From Kraków: Zagajewski and other poets don yarmulkes for Temple Synagogue reading

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Zagajewski seated at far left, Lyszeha third from left, Venclova in red, and Chukhontsev second from right. (Photo: My Droid)

An impressive reading tonight in Kraków’s Temple Synagogue – at least, the parts I understood. I count it as one of the highpoints of the Czesław Miłosz Centenary Festival, a celebration not short of highpoints.

The idea behind tonight’s reading was “The Grand Duchy of Poetry,” including major poets from Poland, Lithuania, Russia, Ukraine, and Belarusia, represented respectively by Adam Zagajewski, Tomas Venclova, Oleg Chukhontsev, Oleh Lysheha, Andrej Chadnowicz.

The setting was the city’s neo-Romanesque temple from 1862, with its richly decorated interior and ornate, gilded ‘Moorish’ woodwork, the style hammered out some time between Art Nouveau and Art Deco, during the revival of folk art themes, I suppose.

The men were suitably donning yarmulkes, except for Tomas Venclova, who wore a sort of newsboy cap.

Alas, the English translations of the poems read tended to disappear quickly from the festival table, and I was left to make do with what was left. No simultaneous translations tonight.

The Belarus poet Chadnowicz was youngest, in his 40s, and had a theatrical, energetic performance – tapping the microphone like a drum, at one point. The word “Belarusia” kept surfacing in his poems. I can only guess what he was saying – no handout. No handout for Ukrainian Lysheha, either.

I’d never heard of 73-year-old Oleg Chukhontsev, and I don’t know if his work exists in English, but it should.  The handouts showed a single translation by the eminent Russian scholar and translator G.S. Smith – if it’s any indication, this is an undiscovered nugget of gold.

Adam is clearly a poet at the top of his form, with many years ahead of him.  His poem, “Impossible,” translated by Clare Cavanagh, wasn’t my favorite (I preferred “Improvisation”), but it its closing was a great personal signature as the mind-boggling Milosz Festival winds to a close:

Sometimes I envy the dead poets,
they no longer have “bad days,” they don’t know
“ennui,” they’ve parted ways with “vacancy,”
“rhetoric,” rain, low pressure zones,
they’ve stopped following the “astute reviews,”
yet still keep speaking to us.
Their doubts vanished with them,
their rapture lives.

I’ve only recently discovered Tomas Venclova’s quietly luminous poems – like Adam, Venclova’s name appears annually in the Nobel shortlist. But it’s surprising how little has been written or said about the brilliant fruits from his steady labor, even though he’s hardly invisible – he’s on the faculty at Yale. Take this, the last two verses for his poem for Susan Sontag, “Landscape, Summer 2001”:

A loudspeaker by the open window
broadcasts the roar of the archangel’s trumpet,
and God, upon waking, reduces
the square to a pinch of love and ashes.

The sun comes up above the ruined city.
Light gropes for the desk and quickly finds it,
and empty time is severed by a sentence
which contradicts the night that has just ended.

Please, Nobel Committee, Tomas Venclova in 2011. It’s time.


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