On Human Harm and “Isms”

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Yesterday a friend reminded me of Robert Frost’s “The Wood-Pile,” which contains these lines:

A small bird flew before me. He was careful
To put a tree between us when he lighted,
And say no word to tell me who he was
Who was so foolish as to think what he thought.
He thought that I was after him for a feather—
The white one in his tail; like one who takes
Everything said as personal to himself.
One flight out sideways would have undeceived him.

 

I have been thinking about the recent string of accusations, outings, confessions, public shamings, around sexual harassment, not a trivial matter. I am in no position to judge others’ situations. In the overall movement, I see both good and harm: good in the increased awareness of the problems, and harm in the lumping together of profoundly disparate situations, the reduction of human relations to “isms.”

Two thoughts come to mind. First, people harm each other in all sorts of ways. Not all can be interpreted as sexism, racism, or any other “ism.” People judge others unfairly, act on these judgments, cut people off, write people off, say unkind things about others, and overall treat their own perspective as correct and righteous. Sometimes this takes the form of a recognizable social injustice (e.g., racism, sexism, classism); sometimes it does not. To address human injustice, one must look beyond the “isms” into a basic cruelty, callousness, or carelessness, which starts with the failure to see another as a person. (I don’t mean that one should ignore the “isms”–but the “isms” are not enough.)

Second–a more difficult point–often the people who hurt us do not mean to do so. That doesn’t excuse their actions, but it requires imagination of us, imagination to see that perhaps there was something more going on, something not to take personally. As in Frost’s poem (which has subtlety upon subtlety and will not be reduced), “one flight out sideways” would be enough to change a view.

This point could easily be misread; I am not condoning any kind of human harm or suggesting that all kinds are alike. Nor am I disparaging calls for justice. I suggest only that in some cases we can expand our understanding and perception of the possible. This takes imagination; we do not know what another person means, wants, or thinks. Our knowledge is incomplete at best. To exercise imagination is to see ourselves more fully; each of us, has hurt someone without wanting to do harm–or even consciously wanting and trying to do good. This isn’t just a matter of “good intentions” gone wrong but of our limited knowledge and vision. Seeing our own unintended wrongs, we can conceive of goodwill in others, and vice versa.

I’ll go even farther: We can do harm when trying our darndest to do good. I think of the sweet little song “Too Much Giving” that I co-wrote with Mahlah Byrd, who died in 1994. Sometimes the very effort can overwhelm and upset others; it can come across as a demand or grand show. Generosity requires a certain lightness. There must be a spirit of forgetting, looking away, continuing into the day.

Frost brings up the bird as a kind of “by the way”–and that “by the way” becomes the subject of the poem, as he marvels that someone could have left the wood-pile behind. Frost’s “by the ways” are full of wit and sadness; it’s in those pauses and deflections that the reader gets to see and hear–not fully, not permanently, but with a short gift of clarity.

 

Image credit: Photo of Robert Frost, courtesy of the blog A Bright, Unequivocal Eye.

I made a few changes to this piece after posting it.

Tuesday Evening in Fort Tryon Park

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A poem I wrote this morning.

 

Tuesday Evening in Fort Tryon Park

Evening bends into the leaves.
Breathing falls in with the river;
tablets break over and over.

Rock strains its nerves to endure,
flame lingers over the river,
prophets point over the border.

Song tumbles onto the path—
day is not, day is not over—
gardens stand tall against slumber.

Man, who are you to pass by,
flourishing into the ether,
vapor and structure together?

Teach me that this is not vain,
hasten the rising of favor.
Cedar and heather, start over.

Mystery, hint at your name.
Love, shed a drop of your silver;
chariot, bear me to shelter.

 

Image credit: I took the photo on Tuesday evening in Fort Tryon Park. 

The poem began with eighteen Hebrew words, which appear here in English. It went through a few minor changes and is now in its final form.

 

Noah and the End of Endings

Noah's Sacrifice

The following post is not only for those of Jewish faith, or even the religious in general; the Biblical verses on Noah and the flood transcend particular belief.

As I prepare to read three aliyot of Noah* this coming Shabbat, I am moved by the divine shift in these verses. Genesis 6:13 reads,

וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים לְנֹחַ, קֵץ כָּל-בָּשָׂר בָּא לְפָנַי–כִּי-מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ חָמָס, מִפְּנֵיהֶם; וְהִנְנִי מַשְׁחִיתָם, אֶת-הָאָרֶץ.

