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The Uncivil Servant: An International Poetry Tour

Mitchell Abidor
June 1, 2017

by Mitchell Abidor

SHARON DOLIN’S Manual for Living (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016, 112 pages) can in many ways be viewed as a sequel to her previous volume, Whirlwind. The latter was a searing, self-revelatory account of the end of a marriage, a merciless depiction of betrayal and the rage at being betrayed. Reading it is a harrowing experience. How, one wonders, was Dolin able to turn such visceral reactions into such fine poetry?

Her new collection gives us the poet after she’s come through the other side. The first section of the book, which gives the volume its title, is organized around precepts for living, wisdom to be applied to life’s vicissitudes. One feels it couldn’t have been written without Whirlwind. Manual for Living all but proves that, in certain circumstances, rage is the precondition for wisdom.

This first section is derived from the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, and the almost excessive stoicism Dolin demonstrates seems to be a reaction to her circumstances. She doesn’t submit easily, saying in “Briefly Accept Events as They Occur” that “Eventually, you have to rail, don’t you, / every time it doesn’t go your way./ Erase the world? Ever the charmer/ the world will win. Even the flayer knows when to accede defeat. Eventually.”

But all experience has its use. In the beautiful “Make Full Use of What Happens to You,” she writes: “In the face of broken/ build a tower of breath/ In the eye of deceit/ carve a hive of light/ In the rumble of regret/ fashion a new net.”

In the end, though, we are responsible for our own mess: “We all wear/ hair shirts of our own devise. Choose yours/ with foresight and abandon.” Dolin advises us to “Paddle away from rough surf/ of desire -- all jealous wiles,” but her poems are too filled with life and desire to believe she actually lives the stoic life.

When she writes, in the section based on a book of hours, “I’m empty> quench me with song/ I’m guarded/ open me as the undine/ I’m sleepy / waken me to strum/ I’m clipped and shorn of night/ with each note brighten me,” the tone is religious and sensual all at once, and perhaps best sums up Dolin’s work.

Dolin is fond of mimosa, internal rhyme, and alliteration; she loves her son, and she is a powerful poet.

THANKS TO THE LABORS of occasional Blog-Shmog contributor Richard Greeman, the great Belgian-born revolutionary and writer Victor Serge has become an important figure, not just in politics, but in literature. Reprints of his novels appear with regularity, and his classic Memoirs of a Revolutionary remains an essential text for understanding the struggles of the first half of the 20th century.

Now, thanks to Bay Area poet and translator James Brook’s brilliant and fluid translation of Serge’s two collections of poetry in the volume A Blaze in a Desert (PM Press, 2017, 192 pages), this least-known and vastly underappreciated element of the Serge oeuvre will hopefully reach a wide audience.

Much of the poetry was written when Serge was detained in the Urals for his anti-Stalin activity, conditions hardly propitious for poetry. But along with the beauty of the poetry written under such horrific conditions — with his descriptions of his surroundings, of “Kurdish women in red dresses, a little donkey ambling/down the back street of the Maidan,/ chance colors, their capricious fits of sleep, their waking/ amid the bazaar’s shifting arabesques…” — what strikes the reader is the warmth and sympathy Serge feels, not just for his fellow prisoners, but for those living in this forbidding area. There are, for example, the four girls who “wade gaily into the water to ford the Ural,/ the sparkling, shimmering, life-giving water./ The water grasps the firm calves of these walkers from the /edge of the steppes,/ and invisible caressing hand discreetly/ takes their knees, then a brisk coolness/ wed their legs and rises to brush their secret flesh…”.

Even in Orenburg, cut off from family, friends, politics, and literature, Serge is an intellectual, referring to Holderlin and Freud, quoting Baudelaire, citing the Paris Commune and the bloodiest events of the French Revolution. But what haunts him above all, as it would in the articles he wrote, is the fate of his comrades, the men and women who made the Bolshevik Revolution, then were imprisoned and murdered by Stalin and his henchmen. The first of his volumes of poetry was dedicated to twelve of them by name, and the second was dedicated “in loyalty to my surviving friends and comrades from the black years and to our dead, too numerous to name.”

His collective name for these opponents of Stalinism was the lovely “constellation of dead brothers,” and as early as 1928 he recognized, in a poem written before his imprisonment, “Farewell, everything is ending, world, brothers, plains,/ eyes,/ snow, cities, stars,/ International…”

The poems collected here were written in Russia, in Marseille, on the high seas, and in the Dominican Republic, where he made a brief halt until his final exile in Mexico, where he produced beautiful appreciations of what he didn’t know would be his final home and where he would be buried.

Serge was a man of broad human sympathies, a man who sincerely appreciated the beauty of the people he met and the places he inhabited. He was defeated but never crushed. Poetry occupies a small place in his oeuvre, but in James Brook’s translations, it is an important one.

THERE’S NO BETTER word than “rollicking” to apply to Eugene Ostashevsky’s The Pirate Who Does Not Know the Value of Pi (NYRB Poets, 2017, 144 pages). It’s a word seldom used to describe a poetry collection, but then, The Pirate Who Does Not Know the Value of Pi is a gloriously sui generis hodgepodge that amuses, gives cause for reflection, occasionally exasperates, and is never dull.

The book recounts the adventures of a pirate and his parrot, the assonance of the nouns giving rise to endless wordplay in a book littered with puns and reflections on language. “In the beginning was the pun, and the pun was with the parrot, but the parrot was with the pirate, who was a part of the main.”

Their tale is told in a mix of styles and voices, a wild pastiche of rhymed verse, free verse, prose, quotations from classics, and it is fair to paraphrase Mark Twain’s apocryphal remark about the weather in San Francisco: If you don’t like the style of the page you’re reading, just wait a page or two and you’ll find another one.

The pirate and his parrot reflect on pirate-ness and parrothood, on happiness and its source, on language, the spirit of Wittgenstein and Kant and God knows how many others floating over their conversations (“The pirate relaxes by playing with action figures depicting Einstein, Eisenstein, Gertrude Stein, Frankenstein, and Wittgenstein”). The parrot shares its anger and heartbreak when reading of the fate of the parrot unable to learn to parrot words (“It is for certain knowne that they haue died for very anger and griefe that they could not learn to pronounce some hard words”). They discuss ways of signing to natives whose language they don’t know, discuss whether or not there can be a private language, all of it handled by Ostashevsky deftly and lightly.

One question the pirate poses is worth long pondering: “Moreover, do I even have choice over how to choose? What I mean is that, could I, being myself, have chosen otherwise that I would have chosen if I were myself?”

Born in Leningrad but residing in the U.S. since childhood, Ostashevsky is also a translator of Russian avantgarde writers, whose spirit joyfully inhabits him and his work.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a translator and writer living in Brooklyn. He has published many books of translations from the French, his articles have been translated into German and French, and his Voices of the Paris Commune has just appeared in a Turkish edition, put out by Kafka Kitap of Istanbul.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.