. Autopsychography is a concise description of the complex persona of its author. Here is the English rendition by Edouard Roditi:

The poet is a man who feigns
And feigns so thoroughly, at last
He manages to feign as pain
The pain he really feels,

And those who read what once he wrote
Feel clearly, in the pain they read,
Neither of the pains he felt,
Only a pain they cannot sense.

And thus, around its jolting track
There runs, to keep our reason busy,
The circling clockwork train of ours
That men agree to call a heart.

There are many English translations of this poem and comparing them is an interesting exercise. The feigning of the pain does come across in English, but it’s such a delicate idea that we can’t really do without the original Portuguese (can we?) “Que chega a fingir que é dor / A dor que deveras sente.”

The second stanza has an alternative translation by Keith Bosley:

And those who read his cries
Feel in the paper tears
Not two aches that are his
But one that is not theirs.

Pessoa’s readers experience a strange pain that is not their own, a pain that keeps our reason busy:

And the third stanza was better translated by Roy Campbell:

Thus to beguile and entertain
The reason, does he start,
Upon its rails, the clockwork train
That’s also called the heart.

The image of the toy train (clockwork train reminds me of Anthony Burgess’ Clockwork Orange) circling around in our chest, just to keep our reason or mind entertained is a powerful image. Pessoa himself surely kept his reason busy and beguiled when he created around 72 heteronyms during his writing careers.

Reading: Autopsychography by Fernando Pessoa was originally published on Meandering home