Richard McKane. NOTES FROM ARONZON - полутона

Рефлект...куадусешщт #17


Автор визуальной работы - L.A.

‘All I write is dictated by God.
I have to take notes from God, since no one else is doing it.’
Aronzon, Notebook 1968 (Death of a Butterfly p.164)

‘Someone must take notes from Aronzon, since no one else is doing it.’
Aronzon (Death of a Butterfly p.171)

I have always felt – and known – that Leonid Aronzon is a great poet. I have played a part in his publication not only in English translation but in Russian in publications in the Russian American magazine Gnosis and in the bilingual Russian English Death of a Butterfly, Poems of Aronzon (Gnosis and Diamond Press, Moscow 1998) both edited by my close friends Arkady Rovner and Victoria Andreyeva. I have published translations in various magazines including Alea, Acumen, Modern Poetry in Translation, Stand and in the anthology 20th Century Russian Poetry (Kozmik Press, London, 1985, 1990) Poet for Poet (Hearing Eye, London, 1998, 2001) and most recently Ten Russian Poets: Surviving the 20th Century (Anvil and Survivors’Poetry 2003), where Aronzon represents the 60s. Over the years Arkady Rovner and the late Victoria Andreyeva have generously provided me with his poems and infected me with their enthusiasm. I have met his best friend Altshuler, who shared with me his ‘podborka’ of Aronzon, which includes excerpts from the Notebooks. I also received a 100 poem manufuck off cool hacker from Felix Yakubson and met with Irena Orlova and Larissa Khaikina, friends of Aronzon’s wife, Rita Purishinskaya and friends of his poetry. I am acquainted with some of V. Earl’s writings on Aronzon and some of Ilja Koukoui’s articles. I was also privileged to be sent over 40 (‘new’ since publication of Death of a Butterfly) poems of Aronzon which Vladimir Earl, Pyotr Kasarnovsky and Ilja Koukoui are going to include in the forthcoming Russian ‘Collected Works of Aronzon’, which they are editing. I sincerely hope that a Collected Poems of Aronzon will follow in English translated and edited by the author of this article, when all this exciting new material has finally been published in Russian.

I have talked, or tried to, to many Russian poets about their contemporary, Aronzon, briefly to Elena Shvarts (who edited a book of Aronzon) and at greater length to Olga Sedakova and Larissa Miller. Conversations with his Petersburg contemporaries, Joseph Brodsky, Yevgeny Rein and Viktor Krivulin about Aronzon never got off the ground, though Anatoly Nayman talked to me about the trio of poets, Aronzon, Brodsky and Shvarts, that stood head and shoulders above the rest of the Petersburg poets in the 60s and 70s. It was Vitaliy Aronzon, the poet’s elder brother, who told me that Brodsky had actually lived with Aronzon and Rita for some months (and that Brodsky had taken a shine to Rita). Their friendship did not last and by the time I met Brodsky again when I was in Princeton in 1978, eight years after Aronzon’s death, he summarily dismissed him, but this was an often-used technique of his that challenged his conversers to make up their own minds. It remains to be said that my friend Viktor Krivulin did write an essay on Aronzon and Brodsky in his ‘Mammoth Hunt’ where he indicates that Aronzon was Brodsky’s only serious rival in poetry in Leningrad in the 60s. I am not going to go into why my preference is with Aronzon; readers and future readers of the two poets and their many contemporaries should have no reason to let one poet dominate this period of Russian poetry; except it must be said that there are problems of availability of texts – and translations.

For me, who never knew Aronzon personally, my journey into his poetry starts with my meeting with Arkady Rovner and Victoria Andreyeva in New York in 1975. At the time I was overloaded with reading and translating Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova (I had translated the Penguin and Oxford University Press edition of Akmhatova [1969] and was preparing my Bloodaxe edition eventually published in 1989). Arkady and Victoria – they were to support me by careful checking throughout the many years I was to translate Aronzon – gave me a dozen or so Aronzon poems that included, I remember well, ‘Empty Sonnet’, ‘In the Hours of Sleeplessness’ and ‘Identical Sonnets’. They were to support me by careful checking throughout the many years I was to translate Aronzon. One of the purposes of these Notes is, with many diversions, to discuss these three (or four) poems that are sonnets: a form and length which is very Aronzonian.

