Archive for March, 2016

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

Tuesday, 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?

Monday, 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

Thursday, 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).

Tuesday, 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!

Saturday, 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

Thursday, 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”

Sunday, 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.”

Wednesday, 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.

Brodsky/Baryshnikov: “I’m trying to remember his voice, his mannerisms.”

Sunday, March 6th, 2016


I have followed the travels of Mikhail Baryshnikov‘s Brodsky/Baryshnikov since its debut last fall in Riga, Latvia. Like the production itself, the choice of venue unites the two friends, now separated by death: The dancer and choreographer Baryshnikov was born in Riga, and began ballet lessons there at the age of nine; the Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky‘s mother was of Latvian heritage. Baryshnikov teamed with Latvian director Alvis Hermanis, director of New Riga Theater, to create a one-man show in memory of the Russian poet, who died in 1996.

Brodsky:Baryshnikov2The director explained the concept to the New York Times via Skype: “I said to Misha, you have to imagine you are not alone onstage. There are two people, and there’s something going on between them, some secret.”

From the Paris Review:

“Those who expect the typical Baryshnikov pirouettes and splits … are likely to be disappointed,” Latvian critic Undine Adamaite wrote in Diena, a Latvian daily.

Indeed, Brodsky / Baryshnikov, which begins its international tour in Tel Aviv this winter before debuting in New York, in spring 2016, is far closer to theater than ballet, a meditation, in part, on aging and death. “It’s anti-ballet, it’s anti-choreography,” Hermanis said. “What Misha does with the body … it’s just like spontaneous electricity.” Hermanis and Baryshnikov did not hire a choreographer for the performance, which relies on improvisation. “These things are not fixed—each evening they’re slightly different … It’s not the possibility of dance, but the impossibility of dance.” There’s even a script, a departure from the ballets of Baryshnikov’s youth. This one is composed entirely of the poetry of Joseph Brodsky, Baryshnikov’s good friend, who died in 1996. The two could be said to star together in Brodsky / Baryshnikov, even if only one man enters the theater.

Brodsky:Baryshnikov3The audience took a collective breath when Baryshnikov first appeared on stage. He looks not the athlete he once was but a gaunt, bedraggled traveler, suitcase in hand, seated on a wooden bench below the broken fuse of a dilapidated Art Deco apartment with large, dusty window panes. He doesn’t speak. He makes the audience wait, Jim Wilson’s operatic “God’s Chorus of Crickets” playing in the background. Baryshnikov opens his suitcase, pulls out an alarm clock, some poetry books, and a bottle of Jameson (Brodsky’s favorite). He picks up a book, starts flipping through, whispering to himself, as if trying to pick one to read aloud. He finds one, and takes a swig.

Brodsky/Baryshnikov sold out in Latvia, traveled to Tel Aviv, and arrived, inevitably, in New York City, where it will debut next week at the Baryshnikov Art Center. From the “edited excerpts” of the New York Times interview:

Alvis Hermanis has said that the evening is almost like a séance with Brodsky.

It’s a little bit that. I almost never directly connect to the audience. It is like someone reciting poetry for his own enjoyment, like people sing in the shower. I’m trying to remember his voice, his mannerisms. Sometimes I imitate him. And suddenly the tape starts with Joseph’s own voice. His presence is what those poems are about.


Image via New Riga Theater

It has been said that, in part because of his sophisticated use of meter and rhyme, Brodsky’s poetry is untranslatable.

Joseph would argue with that. He used to translate himself with Richard Wilbur and others. But he would also argue that the best pleasure is you alone in the evening with the book in your hands. His idea was that only poets should read poems out loud. Mortals should read them quietly to themselves.

What would he have thought of the show?

I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know. He was very skeptical in general about the theater. He felt that the theater lacked truth. He wrote two plays himself but was always very clear that these works were intended for the reader, not to be performed in the theater. He always felt that it was a much more profound experience to read a play while lying on one’s couch.

You talked to him every day?

Almost every day, even when I was traveling. We talked about mundane things. He liked to walk. From Morton Street where he lived up the Hudson or East River, the Brooklyn Bridge, the East Village. He was fascinated by the light and proximity to the water.

Read the whole Q&A here.

Czesław Miłosz and the “soft pollution” of the mind

Saturday, March 5th, 2016

A thousand pages of Milosz.

When I drove to the Stanford post office and collected the heavy parcel with thick brown-paper packaging, I knew by its heft what it was, even before I saw the Polish stamps.

Miłosz i Miłosz was published two years ago by Kraków’s Księgarnia Akademicka, but I didn’t quite believe it until I finally had it in my hands. The volume, nearly a thousand pages edited by Aleksandr Fiut, Artur Grabowski, and Łukasz Tischner, includes the talks given on the centenary for the Nobel poet Czesław Miłosz in 2011. (I wrote about the occasion here and here and here.)

And there, on page 109, is my own “Miłosz in Purgatory” – or “Miłosz w czyśćcu.” An excerpt (in English):

At Queens College in New York City, someone in the audience asked [poet Robert] Hass what it was like spending decades translating Miłosz. He responded in a heartbeat: “Like being alive twice.”

Clearly, Hass is more attuned to the Pacific mystic who was struggling to come to terms with the fierce surf, the sea-worn cliffs, and a fate that would have been unimaginable to the younger self who wrote “Dedication” in Warsaw. As Miłosz wrote in “Magic Mountain,” a poem that has inevitable resonances for Californians:

So I won’t have power, won’t save the world?
Fame will pass me by, no tiara, no crown?
Did I then train myself, myself the Unique,
To compose stanzas for gulls and sea haze,
To listen to the foghorns blaring down below?
Until it passed. What passed? Life.


Jagiellonian University: an intimidating venue.

Miłosz survived into the age of globalization—an era that has seen the collapse of time and space. Or, as Russian scholar Valentina Polukhina describes it, “a period in which our long history has been put into single storage.” As a cause and effect of that storage, “Today’s world is not monolithic: discrete events, fragmented thinking and perceptions, ideas of good and evil are so confused that the only proper response is apocalypse.”

The more commonplace response is instead an enormous loss of inwardness. Miłosz also was alarmed by it. During the Berkeley centenary event last March, a woman mentioned a talk Miłosz gave to a graduating class in New Mexico in 1989. I located a copy. While his comments might not be surprising today, it’s important to remember they were made more than two decades ago, and prefigure Michel Serres’s very recent writings about “soft pollution”:

“Pollution of the environment is today at the center of universal attention. There is, though, another kind of pollution which does not seem to be anybody’s concern … I speak of the pollution of the mind by the image of the world imposed upon citizens by advertisements, television, cinema, newspapers, radio and imposed in such a manner that their victims do not realize to what extent they are conditioned. As today there are no clear criteria for forbidding anything, the freedom of the market is the supreme law.”

A happenstance Californian.

A champion for “second space.”

We forbid nothing. We have an endless array of choices at all points of life but very few criteria on which to base those choices. Hence, we are unable to make our choices “meaningful,” and this breeds the nihilism that afflicts us. Believing in “progress,” we are unable to get our utopias up and running. We sense a diminution of our cosmos. Miłosz replied by crying out for “Second Space.” Yet today many seem tone deaf to the rhythms of his life, and can only transpose his nuances into the key of doubt – even more frequently, we project our current moral chaos onto Miłosz, and so misunderstand him.

Have we become allergic to the medicine he offers? It’s an antidote more needed in America, where he spent four decades of his life, than perhaps anywhere else – and it is from that perspective that I speak, a perspective that is both foreign and familiar to those in Poland.

Order your own here, if you’re a Polish speaker. Worth your złoty.