Thursday, February 25, 2021

May 24, 1980


May 24, 1980

by Joseph Brodsky

Translated from Russian by Joseph Brodsky

I have braved, for want of wild beasts, steel cages,
carved my term and nickname on bunks and rafters,
lived by the sea, flashed aces in an oasis,
dined with the-devil-knows-whom, in tails, on truffles.
From the height of a glacier I beheld half a world, the earthly
width. Twice have drowned, thrice let knives rake my nitty-gritty.
Quit the country that bore and nursed me.
Those who forgot me would make a city.
I have waded the steppes that saw yelling Huns in saddles,
worn the clothes nowadays back in fashion in every quarter,
planted rye, tarred the roofs of pigsties and stables,
guzzled everything save dry water.
I’ve admitted the sentries’ third eye into my wet and foul
dreams. Munched the bread of exile; it’s stale and warty.
Granted my lungs all sounds except the howl;
switched to a whisper. Now I am forty.
What should I say about my life? That it’s long and abhors transparence.
Broken eggs make me grieve; the omelet, though, makes me vomit.
Yet until brown clay has been rammed down my larynx,
only gratitude will be gushing from it.

Note : The Huns were nomadic warriors who terrorized much of Europe and the Roman Empire in the 4th and 5th centuries A.D.

Born in Leningrad, as it was then known, Joseph Brodsky had a hard life, in part because of his poetry; he was sentenced to five years of hard labor for “parasitism” and then sent into exile at the age of thirty-two. But poetry also gave Brodsky the ability to take suffering and make something from it. He liked to quote his friend W. H. Auden, “Believe your pain;” when you’re hurting, at least you know what’s happening is real. Brodsky’s account of his travails in this poem is somewhat tongue-in-cheek—but that last line is deadly serious. “only gratitude will be gushing from it.” One can’t think of a better philosophy, particularly for those of us with nothing more to lament than the passing of time.

Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996), the 1987 Nobel Laureate for Literature, wrote this poignant poem for his 40th birthday on  May 24, 1980. The poem is a revealing self-portrait, a summing up and coming to terms, an idiosyncratic credo by the Russian poet who liked to refer to himself as a Calvinist, which he characterized as "a man keeping strict accounts with himself, with his conscience and consciousness." A Calvinist, according to Brodsky's quirky, self-styled definition, "is someone who is constantly declaring Judgment Day against himself -- as if in the absence of (or impatient for) the Almighty." For Brodsky, exile was not a political condition but an existential one, through which he contemplated the condition of humanity.

Brodsky translated his birthday poem himself, hence its driving music and compulsive word play. Edward Hirsch says, “The aphoristic form -- a capsule autobiography accelerating at lyric speed -- seems especially well-suited to Brodsky's particular temperament, to his keen intelligence and ironic wit, to his determined, almost classical stoicism in the face of a grief that threatened to swamp him. Brodsky never viewed himself as a victim -- he was allergic to self-pity -- but he did eat the harsh bread of exile, which only increased his special solidarity with grief. He was an intimate of loss who knew what he had sacrificed.”


Sunday, February 21, 2021




By Valzhnya Mort

translated from the Belarusian by Elizabeth Oehlkers Wright & Franz Wright

my grandmother
doesn’t know pain
she believes that
famine is nutrition
poverty is wealth
thirst is water

her body like a grapevine winding around a walking stick
her hair bees’ wings
she swallows the sun-speckles of pills
and calls the internet the telephone to a  merica

her heart has turned into a rose the only thing you can do
is smell it
pressing yourself to her chest
there’s nothing else you can do with it
only a rose

her arms like stork’s legs
red sticks
and i am on my knees
howling like a wolf
at the white moon of your skull
i’m telling you it’s not pain
just the embrace of a very strong god
one with an unshaven cheek that prickles when he
                                        kisses you. 


 Valzhyna Mort: Valzhyna Mort was born in Minsk, Belarus. Her first book of poetry, I'm as Thin as Your Eyelashes, came out in Belarus in 2005. Her second book of poetry, Factory of Tears, translated by Mort in collaboration with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Franz Wright, and Elizabeth Oehlkers Wright, came out in 2008. It was the first bilingual Belarusian-English poetry book ever published in the USA.She has received many honors and awards in Europe, including a Civitella Raineri fellowship for 2011-2012. She lives in the United States.

Set in a land haunted by the spectre of a post-Soviet Eastern Europe, and marked by the violence of the recent past, intense moments of joy lighten the darkness in “Factory of Tears”.  I was moved reading the above poem."Grandmother" − as a person and an idea − is a recurring presence in her poems. Grandmother believes famine is healthy. The pain as the embrace of a very strong god "with an unshaven cheek that scratches when he kisses you" − occupy and haunt our mind. Howling of wolves represents the way we spiritually and physically communicate with our beloved ones to strengthen bond.



Saturday, February 20, 2021

Return to My Childhood Home


 Return to My Childhood Home

  By Julia Hartwig

  Translated by John & Bogdana Carpenter

    Amid a dark silence of pines—the shouts of

    young birches calling each other.

    Everything is as it was. Nothing is as it was.

    Speak to me, Lord of the child. Speak,

    innocent terror!

    To understand nothing. Each time in a different

    way, from the first cry to the last breath.

    Yet happy moments come to me from the past,

    like bridesmaids carrying oil lamps.

