The Poet in Intercultural Space
Iglese italianiazatto, iglese indiavaliato
What is Translation? On a platter
A poet’s pale and glaring head,
A parrot’s screech, a monkey’s chatter,
And profanation of the dead.
Once upon a time on an inhabited island there lived a poet. He came from a distant land where nature celebrated four seasons, people had only one life, and the vast fields emanated at sunset that unmistakably fresh breath different from the tired damp smoldering of land engulfed by two huge oceans. But this is the poet’s new motherland.
There is no going back, no return. These vast bodies of water invisibly dissolve hours and hours of one’s life. Check yourself next time you are on an overseas flight. For some reason it does not feel that way when you are flying over the land. You can see the trembling lights of human dwellings, thin beads of roads feeding the stripes of highways flowing into the silent lakes of sleeping cities. They live lives familiar to you. On the other hand one cannot know the life of the ocean, which feeds on the seaweed, on oil spill, and on time. So, we are separated from the area of origin, from childhood, from former illusions (having acquired new ones), separated not only by space, that is comprehensible, but also by time.
This problem of adjustment to life is not much less signinficant for those poets who were born and stay in their native lands, since being in this strange trade of poetry implies a certain degree of detachment, derangement and misfitting. Only those who are safely plugged into the outlet of the familiar literary process, into the system of academic hierarchy, awards, cliques etc. feel comfortable-though such an organism goes silent, flat, or altogether dead, if there is a power failure or the system becomes obsolete, at times not even noticing it itself: observe the self-perpetuating contemporary academic American poetry. Therefore, we are talking mostly not about a poet of exile (as Joseph Brodsky was often called, I believe incorrectly), but rather of a poet of alienation, or more exactly, of not belonging.
So let’s step back for a second and take a look at our previous experiences.
Once upon a time, everything seemed so natural, accessible, given by birth. The horizon of the departure displays jagged outlines of sad cities and muffled sounds of faraway names, Garden Ring in Moscow, Nevski Prospect in Petersburg, Champ Elysee, tram line in Chernovitz, French Hill in Jerusalem, Piazza Navona in Rome, etc.
These are real places with their real lives independent from our nurtured memories and dreams about them. But suddenly for us they have become the same historical symbols as any other in art or history, like Carthage, Bastille, Bosporus, Appia Road, Big Ben. The detachment of the name-symbols close to our hearts occurred very quickly upon our departure. They disappeared in the morning mist of the airports and became signs. Nowadays expatriates are mixed together on the island of Manhattan and acquire a symbol system quite different from the previous, but newly common to all: Greenwich Village, Soho, Circle Line, Palisades Park, Washington Heights, Roosevelt Island. Try to put us somewhere in the park by the Kremlin wall sitting on a bench with beers, or in a café in Bucharest, in the old city Prague, or even in Montmartre and we will savor on our tongues the familiar names of the New York landscape, half of them Native-American anyway.
One can sense an obligatory sigh of pity for the life that is passing quickly by. It is allowable, forgivable, since we are talking about poetry: ‘nostalgia,’ anyway, is the main topic of lyrical poetry. Is there any other type of poetry? Or does everything else belong to a different genre closer to journalism, belle lettre, theater? A lot of so-called poetry is simply a pop cultural-entertainment, a stand-up comedy routine. Or good old “good works.” It’s like an old American puritan way of life and religion, you earn by doing good works, working hard etc.: thorough training, diligence, following a literary hierarchy. Needless to say that this method is foreign to the very heart of poetic creativity, save for absolute necessity of high professionalism that reinforces talent. This argument has nothing to do with the language, well, almost nothing. Language has its own life. An artist as a source of energy defines where the wind is blowing from. That is the wind that is turning pages, at least of an artist’s own collection. It doesn’t matter so much what we are talking about in a poem, but it is somewhat important how we are saying it. Most important is who is speaking. This is precisely why a “transplanted” poet has a chance for survival. This is his inner unique voice, that can add his special note to the glossolalia of the new life. Thus, though the poet’s own subjectivity is perpetually displaced in the world of the everyday whatever culture the poet lives in, that same subjectivity creates a certain consistency of self, of one’s own sensibility, even across oceans.
