Posts Tagged ‘Tomas Venclova’

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

Friday, December 27th, 2013
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.


Tomas Venclova speaks at the EU about his mother tongue and an “eccentric, capricious city.”

Friday, October 18th, 2013

Tomas in Vilnius

I met Tomas Venclova in his role as a poet, and it is primarily as a poet he is known.  However, he has a lesser-known role as a champion of Lithuanian culture, literature, and above all language. His work in that arena is as impressive as his poetry – and he had a chance to show it at the European Union yesterday and today, in Brussels and Luxembourg, where he was speaking.  I asked him if I could share some of his remarks, which he had sent to me. “Mais oui!” he replied.

I’ve blogged so much about Vilnius and Lithuania – try here and here and here and here and here. But it’s a wonderful country and during my most recent visit, traveling from Warsaw to Vilnius, I gained a deeper appreciation of its wildness and mystery, of its old superstitions and myths, and the enchantment of  its jewel-box capital, aptly symbolized, on its coat of arms, by Saint Christopher wading through the mud of history.

The Lithuanian language has has kept many archaic features of ancient languages such as Sanskrit or Ancient Greek, and is spoken by about 3.2 million people. Yet, as Tomas pointed out, it’s in better shape today than Gaelic – “now, it is not just the official state language, but also the language of schools, universities, press and other media, as well as of very good theaters. Even before World War I, Lithuanian literature in Vilnius had built quite a reputation, though during the two interwar decades, when the city was annexed to Poland, it was often dismissed as inferior.”

Marvelous Vilnius, a Jerusalem claimed by two nations, the Lithuanians and the Poles, is “the perfect and sacred city which had been lost in the whirlwinds of history,” he said.  The city, which at times almost a religious space, “is often said to be mysterious and magic, eccentric and peculiar, the inspiration of myths and poetry. A particularly strong connection between the city and its surroundings is also very characteristic to it, allowing poets to see Vilnius as a pastoral place with ‘wild’ but idyllic nature intruding into the city center and adorning its baroque décor. … The text of Vilnius is composed of smaller texts, written in different languages, sometimes rich in code-switching, as for instance the seventeenth-century dramas, where Lithuanian and Belarussian cues are interwoven with Polish ones.

“But there is more than just linguistics involved here. Most varied cultural discourses overlay one another, letting competing myths sprout from the primeval mythological trunk. The national identity of many residents of Vilnius is similarly complicated: the same person can simultaneously belong to several cultures, which is why she or he sometimes stands aloof from the rest of society, suffering from an inner conflict.”

Two of the Polish language’s greatest poets were born and reared in Lithuania: Czesław Miłosz in the 20th century and Adam Mickiewicz in the 19th – and Miłosz was a close friend of the Lithuanian-language poet.  Venclova’s talk wasn’t short on his friend:

vilnius3“Czesław Miłosz, the greatest Vilnius poet of the twentieth century, also started his career in the interwar period … The life of Vilnius-Wilno (at that time, annexed to Poland) did not change much from Mickiewicz’s to Miłosz’s times; the city and its suburbs were populated by the same provincial Polish gentry, known as szlachta, the memories of the free masons’ lodges were still alive, and the great University, closed by Tsarist Russia in 1832, was reopened in 1918. Thus, the budding poet could readily feel he was entering a larger tradition. But for Miłosz, Vilnius was not a sanctuary to visit on a pilgrimage; nor was it a place asking for a particular literary genre to record its magnificence, namely, the poetic Baedeker, much exploited by the lesser poets of the time. Miłosz was not a regional but a European poet, as was Mickiewicz. According to him, the Mickiewicz tradition marked a revolt, a disagreement with reality as well as the prospect of exile. But for him, too, Vilnius-Wilno was a sacred city. Finding himself in exile in 1950s, he denied feeling nostalgic: he wanted to start anew and to build his poetic tower without looking back. Yet his texts soon acquired a double perspective: he would depict the city of his youth through the prism of his new French and American experiences, reviving the details of the past life with heartfelt love and skill, and contrapuntally comparing Vilnius to his new surroundings. He recreated the city spaces in the Proustian manner: his city is idealized because of his physical and temporal distance, but the picture is realistic enough and devoid of unnecessary sentimentality. In the cycle Miasto bez imienia (City without a Name) published in 1969, as well as in other poems, Milosz was approaching what he himself called apocatastasis, the revival of purified, primordial reality. He was greatly, probably mainly, interested in the language of that reality. In this, an obvious example and archetype for Milosz was Mickiewicz, but also the Lithuanian Konstantinas Sirvydas, the author of the seventeenth-century dictionary, to whom Miłosz devoted his beautiful poem ‘Philology.’

