…of all Russian writers Chekhov, the arch-conservative, is the most subversive. He is dynamite for children for he proclaimed the utmost freedom and gave to the human heart the place of sovereign eminence. His stories are hosannas in praise of freedom, of the wandering of the human heart in search of its own peace. And so, with the insidious power of genius, he prepares us for the revolutions of the future. -Robert Payne, translator
The next day was Easter. There are forty-two churches and two monasteries in the town; and from morning to evening the deep, happy notes of the church bells hovered over the town, never silent, quivering in the spring air. Birds were singing, and the bright sun was shining. The great market square was full of noise: seesaws were swinging, barrel organs were playing, concertinas were screaming, and there was a roar of drunken voices. In a word, everything was light hearted and frolicsome, just as it had been during the previous year and as it doubtless would be in the years to come. -from The Bishop, by Anton Chekhov
Anton Chekhov 1860-1904
This summer it was Chekhov again, not Hemingway. Translator Robert Payne writes about the challenges of translating Chekhov:
…It is not only that he speaks in the manner of his time; he is continually describing a way of life which has vanished from the earth….time after time he describes events which are unthinkable in modern Russia…to translate Chekhov adequately, one should have a vast knowledge of church ritual, the social customs of the nineteenth century, the dialects of Moscow and half a dozen other towns in Russia. Ideally he should be translated by a group of churchmen, sociologists, and experts on dialect, but they would quarrel interminably and the translation would never be done…
The stories, translated by Payne, carry readers in horse-drawn wagons into that strange, foreign Russia, with the peasants , clergy, soldiers and others, all dark and smoky and wintry, so that we shiver in the weather and listen carefully to the tales. I’ve read most of the stories in the collection more than once. The pages of “Heartache”, “The Bishop”, “The Lady with the Pet Dog”, are dog-eared.
“That’s how it is, old girl. My son, Kuzma Ionich, is no more. He died on us. Now let’s say you had a foal, and you were the foal’s mother, and suddenly, let’s say, the same little foal deeparted this life. You’d be sorry, eh?”
The little mare munched and listened and breathed on his hands.
Surrendering to his grief, Iona told her the whole story. -from “Heartache”, January 1886
So many poems about the deaths of animals.
Wilbur’s toad, Kinnell’s porcupine, Eberhart’s squirrel,
and that poem by someone–Hecht? Merrill?–
about cremating a woodchuck. But mostly
I remember the outrageous number of them,
as if every poet, I too, had written at least
one animal elegy; with the result that today
when I came to a good enough poem by Edwin Brock
about finding a dead fox at the edge of the sea
I could not respond; as if permanent shock
had deadened me. And then after a moment
I began to give way to sorrow (watching myself
sorrowlessly the while), not merely because
part of my being had been violated and annulled,
but because all these many poems over the years
have been necessary–suitable and correct. This
has been the time of the finishing off of the animals.
They are going away–their fur and their wild eyes,
their voices. Deer leap and leap in front
of the screaming snowmobiles until they leap
out of existence. Hawks circle once or twice
around their shattered nests and then they climb
to the stars. I have lived with them fifty years,
we have lived with them fifty million years,
and now they are going, almost gone. I don’t know
if the animals are capable of reproach.
But clearly they do not bother to say good-bye.
– Hayden Carruth d. 2008
Yesterday I passed the carcass of a young deer, laid parallel to the road, maybe by the driver who hit it, or by a driver who saw the collision. A dead deer is not an everyday sight in the suburbs. The title of Carruth’s poem-“Essay”- might be a clue for the reader. It looks like a poem on the page, is lined like a poem, but thought progresses through it like an elegant little essay. Beginning with a comment about how many poems there are about dead animals, the poem moves on to a few lines of poignant elegy.
This afternoon, on the shore of Walden Pond, this canoer told me that his canoe is an 1865 E. H. Gerrish, built in Bangor, Maine. E. H. Gerrish was an entrepreneur/craftsman, the first to sell wood and canvas canoes commercially. Thoreau published Walden in 1857.
My review of The Gospel According to H. L. Hix appears in the current issue of The Christian Century. Hix teaches philosophy and writing at the University of Wyoming. His book is a translation for our time of the gospel of Jesus. A poet and translator, Hix synthesizes ancient Jesus stories, translates them bravely into contemporary language, and composes his own seamless Gospel.
I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.
It’s strange that our love of beauty should lead us to hell.
I caught one glimpse of you, and a moment later
my house and books were all thrown into the fire.
Plato wrote by the light from sharks’ teeth.
There is always terror near the Quiet Garden.
If we have come to a bad end, let’s blame beauty.
The horses of sorrow are always restless, breaking
out of fences, trampling the neighbors’ garden.
The best odes are written by pirates in the moonlight.
When Monet glimpsed the haystack shining in fall dawn,
knowing that despair and reason live in the same house,
he cried out: “I have loved God!” And he had.
I walked down the aisles of the grocery, weeping.
Gleams of light came off my hair when I saw you,
and I found myself instantly under the horses’ hooves.
My improvidence was to have been too hopeful.
My improvidence was not to see the fall.
I apologize to those in hell for my disturbances.
It turns out that Claude Monet (1840-1926) has been a favorite of Boston art collectors and therefore of the Museum of Fine Arts since Monet’s landscapes first appeared in the late 19th century. I think the attraction had to do with the way Monet captured light.
Light blessing ordinary and unspectacular natural scenes, reflecting on water of a bay, playing in trees and fields, blanketing a city street as commuters go home in the snow, highlighting hay mounds in costumes that make them shine with importance. Boston art collectors, their feet in slush half the year, were drawn to the European shimmers of Monet’s paintings.
Hills and rivers of unremarkable beauty come to life in the textures of Monet’s work. From a distance, snow scenes and harbor views dance with the spirit of creation. There are domestic gardens, foot bridges, flower gardens and water lilies, but the wider views, the monuments of nature and the monument of faith, like Rouen Cathedral, stand out as testimonies to Monet’s genius and hard-won achievements.
Up close, paint is layered thick on Rouen Cathedral. One can hardly make out the outlines. From a few steps away the grand tower appears in celestial blue.
The only way is through Old Master
along his row of chinaberries
behind the ruined smokehouse
in unmarked tracts, under field stones
with no carvings, no monuments,
with a few leaves shadowing the mulch
near scattered weeds, in sunken lines
while the sun walks in the day
at the end of the day
in an oval of brushed earth
just as the soft path finishes
where the dead are always saying
what they always say:
Write about me.
A barn shall harbor heaven,
A stall become a shrine.
-Richard Wilbur 1921-2017