In any case an artist is put into certain circumstances. How to deal with these circumstances is the question of creative survival. I don’t appreciate many American poets who dedicate their art mostly to the overt subjectivity of self-analysis, although a poem is first of all a personal communication, not a group’s platform or expression of a party line. This last approach is commonly seen in contemporary Russian poetry, when many authors find confidence in identification with a certain movement or school: “Leningrad school,” postconceptualism, “ironic poetry” etc. while American poets often create their art in the context of petty crimes of life against the individual: divorce, sleeplessness, underappreciation by one’s peers, etc., But always outside the historical sense. As Czeslaw Milosz once said about some of contemporary American poetry: “They wrote as if history had little to do with them.” A hermetic literary culture, he would say, is a cage in which one spends all of one’s time chasing one’s own tail.
The relative hermetism of contemporary American poetry partially explains the literary establishment’s significant interest in the group of respected major poets of foreign origin “with an accent”: Czeslaw Milosz, Joseph Brodsky, Derek Walcott, Zbignew Herbert, Nina Cassian. An increased attention toward these authors from the usually snobbish North Atlantic literary system may be explained not only by the significant power and brightness of their talents. It is also related to a curious magnetic effect, an attraction of American professional literary circles to the creative energy of these artists as DP’s (displaced persons). Unusual life experience of an individual artist in the context of complex historical and cultural experiences of their respective nations provides this magnetic effect on American literati, who mostly live in an air-conditioned academic reality. Unlike most American writers, these artist derived their initial life-experience from totalitarian societies.
I dare say that the cult of Tsvetaeva and Akhmatova, so characteristic of some American female poets, is related to the same phenomenon of borrowing the energy of real life. That cult produced a multitude of speculative poems imitating the passions of the sainted poet figures. Similarly, the Holocaust: pages and pages of abstract generalized poems on the subject are produced by the members of a variety of literary workshops. These detached speculative attempts differ from that of Celan whose famous Todesfuge dealt with this theme which held an immediate and personal importance to him (as reflected in a usage of language unique to him alone) as a personal tragedy and not merely on a social or political level. As such, Celan’s case is a very interesting example of a reverse process of cultural-linguistic adaptation. He was departing from his native language and creating almost a new one. A somewhat similar process was occurring with Nabokov’s Russian, which became immensely different from the language contemporary to him–of Soviet literature.
Let’s return to the point of our discussion: what to do with ourselves in the new “foreign” milieu. In reality it is kind of inappropriate to write lyrical poetry after the age of twenty. It is a sign of a certain immaturity, a social inadequacy, being disingenuous, if you will. A prose studded with thoughts and considerations is a different story. Basically, in prose, a clever person shares his or her own artistic life experience with others. On the other hand, a pater famiglia, graying or sometimes balding, complaining about the fact that life is passing by, could be a bit ridiculous. But that is what lyrical poetry is all about. Alexander Pushkin once said: “Poetry should be a bit silly.”
A poem is a personal communication in the language that is available, in the space where the author is operating currently. That is language germane to the circumstances, landscape and to a poet’s life. Sure, a poet continues to write in his or her own native language, but these are memory notes, a childhood diary, rewind of one’s own voice, TV-repeat. After some time a native language may become somewhat outdated. On the other hand there is nothing wrong with that approach. For a gifted artist it is a method by itself. A poem is a composition on a free theme. First of all, it is not a culture (cultural language is secondary, forgive me this sacrilege). Art exists first of all in the artist, and only secondarily in society. Not vice versa. You do not speak with lines of the verse, no matter how professional they could be. You speak a poem with your own direct speech.
Joseph Brodsky once said “literature is in the first place a translation of a metaphysical truth into any given vernacular”. One can continue, poetry is probably a translation of a metaphysical truth on an almost subconscious level, on the level of Chomsky’s “universal grammar.” Brodsky also once remarked that “an exiled writer…. is hurtled into outer space in a capsule… and your capsule is your language… That gravitates not earthward, but outward.” “Poetry has a certain appetite for emptiness… that is of infinity.”
