They scatter the dark: three Polish poets in Berkeley

April 7th, 2016
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Izabela Morska, Julia Fiedorczuk, and Krystyna Dabrowska. (Photo: Jagoda Glinecka)

If you noticed a slight shimmer in the firmament last week, I know the reason. There was a superb display of talent at Berkeley’s “Scattering the Dark: Celebrating the New Generation of Female Polish Poets,” featuring Krystyna Dąbrowska, Izabela (Filipiak) Morska, and Julia Fiedorczuk. Who better to moderate the reading and discussion than Pulitzer prizewinning Robert Hass, former U.S. poet laureate and the preeminent translator of Czesław Miłosz?  He hailed the  “three amazingly adventurous poets” and was delighted to extend the “intermittent conversation” between English and Polish poetry.

Bob asked the inevitable question of the three: How did they live in the shadow of the poetry of the 20th century giants and the “huge moral trauma it responded to?” He was thinking of course of Miłosz, Wisława Szymborska, Zbigniew Herbert,Tadeusz Różewicz, Julia Hartwig.

Krystyna added the lesser known (in the West) Miron Białoszewski to the list, then dismissed the issue: “For my generation, it’s not such a problem. The younger poets are looking for different sources of inspiration,” she said. They also have new historical sources for trauma: the reactionary turn in the country that was once hailed as the champion of post-Soviet democracy and recovery. Her own inspiration tends to be enigmatic, imaginative, and personal, such as this one in the poem “Travel Agency”:

I am a travel agency for the dead,
I book them flights to the dreams of the living. …

She roundly criticized critic Andrzej Franaszek‘s recent 2-page editorial in a major Polish newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, which claimed that people don’t read poetry anymore and addressed the reasons why. He blamed hermetic trends and experiments in language poetry – John Ashbery has been a powerful influence on recent generations of poets – and called for a new poetry based on experience. (I wondered if Franaszek’s role as Miłosz’s biographer had a hand in his p.o.v.: ““Blessed be classicism and let us hope it did not pass away forever,” the Polish poet had said.”)

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Izabela shot with light. Krystyna and Julia center and right. (Photo: Jagoda Glinecka)

Julia was also angry at Franaszek’s editorial, for other reasons: not a single living woman poet was named. She published a spirited reply, suggesting that if Franaszek did not like today’s poetry, perhaps he should not review it.

Izabela said the fictional alter ego “Madame Intuita” is her response to the generation of giants, with its homage to Herbert’s “Mr. Cogito.” Like Miłosz himself, she herself had been an immigrant, though one who had lived in a refugee center and shared utensils with other displaced people:

My whole life’s like learning a second language –
so many immigrant sacrifices but in the end
I can’t get rid of this accent, recognized
everywhere to my annoyance.
And I’d been feeling almost assimilated!
All that effort, and for what?

However, she pointed out today’s poets face hurdles that the yesterday’s giants never knew. To wit: the “acrobatics” to get into the publications were something Miłosz and Herbert never faced. She described the hardscrabble life of the writer, the uncertain income, the rejection letters and the silence that is worse than rebuffs. “I feel like I’m on a trapeze and doing somersaults and hoping I catch the next trapeze,” she said. Such a precarious life is “strange at about thirty, more strange at 40, and kind of odd at 50.” But in that sense, the life of the writer is most universal.

“Failure is the key human experience,” said Izabela, who had been a visiting scholar at Berkeley from 2003-2005. It’s a universal one, because “none of us arrive at the destination,” the imagined empyrean we never reach. She remembered George Orwell, and said this realization is why “poverty became his topic.” I believe that is one reason why Orwell will last.

scatteringFailure is the key human experience, and her words were all the more powerful for being spoken in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley, a place where success is both addiction and the drug itself. We trumpet our successes on Facebook, perpetually shine our C.V.’s, and forge ahead in our determined effort to “brand” ourselves and market ourselves. We risk replacing the face with the mask we have created.

It was a magical evening, that ended at Chez Panisse, Miłosz’s favorite haunt. I suspect Miłosz was the presiding spirit of the evening. Berkeley was, after all, his home for forty years, and where he trained a generation of translators.

