Tag Archives: Renée

A World of History in a Poem: Anna Akhmatova

But now I’m frightened. I have
Got to present myself, smile at
Them all and fall silent,
Hugging my lace shawl.
She who was I, in her black agate
Necklace–till the valley of God’s anger
Bring us together, I’d rather
She kept out of my way…
Are the last days close upon us?
Your lessons I have forgotten,
Sloganwriters, false prophets,
You haven’t forgotten me.
As in the past the future is maturing,
So the past is rotting in the future–
A terrible carnival of dead leaves.

–“Poem Without a Hero” by Anna Akhmatova
translated by D.M. Thomas

Among the greatest Russian poets, Anna Akhmatova‘s work and fascinating biography during Russia’s tumultuous twentieth century should be irresistible to any poetry or history fan. Her poetry, biography, and Russian history are inextricably linked. She lived through an era that included the Russian and Bolshevik Revolutions, civil war,  both World Wars, the Stalinist regime, and the imprisonment and executions of millions of her people. Her most famous works, the long poems “Requiem” and “Poem Without a Hero,”are perfect examples of this melding of art, life, and history.


Akhmatova

Image from St. Petersburg: Anna Akhmatova Museum by Flickr user quinn.anya

After early critical and popular success, Akhmatova began to feel the pressure of unfolding political events. When hundreds of thousands of people fled the turmoil of the revolutions and wars, Akhmatova insisted on remaining in her country despite the dangers. Her loyalty and outspokenness led to her status as a poet of the Russian people.

Ironically, Akhmatova’s work was criticized for being too personal. As Max Hayward writes in his introduction to the poet’s selected works, Andrei Zhdanov, who was director of the Soviet Union’s cultural policy and one of Stalin’s lieutenants responsible for thousands of executions and arrests during the Great Terror, imposed a period of censorship of Akhmatova’s work. In 1946, he wrote:

Akhmatova’s subject matter is utterly individualistic… A nun or  a whore–or rather both a nun and a whore who combines harlotry with prayer… Akhmatova’s poetry is utterly remote from the people… What can there be in common between this poetry and the interests of our people and State?

This and an earlier proclamation effectively silenced the poet for two decades. She and other writers lived in such fear of persecution that they would burn written drafts of their poems, memorizing their own and others’ to preserve the art in case of its creator’s arrest and execution. Akhmatova’s first husband was executed for treason. Her son was imprisoned for years. Like hundreds of others, Akhmatova waited outside the prison daily hoping to hear news or pass warm clothing to her loved one. In spite of the oppression and despair she and her country suffered, she found a way to express her experience. The poem “Requiem” begins with the prose segment:

In the fearful years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen months in prison queues in Leningrad. One day somebody ‘identified’ me. Beside me, in the queue, there was a woman with blue lips. She had, of course, never heard of me; but she suddenly came out of that trance so common to us all and whispered in my ear (everybody spoke in whispers there): ‘Can you describe this?’ And I said: ‘Yes, I can.” And then something like the shadow of a smile crossed what had once been her face.

–translated by D.M. Thomas

Akhmatova

"Akhmatova" by Flickr user Incandenzafied***

In clear negation of her alleged irrelevance, Akhmatova read to a crowd of three thousand people in Moscow in 1944. They honored her with a standing ovation. (Hayward writes that Stalin responded, “Who organized this standing ovation?”) When she died in 1966, after receiving international awards and an honorary degree from Oxford University, thousands of people attended memorials in two cities.

***

Reading poetry in translation is a different animal from reading poems in their own languages. Poetry’s subtlety of language, attention to sound, syllable and rhyme, and concern with idiom and connotation can elude rendering to another language. The poet Jane Kenyon discussed her opinion after translating Akhmatova’s work:

That’s why I say translation is a necessary evil. Either you sacrifice the sound patterns in order to keep the images intact or you sacrifice the images in order to keep the sound intact… and of the two the one I would be most reluctant to lose is the integrity of the images. The images in a good poem come from a deep place, and they give the poem a sense of cohesion. Almost everything else can be tinkered with, but if that is tinkered with, the whole work flies apart. Again and again I saw translations of these poems that had no respect for their psychic wholeness. The translators might have been fairly clever at their rhymes, but it was word games, not poetry. I came to believe in the absolute value of the image when I was working on these poems by Akhmatova.

