Mashinski at Mount Holyoke.

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.


  1. It’s been a long day, and reading over this entry I realize it’s even more rambling and clogged with parentheses than my usual; furthermore, I suspect my translations aren’t as accurate as they should be. As always, any corrections/improvements are welcome.

  2. Thanks for the pointers, LH! I was totally awed by this – it’s a strong visual image of early Russian spring to me, with its receding piles of dirty snow, and I can’t even clearly see why it works so visually:

    Воздух дырчатый и улицы-закладки,
    черный сахар, колотый кайлом,
    и арифметической загадки
    головокружительный излом…

  3. I don’t know Russian, so this is quite exotic to me, but I think of Nabokov, admiring Kronenberg’s Russian translation of Ophelia’s death, in Pnin (“plïla i pela, pela i plïla”), and his korona/vorona/korova (crown/crow/cow) in Pale Fire, and I start recognizing the stream that him and Mashinski both drank from, a century apart.

  4. Dmitry Pruss (aka MOCKBA): I’m absolutely delighted you like her work! Introducing people to poetry I love is one of the things I most enjoy doing at LH, and I should do it more often.

    Y: Funny you should mention that “plïla i pela” bit, because Mashinski quotes exactly that as the epigraph to her beautiful little poem “Офелия” (the third one on this page), and she plays with those sounds throughout:


               Плыла и пела

    Спала в тебя,
    спала к тебе
    и засыпать сбегала от тебя,
    как одинокая, за спичечную стену.
    Июль сплела с тобой, сплела и спела,
    и, словно шторы, тину развела.
    Как ты хотел, и стал нам свет
    и стало так, что я что ты, хотела.
    И падала, и пела, и плыла.
    Ты спал. Вверху лежали облака,
    как одинокие, без сна, без одеяла

  5. Красота!!

    And I agree about Brodsky. Listening to the films of him speaking/reading in Russian is better than reading his translations, by far.

  6. I think I’ve said before that although I dutifully bought his books in English as they came out because he was a Great Russian Poet, I had no idea he was actually a great poet until I was able to read him in Russian.

  7. By the way, I have an indelible association of the word мастерок ‘trowel’ with Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, in which Shukhov takes us through all the details of using one effectively (and a check with the Национальный корпус русского языка confirms that he used this unliterary word far more often than anyone else in Russian literature).

  8. J.W. Brewer says

    If you’re in the market for a rhyme for “Art Tatum” in the first place, “verbatim” seems like a pretty obvious choice. “Datum” is less flexible and combinations like “hate ’em” or “mate ’em” may give the composition an Ogden Nash sort of vibe which not every poet is trying to achieve.

  9. Since this seems to be my day for e-stalking the Hat, I want to add my thanks for this post and my envy for what must have been a memorable evening with Irina Mashinski. How many poets wow you with their craft AND then drive you home afterwards? (Just think, Gazdanov could have increased his literary income by offering a similar service – evening of scintillating prose, taxi ride home incIuded). I met Irina last year and she was kind enough to give me, too, a copy of one of her anthologies – which I will post about one of these weeks. Sadly, I didn’t get to enjoy her chauffeuring skills – she left her wheels in the States. Finally, I second both your comments on Irina’s translator Boris Dralyuk!

  10. I wish I were there. Irina is a wonderful poet indeed.
    Was anyone recording?

  11. And why can’t Languagehat set up live chats in Russian? On Mr Google or with Марек? *Марек – Mark, i.e. Zuckerberg.

  12. Was anyone recording?

    Not as far as I know, sorry! You can get a taste of her reading in Russian here and in English (almost inaudibly) here.

  13. thanks!

  14. Thank you all so very much!
    Incidentally, as far as I remember, it was verbatim that was the base word looking for a rhyme) – which came under the name of AT

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