 ”The peak of this poetry is manifest in the poems written after the restoration of Lithuania’s independence, when Miłosz could return to it. Nostalgia acquires a new shape: 52 years later, Vilnius looks like a city of the dead and Lithuania is some ‘other space’ described in metaphysical categories. At the same time, nothing has disappeared from the landscape of Vilnius: Miłosz sees the same ‘forests of brown gold’ in October, when the weather, again, is like wine, and the familiar hills and twisted baroque gables whisper that everything passes but are also witnesses to the permanence of the world, resurrected in human memory.

vilnius2“Miłosz and his companions were interested in the history and culture of the ethnic communities which had their own right to the city, namely, the Lithuanians, the Belarusians and the Jews. Together with a friend, he translated the works of the Lithuanian poet Kazys Boruta and wrote reviews of twentieth-century Lithuanian literature, his lifelong interest. In some ways he considered himself a Lithuanian who wrote in Polish; I remember how happy he was when Lithuanian translations of his poems were published before the Polish originals.”

“Miłosz possessed some knowledge of Lithuanian, just as Yeats possessed some knowledge of Gaelic,” he said – but that’s a bit of an overstatement. Miłosz was born among Lithuania’s Polish-speaking gentry, and didn’t bother to learn the language, even though he had a ethnically Lithuanian grandmother. Robert Hass said he began learning the language instead when Miłosz was in his 80s. Why bother so late?  “Because I think it might be the language of heaven,” he confessed to Hass.

vilniusDespite attempts to make Vilnius a truly national city, Tomas said, “the Lithuanian capital has remained what it had always been―complex and multidimensional, a continent in miniature. But this is a fragile condition, and we are responsible for it.”

“The creation of our continent and our civilization has always been a duty, an uncertainty, and a risk. I don’t know of any place in Europe that better lives up to this risk than Vilnius―a perpetual peripheral area and borderland, an eccentric, capricious, erratic city with a unique past that violates all the rules of logic and probability.”


Fame, I guess. My minute on Moscow TV.

Wednesday, October 16th, 2013
"Above all, love language" (Photo: Dylan Vaughan)

Tomas started it.

It’s a kind of fame I suppose, but centered thousands and thousands of miles from where I live. I’ve written about the Stanford Libraries exciting acquisition of a stunning treasure trove of drawings, poems, photographs, samizdat manuscripts and more from the Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky.  The story began in Vilnius, when I was visiting a friend of the eminent Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova, the physicist Ramunas Katilius and his family. I told that story here.  The news was picked up by the Russian press – I wrote about that here.

Then a Russian TV station wanted to film the collection for its Moscow viewers.  See below.  Did I flunk my screen test?  My career in Slavic film-making – over before it began!  But working with the handsome young Russian videographer and photographer Grigory Rudko was great fun.  Enjoy the clips of Stanford, the Libraries, the Katilius Collection, and, if you can, Humble Moi.

Yes, yes, I know it’s in Russian. Please stop complaining.  You can read the whole story in English here – or in Russian, over here. And I’ll try to get that fractious look off my face in the screenshot below. (Postscript on 10/17: Fixed the screenshot! Enjoy my hand instead – it’s better than my scowl. Really.)

From Vilnius with love: Stanford’s Brodsky archive in the Russian press

Wednesday, September 18th, 2013

A separate peace: Katilius, Brodsky, Venclova in Lithuania

“Посетители библиотеки Стэнфордского университета в Калифорнии получат доступ к литовским архивам поэта Иосифа Бродского. Об этом в журнале Stanford Magazine написала исследователь и редактор книги «Joseph Brodsky: Conversations» («Иосиф Бродский: Диалоги») Синтия Хэвен. Собрание писем, рукописей, рисунков, фотографий и открыток Бродского из Вильнюса библиотека университета получила в мае 2013 года.”

