The Stray Dog Cabaret (2007) masquerades as an anthology of Silver Age Russian poets – Anna Akhmatova, Alexander Blok, and six others, all of whom knew each other and were patrons to a greater or lesser extent of the bar in the book’s title. It was a scene, as we might say now.
Paul Schmidt, the translator and anthologist, organizes the book so that the poets and poems comment on, respond to, and even directly address each other. History progresses – the war, the revolution, the terror. A series of biographical notes, presumably written by Catherine Ciepiela, with Honor Moore the book’s editor, are almost too depressing to read. The headers are by themselves too depressing: Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930), Velimir Khlebnikov (1885-1922), Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941). Let’s move back to 1913:
The Stray Dog Cabaret
All of us here are hookers and hustlers
We drink too much, and don’t care.
The walls are covered with birds and flowers
that have never seen sunshine or air.
You smoke too much. There’s always a cloud
of nicotine over your head.
Do you like this skirt? I wore it on purpose.
I wanted to show lots of leg. (Anna Akhmatova)
Osip Mandelstam is not so sure:
This life of constant thrills will drive us crazy:
wine in the morning, hangover every night.
How can we get away from this sick excitement,
the awful flush of feverish delight?
But Blok sends her a drink:
I sent you a rose in a glass of champagne
while the gypsies played as the gypsies do.
Then you turned to the man you were with and said:
“You see his eyes? He’s in love with me too.”
Akhmatova rejects the offer – “You’re a very bad boy.” And you’re crazy.”
Translation purists, a sad lot, will be horrified when they turn to the notes and discover that with the Blok poem the translator “has created a new poem from three stanzas of ‘In the Restaurant’” and that “[t]he poem actually was dedicated to Maria Nelidova. “The original poem has no title.” “The phrase ‘And it makes me cry’ does not appear in the original poem.”
As fine a translator as Schmidt was (his Rimbaud is sure good), to the bone he was a man of the theater. The Stray Dog Cabaret is a theater piece in disguise. The actors playing the poets step forward and read their poems to each other before returning to their drinks and dancing. Before slipping off of the stage, one by one, until only Akhmatova is left, now old, the survivor:
(for Dmitri Shostakovich)
Something miraculous burns in music;
as you watch, its edges crystallize.
Only music speaks to me
when others turn away their eyes.
When fearful friends abandoned me
music stayed, even at my grave,
and sang like earth’s first shower of rain
or flowers suddenly everywhere alive.
A burst of Silver Age Russian reading would be enormous fun, I am now convinced of that. Chekhov’s plays, Bely, Babel, and all of these amazingly alive doomed musical poets.
The Blue Lantern has improved The Stray Dog Cabaret by introducing two painters to the show.