Gossip and Metaphysics: Russian Modernist Poems and Prose edited by Katie Farris,
Ilya Kaminsky, and Valzhyna Mort

Reading this anthology in one sitting, writes editor Katie Farris in her introduction, might be a bit like joining “a poets’ dinner in the kitchen of a Russian restaurant, with conversation and vodka-drinking well under way.” It is indeed a volume rich with voices — those of writers speaking to each other and to writers of the past, sometimes in praise, sometimes in defiance. “This book came about,” she explains, “because there is no other anthology in English dedicated to Russian modernist poetics.” Farris and her fellow editors, Ilya Kaminsky and Valzhyna Mort, have selected prose and poetry from nine writers — Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelstam, Daniil Kharms, Andrei Bely, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Velimir Khlebnikov, Anna Akhmatova, and Joseph Brodsky. It is an aesthetically diverse group, but one whose members have more in common than an American reader might think. “Russian poetry was a small world,” she notes, “made even smaller by the arrests, pogroms, famine, assassinations, disappearances, and political conflagration of the modernist period, and aesthetic disagreements were not as divisive as they have been made to seem.” The editors are among the 32 translators whose work makes up this collection, a group that also includes Jane Kenyon, Stanley Kunitz, Robert Lowell, W.S. Merwin, Jean Valentine, Christian Wiman, and Matvei Yankelevich. All of them have made it possible for us to lean in and hear the fascinating conversation.

from Conversation about Dante”

The quality of poetry is determined by the speed and decisiveness with which it embodies its schemes and commands in diction, the instrumentless, lexical, purely quantitative verbal matter. One must traverse the full width of a river crammed with Chinese junks moving simultaneously in various directions — that is how the meaning of poetic discourse is created. The meaning, its itinerary, cannot be reconstructed by interrogating the boatmen: they will not be able to tell how and why we were skipping from junk to junk.

       — Osip Mandelstam (translated by Jane Gary Harris and Constance Link)

from Wild Honey is a Smell of Freedom”

Wild honey has a scent — of freedom.
Dust — a scent of sunshine.
And a girl’s mouth — of violets.

But gold — nothing.
Water — like mignonette.
And like apple — love.
But we have learned that

blood smells only of blood.

       — Anna Akhmatova (translated by Ilya Kaminsky and Katie Farris)

Posted by Christine