Admirers and critics praise the musicality of Akhmatova’s work. Whether or not you understand Russian, you can hear the music of her work in her native language in this recording of the poet.

When possible, I compare as many translations as possible to glean the spirit of the original work from the subtle differences among translators’ choices. Luckily, many talented writers have translated Akhmatova, including Nancy K. Anderson, Lyn Coffin, Judith Hemschemeyer, Stanley Kunitz with Max Hayward, Richard McKane, and D.M. Thomas (whose translations and notes are my favorite) and others. Historical context can be equally important to informing writing that addresses historical events. I recommend A Brief History of Russia by Michael Kort to accompany Akhmatova’s work.

More than anything, Anna Akhmatova’s life and work speak to the power of art. Like any true masterpiece, her poetry transcends time, culture–even language. As her beloved city’s name changed from St. Petersburg to Petrograd to Leningrad and back to St. Petersburg, wars raged and waned around her, and regimes and leaders rose and fell, Akhmatova’s poems remain transcendent. Far from being personal grievances of a single woman, her poetry speaks to the ability of one person’s story to express a nation’s spirit, and to demonstrate the humanity that remains in the face of devastation and enormous challenge.

– Renée

St. Petersburg: Anna Akhmatova museum
Image from St. Petersburg: Anna Akhmatova Museum by Flickr user quinn.anya

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“A Taste of…” Black History Month

CLP BHM

Happy Black History Month! Join CLP all February long for our “A Taste of …” Black History Month 2012 celebration. Enjoy highlights from our collections and special events at our locations. Learn African drumming. Attend films, lectures and book clubs about African American history and culture. Prove your sweet potato pie, macaroni and cheese or barbecue sauce is the best at at Taste Off. CLP libraries all over Pittsburgh will offer events. A few are listed below. Check the “A Taste of …” Black History Month page for the entire list and mark your calendar!

Quizzo: African American History Game
Stop in the Knoxville library this month for Quizzo, an African American history game. Complete the quiz and turn in your answer form by February 29 to win a prize.
Location: Knoxville
Every Wednesday in February
10:00 AM

Book Talk: August Wilson: Pittsburgh Places in His Life and Plays by Laurence Glasco and Christopher Rawson
Location: Squirrel Hill
Saturday, February 4, 2012
1:00 PM – 2:30 PM

Celebrate! Black History Month Music Celebration
Children and their families are invited to a musical celebration of Black History at the Hazelwood Library. Featured will be music stories and Hazelwood’s own K.R.U.N.K. Movement!

Location: Hazelwood
Thursday, February 9, 2012
5:00 PM – 6:30 PM

World Kaleidoscope: Pitt African Drum & Dance Ensemble
Pitt African Drum & Dance Ensemble specializes in music and dances from Africa. It introduces students to various techniques of drumming, dancing, and other artistic expressions of Africa. Through drumming, voice, dance, and other musical and visual art forms, this ensemble brings to the stage a unique African theatrical experience.
Location: CLP – Main
Sunday, February 26
2:00 PM – 3:00 PM

Black History Month Read Aloud
After a soul-resounding performance by the Pitt African Music and Dance Ensemble, we will gather to share the poetry and prose of some of the world’s greatest authors, in honor and tribute to the contributions of the African American community. Celebrate with us by bringing your favorite works by Black writers to our open mic Read Aloud. Please register if you would like to read.
Location: CLP – Main
Sunday, February 26
3:00 PM – 4:30 PM

RadioCLP018: Why I’m Sitting Here and Not Downtown: Hill District Oral History
In this week’s Radio CLP Podcast, Pittsburgh poet, playwright and oral historian Kelli Stevens Kane shares from her oral history project of Pittsburgh’s Hill District.

