|From the desk: reviews, commentary, etc.
|Reviews by Greg Simon
Three Summers: 1926 - 1939 - 1941
Letters Summer 1926
Correspondence Between Pasternak Tsvetayeva Rilke
Translated by Margaret Wettlin & Walter Arndt
Oxford University Press 1988
The Death of a Poet: The Last Days of Marina Tsvetaeva
By Irma Kudova
Translated by Mary Ann Szporluk
Overlook Duckworth 2004
In the summer of 1926, no other poet in the world had more reason to live from minute to minute than Marina Tsvetaeva. She was in the middle of a triangle of love and literature with Boris Pasternak and Rainer Maria Rilke. Letters Summer 1926 is the best of books and the worst. Every page is alive with the passion MT felt for the other two poets and for poetry. We can observe all the tortuous details of Pasternak's indecision about leaving Russia and his young family to follow MT into exile, as well as marvel at Rilke's unsurpassed sensitivity and genius for literary life. The crime an indifferent world perpetrated upon them at the time was to prevent them from ever meeting together in person. Pasternak never left his family, and Rilke died alone in Switzerland while MT was left to try to make sense of her losses and a tenuous living for her family in the strangeness of Prague.
In the summer of 1939, no other poet had less reason to live than Marina Tsvetaeva. Her sister, nephew, oldest daughter and husband had been or were about to be arrested by the NKVD at a time when everyone knew that interrogation at the Lubyanka meant torture and almost always resulted in one-way trips to Kazakhstan or the firing squad. She'd left Paris with her son for the relative "safety" of Moscow just as Russia was about to be invaded by the armies of Adolf Hitler.
In the summer of 1941, Marina Tsvetaeva's new Soviet masters, who had consolidated their control over her country while she lived in exile in Europe, had banished her from Moscow to the tiny village of Yelabuga, on the River Kama, near Kazan, ostensibly for her own well being. In some other, less fatalistic context, MT might have been glad to have travelled to Tatarstan. It was a place that might have inspired a memorable sequence of poems from the impressionable Russian poet. The capital city of Kazan, after all, is over a thousand years old. It's probably true there weren't any nightclubs in Kazan like the ones she could have visited for poetry recitations in Moscow, but it isn't fair to say there wasn't any culture. A thousand years of existence is nothing to shake a stick at, and many aspects of Russian history are saturated with the influence of Tatar society.
The real problem was that everyone else she knew in the community of Russian literary evacuees had been sent to Chistopol, a town larger than Yelabuga, although not noticeably less rural. And of all the Russian poets whose lives have been documented in this century, MT depended on the people who were alive around her for inspiration. She went through young and adoring male poets the way Akhmatova went through headscarves. (Of course the regal AA, whose pen name had been taken from one of her Tatar relatives, was no stranger to male attention either, and no neophyte at making that attention work in positive ways for her writing.) Existence without the psychic support of her fellow writers was perhaps unthinkable following on the heels of her forced separation from sister, daughter, and husband. "My loneliness..." she wrote in her last notebook. And right after that entry, this one: "The overtone -- the undertone of everything -- is terror."
Irma Kudova writes, "When her husband and daughter were arrested... she probably thought that her own freedom was based on some mistake or strange oversight." MT believed her every move was being watched and recorded, and that eventually she also would have a date with the implacable interrogators behind the thick Kremlin walls. A young acquaintance of this time commented that she recited her own poems in public as if she were on a scaffold. And in her notebook she noted that "No one sees, no one knows, that for a year already (almost) I have been looking around for a hook..."
As Kudova points out in her penetrating commentary, in order to survive at this rueful point in time, MT had to somehow join a community of survivors. She must have thought that community existed in Chistopol, not Yelabuga, and at the time of her suicide had talked herself into a transfer of locality which she nonetheless did not take advantage of. For once her impeccable radar for support had failed her.
"One day, at the end of the summer of 1941, [Alexander Ivanovich Sizov] met a woman in the institute courtyard who looked totally exhausted. She asked him if he was a local person and when he said yes, she asked for help in finding a room for herself and her son." Sizov was a reader of literature, and apparently not an agent of the NKVD, although he was in the military with every other able-bodied young man in Russia, and he did find another room for her. But MT was rejected by the landlady. "Your woman doesn't have a ration card or wood. And she's a White Guardist too."
Tsvetaeva, Kudova writes, "was such a marked person." Not only was she unlikely to find a community of fellow exiles to embrace her, she was immediately perceived as an outsider, sure to bring trouble from the ever-present Soviet authorities whose vigilance was extended into every aspect of an emigre's life, and unable to bring precious resources of food, fuel, or money to the communal table.