And God said unto Noah: ‘The end of all flesh is come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth.

God doesn’t destroy them all, though; He saves Noah, his wife, his sons, and his sons’ wives. They must survive and bear the kind of loss that makes a whole life reel. The survival must be its own good.

I think of “Still, Citizen Sparrow” by Richard Wilbur, who died on Saturday at the age of 96. I quote just the last two stanzas (starting with the first full sentence):

…. Forget that he could bear
To see the towns like coral under the keel,
And the fields so dismal deep. Try rather to feel
How high and weary it was, on the waters where

He rocked his only world, and everyone’s.
Forgive the hero, you who would have died
Gladly with all you knew; he rode that tide
To Ararat; all men are Noah’s sons.

“Forgive the hero”: The one who goes through all this cannot possibly be pleasant. People do not want to see what he saw. Because his whole manner reflects what he saw, they find him “unnatural.” But Wilbur hints at something beyond the suffering. Through seeing “the towns like coral under the keel,” through riding that tide where it was so “high and weary,” Noah changes the world.

I have many thoughts on the poem, but I’ll return to Genesis now. Here there’s no hint of Noah’s thoughts, no mention of his suffering. We only get to picture the destruction along with him: the waters rising fifteen cubits high, all flesh dying, all life being blotted out, except the life in the ark.

But when the earth dries, Noah, after stepping out of the ark at God’s command, builds an altar (without being so commanded) and makes burnt offerings. God smells the sweet savor and says (Genesis 8:21-22),

וַיָּרַח יְהוָה, אֶת-רֵיחַ הַנִּיחֹחַ, וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-לִבּוֹ לֹא-אֹסִף לְקַלֵּל עוֹד אֶת-הָאֲדָמָה בַּעֲבוּר הָאָדָם, כִּי יֵצֶר לֵב הָאָדָם רַע מִנְּעֻרָיו; וְלֹא-אֹסִף עוֹד לְהַכּוֹת אֶת-כָּל-חַי, כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי.

עֹד, כָּל-יְמֵי הָאָרֶץ: זֶרַע וְקָצִיר וְקֹר וָחֹם וְקַיִץ וָחֹרֶף, וְיוֹם וָלַיְלָה–לֹא יִשְׁבֹּתוּ.

And the LORD smelled the sweet savour; and the LORD said in His heart: ‘I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done.

While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.’

There is extensive commentary on each word of this; I will focus here on the reversal of “the end of all flesh.” It was really “the end of all flesh with a few worthy exceptions”–but even such an end, according to these verses, will never happen again. The end has ended.

These verses show a permanent shift in the divine. What happened with Noah could happen only once; maybe that is God’s atonement for the toll it took, but in any case, a changed God emerges, one who will never again smite every living being.

But the reason is strange: “for the imagination [purpose, plan] of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” One would think that human goodness, not evil, would dissuade God from acting in this way again. Rashi comments,

from his youth: This is written מִנְּעֻרָיו [i.e., without a “vav,” implying that] from the time that he [the embryo] shakes himself [נִנְעָר] to emerge from his mother’s womb, the evil inclination is placed in him. — [from Gen. Rabbah 34:10]

So one can understand these verses as follows: I, who created humans, must bear responsibility for who they are. Their evil is not just their own doing; it has been with them since their birth. Although I may punish them (and allow them to harm each other), I will never destroy them altogether, because their condition comes not only from them, but from me.

But there’s more happening here. God says  this after smelling the “sweet savour” of Noah’s sacrifice–and it was unprecedented among sacrifices, sweeter, maybe, than any that came before, because Noah performed it after horrific survival–survival at the cost of peace of mind. Noah’s sacrifice, his suffering, has already been enough by any standard, but he adds the formal sacrifice, which moves God to speak “in His heart [or mind, or seat of intention]” (אֶל-לִבּוֹ). So there could be a meaning like this:

Just as I answered evil, so I now answer good; evil will always abound, but good can change even the heart of God. I am changed by Noah’s obedience and piety, and not only by his character and actions, but by his life, this cherished life, this life that was everything all along. Accepting this sacrifice, smelling its sweetness, I cannot be the same God as before; I cannot put an end to all life, even with a few exceptions, ever again.