Most of the poems that were read came from a new anthology Scattering the DarkBut  one, inspired by Miłosz, was not. I cannot do better for my tribute today than include a poem indirectly inspired by him. The one I wanted to use, “Psalm 31,” is under consideration for publication (we’ll send a link to it when it is), but she sent “Psalm 2” as a replacement. After all, said Julia: “the whole cycle rhythmically and poetically alludes to Miłosz’s translation of the Hebrew Psalms.”

Psalm II

for M. M.

some poems cannot be written any longer.
some could not be written until now.
nighttime despair because of the children, drowned
children, hanged children, burned
children, massacred children, toys of children
in the plane wreck, because motherhood
is a life sentence, while despair seeks ornaments
and pleasing shapes, so as to dress up in them,
take shelter in them, be protected;
so best be quiet, I’m saying, so I’m saying: none
of your bones is going to be broken, let’s say,
Blueberry“you shall want for nothing,” let’s say,
“a tree will be planted by the flowing waters” –

(Translated by Bill Johnston)


Three Polish poets plus Bob Hass. (Photo: Halina Zdrzalka)

What happened to Irena Lypszyc and the man with the shotgun: Tim Snyder on statelessness in the Holocaust

April 3rd, 2016

Tim Snyder in 2016 (Photo: Creative Commons)

From Timothy Snyder‘s The Black Earth:

“Irena Lypszyc was a Warsaw Jew who fled to the eastern regions of Poland to escape the German invasion of September 1939, only to find herself unexpectedly under Soviet power. Such refugees were initially helped by local Jewish communities, insofar as that was possible, but were helpless when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. Almost all of the local Jews were then killed, and the proportion of already displaced Jews who died must have been close to a hundred percent. After all, they had no prewar connections with the place where they found themselves, and no knowledge of the terrain.


“Like most such people, Irena Lypszyc did not know much about her new surroundings. She was in Wysock, in Polesia, when the German invasion came. When the Jews of the town were rounded up for execution in September 1942, she ran into the swamps with her husband. It does not seem that she had ever previously spent much time out of doors. The two of them lived on berries and mushrooms for a few days before decided that she would stand on the first road she found, hail the first person she saw, and ask for help.

“The man approaching her had a double-barreled shotgun on his shoulder …”

To find out what happened to Irena Lypszyc, her husband, and the man with the shotgun, listen to the video below, from Tim’s absorbing, cogent, and insightful lecture (in my opinion, his best ever) last month at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco:

Moscow journalist, poet Maria Stepanova to discuss Russia’s “schizoid present” – be there!

March 29th, 2016

Powerful advocate for press freedom (Photo: Sergey Melikhov)

Maria Stepanova was already an important and innovative poet by the time of Vladimir Putin‘s accession, but the times called for a tougher, more public role.

Today, she is one of the most visible figures in post-Soviet culture – not only as a poet, but as a journalist, a publisher, and a powerful voice for press freedom.

Stepanova will be speaking on “Time Backward: Putin’s Russia in Search of Identity” at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 6, at Levinthal Hall, Stanford Humanities Center. She will also give a reading of her poetry (in Russian) at 6 p.m. on April 7 in Piggott Hall, Room 252. Both Stanford events are free and open to the public.

She is the founder of the Colta, the only independent crowd-funded source of information that exists in Russia today, with 900,000 unique visitors per month. The online publication has been called a Russian Huffington Post in format and style – and also compared to the New York Review of Books for the scope and depth of its long essays. 

Stepanova’s April 6 talk will consider Russia’s current obsession with the past, at all levels of society, and its direct effect – what she calls “hybrid archaism as a new model of statehood.”

“Putin’s Russia is never able to sell a compelling version of the future. All it is able to produce, and it’s quite creative in that aspect, is a vision of the past – or a patchwork of different pasts – as a shelter, where one has to hide from the future,” she said.

Russians, she recently wrote in Eurozine, are fearful of a dystopian future, and bound to a “schizoid present.” Hence, a tacit social contract prevails: “We are prepared to consider our imperfect state acceptable as long as things don’t get worse.”

The Muscovite is the author of 10 poetry collections and a recipient of several Russian and international literary awards, including the prestigious Andrey Bely Prize and Joseph Brodsky Fellowship. She was recently a fellow with Vienna’s highly regarded Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen.