And of course, ever since the fateful Revolution, there was the matter of trust. "...the sincere young poet Yaropolk Semyonov," Kudova writes, "had appeared on her horizon a bit too suddenly and accidentally."
"Why is he so nice to me," Tsvetaeva asked. "Could he be from the NKVD?"
MT constantly met new people, both women and men, who strove to help her and her son, and she was usually moving under the beneficent cloak of Pasternak while in Russia. But in Tatarstan she was far from the reach of any sympathetic influence. She was homeless and powerless, or worse, at the mercy of her husband's tormentors. And although her immediate needs were being taken care of -- even though she did have four walls around her, food, water, and safety from the German blitzkrieg that was to take the lives of so many of her fellow citizens, including her son -- she made only one entry in her journal in the last year of her life.
MT could no longer write.
A poet's death in the late summer of 1941.
The Incognito Body
by Cynthia Hogue
Red Hen Press 2006
Porter Moresby, a main protagonist of Paul Bowles's legendary novel, The Sheltering Sky, seems to suffer from the most perverse case of writer's block I've ever read about. He doesn't open a single book in the course of the novel, reads only train and bus schedules, and does all his serious thinking far removed from the nearest supply of ink and paper. Port even takes devilish pleasure in denying his so-called writer's craft to his widowed mother, and his relationship with his wife Kit seems to depend upon a mutual interest in exotic things, far off the beaten path, but exclusive of the thick French novels she can often be found reading. (Dumas, Proust, Colette? Hmm. I fear not.) Port, we come to understand rather quickly, is occasionally attentive but spiritually dead to his wife (as well as to many places in his world) long before typhoid fever kills him in a grim, one-windowed hospital of the Foreign Legionnaires.
The Sheltering Sky (1949) reads like an artful clone of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises (1926), featuring camels instead of bulls, except Hem didn't have the decency to let Jacob Barnes die. In fact he made his Port-figure narrate the book, a calculated act of internal and eternal self-humiliation piled on top of all the other misfortune, violence, and penis envy his anti-hero was forced to suffer through.
In The Incognito Body, Cynthia Hogue's new book, one of her poems incorporates extensive quotation from The Sheltering Sky. But, like Hemingway's, hers is not simply a record of triumph or defeat, either. Although there is evidence of a lot of quiet, internal suffering that could well have been fatal, and a number of recent deaths are referred to in elegiac terms, the narrator doesn't die. In fact it's not difficult to find out from external sources that the author emerged from an ordeal with severe rheumatoid arthritis clutching the kernel, the centerpiece of her book, the title poem, "The Incognito Body."
Although a happy ending was available, it is nowhere to be found in the poems. Hogue's mysterious illness is allowed to slink away between the lines, its own incognito body returning to the mist of virus or genetics or whatever else might have caused it to take up residence in the body of Cynthia Hogue in the first place.
There are poems in this book that were written both before and after her term of illness, and poems laced with her infirmity, her lack of understanding, her rage, and her desperate clinging to meager rays of hope she was able to discern through a fog-shrouded world of pain and silent suffering. One phrase from Paul Bowles, "it all seemed so limitless..." can equally be applied to her childhood, and her life before and during her illness. But I'd say many of the poems in this book are telling us such a sentiment doesn't apply to any part of her post-rheumatic life, and in the revealing light that is the hard-won benefit of her suffering, it might be said that it never did.apply.
These are graceful, supple, and well-matured poems, written with an intense interest in the relationships between words and other words, between words and suffering, and between suffering and the "continuously jeopardized" body's release from suffering beneath the shelter of the sky. "If there is no escape,/ no separation," Cynthia Hogue writes, "there are also no lies."
In the Middle Distance
poems by Linda Gregg
Graywolf Press 2006
On page 6 I discovered Linda Gregg has been reading or re-reading "Letters Summer 1926":
I live alone in a kind of luxury.
I wake when I feel like it,
read what Rilke wrote to Tsvetaeva.
If Rilke knew anything, he knew how to write fantastic letters to young poets who had been lavish in their praise for his work. ("So innocent are gods, they listen for praise like children.") His favorite tactic in these circumstances was to compare the innocents to vessels about to be filled with the roiling waters of literature: "Your utterance, Marina, is like a star's reflection when it appears in the water, and is disturbed by the water, by the life of the water, by its fluid night; interrupted, canceled, and again admitted, and then deeper in the element, as if already familiar with this mirror world and, after each warning, back again and more deeply immersed! (You great Star!)" Uh, may I please put that on the back cover of my book? "Waves, Marina, we are ocean!"
The letters Tsvetaeva wrote to Rilke are more interesting to me because they are grounded in her everyday concerns, and not at all oracular. In them she brazenly tested a few dearly-won, closely-held theories of poetry while she had the ear of the oracle, the spirit of poetry, the undivided attention of her Orpheus.
