The Poet and the Child

Anyone who remembers, a lifetime ago, trying to make out new patterns on the wallpaper each night and being terrified by the dark frightening folds of that strange shape on the chair will understand what I am about to say. A poetic sensibility or sense—whether sixth or seventh—first appears early in life; all children have it to a greater or lesser degree—a tendency, even a passion for resemblance. To a child, the world appears to be a big house full of things and she, more than anyone, can sense their familial resemblances. This is not a metaphor; it is a morphogenetic law of life itself, which we discover back in our childhood.

This is why children know the world so well. Strange-sounding substitutions in a child’s speech seem entertaining and accidental only to grownups, who perceive things as existing independently of each other. The world of a grownup is dismembered and compartmentalized.  It is rare that a grownup acts by association in everyday life—as rare as a slip of the tongue. How often do we shove a rake into the tableware drawer? For a child, however, a rake and a fork are, basically, one and the same. A child doesn’t deal in labels but in the substance of things. Such deep metonymy requires unconditional faith. And it is faith that breaks down first. This is precisely what happens in adolescence. 

Adolescents are antipoets. Hearing a metaphor, they raise their eyebrows: what are you babbling about? Try telling an adolescent a joke that hinges on metonymy. Try to explain an abstraction by a metaphor. It is only in youth that the original sense returns—but not to everyone. This is why there are millions of grownup adolescents living on this planet.

Poets are people who manage to keep alive what they discover in childhood (or who never manage to forget it): the law of universality. This is why it seems that poets know something about the future. To a child, a signifier is more than just a signifier. A child has trouble understanding what “just a symbol” means. For a child even a signifier is a thing unto itself.  Actually, that’s how children are taught: look, this letter looks just like a bagel, this one, like a slide. A poet is someone who gets stuck at this stage of mastering symbols.

A reader’s love for poems is, among other things, a longing for a time when things were still things and not concepts. Once you get past your own internal barriers and all the screens and obstacles erected by the lyric poet, so that the path feels both virgin and memorable, you return to your own beginnings, when during the dreaded naptime an outlined rainbowy dot with a wiggly little tail would swim diagonally under your lowered eyelids, leaving a narrow disappearing trail—to when the world was mobile and shimmering with kinship.

And so, to this day, checkers long to be played by Czechs and Czechs hurry at checkout. And Broderie anglaise, never actually handled and only read about, gives you the shivers, not because of what it and its cutwork look like, but because it makes you think of an inflamed throat or a spoonful of ice cream—when they cut out your tonsils, brought you home, and sat you down on the windowsill, on its glazed white expanse, before a winter windowpane frosted over with lacy swirls. A word is a smooth pebble in your mouth. Names are things.

The seeming chaos of poetic speech is simply a special way of putting the world into order, of battling chaos independently of, but parallel to, the logical route. This is why the poetic world, which lacks consistent correlations and is not regulated by the direct logic of concepts—this world of objectified meanings and all-permeating kinship—is off limits to those who’ve become irreversibly grownup, who have traveled too far upon the road at the beginning of which stands the symbol.  

Translated from the Russian by Maria Bloshteyn

Irina Mashinski

Three Questions for Irina

What is the significance of this work to you? What is the significance of the form you chose for this work? What was the process for creating this work?

The four pieces included in this selection are from very different eras of my life, but they all come together and interact with each other in my new book, a prosimetrum titled The Naked World. When I say ‘interact,’ I mean that they chime with each other as they will, without any involvement on my part. 

“Before Dawn” happens to be the first piece I translated, or, rather rewrote in English shortly after my arrival to the US in 1991.  It must have been a way of coping with the uneasy feeling of being suspended between the two linguistic realms, one of which I felt that I was losing, and the other one, an enigmatic stranger, albeit with a kind face, that suddenly appeared in my life, and that needed a lot of guessing on my part. As it is obvious from how both of the poems look, a few shells broke off in the process, and the focus shifted: the English version is more understated and hints at the idea of ‘no name’ only very subtly.  

These two languages are likened to a birch tree (the English language) and a willow (the Russian) in the poem evoking these two very different creatures. It was one of the first poems written directly in (into) English, and it addressed this state of in-betweenness once again, but at a different time and different level of my immersion in the language. If rewriting “Before Dawn” was almost a game, an exploration of the possibilities (and impossibilities), a challenge of sorts, as the Russian original relied heavily on sound, or, rather, on the subtle effect of the combination of the consonants and the rhythm, that seemed untranslatable, the poem “Between A Willow and a Birch Tree” was a real poem in a sense that it wasn’t a game at all, but rather an event that began, lasted for some time, and then concluded itself. 

The only prose text here, the ‘essay’ “The Poet and the Child,” deals with ‘names’, too. However, its main focus is on the power of similarity and on the metaphor as a way of resisting symbols. The latter is one of the important underlying themes in The Naked World. The text was written in Russian a long time ago, and relatively recently translated into English by my friend and collaborator Maria Bloshteyn.

“Ophelia” is a part of a triptych included in one of my recent Russian collections, Ophelia and the Trowel. The other two poems of the triptych, “Morning” and “At the Train Station,” have not yet been translated. “Ophelia” was miraculously recreated by my other friend and collaborator, Boris Dralyuk. It is to Maria’s and Boris’s remarkable sensitivity and delicate craft that these two English texts owe their very existence. 

Irina Mashinski was born in Moscow. She graduated from the Physical Geography Department of Moscow University where she later completed her Ph.D. studies. In 1991, she moved to the US where she worked as an interpreter, a high school teacher of Mathematics and Science, and taught at universities. She holds an MFA in Poetry from New England College. Irina Mashinski is the author of ten books of poetry in Russian. She is co-editor, with Robert Chandler and Boris Dralyuk, of The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (Penguin Classics, 2015), and co-translator of Lev Ozerov’s Portraits Without Frames (NYRB, 2018). She is co-founder (with the late Oleg Woolf) and editor of the US-based StoSvet/Cardinal Points literary project, which includes the Cardinal Points Journal (Brown University). Her poetry and essays in English appeared in Poetry International, Plume, The World Literature Today, International Poetry Review, Inventory, and other journals and anthologies. Irina Mashinski is the recipient of several Russian literary awards, and, with Boris Dralyuk, of the First Prize in the 2012 Joseph Brodsky/Stephen Spender Translation Prize competition (UK). In 2016, she won the Hawthornden Fellowship. Her first English-language collection, The Naked World, is forthcoming from Spuyten Duyvil.

Boris Dralyuk is the executive editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is co-editor (with Robert Chandler and Irina Mashinski) of The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, editor of 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution and Ten Poems from Russia, and translator of Isaac Babel, Mikhail Zoshchenko, and other authors. His poems have appeared in The New Criterion, The Yale Review, Jewish Quarterly, and elsewhere.

Maria Bloshteyn was born in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) and emigrated to Canada when she was nine years old. She received her PhD from Toronto’s York University and was a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University, where she examined Dostoevsky’s impact on American literature and culture. She is the author of The Making of a Counter-Culture Icon: Henry Miller’s Dostoevsky (2007) and the translator of Alexander Galich’s Dress Rehearsal (2009) and Anton Chekhov’s The Prank (2015). Her translations have also appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (Penguin Classics, 2015).

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