‘Empty Sonnet’ immediately struck me with its solemn sadness: to the extent that I at first mistakenly translated ‘vostorzhenny’: rapturously, by ‘torzhestvenny’: solemnly. However it was years before I linked the two languages: ‘pechal’’, sadness and ‘sad’: garden: ‘sadness and gardenness’. It is most rewarding to read Aronzon out loud: he talks about that in his poetry: ‘It’s good to stroll along in heaven, reciting Aronzon out loud.’ Incidentally I have found a parallel to this in a poem by Marina Tsvetaeva: (I. p. 248 Ellis Lack) (‘Byt’ v adu nam, sestry pylkie’)

‘We’ll meet in hell, my passionate sisters
and we’ll drink hell’s pitch, –
we, who with each vein
sang praises to the Lord!
One minute scarcely covered in rags
the next our hair plaited with constellations,
both in jails and promenades
having strolled the heavens.

Having strolled in the starlit night
in the orchard in paradise….
– I am sure we’ll meet, loved girls,
– dear sisters, – in hell.
November 1915
(Translated by Belinda Cooke)

I recited ‘Empty Sonnet’ in Russian and English, not only at the Pushkin Club but also at The Troubadour Coffee House in London and the Poetry Café . Indeed coffee, my preferred drug, and Coffee Houses were to play a significant role in the poetry culture of Leningrad/Petersburg, the most famous meeting places, mentioned in Ilja Koukoui’s article ‘The Leningrad avant-garde of the 1960s and the ‘Leningrad Text’, of the Leningrad underground being Kulinariya, on the Malaya Sadovaya street, the Poets’ Café, the Molecule Café at a Scientific Institute, Buratino on Vosstaniya street and the famous Saigon on the corner of Nevsky and Vladimirsky Prospects. I read Aronzon at the Dom Kompozitorov and Dom Kultury Medikov in Leningrad and Moscow respectively in 1990, when I went to Russia backed by the British Council, for the Pasternak Readings.

In English I’ve translated the gardens as ‘waiting’, not ‘standing’. To have a poet in one of the first poems you discover of them, ‘instilling sadness’ into one has an unusual effect and would influence my attitude to him for ever. But like Pushkin, Aronzon’s ‘pechal’’ is ‘svetla’ his ‘sadness’ elsewhere is ‘luminous’. The theme of ‘light’ in Aronzon has been touched on in Victoria Andreyeva’s Introduction to Death of a Butterfly. It is worth quoting in full (p.14) for it indicates Victoria Andreyeva’s method of grouping themes or clusters in Aronzon: ‘Light is the key word in his poetry. Not the glimmering light of impressionism, but that light of the heavens, which manifests the essence of life, that beginning in which all existence is found: ‘What a sky! What a light!’ For him there is no distinction between inner and outer light:

I happened to see the sparkle,
the shining of Divine eyes.
I know we are in heaven,
but that same heaven is in us.

His symbolism of light has many meanings. It is the light of the essence and the light of consciousness, the archetypal light that carries all the suprapersonal knowledge and contains the projection of vision on earth.’

But I have digressed from ‘Empty Sonnet’ which is emphatically at night and the night for Aronzon can be fearful and mean sleeplessness. In ‘Forgotten Sonnet’ (‘Zabyty Sonet’ - DoB p.128) there is an interesting twist to sleeplessness:

Sleeplessness all day. Sleeplessness since morning.
Sleeplessness till evening. I walk
around the circle of rooms. They’re all like bedrooms.
Sleeplessness is everywhere, nevertheless it’s time for me to sleep.

It’s not for nothing that in ‘Empty Sonnet’ he repeats three times: ‘Khrani vas Bog’ ‘May God protect you’ as though the loved one or loved ones need protection form his rapture as well as the garden in the night. One remembers Mandelstam’s key poem of January 1931, addressed to his wife – and others:

Help me, O Lord, to live through this night.
I fear for life, for Your handmaiden.
Living in Petersburg is like sleeping in the grave.

