The Russians are Coming Review

*To read Volume 1 of this series, go here.

 

So, why this emphasis on naming oneself? When do we do it, and how, and why—so many years after the death of the author of Barthes, and the self-negation of Beckett and Blanchot—does it come back? And why with particular vigor, as it seems, among the Eastern European poets?

Preparing ex-Yugoslavian, Macedonian poet Lidija Dimkovska’s manuscript for publication, I stop to wonder every time I come across these lines in the poem, “Decent Girl”:

At this age it’s best if somebody else

cuts your umbilical cord,

and I am not afraid of Virginia Woolf,

I fear Lidija Dimkovska. Have you heard of her? [i]

 

At first, it tripped me up, when she appears, superhero-like, in her own poem. I thought maybe the move was too easy, too aimed to provoke. But then, when I heard her read this poem at the Bowery Poetry Club in late November, it got my attention again, very differently. I looked around, thinking, trying to see what other people were thinking. How do people react to this naming, the attention drawn to the poet’s own name—so different from the naming of place or names of friends, one’s generation of poets, or influences of the past? How do we react when the poet redundantly asserts the name that is her mask and her signature? And asserts it in a fictional field, moreover, and with double-tiered references to foreign (English) literature/culture?

Perhaps Eastern European names simply sound good (Tomaz Salamun does it too!)—they tend to have a lot of meat to chew on. But it can’t just be that. I can’t help but be reminded of Mayakovsky, and his self-named tragedy. Perhaps that Mayakovskian self-assertiveness is making a comeback, albeit sometimes with an ironic twist.

Philip Nikolayev signs off on his own poem:

Yrs, eminently postmodern

and deadly, Philip Nikolayev [ii]

 

Eugene Ostashevsky inserts himself into battle as the Begriffon, and is therefore victorious over his own character (and alter-ego?) DJ Spinoza. In another poem he faces off with the Unraveller, and says:

You’re acting like a character out of Theodore Dostoevsky!

Thus proclaim I, Eugene Ostashevsky! [iii]

 

More obliquely, in a recent spat of poems, Genya Turovskaya addresses “Jenny”, and one hears of course the poet’s own name, only in its normalized American, assimilated, form. These are (love?) letters to another self, a naive teenager perhaps, who believed she could be American, simply by changing her name.

Seemingly inconclusive, these notes… But they have led me back to the topic, and so my editor may no longer despair at ever getting the promised continuation. And now, back to it, it might be interesting to talk about Russian-American poets who name (or identify) themselves in their work as Russian, émigré, or bilingual; to speak of poetry in which the assertion of a poetic identity is an express (though at times suppressed) pursuit.

 

 

ANDREY GRITSMAN

A successful émigré doctor living in the environs of New York City, the poet Andrey Gritsman seems to name himself through all his creative endeavors—whether in writing poems and essays, in the curating of reading series at the Russian Samovar or the Cornelia Street Cafe, or as editor of Interpoezia (an “Intercultural Magazine for Poetry and Arts). A figure of bear-like stature with kindly features, Gritsman wears his identity on his sleeve—proudly, and yet as a prisoner of the very distinction. Gritsman’s many books are to be understood, even read, through these eyes only. One can simply list their titles to make the explicit concerns of the work quite clear:

No Man’s Land [Nichejnaya zemlya] (Almanach Petropol, St. Petersburg, 1995)

Vid s mosta / View from a Bridge (Slovo/Word Publishers, New York, 1998)

The Double [Dvojnik] (Hermitage Publishers, New Jersey, 2002)

Transfer [Peresadka] (Arion, Moscow, 2003)

In Transit (Scrisul Romanesc, Craiova, Romania, 2004)

Long Fall (Spuyten Duyvil, New York, 2004)

 

All but the last title bear connotations of border-spaces, travel, the intermediate space between cultures and between languages. The last in the list, the only one published by an exclusively English-language publisher and containing no Russian-language texts, might fit in with the others if we think of the fall in association with the tower of Babel, which appears in the book. However, we need not even make associative leaps, as the back of the book will explain that this collection of “poems, texts, and essays” is a “must read for students of poetic translation, a primer of Russian-American Letters…”

I won’t linger in this forum on Gritsman’s Russian poems intended for a Russian audience, as technically sound and emotionally rich as many of them are. But it should be said that these poems often touch upon issues of immigration. Some are written as letters to the author’s Russian past; many weave foreign words (English, Hebrew, Italian) into their Russian fabric; and even when crossing borders is not the central theme, one finds a plethora of metaphors involving or invoking borders and crossings, plane flights and moving trucks, highways and bridges—real and linguistic. In other words, the poetic space that these poems occupy is the space of migration, of movement between cultures.