As a poet, Stepanova is credited with reviving the ballad form in Russian poetry. She has also rekindled writer Nikolai Gogol‘s skaz technique of telling a story through the scrambled speech of an unreliable narrator, using manic wordplay and what one critic called “a carnival of images.”

Stepanova relishes this kind of speech “not just for how it represents a social language but for its sonic texture,” wrote scholar and translator Catherine Ciepiela in an introduction to her poems. “She is a masterful formal poet, who subverts meter and rhyme by working them to absurdity. For her the logic of form trumps all other logics, so much so that she will re-accent or truncate words to fit rigorously observed schemes.”

The results of her verbal pyrotechnics are often hilarious – for example, one poem juxtaposes Renaissance pornography with Stalin’s Five-Year Plans.

Stepanova began the online “Openspace” in 2007. “I was thinking about a cultural daily, something that would provide the audience with modern, up-to-date, passionate view on what is going on in Russian culture and in the outer world. In a short time, it became obvious that there is no stand-alone, solitary ‘culture’ in current times, that to speak about it means being socially and politically involved,” she said.

Openspace ended in 2012 after private funders withdrew support in a political climate that had grown more hostile to independent journalism.

“If you are owned, you are always manipulated – not necessarily directly by Kremlin, sometimes all it needs is to have a cautious investor, who is interfering with the editorial policy,” Stepanova said. “The inner editor – a term from the Soviet times, meaning an entity in your head who tries to prevent you from saying the direct truth – is very active in the Russian media landscape.”

Colta was born in the ashes of “Openspace.” According to Stepanova, “As the official media, from the TV to state-controlled press, turned into an instrument of propaganda and strongly opposed to anything foreign, Colta became an important place where you still could find unfiltered info on what is going on in the outer world. That’s our mission – and that’s why we still strongly resist the idea of paywall. It could give us money we need, but the price to pay is too high: it means that our younger readers in far parts of the country – the regions most impacted by the financial crisis – would lose their only source of information.”

“So the only choice we had was to make the site 100 percent crowd-funded. That’s how we started it, and that’s how it works for almost four years – the only totally crowd-funded site in Russia.”

[Reprinted from my story on the Stanford News website here.]

Is Longfellow’s translation of Dante the best?

March 28th, 2016

I have a number of translations of Dante’s The Divine Comedy in my home – among them the translations of Charles Singleton, Dorothy L. Sayers, Peter Dale, and others. 

But perhaps the most neglected one is the battered volumes I found on ebay, translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. This overlooked translation finds a new champion in Joseph Luzzi, in “How to Read Dante in the 21st Century” in the online edition of The American Scholar:


From one poet and scholar…

… one of the few truly successful English translations comes from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a professor of Italian at Harvard and an acclaimed poet. He produced one of the first complete, and in many respects still the best, English translations of The Divine Comedy in 1867. It did not hurt that Longfellow had also experienced the kind of traumatic loss—the death of his young wife after her dress caught fire—that brought him closer to the melancholy spirit of Dante’s writing, shaped by the lacerating exile from his beloved Florence in 1302. Longfellow succeeded in capturing the original brilliance of Dante’s lines with a close, sometimes awkwardly literal translation that allows the Tuscan to shine through the English, as though this “foreign” veneer were merely a protective layer added over the still-visible source. The critic Walter Benjamin wrote that a great translation calls our attention to a work’s original language even when we don’t speak that foreign tongue. Such extreme faithfulness can make the language of the translation feel unnatural—as though the source were shaping the translation into its own alien image.


… to another.

Longfellow’s English indeed comes across as Italianate: in surrendering to the letter and spirit of Dante’s Tuscan, he loses the quirks and perks of his mother tongue. For example, he translates Dante’s beautifully compact Paradiso 2.7

L’acqua ch’io prendo già mai non si corse;

with an equally concise and evocative

The sea I sail has never yet been passed:

Emulating Dante’s talent for internal rhymes laced with hypnotic sonic patterns, Longfellow expertly repeats the s’s to give his line a sinuous, propulsive feel, which is exactly what Dante aims for in his line, as he gestures toward the originality and joy of embarking on the final leg of a divinely sanctioned journey. Thus, Longfellow demonstrates the scholarly chops necessary to convey Dante’s encyclopedic learning, and the poetic talent needed to reproduce the sound and spirit—the respiro, breath—of the original Tuscan.