As I mentioned before, Brodsky was rather a poet of alienation, or more exactly, of not belonging. To a certain degree, his artistic position was similar to that of Samuel Beckett and Paul Celan, but not entirely. Celan obviously was another displaced person, poet in the intercultural space. For Celan the magic crystal was his enigmatic inner frozen crystal, a primordial language – breath unit, which is an idea by itself, or rather in itself, a soul diluted in the body and revealing itself by breathing. For Brodsky, the idea of soul is more Donne-like – a metaphorical contemplative soul-idea, soaring above the world and choosing “any given vernacular” to express itself. Occasionally, it is “a dybbuck” (a wandering soul in Jewish mysticism) dropping into a bar or flirting with “some swarthy darling of local stock, under a floral garland” (Brodsky’s poem “Venice: Lido”). For those poets “given vernacular” happened to be English or German, or French for Beckett. In a way, this is an expression of some freedom of choice. True, this freedom of choice implies a certain detachment and sometimes even artificiality.
Let’s quote a passage from George Steiner’s After Babel related to another great displaced person, Franz Kafka. “His (Kafka’s) loyalties divided between Czech and German, his sensibility drawn as it was at moments, to Hebrew and Yiddish, Kafka developed an obsessive awareness of the opaqueness of language. His work can be construed as a continuous parable on the impossibility of genuine human communication.” I would say, hence an acute necessity to use an indirect metaphorical poetic language. As Kafka put it to Max Broad in 1921: “the impossibility of not writing, the impossibility of writing in German, the impossibility of writing differently. One could almost add a fourth impossibility: the impossibility of writing”. Another famous, and very interesting Kafka quote, which I think is very much related to the topic is “How do I know what I have in common with the Jews, when I don’t even know what I have in common with myself?”
On the other hand, a poet in intercultural space is in a great position, because he or she has a tendency, a stimulus to abandon personal symbolism or some group’s professional collegial symbolism. We have to give the names to the light surrounding us, to the landscape, to new smells, colors, etc. Consider Mandelstam’s brilliant passage where he delivers his famous attack on the symbolist rose. “Let’s take, for instance rose and sun, a dove and a girl. How could this be that none of these images is interesting by itself, but the rose is only the image of the sun, the sun is the image of a rose, etc? The images are gutted like scarecrows and filled up with foreign contents. That is where professional symbolism leads. There is nothing real, eternal winking, there is not one clear word, only hints, only something left unsaid. The rose nods to the girl, the girl to the rose. No one wants to be himself”. We are talking here about Russian symbolism of the early twentieth century, closely related to the famous French symbolisme. It is also in a strange way related to the practice of personal symbolism so popular in contemporary American poetry. Of course, the images and metaphors of Mandelstam’s poetry are complicated, but he knows what he means and what he is talking about, unlike the typical symbolist method. There everything is moving around in a dream world of unreal images with no escape. As Alexander Block once noted about Mandelstam’s art: “He, unlike me, moves from the irrational to rational.” Therefore, a contemporary version of group’s symbolism inside tired literary process has a tendency to use many habitually accepted approaches (Freudian e.g.) and words. One of the best progressive publishing houses in the U.S. recently was turning down manuscripts submitted for contest containing repetitive “recyclable” poetic words, such as “angels'” “rapture” etc.
Osip Mandelstam named his well-known collection of essays “Word and Culture” as if counterpoising them, and at the same time, combining them under the same roof. He existed as an author in the state without a name and he was writing in his own language, like Celan and Brodsky. It is very relevant to the point of discussion to remember that Mandelstam was one of the founders of Acmeism, along with Akhmatova and Gumilev and a few others, a short-lived group but a long-living concept. Mandelstam gives a definition of Acmeism as longing for the world’s culture. Needless to say, that this is the path to salvation and path finding for an artist in intercultural space. In other words, this is the way to find a common ground with other poetic cultures and try to find common origins instead of remaining in a perpetual cultural “cold war” of sensibilities. Not to spend whole creative life in a cultural ghetto. That last option is the reality for many émigré artists. For some of them the idea of the impossibility of crossing the borders of cultural sensibility becomes a “party line,” cultural solipsism.