Gritsman prefaces Vid s mosta / View From The Bridge (his 1998 bilingual collection) with an essay about his experience writing in Russian and English, of writing anew (instead of translating) his own poetry. The essay contains his thoughts on translation and an outline of his own method, which he calls “emotional and rhythmical[iv].” The English version of the preface is riddled with typically Russian awkwardness: incorrect articles, stray pronouns, and the like. Considering that Gritsman tackles the subject of translation and the mastering of articles specifically, this circumstance is a little bewildering—and to purists it may even be off-putting. But we must not forget that the immigrant changes the home he finds himself in.[v]

Indeed, the structure of the book itself is truly unusual and hybrid: some of Gritsman’s Russian poems appear in the original Russian together with translations by other poets (Alex Cigale, a younger Russian-American poet, and J. Kates, the publisher of Zephyr Press and translator of several anthologies of Russian poetry). Some poems appear written by the author in both Russian and English, such that it’s not always clear which language is the “original.” The book also contains Gritsman’s own translations of a few Russian Modernist standards (by Mandelstam and Blok) and is topped off with two essays by other poets that praise Gritsman as a poet straddling two cultures and two languages.

Gritsman’s Russian poems are written in the manner of the Russian Silver Age and are mostly rhymed and metered. When he re-writes the same poems into English, he tends toward a staccato vers libre with abrupt line breaks, in a manner he considers contemporary to the American context[vi].

In his poem “End of the Century,” Gritsman attempts a looser verse form. The English version substitutes “jack-o-lanterns” for the strangers who look at you like “gods in a museum.”  His English version cuts short the long sentences of the Russian stanzas, leaving out a little here and there, making the poetry plain-spoken, lacking the resonating alliteration of his Russian. The holiday invoked by the Russian version of the poem reeks of Soviet times, but the English one transforms it into Christmas:

Russian: Poyut proletarii pesni poslednego boya

[The prols sing songs of the last battle.]

English: The proletarians sing “Jingle Bells” [vii]

 

Not only is the alliteration dropped (which goes against Gritsman’s emphasis on translating sound, a tenet of his own translation theory as laid out in the book’s preface[viii]), but also the whole setting is suddenly lost. These proletarians are no longer Soviets, and therefore (according to the American “life landscape[ix],” as he sees it) do not sing popular songs about World War II. Gritsman’s defense might be that the poem is updated or revised to fit his American consciousness. But proletarians singing Jingle Bells is not a particularly real American image, either.

This kind of re-writing is interesting, certainly, if one takes the two versions of the poem together, as though the poem existed in the union of the two—but then the reader must also be bilingual to make the necessary comparisons; he must also be interested in the inconsistencies. Then, the reader may see in this project a greater meaning, and perhaps a metaphor for immigration.

Though tantalizing as an intellectual bilingual project, this approach is unconvincing simply because the correlation between the two poems/versions, as present as it may be “emotionally” for the author, has the undesirable effect of stereotyping the target culture (American) while creating an even greater distance to the apprehension of the original one (Russian). The bridge he attempts to construct in this book—in order to view his dual world from it—is built on foundations that grow ever further apart.

Gritsman’s views on translation are important ones, and his assessment of the problems in mainstream American translation practice is astute and much needed. He writes:

The main product of the American translation industry is predominantly intellectual and related to vocabulary. It is neither sound-based nor related to the emotion of the original. It is usually not sufficiently faithful to the historical and cultural circumstances. Such translations are rendered from the point of view of the encyclopedic dictionary…[x]

 

Certainly this is true of much of the cold-war era translations of Russian Literature (which anyone can attest to simply by reading readily available English translations of Mayakovsky, for example). However, I feel that Gritsman’s comments here are part of a current zeitgeist that favors looser approaches to translation that yield more precise results in terms of tone and sound. Gritsman’s attempted “parallel poems” are, as he admits, not exactly translations. They are, however, part of an important (though sometimes unsuccessful) experiment in “creative life between cultures.”

