Wednesday, July 2, 2008
The Stray Dog Cabaret
A Book of Russian Poems
Translated by Paul Schmidt
Of late, I have been concerned with the possibilities of poetry to engender community and how literatures "socialize" with each other, with a focus on the Black Mountain school of American poetry. Half a century prior to Black Mountain though, and half a world away, a group of young Russian poets strove to socialize with each other and people at large through their work. Paul Schmidt's translations of Russian poetry in The Stray Dog Cabaret offer another example of poetry as the lubricant for socialization and community. Unfortunately for almost all of the poets under survey in the anthology, the book also focuses on the fracturing and destruction of just such a community either from within, as individuals are spurred on by personal demons, or from without, under the stress of the Stalinist Regime.
Schmidt's anthology offers translations of a small core of poets who for the most part knew each other personally, but the aesthetic range of the work is impressive. The more conventional, though oftentimes bombastically existential and passionate poetry of Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva, coincide with the absolutely stunning futurism and experimentalism of Veilimir Khlebnikov and Vladimir Mayakovsky. My personal preference ran towards the latter two poets, Khlebnikov's "Incantation by Laughter" reminds me of the sound poems of Hugo Ball with its emphasis on sonic texture, while also echoing Gertrude Stein's use of unconventional language and logistical leaps to construct portraiture. The poem is constructed out of strings of neologisms such as "…hlofeningum, hlofeningum./ Hlahla! Utlofan, lauflings!" Even more conventionally coherent poems from Khlebnikov possess an awareness of language's knottiness as a subject in and of itself. He addresses Mayakovsky with "Three V's, three M's, three names-…" A portrait of the poet is composed of a linguistic catalog of the poet's name.
Mayakovsky is not given the space in the anthology to stretch out in a way Blok and Tsvetaeva do in their long poems, but his poems are strikingly large as well as being colloquially earthy in a manner Frank O'Hara was certain to have picked up by reading him. "A Funny Thing…" conveys a down-to-earth manner, fantastic bombast and self-reflexive writing about writing all within stanzas such as this one, spoken by the Sun to Mayakovsky,
"Take me for example. You thinking shining is easy?
Just try it some time.
But I just go do it as hard as I can;
wherever I am, I shine."
The influence these poems had on the New York School are apparent, though I'm certain the New York School conversely must have had some effect on how Schmidt was to go about translating these poems.
Schmidt's translations impart something to this effect to all of the poets within the book. The poetic inflation of Tsvetaeva has been smoothed to a conversational tone far removed from the more stymied grandiosity of Elaine Feinstein's translations of Tsvetaeva. The introduction nicely indicates the difference in a literal prose translation of Mandelstam, "For the quiet joy of living and breathing/ Tell me, whom do I thank?" with Schmidt's far more playful verse, "I'm alive and I breathe, I'm strong and tall-, Won't somebody tell me who to thank for it all?" Liberties are taken throughout, some of them as radical as dropping stanzas or renaming poems in order to fit them within his narrative. It is the narrative that allows for this looseness. If a reader is simply looking for straight translations of Tsvetaeva, Blok or Khlebnikov, this book might not satisfy as such, but taken on its terms, which is after all how any book and any translation should be taken, it offers its own pleasures. Schmidt said in an interview that "…translation is performance…" and "The Stray Dog Cabaret" operates best when seen as just such a performance, one with darkened lights, wine and its inevitably sad conclusions.