Tuesday, March 27, 2007

You’re Thirteen: The Poetry of Galaktion Tabidze in TranslationYou’re Thirteen

This is one of Tabidze’s earliest poems — it was published in 1919, in his first book, Crâne Aux Fleurs Artistique. Possibly written in 1915 — when Tabidze was only twenty-two — it looks at the infatiuation of a very young girl, from the point of view of a much older man. Little evidence exists to suggest that the poem is autobiographical — in fact, Tabidze rarely wrote directly of his own life, preferring instead to adopt voices and personae, playing with various points of view.

Interestingly, the only detail the poem’s narrator gives concerning his love interest (and the poem’s addressee) is that she’s thirteen. This is used as a launching-point for a meditation on the shame of corruption, the cruelty of ageing, and finally, the beauty that only comes when a thing is fragile and fleeting… quite a lot to pack into twelve lines. Note also the deliberate uncomplicatedness of the original — often only four, or even three words per line, the poem itself becomes what it embodies: fragile, fleeting, simple and beautiful.

You’re Thirteen

You’re thirteen and you’ve ensnared
a graying lover’s evil dreams.
Line up thirteen bullets here:
I’ll take my own life thirteen times.

Another thirteen years go by,
soon you’ll come to twenty-six.
The tallest iris gets the scythe:
time and poem mourn their necks.

How hastily youth slips away—
remorseless wishes of the lion.
And everything glows tenderly
when Autumn sunlight’s pouring in.

First published in Georgia Today

Kari Hkris: The Poetry of Galaktion Tabidze in Translation

This is possibly the most famous poem of Tabidze’s. The smooth, swooping rhythm, indicative of the wind it describes, make it a popular poem for memorization. Additionally, the yearning, lost-love theme is beautifully symbolized in the image of a blustery day, bad weather obscuring everything from sight.

The poem is, for me, most reminiscent of Robert Frost’s poetry — poems like “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” or “Nothing Gold Can Stay” similarly conflate weather and loss. They also similarly make use of simple-seeming words and imagery to create a poem that lingers with you long after you’ve read it.

Galaktion distinguishes himself by pushing the music to the forefront of his poems. The sonic effects nearly overpower the meaning so that, like any good song, you can sing along almost before you begin to understand the words.

This poem is often taught to foreigners studying Georgian. Its relative simplicity, reliance on repetition — either exact phrases, or words like “how” and “every” that repeat within the line — and the song-like nature combine to make this short, sweet little poem eminently readable.

Sweeping Wind

Sweeping wind, sweeping wind, sweeping wind,
Brushing leaves, rushing up, gusting through…
Rows of trees, whole armies, bow and bend
Where are you, where are you, where are you?
First it rains, then it snows, then it snows.
Where you are, I’ll never know, never know!
Everywhere, haunting me, is your face.
Every day, all the time, every place…
An endless sky sifts its misty musings in
Sweeping wind, sweeping wind, sweeping wind…

Monday, March 19, 2007

Take You A Ridin' on the Train-Train

So Saturday night last, K. and I left our cold, cold apartment at 9 in the post meridian, and caught the subway to the train station, where a sleeper cabin to Batumi awaited...

The "new" train turned out to be an old Russian thing, leaving us to wonder what the "old" train was. And purchasing first class tickets seemed to mean that we got the entire cabin, which usually sleeps four, to ourselves. Either that, or first class tickets still kind of suck. Basically there were four benches, two attached about midway up the wall. There was a tiny little table, and some rubber curtains which velcroed shut, so that we wouldn't be bothered by the light. We ate some oranges and chocolate that we brought with us, drank a little beer, and tried to sleep to the gentle rocking/swaying, and occasional stopping of the slow train. It was actually quite a nice ride.

Our train pulled into the station around seven in the morning -- far to early for anyone other than street cleaners to be up anywhere in the country. So we got our meager belongings together and set about exploring Batumi.

Batumi is a small city in the far bottom right corner of Georgia -- in the "Autonomous Republic of Adjara" I think back in 2003 and 2004, before the Rose Revolution, and before Saakashvili put the boot to the local warlord/Supreme Comander "Aslan Abashidze," Adjara was far more autonomous and bananna-republican than it is now. Now there are well-dressed polite police, just like everywhere else, and trash cans that most people seem to avoid using, and a brand-new looking amusement park, and more. The city is actually pleasantly not in need of too much repair. Despite the (untrue) assertions of a recent slate.com article which claimed that all the manhole covers had been stolen and sold for scrap -- I'd say that Batumi was one of the most clean, orderly, un-broken places I've been in Georgia.

It was wet. Spring is the rainy season, also the cold season, so K. and I walked around waiting for the hotels and coffee shops to open up, and tried not to get rained on. We walked to the beach, and played a little bit among the rocks. We found the only early-bird cafe in the city, and drank some steaming hot turkish coffee.

