I should declare in a steady and powerful voice that the world itself is just a prolonged “mew,” which has been fried and served to us instead of a noble “moo.”
You ask me what America looks like? America looks like the Aegean Sea. In the West it is inhabited by tribes of bellicose Hollywood people. In the East there are trade cities of Phoenicians and New Yorkers. In the middle, there is a large archipelago of universities and colleges, and boats of cunningly smart professors with various educational degrees rowing from one to the other. Islands differ. On this island you will find a wise Prospero, on the other island you will find Polypheme seeing nothing but his flock of sheep; and on yet another a clash of uncompromising intellectual factions makes such a terrible noise—Saints preserve us! However, only here is it possible for a humanitarian “to step by the sea with a solid foot”1; all the rest is fluidity, mud, Thalassa, the frolicking of nice but mysterious and unpredictable dolphins.
This strange country begins with a split of your personality. Not even a split but with a break-up along many crystal planes simultaneously-for example, the break-up into an adult and a kindergarten schoolchild, into someone who lacks knowledge and someone who asks questions. The experience proves that it is impossible to be completely smart while speaking a foreign language, because one loses the nuances. You can fry a chicken but you will never make it become fragrant. For such a fragrance you need to have an inherited sense of smell.
English is “mew” and Russian is “moo.” The difference is enormous. Imagine an American waiter bringing your dish: he says, “Enjoy your meal” or just “Enjoy.” If only he knew the storm of feelings this word invokes in the Russian soul!
Enjoy, everything does pass!
Either good or evil, Fate
Metes out glee and grief to us,
None too soon and none too late2
An interpreter-colleague tells me that “enjoy” means simply: “We hope you find the food appetizing,” that it is not worth obsessing over semantics, and I agree; however, just look at how differently various nationalities express this concept. The French say “bon appetit,” which means: “Have a good appetite, eat more, and have a bite of everything.” Americans say, “Enjoy your meal”-that is: “Experience enjoyment.” Russians say, “Eat to your health’s content,” because the very idea of enjoyment is alien to Russian life-healthfulness is more to the point.
Not long ago, the British government conducted an experiment in posting poetry in Moscow subway trains. The promotional materials for this experiment read as follows: “Enjoy poetry on the road.” If the translator had understood the matter, he would have written: “Stock up with poetry on the road” (like one stocks up on food, or snacks) or at least, “Please, read to your heart’s content.” I am sorry to say so, but we feel too shy to enjoy ourselves, much less on the subway.
As Valentin Berestov3 remembers, before N. Y. Mandelshtam4 would start teaching children languages, she would advise them, “In order to learn to speak English, you should forget all shame for a while. Bark! Bleat! Hiss! Stick out your tongue!”
This feeling of shame soon goes away, almost, and new intonations fasten to your tongue (as a tin can attaches to a cat’s tail). Eventually, I also became fairly fluent in American English, but I myself know that what I acquired is not a true mastery of the language but rather a habit of making do with what I’ve got-whereas, while observing truly bilingual people, I can see that by switching languages they immediately transform into different characters, acquire a different skin: quite a stunning bit of acting, if not downright witchcraft!
A fairly banal thing happened to me: here, abroad, I nearly became-no, not a patriot so much (patriots, democrats-these are political terms) as some type of “patriphile,” a lover of Fatherland; I started to compare everything of theirs to ours-and ours ended up being better. There is a catch, though: the level of comparison, with which I lifted the cup of American being, measured that cup and found it wanting, needed a counterweight. The counterweight was “our” life, life in Russia, which I assumed to be a constant-while in Russia at the same time everything was changing as rapidly as in a kaleidoscope. (An old friend, living in Los Angeles, said to me on the phone: “‘Nostalgia’ is not a spatial concept but a temporal one. We miss not past places, but past times.”) In other words, as you can guess, I gradually started finding fault with Americans more and more: they’re too pragmatic, you see, wingless, they only worship the golden calf. Sure enough, my “old-country” upbringing had played a role in that, too. In the environment that I used to live in, the money factor was not so important. Those very words-“poverty” and “wealth”-smacked of political-economic theory or, I don’t know, Dickens. A view of life dominated by its rough-hewn financial side was a surprising discovery for me in America. Money as a measure of all things. Even space and time, it turns out, don’t depend on Einstein’s formulations as they do on sums in dollars. Distance lengthens if you don’t have money for a plane ticket; time contracts drastically if you have to exchange huge chunks for the monthly payments on the roof over your head. “And what do you do?” (that is, how do you earn money to pay for an apartment?) is a common question New Yorkers ask when getting to know one another. Robert Frost has a poem “Provide, Provide,” which is very powerful, but has not been translated into Russian-maybe precisely because of its subject. Can anyone imagine a Russian classical poem with a title like that? One could, perhaps, but only with difficulty. Pushkin comes closest in his “Conversation of a Bookseller with a Poet.” And in his “Covetous Knight.” If only he would toss aside the Baron’s mask he wears in it and address the reader directly: “Provide, provide!”
I fell in love with Robert Frost a long time ago, by reading Andrey Sergeyev’s5 translations. Later I began to read him in English, and to translate. Recently I took a great interest in Frost’s contemporary and countryman Wallace Stevens, who was a refined poet and an heir of English Romanticists and French Decadents. He spent all his life working in insurance and didn’t have any financial problems in his old age. His modus vivendi affected me so much that I wrote a poem:
About the Appointment of a Poet to the Position of Vice-President at an Insurance Company
Poems can’t guarantee you anything. Chatterton,
stumbling, returns to his windowless attic pad,
jots off a note, gulps down arsenic. Mr. Poe
hardly rakes in a quarter per single line.
