“Bound for Hell”

Poet Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941)

Poet Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941)

Yesterday, I posted an incident from Marina Tsvetaeva’s diary of how she was robbed in the streets of Moscow by a young Red Army soldier. Today, I would like to give you one of her most famous poems:

Bound for Hell

Hell, my ardent sisters, be assured,
Is where we’re bound; we’ll drink the pitch of hell—
We, who have sung the praises of the lord
With every fiber in us, every cell.

We, who did not manage to devote
Our nights to spinning, did not bend and sway
Above a cradle—in a flimsy boat,
Wrapped in a mantle, we’re now borne away.

Every morning, every day, we’d rise
And have the finest Chinese silks to wear;
And we’d strike up the songs of paradise
Around the campfire of a robbers’ lair,

We, careless seamstresses (our seams all ran,
Whether we sewed or not)—yet we have been
Such dancers, we have played the pipes of Pan:
The world was ours, each one of us a queen.

First, scarcely draped in tatters, and disheveled,
Then plaited with a starry diadem;
We’ve been in jails, at banquets we have reveled:
But the rewards of heaven, we’re lost to them,

Lost in nights of starlight, in the garden
Where apple trees from paradise are found.
No, be assured, my gentle girls, my ardent
And lovely sisters, hell is where we’re bound.

I’m still not finished writing about this incredible poet. Look for another post about her within a few days.

Marina Tsvetayeva Is Robbed

2005 Painting of Marina Tsvetayeva by Aida Lisenkova-Hanemaayer

2005 Painting of Marina Tsvetayeva by Aida Lisenkova-Hanemaayer

I have just finished reading Marina Tsvetayeva’s Earthly Signs: Moscow Diaries, 1917-1922 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002). Virtually unknown in the United States, Tsvetayeva was one of the greatest Russian poets of the 20th Century. Here is one of her poems:

I Know the Truth (1915)

I know the truth – forget all other truths!
No need for anyone on earth to struggle.
Look – it is evening, look, it is nearly night:
what will you say, poets, lovers, generals?

The wind is level now, the earth is wet with dew,
the storm of stars in the sky will turn to quiet.
And soon all of us will sleep beneath the earth, we
who never let each other sleep above it.

The above translation is by Elaine Feinstein.

In her Moscow diary, she recounts the experience of being robbed as she leaves a friend’s house late at night:

“Who goes there?”

A young guy about eighteen years old, in uniform, a jaunty forelock peeking out from under his cap. Light brown hair. Freckles.

“Any weapons?”

“What kind of weapons do women have?”

“What is that there?”

”Please, take a look.”

I take out of my purse and hand him, one after the other: my new, favorite cigarette case with lions (yellow, English: Dieu et mon droit), a coin purse, matches.

“And there’s also a comb, a key … If you have any doubts, we can go see the yardkeeper; I’ve lived here for four years.”

“Any documents?”

At this point, remembering the parting words of my cautious friends, I conscientiously and meaninglessly parry:

“And do you have any documents?”

“Right here!”

The steel of a revolver, white in the moonlight. (“So it’s white, and for some reason I always thought it was black.I saw it as black. A revolver—is death. Blackness.”)

At the same instant, the chain from my lorgnette flies over my head, strangling me and catching on my hat. Only then do I realize what’s going on.

“Put down that revolver and take it off with both hands, you’re strangling me.”

“Don’t scream.”

“You can hear how I’m speaking.”

He lowers it, and, no longer strangling me, swiftly and deftly removes the doubled chain. The action with the chain is the last one. I hear “Comrades!” behind my back as my other foot steps through the gate.

(I forgot to say that the whole time we were talking (a minute plus) there were people walking back and forth on the other side of the street.)

The soldier left me: all my rings, the lion brooch, the purse itself, both bracelets, my watch, book, comb, key.

He took: the coin purse with an invalid check for 1000 rubles, the new wonderful cigarette case (there you have it, droit without Dieu!), the chain and lorgnette, the cigarettes.

All in all, if not a fair price—a fraternal one.