But everything depends on talent. A really creative person cannot completely repeat what has already been said. Every single creative experience is a singular and specific art of creation. Mandelstam said in one of his poems: “Do not compare, the living is incomparable.” Everyone rediscovers America, so-to-speak, on his or her own. To continue the pun, one can say that everyone rediscovers for himself the Wheel of Fortune. Every life harbors its own personal tragedy. It does not require a lot of explanations. The difference between a lyrical poet and everyone else is the fact that he or she senses tragedy acutely during the whole longevity of life. The whole issue is one of intonation, that is it is in one’s voice. What matters is the fact that the author is breathing clear air, “mountain air.” It may be that another writer has a life of his own, may even have thoughts of his own. But if he or she is breathing borrowed air, the product of such an art will be a recycled, repackaged product. Borrowed air is quite typical of the rooms for poetry readings, workshop rooms etc. It is characteristic for the mainstream of any culture. One’s own intonation is the most important thing. And intonation is an internal tone. The original intonation perhaps is the most important feature that comes with a talent. Everything else is just well earned.
Poetry in diaspora, in the intercultural space, is poetry in solitude. Not poetry of solitude, but poetry in solitude. The condition of a poet in the intercultural space is the condition of an artist who is alone with himself or herself-and the literary language process is going on mainly inside the artist. The surrounding market and landscape are completely indifferent to radiation of one’s creative energy. That is the space where different physical and lyrical laws are enforced. And that is good, it is good to be alone. It is also good to be alone in a space with others who are alone as well, nurturing something precious that is placed somewhere in the middle of the chest. Such an artist has tempting opportunity to be a voyeur. There is something mysteriously wonderful in not only watching but also experiencing life around and through the prism of alienation. Vladimir Nabokov comes to mind. The question arises: was Nabokov “an American writer?” Or was he a gifted and skillful scout who was better oriented on the island than even the Aborigines? It appears that the ability to view the landscape from the side, feeling every valley and every grove of the locale, is a key factor for the author who creates art on the plain of foreign language and culture. I think many writers of foreign origin should be approached from the point of view of being such scouts.
Joseph Brodsky, to my mind, was a major, original English language poet, but not an American poet. For that matter, he was not at all interested in the local American landscape. Maybe with the exception of a few certainly original and amazing glimpses at Washington D.C. in the winter or some New England landscapes. But mainly his interests resided elsewhere, in the general cultural Acmeistic landscape, in different areas of the artistic habitat. I was at one of Brodsky’s last public readings in Manhattan. He stated that writing poetry for him in Russian and in English presented two totally different processes, developing from two different perspectives. Writing poetry in English for him was similar to solving a crossword puzzle. In contrast, Nabokov’s interests in the interpretation of “American tragedy” is obvious in his poems and in his prose and reaches its peak in Lolita. Curiously, nevertheless, Nabokov combines in the same jacket his wonderful nostalgic and somehow “simple minded” Russian language poems, as well as masterful American poems, along with chess problems.
A foreign author actively and sometimes jealously races through the literary magazines and piles of newsletters produced by the assembly line of literary industrial complex in the land of origin. But neither this, nor Internet addiction separates a foreign author from real surrounding life by the veil of virtual net. Because outside, beyond the window of literary and literal separation, there is a very real December with cold subtropical rain and the signs are in English and even little children on the playground scream and whine in perfect English.
Well, this is the schizophrenia of our everyday life. But it has become ours, this geoculturally scattered life. And we are supposed to love it too, since we do not have any other any more. And if anybody does not believe in this trying to adjust his vision in vain and to refocus his inner lens on the distant mirages, he/she is losing the texture of real life around. As streaming water, language penetrates everything and fills every possible empty space. Of course, you can’t walk into the same river again etc. But, amazingly at the site of the previous river, there is another river flowing elsewhere. There is a railroad along the river, a little station. And the train is speeding away rhythmically counting stresses of syllables, counting stanzas.
Alas, so-called required literary process is important and an exchange becomes possible for artists in the intercultural space on two levels. Everything depends on the critical mass, in other words, on concentration of several gifted artists in one particular area, possibly of the same origin, who breathe the same evening damp air over the same large river in the valley. And at night they have the full opportunity to howl at the same moon. They have a common external destiny and similar ways of adjusting to the surrounding culture.
The artists may find some common grounds with other artists of different cultural and linguistic origins but with a similar experience of adjustment to the same new milieu. This process creates new exciting opportunities for communicating on the level of poetic sensibility, not necessarily of the same language, and melting ([sic]-melting pot!) into a new sensibility: into a poetry of English as a second language. That is not in a condescending educational sense, but in a sense of English as a second language of one’s poetic soul. The soul actually is always looking for faculties to express itself.