He’s already finished depicting the cheese-loving Crow,6
Crane is up next, palm-sized Titmouse7 he keeps in mind.
Pushkin writes debts in a column on poem’s draft,
Adducing to it a coded new poem of sorts.
Steadily grows this poem from month to month.
One goes to trade in Africa; someone else
Chances upon a cheap used overcoat in Rostov.
There you have it-quite a nice little outfit. You can name
This company Insure Your Life-sure, why not?
The judge asks: Who gave you the authority?-The
Board of Directors, the poet quietly but firmly replies.8
An excellent group of people: Goethe, Princess Badralbadur
and Mr. Stevens. Insurance against fire, war
and the end of the word. This is not the end of the world.
Why? Because in each minuscule morsel of frost,
A priori, forever dwells eye-canthus’s crystal. Snow dust
slowly falls off the top of a tall northern pine.
A lonesome palm at earth’s edge pines for a reply no more
Than that summer-besotted nightingale of the childish old
And what about the American poetry of today? I’ve looked at it for a good, long while-and, as you can imagine, with not a small amount of vested interest. Well, what can I say? A monstrous ideological subterfuge has taken place here-like, you know, back in our sotzrealism days; and let me report to you, incidentally, that this capitalist political correctness doesn’t give an inch of ground to the Marxist dogma of our youth. Creative Writing departments (here, that is, the local Literary Institute10) post fliers of scores of poetic competitions: most often, what’s needed in every instance is just doggerel on a given topic-something utilitarian and well within the bounds of an average kolkhoznik‘s reason. The prestige of poetry has dropped to zero. Some graduate students in the humanities openly admit that they simply do not understand poetry (not specifically Russian poetry, but poetry in general)-and these, come to think of it, are the would-be contenders for college-level teaching positions! It’s okay because it doesn’t affect their academic qualifications! You can only imagine what these future professors of literature will teach-and already are teaching-their students.
All of this didn’t start yesterday. Back in 1579 the English puritanical writer Stephen Gosson published a treatise called “The School of Abuse,” which was aimed against poets and “other parasites of the society.” In response to it, Sir Philip Sidney wrote his “Apology for Poetry,” where he pointed out that if God indeed created man in His likeness, and lifted man above all creatures, then a poet is a man who is more keenly attuned to the power of God’s breath than are all of his brethren; someone capable of forging a “second nature,” creating the works which equal or even surpass nature’s doings: “Nature never set forth the earth in so rich a tapestry as divers poets have done… . Her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden.” But who will believe in it now? In America I encountered precious few people who genuinely understood poetry: the majority of them belonged to the margins of American society. As for academic circles, strange things happen there. In poetry (and in literature in general), they only look for a reflection of some social processes-or some physiological processes, as the case may be-or any other processes-just not for a process of poetry, not one of arts. This disease is not specifically American in its nature; but in the pragmatic, puritanically minded America the seed certainly fell into fertile soil.
In 1819, John Keats, by that time sick and in despair, wrote the following, upon receiving bad news from his brother, who had emigrated to America:
Where shall I learn to get my peace again?
To banish thoughts of that most hateful land,
Dungeoner of my friends, that wicked strand
Where they were wreck’d and live a wrecked life;
That monstrous region, whose dull rivers pour,
Ever from their sordid urns unto the shore,
Unown’d of any weedy-haired gods;
Whose winds, all zephyrless, hold scourging rods,
Iced in the great lakes, to afflict mankind;
Whose rank-grown forests, frosted, black, and blind,
Would fright a Dryad; whose harsh herbag’d meads
Make lean and lank the starv’d ox while he feeds;
There flowers have no scent, birds no sweet song,
And great unerring Nature once seems wrong.11
Almost everything here is a poetic exaggeration. The place isn’t that evil, the ox is not quite so lean, lank and starv’d, flowers do have scent, birds do sing. But Keats is right in one thing: weedy-haired gods don’t inhabit American rivers. No Dryads, or Nereids, or even common mermaids, at the very least, have ever been observed there. This is a Country of Future, not of Past.
1A quote from Pushkin’s Bronze Horseman.
2From a famous Yevgeny Baratynsky poem.
3A well-known Soviet poet.
4Nadezhda Yakovlevna, Mandelshtam’s widow.
51933-97, preeminent Soviet translator of English and American poetry.
6“Crow and Cheese” is the title of a famous Russian fable by I. A. Krylov.
7“Better to have a titmouse in the palm of your hand than the crane in the sky”-Russian saying.
8 A reference to an exchange at Brodsky’s trial in 1964. The judge: “Who gave you the authority to call yourself a poet?” Brodsky: “No one. Who gave me the authority to enter the human race?”
9 A pun on the subject of poorly-educated Russians’ characteristic sign-off at the end of their love correspondence: “Zhdu otveta, kak solovei leta.”
10 The only institution of higher learning in the USSR where creative writing is taught.
11Keats, “To — [Fanny Brawne].”
From Amerika: Russian Writers View the United States, edited by Jeff Parker and Mikhail Iossel (Normal, Ill.: Dalkey Archive, 2004). By arrangement with the publisher.