Elena Andreyevna Shvarts (1948-2010), a legendary Russian poet, until 1989 was published in samizdat (self-publishing) and abroad (New York, Paris, Ann Arbor). Born in Leningrad, where she lived her entire life, Shvarts attended the University of Tartu, where her first poems were published in the university newspaper in 1973. After that, however, she did not publish for another decade in her own country; her work began to appear in émigré journals in 1978, and she published two collections of poetry (Tantsuyushchii David and Stikhi) and a novel in verse (Trudy i dni Lavinii) abroad before a collection (Storony sveta) was allowed to be published in the Soviet Union. Birdsong escaping from a cage is a metaphor running though her work. Shvarts was awarded many prizes: in 1979, the Andrey Bely prize; in 1999, the Northern Palmira (Severnaya Palmira); in 2003, the Triumph, and others. In 2002–2008, a four-volume edition of her work was published in Saint Petersburg.
– Ian Probstein
Benjamin Aisenshtadt (1921-1999) chose the pen name Benjamin Blazhennyi, “Benjamin the Blessed.” In Russian the word blazhennyi can mean a freak, a jester, or a saint. The Soviet authorities treated the poet as a fool, a freak, an utterly unpractical person. Needless to say, none of Aizenshtadt’s poems was published until late 1980s. After the war, the poet was not allowed to finish his education because he was not a member of the Communist Party. Moreover, for his anti-social behavior he was from time to time put in a mental institution. Otherwise he worked in a facility for the disabled and took care of his wife, a disabled veteran of WWII. For the last 20 years of his life, he barely left his apartment in Minsk, Belarus. Beginning in the late 1980s, his poems started to appear in periodicals and immediately startled the critics who did not know how to classify them: Blazhennyi did not fit into any school or trend. It was well after the time of so-called perestroika when poets, critics, and publishers frequented his tiny apartment, taking interviews and asking for poems. This activity led to his books being published in Belarus, Russia, and Israel under the pen-name of Benjamin Blazhennyi (the Blessed).
It is notable that St. Augustine is called “Augustine the Blessed” in Russian. Therefore “the blessed” is a saint, the one who communicates with the Divine spirit. Blazhennyi’s poetry is full of powerful images: it is both pious and iconoclastic, sacred and profane, tranquil and full of fury.
Benjamin Aisenshtadt was born in 1921 to a Jewish family in the small Byelorussian shtetl Kopys’. His father Michail was an unpractical man as well. As the poet wrote:
My father Michail Aisenshtadt was the biggest fool in town:
He claimed that wolf and lamb had soul.
He claimed that a mosquito and a fly had soul as well
He wore worn-out trousers and never learned to sell.
When a Jew was sorry for a wounded nestling of a jackdaw,
He did not need a store. Why would he need a store?
Before World War II, Benjamin finished one year of a pedagogical college, majoring in history. Since he had poor health, he was not drafted into the army. His family managed to escape to a small village in Gorky oblast (now Nizny Novgorod) where he taught history at a school. He discovered a rich library there untouched by Bolshevik purges, and began copying books into his notebooks. After the war, he visited his favorite poets, Boris Pasternak and Arseny Tarkovsky, in Moscow. Pasternak was reluctant to meet with young emerging poets, perhaps fearing the ungifted who had the nerve to get a reference to publishers from famous authors. After reading Blazhennyi’s poems, however, Pasternak not only welcomed him, but initiated a lifelong friendship and correspondence. Blazhennyi eventually wrote essays and memoirs about Pasternak.
– Ian Probstein
Roald Mandelstam (1932-1961), who died of tuberculosis and intestinal hemorrhage at the age of twenty-eight, was a gifted and singular poet who unfortunately was not published in his short lifetime. He called himself “the last poet on earth” in his last poem, entitled “Epilogue.” In fact, he was perhaps the last romantic poet, a sparkling splinter of the Russian Silver Age. There is an evident affinity between the poetry of R. Mandelstam with the poetry of the Silver Age—first and foremost, with the poetry of Blok, Gumilev and Osip Mandelstam, but Roald Mandelstam’s work differs from theirs due to his unique syncretic imagery, vision, and intonation. Moreover, he is an existential poet and, as such, he continued the highest traditions of the Russian poetry from Derzhavin and Tiutchev to Gumilev and O. Mandelstam. He was one of the first postwar underground poets in Leningrad, a forerunner of the brilliant constellation of poets that included the so-called Leningrad Philological School, Leonid Aronson, Vladimir Uflyand, and Joseph Brodsky, as well as the poets of his circle, Victor Krivulin, Elena Shvarts, and many more.