The next day, Marina hears the young robber was killed by a church custodian:

They offered to let me go pick out my things. I refused with a shudder. How could I—one of the living (that is—happy, that is—wealthy), go and take from him, the dead, his last loot?! I quake at the very thought of it. One way or the other, I was his last (maybe next to the last!) joy, which he took to the grave with him. You don’t rob the dead.

I will have more to say about Tsvetaeva in a future post.

Maddeningly Fragmentary

Sappho

Sappho

One of the greatest poets of the ancient world was Sappho—the only woman, with a voice unmistakably feminine even though so little remains of her work. And everything that remains appears in Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2002).

I have read a number of Anne Carson’s translations from the Greek and love all of them, especially the four Euripidean tragedies collected in Grief Lessons. This is a very different book, four hundred pages of mostly white space. Only a single poem has come down to us in its entirety; as for the rest, we have nothing but fragments.

Yet even in those fragments, we have a soft feminine voice, one with occasionally lesbian nuances:

I would rather see her lovely step
and the motion of light on her face
than chariots of Lydians or ranks
of footsoldiers in arms.

In the following fragment, the lacunae are indicated by square brackets, yet the meaning still comes across:

]of desire
]
]for when I look at you
]such a Hermione
]and to yellowhaired Helen I liken you
]
]among mortal women, know this
]from every care
]you could release me
]
]dewy riverbanks
]to last all night long
]  [

And:

]
]you will remember
]for we in our youth
did these things

yes many and beautiful things
]
]
]

Sometimes, all that Anne Carson has to work with in a single word or two, yet even then something comes across.

If Not, Winter is a quick read, but it leaves a strong impression.

 

 

 

“Lot’s Wife”

Polish Poet Wisława Szymborska

Polish Poet Wisława Szymborska

Every once in a while, the Nobel Prize Committee makes a correct choice, and Polish poet Wisława Szymborska is certainly one—one of the few in recent years who is deserving of the honor. Here is a poem entitled “Lot’s Wife,” about a woman who, while fleeing with her husband Lot from the destruction soon to overcome Sodom, was turned into a pillar of salt for looking back:

They say I looked back from curiosity.
But I could have had reasons other than curiosity.
I looked back from regret for a silver bowl.
From distraction while fastening the latchet of my sandal.
To avoid looking longer at the righteous neck
of Lot my husband.
From sudden certainty that had I died
he would not even have slowed his step.
From the disobedience of the meek.
Alert to the pursuit.
Suddenly serene, hopeful that God had changed His mind.
Our two daughters were almost over the hilltop.
I felt old age within me. Remoteness.
The futility of our wandering. Sleepiness.
I looked back while laying my bundle on the ground.
I looked back from fear of where next to set my foot.
On my path appeared serpents,
spiders, field mice, and fledgling vultures.
By now it was neither the righteous nor the wicked—simply all living creatures
crept and leapt in common panic.
I looked back from loneliness.
From shame that I was stealing away.
From a desire to shout, to return.
Or just when a sudden gust of wind
undid my hair and lifted up my garment.
I had the impression they watched it all from the walls of Sodom
and burst out in loud laughter time and time again.
I looked back from anger.
To relish their great ruin.
I looked back for all the reasons I have mentioned.
I looked back despite myself.
It was only a rock that turned back, growling under foot.
A sudden crevice that cut my path.
On the edge a hamster scampered up on his two hind feet.
It was then that we both glanced back.
No. No. I ran on.
I crept and clambered up,
until the darkness crashed down from heaven,
and with it, burning gravel and dead birds.
For lack of breath I spun about repeatedly.
If anyone had seen me, he might have thought me dancing.
It was not ruled out that my eyes were open.
It could be that I fell, my face turned toward the city.

Salt Pillar Thought To Be Lot’s Wife

Salt Pillar Thought To Be Lot’s Wife

Perhaps Szymborska’s beloved and much beleaguered Poland was that Sodom, unjustly punished by history for being positioned between two ogres that alternately and in combination devoured it for no good reason.

 

A Poem for Our Times

Poet Jane Hirshfield

Poet Jane Hirshfield (b. 1953)

You may have seen this poem with reference to the non-events of last Friday. It is called “Let Them Not Say”:

Let them not say:   we did not see it.
We saw.

Let them not say:   we did not hear it.
We heard.