We found a great hotel -- called the Montpelier. And this is when K. turned to me and said "you realize that we're starting a trend here. When we got engaged, we celebrated at a little B&B. When we got married, we went to Montpelier (vt) and stayed at a hotel. Now here we are on our first anniversary, and we're at a hotel." So next year we're going to Montpellier, France, and going to a hotel. It's only right.

We then spent most of the rest of the day wandering around. First we went to Gonio -- supposedly a huge, completely intact ancient Roman fortress. It was a little bit out of town, but the minibus took us right to the gate. The castle wall was huge, and stretched a good New York City block to each side. And peering in past the gate, you couldn't even see the back wall. But it was closed.

Then we went back walking along the beach. A big, brand-new ferris wheel, which looked really nice was sitting right on the waterfront. It was a bit windy, but we walked up anyway. I was impressed by how new and safe it looked --most everything in Georgia has at least a hint of danger to it. But it was closed.

Walking on, we found the Aquarium. Apparently during Soviet times, this was a dolphin research center. Statues and pictures of dolphins are all over the city -- there are dolphin statues in different parks, a mural of divers swimming with dolphins -- this place was known all over the USSR for their dolphins. walking in, we saw a beautiful coi pond full of giant goldfish. And we walked up to buy a ticket and go see the much-touted dolphins. You can guess what we discovered. It was closed. A pattern began to emerge.

Luckily, they couldn't close the beach. It's a rock beach -- which was actually nice, since the sand didn't get in our shoes, and it was way too cold to swim. And the waves made a lovely crackling sound as they beat on the shore.

For dinner, we ate at this little English tea shop.. then to celebrate our one year anniversary, we bought a bottle of champagne, and headed back to the cold, cold hotel. Next year can only be more luxurious.

Upon waking, we discovered, to our chagrin, that the 10:00 train home wasn't actually arriving, and we were five minutes late for the 8:25 train -- which normally wouldn't be a problem in Georgia. That would still give us time to eat breakfast and have a leisurely walk to the station. But apparently trains are on schedule here, so we missed it.

No problem, there's marshrutkas (mini busses) that leave every hour. We ate, paid up, and went to catch the bus. And proceeded to have the most harrowing drive of our entire lives. While Batumi is a rainy sub-tropical haven on the Black sea, with palm trees everywhere, and Tbilisi has had the driest, warmest winter in years (in the five months we've been here, less than a week of rainy days) the between parts of Georgia, are apparently a giant snowy mess. Add to that our driver who was working his way through a pack of cigarettes (and a box of matches) as well as engaging in a series of increasingly red-faced phone calls concerning a young ten-year-old boy in his care in the front seat (who kept stealing his cigarettes) and the only thing more engaging than the drama in the front seat of the bus, was the drama out the windshield, as we drifted around the road like a sailboat. I kept wishing our driver would use more than (or at least) one hand to drive, especially given all the freezing sleet that was pelting the road, the windshield, and us, every time he rolled down the window to smoke another cigarette.

This is the danger I'm talking about. I finally had to go to sleep.
And then we were home. Hooray!

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Train Car

I just saw Orion out on the back porch. It's one of my favorite constellations, probably because it's one of the only ones I can recognize. Still.. I have many fond memories of wandering around way, way late at night, and seeing it in both HS and college. Thinking about stars, and light and distance, and wondering what's out there and up there, and thinking about how long it took all that light from all those very, very far-off places to come, at the same moment, to my eyes, and remind me of a box with a little line in it. hm.

Tonight, in about an hour and a half, K and I are taking a train to Batumi for our one year anniversary. It's in the far western/southern part of Georgia, a little port city on the Black Sea. We'll be sleeping in our fancy little train car, and arriving tomorrow, to what all the internets and weather sites tell us will be a rainy, cold, sleepy little town with not much in it except a beach, some coffee, and a little natural park. Sounds just perfect, actually.

As buying things that are not drinking horns or wildly fuzzy hats seems to continue to present problems here, K is not getting her anniversary present until April 2nd -- when she returns to the U.S. for a couple weeks to check out Grad schools and compete for a big-time fellowship at NYU. This is okay. I think she will like her present well enough, despite its tardiness.

I will tell you about Batumi when we get back. Karen will have to tell you about the present.

And Edgar Was Third

This poem is an homage to Edgar Allen Poe. One of Tabidze’s earliest Western influences outside the Symbolist poets, Poe shared the Symbolists love of and focus on the musicality of poetry — alliteration, meter, complicated rhyming, etc. Galaktion shared Poe’s grim disposition, even from a young age, and themes of impossible love, loneliness, sadness and desolation are prevalent throughout his work.

Here Tabidze refers to Poe’s muse, Lenore, (as well as to Poe himself) creating an appropriately dark, vaguely religious and lovelorn setting for “the stroll). The poem was published in 1915, during the beginning of Tabidze’s career, before the Communist revolution, during a period of relative literary freedom.