Whatever one’s religious, agnostic, atheistic or other views of life, one can imagine these verses, and within them, a God profoundly shaken by the goodness of a man.

What does this mean here and now? It doesn’t mean that we should stop worrying about destruction; the threat of destruction is real. Nor does it mean that the good people are rescued and the bad ones destroyed. It means, maybe, that any of us can sit with goodness, take it in, and, as a result, change forever how we deal with others.

So difficult it is to take in goodness; goodness itself is difficult. It isn’t always recognized; sometimes it’s mistaken for something else. Even when recognized, it isn’t easy to accept or fathom. Receiving another person’s goodness, one also receives the loneliness, the singularity. I don’t know exactly what it does, this “sweet savour,” but I think it leaves a person slightly gentler than before.

 

 

*In synagogue services, when Torah is read, the portion is divided into aliyot (honors with blessings). A member of the congregation, or sometimes a guest, is called up for an aliya; this person recites the blessings before and after the reading. In the past, the person receiving the honor would also read the Torah verses; today there is usually a separate reader. The reader chants the text according to cantillation principles. I will be reading at both the children’s service and the main service; hence the span of verses.  (This is my last Shabbat at B’nai Jeshurun before I leave for the ALSCW Conference and then for Hungary.)

The English translations of the Biblical verses are from the JPS 1917 edition (courtesy of the Mechon Mamre website). In two places I added alternate translations in brackets.

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

Image: James Jacques Joseph Tissot, Noah’s Sacrifice, Gouache on board, c. 1896-. The Jewish Museum (New York City).

A Three-Act Play in Sonnet Form

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There are probably other three-act plays in sonnet form; if you know of any, please mention them in the comments! The idea occurred to me yesterday; I couldn’t resist trying it out.

The Rays of Royal Hope

(A Sonnet in Three Acts)

 

Dramatis Personae

King
Queen

Act 1

[Twilight. A parapet. A sword.]

King: Behold: a kingdom lies beneath my sword.
Queen: Expect no miracles. The deed is done.
King: O may we see new things under the sun!
Queen: Long may we live, and may we not be bored.

Act 2

[Midnight. Darkness. An antechamber.]

Queen: No more, no more, ennui! The cord, the cord—
King: Eh, would you end so soon? We have no son….
Queen: Of light I speak! Please pull the tassel, hon.
King: As you command, so acts your loving lord.

Act 3

[Morning. A terrace. Coffee and croissants.]

Queen: Now that the sun hath cast its rays above….
King: Let us say “has”—we live in modern times—
Queen: So let us cast our hopes. I sense a child.
King: I hope with you; I hope with all my wild….
Queen:  Longings and songs, the purview of my love….
King: You said it well, my lady. And it rhymes.

 

Painting: Georges Seurat, Man Leaning on a Parapet (1879-1881). Courtesy of WikiArt.

Villanelle: Goodbye to a Guitar

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This is my first villanelle in a while. The last one was a few years ago, I think, but I didn’t keep it.

Goodbye to a Guitar

Goodbye and getting rid are not the same.
I lift you up and lay you in your case;
you echo as though hollowed of my claim.

I played you rarely and I played you tame,
but still you rumbled forth your chordal lace.
Goodbye and getting rid are not the same.

I strum amiss and try to slap the blame
by rapping on the crack that splits your face.
You echo as though hollowed of my claim.

One day, in chords alone, you asked my name,
which might have spelled an end to this embrace.
Goodbye and getting rid are not the same.

“I could have dropped you in a dump of shame,
brushed off my pants, and shrugged at your disgrace,”
you echo, as though hollowed of my claim.

O may you play in sweet strong hands, in fame
or home, and may my ear pick up a trace—
goodbye and getting rid are not the same—
…..
You echo, as though hollowed of, my claim.

 

I made four changes to this poem (three punctuation changes and one word change) after posting it.

Guitar painting by Mark Beck. Courtesy of the Herron Guitars website.

“Az erdei dalos madárnak is van párja….”

e8efb2131afd2eacedf4cef1f4f1fa53--postage-stamps-journalingThroughout my life, I have listened to folk songs and music from around the world–Bulgarian, Russian, Polish, Brazilian, Cape Verdean, Bengali, French, Irish, Dutch, Israeli, Hungarian, and many other songs and traditions. Folk songs and music go right to the heart. In a sense they need no mediation. But their meaning can be especially opaque; it can take years to understand them.