Read the whole essay here – it’s fairly short and very interesting.

Joseph Brodsky: darker and brighter in Ellendea Proffer Teasley’s new memoir

March 24th, 2016
Carl, Ellendea, Brodsky copy

Carl Proffer, Ellendea Proffer Teasley, and Joseph Brodsky – freedom at last. (Photo: Casa Dana)

From my article, “Joseph Brodsky: Darker and Lighter” in The Nation today:


In Russian, but in English? Not nyet.

In June 1972, a young poet from Leningrad stepped off a plane in Detroit and into a new life. His expulsion from the Soviet Union had won him international fame; yet he didn’t know how to drive, how to open a bank account or write a check, or how to use a toaster. His English, largely self-taught, was almost incomprehensible. He had dropped out of school at 15. Nevertheless, at age 32, he would soon start his first real job, and at a world-class institution: He was the new poet in residence at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Within a few years, Joseph Brodsky would be a colossus on the New York literary scene. Within 15, he would be awarded a Nobel Prize.

At the moment the plane landed, however, Brodsky became the poster boy for Soviet persecution: a “victim,” in other words, and therefore a cliché. He wasn’t the cliché, but publicity would grant him instant power and prestige in his adopted land. The American voices suddenly clamoring around him could not fathom the forces that had shaped him: KGB arrest, prison, psychiatric hospitals, a courtroom trial, and a sentence of hard labor and internal exile near the Arctic Circle. It was the stuff of legend and contributed to a barrage of media coverage. A Cold War Stations of the Cross was easier to package for mass consumption than an accounting of the musicality, metaphorical ingenuity, compression, and raw intelligence of Brodsky’s verse, which had barely appeared in English at all, and only in the most select publications.

Ellendea Proffer Teasley, in her short new memoir, Brodskij sredi nas (Brodsky Among Us), offers a different view of the poet. It’s an iconoclastic and spellbinding portrait, some of it revelatory. Teasley’s Brodsky is both darker and brighter than the one we thought we knew, and he is the stronger for it, as a poet and a person.

Brings to mind a favorite passage from the Russian poet:“For darkness restores what light cannot repair.” Read the rest here.

What does it take to be a “cultured” person? Anton Chekhov tells us (with a few qualifying words from Jane Austen).

March 22nd, 2016

Russian author Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) was apparently free with his advice. Maria Popova over at “Brainpickings” found Chekov’s 1886 letter to his older brother Nikolai, an artist. We can only imagine how well the advice was received. After all, the letter is written to an older brother, when Anton was 26 and Nikolai 28. In any case, the older brother died three years later of tuberculosis.

As for our humble selves, we can only quote Elizabeth Bennet, in the conversation with Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bingley, and Bingley’s sister Caroline Bingley, from Jane AustenPride and Prejudice:


Sensible lady

“It is amazing to me,” said Bingley, “how young ladies can have patience to be so very accomplished as they all are.”

“All young ladies accomplished! My dear Charles, what do you mean?”

“Yes, all of them, I think. They all paint tables, cover screens, and net purses. I scarcely know anyone who cannot do all this, and I am sure I never heard a young lady spoken of for the first time, without being informed that she was very accomplished.”

“Your list of the common extent of accomplishments,” said Darcy, “has too much truth. The word is applied to many a woman who deserves it no otherwise than by netting a purse or covering a screen. But I am very far from agreeing with you in your estimation of ladies in general. I cannot boast of knowing more than half-a-dozen, in the whole range of my acquaintance, that are really accomplished.”

“Nor I, I am sure,” said Miss Bingley.

“Then,” observed Elizabeth, “you must comprehend a great deal in your idea of an accomplished woman.”

“Yes, I do comprehend a great deal in it.”


He looked the part. (Osip Braz portrait, 1898)

“Oh! certainly,” cried his faithful assistant, “no one can be really esteemed accomplished who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half-deserved.”

“All this she must possess,” added Darcy, “and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”

“I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women. I rather wonder now at your knowing any.”

Well, then. That’s almost as long as Chekhov’s letter from Moscow. He begins with the good news: “You have often complained to me that people “don’t understand you”! Goethe and Newton did not complain of that…. Only Christ complained of it, but He was speaking of His doctrine and not of Himself…. People understand you perfectly well. And if you do not understand yourself, it is not their fault.

