Friday, November 1, 2013

Alex Cigale on Gennady Aygi

I should first say I’m a poet not an academic, and a poet-translator only as a product of my affinities. My goal here is to pay tribute to Gennady Aygi’s work and, in concert with his widow, Galina Aygi Kuborskaya, and his primary translator and friend, Peter France, to expand Aygi’s English readership.  Please join in the conversation, post your comment, and return often for daily-updated links. I would also like to invite critical attention, to stake a claim for Aygi’s place in the canon of world literature.

I’ll begin with the obvious, the immediate association of Aygi’s name with the word “difficult” because metaphysical and linguistic concerns predominate in his work. Yet his symbolic vocabulary, standing in for the numinous—field, tree, rose, light, fire, heart, snow, emptiness, whiteness, purity, silence—is simplicity itself. Conceptualism, minimalism, yes, but of a kind that may be qualified as nearly “sentimental,” as the thinking self is never dissociated from the feeling self in Aygi’s work. I read in it, existing as it does between cultures, the autobiography of the liminal, the construction of a semantic space as a sacred object, an object for meditation. Above all, his is a personal Voice.

Gennady Aygi began writing in his native Chuvash and only switched to Russian in 1960; thus his body of work may be viewed through the lens of post-colonial literature. Its “foreignness” (that glacially-paced resistance of the text, slippage between object and idea, ambiguous conjugation—as though, like speaking, the writing too is accented) presents a difficulty to the reader, perhaps even more so in the original Russian than in translation. For this reason, Aygi’s reception abroad has far outpaced acceptance of his poetry in Russia, where he is still primarily thought of as a “poet’s poet.”

Famously encouraged by Pasternak, whose verse (except the early, Futurist-inspired work) bore no resemblance to his, Aygi had to switch to writing in Russian to gain an audience. Among other Silver Age antecedents, Aygi shares with Velimir Khlebnikov a folk, ethnographic subtext expressed in a very different tradition. Perhaps one key to appreciating Aygi’s lyrical voice is its performative aspect, also an influence of folk song. What one hears in his verses is a shamanic practice, in praise of the naïve and natural world.

Aygi’s contact with French poetry (he’d translated an anthology into Chuvash) and with the West more generally was rare in his time. “Free” verse was until quite recently alien to Russian practice, which privileged rhyme and regular formal structures. Influenced by French post war WWII poets and Paul Celan, he incorporated into his work complex linguistic textures, the semantics of broken, ambiguous syntax and diction, and the expressive use of white space and typography, a nearly unique contribution in contemporary Russian poetry.

As a translator of Aygi, I am left groping to construct in English a poem that might suggest, through its diction, registers, textures, and resistances, most of the associations of the original. As for the challenges in doing so, I need only point to the simplest word, the very first one, in the poem whose title I have translated as “Calmly: precious little (book inscription)”: The Russian est (soft “t”) cannot be translated only as “there is,” containing as it does all the particular occasions for the act of speaking. Nor is the second word really “awakening,” with its prefix suggesting a duration; perhaps better “coming to consciousness.” Here, one may read some convergences with Russian conceptualist and minimalist contemporaries, one particularly relevant example being Vsevolod Nekrasov’s “Svoboda Est’ Svoboda,” “Freedom is Freedom,” a poem consisting entirely of the simple statement repeatedly intoned, wherein the meaning may be read variously depending on the placement of the pause.

Elsewhere, I have addressed the necessity of privileging truth in spirit over truth in word, the value of semantic instability more generally, as well as issues specific to the insurmountable differences one encounters in travelling between Russian and English. At nearly every step a translator is faced with contingency—what is differently possible in English. In “Calmly: precious little,” the adjective for snow may be read as “rare” and what I’ve translated as “inadvertent” is, literally, “step-in-step,” neither a satisfactory solution in English.

What comes to mind is Joseph Brodsky’s reaction to Paul Schmidt’s translations of Khlebnikov: “At his best, Khlebnikov is an extremely difficult, highly hermetic writer, even in Russian. The very process of comprehending him is in itself a simplification. Translation is only the next step in that direction." So for Aygi: any possible translation represents but a single reading. To return to my example: the word est, repeated four times in the first five lines of the original, appears in my English twice; the other instances are implied. At every step, the translator, like the reader, comes face to face with ambiguity, the ineffable being spoken.

It seems to me that, for Aygi particularly, such word by word analysis is akin to the translator taking off his underwear in public—naked and shameful. And so the following will have to suffice for now: due to the “simplicity” I have mentioned, nearly every word in Aygi seems to require special handling on the part of the translator, the whole always teetering uncomfortably between profundity and cliché. My hope is that the “finished” product will engage this sort of word-by-word attention on the part of the reader without interrupting the perception of the whole, what may be said to be Aygi’s singular theme.

I have said enough. Now, I would like to hear you speak.