"Writing poetry," she tells Rilke, "is in itself translating." Imagine telling Rilke what poetry is! But this is an idea I've been contemplating since the day a friend told me he saw no difference between my own writing and the strategies of my translations from the Spanish of Garcia Lorca, and I tried to decide if that was a compliment. (I now know it was.) But translating from what, Marina? "The mother tongue," she replies, "No language is the mother tongue." She means no individual language, not French, German or Russian: the mother tongue is unique, all-encompassing, poetry's inner well.
"I am not a Russian poet," she declares. "The reason one becomes a poet is to avoid being French, Russian, etc. ..." Here MT must have made RMR blush if he could blush. "Orpheus," she not so subtly suggests, that is to say Rilke "bursts nationality, or he extends it to such breadth and width that everyone (bygone and being) is included."
Alas and alack, poor deluded Marina, hers was not a philosophy Rilke could ever have embraced. For one thing, he was a man without a country anyway, born in Bohemia and living in the rarified air of a tower in Switzerland. ("Switzerland won't let any Russians in..." MT wrote him.) (Bohemia was often closed to her, also.) For another, he, like most other mortals, found Tsvetaeva's poetry hard going in the original Russian, even though he seems to have sincerely wanted to understand and praise it, and she had thoughtfully annotated the more difficult passages for him in his almost native German. "If only I could read you," he told her "as you read me." Ouch.
Rilke completely lost the sympathy of his acolyte, who was nothing if not maternal, when he expressed indifference to the current situation (and perhaps even the location) of his only daughter and grandchildren. His poems were his children, "larks that a song bursting out of them flings into invisible heights." And shortly before his painful death from leukemia, he did write a terrific elegy for Marina, "Oh the losses into the All..." (1926) that she carried with her, folded, unfolded, and refolded, for the rest of her life.
Linda Gregg dispatches her ex-Orpheus, Jack Gilbert, on page 11. "My elderly friend of many years..." Ouch, ouch, ouch. Makes him sleep on the couch. "Surely," she goes on unecessarily, "there is a hollowing out." Poor old guy. In an interview I watched on video, Gilbert said he had spent the most productive years of his life falling in love (with Linda Gregg, among others.) "With poetry," Tsvetaeva wrote to Pasternak, "as with love: no separation until it drops you."
"In the Middle Distance" is a book of post-severance poems. Once she has gotten Orpheus out of her system (but not Eurydice, as we will see later), Gregg begins testing her own theories of poetry on us, and, also like MT, theories of what God might be like. ("Rainer, I was right, no? God's a growing/ Baobab tree?") In Gregg's book God is the desert after rain, and Christ, the sun going down. Stillness, sacred, death, peace and farness? God or godlikenesses. A feeling for the sun before it rises. A man dragging a big branch. A last self-portrait by Rembrandt. Yogurt, beer, corn oil, paper towels, love and the mystery. The town of Marfa, Texas. Magnitude. Distance. Essence.
We live our myth in the recurrence,
pretending we will return another day.
Like the morning coming every morning.
The truth is we come back as a choir.
Otherwise Eurydice would be forever
in the dark. Our singing brings her
back. Our dying keeps her alive.
Poems by Tess Gallagher
Graywolf Press 2006
On page 102 Gallagher quotes Rainer Maria Rilke, from a letter: "...oh how I long just once to feel the hand within me that throws larks so high into the sky." Sound familiar? "Earth, Marina, we are earth," Rilke wrote in his 1926 elegy for Tsvetaeva, "a thousand times April, like larks / that a song bursting out of them flings into invisible heights?" A poet using one of his own letters as a source of prosody and imagery? What will they think of next?
Throws, flings, launches... these are words the translators would choose from the mother tongue, and I think I understand how the power of song would work to launch a thousand birds. But what is Meister Rilke talking about in the sentence from his letter? To feel the hand within him? To feel would be to make something real that he thought wasn't real. But the poet is perhaps being just slightly disingenuous. Even if he thinks his poems, his larks, each one of them written originally with pen and ink by his slender, graceful hands, are technically not real, or not his to command, nevertheless they have existed in time long enough to charge thousands of moments in thousands of lives. (Here I'm reminded of an exquisite cartoon from The New Yorker in which an infatuated young woman whispers breathlessly to her male companion, "If you quote Rilke one more time, I'm going to have to take off my bra.")