“I assure you as a brother and as a friend I understand you and feel for you with all my heart. I know your good qualities as I know my five fingers; I value and deeply respect them. If you like, to prove that I understand you, I can enumerate those qualities. I think you are kind to the point of softness, magnanimous, unselfish, ready to share your last farthing; you have no envy nor hatred; you are simple-hearted, you pity men and beasts; you are trustful, without spite or guile, and do not remember evil…. You have a gift from above such as other people have not: you have talent. This talent places you above millions of men, for on earth only one out of two millions is an artist. Your talent sets you apart: if you were a toad or a tarantula, even then, people would respect you, for to talent all things are forgiven.”

Then the bad news: “You have only one failing, and the falseness of your position, and your unhappiness and your catarrh of the bowels are all due to it. That is your utter lack of culture. Forgive me, please, but veritas magis amicitiae…. You see, life has its conditions. In order to feel comfortable among educated people, to be at home and happy with them, one must be cultured to a certain extent. Talent has brought you into such a circle, you belong to it, but … you are drawn away from it, and you vacillate between cultured people and the lodgers vis-a-vis.”

Then the list:


Anton and his artist brother in 1882.

Cultured people must, in my opinion, satisfy the following conditions:

  1. They respect human personality, and therefore they are always kind, gentle, polite, and ready to give in to others. They do not make a row because of a hammer or a lost piece of india-rubber; if they live with anyone they do not regard it as a favour and, going away, they do not say “nobody can live with you.” They forgive noise and cold and dried-up meat and witticisms and the presence of strangers in their homes.
  2. They have sympathy not for beggars and cats alone. Their heart aches for what the eye does not see…. They sit up at night in order to help P…. [here a mediocre poet is named], to pay for brothers at the University, and to buy clothes for their mother.
  3. They respect the property of others, and therefor pay their debts.
  4. They are sincere, and dread lying like fire. They don’t lie even in small things. A lie is insulting to the listener and puts him in a lower position in the eyes of the speaker. They do not pose, they behave in the street as they do at home, they do not show off before their humbler comrades. They are not given to babbling and forcing their uninvited confidences on others. Out of respect for other people’s ears they more often keep silent than talk.
  5. They do not disparage themselves to rouse compassion. They do not play on the strings of other people’s hearts so that they may sigh and make much of them. They do not say “I am misunderstood,” or “I have become second-rate,” because all this is striving after cheap effect, is vulgar, stale, false….
  6. They have no shallow vanity. They do not care for such false diamonds as knowing celebrities, shaking hands with the drunken P., [Translator’s Note: Probably Palmin, a minor poet.] listening to the raptures of a stray spectator in a picture show, being renowned in the taverns…. If they do a pennyworth they do not strut about as though they had done a hundred roubles’ worth, and do not brag of having the entry where others are not admitted…. The truly talented always keep in obscurity among the crowd, as far as possible from advertisement…. Even Krylov has said that an empty barrel echoes more loudly than a full one.
  7. If they have a talent they respect it. They sacrifice to it rest, women, wine, vanity…. They are proud of their talent…. Besides, they are fastidious.
  8. They develop the aesthetic feeling in themselves. They cannot go to sleep in their clothes, see cracks full of bugs on the walls, breathe bad air, walk on a floor that has been spat upon, cook their meals over an oil stove. They seek as far as possible to restrain and ennoble the sexual instinct…. What they want in a woman is not a bed-fellow … They do not ask for the cleverness which shows itself in continual lying. They want especially, if they are artists, freshness, elegance, humanity, the capacity for motherhood…. They do not swill vodka at all hours of the day and night, do not sniff at cupboards, for they are not pigs and know they are not. They drink only when they are free, on occasion…. For they want mens sana in corpore sano [a healthy mind in a healthy body].

And so on. This is what cultured people are like. In order to be cultured and not to stand below the level of your surroundings it is not enough to have read The Pickwick Papers” and learnt a monologue from Faust. …

What is needed is constant work, day and night, constant reading, study, will…. Every hour is precious for it…. Come to us, smash the vodka bottle, lie down and read…. Turgenev, if you like, whom you have not read.

You must drop your vanity, you are not a child … you will soon be thirty.

