No. 7


Andrey Gritsman  


Review of Book of Poems by Inna Lisnianskaya, Far from Sodom,
translated by Daniel Weissbort with an Introduction by Elaine 
Feinstein. ARC Publications, UK, 2005.

I was fortunate for the first time in my life to see the poet Inna Lisnianskaya shortly after I received her book of poetry in Daniel Weissbort’s translation from London. I happened to be in Moscow at that time, and was invited to attend a rare remarkable event: Poetry Reading at the Kornei Chukovsky Memorial Museum in the famous writer’s village Peredelkino near Moscow.  This used to be his writer’s “dacha” and a few enthusiasts lovingly have maintained the house, his personal artifacts, traditions and especially the library.  Most of the books carry inscriptions by the authors, many of them famous. Chukovsky’s home was an important center of intellectual light in the dreary twilight of Soviet Russia for decades.  And even after the great man’s death, the tradition was maintained by his well-known daughter, Lidia, herself a notable critic and writer.  Let’s not forget that Chukovsky was one of the few important figures, including Anna Akhmatova and Shostakovich, who relentlessly and boldly were applying pressure to the authorities to release then-imprisoned young Joseph Brodsky.

     I hurried to the train with my friend, a young poet, and we went to Peredelkino, where the landscape was already touched by the early Russian fall.  The place is, so to speak, “irradiated” by the greats such as Pasternak and Chukovsky, among others.  There is a strong sense of the presence of Russian writers as well as dark figures of the Soviet regime, members of the Union of Soviet Writers, who also resided there, coming there to relax after Moscow literary politics.   

     Inna Lisnianskaya moved there some years ago with her husband, a well-known poet, a legendary figure, Semyon Lipkin. They settled there and she stayed after her husband died.  Lisnianskaya is one of the few remaining figures in Russian letters, one of the classics, who is intimately associated with the great names of the Silver Age and who also survived all of the years of the Soviet regime. She is one of the rare remaining links to this tragic and yet, in a certain bitter way, glamorous era of Russian poetry. As a writer spiritually she is related to great female writers of the Soviet era, who deservedly had an air of martyrdom around them: Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Maria Petrovykh and some others.  Like so many other free writers not serving the regime, Lisnianskaya had a long-term hiatus in her publication record in the “good old Soviet years.”

At her age Inna Lvovna still has her feminine charm, ironic smile, always a burning cigarette in her elegant hand, and an impeccable fleeting sense of humor.  When I told her that I came here from Moscow first of all to meet with her and look at her, the response was: “Oh, well, there is nothing to look at anymore,” all of this with a light smile.

     Independence, charm, light irony, at times approaching the precipice of tragedy — are the trademarks of Lisnianskaya’s poetry.   She is widely considered to be connected with Akhmatova, as a junior writer, in a way “echoing” her method and voice in her verse. Joseph Brodsky once mentioned that when her poems became available to him he found the only familiar sound in Lisnianskaya’s poetry — Akhmatova’s.  During our visit to Peredelkino Lisnianskaya herself mentioned a curious incident that occurred before Perestroyka, at the end of the Soviet era. She brought her manuscript of poetry to an established publishing house and the editor, still, at that time Soviet writer’s type snapped at her: “Well, we don’t need now a new Akhmatova or a new Tsvetaeva.” Characteristically for her, Lisnianskaya retorted: “Well, for that matter, you did not really need the old Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva as well.” 

     Lisnianskaya was born in the southern city of Baku on the Caspian Sea in 1928 and for many years she lived in Moscow, had a strong head start as a poet and then for many years (naturally!) went unpublished in the Soviet Union.  She belongs to a different, younger generation than Ahkmatova and Tsvetaeva, classical Silver Age poets. However, along with Maria Petrovykh, Lisnianskaya maintains the same line of classical traditional Russian poetry.  Although contrary to the popular belief, Lisnianskaya’s poetry stands very much by itself.  The main difference is a very personal tone of Lisnianskaya’s poetry. This is, if you will, a pure culture of lyrical poetry. I mean that a poet reflects the surrounding society and culture and stream of history through her consciousness, through expression and the story of a personal destiny, reflected in the verse. The verse in such circumstances with greatness of the talent becomes very true to the personal destiny and to the historical situation.  There is no shroud, no garments covering the position of the lyrical heroine in her verse. Lisnianskaya’s case is one of the rare ones, when the author of the verse and the lyrical hero in the verse often merge into one; at times it is completely one person or personality.  