In his review of Mandelstam’s third posthumously published book, Kirill Medvedev compares his poetry to the French les poètes maudits. True, such poems as “My Friends,” “A Grim Guest,” or “Junkman” are akin to Rimbaud’s poems and Corbière’s “Night Paris.” There is an evident trace of antagonism and protest against the totalitarian system, against those who accept their slavery, but the rebel-poet calls his fellow citizens to revolt. Even alluding to Roman history, Roald Mandelstam draws parallels with his contemporary life. Mandelstam’s lack of agony, decadence, and narcissism distinguishes him from the French les poètes maudits, however. Among other distinctive features of Mandelstam’s poetry are his artistic vision in images and syncretic imagery revealing all five senses. As V. Kreyd mentioned in his essay of 1984, in Mandelstam’s poetry “nature is spiritualized; there is no borderline between human nature, organic and inorganic nature” (Kreyd 22).*
He was rediscovered by Mikhail Shemiakin, who published Mandelstam’s poetry in the almanac Apollon-77, and by K. Kuz’minskii, who published selected works in the anthology U Goluboi Laguny (At the Blue Lagoon). From 1982 to 1997, four books of Mandelstam’s poetry were published in Israel and Russia, including Complete Poems (St. Petersburg: Ivan Limbakh Publishing, 2006), which was compiled and edited by the poet’s sister, Mrs. Helene Petrov-Mandelstam. She and I are currently compiling a bilingual English-Russian edition of Roald Mandelstam’s Selected Poetry.
* Kreyd, V. Zametki o poezii Roal’da Mandel’stama. (Notes on Roald Mandelstam’s poetry). Strelets 4 (1984): 22-24.
– Ian Probstein
Pilar Fraile Amador’s Larva & Hedge is one of those rare collections that affects the reader by both attracting and repelling, that can simultaneously enchant and disturb. Fraile’s poems mesmerize and sing; they weave captivating webs. But they are fascinating, too, in their potential for repulsion, in their willingness to inhabit the most unsettling of spaces. The force of the text, then–the way it acts upon the reader’s interior–is twofold.
On the one hand, Fraile’s poems are magnetic. They read like deftly spun incantations, sonorous lines draped over imagined topographies. But they derive equal force from their readiness to shock and disturb, to wield images that pierce a reader’s repose and rearrange one’s insides. The poems occupy both dreamscape and night terror; they caress and startle. They situate us in the space between our discomfort and enthrallment at the sight of blood. We cannot turn away.
That Fraile’s text both attracts and repels is fitting. It is a collection that deals in dualities, juxtaposing the intimate and the collective, the strong and the weak, the human and the animal; yoking them together to call their differences into question. It is this gesture that begins Fraile’s project of blurring lines and traversing borders.
The volume itself is binary, split into two distinct sections that function together. In Larva, Fraile explores the undercurrent of correspondence that exists unnoticed between human beings, the wellspring of the common subconscious. Here, individual and collective memories intermix and alter one another and the living can communicate with objects and the dead. The destruction of the ‘I,’ then, becomes a generative act that allows the other–or others–to pass into and expand an individual consciousness. Under these circumstances, the lines between past and present, between self and other, grow indistinct. The speaker is a secret essence that mediates the collective, a human distillate in the antechamber of life. The past never dies.
In the second section of the book, Hedge, the individual disappears completely. The poetic subject shifts to plural as Fraile reflects on what binds a community. While both halves of the volume are image-driven, the poems that constitute Hedge are more intricate than the preceding fragments, rich with sensory detail and of longer duration. They take shape as blocks of prose poetry that make use of repetition, compression, and fragmentation and fuse lines into paragraphs. This configuration yields both continuity and a useful sense of isolation: while each poem is visually cloistered as a block of text on its own page, the poems hang together with their consistent form as stages in a continuous meditation.
