Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Galaktion Tabidze in Translation: My Heart - Today The Black Sea - Drums

Written in 1934, this is one of Tabidze’s poems in celebration of his country. Note the rhetoric — the way that it seems, at first, to be a love poem, and then moves toward a national poem, confusing and conflating the two, and never fully explaining itself, or its subject matter.

Is the metaphor that of woman as country, or of country as woman? There are elements that suggest each.

Typical themes in Tabidze’s work — darkness, bitterness, suffering, endurance and just enough hope to survive. Many of Tabidze’s poems read like dirges — but what is interesting is that they don’t sound like dirges.

The lines are short, and almost spry, with flutters of internal rhyme liberally sprinkled among the stanzas, giving the sound of it an almost sing-songy music. Although I wasn’t able to capture all of the internal rhymes, read just the first line in the original: “chemi gulia dghes es shavi zghva” — the rhymes between “gulia” and “shavi zghva” as well as the “dges es” punctuation make this a nearly unforgettable first line.

It’s the tension between the darkness of the subject matter, and the poem’s musical insistence on making it sound lighthearted that makes the poem as interesting as it is. Sort of like dancing in a thunderstorm.

My Heart - Today The Black Sea - Drums

I was travelling, night approaching,
The sea showed me its gardens.
—Shota Rustaveli

My heart — today the black sea — drums
and leans against Adjaran slopes.
I have weathered here such furious storms —
Let them miss your placid boats.

And though the others cannot tell,
Your pine and fir will understand
that I’m not carved from mud or shale,
but made of doubt and faith — a man.

As such, I’ll suffer what may come:
Thirst, thunderstorm or freezing rain,
As long as, with the rising dawn
one hope has light enough to shine.

I’ll suffer every obstacle —
each prison cell, each bitter slight
As long as I can still see well
enough to know my country’s plight.

The darkest taste of loneliness,
the saddest unbefriended state:
I’ll suffer all, as long as I
can see my country’s shining light.

First printed in Georgia Today

The Poetry of Galaktion Tabidze in Translation: To Gautier

During the early part of the 20th century, the French intellectual and literary world had a great influence on Georgian writers. In the mid-19th century writers such as Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, and Arthur Rimbaud had defined a poetic movement, called Symbolism, which was just beginning to make waves in Georgia. It would be only a few years later, with the Communist Revolution, that exchange between the Caucasus and the West would be largely cut off, but in 1920, when this poem was written, Georgian Symbolism (as denoted by the “Blue Drinking-Horns” group of poets) was at its peak.

Though Tabidze was not ever formally a member of the Blue Drinking Horns, he was obviously highly influenced by the Symbolists.

This poem, dedicated to Theophile Gautier, is filled, in its first 4/5, with references, both obvious and obscure, to “Western” literature in general, and to French literature, art and history specifically. In the Georgian, Tabidze uses a number of French-sounding words, in addition to naming specific people and places.

The last third, which I have taken the liberty of placing in italics, is much more specifically Georgian in tone and style, with a clean, almost anti-baroque imagery all the more evocative for its contrast with the elaborate style and philosophical/historical/artistic references in the first part.

To Gautier[1]

You named your native haven Pimodan[2],
A place forever Delaroche’s[3] hues.
The light awaited us, and it was laden
Laden down with laurel and with “petit choux”
This blessed time is even now more perfect!
In each: the lightning of Brumel[4] and Lauzon[5].
And please, please where are all the altruistic
Poets, painters, passing ladies, mimosian?
Surrounding us are white streams of remembrance.
Surrounding us are streams, light and clandestine:
The place glowed — a snug, erudite Parnassus,
It was a legendary lifestyle of the mind.
But we were seeking something profound, something Georgian…
Rhyme — and subtle nuance, rhythmic shadows.
Where were all the people from the pattern:
The Maenads[6]— swan and wing — Infantas[7]?
For now the road is thornier than thorn,
And no one else is trampled as this soul.
Now I’m an empty mountain church, forlorn,
And the dying sunlight dooms me with a smile.


[1] Theophile Gautier (1811-1872), French poet, dramatist, novelist, journalist and literary critic. An influence on the Symbolists, from which Tabidze drew inspiration.

[2] Hotel on the ile de Saint Louis, famous as a gathering-place for poets and artists.

[3] Hippolyte (Paul) Delaroche (1797-1856), French painter

[4] Antoine Brumel (1460-1513), French composer.

[5] poss. Jean de Lauzon (1584-1666), French Governor of New France (Canada), or poss. one of several dukes “du Lauzun” — courtiers and soldiers in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.

[6] Female worshipers of Dionysus, Greek god of wine.

[7] Spanish title given to a royal daughter who is not heir to the throne.

First published in Georgia Today

Friday, May 11, 2007

The Poetry of Galaktion: An Angel Held an Endless Scroll

[The poem’s meaning] is almost completely obscure. In such a case, the only freedom left to the reader is the certainty that his reading is wrong, his task unfinished. The connotations in this poem are much more important than denotations.

—Irakli Kenchoshvili

Here is a poem that, upon initial reading, seems entirely confusing. Images appear that seem to have no relation to the rest of the text. The main speaker, an angel, discusses trees, and the Holy Grail, and Asian skies, without making any obvious connections to them. Curtains suddenly appear, and then disappear “in a whirlpool of fire.”