     There is a lot of mastery and skill in Lisnianskaya’s verse and she is very experienced in playing lyrical rhetoric and artistic games.  However, this is not her main goal, this is one of the facets of the method.  Lisnianskaya’s verse is reflected through mostly a direct and literal speech.  One can study this historical era of Russian poetry on Lisnianskaya’s example by carefully reading her bright and unique verse. It is like a scientist is able to tell a lot about the era and about the geological processes that had occurred during this era by studying a unique piece of a mineral. It is not so much architecture, as in the case of Osip Mandelstam; not so much about theater, as in the case of Ahkmatova or Alexander Blok; but it is more about “personal chemistry,” such as in the case of Lisnianskaya’s poetry.  Her circle of artists, the circle of “literary socializing,” is rather narrow, but very selective. It is not incidental that out of about fifty pages of original poetry in Russian (the same number translated into English by Daniel Weissbort), there are only a few poems dedicated to other writers.  One of them, not incidentally, to Anna Akhmatova, but also to Marian Tsvetaeva, to Maria Petrovykh and to a poet of a younger generation, the famous star of the “new” poetry of the sixties — Bella Akhmadulina.  There is a certain spiritual and methodological connection between Lisnianskaya and those great poets.  One of the gems, a main masterpiece in the collection (and there are several of them!), is dedicated to a younger poet, Bella Akhmadulina — Ode to a Voice.   The whole collection is naturally dedicated to Lisnianskaya’s late husband, notable major poet Semyon Lipkin.

     Daniel Weissbort, translator and selector of Lisnianskaya’s poetry, is a notable British poet himself and a famous translator of Russian poetry into English, with a long record.  One of the major accomplishments of his long literary career is his famous series of anthologies, Modern Poetry in Translation, which he edited for many years, published in the United Kingdom.  This is a well known collection of the highlights of poetic talents from many countries over the years. His specialty is Russian poetry and his alliance with his wife, Valentina Polukhina, a well-known Russian literary critic and a specialist on Brodsky, has turned out to be fruitful.   Weissbort speaks good Russian and, having traveled to Russia many times, has command of Russian idiom and culture and knows Russian sensibility quite well.  His good orientation in contemporary Russian culture and the literary scene, as far as this can be achieved by a non-native Russian speaker who didn’t live in Russian for a long time, is unquestionable.  His work represents a special situation of building brick by brick, poem by poem, a landmark of Lisnianskaya’s poetry collection.

     It is important to mention that one of the significant reasons for Americans’ attraction to poems in translation, and especially to Eastern European poets of former totalitarian regimes, is a search for the spiritual qualities in major foreign authors. On some occasions it represents nothing more than an attempt to create a myth.  Many times the choices for translation and critical work are justified, but sometimes they are used as a crutch for weakened ideas and emotional energy in contemporary American literary culture.  One could see such “exploitation” by some American writers: the issues related to Eastern European totalitarianism, the Holocaust, civil rights, etc. Such interest in Lisnianskaya’s work was definitely not the aim of Weissbort’s project. The issue of heightened, sometime unhealthy interest in the great Russian poets, martyrs such as Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Mandelstam, Pasternak, has largely exhausted itself.  

     Weissbort’s encounter with Lisnianskaya’s work, as the translator acknowledges in his introduction, was almost incidental and she escaped his notice until he came across her name when the search was done for a special issue of Modern Poetry in Translation.    Previously Lisnianskaya was translated by Judith Hemschemeyer for 1990’s Anthology of Russian Poetry, put out by Zephyr Press. Weissbort was struck by Lisnianskaya’s originality, the specific nature of her voice and poetic destiny, and also by the significant relation, a link with Akhmatova and other greats of the Silver Age of Russian poetry.  

     The selection of poems for this collection is excellent and spans from the mid-sixties to current day, therefore viewing the landscape of most of Lisnianskaya’s literary career.   It is an amazingly wholesome collection, showing her great soul in the process of artistic and human maturation, as if a growing crystal in the saturated and cold climate of Russian life during the last half-century.

     The whole premise of the series of these books of translations of ARC Publications, expressed in the brief introduction by the publisher, Jean Boase-Beier, is admirable and interesting. The ARC publications turn around the traditional view of poetry translated into English as something rewritten in correct English.  “They assume that the reader of poetry is by definition someone who wants to experience the strange, the unusual, the new, the foreign, someone who delights in the stretching and distortion of language, which makes any poetry, translated or not, alive and distinctive.”  This is very close to the contemporary practice of several of us who write in English as a second language, therefore creating a new realm in English language poetry, starting with Joseph Brodsky.

