Posts Tagged ‘James Billington’

Natasha Tretheway at Stanford: “reclaiming the interior life”

Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

Adam Johnson's portrait of Natasha Tretheway

U.S. poet laureate Natasha Trethewey was at Stanford last night – alas, I had a conflicting appointment.  But Adam Johnson, author of the acclaimed The Orphan Master’s Son, attended, and sent me his glorious portrait as a souvenir of the occasion.  And that is the excuse for this post.

Adam had this to say about the reading I didn’t attend: “The reading was a truly commanding one. The poetry was powerful and beautiful, and the audience felt its embrace. Rarely do you see a poet so fully or eloquently embody her work as Natasha Trethewey did at the lectern tonight.”  (Adam was no slouch at his own reading tonight – more on that in another post.)

Adam Johnson, Tretheway fan (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

In his citation for the poet laureate appointment, Librarian of Congress James Billington wrote that he was “immediately struck by a kind of classic quality with a richness and variety of structures with which she presents her poetry … she intermixes her story with the historical story in a way that takes you deep into the human tragedy of it.” Rita Dove wrote in an introduction to one of Tretheway’s books that she “eschews the Polaroid instant … reclaiming for us that interior life where the true self flourishes and to which we return, in solitary reverie, for strength.”

Tretheway is the author of Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast (University of Georgia Press), Native Guard (Houghton Mifflin), for which she won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize, Bellocq’s Ophelia (Graywolf, 2002), which was named a Notable Book for 2003 by the American Library Association, and Domestic Work (Graywolf, 2000).

Her collection Thrall is due for publication in 2012 – but it better hurry up, only seven weeks left in the year.  My goodness, where did it go?

Postscript on 11/7:  Whoops!  Christina Ablaza just wrote to tell me that Thrall came out in August.

A late birthday card for Joseph Brodsky

Sunday, January 23rd, 2011

Last year was the 70th anniversary of the birth of Joseph Brodsky.

Somehow I missed the Mount Holyoke symposium, the party at New York’s Russian Samovar, and last month’s exhibition of his drawings at the Russian National Library in St. Petersburg.

So this short piece in the Philadelphia News is my only chance to make amends with a belated birthday card for Joseph. I was his student at the University of Michigan, his first academic port-of-call in exile.  His comment on evil is worth repeating, always:  “Evil takes root when one man starts to think that he is better than another.”

After his 1996 death, James Billington, Russian scholar and head of the U.S. Library of Congress, said this:

“Joseph Brodsky sustained and exemplified the mysterious power of poetry both in the repressive Soviet culture from which he was exiled and in the permissive American culture to which he came. … He will be remembered as one who lived and cared for language, who won a Nobel Prize for verse written primarily in Russian, and yet became over time both a master essayist and self-translated poet in the English language.”

But the best words were always his own.  Here’s his translation of one of his poems, on the city of his birth:

I was born and grew up in the Baltic marshland
by zinc-gray breakers that always marched on
in twos. Hence all rhymes, hence that wan flat voice
that ripples between them like hair still moist,
if it ripples at all. Propped on a pallid elbow,
the helix picks out of them no sea rumble
but a clap of canvas, of shutters, of hands, a kettle
on the burner, boiling—lastly, the seagull’s metal
cry. What keeps the heart from falseness in this flat region
is that there is nowhere to hide and plenty of room for vision.
Only sound needs echo and dreads its lack.
A glance is accustomed to no glance back.