Gallagher's supercharged and eloquent book is all about loss and leaving, and return. The poem that she prefaces with the quotation from Rilke is called "The Violence of Unseen Forms." Now what on earth does that mean? It is in the section of the book which is predominantly about her relationship with her mother in the last few years of her mother's life, years in which both of them were often and often lovingly revisited by ghosts from their pasts, but also, unfortunately, by serious illness. As is the case with many men and women who suffer from Alzheimer's disease, her mother's personality was also being visited - by a disorder that seems to come from nowhere and possesses the poor souls like a malevolence intent on harming or at least pushing away with violence everything within the reach of its disembodied voice. A child on earth can know no greater frustration, wonderment, discomfort, fear, or resentment in the face of this strange phenomenon.
"Can one soul consume another," Gallagher asks in her impossibly brave first line. "Is there loss?" Of course! It's a Grand Canyon of loss, on the other side of which is an awkward reversal of roles in which the child becomes father to the father or mother to the mother, and just as hopelessly, as if dealing with a newborn, must try to teach the parent everything about survival as if for the very first time.
"When one soul takes on the heft / of a faltering soul / is it transaction, translation, atonement / or all three..." Gallagher asks. A very Rilkean question, but atonement, I'm afraid, suggesting reconciliation brought about by suffering, is a difficult concept in a drive-through age. RMR would have much preferred to live his life in the bright lights of unknown constellations, inventing things, and I think he mostly did, lucid and oracular to the final moments of his life. But what of those who lose their way?
"...her soul," Gallagher writes, "seemed to fail her." In a fantastic, completely unanticipated, mirrored reversal of her poem's title, she discovered that in order to give comfort to her mother, no, that's too ambitious, too grand, to simply reach the soul that used to belong to her mother, she must and suddenly could "shake far cries in realms / unguessed." In other words, in Rilke's words, she had to manifest the hand within her, the deeper hand with which she could then "learn to throw larks / for sheer pleasure..." She discovered - and this is miraculous, beyond the capabilities of psychosomatic drugs or medical procedures - an immensely satisfying inner action of huge significance because her mother could recognize it too, and participate and share in the pleasure of what she was doing: "climb sky / to heights never touched otherwise..."
Does your mother need to be suffering from an incurable mental disease for you to be snared by the power of those lines? No, I think not. "Whoever lets go in his fall," Rilke wrote to Tsvetaeva, "dives into the source and is healed." Temporary or not, who cares, when it's the source, the mother tongue that heals us?
Healed, a very Rilkean word. Throw larks for the sheer pleasure of it? Yes! "Just, inexplicably," Gallagher concludes, "we could."
Commentary by P.L. George
So I started this experiment that has been bubbling in me for a long time. To submit a legends' work and see who rejects it. Partly because I wanted to feel better about my own stories and to finally do what most writers have thought about doing but didn't have the balls to.
So I'd had five big lit journals on my radar for pushing two years, five high cliffs, five on my shit list.
I've got all of Charles Bukowskis' books except for some of his beginning works in small lit journals because I can't afford them on E-bay. I first took one of his short story collections, The Most Beautiful Woman in Town, published by City Lights, circa 1967. As I skimmed through those drunk bard stories, I pick one that's semi- obscure, something all Bukowski, but without the appearance of the age of when it was written. I picked Trouble With a Battery, a story that's all Chuck, where he ends up fucking a girl in a bed above a bar with her brother alongside them. I submit from a friends' computer under the name of Chuck Bukow so no one will recognize my email address. The others who don't accept e-mail submissions I strictly adhere to those guidelines, all those hoops, SASE, title page, some aloof bio, the works. This is all pushing nine months ago.
The first, Paris Review took the longest, approximately eight months. I went to the mailbox and the envelope was thin and light. Inside was the card they always give out, a one-size-fits-all rejection slip. The second, Iowa Review I always liked because Vonnegut used to edit for them now and again. But I always had reservations about them, that workshop cult, that doesn't let the outside in. I get a rejection letter, but also something in ink. Too much vulgarity, you need to learn to say things without expletives. You hear that Charles, you don't know how to write without a fuck you thrown in now and again. The third, Glimmer Train, I submitted to their contest with my own money in tribute to this dead author whom I respect. They don't comment, just say that they regret they can't use it and list the winners. Women editors, they don't get it. The fourth was Tin House. I don't really know if they read much of anything. You know how it is, that aura that drips off that little slip they give out all impersonal and what not. Rejection number four. The fifth is Zoetropes'-All Story, extremely heavy competition. They give options for films for accepted stories. They also had given out written comments on the bottom of my rejection slips. I'm thinking film, maybe they'd remember Barfly with Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway, jar their movie archived heads. I'm sorry Chuck, I've never received a comment like this. Too vulgar, don't submit here, not right, if this is an example of your best, and I quote all of this. Ouch.
So the poet laureate dies in these big modern lit mags. You five are all indicted. All you writers out there, scribbling in your caves take heart. Old Buck's been put on the ash heap too.