Tag Archives: Lev Loseff

Sergei Gandlevsky readings, Hanover NH

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Sergei Gandlevsky (born 1952) is one of the most respected Russian poets of our time. He is often mentioned together with Dmitry Prigov (1940-2007) and Lev Rubinstein (born 1947), although that may just be internet laziness, whereby everyone (myself included, now) just copies what someone else writes. Gandlevsky has been represented well in English. His poetry has been translated by American poet Philip Metres, and Metres has accompanied Gandlevsky on at least two reading tours of the United States, once in 2003, another time in 2005. According to notes published by John Carroll University in December 2015, Metres is now completing a memoir of his travels with Gandlevsky, tentatively to be titled Moscow on the Cuyahoga: On the Road with a Russian Poet. It would appear you can read a brief excerpt from this book in Cleveland Magazine.  Here is the beginning of the piece:
I wanted to impress him the way you want to impress a father, having just settled into a new city and taken my first real job.
He was Sergey Gandlevsky, a famous Russian poet whose work I’d been translating for 10 years, who once took me under his grubby wing when I visited him in Moscow.
Now we sped from Cleveland Hopkins Airport on bridges over industrial steelworks still puffing like geriatric asthmatic dragons, yellowing the gray skies. I longed to show him the beautiful of Cleveland, but there was no way around the gaps in the mouth of this city, its industrial-hangover breath.
Gandlevsky nodded at smokestacks and industrial plants sprawling in the valley. ‘Just like home,’ he said.”
Metres has published a collection of his translations of Gandlevsky’s poetry as A Kindred Orphanhood (2003). One of several interviews he has done can be found in The Conversant.  Susanne Fusso published a translation of Gandlevsky’s creative autobiography Trepanation of the Skull in 2014.  A review of it in World Literature Today begins:
Nearly all the recognizable elements of Russian literature can be found within the pages of Sergey Gandlevsky’s autobiographical novel, Trepanation of the Skull—dangerous amounts of vodka, Pushkin, a duel (of sorts), doses of superstition, pathos, cynicism, pessimism, fatalism, byzantine bureaucracy, and, most profoundly, the struggle to reconcile unjustified suffering with an omnipotent god.”
I have never crossed Gandlevsky’s path, although we have walked the same corridors many times in many places. As an editor of the respected Foreign Literature thick journal, he had an office just a few blocks down the road from where I currently live on Pyatnitskaya Street. I wrote about those offices (which recently moved to a new location) a year or two ago in this space. I would go there from time to time to hang out with my friend, the prose writer and playwright Maxim Osipov, who also had a small working office there. Max would mention Gandlevsky and wave his hand, as if to illustrate that the poet was just a few doors down. Other corridors I have shared with Gandlevsky are those leading to the Princeton University office of my old friend and former roommate Michael Wachtel; the aisles at Schoenhof’s bookstore in Cambridge, MA, across the street from Harvard University; and the Russian department at Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH, where I spent three weeks with the New York Theater Workshop in the summer of 2015. You can see a photo of Gandlevsky in Michael Wachtel’s office in a photo gallery of the 2005 Gandlevsky-Metres tour, while an old listserve announcing the 2003 tour indicates that Gandlevsky read his poetry at the legendary Schoenhof’s the very next day after his Dartmouth appearance. I spent half of my life at Schoenhof’s when doing my PhD at Harvard in the 1980s.

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To the best of my ability to ascertain, Gandlevsky’s reading at Dartmouth would have taken place in the old Russian Department building at 44 North College Street. The department has moved to another building these days, but John Kopper, the department chair, told me that this lovely colonial structure pictured here today would have been the site of Gandlevsky’s visits. That photo gallery I mentioned of the 2005 tour includes a rather nondescript photo of the poet at Dartmouth.
Thanks to the listserve announcement I link to above we can pinpoint Gandlevsky’s first visit to Dartmouth as November 14, 2003. We can even fix the time of the reading at 4 p.m.
Gandlevsky shared a relationship of mutual admiration with the Russian emigre poet Lev Loseff, who was the chairman of the Russian Department at Dartmouth for many years. (See my blog about Loseff on this site.) Gandlevsky wrote a highly-regarded introductory essay, “An Uncruel Talent,” to a collection of Loseff’s poetry published in St. Petersburg in 2012, and Loseff, in his own turn, had written a poem, “Strolling With Gandlevsky,” a decade or so before that. Since I live in the neighborhood next to Yakimanka, mentioned here as Gandlevsky’s home turf, I provide the whole poem, as translated by G.S. Smith, for your perusal. It’s just one more bit of proof that Sergei Gandlevsky and I keep circling around one another, entirely incapable of ending up in the same place at the same time.

Sergei, I recall your Tartar-style yard,
threading back from the Yakimanka,
and your little white boxer lifting his paw
to the old farewell march, the ‘Slavyanka’.