It is time!

I expect you…. We all expect you.

Happy birthday to the bad boy of Roman poetry!

March 19th, 2016

tim120More birthday greetings from our correspondent, the Los Angeles poet (and Stanford alum) Timothy Steele. This time the occasion is the birthday of Ovid. Tim has offered occasional salutations to Virgil, Marcel Proust, Jane Austen, George Frideric Handel, Christina Rosetti, William Hogarth and Oliver Goldsmith. And we have written about Ovid here and here and here and here and here.

But the years roll round again relentlessly offering us another occasion to celebrate the author of Metamorphoses – and Tristia, too.

This Sunday marks the birthday of Ovid, the bad boy of Roman poetry. Born in 43 BCE, he reports in his Tristia that versing came naturally to him even as a child. His masterpiece, “Metamorphoses,” is a tour de force that knits together, by the recurring motif of transformation, myths and legends from the origin of the world up to the time of Julius Caesar. Though Ovid did not invent the stories, he recounted them with unforgettable psychological vividness and gave them their definitive form. No other poem has had a greater influence on subsequent art. Sculptors, painters, composers, novelists, and poets have drawn on it for centuries.

narcissusIn his own day, Ovid was immensely popular, but, unluckily, the emperor Augustus was not a fan. A libertine in youth, he metamorphosed as a ruler into a priggish defender of public morals, and he detested Ovid’s poems, which breezily treat sex and seduction and which parody conventional Roman pieties. In 8 CE he banned Ovid’s work from the state libraries and banished the poet himself to Tomis, an imperial outpost on the Black Sea notorious for its bandits and bad weather. Ovid died there in 17 CE.

Many anecdotes survive about Ovid’s genius and vanity. The Elder Seneca reports one of them in his Controversies (2.2.12): “[Ovid] was aware of his faults—and liked them. This is clear from an incident when he was asked by his friends to get rid of three of his verses; in exchange he asked that he should be allowed to make an exception of three verses which they could not touch. This seemed a fair condition. They wrote down privately the ones they wanted damned: he wrote down the ones he wanted saved. Both sheets contained the same verses. … From [this] it is clear that this talented man lacked the will rather than the taste to restrain the license of his poetry. He used sometimes to say that a face was all the more beautiful for a mole” (trans. Michael Winterbottom).

At right is a rendering of the Narcissus episode in Metamorphoses executed by the great bad boy of Italian painting, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.


Another bad boy

Postscript: A gentle reader wrote to ask … Isn’t Catullus the bad boy of Roman poetry? Tim replies:

“That’s a good question. Catullus is revolutionary in his sexual candor. However, his epigrams and lyrics are often bitterly realistic, and he is sometimes excruciating on the subject of his obsessive relationship with Clodia/Lesbia. His ultimate disillusionment with his passion for her is the opposite, it seems to me, of licentious. (Catullus was also very well-born and a friend of Caesar’s, who evidently admired his work.)

“Ovid, on the other hand, really is naughty. The Art of Love is virtually a vade mecum for adulterers. And in theMetamorphoses he presents (with great relish) the Greco-Roman gods and goddesses as pathologically vindictive, sensual, or deceptive. This isn’t to say Ovid can’t be poignant and moving, as in the tale of Baucis and Philemon or Pythagoras‘s powerful speech in favor or vegetarianism near the end of the poem.”

And then, courteous gentleman that he is, Tim thanked the reader for raising the point.

In search of gravitas and a sturdy pair of shoes

March 17th, 2016

Author and archaeologist – and poet, too.

One of the pleasing byproducts of having poets for friends is occasionally having a poem written in your honor. Here’s one that was written by Stanford archaeologist and author Patrick Hunt, way back in 2010.

The year is significant. I spent much of that period in a wheelchair and on crutches, having walked across Vienna, Warsaw, Prague, and Kraków over the previous summer, ignoring pain as I crushed the bone structure of one foot into powder (or so it seemed). It required four hours of very specialized surgery, two titanium pins, a titanium plate, a tendon transfer, and cadaver bone to set it right. Not to mention a good deal of percocet.

The subject of the poem brought to mind Italo Calvino‘s encomium celebrating lightness, which the Italian author defined as the subtraction of weight. However, he added, “the idea of the world as composed of weightless atoms is striking just because we know the weight of things so well. So, too, we would be unable to appreciate the lightness of language if we could not appreciate language that has some weight to it.”

