To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
.......................................again
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Two Translations – Lermontov & Nezval – in collaboration with Milos Sovak


On January 26, 2009 Milos Sovak died after a long illness. Our friendship had lasted over thirty years & gave me the opportunity to work with him on a series of translations, the most important a book of selected poems from the great Czech modernist Vitezslav Nezval & scattered poems from the Russian late Romantic Mikhail Lermontov. Our collaborations took place mainly in the sunlit garden of his home in Encinitas, California, & occasionally in his other home in Provence, close to the town of Mazan & the chateau & theater of the Marquis de Sade. Milos was himself a gifted translator into Czech & the designer, typographer, & publisher of limited edition artists’ books through his own Ettan Press in California. He was a good friend to many poets & artists, & most remarkably an important medical researcher & the inventor of an impressive range of devices in many fields. The felicities in what follows are largely of his doing.

UNTITLED POEM, after Lermontov

spleen & sadness,
not a hand held out
& heartsick

craving it!
& what’s the good
if any, ever?

Or forever – years lost
& the best of years!
Or maybe love

with whom?
the time too short,
not worth it

& forever love
impossible
to look inside you

deep down, not a trace
of lost time
joys & miseries

turned into nothing
asking: what is passion
that sweet sickness

& how long & whether
it will last or fade
when brought back to your senses

& life too? just wait
& take a long hard look
& see it like it is

an empty
stupid
joke


VITEZSLAV NEZVAL: A POEM FOR THE ELEMENTS

On the earth an old man in the water a woman
in the fire a man in the air a child
This is our history uncertain as Proteus


And the clods of earth are like his palms with their calluses
That old dirt farmer at war with his farmstead
Who smashes the wind to make poles for his fences
Old farmer old dungbeetle
Pulls out sapphires from deep in the coal basin
Like the roots of a tooth
Totes a sack filled with broken-down mountain ranges
His forehead a millstone
This man who propagates labor who shatters great stones with his heart
He is an unrelenting giant
His fingers are made of tortuous roots
His member is most like the thresher’s member
His thoughts are pelting his house
Shaking it down to foundation
A brute like a howitzer
A breast covered over with thistles
He hates any gentleness

While he sleeps broken rocks are rolling down mountains
Rivers of garter snakes stream from his temples
So for now give the word to his daughters
Those on whom he was forcing a bone
Which was more than enough
They keep this a secret as best as they can this mark of heredity
On a streambed of cattails on velvet they stretch themselves out
They are spineless
With fingers repeating an unending tremolo
Their tongues show up everywhere water seeps in
A tongue that’s as coarse as a honeycomb
Remember the rain that the Furies bring down
They who wanted to kiss you to death
In the morning after a horrible dream their quick kisses remain
on your forehead
Sometimes the rainbow will put a queen’s crown on them
You can still get a taste of them in your saliva
Oh you river that circles in a golden plum
My poems lay bare your suppleness easy as waltzes
You river dancing on the tips of your toes
As cold as you are you pretend to be fire
My secret most intimate element

When two rivers rub bare bones together a fire breaks out
Let’s follow that marathon man that old bearer of torches
Hidden in the field he shakes his menacing poppy
Wherever he steps he brands the earth with his heather
Like a volcano he spits past the crowns of these apple trees
When he runs a comb thru his hair you flare up oh starry night
His leg is a streak of wild lightning
It jumps up like clearing a xylophone
Which makes all the turkeys go crazy
Pinches the kingfisher’s belly
Like an arsonist covers the meadows with dungbeetles
Red eyes peer thru the blur of leaves on the cherry trees
The spring comes close to blushing when remembering his fireworks
Early morning & by evening he’s down by the river
& like Narcissus he drops into his mirror

I sit & listen to how the flies buzz
& I see the air just coming to birth
How the shrillest string is pulled tight
The memory there by itself
Then a cloud
A phantom that spouts from the horse’s muzzle
& a bagpiper carries his bagpipes like lungs on his shoulder
An evening suspended aloft
With a child’s tears turning to mush
That the wind jams into my mouth
Until the mouth lets out a sigh
A sigh like a small sleeping bee
Like the popping of soap bubbles rainbows eternally distant

In the end our life is only an interplay of elements
Our life like our death
Our loves & our sorrows our eternally transmuting history

[The translation of Lermontov’s untitled poem appeared originally in Poems for the Millennium, volume 3, & Nezval’s “A Poem for the Elements” can be found in Antilyrik & Other Poems, published by Green Integer Press in 2001. For a further translation from Lermontov, see “Reconfiguring Romanticism (10),” also in this blog.]