-Renée

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What’s your story?

CLP StoryCorps

When I drive to work in the morning I listen to NPR,which means that every Friday at 8:30 am, I am going to cry. That’s when the weekly StoryCorps segment airs. As soon as I hear the intro music, I know my mascara is doomed.

In the StoryCorps recordings, everyday people conduct interviews with friends and family, resulting in intimate, honest conversations that express extraordinary humanity. It doesn’t matter how different the person’s experiences are or how long ago or far away they happened; the stories they tell are incredibly moving. Some that have recently started me sobbing are:

Did you know that Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh has its own StoryCorps archive?  As the page explains:

In 2006, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh partnered with DUQ 90.5 FM to become the first library to host a StoryCorps Mobile Booth recording studio. The StoryCorps oral history project allows everyday people to share and record their personal stories for posterity and is the largest oral history project ever undertaken. Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh was host location and received digital copies of these stories to share. These files are also archived at the Library of Congress. More than 150 local stories are available for your listening pleasure.

This is wonderful. Not only can I seek the same inspiration among my neighbors that I experience from the national radio interviews, but my inner nebby Pittsburgher can scan through the pages hoping to find someone I know.

Here are some of the CLP StoryCorps episodes I’ve enjoyed (interviews are listed alphabetically by the subject’s last name):

  • Lillian Allen talks about: Alaska, beauty shop, United Airlines, Bali, biography
  • Deborah Brooks talks about: bike riding, God nature, Adirondacks, self-taught painter
  • Ali A. Masalehdan talks about: Iran, Farsi, San Francisco, English, revolution
  • James A. Ryan talks about: spirituals, black history, parenthood, marriage, pastor

These interviews dedicate the time and attention to people close to us that we normally reserve for celebrities and cultural heroes. Listening to them reminds me to treat people with a little more compassion and to take a little more interest. Every person is walking around with a story inside that is rich in history and full of heart.

-Renée

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Let us come to you.

CLP podcast iconA few weeks ago, I announced the launch of Radio CLP, Carnegie Library’s new official podcast. Since then, we’ve posted thirteen weekly episodes. So far, they fall into several categories: librarian book reviews, excerpts from recorded events, like Sunday Poetry and Reading Series and The People’s University, and excerpts from visiting author lectures. In case you haven’t listened or subscribed via RSS or iTunes yet, here’s a sampling of what we’ve offered. If the holidays are keeping you too busy to visit the library, but you’re craving entertainment, book recommendations and the sound of your favorite librarian’s voice, then let us come to you with our podcast. Enjoy!

RadioCLP002: Time Is a Goon, Right?
A depressed former spastic punk rocker, a womanizing music mogul and a kleptomaniac assistant are only some of the casualties of time discussed in this librarian’s book review of Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel A Visit from the Goon Squad.

RadioCLP011: A Futuristic 80’s Quest
In this librarian review of Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, a gamer’s pop-culture infused quest for a multibillion dollar fortune proves more gripping than A Dance With Dragons and being bitten by a small child.

RadioCLP006: The Wild Woman of the North Side
Nothing is sacred and everything is hilarious in Holly Coleman’s poignant, irreverent memoirs about her experiences growing up in Pittsburgh’s charismatic Troy Hill neighborhood. This episode is an excerpt of a reading the Wild Woman of the North Side herself gave for Carnegie Library’s Sunday Poetry and Reading Series.

RadioCLP009: Beyond Space and Time: Manly Wade Wellman
This week’s episode is a librarian’s discussion of lesser-known pulp author Manly Wade Wellman, who mastered a blend of Appalachian folk tales and sci-fi/fantasy in his John the Balladeer stories.

RadioCLP010: The Myth of the Battle of the Little Bighorn
“If history is close to a myth, the myth is the thing that projects into the future,” author Nathaniel Philbrick says in this excerpt from his appearance at Writers Live @ CLP – Main. As he explores the mystery that will always be attached to this legendary battle, he describes the first shots fired in the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the last time George Armstrong Custer was seen alive, and the final moments of Sitting Bull. Philbrick is the author of the best-selling books The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War, and In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex.