So it is with a Hungarian song I encountered, “Zöld erdőben de magos” (“A green but magical forest”). It starts out with an aching loneliness and then moves into revelry, ending with some kind of wild romance with a young “Gypsy” girl (“cigány lány”). From a modern standpoint, the song has a troubling aspect, especially at the end. That’s often the case with folk songs; they express passions and prejudices that “civilized” society rejects (on the surface, anyway). Keeping this in mind, I love the song’s intensity and allusiveness. It hints at a story instead of telling one. It creates motion. It reminds me a little of the songs in Federico García Lorca‘s Blood Wedding (Bodas de sangre)–and of Carlos Saura’s film as well. But I will need a long time to get to know it; translation is no simple matter here, and even a good translation does not come close to revealing all the meaning. (I have found no English translation online, but it may well exist in a book or CD booklet.)

Here are the first two verses, with my rough translation, and here’s my attempt at singing them (I am a beginner in Hungarian, but singing helps me learn). For the translation, I started with Google Translate but found it utterly unsuited to this task, so I corrected it as well as I could. Then I received some additional notes from a friend. It seems that sejehaj has no translation; it’s an interjection comparable to “heigh-ho.” The translation below incorporates my friend’s translation into my own (with her permission).

Zöld erdőben de magos, zöld erdőben de magos a juharfa,
Kicsi madár, a fészkét, kicsi madár a fészkét odarakja,
Az erdei dalos madárnak is van párja,
Csak én magam egyedül, csak én magam egyedül vagyok árva.

Rózsa, rózsa, rózsafa, rózsa, rózsa, tearózsa levele,
Nem beszéltem, sejehaj, nem beszéltem a rózsámmal az este,
A zsebkendőm is nála van a zsebébe,
Visszahozza, sejehaj, visszahozza, ha akarja az este.

In the green woods, in the green woods, the maple trees are so tall,
Little birds build, the nest, little birds build their nest.
The forest song birds have their mates,
Only I alone, only I alone am an orphan.

Rose, rose, rosewood, rose, rose, leaf of rose,
I did not talk, sejehaj, I did not talk to my rose in the evening,
My pocket handkerchief is in her pocket,
She’ll bring it back, sejehaj, she’ll bring it back in the evening if she wishes.

I learned the melody and rhythm from a beautiful performance by Szalonna és Bandája (with the singer Eszter Pál).

I found another recording, entirely instrumental, of a different and lovely melody of the song:

I look forward to finding out how much more I understand of this song in one, two, five, ten years. First the words may come, then the musical forms, then the associations, then the song’s history, then all of these together in new ways. Or the sequence might be different or nonexistent. Understanding comes in stages, with detail and clarity, but it is not a procession.

 

 

Image credit: Hungarian postage stamp, courtesy of Pinterest. (I changed the image after posting the piece; the earlier one was of a nightingale’s nest.)

After I posted the piece, a friend sent me an accurate translation of the song; I incorporated some of her translation in mine (with permission). If anyone else (who knows Hungarian) wishes to comment on the translation, please do not hesitate! It is a work in progress, and these are just the first two verses.

The Red Heifer

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I had read about Iván Fischer’s opera The Red Heifer (A Vörös Tehén), often described as biting political commentary, but did not realize until yesterday that there was a beautiful video of the October 2013 world premiere! It was performed in Budapest by the Budapest Festival Orchestra, the Saint Ephraim Male Choir, students of the University of Theatre and Film Arts, and soloists and dancers; conducted by Fischer; and directed by Tamás Ascher and Kriszta Székely. Find an hour to watch it today. It’s in Hungarian (and at one point in Hebrew), but if you do not know these languages, the music will carry you along, and the unobtrusive subtitles will give you the gist.

The Red Heifer accomplishes something rare in art or life: It makes a political statement without reducing anything or anyone. It dives into the difficulty of the matter.

It has the texture of a lyric poem; with taut soul and few images, it takes up a complex historical and contemporary event: the Hungarian blood libel of 1882-1883, also known as the Tiszaeszlár affair, in which Christian townspeople and agitators accused the local Jews of ritually murdering and beheading Eszter Solymosi, a peasant girl (who had gone missing), in order to use her blood for Passover.

