Archive for February 7th, 2021

Regina Derieva: a posthumous birthday, a new book of poems for the woman Brodsky called “a great poet”

Sunday, February 7th, 2021
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Brodsky to Derieva: “You are a great poet.”

Alexander Deriev  reminds me, “Today would have been the 72nd birthday of Regina Derieva. Сегодня Регине Дериевой исполнилось бы 72 года.” The Russian poet Regina Derieva, who died in 2013, would have been 72.  We’ve written about her death here, and her life and work here and here and here. Her papers are now held at Stanford Libraries. I wrote about her for the Times Literary Supplement here.

Her epistolary friend (they never met) Joseph Brodsky wrote to her in 1990: “There is a point – literally the point of view – which makes it all the same how one’s life is going, whether it is happy or nightmarish (for a life has a very few options).  This point is over the life itself, over the literature, and it becomes accessible by a ladder, which has only sixteen steps (as in your poem titled “I Don’t Feel at Home Where I Am”).  For a poem is composed of other things than life, and the making of verses offers more choices than life does. And the closer one is to this point, the greater poet he, or she, is. …

“You, Regina, are indeed this case – a great poet. …The real authorship belongs here to poetry itself, to freedom itself. For a long time, I have not seen anything on a par with your poetry either among our fellow countrymen or among the English-speaking poets. And I can guess more or less – I can hear – what it cost you to reach this point, the point over the life and over yourself. This is why the joy of reading your poetry is also heartbreaking. In this poem, you exist in the plane where no one else exists, where no one else can help:  there are no kin and, a fortiori, there are no equal to you.”

The occasion of her birthday reminds me that I haven’t written about her new book, Earthly Lexicon: Selected Poems and Proseout with Marick Press a few months ago. Now is the perfect occasion for its Book Haven debut.

Many poets seem to have suffered a primal deprivation, for Derieva, it was her birthplace Odessa. As she writes in Quarter to Paradise (trans. Alex Cigale): “At so early an age, I was deprived of everything, all at once: the sea, the fruit gardens, the chestnuts and acacias, the alleyways and streets of Odessa. And I found myself in the Kazakh steppe. The wind there was always marauding, never allowing for a cultural layer to form on the barren spot. There was neither spring nor fall: with the end of the infernal winter began an infernal summer. It is not incidental that Stalin chose precisely this part of the country for his prison camps, where a human being had no time to live, thinking only of how best to survive … there, where fate offers to place its period.”

I haven’t had a chance to explore the volume fully, but so far her American poems are among my favorites, written during a brief sojourn in the States.

Below, two of them, translated by Alan Shaw:

WORCESTER, MA

A bird is crying out at dawn,
and at dusk grows still again:
“Little enough under the sun
have I and all my siblings seen.

“Golden sky at break of day,
growing azure towards the dark.
The voice is lost, which is to say,
time is emptiness’s mark.”

The voice fades out, just as if all
hint of bird were gone there too,
besides the readiness of a soul
to lose itself in heaven’s blue.

EAST NORWALK, CT

The hawk goes corkscrewing into the sky,
drawing with hard quill in three dimensions
on three-ply eternal paper his cry,
his whisper, a faithfulness that’s endless.

I see the whole thing, as the neighborhood darkens
and players come in from the playing field –
He cradles the ball like the nape of a girlfriend,
being so strong, and new, and thrilled

with this amorous ruckus, this game, this spat,
this trial and torture of wings, his calling.
The hawk drops down, having built his estate;
a heavy drop of sweat is falling.

Come then, since I have put lips into play,
search out and storm me, unleash a rushing
rain of heavy rough feathers; away,
you stoic of in- and exhalation,

historian of air, soul-striking lightning,
come, take me and lift me far out of sight
of the awful chance that an oath will be broken,
the secret be known of what madness can write.

(From Alexander Deriev on the photo above: “This photo of Regina was taken at the Karaganda TV studio sometime in the early 1970s. This was the only telecast of a series of poetic TV programs that Regina ever agreed to do. The program was devoted to Nikolay Zabolotsky who was forced to spend several years in Karaganda. The broadcast took place, but then the TV editor decided to claim authorship of the program and did not pay a dime to Regina. After this, Regina staunchly refused to participate in any TV projects.”)