Posts Tagged ‘Les Murray’

Now more than ever, “white on white”: Regina Derieva (1949-2013)

Friday, December 27th, 2013
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Klt_Derieva R 21r

Far from home: a Russian in Sweden (Photo: Jurek Holzer / Svenska)

It’s exhilarating to discover a outstanding poet.  It’s also poignant when you first hear about the poet too late. I learned of the existence of Regina Derieva and her death on the same day, when I received a note from her husband, Alexander Deriev, telling me that the poet had passed away on December 11, in Sweden, her lasting home after emigration. She was two months shy of her 65th birthday.  A requiem mass for this prolific writer was celebrated at Katolska Kyrkogården Kapell earlier this week, on December 23; she was buried at Norra Begravningsplatsen, where this very Russian poet joined Sweden’s elite, including Alfred Nobel, playwright August Strindberg, Prime Minister Per Albin Hansson, and Nobel poet Nelly Sachs.  A tribute page for Derieva is here.

Young poet

Young poet

She is the author of twenty books of poems, prose, and essays. Her books in English include Inland Sea and Other PoemsIn Commemoration of MonumentInstructions for SilenceThe Last Island, and Alien Matter. Her work has also appeared in PoetryQuadrantModern Poetry in TranslationSalt, and St. Petersburg Review as well as many Russian magazines. Her work was championed and translated by Daniel Weissbort, another recent death (we wrote about him here and here and here). Said Valentina Polukhina, Weissbort’s widow, “Regina Derieva’s relationship with the world was severe and tender, truthful and tragic; it reflects her own tragic life as well as the tragedies of the country she was born in.”

She was born in Odessa on the Black Sea, in Ukraine now, part of the Soviet Union then. From 1965 until 1990 she lived and worked in Karaganda, Kazakhstan – I understand it’s the back end of the world, a tough little city of labor camps, coal mining, and now, in the post-Soviet era, industrial pollution. She graduated from university with majors in music and Russian philology and literature. Her poetry was not approved by the state, and she was denied publication and guaranteed KGB oversight.  Her work came to the attention of Joseph Brodsky, who first encouraged her to leave the Soviet Union.

The Swedish author Bengt Janfeldt (we wrote about him here and here) gave the eulogy this week – I don’t yet have an English translation. However, Bengt once said this of her: “Like BrodskyTsvetaeva, she is a very bitter poet. She took every thought to its logical conclusion.” He added, “I believe that Regina is quite an exceptional poet, an unexpected poet. Even though it is not a popular thing to say, she is a masculine poet in her style, her philosophical thought.”

Drawing by Dennis Creffield

Drawing by Dennis Creffield

I bought Alien Matter online – the last copy in stock, and a bargain at four bucks.  Les Murray has a blurb on the back cover:  ”Science teaches that eighty percent of the universe consists of dark matter, so called. Regina Derieva learned this same fact in a very hard school. She does not consent to it, though. She knows that the hurt truth in us points to a dimension whee, for example, victory is cleansed of battle. Her strict, economical poems never waver from that orientation.”

I’ve never met Les Murray, but in my background reading it appears the poet and I have many common friends. One of them, the Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova, reviewed Alien Matter in The New Criterion:

Derieva is, first and foremost, a Christian poet, a worthy heir to the long line of metaphysical poets, be they English, French, or Russian. Without inflated rhetoric or didacticism, her poems reach the very core of the Christian experience—a serious and fearless attitude towards life, suffering, and death. The imagery and syntax of the Gospels and the Prophets is, for her, a natural element—just as apocalyptic presentiments and mystical hope form the axis of her world outlook. She perceives atheism as a foreign language. Still, the religious vocabulary in Derieva’s writing is often juxtaposed with everyday slang and the intonations of prisoners’ songs. This is particularly true of her early poems which might be described as a metaphysics of the totalitarian world, with their constant symbolism of walls, barbed wire, lead poisoning, and torture. They describe a region where “war is forever going on.” The poetic word (and the divine Word) in this inferno “annoys the powers that be because it lives.” One discerns here an echo of Akhmatova’s “Requiem” and of Brodsky’s poetry. Looking for her kin, a reader may also think of Eliot. …  Derieva’s later poetry strives for the inexpressible (“writing white on white”) even more strongly.