Patrick wrote these lines to me in consolation for my miseries. I believe it’s included in one of his collections. I’m rather fond of it. Hope you are, too:



for Cynthia

Gravity of truth weighs heavily on some
who hardly feel the pain until their feet break
from years of carrying bone crunching ennui.
Atlas had the shoulders for it but not the mind,
incapable of pondering paradox, to him it wasn’t
weight but tedium because he lacked gravitas.

Persephone too struggled with flowers,
whatever blossoms grew from her dreams
and just as quickly faded, futile hopes
like ripe pomegranates dropped by trees
where pale skin reveals red fruit underneath
and more than enough seeds to last eternity.

Thus weight is not weight but attraction
and some day earth steadily sucks us all in,
not that we find this irresistible, merely
inevitable like falling stars caught at night.
Surprised by darkness, we wait our turn
to fuel another sun blossoming elsewhere.

Patrick Hunt

Robert Alter on translating the Old Testament, Hebrew, and “the greatest poetry in the whole ancient world”

March 13th, 2016

Translator extraordinaire

I’ve long been a fan of Robert Alter’s Old Testament translations, ever since the 1990s. Frank Kermode is another apparently. He concluded in the New York Review of Books: “I cannot say that this is the best translation since 1611, only because I have not read the great mass of those that intervened; but I can say that in my opinion it is certainly a great translation, to be honorably compared with the admired Homeric translations of recent years.” John Updike waxed lyrical in The New Yorker:  “The ferocity of this tribal God measures the ferocity of tribal existence. … The miracle of the Pentateuch is that, unlike the numerous other tribes and gods that vitally figure in it, the Jews and their God have survived three millennia. The Israelites’ effort to claim and maintain their Promised Land fuels a contemporary crisis and occupies today’s painful headlines.” 

I was pleased that the Chicago Manual of Style blog “Shop Talk” recently interviewed the Berkeley translator. A few excerpts:

 You have now translated a large portion of the Hebrew Bible into English. What motivated you to take on such an enormous, high-profile, high-stakes project?

RA: I have to say that it really sneaked up on me. That is, I was dissatisfied with the existing translations, and I thought, well, I’ll give a whirl at translating Genesis and see if I can do something about the English that would make it exhibit more of the stylistic power of the Hebrew. I was rather unsure that this was going to work, but I figured it was worth a try. And it turned out to work better than I thought it would. Not that I ever think that my translations are perfect, but it got some very good responses: a rave review in the New York Times and that kind of thing. So I thought I’d do one other book that I like, and I translated Samuel, basically the David story, and that also got a nice response, and then I was kind of talked into doing the Five Books of Moses by my editor at Norton. And then because it was perceived as a fundamental building block of the whole Bible, it got reviewed all over in places I’d never been reviewed before like the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. So there I was. Up until a certain point I wasn’t thinking of doing the whole Bible, but then I looked back and said, “Hey, I’ve done about two-thirds of it, so I might as well go on and do the whole.”

songofsongsCMOS: Are there passages in your translations that you’re particularly proud of?

RA: I’m quite happy with my translation of Job, which I think is among the greatest poetry in the whole ancient world. I’m really happy with the way Job’s death-wish poem turned out, and I feel good about my rendering of the Voice from the Whirlwind. The very beginning of Genesis—which is the grand, stately prose of the writer identified by scholars as the “priestly writer”—I think that I’ve gotten something of the rhythms of that writer. And I think Jonathan Lear mentioned in his introduction the sound-play of the Hebrew phrase for chaos: Tohu Wabohu. And I’m happy with the alliteration of welter and waste.

CMOS: Are there any other translators whom you particularly admire? Do you ever find yourself emulating aspects of their work?

israelRA: The only English translation I honestly admire is the King James Version. You can’t directly adopt it, because the language is four hundred years old and there are lots of errors in understanding the Hebrew in the King James Version. Sometimes the seventeenth-century translators did wonderful things with the Hebrew because they had a great sense of the English language, but there are lots of lines that are clunky, where they seem not to have paid attention to how the Hebrew sounds. So there’s my qualified admiration of the King James Version. The various modern English versions I really don’t like at all. I think they have a very shaky sense of English style, and they don’t pay attention to things they ought to in the Hebrew. My one exception to this sweeping objection is that sometimes on the level of a single word, if I’m struggling to find a good English equivalent, I’ll look at a couple of other translations and say—oh, that word works better than the word I had come up with. (I never look at the other translations until I finish a draft of a section.) But that’s not exactly emulation.