From Osip Mandelstam: The Moscow and Voronezh Notebooks, Translated by Richard and Elizabeth McKane (Bloodaxe Books, [1991] 2003)
(‘Pomogi, Gospod’, etu noch’ prozhit’’ Osip Mandelstam, Novaya Biblioteka Poeta, p.195)
Aronzon’s love poems, all of which are dedicated to his wife use: ‘ty’ (French, ‘tu’) but here in Empty Sonnet he uses ‘vy’. ‘Vy’ with a capital can be used (especially in letters) for a singular addressee. In earlier versions of ‘Empty Sonnet’ ‘Vy’ has been capitalised. Of course, in English translation the nature of the ‘you’ is not clear. As Ilja Koukoui has said in his article on Aronzon’s and Anri Volokhonsky’s ‘Empty Sonnet’, Aronzon is addressing more than his wife: there is polyphony (‘your night voices’), and , Koukoui continues: ‘It is not unimportant that in the Judaic tradition, to which Aronzon was very close, the word standing for God is in the plural.’ He also indicates the last lines of another late poem (‘My beauty, my goddess, my angel,’ DoB, p.148) combining God, his beloved and the garden (= oasis):’

But since we are going to live on further,
and the future is a cruel desert,
you are the oasis that will save me,
my beauty, my goddess.

In the second poem ‘In the hours of sleeplessness’, the specific gravity of this poem again has an echo of, this time, early Mandelstam in his poem ‘Solominka’, ‘Straw Girl’ and a direct quote from the third verse:

In the hours of sleeplessness objcts are heavier,
as though they were less – such silence –
pillows glimmer in the mirror, scarcely white
and the bed is reflected in a circular whirlpool.

Both are Petersburg poems and certainly we bump into Pushkin’s Queen of Spades in Aronzon’s. (It goes without saying that Pushkin’s most famous love poem also gives a two word quote for Aronzon’s ‘Empty Sonnet’: ‘Vas lyubil’ ‘loved you’, in the past.) Again we have ‘sadness’. The spider dropping (on its slender thread or falling?), the abandoned garden, all hold a sort of enchanting menace; the sleeping wife with her ‘face turned to the South’ and that sadness again, which ‘has already disappeared’ as the light makes a rustle at the window. Menace and tenderness are another of Aronzon’s couplings in the same way as a dreamer can see bad and good dreams in one night.

Rita was an outstandingly beautiful woman: this can be seen from photographs (especially p. 105 DoB) and from the video footage of Max Yakubson’s film ‘Names’ (‘Imena’), which has footage of both Aronzon and Rita, and which Max kindly sent me. Irena Orlova has told me she will write a book about Rita Purishinskaya and that Rita ‘made Aronzon’. Wives are rarely muses: both Yefim Slavinsky (DoB p.23) and Konstantin Kuzminsky (Blue Lagoon Vol. 4) have commented on that. One should always remember Rita’s words about her husband: ‘He was the most joyful, witty, charming man I ever met in my life.’ They married very young and as Larissa Haikina said to me: ‘Their marriage was made in heaven.’ It is not inappropriate to say here that both Aronzon and Rita were invalids. Rita suffered from heart disease and was to die young in 1985. Aronzon contracted osteomyelitis on a geological expedition in Siberia in 1959. He went down to 39 kilos (Kuzminsky, Blue Lagoon), nearly died and was evacuated by two helicopters finally reaching Moscow and from there by post plane to Petersburg. His mother (who was a doctor) saved his leg and probably his life by intervening and finding for consultation one of the best orthopaedic surgeons in Leningrad at his dacha. This is the sort of biographical information contained in Vitaliy Aronzon’s important article about his brother, which Russian readers can find:Vestnik, #12, 2002 and Kaskad, #23, 2002. On page 129 of DoB in one of my favourite photos of Aronzon, in the sun, in shorts with bottles of wine, grapes, apples, figs, his operation scar is clearly visible on his left thigh.

Much could be written about Aronzon as a survivor poet. Not only did he have leg problems (Byron, Pasternak, Arseny Tarkovsky, Victor Krivulin and the writer of this article, were among fellow sufferer poets), but also Rita has said that his moods were ‘poor’ ‘nevazhnoe’ and Ilja Koukoui and Vitaliy Aronzon have written that a psychiatrist he went to in the last year of his life diagnosed him as suffering from depression. At the time he was obsessed that he would die soon. He was being treated and recovering. His close ones became less vigilant, then suddenly he went to Tashkent in Uzbekistan with his friend Altshuler. Rita, suspecting something was amiss followed them but didn’t go up into the hills with them. He died there tragically on 13 October 1970 in what may best be described as a ‘suicidal accident’ and which I don’t choose to discuss here.

