I made it to the reading at Mount Holyoke College last night (see this post), and I’m very glad I did: Irina Mashinski is not only a wonderful poet but a wonderful reader of her own poetry, and there’s little I like as well as hearing good poetry read well (by which I mean musically, not dramatically — I can rarely bear to hear actors read poems, because they tend to make them sound like soliloquies). It was a cozy setup, a dozen people sitting on comfortable armchairs and sofas arranged in a rectangle with the lectern by the wall (at one end of a long library room), and almost all were Russian speakers or at least Russian students. I suffered, as I knew I would, the embarrassment of not being able to converse in Russian — it’s just been too long since I had anyone to talk with — but I understood what people were saying, and anyway the poetry was the important thing.
She read mainly from her latest collection, «Офелия и мастерок» [Ophelia and the trowel] (there’s a link on that page from which you can download the text as a pdf, which I did, and read it on my Kindle before the event — what a world we live in!), but she also read some earlier ones, like “То, что было со мной…” (the first poem on this page). As always, I was enchanted by her use of repetition (“голубой, голубой антрацит”), near-repetition (“смелее, смелей”), and all the devices of rhyme and assonance that make Russian poetry, when well done, so uniquely satisfying. If I’m remembering correctly, she finished the reading with the last poem in the new collection, “Giornata” (which she said she used in the sense ‘day’s work’); the first two lines are a good illustration of what I’m talking about:
Небо, в оба края растворимо,
облако, что Рим, неоспоримо
[Nebo, v oba kraya rastvorimo,
óblako, chto Rim, neosporimo]
It means something like “The sky, open at both edges [i.e., a window with both panes open to the sky — thanks, Irina!],/ a cloud, like Rome, indisputable,” but meaning is not the issue here. Listen to nebo/oba/oblako, rastvorimo/Rim/neosporimo! I can never get enough of that kind of verbal magic.
I’m also a bit embarrassed because after the reading she insisted not only on giving me copies of «Офелия и мастерок», her 2009 collection «Волк: Избранные стихотворения» [Wolf: Selected poems], and her grandmother’s family biography «Моя семья: XX век» [My family: 20th century] with its cornucopia of old photographs, but on driving me home, absolutely refusing to let me take the bus — she was spending the night in Amherst, just a few minutes away from Hadley, and she was proud of her GPS. Fortunately, I was already accustomed to the fact that Russians will go far out of their way for you, and on the drive we had a most enjoyable conversation about Tyutchev and Pushkin (their simplicity makes them hard to translate), Nabokov (he kept his love of wordplay under control in Russian but let it get out of hand in English), Brodsky (his translations don’t do him justice), Boris Dralyuk (a wonderful translator and a great guy in general), and who knows what all; I also got a chance to tell her how I had discovered her early collection «После эпиграфа» [After the epigraph] in NYC in the late ’90s (I was especially smitten with her poem in memory of Brodsky: “С деревьев пускай твое имя слетает, но только не с губ./ Еще поглазеет хвоя, что тебе до того? Вот, на звездах/ ближайших уже различима твоя нетяжелая тень.” “Let your name fall off from the trees, but not from lips./ The pine branches will still stare, but what is that to you? Look, in the nearest stars/ your unheavy shade can already be discerned.”) and how impressed I was by the quality of the poems she writes in English (she read “The Border,” with its concatenation “broke free,/ flew away, saw fiords —/ lost fear,” and in another poem she delightfully rhymes verbatim with Art Tatum)… Well, I just hope she had as good a time as I did, and I’m very glad I dragged myself out of the house for a change.