The Lev Loseff is a Poetry Book Society Recommended
Translation. He was born Leningrad, 1937, and, after many years in the USA
teaching, died in New Hampshire, 2009. He lived to be at first a collaborator
with the translator, after which G.S.Smith had to go it alone. The latter's
introduction is an enlightening account of this history and of the decisions
he has made and why. The basic decision was to stay as close to the originals
as possible. Without any Russian, I can see on the opposite pages that the
shaping corresponds as do patterns (I can note, anyway, letters) of rhyme.
The translation reads, employing varying forms and modes of meaning, in a
consistently pleasing flow.
where we spent some idle moments
ways the mid-day clouds sculpted
from nothing, heavy-loaded,
keeping edges scalloped -
was home to a sound inchoate:
perhaps, or 'drink-drink-drink' birdcall,
and in the
air, trembling and glowing,
thread, almost ethereal.
Now what was
that? The hawthorn whisper?
Or was it
squaw Indian summer worming
paws of the spruces?
Or was it
only the babble of those old women
one with a
measure, one spinning but declining
to weave, the
third with shears? Maybe the Connecticut
towards the Atlantic,
and the grass
sighing 'Forget me not'.
This is the whole of a section (dated March 1996, Eugene) without separate
title, of a sequence called 'Cold 1921-1996'. A choice has been made in line
5 between 'inchoate sound' and 'sound inchoate', and in three stanzas of the
Russian there seems to be rhyme not altogether followed here. My view is that
rhyme in these poems is properly secondary to flow.
From a sequence of separate poems called 'The talking parrot' (2010), two
stanzas of 'Russian depression':
All of Russia
- right up from the trackless
road-to-nowhere median belt,
to the pole
at the top of the Arctic
where the ice
has started to melt,
stretched out in the heat
- it all
found its place in your grizzled,
thinning-haired, dark-eyed head.
There is a consistent conveying of 'being there' whether he was or not; in
some instances obviously he was, for example, dated 1985, more of a rambling
section of a longer sequence with a title as this first line,
I'm living in
the States from boredom,
that I'm someone else,
these unpleasant noises,
some in the
throat, some through the nose,
and so on without line spaces, so that I found myself looking to the left
hand page wondering if this really was first written in Russian, as it was.
With, it would seem, in English more of a roll of line lengths.
In both the Translator's Preface and in the Introduction by Barry P.Scherr,
Joseph Brodsky is the presiding spirit, not least relating to the shared
transition from Russia to the USA, and there are seven helpful pages of Notes
to the English texts, mostly related to contexts, circumstances, references
we would, many of us, not know otherwise.
The book of Fabio Pusterla's poems has a more
slender introduction by the translator, a slightly longer one by Alan
Brownjohn, working only from the translation, that tells us what we would
anyway discover for ourselves, and there are, briefly, some notes to the
poems. Pusterla, born 1957, is of Swiss-Italian parentage and writes in
The poems have more of the statement about them than Loseff's; perhaps more
extrovert would be a good description: how to be sure about his voice in
Italian? Something starker, not in depth of emotion but in having a say, they
are more talk. The last extract quoted above from Losoff seems subjective
when contrasted with this from Pusterla:
abandoned on the balcony. Had she read
she might think she were Ezra Pound,
but it is
only her, a tiny
too old to
run along the wall.
the wind's teeth.
This is a section from a sequence called 'Tremor'. It's a style that is
applied to the personal or with a wider view, ('Without images'):
ago happily decided
to give up
television we shall not see
the dance of
bombs on Baghdad on Basra on the remains
of what was
once the centre of the world.
And so on. The translator says he worked with the author on these selections
from books published between 1985 and 2011. He, Simon Knight, tells us he
sees 'in the background always a strong sense of civilisation under threat,
darkness closing in. How does one resist, retain one's humanity, in the
dehumanising age in which we live, with its cruelty, wars, misinformation,
consumerism, dumbed-down mass entertainment, envirionmental degradation?'
This is quite a lecture of a digest and could, I suppose, have conditioned
the mood or mode of the translation. I don't find, though, in the poems much
subtlety, the voice is strident, and perhaps, agree with him or not, we are
being lectured. It makes me reflect on poetry from the sidelines. Here begins
'Letters from Babel':
You say you
dreamed a horrible dream. On TV
you saw us
die, buried in rubble, and the scene went on endlessly,
and over: the great collapse of the Tower of Babel,
beneath the media dust cloud. Then
you were put
in the care of tyrannical guardians,
and so on. Don't good journalists do this better from being in the everyday
© David Hart