See that?  Синтия Хэвен.  That’s me.  The article also says:

Архив Иосифа Бродского, оставленный им в Вильнюсе у его друзей Рамунаса и Эли Катилюсов, был продан Стэнфордскому университету после того, как Синтия Хэвен в 2011 году посетила Литву и познакомилась с его владельцами. По ее словам, физик Рамунас Катилюс как раз подыскивал новое хранилище для документов, доставшихся ему от поэта.


There it is again.  Синтия Хэвен.  I shall never think of myself the same way again. is a popular Moscow-based news website that gets over 600,000 visitors today.  An English version, “Stanford Buys Joseph Brodsky‘s Lithuanian Archives,” is online at Russia Beyond the Headlines here.

Above right, an iconic image from the collection – happy days in Lithuania for Lithuanian physicist Ramunas Katilius, Joseph Brodsky, and the Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova.  But I also like the image on the cover of my book, at left, by the immortal (and I can testify generous) Richard Avedon.

You can read my own version of the story, Brodsky@Stanford (plus the California story of a very special edition of Brodsky’s Watermarkhere.


Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013

Happy days: Katilius, Brodsky, Venclova in Lithuania (Archives of Ramūnas and Elė Katilius)

It won’t be news to the readers of the Book Haven that the late Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky was a friend to Lithuania – I’ve written about it here and elsewhere. Now visitors to Stanford Libraries will have primary evidence of the affinity, thanks to the Ramūnas and Elė Katilius archive. I’m mightily chuffed to have had a role in bringing this treasure to Stanford – so yes, I’m bragging a bit.  It’s been one of the best adventures I’ve ever had at the university that has been my off-and-on home for years – and I owe it all to Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova.  And we all owe thanks to Romas Katilius.

Here’s how my story begins:

At the end of August 1966, the young Russian poet Joseph Brodsky was in low spirits. He was having trouble readjusting to Leningrad life on his return from 18 months of exile doing hard labor near the Arctic Circle. Brodsky’s crime was “having a worldview damaging to the state” and “social parasitism . . . except for the writing of awful poems.” There were romantic troubles besides.

A colleague was worried, and kept in touch with him while traveling. One night he telephoned Brodsky from Lithuania, where he was staying with friends in Vilnius.

Peter Koch’s magnificent “Watermark” (Courtesy Peter Koch Printers)

“Let him come over here. We are all in a good mood here,” urged the Lithuanian host, Ramūnas Katilius. Brodsky arrived before noon the next day, and even held two readings at the apartment during his stay.

Thus began a lifelong friendship with the Katilius family and a long romance with Lithuania, a comparative refuge during the dying years of the Soviet empire. Eventually, Brodsky gained recognition as Russia’s greatest postwar poet and, in exile, a controversial titan on the New York literary scene who taught at several U.S. universities. He belonged to the world, becoming, in his words, “a Russian poet, an English essayist, and of course, an American citizen.” He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1987 and died at his desk at age 55 in 1996.

Read the rest here.  Please.

Oh! Oh! Oh!  Don’t forget to read about the Berkeley printer Peter Rutledge Koch‘s special edition of Watermark, also at the Libraries:

Venice has entranced poets through the centuries, perhaps none more so than Russian Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky. “I always adhered to the idea that God is time, or at least that His spirit is,” Brodsky wrote. “I always thought that if the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the water, the water was bound to reflect it.” So it was that every New Year’s Eve, the poet tried to be near water, “to watch the emergence of a new helping, a new cupful of time from it.” He particularly tried to journey to Venice, a favored destination captured inWatermark, his book-length meditation on the city.

The rest is here.

Congratulations! Tomas Venclova responds to his newest honor

Saturday, April 6th, 2013
"Above all, love language" (Photo: Dylan Vaughan)

“Above all, love language” (Photo: Dylan Vaughan)

Preeminent Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova has been named an honorary citizen of Vilnius … but wait!  Why does he need honorary citizenship?  His family moved to Vilnius from Klaipėda when he was quite young, and he attended Stefan Batory University (now Vilnius University) in the city, as did his friend Czesław Miłosz.

Oh, that’s right.  He was more or less kicked out.  He was active the dissident movement, hence,  he was “deprived of Soviet citizenship,” which means he had to leg it out of his native land in 1977.  I believe he spends part of the year in Vilnius,  as well as in Kraków and New Haven, Conn., where he is now an emeritus professor at Yale.  Well, he gets around a lot.

