Archive for February 24th, 2015

Remembering Regina Derieva: “Not until the party’s over we learn the names of the guests.”

Tuesday, February 24th, 2015

ars2Look what came in the mail the other day, from faraway Sweden:  Curator Aquarum: In Memoriam Regina Derieva, published by Ars Interpres Publications in Stockholm. (You can buy your own copy here for 18 euros.) The volume is a collection of poetry, memoirs, essays, fiction, and photographs in honor of the late Russian poet Regina Derieva, who died in December 2013.  You can read about her in my Times Literary Supplement piece here. (Or in the Book Haven here and here.) I wrote about my involvement with the Russian poet in the TLS:

“A few days after Derieva’s sudden death last December at the age of sixty-four, I received a letter from her husband, Alexander Deriev, and our ensuing correspondence eventually led to the Stanford Libraries’ acquisition of this astonishing poet’s archive. A single cardboard box postmarked Märsta, Sweden, is all that remains of a long and productive literary life, augmented by a few files of unpublished manuscripts, photographs, letters and drawings Deriev brought with him to California in his backpack.

“There is a reason for the paucity of papers in a lifetime that should have left a mountain of them. Derieva’s life encompassed the upheavals of the past century, but she added an idiosyncratic twist: at each fork in the road, this outcast among outcasts made a choice – and that choice, or as often necessity, took her even farther from the pack.”


Perhaps my favorite photo of Regina Derieva, poet extraordinaire.

Those peregrinations took her far from her native Odessa and Kazakhstan – first to Israel, where the Jewish convert was denied a passport and citizenship, which left the family unable to open a bank account, rent a home, or hold jobs. In Curator Aquarum, one friend, George Kilcourse, recalls his first encounter with her in 1999, Jerusalem. “I vividly recall meeting Regina’s husband, Alexander, while riding a bus to the Old City. He was an animated companion. He mentioned to me Regina’s poetry and kindly offered to arrange our meeting.”

“The afternoon was warm and desert heat wafted through the corridors. I knocked on the apartment door of the Derievs. Alexander warmly welcomed me and I saw Regina sitting in her chair. Serenity is the best word I know to describe my first impression of Regina Derieva. There was a presence about her that belied the political turmoil she and her husband were experiencing. She defied the limbo where Israeli politicians were seeking to place her. The theme of freedom, a transcendental freedom that no one could touch, runs like a golden thread through her poems.”

In the short piece I wrote about the Stanford acquisition here, I cited a 1990 letter from Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky, which includes this passage in response to one of her poems: “For a long time, I have not seen anything on a par with your poetry either among our fellow countrymen or among the English-speaking poets. And I can guess more or less – I can hear – what it cost you to reach this point, the point over the life and over yourself. This is why the joy of reading your poetry is also heartbreaking. In this poem, you exist in the plane where no one else exists, where no one else can help: There are no kin and, a fortiori, there are no equal to you.”

The short (140 page) Curator Aquarum volume includes contributions by a number of people who have appeared in the Book Haven over the years, including Tomas Venclova, Bengt Jangfeldt, Ellen Hinsey, Valentina Polukhina, and many, many others – but I’ll include two poems below, first “The Knockdown Question” by the inestimable Les Murray, and then “All Saints” by the Swedish poet, and member of the Swedish Academy, Per Wästberg (translated from the Swedish by Lars Palm):

The Knockdown Question

by Les Murray:

i.m. Regina Derieva

Why does God not spare the innocent?

The answer to that is not in
the same world as the question
so you would shrink from me
in terror if I could answer it


All Saints

by Per Wästberg

Drawing by Dennis Creffield, who is also in the new book.

Art by Dennis Creffield, who is also in the new book.

In sad remembrance of Regina Derieva, a true poetical witness to our fragile existence

November’s dead leaves. Twigs broken by the wind.
But in the earthworm soil roots form.
There is an underground kingdom.

Like syllables in a word no one can rightly decipher
like a word in an unclear meandering sentence
the writing that just was our life lingers.

Friends disappear like planes from the radar network.
In the air around us their contours are glimpsed.
The dead store the history of the living.

The windshield wiper is slower than before.
I lean closer to the glass to see.
If you could choose your death like you choose a lane.

An evening with an unexpected blackout. An important page
I can’t read is scanned by a domesticated insect.
The stars, the Shona say, are the eyes of the dead.

Not until the party’s over we learn the names of the guests.
Not until the doors are closed we see the rooms expand.
When all sounds are turned down we hear the cobwebs sing.

April 2014