Móric Scharf, the teenage son of the synagogue sexton József Scharf, first denied all knowledge of the alleged events but later testified that, while looking through the keyhole of the synagogue, he had seen his own father and others commit the murder. (Many years later, in an interview, he said he had been tortured and threatened before his testimony.) A body with the girl’s clothes was found in the Tisza, with no cuts or evidence of murder–but the mother denied that this was her daughter. Fifteen people were formally accused, and news of the case spread fast and far.

The statesman and lawyer (and former Governor-President) Lajos Kossuth wrote letters of protest, from exile, against the accusations and proceedings; even this did not alter the course of events. Only later, when doctors reexamined the body, did it become clear to all that the girl had died by drowning and that no ritual murder had occurred. On August 3, 1883, all of the accused were acquitted–but the case had inflamed anti-Semitism in the country.  (There’s much more to all of this; I have given a bare summary.)

The opera (whose libretto is drawn from a 1931 novel by Gyula Krúdy) focuses on the boy. What would cause a teenager to accuse his father falsely? What might have been happening inside him, then and afterward? The music and choreography convey the questions and hint at possible answers. The musical idioms and forms–Hungarian and Jewish folklore, opera, fugue, rap, cantillation, and more–express not only cultures but minds. It is not a hodgepodge; as I listen, I find that some of these idioms are part of me, that I, like the characters, walk within many languages. Yet not all of them are home; home requires more than knowledge, more than fluency.

You see Móric (Jonatán Kovács) at the inn, watching the townspeople dance, yearning to be part of things, but moving invisibly in the room, as though not counted or seen. He sees the innkeeper (a Jewish woman, played by Orsolya Sáfár) slipping and sliding drunkenly around, humiliated and still magnificent; you feel him wishing to be included, wishing to be one of the others. But this is not just a matter of a teenager wishing to belong. The crowd and individuals seize and use him.

Móric’s court testimony has stunning musical form; as Alex Ross describes it in The New Yorker, he spits it out “in a terrifying triplet-rhythm rap, with Weill-like chords snapping behind him.” Then he turns to the cheering crowd and makes gestures of egging them on, not realizing that they are the ones controlling him.

Lajos Kossuth (Krisztián Cser) appears later, showing a dignity and a standard absent from the proceedings: something possible in this life, something to grow into. His voice resounds with conscience and experience. You sense that he has suffered.

All of this leads up to the astonishing scene between father and son, after the acquittal and release of the accused. (I will leave it at that; it’s better to watch and hear it for yourself.)

The red heifer itself has several meanings in this work. As Iván Fischer explains in his introduction (at the start of the video), it refers to (a) a cow that stepped on the toes of the girl and thereby provided evidence through which the body could be identified; (b) an inn called The Red Cow, where all the manipulation took place; (c) the innkeeper, who was nicknamed “The Red Cow”; and (d) the red heifer in the Torah (Numbers 19), used for ritual purification.

Maybe there’s a fifth meaning here as well. Maybe the red heifer is the great mistake or mistakes we make in our lives–the mistakes that will eventually teach us how to live. None of us is immune to mistakes; there is no static human purity, only purity of learning and return.

But the lessons of the historical event have not been fully learned. The girl’s symbolic grave in Tiszaeszlár has become a site of pilgrimage by extremists. The accusations were disproven and dismissed in 1883, but some wish to revive them even now. Thus the opera speaks not only to the past and its modern-day analogies, but to an urgent present.

How can art protest cultural and political trends while retaining its complexity and integrity? This opera achieves just that–by speaking in music and poetry and by going into the difficulty. True political life requires rejection of the glib. We are never just one thing or another; we live in conflict with ourselves. Even so, we are responsible for seeking understanding and moving toward the good. The Red Heifer suggests the possibility and profundity of this movement, not long ago or far away, but here and now.

 

 

Image credit: Painting by Yoram Raanan. The painting and opera are unrelated except through the red heifer.

I made some edits and additions to this piece after posting it.

Ady Endre, “Köszönöm, köszönöm, köszönöm”

117_Ady utolsó fényképeToday I found an astonishing poem by the Hungarian poet Ady Endre (1877–1919; Ady is the surname). I know only a few Hungarian words, phrases, and basic forms, but even this much lifted the latch, with the help of translations. Immediately I saw some of the difficulties of translating this work.