It is very important of course to sit shoulder-to-shoulder in a café with your soulmates, get a beer, or two together. Being relaxed and lowering the tone of conversation tell what’s on your mind, like in good old times. The Internet, however, changes the situation somewhat and nowadays one can be talking about electronic communities. For instance Russian in Germany, Russian in Urals region, Prague Russian, Jerusalem Russian and Russian New York. Sort of a literary cyber café with readings at night or at the crack of dawn, depending on the time zone and uninterrupted functioning of the server. The well-being of artists’ communities in intercultural space depends on the saturation of the cultural space with passion and sadness. Passion and sadness are energetic vectors or poetry. That is how cultural noise is born, Mandelstam’s “hum of the times”, which is a composite of different voices. In our strange sphere of occupation, poetry, it is usually just a few original voices that is enough, all one can dream about. Well, thank God.
Emerson, in his essay The Poet calls languages “tombs of the muses” or “fossils of poetry”. The strolls along the cemeteries of various cultures and eras are always amazing and full of quiet surprises. In addition, cemeteries are usually located in the vicinity of a city that is inhabited or abandoned. In these cities, we are the transients, waiting for something, not knowing clearly for what. And everyone is alone. That is why, alone, one starts talking to oneself about whatever comes to mind. For instance, mumbling poems.
Moscow. November 1963
That night we were glued
to the German radio Dad
brought from the war
one long gone November night,
before I was born. My father
was shaking: “Kennedy is killed!
There will be fascism there.”
The night outside was windy –
a torn piece of the roof banging in the dark
on the prerevolutionary dormitory
across the street. The swinging light
on a loose wire was picking out at random
the street, lamppost, the drugstore,
a guard on the corner trying to survive
the November chill, a huge passing shadow
of the night patrol on motorcycle,
speeding toward the gray and silent
compound on Dzerzhinsky square
eight blocks away.
I was lying on my couch in the corner
watching my father chain-smoke, mother
scrutinizing a run on her stocking, me
thinking of Marina in my school class, my mind
wandering through the fever sore on her
lower lip, her budding breasts, pear of the uterus,
caressed by tender fimbriated ends of
the immaculate tubes, all of it covered
by the mindboggling nylon, rough cloth
of her brown and black school uniform,
her neatly laid braid pointing
to the mystery below the desktop.
We are the passengers
of monumental ships
traveling in unknown directions.
We smile to the strangers
in the atrium of the glass temple,
then feast dormantly
in cavernous Valhallas.
We emerse our embodied immortal souls
in phosphorescent pools of dead water.
Listening to the controlled whirlwinds at night
we squash our lust
under suffocating standard blankets.
Lying naked in a room
we open troubled hearts
to the boxed emotions
that emanate from the screen
upon compounding another portion
of our debt.
Our debts we usually cherish
as the very feel of belonging.
At breakfast we show our faces
of disguised friendly creatures.
In the morning quadrangular forums
are hosted by the holly-rollers
and ruthless priestesses, covered in make up.
They preach to an unconscious frightened parish,
that still pretends in its heart that everything’s OK
and the winds from the outside world do not reach
these enormous halls.
I approach the watershed of the dead-locked window
and watch the dark coastal metropolitan Universe
frozen on axis of the bridge,
the lunar lighthouse left on
by previous keepers.
I watch the silent flotilla of heavy ships
of our communal loneliness
carrying their shining names through the night:
MARRIOTT, SHERATON, HILTON,
Copyright © Andrey Gritsman 2002
Andrey Gritsman is native of Moscow, emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1981 and lives in New York City area, works as a physician. He is a poet, translator and essayist. He is the author of four volumes of poetry, including View from the Bridge, in English and in Russian. Andrey has a Master’s Degree in Fine Arts in Poetry from the Vermont College. His work appeared in Manhattan Review, Poetry International, Synaestetic, Poetry New York among many others. His poems were anthologized in Modern Poetry in Translation (UK) and in Crossing Centuries (USA). Andrey runs a Russian-American Poetry Club in New York City.
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