David Lehman’s scintillating introduction to Monday night’s reading of poetry by three young Russians and three young Americans at the Mid-Manhattan Branch of the New York Public Library brought Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Gogol, Babel, Akhmatova, Blok, Pasternak, Mandelstam, Mayakovsky, Nabokov, and Brodsky into the room, a perfect stage for the next ninety minutes of verse in two languages.
In an evening presented by the Debut Prize and Causa Artium, Dina Gatina, Alla Gorbunova, and Lev Oborin, winners of the prestigious Russian literary honor, read and conversed with three award-winning American poets -- Brooklyn’s Poet Laureate Tina Chang, the delightfully imaginative Heather Christle, and the inimitable Matthew Yeager. The overflow crowd thrilled to the discovery of new voices, rhythms, and images amid glimmers of recognition and recollections of the familiar. John William Narins’s translations and David Lehman’s insightful and witty moderation of the conversation kept the evening’s focus on each poet’s individual talents as well as the cross-connections of poetic heritage.
Following are some excerpts of the poems read:
Dina Gatina, born in the Russian provinces in 1981, an illustrator and poet:
every day millions of
people die for our sins
“you’re repeating yourself”
repeat after me
from “Untitled,” translated by Ainsley Morse and Bela Shayevich
Tina Chang, born in 1969 in Oklahoma, poet and teacher of poetry at Sarah Lawrence:It wasn’t holy so let us not praise gods.
Let us not look to them for bread,
nor the cup that changed water to wine.
Let us look to the bend of the road
that reaches. A silver blur across
the skyline, woman standing on a farm.
In her grasp, the shine that is seed,
That is beginning.
from “The Idea of Revelation”
Alla Gorbunova, born in 1985 on Vasilievsky Island in St. Petersburg, poet, translator, reviewer, journalist and teacher of philosophy:a monument to those who have fallen into oblivion
to the woodland villages
a temple to the profundity of the cranes;
teardrops in the hooflets of thaw-patches.
a monument to those who have fallen into oblivion
from “in the promise of catastrophe”
Heather Christle, born in 1980 in New Hampshire, poet, teacher of poetry at Sarah Lawrence and web editor for jubilat:It’s no good trying to talk to a roof
A roof already knows everything
It will only turn away
Better to stand on it
and yell facts at the stars
as if you were a real rocket
I’m tired of my constant apologies
All the sorrows I’ve whispered to leaves
who do nothing who tremble
who will not be appeased
I will be a leaf myself
from “Up Again With The Night”
Lev Oborin, born in 1987 in Moscow, poet, critic, translator, and musician:
The crumb of the bread in a thick of ducks
is quite the black hole, no mistake
(except white, and it doesn’t act both near and far,
so it’s really a neutron star).
and inwards the birds are all sucked
towards the lump on the autumn lake
a rare and perfect day,
almost time to fly away,
Matthew Yeagar, graduated high school in 1998, a poet and filmmaker:You’re Henry Hudson, and one hour ago, you were asleep,
You were in you bunk in your cabin on your back,
And the weird northern light through your porthole, etc.
Now you are watching your own ship sail away without you on it.
You’re Henry Hudson
And you are having a hard time believing so.
from “poem [You’re Henry Hudson]”
As the organizers promised beforehand, the evening of young, award-winning Russian and American poets was full of variety, richness, confidence and vibrancy, and the program one of connections, bringing to mind the ribs, cables, wires, and expanses of bridges, the similes and swagger David Lehman captured in translation in “Brooklyn Bridge, after Vladimir Mayakovsky”
And finally I see –
here stood Mayakovsky,
composing verse, syllable by syllable.
I look at you
as an Eskimo admires a train.
I stick to you
as a tick to an ear.
You’re really something,
Madge McKeithen teaches writing at the New School, is at work on her second book, and writes online at www.madgemckeithen.com