Let them not say:     they did not taste it.
We ate, we trembled.

Let them not say:   it was not spoken, not written.
We spoke,
we witnessed with voices and hands.

Let them not say:     they did nothing.
We did not-enough.

Let them say, as they must say something:

A kerosene beauty.
It burned.

Let them say we warmed ourselves by it,
read by its light, praised,
and it burned.

Not Really a Beatnik

Poet and Publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Poet and Publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti in the Late 1950s

I met Lawrence Ferlinghetti in person over fifty years ago when he came to Dartmouth College for reading of poems from his book A Coney Island of the Mind. The picture above was taken in the late 1950s, and I saw him somewhere between 1962 and 1966 when he still looked that way.

My fellow students asked the usual bozo questions—based primarily on his association with the beat generation writers—and he fielded them so effectively that I kept my mouth shut. After all, I had never heard of the man before he showed up, though I bought a copy of A Coney Island of the Mind the next day.

Ferlinghetti still lives in San Francisco, though he no longer actively runs the City Lights Bookstore. It is his misfortune to be conflated with the Beatnik poets, though his primary interaction with them was as publisher of many of their works. According to an interview with Robert Scheer of Truthdig.Com:

I was a straight man keeping the store back home,” he says cheerfully. “I was leading a respectful married life on Portrero Hill. These guys were much too far out for me. I didn’t go out on the road with them. And I came from a former generation. When I arrived in San Francisco I was still wearing my beret from Paris, and we were known as bohemians … people who led an unconventional creative life before the Beats came along.

We must not forget that Ferlinghetti is also a major U.S. poet in his own right, as is evident in his poem “The World Is a Beautiful Place”:

The world is a beautiful place
to be born into
if you don’t mind happiness
not always being
so very much fun
if you don’t mind a touch of hell
now and then
just when everything is fine
because even in heaven
they don’t sing
all the time

The world is a beautiful place
to be born into
if you don’t mind some people dying
all the time
or maybe only starving
some of the time
which isn’t half bad
if it isn’t you

Oh the world is a beautiful place
to be born into
if you don’t much mind
a few dead minds
in the higher places
or a bomb or two
now and then
in your upturned faces
or such other improprieties
as our Name Brand society
is prey to
with its men of distinction
and its men of extinction
and its priests
and other patrolmen

and its various segregations
and congressional investigations
and other constipations
that our fool flesh
is heir to

Yes the world is the best place of all
for a lot of such things as
making the fun scene
and making the love scene
and making the sad scene
and singing low songs and having inspirations
and walking around
looking at everything
and smelling flowers
and goosing statues
and even thinking
and kissing people and
making babies and wearing pants
and waving hats and
dancing
and going swimming in rivers
on picnics
in the middle of the summer
and just generally
‘living it up’
Yes
but then right in the middle of it
comes the smiling

mortician

“Starting With Black”

... But Not Necessarily Ending With Black

… But Not Necessarily Ending With Black

The following is a poem by Jim Haba, which appeared in today’s Salon.Com. Let me start with the text of the poem:

Starting With Black

In a dark place
In a dark time

Start with black.
Stop. Soak up its energy.

Remember the circle
However bent and broken.

Prize balance. Seek pleasure.
Allow surprise. Let music

Guide your every impulse.
Support those who falter.

Steer by our fixed star:
No Justice. No Peace.

I like what the Haba said about his feelings writing this poem:

The profound and expansive confusion that consumes us today requires much more than a momentary stay (even though any respite can help) and I cannot overestimate the danger of immediately grasping for the solace of normalization or simple denial. When the gravity of our current confusion somehow reminded me of Matisse’s remark that ‘black is also a color’ I began to see the necessity of squarely facing the darkness of our predicament. It seemed that only when we stop and give ourselves over to fully taking in this darkness can we begin to gauge its scope and scale. And then, paradoxically, we may discover within that very blackness the energy that will sustain our resistance, our struggle for clarity. Deeply inhabiting a work of art (letting ‘music/guide our every impulse’) strikes me as an important way to tune ourselves and to provide a life-preserving rhythm for the long struggle that lies ahead.

So, Happy New Year to all of you. My fingers are crossed.