By Lev Fridman
There is this edge, where some of us recall childhood’s
voices. –– There is an edge, Mama i Papa –– where we wake up
in the car with a travel mug to recall a Country. ––No, not
That Country of the Present slowly invading this one.––
There is a threshold inside me
––Olga Livshin “Call It Longing”
There is an old Russian custom the roots of which many of us neither know nor question: we don’t shake hands or greet guests over the threshold. We wait until they have entered our homes. Often the reverse is also true––goodbyes are not said. We step over the threshold and follow those who are leaving and only then do we say goodbye. Upon entry visitors are guided to a “safe zone” within the home, a place where they can be greeted, perhaps to keep them away from the house spirit of ancient lore or maybe to prevent a conflict. We don’t know exactly and we don’t care: we commit to entering or leaving before we say hello or goodbye. We greet only after we have offered shelter.
In her author’s introduction to A life Replaced, Poems with Translations from Anna Akhmatova and Vladimir Gandelsman, writer and translator Olga Livshin tells us how she was welcomed by America. Like the poetic conversation between Livshin and Russian poets Gandelsman and Akhmatova whom she translates and engages, this welcome occurred as a dichotomy––in her case as the cruelty and kindness of strangers. She was attacked by two classmates in her junior high school, because she was “the wrong kind in the wrong place” and then driven home by a teacher who bought her balloons and told her that this “was not what this country was like.” In her own poem that immediately follows the introduction, “Translating a Life,” Livshin is in the thick of conflict: crossing the threshold that is immigration, in the “interlude” between two wars, the second of which is more “inventive” than the first. She is sitting, surrounded by nature, burdened by knowing the two distinct names (native and adopted) of every mushroom, the indifferent flora, she tells us “unfortunately, I care,” and that she sees “no refuge.”
Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) and Vladimir Gandelsman (1948-) are two of Russia’s literary giants whose work and lives Livshin enlists as dance partners, as Ilya Kaminsky so elegantly puts it in his foreword, in the “tango” of her performance. Akhmatova was an indelible and vital 20th-century poet and literary scholar. Aside from her myriad publications, her personal life has taken on a role of its own in Livshin’s writing. The facts (for there is also much conjecture in literary circles): she was married to poet Nikolai Gumilev who was arrested and executed by the Soviets in 1921, their son Lev Gumilev was also subject to several arrests and spent approximately a third of his life behind bars. Anna had a complicated personal life intertwined with that of many of the other great writers of her time. This history comes alive in Livshin’s dialogue with her.
Vladimir Gandelsman is the other instrument in Livshin’s symphony, played and playing in point and counterpoint. Gandelsman is an award-winning contemporary Russian poet who now resides in the United States. He was a Soviet writer who immigrated to New York in 1991. He has been published by many Anglophone presses and he won the prestigious Moscow Count award in 2011.
Immigration as a young adult often is not just displacement and a new environment which must be reconciled with the old, it is one formative literature replaced by another (in “Thoreau in Russia” Livshin ponders this phenomenon). Maybe it is the critical lens of textual analysis that is affected by immigration, maybe the relationship to texts and their authors, but the resulting sum winds up behind the eyes, always already there. The aptly named publisher Poets and Traitors Press where this book found a home, quotes Octavio Paz quoting Baudelaire as part of their modus operandi: “Baudelaire said poetry is essentially analogy…Between the language of the universe and the universe of language, there is a bridge, a link: poetry. The poet, says Baudelaire, is the translator.”
This approach––the poet as translator and the translator as poet, interweaving original poems and translations which not only complement but converse with each other––is essential when writing from the edge. Livshin immigrated with Akhamatova in her pocket and encountered the work of Gandelsman in the United States. Her book enacts a dialogue with the poets (responding to her own poems with translations of theirs and vice versa) that repeatedly breaks the fourth wall and engages the reader. This book is not a collection of translated poems, translation is both the vehicle for, and the passenger of, a larger communication. Livshin is troubled (as many of us are) by bilingual fluency, which often is not an asset but a barrier to both communication and agency. She does not mince words on the subject, she speaks of “languaged fantasies,” writing in “You-and-me-ish” while “Akhmatova for Our Times” offers a bitter critique of <mis>translation. Russian can melt into “child’s words” in a heartbeat, congealing back into a “ridiculous Russian” but ultimately an envelope of noise gives way to pure tones, to love, as in “Dressing a Memory”:
Moh; yah; rah: these are grunts or wailings–
Like the sounds of what your desire was.