The April-time blah blended in with the brass,
the corpulent tubes blew their noses,
as if we had managed to make a sly pass
into 1913, from those closed-in

Tartar back yards, and rear-entrance ways,
with wind licking over the ice skim,
past trashcan cats with vigilant gaze —
then we waved down a lift (unofficial),

bowled bold through the puddles to Trubnaya Place,
at an inn left a bottle much dryer,
and set free some birds, from one rouble apiece,
and higher, and higher, and higher.

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Joseph Brodsky commencement speech, Hanover, NH

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I am not an expert on Joseph Brodsky. I’m not even the greatest admirer, I must admit, although an admirer I am – my first gift to my future wife Oksana Mysina was a set of two collections of Brodsky’s poems published by Ardis – Parts of Speech and The End of a Beautiful Era. (The latter of which was not exactly the perfect gift for one wooing a future life partner, but, then, Oksana and I rarely do things by the book.) Oksana later met Brodsky; it’s a pretty good story that I’ll have to tell in its own time. Anyway, all of this means nothing, really, it’s just tidbits I bring up before admitting I may not have all the information I should have for this short entry about the place where Brodsky delivered a commencement address to the graduating class of 1989 at Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH.
As best as I can tell, Brodsky delivered three commencement addresses – Williams College in 1984, University of Michigan in Winter 1988 and Dartmouth in 1989. The latter two came on the heels of the poet receiving the Nobel Prize in literature in 1987, thus giving Williams bragging rights for prescience.
Brodsky made an effort to be clever in his choice of topics for commencement speeches. At Williams he spoke on the qualities of evil and on the dubious nature of turning the other cheek when evil is done to you. The following year at UMI he bucked up his listeners with advice for the future, even providing a numbered list of his primary advice that included an exhortation to be precise in one’s use of language, a call to be kind to parents, and a suggestion not to put much store in politicians. At Dartmouth he spoke “In Praise of Boredom,” which we’ll get to in a moment. First, however, I want to warn readers to be careful about the various commencement texts floating around on the net. You can get wrong dates (a few places put the Dartmouth speech in 1995, I assume, because they confuse it with the date it was published in book form). You can also get wrong texts. I’ve seen two versions of the UMI speech that are quite different – not in substance, perhaps, but in wording. That’s unfortunate for the work of a poet who was as careful with words as any, to say nothing of a speaker who actually preached the necessity of being precise in one’s use of language. A presumably reliable version of the Williams address was published in the New York Review of Books. I am assuming that a text on a UMI host reliably reflects what Brodsky said at December 1988 ceremonies at that institution. One can find the Dartmouth speech, as published in the collection On Grief and Reason – Essays, on the Relambramentos blog site. It has a few typos, but otherwise appears to be a replication of the published version.

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I mentioned this speech not long ago in an entry on the Russian emigre poet Lev Loseff, who taught Russian and Russian literature at Dartmouth for 30 years, and who would have been instrumental in inviting Brodsky to do the graduation honors. In the last photo below you can see Brodsky (left) and Loseff, both spiffed up for the occasion. The photo rests on a shelf in the Russian Dept. at Dartmouth and was pointed out to me by the current Dept. Chair John Kopper, who was kind enough to chat with me and walk me around the department recently.
I presume that Brodsky spoke in June, although I cannot confirm that. One source indicated it was in July – but a July graduation? I think not. In any case, all Dartmouth graduations over the last six years have taken place in mid-June. If you want to get a feel for what it might have looked like the day Brodsky spoke, you can watch this time lapse film of the 2014 ceremonies. While spending three weeks at Dartmouth this summer, I asked several people where Brodsky would have stood while speaking, and all of them – admitting they knew nothing about the 1980s – suggested it surely would have been in the niche before the clock tower at Baker Hall and between Webster Hall on our right, and Sanborn Hall on our left. You can see Baker and Webster in the two photos immediately below.
During my short stay at Dartmouth I walked past this place on the green anywhere between two to six times a day. Not once did I walk past it without looking over towards Baker and thinking about Brodsky up there speaking. His presence for me was real. Oksana wanted her photo taken before the tower, and when Russian director Boris Yukhananov came to visit, I felt compelled to point out that Brodsky had once spoken there. It seemed like something I had to tell a Russian of culture.
As for what Brodsky said that day, you can read the entire speech yourself by going to the link above. But I can’t help but insert a few nice excerpts here. Speaking specifically of “art’s saving grace,” Brodsky said:

“Not being lucrative, it [art’s saving grace] falls victim to demography rather reluctantly. For if, as we’ve said, repetition is boredom’s mother, demography (which is to play in your lives a far greater role than any discipline you’ve mastered here) is its other parent. This may sound misanthropic to you, but I am more than twice your age, and I have lived to see the population of our globe double. By the time you’re my age, it will have quadrupled, and not exactly in the fashion you expect. For instance, by the year 2000 there is going to be such cultural and ethnic rearrangement as to challenge your notion of your own humanity.”