From a Lithuanian news site:

Vilnius City Council unanimously decided to name Tomas Venclova, a Lithuanian poet, publicist and translator, an honorary citizen of Vilnius.

“Vilnius deserves to have the right and reason to be proud of the fact that such an outstanding figure came of age in the city; by naming Tomas Venclova an honorary citizen of Vilnius, the ties between the poet and his beloved city will be strengthened forever,” the Directorate of Vilnius Memorial Museums said in its nomination letter.

35 years ago, Venclova published his correspondence with Czeslaw Milosz, another celebrated writer born in Vilnius [not true, he was born in Szetejnie – ED], in an essay titled “On Vilnius as a Form of Spiritual Life.” Thanks to this publication, the world learned more about problems of Soviet-occupied Lithuania and Vilnius.

His alma mater, Vilnius University (Photo: C.L. Haven)

His alma mater, Vilnius University (Photo: C.L. Haven)

Venclova will become the 11th honorary citizen of Vilnius.

Wait.  Publicist???  I suppose they’re referring to his top-notch guide to Vilnius, which exists in English.  From his introduction:

…Vilnius has always remained many-faceted and multi-lingual.  It has been and will always be a dialogue city. … The Lithuanian capital reminds one of a palimpsest – an ancient manuscript in which the text reveals traces of an earlier text or even several of them underneath it.  The city is surrounded by a hilly northern landscape: because of abundant forests and lakes it has always appeared somewhat untamed. Throughout the city, up to its very centre, islands of untamed nature can be found.

So what does it mean to be a citizen of the city you have lived in so many years?  I sought quick clarification from the poet himself.  He wrote back yesterday from Berlin:

Dear Cynthia,

There are eleven honorary citizens of Vilnius, including Milosz (for whom the  city was also home for decades). The list includes Reagan and Brzezinski; that may look a bit awkward (they helped Lithuanians in the fight for independence).

Winner takes nothing, except the right to participate in the meetings of the city council (nobody ever insisted on that privilege). City also provides for the upkeep of his/her grave. In case of Reagan, the last provision is obviously void.


Well, there you have it.  From the horse’s mouth.

“Sustok, sustok” … this just might be the language of heaven

Monday, October 8th, 2012


"Above all, love language." (Photo: Dylan Vaughan)

Diana Senechal discovered the Book Haven, and we discovered her own blog “on education and other things.”  One of those other things was Tomas Venclova, the subject of a recent post on this site.  She wrote about her first encounter with the Lithuanian poet’s verse:

It was in 1988 that I first encountered Tomas Venclova’s poetry. I was a senior at Yale; he was directing my independent project on Russian poetry translation. Knowing that he was a poet, I wanted to read his work (but didn’t want to tell him this). So one day I made a furtive trip into the library stacks. I opened up a volume of his poetry and read the lines,

Sustok, sustok. Suyra sakinys.
Stogų riba sutampa su aušra.
Byloja sniegas, pritaria ugnis.

What did these words mean? At the time, it didn’t matter. I was drawn into the sounds, or what I thought were the sounds. “Sustok, sustok. Suyra sakinys.”

(Later, I learned that they meant, roughly, “Stop, stop. The sentence disintegrates. The border of rooftops coincides with the dawn. The snow proclaims, the fire repeats.”)

Tomas later invited her to translate his poems – an honor, certainly.  But she has some mixed feelings about the poems she eventually translated for Winter Dialogue.  She writes:

Inspired and inspiring.

“The strength and weakness of my translations was that I tried to preserve the sound, rhythm, and form of the original—or, rather, to recast the poem in comparable sound, rhythm, and form. When it worked, it worked splendidly (for instance, in Tu, Felix Austria,” “Pestel Street,” and “Autumn in Copenhagen”). When it didn’t, it came across as stilted. I don’t regret taking this approach. I do wish, in retrospect, that I had trained my ear to hear the translations in themselves. I always heard the originals behind the translations.”

As a teacher, she worries about the lack of quietness in our world, the lack of silence within us. Natalie Gerber made similar observations about her own university students in upstate New York – I quoted her a bit here.  Diana Senechal’s proposed solution?  The reading, writing and memorization of poetry.  Joseph Brodsky would certainly have endorsed her suggestion – we had to memorize hundreds of lines.

