Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Stray Dog Cabaret - When fearful friends abandoned me music stayed

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.  


  1. I don't know why I quoted Akhmatova so much. Blok and Tsvetaeva actually get the showstoppers.

  2. Interesting stuff--both the poetry (all new to me, of course) and the theatrical presentation. Never going to get caught up on my TBR books at this rate, but thanks for the intro nonetheless.

  3. This little book provides an efficient crash course. Silver Age Poetry 101 in a pleasing form.

  4. I love Akhmatova but haven't read any of the other poets. Will have to get my hands on this book for a bit of introduction.

  5. It's funny when looking at the "Silver Age" of Russian literature, that the most famous writer of the period--Chekhov, of course--is the one who seems to least exemplify all the typical "Silver Age" influences of mysticism, eroticism, etc. He was a rural Russian, a country cousin, at heart. Maybe he was earlier than the Stray Dog Cabaret?

    This book looks interesting. I think I saw it on the shelf at the university book store a while ago but I walked right past it.

  6. The world Schmidt creates around these poets - with them, I guess - is impressive. It may well diminish Akhmatova or Blok a bit, treating them more as members of a movement than as individual artists. But I suspect the damage is minimal, and easy to repair with more reading.

    Chekhov is contemporary with the Silver Age poets (who conventionally are pushed back into the 1890s), but not of them. I believe the same would be said of the later Babel. But of course I would like to read them all together.

    Perhaps also relevant is that late Chekhov, the playwright, I mean, is headquartered in Moscow. Those poets, the prose avant-gardists too, are all St. Petersburg writers.

  7. It would be fun to read all these writers side-by-side. All the cool kids were certainly in St Petersburg. Chekhov's publishers were in St Petersburg, where Chekhov's plays were unpopular. Chekhov's publishers were cool kids, party-goers and heavy drinkers, smoking imported cigarettes and all that jazz.

    Chekhov the successful playwright was at his dacha in Yalta, writing to Olga for news from Moscow. "Tell me how my plays are doing," he wrote, constantly. "Come visit me soon." The letters from his last five years are full of that kind of thing.

  8. Yeh! The Russian Silver Age! It's like discovering everything you thought was original in c20th literature had been written beforehand by a few people living in one city in Russia.

    There's Bunin too, and Gippius and Merezhkovsky, and Fyodor Sologub, and Valery Bryusov and his fun science-fiction story, and Andreyev, and Pasternak, and ... lots of really depressing poetry.

    Mayakovsky is the maddest person alive.

    And Blok venerated his wife so much that he couldn't bring himself to sleep with her, so he asked Bely if he would instead.

    They were all mad.

  9. "all of whom new each other"

    Some of the writers in Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita could have drunk at the Stray Dog, while the 'hero' of his Heart of a Dog is a stray dog turned into a human. I assumed it was inspired by Pavlov, but now I wonder...

  10. The "ahem" is for the typo? Fixed, thank you. I will file away the intriguing Bulgakov link.

    I would have guessed, just from the freedom of the verse, I guess, that Khlebnikov was the craziest one, but maybe not, maybe not.

    Pasternak is in The Stray Dog Cabaret, actually, but in a small role.

    It is such an exciting time and group of writers.

  11. I don't know much about Khlebnikov. My Mayakovsky book mentions him in the following passage, which may serve as a kind of comparison of their relative madnesses:

    Velimir Khlebnikov, for example, composed ingeniously unintelligible verses, such as his famous laughter poem, which was made up entirely of variations on the root smekh - laughter. Unlike his colleagues, Mayakovsky was a futurist for the fun of it. "Trans-sense" experiments did not appeal to him; what he loved was futurism's anarchic spirit. On the eve of the revolution, Mayakovsky could often be found in some public hall or theater, wearing a top hat, a large wooden spoon in his lapel as a boutonniere, and carrying a gold-topped cane, reciting his verses through a megaphone.

  12. Schmidt is Khlebnikov's translator - a three-volume Collected Works - so that might have some effect, too. The laughter poem, a plausible adaptation of it, is in The Stray Dog Cabaret.

    Mayakovsky sounds like even more fun than Jarry and Nerval.