Being in the Everyday


As I said
, Lev Loseff, translated by G.S.Smith (154pp, Arc Visible Poets)
Days full of caves and tigers
, Fabio Pusterla, translated by Simon Knight (132pp, Arc Visible Poets)


The Lev Loseff is a Poetry Book Society Recommended Translation. He was born Leningrad, 1937, and, after many years in the USA teaching, died in New Hampshire, 2009. He lived to be at first a collaborator with the translator, after which G.S.Smith had to go it alone. The latter's introduction is an enlightening account of this history and of the decisions he has made and why. The basic decision was to stay as close to the originals as possible. Without any Russian, I can see on the opposite pages that the shaping corresponds as do patterns (I can note, anyway, letters) of rhyme.

The translation reads, employing varying forms and modes of meaning, in a consistently pleasing flow. 

     The graveyard where we spent some idle moments
     watching the ways the mid-day clouds sculpted
     themselves from nothing, heavy-loaded,
     luxuriantly, keeping edges scalloped -

     that place was home to a sound inchoate:
     music perhaps, or 'drink-drink-drink' birdcall,
     and in the air, trembling and glowing,
     hung a thread, almost ethereal.

     Now what was that? The hawthorn whisper?
     Or was it squaw Indian summer worming
     between the paws of the spruces?
     Or was it only the babble of those old women

     one with a measure, one spinning but declining
     to weave, the third with shears? Maybe the Connecticut
     gossiping towards the Atlantic,
     and the grass sighing 'Forget me not'.

This is the whole of a section (dated March 1996, Eugene) without separate title, of a sequence called 'Cold 1921-1996'. A choice has been made in line 5 between 'inchoate sound' and 'sound inchoate', and in three stanzas of the Russian there seems to be rhyme not altogether followed here. My view is that rhyme in these poems is properly secondary to flow.

From a sequence of separate poems called 'The talking parrot' (2010), two stanzas of 'Russian depression':

     All of Russia - right up from the trackless
     road-to-nowhere median belt,
     to the pole at the top of the Arctic
     where the ice has started to melt,

     inexhaustible Finnish drizzle,
     Tauride lion stretched out in the heat
     - it all found its place in your grizzled,
     thinning-haired, dark-eyed head.

There is a consistent conveying of 'being there' whether he was or not; in some instances obviously he was, for example, dated 1985, more of a rambling section of a longer sequence with a title as this first line,

     I'm living in the States from boredom,
     pretending that I'm someone else,
     pronouncing these unpleasant noises,
     some in the throat, some through the nose,

and so on without line spaces, so that I found myself looking to the left hand page wondering if this really was first written in Russian, as it was. With, it would seem, in English more of a roll of line lengths.

In both the Translator's Preface and in the Introduction by Barry P.Scherr, Joseph Brodsky is the presiding spirit, not least relating to the shared transition from Russia to the USA, and there are seven helpful pages of Notes to the English texts, mostly related to contexts, circumstances, references we would, many of us, not know otherwise.


The book of Fabio Pusterla's poems has a more slender introduction by the translator, a slightly longer one by Alan Brownjohn, working only from the translation, that tells us what we would anyway discover for ourselves, and there are, briefly, some notes to the poems. Pusterla, born 1957, is of Swiss-Italian parentage and writes in Italian.

The poems have more of the statement about them than Loseff's; perhaps more extrovert would be a good description: how to be sure about his voice in Italian? Something starker, not in depth of emotion but in having a say, they are more talk. The last extract quoted above from Losoff seems subjective when contrasted with this from Pusterla:

     She feels abandoned on the balcony. Had she read
     Ezra Pound she might think she were Ezra Pound,
     looking down on Pisa,

     but it is only her, a tiny
     splinter, a lizard
     too old to run along the wall.

     And she utters absurdities,
     alarms the neighbours,
     shouting in the wind's teeth.

This is a section from a sequence called 'Tremor'. It's a style that is applied to the personal or with a wider view, ('Without images'):

     Having years ago happily decided
     to give up television we shall not see
     the dance of bombs on Baghdad on Basra on the remains
     of what was once the centre of the world.

And so on. The translator says he worked with the author on these selections from books published between 1985 and 2011. He, Simon Knight, tells us he sees 'in the background always a strong sense of civilisation under threat, darkness closing in. How does one resist, retain one's humanity, in the dehumanising age in which we live, with its cruelty, wars, misinformation, consumerism, dumbed-down mass entertainment, envirionmental degradation?' This is quite a lecture of a digest and could, I suppose, have conditioned the mood or mode of the translation. I don't find, though, in the poems much subtlety, the voice is strident, and perhaps, agree with him or not, we are being lectured. It makes me reflect on poetry from the sidelines. Here begins 'Letters from Babel':

     You say you dreamed a horrible dream. On TV
     you saw us die, buried in rubble, and the scene went on endlessly,
     repeated over and over: the great collapse of the Tower of Babel,
     and us beneath the media dust cloud. Then
     you were put in the care of tyrannical guardians,

and so on. Don't good journalists do this better from being in the everyday of it?

     David Hart 2012