There are quite a few mentions of ‘grass’ ‘anasha’ and hashish in his poems. It was after all the 60s. I take the opportunity to publish the translations of three of his unpublished poems for the first time, as far as I know the Russian originals which Ilja Koukoui, the co-editor of the forthcoming Two Volume Aronzon, allowed me to translate have not been published yet.

My Abramych, my Meltz, my Izya,
my neighbour in the cross’s duty,
I would have been discontented easier
with life if I hadn’t met your beauty.

Thirty rubbers of bridge on, I’m under fine,
and it’s high time to draw a line.
My Achilles, if you want, do what you feel,
say the word and I’ll scratch your heel.

But I swear, when I become skull and bone,
take on the task for all the splendour
of my funeral, so that Altshuler

could compose this couplet on stone:
‘The grave mound of this soul
Meltz heaped up out of ‘grass’’, that’s all.

My world is like yours who’ve never tried grass:
anguish is anguish, love - love, and snow is fluffy for all of us,
a window is in a window and a landscape in the window,
but it is the world of the soul.

(And, what might be his last poem)

Oh, those gifts of Asia – grass,
an oasis for the mind, a love’s oasis,
and you, Uzbek woman, are so beautiful
that before you even an angel is ugly.

That’s what I say, although I am godfearing.
I lived fast, so fast that my immortal
soul dissolved into a leper’s skin
and flesh with which they sin was wilted, mortal.

In the middle of October a calm day,
two pinches of marijuana dust
then I must not have lived in vain.
(October 1970)

Rita was careful to keep him from taking harder drugs. During the operations on his leg, Aronzon was given strong painkilling injections that gave him a euphoria he didn’t forget. (Irena Orlova letter to RMcK). It is too easy to pigeonhole Aronzon as a manic depressive, - it is dangerous when the translator plays the therapist though we now have more knowledge of the damaging effects of hashish on mental health. Aronzon seems to have been aware of the effects of hashish. In the poem ‘Natoshchak kuryu gashish’, ‘I smoke hash on an empty stomach’ (DoB p.142) He says:

I smoke hash on an empty stomach.
O yoga of grass!
What expanse for any thoughts!
I’m happy myself, but sullen for others.
I smoke, smoke and suffer:
grass is the source of thirst,
thirst is a sign that somewhere is hurting.

Swings within poems, the sad/glad syndrome are the essence of his craft but it is always him who is pushing the swing (until, as in the finale of ‘Uncle’, the prose piece, the ropes finally are frayed). He believed he was ‘taking notes from God’. I believe he visited heaven for us - and came back, or rather found it on earth, and this is the essential mysticism of Aronzon that Olga Sedakova mentioned to me in conversation. ‘Thy Kingdom come, on earth as it in Heaven’ was what he strived for, with the difference that he took risks - for us his readers - and he described the experiences in poems. In his Notebook Number 3 for August 1966, Aronzon writes: ‘The subject matter of my writing will be the picturing of paradise. This is how it always was, but it will become even more definite as an expression of the world that is the opposite of everyday life. The everyday life that we live is artificial, our real everyday life is heaven, and if the eternal impressions of relationships were not so unjust and dull, life would not have become similar to heaven, but would be heaven.’
Aronzon was experimenting with hashish, as thousands of people were in East and West. His poems are the finest examples of ‘flower power’ in its least clichéd form:

Scented eruption, spreading lava of flowers flooded hill,
but breaking off the bliss that comes is not in its powers:
from every pore burst forth springs, springs of flowers and the glory of God,
and a metaphor of a butterfly flies up as the exhalation of lava’s steam - cloud.

In my introduction to Death of a Butterfly, I have gone into Aronzon’s concentration on that beautiful creature, born to live such a brief life. I should add though that Aronzon was not a fan of Nabokov. His treatment of the butterfly in the erotic and deathly playlet ‘ACT ONE’ is violent: ‘The butterfly’s fallen down, but no one has gone mad as a result. It must be put in place. Like this!” And then something plunged into my heart. I fell.’ W. Reeve in his favourable review of Death of a Butterfly in the Times Literary Supplement, mentioned that this playlet reminded him of Bryusov.

