ODE TO A VOICE
Review of Book of Poems by Inna Lisnianskaya, Far from
translated by Daniel Weissbort with an Introduction by
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
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;
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,
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
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