Are these metaphors? Are they symbols? Are we supposed to understand what the Angel represents, much less the curtains, or the dying roses? These are the kinds of poems that make schoolchildren’s heads ache.

And yet, there is a logic at work. When the reader removes her focus from trying to assemble a story, and instead focuses on the connotations of the words, as Kenchoshvili suggests, we see strong religious/mythical images suffused throughout the poem — the grail, a tower, a scroll, shrines and an angel. And reading over the adjectives — words such as soft, ashen, wan, trembling, cautious — imparts a sense of both frailty, and loss.

This is clearly not a celebration of religion’s strength.

The poem is full of destruction and chaos — leaves are hurled, fire consumes, love has been useless. And the ending line, a triptych of goodbyes (in Georgian, literally “peace”) completes the sense of loss for a melancholy ending. So, maybe the poem isn’t as incoherent as it first appears.

An Angel Held an Endless Scroll

An angel held an endless scroll,
gazing sorrowfully at the world.
I loved you in vain! And so, farewell
luminous night of diamond jewels,
soft lips praying, shrines and glory.
Someday, you shall speak of me!
The Grail’s tower, the Lydian belfry
broke at your feet and I heard your misery.
And the dream of a heaven’s equality
waned as you planned it, its absence of essence—
an ashen cloud and stately cypress tree
which you moved from Asian firmaments.

An angel held an endless scroll.
Its wan sense was the hurling leaves.
I loved you in vain! We both wholly
desired each other. And so, I must leave.

The curtains fell in a whirlpool of fire.
Evening trembled, cautious, fearful.
The night subsided. The roses expired.
Farewell! …Farewell! …Farewell!

..as originally published in Georgia Today

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Learn Georgian!

Even if you can't be in Georgia, these phrases will make you feel like you've been here.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The Poetry of Galaktion in translation: Your Cottage Where the Woods Begin

I love this poem for its sweet imagery, and for its gentle, happy nature. Though many of Tabidze’s poems are dark dirges, accurately reflecting the time they were written, poems like this show that he was no less talented when it came to subjects of lightness, and joy.

Some believe that only darkness, despair, and anger are worthy subjects for a poem, but look at the subtlety of this work — how the mood Tabidze creates is not one of simplistic ecstasy, or overpowering joy, but a complicated sense of pleasantness tinged with an understanding that the feeling involves a forgetting of one’s troubles — not necessarily their actual disappearance.

It begins in the middle of a pleasant walk — late in the evening, almost dawn — to the edges of the city. Immediately the narrator discovers a place. It reminds him of an incident as resonant as it is strange. The reader is given only a few images to hang onto: sisters, roses, some kind words. Are these potential lovers? Fans of the poet? Friends of a friend? Guests? It’s not clear. Neither is it particularly important — the sweetness of the words and the memory of the flowers become more significant because their setting cannot be located.

“da gavida ivlisi” — and in this fashion July passes. This is how he remembers spending that summer, being complimented by ladies, and laden with flowers. What a life! And yet, in the middle of this incident, there is one word — “shpotiani:” anxious — a reminder, like a distant bell, that all is not sweet words and summer days. Again, what makes Tbilisi anxious cannot be located. But its very presence tinges the rest of the poem’s sweetness with a pinch of salt. It is an acknowledgement that all is not perfect. And ironically, it is this acknowledgement that makes the roses and sweet words that much more poignant, fragile, beautiful.

All of this is tied together with a sweet little song of remembrance. If you read the original over and over, you can even hear the melody…

Your Cottage Where the Woods Begin

And now before my eyes I find
your cottage, where the woods begin,
And this night like a river, winds
into an azure opening.

Sisters proferring with roses
whisper such sweet haunting words:
“You’re such a noble,” one proposes.
“You are a poet,” the next avers.

And in this fashion July passes,
every second, every hour,
City of Tbilisi: anxious
kingdom of the troubadour.

The Poetry of Galaktion Tabidze in Translation: “You’re Going Away”

This poem, from 1956, is from Galaktion’s “late” or “classical” period. The imagery is simple, the voice is direct, and as the poem progresses, an entire story begins to unfold about the relationship between the speaker, and the addressee.

A great part of Galaktion’s strength lies in his ability to produce evocative, surprising, and intense images and settings out of relatively general descriptions and words. By allowing a word like “torment” in the first line to go unexplained, he gives it both a great amount of weight, and also allows it to hold a multitude of possible meanings, so that the poem may become personal to whomever is reading it.

The risk in a poem like this is a certain flattening out of the images — if descriptions are too general, then they lose all weight. If they do not seem real, they have no real meaning. Galaktion invests his poems with strong music, which invest each word with memorable importance, and so his poems’ images become resonant, even personal — and are allowed to do so, by virtue of the ambiguous imagery


You’re going away… and reaping your torment,
like hay from a seaside recently shorn.
Whoever said you’ve lived your last moments?
No: today is the day you were born.

You’re going away… but no one is angry,
either on earth or in paradise.
Whoever said that you were unlucky?
No: today is the day you were blessed.

You’re going away… may your journey be sweet.
Tales of your other dwellings are fiction.
Whoever said that you slept on the street?
No. You are sheltered now: you have protection.

You’re going… and many long for such fortune.
For anywhere else, fortune doesn’t exist.
Now you are finally up in the heavens—
now you reside as Eternity’s guest.

...first published in Georgia Today