Buried in Sweden, here. (Photo Holger Ellgaard)

Buried in Sweden, here. (Photo Holger Ellgaard)

In a 1990 letter to her that Alexander Deriev shared with me, Joseph Brodsky wrote:

“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.  For the poem titled “I Don’t Feel at Home…” is yours only by name, by excellence.  Authentic authorship of this poem is that of poetry itself, of freedom itself. This freedom is closer to you than your pen is to paper.  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.”

Here’s the poem  he praised:

I don’t feel at home where I am,
or where I spend time, only where,
beyond counting, there’s freedom and calm,
that is, waves, that is, space where, when there,
you consist of pure freedom, which, seen,
turns the crowd, like a Gorgon, to stone,
to pebbles and sand…where life’s mean-
ing lies buried, that never let one
come within cannon shot yet.
From cloud-covered wells untold
pour color and light, a fête
of cupids and Ledas in gold.
That is, silk and honey and sheen.
that is, boon and quiver and call.
that is, all that lives to be free,
needing no words at all.

– Translated by Alan Shaw

Daniel Weissbort has a handful of them hereand the Poetry Foundation has his translation of “Days and the Transit System Grind Their Teeth” here.  An interesting post on a Russian literature blog here.

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Can a dog be the test of a good poem?

Wednesday, October 17th, 2012
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Winters loved Airedales.

Patrick Kurp‘s blog Anecdotal Evidence is always a treat, but it is particularly excellent today, as it celebrates the birthday of two poets: the late Yvor Winters and very current Les Murray, who identifies himself as “a very high-performing Asperger’s.”

How can we avoid sentimentality?  According to Murray, “I think it’s probably in not telling lies. There’s always something false about the sentimental. When it’s feeling without lies, it’s terribly scary, but it’s not sentimental.”

Winters defined a poem as “a statement in words about a human experience,” and later in the same text added, “special pains are taken with the expression of feeling.”

He wrote elsewhere:  “The basis of evil is in emotion; Good rests in the power of rational selection in action, as a preliminary to which the emotion in any situation must be as far as possible eliminated, and, in so far as it cannot be eliminated, understood.”

These are two very different poets, but one thing they had in common was their love of dogs.  “Here’s a test for both poets,” says Patrick. “If any subject invites sappy sentimentality, wallows in whimsy, it’s dogs. Their extreme poetic admirers want to be admired for their love of canines. To address the subject in poetry without falsity or self-admiration means swimming against the warm fuzzy tide.”

See how both poets fare in Patrick’s essay, with two poems on the death of their dogs.  Well worth the read.  It’s here.

Meanwhile, happy birthday, Les Murray and Yvor Winters, wherever you are in time and space.

Nobel prizewinner … Bob Dylan? What on earth is going on?

Wednesday, October 5th, 2011
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In Spain, 2010 (Photo: Vitoria Gasteiz)

Can you believe that Bob Dylan, who had fallen off the charts a few days ago, has now risen to #1 for this year’s Nobel Literature Prize?

He’s been given 5:1 odds, putting him ahead of Syrian poet Adonis, Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, and the Hungarian writer Peter Nadas.

What is going on?  “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind…”

The eminently worthy Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer has fallen to #6.  Down Under poet Les Murray has climbed to #8.  Cormac McCarthy, last summer’s #1 heartthrob, has dropped to #12.  You can check out some of the other punters at Ladbrokes here.

Dylan has regularly figured at the bottom of the lists for years – like Communist Party candidate Gus Hall used to in the presidential elections.  But for no reason anyone knows, the songwriter shot to the top of the list overnight on Tuesday.  According to a Washington Post blog:

…overnight on Tuesday, Dylan’s odds jumped from 100/1 to 10/1. Wednesday, the site had his odds for winning at 5/1, beating out all other contenders. Ladbrookes reported that 80 percent of all bets in a 12-hour period went to Dylan.

Earlier this summer, the singer was nominated for the $50,000 Neustadt international prize for literature, often considered a precursor to the Nobel, losing to Indian-Canadian writer Rohinton Mistry. He won a “special citation” Pulitzer in 2008.  Is he headed for better things?