Some notable themes, which Tabidze was to continue exploring throughout his life, include the melancholic, romantic individual as well as elements of mystery, and the use of certain symbols (wind, bells, temples) which are given weight because of their roles as multifaceted (thus indefinable) symbols.

As you read the poem (especially in Georgian) read it out loud; listen to how artfully the poem moves, how the sounds flow together. This is where Galaktion’s genius lies.

And Edgar Was Third

We two toward the temple bore,
sunlight fading. Prayers. Tolling.
On our eerie way, Lenore,
the wind was snapping branches, howling.
These wings were pining for a bold
dispassion toward your isolation.
But suddenly there was a third
between us, quelling conversation.
And a hollow voice intoned:
The final hour’s drawing near.
In the crying, dying wind,
we three toward the temple bore.

(The Window Tangled)

This is an untitled poem by the poet Galaktion Tabidze (1891-1951). Galaktion was widely considered during his time (and after) to be one of the greatest poets in Georgia — and for good reason. The breadth and depth of his body of work is impressive — he wrote about a variety of subjects, in a variety of forms, and blended an easy accessibility with a complex symbolism, allowing for multiple levels of interpretion in even his most accessible poems. In this way he is not unlike the American poet Robert Frost.

According to the scholar Irakli Kenchoshvili (irakli kenWoSvili) this poem was first published, undated, in 1940. It was republished in 1957, backdated to 1915 — before the Communist Revolution — thus making the darker subject matter “appropriate” for the Communist censors. According to Professor Kenchoshvili’s speculations, the poem was written after Tabidze’s wife was arrested and shot, during the terrors of the “Great Purge.”

During this time, obviously, Tabidze couldn’t write directly about his loss. However, the obscured imagery and deft blurring of focus on background imagery (curtains, a candle), combined with the chaotic imagery of storm, thunder, and avalanche serve to create a sense of powerlessness, an inability to even see rightly in the face of uncontrollably destructive forces. It is this powerlessness that ironically gives the poem its force, and it is the hammering last line — the inconceivable loss, repeated over and over that makes the poem so moving.

* *

The window tangled
night and curtain,
a candle flickered
there, uncertain,
when your image
in the night,
left home
and did not return.

Your graceful, ardent,
bitter tears;
the glowing genius
of your stares—
so glorious and dismal;
Your tempest of ideas,
left home
and did not return.

Your brilliant eyes
which, when heightening,
expelled the darkness
with such brightening
it was like a
flash of lightning—
left home
and did not return.

And when the light
went out, I felt it:
an avalanche
of mourning melted
my life was wrenched
from where I held it —
it left home
and did not return.

First published in Georgia Today

Saturday, March 10, 2007


This is for all you squeamish readers out there.

I like to go out to the food markets, where the Georgians shop. Incredibly tasty vegetables, interesting sauces, spit-strewn concrete floors... but I haven't been able to bring myself to buy meat there. As interesting as it would be to get a piglet corpse, or a freshly-plucked, ungutted chicken, I can't bring myself to make the purchase yet. I'm scared. I'll admit it. Thousands of people buy their meat there every day, and mass contamination is not hitting the city, but I'm scared.

So, when I decided today that I wanted some ground beef for spaghetti sauce, I made for the brand-new, bright and shiny european super-duper market, replete with gleaming linoleum, sneeze guards, bright fluorescent lights, and styrofoam prepackaged goodies.

But some things only change so much. So when I went to the meat section and asked for a half kilo of ground beef, the kindly kid behind the counter grabbed a plastic grocery bag, scooped a couple handfuls of meat into it, and held it out to me over the counter.

We'll be cooking that thoroughly.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Avante Garde

Went to the theater tonight -- Hamlet. K and I even rejected the English-language live-translation headphones in favor of watching the play in Georgian (Hey, we already know the story, and some friday-night language study is a useful thing)..

It turns out that Georgian theater is awesome. Who knew? The play was directed by Robert Sturua -- a world-reknowned Shakespeare director. The play was wild-- very, very strange. Lots of technicolor coats and fedora hats. And Claudius looked just like Mikheil Saakashvili, the current president of Georgia. That's ballsy.

But this was a performance that -- I kid you not -- would have been right at home on any Broadway theater, whether in Georgian or English. The acting, the set design, the costumes, and the directing were all first rate. And this was one of the most inventive takes on Hamlet I've ever seen. First off, he was bat-shit crazy the whole time. There was no "I'm pretending wink wink" ... he was just insane. And Claudius was so vivid -- intense, wild. He seemed like he could murder someone pretty easily. And Gertrude was a slut. She just did this lurid come-on to whomever was nearest whenever she felt bad. The actors climbed all over each other. It was really a fantastic play. I wish Sturua had made it into a movie. That's how good it was.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

I got drunk on national television

..and wrote about it in Lost Writers.

I also went to the turkish baths -- a luxurious experience, which I'll write about soon. Right now I'm putting together a paper for a literature conference here (what? I know!) so that's taking up a lot of my time.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Toot Toot


The first of what will hopefully be many...