Julia Hartwig is considered in her native country as the “Grand Dame of Polish poetry” and ranks high among its leading modern poets. Thanks to the concise, elegant translations of John and Bogdana Carpenter, we have now access to the range of her impressive work. While her tonal control and philosophic resonance mark her as quintessentially central European, Hartwig’s poems are distinctive in their playful, eclectic spirit, which may in part result from the invigorating effect of her time spent translating poets as diverse as Apollinaire and Plath and teaching at the University of Iowa.

The poem seems to have sprouted upon a visit to her native home. There is a sense of a vanished life, disappearing in an instant that was fixed in fear, leaving a poetic mark on her as evidenced in this one. Somehow, all the visceral aspects of being, from early to late life, are subsumed into a sort of universal dream of being. In other words, life lived takes on the aura of existence deeper than waking.

Although Julia Hartwig, like her fellow Polish poets, suffered and survived the constraints that postwar communism imposed on personal freedom, the experience has not irrevocably darkened her poems, which continue to affirm natural beauty and childlike wonder. In “Return to My Childhood Home,” what is too painful to be understood is firmly held in counterpoise with remembered contentment: “Yet happy moments come to me from the past, like bridesmaids carrying oil lamps.”

“Return to My Childhood Home” begins with wonder and loss, moving to consolation and light. This  is a great poem in the true sense of that word.

Courtesy :  Rita Signorelli-Pappas ‘s review of in “Praise of the Unfinished” in World Literature Today



Is That All


Is That All
by Julia Hartwig
Translated by John & Bogdana Carpenter
What is a poem worth if it doesn't perform a miracle?
A mother is resurrected and once again strokes our heads.
We forget our own death, and our legs never hurt.
No one talks too much. Moralizing ends, as well as boasting
Everyone lives according to his measure
Dressing and cleaning don't devour time.
Children are caricatures of their parents, and parents, always young, leave one day for a walk before sunset.
So is that all you expect from a miracle?
Even when we are beset by daily upheavals, sorrows, drudgeries, unending chores and heaviness of heart, there is this wish within us to let a miracle unfold before us. That is the theme of this lovely poem by the great Polish poet Julia Hartwig.
The miracle of poetry unfolding through resurrection and subtle transformations of human kind, which in the end of the poem seems questionable as the poet poses in the end line: So is that all you expect from a miracle? The paradox is nailing into the reader's complacency.

A Note


A Note

by Wislawa Szymborska

Translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak

Life is the only way
to get covered in leaves,
catch your breath on the sand,
rise on wings;

to be a dog,
or stroke its warm fur;

to tell pain
from everything it’s not;

to squeeze inside events,
dawdle in views,
to seek the least of all possible mistakes.

An extraordinary chance
to remember for a moment
a conversation held
with the lamp switched off;

and if only once
to stumble upon a stone,
end up soaked in one downpour or another,

mislay your keys in the grass;
and to follow a spark on the wind with your eyes;
and to keep on not knowing
something important.

The author of this poem is the Nobel Prize winner -Wislawa Szymborska. She is that rarest of phenomena- a serious poet who commanded amazing popularity in her native land as the most representative Polish poet of last century. She is one of the most accessible of all poets I have read and therefore one of my favorite poets.

It’s hard to follow a poetic explanation on Life . Every line in this poem draws a sigh out of the reader. If you take out each line by itself, they might seem quite unpoetic. Or is it that the magic of the poem is in the opening line? It is only when dovetailed with this opening line that the rest of the poem’s lines acquire their magical qualities.

The above poem is a good note on life. There is a reward for being fully open to all of life’s pain and its promise.

Life is the only way…”

It wakes the reader up! We’re all ears now; what is this ‘Life’ thing? Oh let’s see what it’s all about. This is going to be deeply philosophical and wrenching. Intense. But then Szymborska follows it up with all these simple and yet wonderful, wonderful lines that defy any sort of intellectual analysis. It defies them. It denies them the opportunity to probe the poem for this or that with their rude speculative tools. Follows it up with lines that are almost Koan-esque in nature, accessible only to the intuition and leaves the reader with the sense that he/she now shares this secret knowledge of Life with the poet ‘ a knowing, and at the same time a Not Knowing that gives us joy, the joy

“to keep on not knowing
something important.”

How nice! The frustrations of not-knowing are an opportunity, one for which to be grateful. We can’t have answers to our biggest questions – but in that piquancy somehow lies our big chance.

Life is the only chance ‘to mislay your keys in the grass’-that must be an intensely romantic moment!..hehe . ‘To tell pain from everything it’s not’- I lifted up my eyes for a momentary flashback after reading that line. ‘a conversation held with the lamp switched off’, I would love this. ‘To squeeze inside events’- some of you who have experienced turbulent times may already be doing that. But the gift of being fully present, ‘to squeeze inside events’, also brings responsibility: to bear witness (like after a holocaust).

There is a stamp of unmistakable originality, playfulness, delightful inventiveness, prodigality of imagination in most of her poems. I love her laconic style and precision. Her poetry is devoid of any affectation and is fresh and full of charm and wit.

Reference: Monologue of a Dog: Wislawa Szymborska (Author), Stanislaw Baranczak (Translator), Clare Cavanagh (Translator), Billy Collins (Foreword). Publisher: Harcourt.