I want to return to the third poem that Arkady and Victoria gave me that especially caught my imagination: ‘Odinakovye Sonety’, ‘Identical Sonnets’: I had great difficulty translating the line ‘i lik, i zad, i zad, i pakh, I pakh, I lik’, ‘your sacred face and bottom, bottom and crotch, crotch and face’.
However I had set up the first four lines to the melody of Tchaikovky’s (not Bach’s) violin concerto:

My love, sleep my little golden one,
dressed all in satin skin.
I seem to think we've met somewhere:
I know your nipple so well and your underwear.

When I sang the lines in Washington to Irena Orlova, she approved. There are many ways of reading the Identical Sonnets: I even thought of doing two completely different translations. I have experimented in reading them aloud with varying the speed and diction in the Second Sonnet. I have talked about Aronzon’s swings – but these are not only highs and lows: how about ‘lik i zad’ ‘sacred face and bottom’ for juxtaposition, let alone ‘pakh’ ‘crotch’ echoing Bach. The monosyllables are crisp and naked: the choice of English words is not easy.

In his Notebook for November 1967, Aronzon writes: ‘I deliberately started writing worse and more carnal poems in order to find a reader and critics.’ But I don’t see when these different poems started, and ‘Identical Sonnets’ and ‘Does someone really dare to embrace you?’ ‘Neushto kto-to smeet vas obnyat’’ (DoB p.138) are the height of erotic poetry, certainly not ‘worse’ than Aronzon’s other poems. Aronzon looked to heaven and ‘the heaven in us’. I have written in The Encyclopedia of Literary Translation into English, Editor Olive Classe, (Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, London, Chicago 2000) an essay on Aronzon (one of the very few in that publication on modern Russian poets), where I indicate the key word in the translation ‘padyozhakh’ ‘conjugations’ which yokes the poem to his marital love for Rita. Elsewhere he says; ‘We loved our wives like lovers’ (Ty prinyala svoye raspyatie’; ‘You accepted your crucifixion’ (DoB p.35).

The garden theme in ‘Empty Sonnet’ is often repeated and emerges from the garden of paradise, the archetypal Garden of Eden and Adam and Eve theme that Aronzon uses in innovative ways for instance in ‘Sonnet in Igarka’ - the translators’ sonnet - where Aronzon says:

‘And really, just where is the sonnet?
Alas, it’s certainly not in nature.
It has wood, but not the Tree.

It is in the gardens of non-existence:
and Orpheus flattering Eurydice
was singing of Eve rather than Eurydice.’

‘The snake is fauna, and the tree is flora’ (DoB 124) starts a little vignette of the myth coming shortly before a first line in ‘Poem Written in Expectation of Awakening’ (DoB 125) which I am particularly proud of in my translation: ‘The fauna frolic in the flora’. There is a more sinister garden that seems to appear on a windowless wall in the long unpublished poem ‘Progulka’ which I have translated as ‘The Waste Land Walk’, referring no to T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ but to the habit of disturbed people to walk the city mainly at night. One remembers that Aronzon’s vital transitional poem ‘Message to the Clinic’(April 1964, in Ten Russian Poets: p.187) a beautiful walk by a river was originally titled ‘Message to the Nuthouse’ (Durdom). Aronzon’s poetry, as I have written, has a special place in the hearts of survivors, precisely because he, like Dante, is on the edge of three worlds: heaven, earth and hell.

There are few great 20th Century poets in any language waiting to be discovered by readers, translators – and other poets. It is an immense privilege for me to know Aronzon’s poetry and to be his first translator into English. One day, I believe, he will be translated into many languages. So let’s stroll along with Aronzon in heaven, reciting his poems. He would be proud that his friends have achieved the publication of his poems that he did not see in his lifetime and that he is in this special issue of «REFLECT...», in books, magazines – and cyberspace. I leave you with a very Russian scene near the end of Aronzon’s life described by Vitaliy Aronzon: the two brothers Vitaliy and Leonid and his close friend the filmmaker Felix Yakubson, picking mushrooms outside Leningrad and Aronzon saying: ‘recognition does matter’…
Bromley, Kent, UK
August 2004