I was so enthusiastic about her recollections that I immediately downloaded MP3 version of Venclova’s album “Winter Dialogue: Chants from the Holy Land, and shall go to bed listening to the Lithuanian language.  After all,  Czesław Miłosz said it just might be the language of heaven.

Happy 75th birthday, Tomas Venclova! Plus a note on the feldspar of languages…

Monday, September 10th, 2012

His alma mater, Vilnius University (Photo: C.L. Haven)

I toast a special anniversary at midnight, though not, perhaps, the one you’re thinking of.  The poet Tomas Venclova turns 75, and a few days ago returned to Vilnius in his native Lithuania to celebrate the occasion. (Frankly, I prefer honoring this anniversary – it’s a refusal to let killers own this day.)

I think the Lithuanian writer would agree that poets are the means by which language lives.  So what better way to honor him than to celebrate his native tongue, spoken by a few million people?  In his own words:

“Matters get more tangled when we speak about the poetry of a small country, a country that is – or was, just until a few months ago [this was written in 1990 – ED] – under the rule of a foreign-speaking, totalitarian empire. Lithuania is one of those small countries. Besides, the Lithuanian language differs from its friends in misfortune. It is one of the classical Indo-European languages, like Latin, Ancient Greek, Gothic, or Old Slavonic; but it is the only one of them that is still alive and is by no means near to being dead, regardless of sufficiently adverse conditions …

“On the whole, the Lithuanian language is by no means delicate or weak. In an odd way, a poet’s direct feeling also confirms this. The Lithuanian language is harsh, jagged, not especially musical, with consistency and texture that bring a feldspar to mind. Its verb is sculptural in catching a hundred nuances of evolution and change. It is especially because our language is palpable and graspable that writing in Lithuanian is a happy and gratifying preoccupation.”

It seems to have been a happy and gratifying preoccupation for him, though often a lonely one.  I cannot say this is now my favorite poem by him, but it’s my first favorite, and serves as a sort of ars poetica:

Above all, though it’s hard, love language –
humbled in newspapers, obituaries saturated with lies,
in the bedroom’s close darkness, the informer’s confession,
in the cry at the bazaar, trenches, the stench of hospital wards,

Birthday Boy (Photo: Dylan Vaughan)

in third-rate theatres, secret police offices, on lavatory walls.
In grey buildings where the stairwell’s shaft is guarded
by steel nets, so that it is not a man, but the century,
which selects the instant of his death;

this language, almost collapsed, littered with sound
and fury. That’s it, love language –
banished to earth beside us,
Though carrying with it the primordial Word …

Happy birthday, Tomas.

Postscript on 9/12:  The U.S. ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, was murdered in a rocket attack yesterday. The killers got the day after all.


Why reality holds little love for poets

Sunday, September 2nd, 2012

Venclova: "Above all, love language" (Photo: Dylan Vaughan)

“To travel through time, a poem must possess a unique intonation and perception.”

I’d never read the late great Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky‘s essay on his friend and fellow poet Tomas Venclova (they also shared a common fate, ejected from the U.S.S.R. a few years apart), but last week I rummaged through the Stanford Libraries to find the Lithuanian poet’s Winter Dialogue so that I could find the Brodsky essay, “Poetry as a Form of Resistance to Reality,” which was included as a foreword to the volume.

It didn’t disappoint:

Venclova’s poetry fits this requirement perfectly. His intonation is striking for its restraint and low-key quality, for the conscientious, intentional monotony that seems to be trying to muffle the far too obvious drama of his existence. In Venclova’s poems the reader will not find the slightest sign of hysteria or the slightest insistence on the uniqueness of the author’s fate, an insistence that logically presumes the reader’s compassion. On the contrary, if his poems postulate anything, it is the awareness of despair as a habitual and exhausting existential norm, which is temporarily overcome not so much by an effort of will as by the simple elapse of time.

I have The Junction: Selected Poems, and look forward to comparing its choices with the total collection of Winter Dialogue.  In any case, one particular poem, which the poet himself discussed in recent correspondence, has become a particular favorite. From “Tu, Felix Austria” (translated by Diana Senechal):

Death is not here, she always looms.
The tones of the bells come closer;
she lives in granite, heat, wine,
and bread, in chestnuts entwined
with acacias. She roams
in dreams. History is part
of death. Galileo, not Hegel, was right:
eppur si muove.  A dense, charred
sphere revolves into night.