We are even: we made for each other
This language, without translation.
Livshin’s approach to conveying Akhmatova is evident in the very first lines of the first translation in the book. It is not the “distortions” which she disclaims in her introduction, but rather something more akin to a good-faith elaboration. As the opening translation, the original has been included below, not for comparison but rather to glimpse the first of the “souls” (in her introduction, Livshin quotes Gandelsman’s sentiment that “art is made ‘out of one soul then/out of another.’”)
Чем хуже этот век предшествующих? Разве
Тем, что в чаду печали и тревог
Он к самой черной прикоснулся язве,
Но исцелить ее не мог.
Livshin anthropomorphizes Akhmatova’s century, in her interpretation “for once, it noticed the world’s sorrows.” She takes Akhmatova’s intent of stating her time’s consciousness of pain and the inability to cure it and simply states it as such. The blackest of ulcers is also anthropomorphized, the century touches its “heart” to be interpreted perhaps as the core of the wound or maybe the nucleus of the cancer, but it simply does not matter how deep understanding is, the result is the same.
In the poems that follow, “Newscast Akhmatova” and “Kidnapped Akhmatova,” Livshin teases Akhmatova, cajoles her, criticizes her, and then she mourns her. The poet is a living ghost for her (“let me take you now, now that you are asleep and weightless”), a literary grandmother carried gently across the threshold into Olga’s childhood. She is then pulled by her hand as our author’s childhood self excitedly shows her Krivokolenni Pereulok (“ancient lane called crooked knee”) and the hippies with their plumage the anachronistic guitars (in her time, standing on the street Akhmatova might have overheard Sviatoslav Richter, slaving away at Prokofiev’s cello concerto). The poem ends with Livshin calling out to Anna “Where did you go?.” Perhaps subconsciously Livshin echoes another staple of our childhood and a person close to Akhmatova in her time––Nadezhda Mandelstam––who in her final letter to Osip calls out “It’s me: Nadia. Where are you?”
A crucial point about A Life Replaced is that there is one central character in the book whose life is on a single track and Livshin is crystal clear about her intention that it stay that way. That character is her eight-year-old son Nathan. Children are the refuge sought and sometimes found by the elder writers, children and love. Time and again Livshin crosses the threshold and finds shelter and peace. Sometimes these moments are fleeting: “right now there is something softer than fear,” “for that second I am made of my child and someone turns off the snow” “she is temporarily made of love.” Gandelsman finds peace and innocence in children: “a child is sleeping on hand under her cheek, the other hugging a doll. She is not dreaming of guilt: she is profoundly right.”
In the final poem of the book “To Russia With You,” Livshin dares to imagine what it would be like to really visit her past in present-day Odessa. We are her lover (“what transport takes flight to Russia for two women who are in love?”) and then we are her child (“But would I risk your life, kiddo just to hear you say, Mama, was that your home? I’d press my forehead against yours: Now you know”). During readings, Livshin would prop Nathan up on her knee so that he could reach the microphone and read his parts.
In this poem, Livshin sees her two countries for what they are:
News: I have now lived most life in a country that, as
Akhmatova would say, is relatively vegetarian – People aren’t
the main staple of its diet.
Old news: Russia is carnivorous. – New news: now carnivorous
beyond its borders.
Sort-of-new news: this country never stopped being
She sees the people at once as her own and not her own. She hears languages, their interference, constructive and destructive. She is worried, nostalgic, mournful, reverent, loving, grateful, torn. This book is migrant, shifting, elusive and resonant. The author is ready to do whatever it takes and translation alone will not be enough. Livshin (and the future generation, a member of which she parents) will not be among those whom Kaminsky in his vital “We Lived Happily During the War” so poignantly beckons to say “(forgive us)” for not doing enough.
But we were raised to not say our goodbyes over the threshold and for now Livshin is here to stay.
Livshin, Olga. A Life Replaced, Poems with Translations from Anna Akhmatova and Vladimir Gandelsman. Poets & Traitors Press, 2019.
Lev Fridman is a speech-language pathologist based in New York City. He has facilitated translation projects and publications, and his own writings and translations have appeared in Ugly Duckling Press, Odessa Review and The Café Review. His most recent research has focused on the literary legacy of Mykola Bazhan.