Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Mikhail Kuzmin's "Alexandrian Songs" - When I hear the word "Alexandria"...

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
like this.
The hiss
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.


  1. Fascinating! I read "Wings" a while back and I think I'd like to revisit it, but I've not yet come across his poetry. Shall be interested to see who you read next!


  2. How is Wings? Its historical interest is obviously high.

    Next: Futurism, or Futurianism, or whatever it is.

  3. Wings is interesting and very ahead of its time, but when I read it I *was* a little uncomfortable about the attitude towards women. I thought that maybe this was at the expense of getting across his points about his characters' real feelings; but love between men and women was dismissed as worthless and base, and I wasn't really happy with that.

  4. I will bet that reflects the actual attitude of the author.

  5. I think you started with Kuzmin's very best, Tom. I also liked "Lazarus" and The Death of Nero and to some extent "Underground Rivers." Wings actually seemed a little tedious to me, a succès de scandale that didn't have much scandale left when I read it in the 21st century. But then I'm not sure how well I get Kuzmin - the ratio of how much of his work I've read, to how confident I am that I'm not missing the point entirely, is very high.

  6. None of those titles are in the Ardis collection. That is amusing. I do not get him so well, either, based on poking around in this book.

  7. Some of them are in a 2005 collection by Green and Stanislav Shvabrin if you ever have the urge to read more Kuzmin. I think some of the 2005 Selected Writings is very slightly updated versions of Green's translations from your book (mostly removing "thou," IIRC), but some of it is other works.

  8. The translation you quote is quite good -- there's not the usual problem of dealing with rhyme and meter, since Kuzmin (surprisingly) doesn't use either here. My one quibble: there are no water-melon beds in "и вид из окна
    на дальние дынные огороды," just long vegetable gardens. Maybe Green liked watermelons.

    I haven't read Wings, but I suppose I will one day.

    1. There are no water-melon beds, agreed, only vegetable gardens where melons (not water-melons) grow.

  9. I can see how the newer book could be a better choice. I wonder if Green updated his translation of "Alexandrian Songs."

    I can see him thinking "But what about those great watermelons we had in Egypt? Why didn't Kuzmin mention those? I'll just slip them in."

    1. Kuzmin does have them in the poem - melons, to be precise - and it's not beds but gardens: they are distant enough so presumably you can't see individual beds. I bet there were lots of melon fields around Saratov when Kuzmin was growing up there.

  10. Did you read the long poem The Trout Breaks the Ice, or the poetry collection under the same title? The long poem consists of twelve shorter poems with an introduction and an epilogue. It ends approximately, "Also, I believe // It possible for the trout to break the ice // When it's persistent. That is all."

    Kuzmin's poetic output is large and uneven. so it's hard to recommend any specific collection, only specific poems. As for the prose, I would skip The Travellers and focus on shorter pieces like Caliostro, Eleusippus, Alexander's Feats, John Fairfax's Travels and a short story called An Example to One's Neighbor. (But first read Leskov's retelling of Prolog stories.) Kuzmin's best pseudo-historical prose makes me think of Vidal's Julian.

  11. Yes, I did read "Trout." I did not understand it, although I could work it into something, I suppose.

    Thanks for the recommendations. Not one of them is in the Ardis collection! Unless a title has been greatly changed in translation. Clearly, there is some good work to be done by some publisher and translator.

    1. Trout the long poem or Trout the poetry collection that includes Trout the long poem and much more?

    2. The long poem. The collection can't be in English, can it? I don't know what's in the Bucknell Selected Writings.