–Renée

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Make it yourself.

Since some of my beliefs have, shall we say, diverged somewhat from those of my upbringing, holidays with the family can be a little tense sometimes. My approach as a teenager was to try my hardest to undermine the tyranny of oppressive and irritating traditions like carols and December cable TV staples. As it turned out, though, mocking the capitalist subtext of Miracle on 34th Street didn’t actually make it any more fun for me to watch.

Dolce the cat sitting on Santa's lap

No kids for your greeting cards? No problem!

Since my charming adolescence, I’ve developed a more productive approach to thriving during the holidays. Instead of sabotaging everyone’s sacred rituals with sarcasm, I find inclusive ways to honor parts of the season I find meaningful. Lecture on the evils of slaughterhouses at the table? No. Bring a vegetarian dish everyone can enjoy? Much better. Bombard Grandma with child-free politics when she asks about great-grandchildren? Bad idea. Send greeting cards with my cat sitting on Santa’s lap instead? Perfect! (Okay, that was actually my sister, and its wisdom is debatable, but it’s still the better option.)

One of the most difficult cultural demands to resist this time of year is gift-giving. I appreciate the symbolism of showing my affection in the form of presents, but I don’t want to buy into the Black Friday frenzy of diamonds, electronics, toys and tools. Instead, I’ve come up with gifts I can make for people that they’ll enjoy. I get to be creative, and they get a gift they’ll use. Making gifts takes a little more planning than a mad dash to the mall, but the result is often more meaningful, because I spent time thinking about the recipient and crafting them something special. Here are some of the gifts I’ve made or plan to make, with some handy books and guides.

  • Mp3 Player/Cell Phone/eReader SnuggieThe big-ass book of crafts / by Mark Montano ; photographs by Auxy Espinoza.

Almost everyone carries some kind of electronic device. Make someone a little winter coat protector for theirs! These can be knitted, sewn or crocheted in any size. For examples, see The Big-Ass Book of Crafts.

  • T-shirt Quilt Generation T : beyond fashion : 120 new ways to transform a T-shirt / Megan Nicolay.

What’s cozier than a t-shirt? A whole blanket made of cozy t-shirts heartwarmingly stitched by someone who loves you! The Generation T series includes crafts for those handy with a sewing machine and those who can’t thread a needle.  The t-shirt quilt project is in Generation T: Beyond Fashion: 120 New Ways to Transform a T-shirt.

  • Personalized Recipe Book

Take advantage of the library’s enormous cookbook collection by selecting recipes for a personalized recipe box. Just pick out a handful of appetizing recipes, copy them onto notecards and put them in a decorated box.

  • Calendar

A calendar is a gift that’s useful all year, and it’s easy to customize the artwork. You can make a collage for every month, or choose photos from all of the Kodak moments on your friends’ Facebook pages. Lots of websites and copy shops also offer inexpensive packages to turn photos into calendars.

  • JewelryMaking mixed media art charms & jewelry : keepsakes, swappables, trinkets / Peggy Krzyzewski & Christine Hansen.

Pasta necklaces probably won’t fly unless you’re under the age of 10, but there are lots of lovely jewelry-making techniques accessible to a range of skill levels. You can also craft a handmade jewelry holder out of some screen and a picture frame.

  • Survival Kit 101 things you should know about 2012 : Countdown to Armageddon...or a better world? / 2011.

Does your cousin think 2012 is the year the world ends? Put her at ease with the gift of a cute little survival kit made from an Altoids tin. Who knows? It might even come in handy for holiday survival.

Not to cue an orchestral rendition of “Silver Bells” or anything, but taking time to honor the people we love is meaningful and powerful no matter what our spirituality or politics are. I hope you find ways to enjoy this hectic month with the people you care about in rewarding, fulfilling and fun ways!