In the same essay, Gritsman asks if Nabokov was an American writer, and it is Nabokov’s example that gives him grounds for upholding “the ability to view the landscape from the side[xi]“.  This notion of “side,” which the author emphasizes with italics, comes directly from the Russian expression “so storony,” implying distance, as well as slant. (This manner of Gritsman’s to hammer Rusisan expressions into his English is part and parcel of his unique voice.) He continues with the example of Brodsky, “to my mind […] a major original English language poet, but not an American poet[xii].” And we can see how Gritsman’s own writing is a kind of unpretentious invention, even in his essay writing, of an erudite, but still immigrant or Russian-American English.

Part of the charm and power of his language is that Gritsman seems unrepentant for what we might harshly judge as mistakes. Certain “mistakes” are rather, as it seems, cultural differences or somewhat awkward attempts to rectify mistranslations of the past. By referring (on the same page as above) to Pushkin’s famous Petersburg poem as “The Copper Horseman” instead of the standard English translation, which would be “Bronze”, perhaps Gritsman is trying to correct an age-old wrong. But he doesn’t explain this to us, instead he forces us to accept his version, though we may have to make a leap. Other grammatical and cultural misunderstandings nearly throw a wrench into the booming gears of this confident polemic. Though mostly minor, the various errors are numerous and, together with some disputable points in Gritsman’s well-intentioned but overly wide-sweeping remarks about the nature of free-verse composition, they give a sense of scatter to what could be an enlightening and radical statement of poetics. As the cover of View from the Bridge advertises “poems, translations, etc.,” it seems that the introductory essay falls more naturally into the latter category—of miscellany—an apt genre for the kinds of writing that follow the jumbling of cultures.

This publication, along with many others I’ve seen from the Russian diaspora in New York, begs the question: are we Russians too proud to have editors, ever since Nabokov railed against the tedious men who wanted his book to sell to an audience lesser than he? Gritsman certainly knows American letters better than your average guy on the street, but the average guy might know better where to put a definite or indefinite article.

Sometimes I long for a poetry that is naturally foreign, that is “wrong” and yet completely right. I want to hear what that would sound like. Like a perfectly Benjaminian translation. Perhaps knowing something gets in the way. Gritsman’s English is not consistent enough to be naturally non-native. But he is looking at it askance, “from the side,” and this can provide certain original effects, similar to those we find in Nabokov and Brodsky. (Though in Nabokov’s case, his foreignness seems more a consequence of class than of culture, and therefore his foreign-tinged English is a mask for an aristocrat’s whimsy. Nabokov gets his way, whereas Brodsky—and Gritsman[xiii]—can only offer us a choice: to see these mistakes as innovations formed from misunderstandings, or as conscious impositions on the language.)

Gritsman’s more recent collection, Long Fall, is subtitled “Poems, Texts, and Essays.” It pairs essays (on translation, bicultural poetics, depression, 9/11, Eliot and Brodsky) with original poems, some of which also touch upon the same, ever-productive concerns. It is worth quoting the blurb on the back of the book by Romanian poet and fellow Spuyten Duyvil author, Carmen Firan:

Andrey Gritsman lives borders as on the edges of a crystal ball, reflecting light, color, and power all around. Gifted poet and sharp essayist, passionate thinker and master of games, sleepless mind and energy dedicated to art, time-bomb of ideas at the crossroad of himself, strong creation out of Europe, out of the American Way, out of the Spirit of Internationalism. The book shows the unique dimension of an artist living between common stars and exquisite earth.

 

In describing Gritsman as a poet, Firan is inclined toward binary pairs: he is this and he is that, an essayist and a poet. In other words, he is never one thing. Moreover, he “lives borders” (or perhaps, on borders), and stands on a “crossroad” at which the self meets Europe and America. Gritsman is characterized as “an artist living between.” This is the same characterization Gritsman seems to give himself, expressed in the way he pairs his poetic and non-fiction output, as well as in his projects of self-translation and bilingual writing, and in the way he sees a relationship between translation and original artistic output. Gritsman names himself bilingual, bicultural, a bridge-builder; he wears these tags on his sleeve, in the poems.

