I took a break from American poetry of the early 20th century with Russian poetry of the early 20th century, which I have been enjoying so much that I had to force myself to take a break from that. The danger is that they will soon enough all blur together, however forceful and original the poems might be. Translation is only one blurry filter. The literary history is confusing, with poets rejecting Symbolism for Acmeism and so on. Who cares. Well, they cared.
So, several posts of notes and rummaging. It is the most extraordinary set of writers, in the most extraordinary circumstances, with an explosion of innovation and expression stifled by war, destitution, exile, censorship, and death. But I’ll stick with the poems.
First, Mikhail Kuzmin, author of the (or a) first gay novel, Wings – in 1906! In Russia! – but otherwise a man of the theater. I have not read the novel, or Kuzmin’s plays.
Also in 1906 he published a sequence of poems, the “Alexandrian Songs,” a mostly free verse evocation of the Egyptian city, where Kuzmin had lived for a short time.
When I hear the word “Alexandria,”
I see a faded crimson sunset over a sea of green,
I see the fleeced and winking stars
and a pair of clear gray eyes beneath the thick brows –
eyes which I see
even when I do not hear the word “Alexandria.” (I. Prelude 2.)
The mood is sensual, erotic. Men and women admire men.
In your body I can locate the four virtues,
and, needless to say, the seven sins;
nor am I backward in tasting these delights… (II. Love 6.)
Then the “gray eyes” return, as they often do.
The mood is hedonistic but melancholy, not decadent exactly but heavily perfumed (“the drift of verbena”).
How I love books (they are my friends),
and the quiet of a solitary dwelling
and the distant water-melon beds
which I see from my window. (IV. Wisdom 3.)
None of this sounds much like Constantine Cavafy, but it often hints at Cavafy. In a blindfold test, I would have guessed Cavafy. I never would have guessed that the original language was Russian.
The “Alexandrian Songs” are actual songs, with music, performed by Kuzmin himself. I have not listened to them enough to be able to say anything about how the music relates to the texts – texts, in Russian, that I cannot read. The music is pretty. The sequence ends with a dance, and rhyme:
Such is our knowledge,
such our love –
then let us the more tightly cling
to very fleeting, fragile thing.
whirl faster, step lightly,
join hands, clasp them tightly
of the silvery sistrum is born, is born
through the echoing groves, now faint and forlorn.
I read “Alexandrian Songs,” and another sequence, “The Trout Breaks the Ice” (1928) that I did not understand so well, admirable title aside, in Selected Prose & Poetry, tr. Michael Green, Ardis. For this entire series, comments beginning “Oh, that translation, no –” are appropriate.