What at first seemed real is just a denial
of time. There is no revival
in sleep. Nothing and clouds extend
through the window. Death
is not here. Death is at hand.
She rides around in the cage of the room,
crosses out the next calendar date,
then looks in the mirror and meets
you face to face.

Brodsky continues in the introduction:

Venclova’s song starts at the point where the voice usually breaks, at the end of exhalation, when all inner forces are used up. In this characteristic lies the exceptional moral value of his poetry, because the ethical focus of the poem is in its lyricism rather than in any narrative element. For the lyrical quality of the poem is in effect a sort of utopia attained by the poet, and it conveys to readers their own psychological potential. In the best circumstances, this “good news” provokes a similar internal motion in readers, moves them toward creation of a world on the level suggested by this news. At the least, it liberates them from dependence on the reality they know, making them aware that this reality is not the only one. That achievement is not small, and it is for this reason that reality holds little love for poets.

Tomas Venclova tells the story of how he was deprived of Soviet citizenship on video here.  Curiously, the story involves Algirdas Avižienis, the kindly professor from Kaunas who showed me Czesław Miłosz‘s rural birthplace.


Ellen Hinsey and “that most archaic idea, ‘thou shalt not kill.’”

Sunday, July 8th, 2012

Are we facing the start of an "unlawful age"?

I’d heard the name Ellen Hinsey before.  We have a mutual friend in the eminent Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova (although I am mostly a long-distance friend, and she is a longstanding colleague).  She has had the pleasure and labor of translating his poems into English for Bloodaxe’s The Junction: Selected Poems of Tomas Venclova.  I had the privilege of publishing an essay by Tomas in An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz.

The Paris-based poet is not usually mentioned in the New Yorker, however, so I noted her mention in this week’s “Page-Turner” blog post in the magazine about the closing of Village Voice (I wrote about it here). The relevent passage:  “On the night of the farewell party, it must be said, not everyone was teary. The novelists Jake Lamar and Nancy Huston, the poets Ellen Hinsey and Denis Hirson, and dozens of others were trading sentimental stories.”

Poetry International has a fascinating Q&A interview with her in 2009.  It starts slowly, but picks up considerable steam. It picks up precisely at the point where she said that a central concern in her The White Fire of Time and Update on the Descent was,  years following a murder in her family,  “how we can renew our belief in that most archaic idea, ‘thou shalt not kill.’”

She also poses “a question that I think we are extremely afraid to confront”:  “The last few years have brought us perilously close to an unspoken fear that we are losing the battle against violence, and that the climate of relative decency we have known is no longer holding firm. Or even that, if we do not do our best to battle against it, we may be facing the start of an unlawful age.”

"Above all, love language" (Photo: Dylan Vaughan)

Let me cite the final portion of the interview:

…Some years ago I mentioned that I was interested in the possibility of a “poetics of radical reflection.” For me this means, as Hannah Arendt wrote in the Life of the Mind, the idea that perhaps thought itself can help us to maneuver and survive the dangers around us—the dangers of our own making. With the end of the 20th century we found out that, incredibly enough, we did not arrive at the end of History. History and terror—as well as the possibility of meaning—are still with us. We didn’t escape their noose: they are, and will always be, things with which we must wrestle.

Q.  In the last poem in your book, “Update on the Last Judgment,” there is no “Judgment,” but only an “abyss.” What, then, is “judgment” and who is passing that judgment?

A.  This was a complex poem for me. When you begin to write a poem, you don’t always know exactly what you think about your subject. Regarding the topic in general, I tend to agree with what the Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova wrote in his poem “Verses for a Child’s Birth”: “it’s best to keep silent/ because we don’t know yet if God hovers/ above the empty featureless waters.” However, it seems fair to say that until we arrive at that unknowable moment, we are entirely responsible for our actions here on earth and it is to our peril that we look for recourse or justification for those actions in any kind of afterlife. For the foreseeable future, we only have judgment with a small “j”, which is to say the mortal, imperfect and fallible judgment that we possess as human beings and with which we have to attempt to make sense of our world. Despite how terribly fragile it is, it is all that we possess. But it is still immense.

I had already bookmarked that particular poem, “Update on the Last Judgment” – the Poetry Foundation has it here.  Read the whole thing.  I’m not going to try to excerpt it.