He concludes one of the essays in Long Fall with some insights into recent developments in the Russian-American cultural and artistic sensibility, thereby also identifying himself, and his own allegiances:

I believe that currently there is a developing newly formed Russian émigré culture that is different from the former mainland Russian culture. The sensibilities and the language are somewhat different and the writers borrow their images and situations from two separate worlds. It probably takes fifteen to twenty years for a social group to form a new cultural entity […] The main difference between Russian émigrés of the first and second wave and the immigration of the seventies-eighties-nineties is that the Russians of the current wave of emigration live entirely and committedly here. Their lives go on as Russian-Americans, without any particular longing to return to Russia. That makes this culture differ significantly from the first two waves of emigration.

For the current group emigration is not a temporary, forced situation. […] A certain cultural group achieves its critical mass in terms of population and creative activity and in about twenty five years becomes not a marginal exile phenomenon but a cultural group unique in its complex sensibilities, with language derived from the land of origin, albeit reflecting a newly acquired “alien” sensibility. [xiv] [emphasis is Gritsman’s own]

 

It seems that Gritsman has come into his own with this essay, and this collection. In a poem entitled Frequent Flyer and dedicated to his father, Gritsman writes:

After you are gone,

I’ve been flying alone back and forth

above the waters and the continents.

Both of us: me here and you there

know too well that this is a waste of time

and space.

I may fly looking, for you

for the rest of my life

or death, and still never see you. [xv]

 

This poem maps out a new kind of relationship to Russia, a propos the notion that the third wave, the real Russian-American cultural group, no longer sees itself as exiled, nor longs to return. There is no where to return to, at least it cannot be found by flying back and forth. Gritsman’s binary “here” and “there” is not the same as Brodsky’s. He doesn’t see them as qualitatively different, as it is “a waste of time and space” to travel between them, looking for the past and for those who have passed away.

Further in the Long Fall, Gritsman inserts three whole stanzas from Mandelstam (about reading Homer) into a gritty descriptive poem about a lonely breakfast at a Greek diner along a local highway. Through Gritsman’s pairing, Mandelstam’s dreams—disturbed by Homer and imaginary, thunderous Black Sea waves—enter the American landscape with a disruptive force. The strange rhyme of Greece and “greasy” brings the contrast home.

Greece: blue and white, the wind,

the salty froth, curve of the beginning

and a splash of the end,

the dream of dusty street.

I see it on the bottom

of the coffee cup in greasy homey warmth

of the diner by Route 547 local. [xvi]

 

Another poem in Long Fall filters a Russian dacha into the landscape of the Hudson river—or as Gritsman says (in a poem called “Photograph”):  “A landscape lives in the landscape[xvii].” The poem “Biking” describes the “roadside chaos of bushes and trash” along the river, and “Pier 17, which crosses the river / midway with the view of the Great Bridge / trembling under the thousands of caskets…” The poet on his bike ride “scans” the landscape of

auburn hills, time, paradigm of escape,

mighty river, flowing upstream

in the evolution of light,

beige trash bin on the pier,

two tight bikers in spandex,

confiding to each other

in their ovulational surge. [xviii]

 

And suddenly the view yields to “the memory of the old shack behind the country home, my father, his upper torso bare, sitting under the birch tree…”

Yet, finally, there is more about America here, perhaps as seen from the side; Gritsman sees in America a reflection of another time and place, simply by way of his own physical presence in its peculiarly poetic quotidian.

Gritsman’s obsessive reflexivity about the bilingual (or inter-lingual) and intercultural, in no way necessitates a desire to remain a foreigner. He is bent on writing and defending the “poetry of English as a second language[xix].” Furthermore, Gritsman is keen to learn from American poetry, and from his (multi-cultural) American landscape. This willingness seemingly enables him to write poems in the American grain; poems simply about experience, a New Jersey/New York kind of experience. The Hudson recurs again and again in these poems, as does the commute, and the George Washington Bridge—Gritsman’s “Great Bridge”—becomes an iconic emblem, like the Brooklyn Bridge for Hart Crane.

Yes, the bridges and the tunnels that connect the two sides of the Hudson are chained to the overarching metaphor of migration, between-ness, and dual existence by their inclusion in books with titles, essays, and blurbs that emphasize those tropes. But, though the author’s biography and identity are constantly asserted, on their own many of the poems may breathe freely, without any pretension to encapsulate the ambiguity of his identity, making them genuinely readable, and unapologetic.

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