Read the whole thing here.

Nadia Savchenko continues her hunger strike: “They will sentence me posthumously.”

March 9th, 2016

Nadia in better days. (Creative Commons)

The 34-year-old Ukrainian politician and military pilot Nadia Savchenko was abducted and illegally taken across the Russian border in 2014, during the Russian invasion of southeastern Ukraine. She has been held in Russian jail ever since. While in prison, she was elected to the Ukrainian parliament in November 2014. She serves in absentia. The Ukrainian people consider her a hero; it remains to be seen whether she will be a martyr as well.

She is charged with killing two Russian journalists: Igor Kornelyuk and Anton Voloshin, two employees of Russia’s state-owned television, who died while covering the war in Ukraine last year. Her lawyers note that she was captured a full hour before the mortar strike that killed them, and that she was transported across the border against her will by Russian intelligence officers.

She began a hunger strike on March 4, refusing food and water, after Russian prosecutors asked for a 23 year prison sentence. According to a March 10 article by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the court postponed a verdict till later this month, on March 21 or 22. Her response? “Here’s my final word!” she shouted in Ukrainian. Then she flipped them the bird.

A defiant Savchenko declared that she would recognize neither the court nor its verdict, before she stood on a bench inside the cage for defendants and raised her middle finger in the direction of the judge.

Savchenko emphasized that she is willing to continue the no-food, no-water hunger strike no matter what happens, saying, “You must understand that we are playing with my life; the stakes are high and I have nothing to lose.”

She also said a popular uprising similar to Ukraine’s Euromaidan movement is inevitable in Russia, adding that Russian President Vladimir Putin “cannot hold on to power by means of people’s blood.”

Savchenko, 34, wore her trademark T-shirt with the Ukrainian trident symbol at the March 9 hearing in the court in the southern Russian city of Donetsk [actually, it’s a Ukrainian city, recently swallowed by Russia – ED], near the border with the home country she has vowed to return to “dead or alive.”

In a recent statement, she spoke defiantly of her “fabricated ‘case’ – 23 volumes of gibberish”:

I’ll speak in Russian to save on a translator, a translator which, as I quite well understand, would be at my own expense. That said, according to human rights law, an interpreter ought to be provided free of charge.

Well, firstly, I want to apologize to the audience for my emotional behavior. The fact is, it’s very difficult to listen to the same lies over and over again for six months and then hear them repeated all day long. Therefore, I couldn’t help reacting to the prosecutor’s speech like I did. …

I am the only person the court failed to find guilty. I am an officer of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. I had every right to defend my land, I was fulfilling my duty. You do not judge veterans of World War II, and for the same reason you do not judge your own troops – but they also killed many people while defending their country. …

I do not know how long this ‘performance’ will take, but I want to say: if, again, the verdict debate take three weeks (as prosecutors requested once), I will immediately resort to defense tools. If the court takes more than two weeks to issue a verdict (which has already been dictated from above and recorded), I will go on a ‘dry’ hunger strike from tomorrow, and they will sentence me posthumously, ‘in absentia’.

I think it is pointless waiting for a POW exchange. … I’m not a bargaining chip, I am an innocent person, and my guilt has not been and cannot be proven. Therefore, I will stand no POW exchange, no bargaining deal, and no procrastination.

And here is the most crucial thing. Let prosecutors sentence me to as many years in prison, as they wish. Not a day longer, not a day shorter. All 23 years. Do not issue a longer or shorter jail sentence for me – so they won’t make any further appeals or delay the procedure. You have proved that you are utterly impotent. You have already proved that Russia can disgrace itself, as exemplified in my case.

You have never defeated me and will never do it! Well, let’s finish it all as soon as possible, I will not wait any longer. It was not you who have given me life, so you can’t own it – and you can’t decide upon my fate. If the verdict takes more than two weeks, I will not wait for it. That’s all I want to say.

Read the whole speech here. Video below.

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