-Renée

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heredity, history, crime and love

Louise Erdrich’s gorgeous prose and fascination with storytelling achieve a spellbinding hold on the reader from the very first sentence of  The Plague of Doves: “The gun jammed on the last shot and the baby stood holding the crib, eyes wide, bawling.”

In this masterful novel, alternating narrators reveal the family histories and contemporary events of characters whose lives intertwine after a horrible crime takes place on a North Dakota Ojibwe reservation. The irresistibly absorbing plot examines the fallout from multiple facets over generations and culminates in a thrilling conclusion. The novel’s inciting crime is based on the historical incident of an 1897 mob in North Dakota who lynched three Native Americans, two of them boys, accused of murdering a white family.

Erdrich explores heredity, memory and guilt, and touches on the displacement of Native Americans from their land. If this sounds too heavy, don’t be dissuaded. The novel’s power affects the reader, as characters cope with the weight these events exert on their own personal histories. And the book includes a fair amount of comic relief, as in this description of grade school love:The Plague of Doves

Corwin tried everything to win me back. He almost spoiled his reputation by eating tree bark. Then he put two crayons up his nose, pretend tusks. The pink got stuck and Sister Mary Anita sent him to visit the Indian Health Service clinic. He only rescued his image by getting his stomach pumped in the emergency room. I now despised him, but that only seemed to fuel his adoration.

Some passages are so beautifully written, they’re transformative. Erdrich moves through the characters’ layered lives with  suspenseful tension, pursuing me to the last page. For example, in this excerpt from the middle of the story, a character falls under the hold of her preacher husband’s revival cult:

Deep in the night, every night, through the space of the great open center of the house, I woke to the comfort of stuttering rings of telephones… Women called to say they’d seen a light in the east, heard a voice rise from the laundry chute, felt power boil up between their knuckles, understood another exquisite language that hovered in the air all around them… Men wrote and called telling [the preacher]  their car radios exploded in the word, their power tools cried out, their names went dead, all of a sudden no one remembered who they were.

Each character is deeply human and sympathetic, from the teenaged granddaughter of one of the lynching’s witnesses, to the descendants of the murderous mob, to the town’s judge, whose story drives the novel briefly into the territory of adventure novel. During his harrowing attempt to settle along the Canadian border, he realizes:

It was true that his original purpose on this expedition had been to become a rich man, but now in the measureless night he understood it was more than that. He’d seen the blizzard sweep out of nothing and descend in fury upon them and then return to the nothingness it came from…

The Plague of Doves combines historical fiction with adventure novel, coming of age with mystery, romance with suspense. This is my new favorite novel, replacing another multiply-narrated masterpiece that explores family history, racism, religion and imperialism, Barbara Kingsolver‘s The Poisonwood Bible. But just in case my impeccable taste isn’t authoritative enough, the book was also a 2009 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Here’s an excerpt from an interview of Louise Erdrich reading advice to herself for writing:

–Renée

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Be exquisitely literate.

Radio CLP PodcastBe exquisitely literate with Radio CLP, the brand new official podcast of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. You probably already love the popular podcast versions of radio shows like This American Life, The Moth and Radiolab. Maybe you also listen to the ones The New York Times and NPR offer. Well, now you can bring the library straight to your ears with your mp3 player or computer!

Get a professional’s take on your next favorite book with our librarians’ reviews. Hear beloved authors talk about the story behind their books. Listen to words come to life in our poetry readings. Episodes will include excerpts from our entertaining and informative events, like the Sunday Poetry and Reading Series and People’s University lectures. We’ll also feature essays and book reviews by your favorite librarians and occasional collaborations with Eleventh Stack. Some episodes will feature readings and talks from national authors who have visited the library as guests of Writers LIVE @ CLP – Main.

We’ve already made two episodes available: “It’s about a time machine repairman,” Don‘s review of Charles Yu’s novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe,  and “Time is a goon, right?” Tara‘s review of Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel A Visit from the Goon Squad. We’ll upload a new episode every Wednesday. Check us out on iTunes or the Radio CLP page podcast.carnegielibrary.org, and be sure to subscribe so you catch every one. Enjoy!

– Renée

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