     Daniel Weissbort followed the idea of the series elegantly.  But how does one translate rather classical, traditional, rhymed poetry into English without losing the cadence, the sound, the spirit? At that, simultaneously trying to get across the sensibility of a lyrical hero without making a rhymed caricature or a distorted reflection of the rhymed Russian poem.  One has to consider that virtually any rhymed Russian poem is reflected in the “free-spirited” free-versed English language mirror. And yet, Daniel Weissbort, most of the time, succeeds in this endeavor.  One of the secrets of his success is rather free use of the rhyming structures, employing slanted and sound rhymes instead of direct rhymes. Perhaps a significant knowledge of Russian helps, because the translator most of the time manages to express the music of a poem (as much as it is possible in a totally different language, in fact coming from a different language group).  

     One such interesting example of translation is an earlier Lisnianskaya poem, No Sweet Oblivion, where the translator uses very few verbs, reflecting the nature of short sentences in the original Russian poem.  It stresses this solemn, brief, superficially dry nature of Russian lines.  The translator masterfully drops the unnecessary verbiage which otherwise might have diluted the absolute alcohol of the original poem. 

     It is interesting that Lisnianskaya at times becomes rather mysterious and even surrealistic in her verse.  And again, this is not a theatrical gesture and not a method of her art. Well, life in general, and particularly life during her generation, and of an artist during this era, has been surrealistic and mysterious.  The tragedy in her voice, as in the poem The Dress, reflects the tragedy of a specific destiny of her lyrical hero.  One of the great successes of this collection is a short, five-lined poem dedicated to Tsvetaeva.  It is not always clear, however, why the translator uses certain words instead of a more direct translation of the author’s original words in Russian, even when they would not get in the way in terms of the rhythm of a poem.  For instance: couch (your posthumous couch is weightless) instead of bed (such as death bed, posthumous bed etc.).  

     Lisnianskaya occasionally uses mythological symbols (the voice of Cassandra in the poem Lining the Seashore, Oleanders) and in other poems, sometimes with biblical references.  But they are always related to some life situation related to the poet’s destiny and the mythological overtones which blend naturally and rather rapidly into the poem. It is usually related to some dramatic personal story or real-life situation that invokes a significant simplification of the language and everyday subject word usage in the course of a poem.  

     Overall this book presents excellent translations with an understanding of contemporary language, cultural realities and rather deep knowledge of Russian sensibility of the 20th century.  It mostly lacks the usual flaws of American-British translations of Russian poetry that are scattered throughout several anthologies and collections of the Contemporary and Silver Age of Russian poetry, including the above-named Zephyr and famous Yevtushenko Anthology Silver and Steel.  However, occasional minor misunderstandings occur.  For instance, in the poem Lining the Seashore, the great Russian Siberian river Yenisey is called Yelisei, which is a man’s name. In the original poem, Yenisey is rhymed exactly with Yelisey, a man’s name. At the same time, in the translation a man is called Elias, and this should be a river, which is called Yenisey.  Certainly, any translation works should be read and re-read and edited by somebody with a native upbringing and therefore with a sensibility of the land of origin of a particular poet whose work is being translated.  But such little cracks are minor and virtually negligible, and on the whole the body of this collection is very solid and the entire work leaves a great impression. 

     Some of the poems, such as Brushed Away a Tear, are great examples of a translator’s intuition. This poem, which is certainly rhymed in Russian, is translated and presented as a non-rhymed poem.  However, the number of syllables and the length of lines are very similar to the Russian original. This creates a desirable effect of a very close reading of the Russian poem; however, without forced rhyming, and without an imposed distortion of the original work.  

     One of the infamous problems of translation of a Russian poem into English is the loss of energy in the process of the transformation into an English poem, even when all of the words are correct and the meaning is close.  And this is one of the main achievements of Daniel Weissbort in this translation. One of the best examples of such successes of an adequate and complete translation of the energy of the original poem into English is the poem I Am a Trap to Myself, Don’t You See:  

          I am a trap to myself, don’t you see: 
          In full daylight, I suddenly scream:
          Here I am! Humiliate me!
          Here I am! Crucify me!

          My black outcry is good for three dawns,
          No rooster’s howl, but a raven’s caw.
          The bell-ringers will toll
          Not the bells, but glowing lamps.

     Lisnianskaya, as well as other major Russian poets, is close to philosophical poetry. There is a great hereditary line of lyrical-philosophical poetry in the Russian poetic tradition: Lomonosov, Tyutchev, to a great degree, Mandelstam and some others. This is well reflected in her poem I Went Through all This, as in School.  Weissbort’s translation nears the contemplative philosophical feeling of the original rather precisely: 

          It was a coffin or a cradle
          Rocked in the night sky or by day.
          The devil’s smile or an angel’s
          Puckering, floats in the mirror of the lake.

     Lisnianskaya is not afraid to use traditional Russian poetic images, usually related to nature (one of her favorites is the names of trees) but putting them into an unusual combination, creating additional tension in the stanza:

          The maple’s incense, crimson racks
          Of sweet mist above the rubbish dump,
          Autumn by the stinking garbage, 
          Does its duty, and the soul gives voice.