You can hear a recording on YouTube and read both the Hungarian and Leslie A. Kery’s translation in the Babel Web Anthology. There’s another translation, by Zsuzsanna Ozsváth and Frederick Turner, in Light within the Shade: Eight Hundred Years of Hungarian Poetry. Both brought me closer to the poem yet stopped before coming too close. I sense something burning here, something a translator might try to make cooler and softer.

Let us consider first the title, “Köszönöm, köszönöm, köszönöm,” which means “I thank you, I thank you, I thank you” (root “köszön” + personal suffix -“öm”; the “you” is implied). Kery translates the title as “My Thanks to Thee” (making the address to God explicit and removing the repetition). Ozsváth and Turner translate it “Thank You, Thank You, Thank You,” keeping the repetition, making God less explicit, but dropping the sense of “I,” which in turn allows for a sense of relation. It’s a difficult call, whether or not to keep some sense of “I”; “köszönöm” is basically an equivalent of “thank you,” and an added “I” might seem stilted. In any case, the repetition is important, as is the sense of relation; each translation conveys one or the other.

Now let’s look at the first four lines. These are enough to make a person fall in love with the poem, and they only hint at what’s coming.

Napsugarak zúgása, amit hallok,
Számban nevednek jó íze van,
Szent mennydörgést néz a két szemem,
Istenem, istenem, istenem,

Here’s Kery’s translation:

It is the hum of sunbeams that I hear,
Thy name is tasting sweet within my mouth
And my eyes, oh Lord, oh God of mine,
behold the holy thunder.

Here’s what Ozsváth and Turner do:

Dazzling in my ears is the roar of the sun,
Sweet in your mouth the savor of your name,
Loud in my eyes your holy thunder,
Lord of light, lord of sweetness, lord of wonder;

What a difference! I am torn between them. I like the bareness of Kery and the incantation of Ozsváth and Turner. But neither seemed to want the “Istenem, istenem, istenem” (“My God, my god, my god”) in bare form; the one turned it into “oh Lord, oh God of mine,” the other into “Lord of light, lord of sweetness, lord of wonder.”I see what they are doing–they’re conveying the nuances within the repetition–but I miss the repetition itself.

What are the alternatives in English? “My God, my god, my god” lacks the cadence and subtlety of “Istenem, istenem, istenem,” and anything with “O my god” would sound too casual. Maybe the best way around this is to read the original and translations side by side (and listen to the original).

But I jumped ahead. The first line lets us hear the rays of sun:

Napsugarak zúgása, amit hallok,

“[It is] the sunbeams’ hum that I hear,”

The onomatopoeic”zúgása” (“the hum”), which reminds me of the Russian жужжанье, comes right after “Napsugarak,” “of the sunbeams.” In these very sounds, you can hear the beams humming. “amit hallok” means “that I hear.” Here I prefer Kery’s translation (“It is the hum of sunbeams that I hear”): the euphony and syntax work beautifully. Ozsváth and Turner‘s “Dazzling in my ears is the roar of the sun” seems cranked up too loud; moreover, it loses the sense of a question. “It is the hum of sunbeams that I hear” answers the implied “What is it that I hear?”

The third line, “Szent mennydörgést néz a két szemem,” does something spectacular with the first. “Szent mennydörgést” means “holy thunder” (as direct object); “néz,” “watch”; “a két szemem,” “my two eyes”; together, “my two eyes behold the holy thunder.” This is directly followed by “Istenem, istenem, istenem,” which looks like thunder itself. The hum of the sunbeams and the view of thunder go together–but what matters here is not just the joining, but the person who hears and sees.

I have only inched into the poem here. If this post encourages someone to read and listen to it, I will be glad. Over time, I hope to understand it more accurately and deeply. In the meantime, I adopt it into my life.

 

Image credit: Photograph of Ady Endre, courtesy of the Babel Web Anthology.

More on “Free Relation”

PushkinBenchOver the past two days I struggled with the post on The Stone Guest and statues; I realized that the topics were too large and the connections too weak. After revising it many times, I finally let it stand. But something came out of it, at the end: the idea that a “free relation” to a statue or other work of art comes through a spirit of learning. This kind of freedom consists of movement beyond misconceptions, limited understandings, and errors; not only that, but it yearns for such movement. It is the opposite of ignorance, which rests on self-satisfaction and becomes a rut. As Diotima tells Socrates in Plato’s Symposium, “If someone doesn’t think he’s in need of something, he can’t desire what he doesn’t think he needs.”