Ladbrokes hopes not.  It said it would have “a significant five-figure payout” on its hands if Dylan wins the Nobel on Thursday, according to the Guardian:

“We’ve seen enough activity from the right people to suggest Dylan now has a huge chance this year. If he doesn’t make the shortlist at least there will be some seriously burnt fingers,” said spokesman Alex Donohue. “As Dylan said, money doesn’t talk, it swears. If he does the business there might be a few expletives from us as well.”

The Washington Post cited the lyrics of another song:

… could be the bettors are taking gambling advice from Dylan’s own songs: “Make your money while you can, before you have to stop, / For when you pull that dead man’s hand, your gamblin’ days are up.”

Postscript:  The new #2  is Algerian novelist and filmmaker Assia Djebar.  Ever hear of her?  Someone is fooling with us …

And Vaclev Havel made it to #38 today, on his 75th birthday.

“As soon as man began considering himself the source of the highest meaning in the world and the measure of everything, the world began to lose its human dimension, and man began to lose control of it.” – V.H.

Lunch at Le Monde with Philip Fried in NYC

Saturday, March 26th, 2011
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This week in New York City has been drenched in Polish literature (see posts here and here) – so my visit with poet Philip Fried, founding editor of the 30-year-old Manhattan Review, may at first seem like something of an anomaly.

Until, that is, you realize that the quiet Manhattan Review was the first American journal to publish an interview with Polish poet and dissident Stanisław Barańczak in 1981. The review began to publish the work of Chinese dissident poet Bei Dao as early as 1990. And, according to its website, in 1994 it launched an unprecedented nationwide campaign that increased the number of poetry reviews in The New York Times.

I discovered the review when I was unearthing a rare, early interview with Zbigniew Herbert, by his translators John and Bogdana CarpenterThe Manhattan Review was among the first reviews to devote a whole issue to the renowned poet in the mid-1980s – and I initially contacted Philip to get more than the snippets I found online.  (I also, on this visit, received a copy of his Early/Late: New and Selected Poems, published last month by Salmon Poetry.)

One would think that the Manhattan Review, which has two new poems by Les Murray in its current issue, would be better known.  But Philip and the Manhattan Review are as quiet as it namesake island is named is noisy.  We nevertheless had a pleasant and talkative lunch at Le Monde, an amiable bistro that “celebrates the cuisine of the Loire Valley” near Columbia University.  Besides Polish poetry, we discussed the upheaval in the book industry and the dwindling presence of poetry on the American scene.  What, after all, is a poet to do?  The attempts to “reach out” to the public via April Poetry Month are usually farcical.  Poet celebrities are often, well… not really poets at all.  Pulling up the drawbridge and sticking to one’s own tiny audience has resulted in a situation Philip compared to polar bears on ever-shrinking ice floes – an image that will stay with me for some time to come.

Postscript on 3/28:  Philip just wrote to tell me he got a nice notice in Publishers Weekly — a publication we rate highly since it put humble moi and  An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz one of the top ten books for the spring, in the “Belles Lettres and Reflections” category.  Here’s what it said about Philip’s latest collection:

This skillful and memorable first selection can seem like the work of three or four different poets, though wit and civility hold it together. First comes a bevy of poems about God, often comic, and often spoken in His assumed voice: often in stand-alone prose sentences (like the Book of Proverbs) they mix the language of elevated salvation with the debased terms of business and politics: “I regret to inform you that, in the purview of immutable discretion, it has now become necessary to downsize the elect.” Verse from Fried’s Mutual Trespasses (1988) also looks at–or speaks for–a divine Creator, wittily juxtaposing His omnipotence with human foibles and emotions: “He seemed to sink/ into Himself, a collapsing/ mountain.” Big Men Speaking to Little Men (2006), making up most of the last half of this collection, casts aside divinity for carefully ironized versions of family history: nostalgic at times, more outwardly conventional, these pages may nonetheless hold his strongest work. The New York-based Fried (who edits the Manhattan Review) closes with supple, formally acrobatic excerpts from a recent set of sonnets: “I’ve cornered the market on me, but I’ll sell you the shimmer./ When the bubble has burst, volatility is tender.” (Apr.)