Monday, 11 August 2014

Love Songs of the Russian Thaw

A romantic interlude now, with fresh translations of love poems by two of the most popular bards (poets / singer-songwriters) of Russia's Thaw period. The poems were translated for a poetry evening organised by Trinity College Dublin's Russian and Slavonic department.

"I Love You Now" was written by Vladimir Vysotsky to his wife Marina Vlady. The French daughter of Russian emigrants, winner of a best actress award at Cannes for 'The Conjugal Bed', Marina Vlady reconnected with her Russian heritage in the more tolerant atmosphere that followed Khrushchev's Thaw, becoming a juror at the 4th Moscow International Film Festival in 1965. Meeting the popular Vysotsky while in Russia, the two were married in 1969 and carried on a long-distance relationship for ten years before Vysotsky's death in 1980. This relationship made it possible for Vysotsky to travel abroad to France, the USA and Mexico among other places, broadening his perspective and cultural reach beyond what was available to his contemporaries and leaving us many recordings of his banned songs in Western performances. His wife's importance as a cultural ambassador for the USSR protected him somewhat from the Soviet authorities and their suspicion of his subversive songs. In 'I Love You Now' Vysotsky reflects the uncertainty and intercultural/linguistic issues of their marriage. The clip is illustrated by footage of Vysotsky and Vlady.


I love you now - not secretly, out loud!
Not "after... until" - I burn in your light!
Sobbing or laughing, but I love you now!
I want no past; future's out of sight.
"I loved": a grave holds less despair!
It clips my wings and hobbles hopes.
Though the poet of poets might declare
"I loved you - and love still, perhaps..."

Thus they speak of wilted things -
Condescending pity for the lost.
Thus they speak of dethroned kings,
Regretful for a thing that's past;
For urges stripped of urgency,
When "I love you" loses currency.

I love you now - vows can't explain,
My time is now - I won't cut its vein!
This time, ongoing, while the moment lasts-
I fear no future and I breathe no past.
I'll come to you over sea or land,
Chained or headless, I'll come still!
Only don't mistakenly demand
To 'I love you' be added 'always will'.

That "always" has a bitter taste,
Forged signatures and rot and waste,
A get-out clause, a 'just in case',
Dull poison at the glass's base,
And a slap in the present's face,
Where 'I love now' in doubt is placed.

My French dream overflows with time,
The past's not so, the future's scarier
I'm pilloried in the stocks and I'm
Called up to the language barrier.
The language gap! A state defective!
Together we can leap this fence,
I love you even when it's tense:
In the future and the past perfective.

For discussion of Vladimir Vysotsky's political significance, click here.

"Rain Whips My Face and Collarbones" by Bella Akhmadulina shows the work of the most famous female poet of the era. Called 'the best living poet in the Russian language' by Joseph Brodsky, Akhmadulina (of Tartar/Russian/Italian heritage) was a close friend of Bulat Okudzhava, and her work was often suppressed due to her support of many artists persecuted by the Soviet regime, including Boris Pasternak, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Sergei Paradjanov. She declared herself apolitical, however (itself a radical stance at the time), and recited her poems of love and human relations to sold-out stadiums in the 1960s, before moving on to discussions of philosophy and religion. By the time of her death in 2010 she had many awards in her homeland and the status of a national treasure.

BELLA AKHMADULINA (Untitled 'Rains whips my face...' - 1955)

Rain whips my face and collarbones,
Over masts the thunders rip,
You have come upon me
Like a storm upon a ship.

What will be will be
I do not seek to know,
If I'll be flung up into joy
Or smashed against sorrow.

I'm frightened and elated
Like a ship riding the wave,
I don't regret our meeting
I do not fear to love.

Daniil Kharms : Tumbling Biddies

A new translation of 'Tumbling Biddies' ('Vyvalivaiushiesia Starukhi') by Trinity's own Brigit McCone, followed by a short cartoon in which the biddies tumble chaotically from a stack of Russian classic literature - a nice twist on Kharms' radical demolition of the traditions of Russian prose.

A surrealist and absurdist avant-garde Anglophile (ironic as his own work anticipates later English surrealists such as Monty Python), who took his name 'Kharms' from the Russian pronunciation of 'Holmes' (as in Sherlock), Daniil Kharms (1905 - 1942) is known for his dark and twisted children's literature (resembling a Russian Roald Dahl), but also wrote work for adults that was far ahead of its time: the absurdist play 'Elizaveta Bam', a novella 'The Biddy' ('Starukha' - a disrespectful word for an old woman) and Russian Futurist poetry and sketches with 'The Union of Real Art' (OBERIU) which he himself founded.

In the 1930s, the wild experimentation of the Russian avant-garde and their attempts to reimagine life and ideology from the ground up, began to be persecuted and suppressed as anti-Soviet. A simpler, more obvious style of realistic propaganda, "Socialist Realism", took over and Kharms found himself arrested and exiled to Kursk as an anti-Soviet writer, forced afterwards to write his children's stories anonymously. In 1941, Kharms was arrested on suspicion of treason and confined in a psychiatric ward, where he died in 1942 during the Nazi blockade of Leningrad (St. Petersburg), probably of starvation.

'Tumbling Biddies' combines a taste for the surreal and absurd with what seems a comment on the casual cruelty of the Stalinist period, and on the desensitised apathy of onlookers to the many disappearances and deaths that characterised the time. Perhaps, after all, the meaninglessly repeated casual cruelties of a Kharms story best express the climate of the time:

Tumbling Biddies

 An old biddy, out of excessive curiosity, slipped and tumbled from a window, splattering herself.

  Another old biddy poked her head out to look at the splattered one and, from excessive curiosity, also took a tumble, splattering herself.

 Later, from the window tumbled a third old biddy... then a fourth... and a fifth one.

   By the time the sixth came tumbling out, I was sick of looking at them and took a stroll to Maltsevsky Market, where they say some blind cripple was given a knitted shawl.

Lectures focussing on the work of Daniil Kharms are among the topics covered by the department's evening course of lectures in Russian culture. Click on the 'Evening Courses' button to the left to find out more.