To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
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

Friday, October 3, 2008

Reconfiguring Romanticism (14): Mikhail Lermontov, “New Year’s Poem” with accompanying commentary

after Mikhail Lermontov

how many times encircled by
a motley crowd
in front of me
as in a dream

cacophonies of dance
& music
speeches learned by heart
in phatic whispers

mixing with shapes of people
absent a mind or soul
grimacing masks
yet so fastidious

much as they touch
my cold hands
with uncaring boldness
beauties of the town

hands spared a tremor
over lengths of time
outwardly absorbed by
gauds & vanitas

I cherish in my soul
an ancient wistfulness
for sacred sounds
of years long gone

& if in any way
it comes to me
that bird-like I dissove
in flight remembering

the shallow past
myself a child surrounded
by familiar places
high manor house & orchard

bower left in ruins
a green net of grasses
as a cover
for the sleeping pond

& out beyond it
hidden in haze like smoke
a distant village
fog across the fields

I’ll walk here, here I’ll enter
a dark passage
through these bushes
where this evening light peers

& the sere leaves
crackle under foot
my every step demurring
& in my chest

already wistful, strange
a squeezing sound
the more I think of her
desiring & weeping

how I love this creature
of my dreams
eyes full of azure fire
& rosy little smile

like early morn
past hedgerows
shows a fresh
demise of color

like a magic kingdom’s
mighty lord
I pine here through long hours
lonely days

under a storm, a heavy load
of doubts & passions
like a new-risen isle
an innocent in midst of oceans

blooming in that briny wilderness
& having recognized
myself I recognize
my own delusions

hear the crowd of humans
with its noises
scattering my dreams
an uninvited guest

how I would like to blast
their gayety
their feast day
hold them in contempt

& blind them
with my iron verses
bursting with bitterness
& rage .

[Translation from Russian by Jerome Rothenberg & Milos Sovak. Originally published in 6x6, issue no. 15, Ugly Duckling Press, Spring 2008.]

with Jeffrey C. Robinson

Will you awaken again, ridiculed prophet! / Or never, to the voice of revenge, / Will you not withdraw from its gold sheath your blade, / Covered with the rust of contempt? (M.L., from “The Poet”)

But it is just this note of contempt, as in his “iron verses / bursting with bitterness / & rage,” above, that marks him as a poet who displays, as Nietzsche wrote of Heine, “that divine malice without which I cannot conceive perfection.” Awakening into a world of absolute autocracy & the abortive military revolt by the “Decembrists” (1825) & having himself enlisted in the Tsar’s army, he wrote a characteristically “romantic,” “alienated” response to this repressive political climate. His best known poem of outrage, “The Death of the Poet,” describing the tragic/pathetic results of the duel into which Pushkin had been fatally drawn (like Lermontov himself several years later), railed against the repressions of Tsar Nicholas I & his implied culpability in Pushkin’s death. Sent into exile in the Caucasus, Lermontov, both in his poems & in his groundbreaking novel, A Hero of Our Time, often elaborated that wild, mountainous region as the national (Russian) version of the Orient, with all of its exoticism, violence, & eroticism. Along with a romanticized view of those like the Chechens against whom he fought (“Freedom is their god, and war their law”), Lermontov drew on the ethnicity of this region, easily incorporating elements of Chechen, Circassian & Daghestani folklore into his poetry. Writing a preface to a selection of Lermontov’s poetry in 1920, Boris Pasternak was warned by the Soviet censors not to say that Lermontov was more important for his dreams than for his role as an “agent of progress.” Pasternak, however, dedicated his book Sister My Life to Lermontov, opening with a poem about Lermontov’s ever-popular demon (“[The demon] swore by the ice of the peaks: / ‘Beloved sleep! I will return with the avalanche!’”) & linking the Russian Romantic with two other potent influences of visionary imagination, Byron & Poe. On his formal side too, Lermontov, while writing in the wake of Pushkin & Pushkin’s generation of the 1820s & early 1830s, responded not by breaking from their prosodic constraints but by practicing a montage poetry of quotation from recent Russian poets & from foreign ones (Goethe, Byron, Hugo, Lamartine, among others). In doing so, wrote the Russian formalist critic Boris Eikhenbaum, Lermontov exhibited in his constructions “a freshness that does not and could not exist in the verse creations of a later period.”

[From Poems for the Millennium, Volume 3:The University of California Book of Romantic & Postromantic Poetry, scheduled for publication in January 2009. For further information check the following URL: Earlier excerpts from Volume 3 appeared on June 11, June 18, June 24, July 6, July 13, July 21, July 29, August 7, August 16, September 7, & September 22.]


Unknown said...

It is with wariness
that I consider going
back in time to a
Russia that is gone again
before I get there.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing...
HD Access for just $10 a month to your FAVORITE Channels!