     This is unusual for Russian poetry and for poetry in general to be so courageous as to have in one stanza the rubbish dump, stinking garbage, maple, sweet mist, autumn and the soul’s voice.  A poet must be completely free (and for that matter the translator as well) to be able to operate fluently with such contrasting images.

     Some translations, such as the already mentioned Ode to Voice and Such Darkness, are simply masterpieces, as are the original poems: 

          The shadow is bright
          Against the dark
          And the ending such darkness (again!),
          I stand out, like a target;
          I scream:
          Kill me, I am just a shade!
          I want to sleep!

     Another important specific feature of Lisnianskaya’s poetry is the Jewish theme. It comes through in her verse in relation to her late husband, in some biblical images and themes, (“I remember Abraham’s dream and Sarah’s”), and in her poems related to her father. She is one of the few Russian poets who touched upon the topic of the Holocaust. Her father was a military physician who served in the Red Army throughout WWII.  He brought back home his knowledge and eyewitness accounts about the atrocities during the war.  At the same time, deeply feeling her Jewish heritage and her belonging, Lisnianskaya, emphasizes her Russian cultural genesis: 

          Myth has us Russians in thrall,
          Whether down on our luck or high.
          We are all hostages to our soul,
          That wondrous entity.

     Lisnianskaya’s artistic position is probably best reflected in her poem Everything I have Lived Through has Been Told, dedicated to Marina Krasina.  She directly refers in this poem to the public misunderstanding of her poetic position and role to the vanity of fame.  The literary crowd in general tends to flock to a few great names or to currently fashionable names, and to overlook sometimes more quiet, original, but not easily understood writers.  Lisnianskaya as an artist knows what she is doing and what she is worth and as a real artist alone is facing her destiny.  As in the last stanza of this poem she is talking to a lonely pine tree:

          Nothing is worse as to be understood in depth,
          Or sobbed for till there are no more tears, 
          With head raised high, I step
          From the rickety porch into the grass.

          Making my way through nettle-thickets,
          I come to a solitary pine tree.
          I know nothing about it
          And it knows nothing about me.

     The brilliant lines from Osip Mandelstam’s poem do not compare, the living is incomparable probably best attributed to the case of Lisnianskaya. Being as sparing about poetic effects and economical in a sense, Lisnianskaya is capable of letting out freely her complete artistic, poetic mastery.  She is a skillful operator of verse, playing with metaphors and sounds like in the poem Rattles, Bells, Combs, Castanets.

     Lisnianskaya is capable of producing a very fancy and  masterfully done verse, but she holds it back and uses this skill sparingly, to let her lyrical hero’s voice come through clearly, naturally and on a very high note.  A similar situation occurs in the poem Destiny Unwound its Skein. In this translation Daniel Weissbort skillfully renders seemingly simple Russian verse into English.   The special feature of this particular poem is that it has a very complicated verse sound, not that characteristic of traditional classical Russian poetry.

          Your fledglings flee as well, 
          They fly all over the place.
          And their wings leave not a trace, 
          Only the bells of their narrow throats, the bells.

     This is a very recent poem, 2002.  

     The whole collection is called after the poem entitled Far from Sodom,  marked 2001.  In this poem again Lisnianskaya makes clear her artistic position:

          I breathe out memory. To breathe it in
          For now, a new epoch is needed,
          Or a new window may suffice — 
          With a different aspect, laurelled roads,
          All in all I must transcend
          The intersecting lines of this window!

     The author just did that.

     Her poetry came through this “window” into our world and lives among us as a continuous poet’s voice. It is important to mention that there is an amazing continuity in the strength of Lisnianskaya’s voice over the years.  She is getting stronger and stronger in the new century, and this is rare for a poet of a rather advanced age. 

     Probably the best translated poem, as far as Russian poetry sounds, is Jealousy. Daniel Weissbort uses rhymes economically — packing-sacking, rafter-after, advance-the news, no less-loss.  They serve well as solidifying cement connecting the bricks of lines without forcing an unnatural, foreign sound into the English verse.  In this particular poem the translator achieves a remarkable mirror similarity to the Russian original. Another very successful translation is I look down from the mountain, the fourth floor.  This poem reflects what is so characteristic for Lisnianskaya’s “demystification of eternity,” the demystification of death: “Your death is the reality: my life a mirage.”

     Next day I was going back to New York. As I was on the plane, and in the twilight of sleep, I could sense Lisnianskaya’s aura, like a flickering light in the forested plains around Moscow, trembling somewhere between New York and Volga river in the backdrop of a silent European continent and the Atlantic growing densely dark. 




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