I think about my relation to Pushkin’s novel in verse Eugene Onegin, which I first encountered as a fourteen-year-old in Moscow, through Tchaikovsky’s opera. I loved the opera (which I saw as many times as possible) but in a limited way; I saw myself as Tatiana and understood the work primarily from that perspective.

In brief: Tatiana falls in love with Onegin and writes him a letter; he rejects her; he flirts with Olga, Tatiana’s sister, and ends up killing Lensky in a duel; and five years later, he attends a ball in Petersburg, only to discover that Tatiana is married to a prince. He suddenly falls in love with her–and writes her a letter–but she explains her resolve to be faithful to her husband forever. That’s a crude summary, with many details missing, but I was drawn, in any case, to Tatiana’s torment and courage.

While in Moscow, I obtained the sheet music for the opening duet “Slykhali l’ vy” between Olga and Tatiana and practiced it, hoping to sing it beautifully one day. Here’s a recording of a 2011 performance by the Bolshoi Theatre, with Galina Vishnevskaya as Tatiana and Larisa Avdeeva as Olga:

Seeing myself in the opera, I missed a great deal; even when I read the poem that year, I understood it in terms of the opera. But at least the opera was in my life; I would return to it many times later.

In graduate school, I read the poem carefully and came to see its subtleties, ironies, and play; it had humor and bite that the opera seemed to lack. I learned that Nabokov considered Tchaikovsky’s libretto “an absurdity and an abomination,” full of “vulgar and … criminal inanities.” I thought my teenage enthusiasm for the opera had been naive.

Still later, I came to admire Tchaikovsky’s Onegin again, but on different terms. I saw it most recently at the Metropolitan Opera last April and was moved by the entire performance, but especially by Prince Gremin’s aria, performed by Štefan Kocán, in which he tells Onegin of his love for his wife, Tatiana, whom Onegin previously rejected. This aria, rich in life and tranquility, is nowhere in the poem itself; the narrator has some of these words but gives them different meaning. The music alone conveys what Onegin lacks; Gremin’s genuine happiness upends any stereotype. I have found no recording of Kocán’s performance online, but here’s one with Dmitri Hvorostovsky, and here’s the sheet music:

I outgrew both the teenage attachment to Tatiana and the later deference to Nabokov (whom I also questioned and satirized, even then). Pushkin’s novel in verse and Tchaikovsky’s opera are two distinct works, each to be taken on its own terms, over a lifetime. Sometimes the understanding is intellectual, sometimes visceral, sometimes learned, sometimes intuitive; but it builds and changes over time. I have much to learn about both works; I returned to them today to see how much I had missed before.

So a “free relation” to art is one that moves beyond error, safety, and limitation. A person returns to a work, learns from it, learns about it, and understands it in a different way from before, all the while staying alert to more. Maybe, like Gremin, the person moves toward simple joy, the joy of not needing to own or sum up what one loves, the joy, sometimes difficult, of living among things that grow in beauty and meaning and that return, again and again, with more.

 

Image: Photo of a statue of Pushkin at Tsarskoe Selo. Courtesy of the MadOpera Blog.

I made a few changes to this piece after posting it.

“Za kaplishchei kaplishcha”

drops

After yesterday’s post on Vladimir Mayakovsky’s poem “Хорошее отношение к лошадям” (approximately “Kindness to horses”), I was left thinking of the lines,

Подошел и вижу –
за каплищей каплища
по морде катится,
прячется в шерсти…
И какая-то общая
звериная тоска
плеща вылилась из меня
и расплылась в шелесте.

which I translate (differing substantially from Andrey Kneller here):

I step close and see —
drop after drop
falls down the face,
hides in the fur,
and some kind of common
animal yearning
splashing spilled out of me
and shook into stream.

The “face” of the horse (морда) is beautifully ambiguous; the word typically means “face of an animal,” but it can also refer to a “mug,” or unappealing face of a person. The horse is not named here, so already horse and human seem to overlap. The horse’s tears are matched by “какая-то общая / звериная тоска” (some kind of common (universal, general) / animal yearning.”

But most beautiful of all (in these lines) are the words “за каплищей каплища,” “drop after drop,” or, more accurately, “after drop, drop,” because of the way they sound, and the way they echo the earlier “за зевакой зевака.”

As for the photo above, I took it this morning in Dallas.