He goes on to add:

“But even in a more monochromatic world, the other trouble with originality and inventiveness is precisely that they literally pay off. Provided that you are capable of either, you will become well off rather fast. Desirable as that may be, most of you know firsthand that nobody is as bored as the rich, for money buys time, and time is repetitive. Assuming that you are not heading for poverty – for otherwise you wouldn’t have entered college – one expects you to be hit by boredom as soon as the first tools of self-gratification become available to you.”

Later suggesting, in what is surely the gist of his entire talk:

“When hit by boredom, go for it. Let yourself be crushed by it; submerge, hit bottom. In general, with things unpleasant, the rule is, the sooner you hit bottom, the faster you surface. The idea here, to paraphrase another great poet of the English language, is to exact full look at the worst. The reason boredom deserves such scrutiny is that it represents pure, undiluted time in all its repetitive, redundant, monotonous splendor.
In a manner of speaking, boredom is your window on time, on those properties of it one tends to ignore to the likely peril of one’s mental equilibrium. In short, it is your window on time’s infinity, which is to say, on your insignificance in it. That’s what accounts, perhaps, for one’s dread of lonely, torpid evenings, for the fascination with which one watches sometimes a fleck  of dust aswirl  in a sunbeam, and somewhere a clock tick-tocks, the day is hot, and your willpower is at zero.”

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Lev Loseff home, Hanover, New Hampshire

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Lev Loseff, known in Russia, of course, as Lev Losev, is one of those people who found himself, and created himself, in a chosen country (the U.S.), not the country where he was born (the U.S.S.R., Russia). Losev, who was actually Lev Livshits, took the pseudonym of Losev when he became a young adult in order to distance himself from his father Vladimir Lifshits, a well-known writer, poet and playwright.  Born in Leningrad in 1937, Lev was educated to be a journalist and began by working as an editor for the Kostyor (Campfire) children’s magazine in Leningrad. He wrote some plays for puppet theaters and he wrote some children’s verse. He abandoned “serious” poetry early in his life, considering that his work wasn’t good enough. However, he began writing poetry again in the mid-to-late 1970s and, over the course of the rest of his life, he published some dozen collections of verse. (The numbers vary according to the source, but the maximum number I have seen is twelve.) Losev emigrated to the United States in 1976, surely with the aid of Carl Proffer at the University of Michigan. It was at this time that he took the name Loseff for his legal name in English (his books and poetry in Russia were published under the name of Losev). He was employed as a copy editor at the great Ardis Russian literature publishing house, and he eventually graduated from UMI Ann Arbor with a PhD around 1978, to the best of my ability to ascertain. He was hired to teach Russian literature in the Russian Department at Dartmouth College in 1979, and he remained there until his death in 2009, spending many of those years as the Department Chair. In addition to his poetry, he wrote numerous books of a scholarly, historical and personal nature. They include On the Beneficence of Censorship: Aesopian Language in Modern Russian Literature (his PhD dissertation), Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life (2006 in Russian, 2011 in English), Solzhenitsyn and Brodsky as Neighbors (in Russian 2010), Brodsky’s Poetics (in Russian 1986), Meander (a memoir in Russian 2010), and others. If you’re interested in his books, visit his page on Amazon.com. IMG_8028.jpg2 IMG_8024.jpg2 IMG_8022.jpg2

At least in his later years, Loseff lived in a modest house just south of Hanover, New Hampshire, in which city Dartmouth is located. I walked from the Russian Department to his house in about 30 to 40 minutes. It is a straight jaunt down Main Street, Hanover, into the woods that take over Hanover almost instantly at the end of the tiny downton commercial district. You pass by several homes hiding behind trees, cross over a gorgeous pond, and go past the Pine Knoll Cemetery to Mourlyn Road on your left. It is a short cul-de-sac that climbs up a fairly steep, but short hill, and Loseff lived in the second house on the left, house number 4. There are only five residences on the small street altogether. You can see the view back down Mourlyn Road from in front of the Loseff house in the photo immediately below. The last photo below shows Mink Brook, part of which, at least, would have been visible from Loseff’s back yard. I happened to run into John Kopper, the current Russian Chair while I was snooping around the Russian Dept. last week. I explained what I was up to and he told me he had once published an article in the Russian Znamya thick journal, in which he related a brief story of Joseph Brodsky delivering the commencement address at Dartmouth in 1989. (We’ll come back to that at a later date.) According to Kopper, Brodsky, apparently feeling a bit frisky after finishing his speech, whipped his mitre cap off his head and sent it sailing through the air as if it were a frisbee. It made its way directly toward Loseff, hitting him smack in the bridge of the nose, breaking his glasses in two as it did. There are a couple of volumes available for those interested in Loseff’s poetry in English translation. Henry W. Pickford translated and edited Selected Early Poems of Lev Loseff, while Gerald Smith put together a Russian-English version of his work called As I Said/Как я сказал in 2012. Tomas Venclova, himself an emigre Soviet (Lithuanian) poet and scholar of note, who has taught most his adult life at Yale University, called Loseff “one of the chief representatives of Russian exilic poetry, a great master of ironic postmodern verse.” IMG_8030.jpg2 IMG_8036.jpg2