Fraile cites influences who move “in the border of the border”–from symbolists Baudelaire and Rimbaud with their intuitive associations, unconventional syntax, and indirect expression; to the surrealism of Lorca and Buñuel; to contemporary Spanish classics like Ullán, Valente, and Gamoneda. Her imagistic precision, along with stylistic choices like nonlinear forms and a disjunctive, multivocal timbre, demonstrate a desire to move in literary border areas and to create poetry that is unflinchingly exploratory.
– Elizabeth Davis
The famous opening line of “Under the Cherry Blossoms” is certain to cross a few minds every spring in Japan.
Widely considered one of Kajii’s major works, the story was first published in December 1928. It appeared in the journal Poetry and Poetics (Shi to Shiron), which set out to introduce readers to contemporary modernist writings from the West through translations and critical discourse. The debut issue had carried an essay by Louis Aragon, and the magazine later went on to publish the work of Paul Valéry and André Gide. The second issue, which featured “Under the Cherry Blossoms,” sought to explore the notion of a poetics beyond verse.
The early work “Lemon” (1925) illustrated a surrealist ethos arisen from the dingy back alleys of Kyoto, and it was in this internationalist context that “Under the Cherry Blossoms” was also conceived. Kajii, who began but never completed a degree in English literature at the top-ranked Tokyo Imperial University (what is today the University of Tokyo), is known to have read Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen in an English translation. A portion of the text was found transcribed in his notebooks around the time when the story was written.
Among such literary coteries Kajii himself founded a journal called Blue Skies (Aozora) while the editors of Poetry and Poetics included at least one bookseller-cum-tastemaker with knowledge of the latest foreign titles. Paris Spleen served as the exemplar of a kind of urbanite experience, the work that many a fledgling author aspired to write when prose poems were the form and decadence the theme of the day.
“Under the Cherry Blossoms” is a stylistically mature work that depicts a coming to terms with mortality and its accompanying dualisms through an exposition of the sub rosa, a revelation that starts with the creeping notion that beneath such beautiful flowers, something lies hidden.
– Bonnie Huie
After four decades of writing in her adopted tongue, Argentine poet Silvia Baron Supervielle’s themes in Around the Void seem little changed, even if tinged more recently with a sense of impending mortality: always she finds herself at an existential precipice, with her mixed allegiances to her two languages as to her sense of place and belonging.
About her change of language, she explained in a 1997 interview with the translator: “It seemed to me that I would never be able to find the thread, to achieve some kind of wholeness, if I kept writing in Spanish. But something very strange happened to me. Suddenly I found a terrain where I recognized myself and which was mine, where it was so difficult finding the word and the language that I wrote very short poems, very pared down. That’s how I started to write these poems that are of such little means, I understood that this is exactly what I am, this sort of poverty of words, this fear of the language. I realized I had found something, a place that was mine. That poverty was like a mirror that was imposed on me. It wasn’t due to French, from which I also wanted to remain apart, but to that distance between the language and me, which resembled the distance I wanted to exist around me, on both sides, a distance that obliged me to pare things down. That’s how I became a writer in French. For me it was a discovery that has nothing to do with the idea of the past or the French language tradition.”
Though she has visited her native Buenos Aires with some regularity over the years, it wasn’t until 1997 that she returned as a writer–invited by the French embassy as a French writer who also spoke Spanish. And only in subsequent years has her work begun to appear in Spanish translation.
The following poems are the first two sections of Autour du vide (“Around the Void”), her eleventh book of poetry, made up of seven sections with ten poems each.
– Jason Weiss
Margarita Meklina traverses multiple literary and social worlds as a bilingual, transnational writer and omnisexual traveler. Writing in NLO of her 2003 Andrei Bely prize-winning book The Battle at St. Petersburg, the critic Kirill Kobrin said of her: “Having departed Petersburg for San Francisco [in 1994], Meklina took with her not only a tendency toward Bely’s rhythmic prose, Nabokov’s fondness for punning playfulness, but also that characteristic of Petersburg ‘being in two worlds,’ and its ambiguous, imprecise relationship toward the so-called ‘fiction’ of ‘literature,’ its opposition of so-called ‘reality,’ ‘life’….” An online biography asserts that, “Her stories, often built around themes of marginalized sexuality, in combining postmodernist sensibility with New Sincerity-like elements created a new Russian lexicon in that genre.” For my own part, I find these, Rita’s miniatures, particularly imbued with lyricism and resonant with pathos, something that presents me as a translator with the immensely pleasing challenge of getting her wistful tone precisely right.
– Alex Cigale
Nader Naderpour (1929 -2000) was born in Tehran and received his early education in Europe. He returned to Iran to publish his first collection of poetry in the 1940s. In the later 1960’s, he helped found “The Association of Writers of Iran and directed the literature department of the Iranian National Radio and Television Department. He fled the Iranian Revolution in 1980, living in France until the late 1980’s, when he moved to the United States. Regarded as one of the leaders of the movement of “New Poetry” in Iran, he published ten collections of poems. Naderpour was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature and was awarded the Human Rights Watch Hellman-Hammett Grant in 1993.
– Roger Sedarat and Rouhollah Zarei
Antonio Álvarez Gil is a novelist and short story writer. Born in Melena del Sur, Cuba, he has resided in Sweden since 1994. I discovered Naufragios (Algaida, 2002; in English translation, Shipwrecked) some years ago at a bookstore in Spain, where he has published several novels and won numerous awards. For years, the enigmatic beauty of one of that novel’s characters, a Russian-Cuban girl, lingered in my mind, and it took some time before I discovered that the vast universe occupied by his characters extended beyond Cuba and the Soviet Union, where Álvarez Gil himself had long ago studied chemical engineering. Knowing that literature was his vocation even when he was obliged to pursue a different career altogether, Álvarez Gil has written short stories and novels often brimming with the adventures of youth and universal literary and human quests–whether set in the present, as is the case with “Fascination”; the recent past of Cubans experiencing Soviet Perestroika up close, as in Callejones de Arbat (2012); or the more distant past of Las largas horas de la noche (2000, 2003), where, as Arístides Vega Chapú suggests in a recent review of the novel, the “most universal Cuban of all time,” José Martí, undergoes immense humanization within his ten-year foray in Guatemala City in the late 19th century. That is to say, literature, love, travel, persecution, exile, masculinity, the ocean, and vocation harbor an important place in Álvarez Gil’s writing. Mostly realist, it is also prone to twists and turns that take on an almost magical quality closely linked in his prose to the processes of writing, inspiration, and intertextuality. In “Fascination,” readers board a cruise ship in Stockholm only to find themselves amidst Cuban characters working out their relationships to their homeland, their compatriots, the vigilance of the state, their desire–and, last but not least, to a writer who seeks to find the best way to introduce himself to all of them, and to tell a good story while doing so.
– Jacqueline Loss
Gabriele Tinti is a writer fascinated by boxing. His micro-essays and dramatic reenactments probe our frayed tolerance for the cruelty of the sport in the modern era. With great compassion, Tinti sketches recent bouts and the stories of boxers that are at risk of perdition. Many of these boxers were badly used; their blood-sport struggle became passing entertainment. Tinti’s stories of heroic and often tragic perseverance push us to contemplate social issues that engulf us well beyond the ring. This selection is taken from Tinti’s All Over, published in 2013 by Mimesis Edizioni.
– Nicholas Benson
The Brooklyn Rail welcomes you to our web-exclusive section InTranslation, where we feature unpublished translations of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and dramatic writing. Launched in April 2007, InTranslation is a venue for outstanding work in translation and a resource for translators, authors, editors, and publishers seeking to collaborate.
We seek exceptional unpublished English translations from all languages.
Fiction, Nonfiction, and Poetry: Manuscripts of no longer than 20 pages (double-spaced).
Plays: Manuscripts of no longer than 30 pages (in left-justified format).