Monday, February 20, 2006

Three posts about Gumilyov part two

The tram that lost its way - Nikolay Gumilyov

There was a good post over at Dick Jones' Patteran Pages about two different types of poets: those who sing songs and those who like to experiment with language. It was great to hear someone say what I've been feeling for years: that he (and I may be paraphrasing slightly here) doesn't have a clue what the fuck the language experimenters are going on about. And they comprise the majority of modern poems.

In one of the comments, a reader (who I won't link to as it looks like I'm specifically getting at them, when I think this is actually a general problem) stresses the importance of metaphor while downplaying narrative: the poet deploys his equations, namely metaphors, to delineate a limited fictive apprehension of a metaphysical reality. Condensing, in my extremely humble opinion, why so many poems make no sense. Poets have gone off to a peculiar universe with a specialist vocabulary which does far more to alienate than enlighten the reader. It's not necessarily that they're wrong, just incomprehensible.

But to reject narrative? We've been telling stories since the days of eating stewed squirrel around campfires while picking lice out of each other's fur. I cannot accept it as old fashioned. You just have to use it in the right way.

The tram that lost its way is Gumilyov's best poem, one packed with metaphors and any amount of weirdness, yet bound within a narrative. Gumilyov is telling a story, and, no matter how strange things get, the reader knows where the narrator is in this strange road trip.

I was walking down an unfamiliar street
When suddenly I heard crows croaking
The sound of a lute, and distant thunder
In front of me a tram was flying

How I managed to jump on its footboard
Was a mystery to me
Even in broad daylight it left behind
A trail of fire in the air

It rushed on like a dark, winged storm
It lost its way in time's abyss
Stop, driver
Stop this tram right now

So Gumilyov has set up his premise: that he's flying off, Hogwarts style, in an enchanted tram. Those last two lines, by the way, sound much better in Russian, where they beg to be shouted.

Too late. We had already skirted a wall
We dashed through a palm-grove
Across the Neva, Nile and Seine
We clattered across three bridges

So far it's all been an enjoyable romp, but Gumilyov brings in some foreboding with his use of a living, yet dead man.

And, flashing past the window
An old beggar threw us a searching glance
It was, of course, the same one
Who died in Beirut last year

Since Gumilyov often travelled to Africa, was this beggar a real one? He now steps up the tension.

Where am I? Languid and troubled
My heart beats the reply:
Can you see that station where you can buy
A ticket to India of the Spirit?

And now we come to familiar territory: Gumilyov foreseeing his own death.

A sign...blood filled letters
Spelling "Greengrocer": here, I know
Instead of cabbages and swedes*
They sell corpses' heads

In a red shirt, with a face like an udder
The executioner chopped off my head too
It lay together with the others
Here in this slippery box, right at the bottom

Granted, he's not predicting death by bullet this time, but the red shirt and French Revolution-style mass beheading are clearly anticipating a death at the hands of revolutionaries.

And then we're back on the tram.

And in a side street, there's a wooden fence
A house with three windows and a grey lawn
Stop, driver
Stop this tram right now

We've now passed through nine of the fifteen verses, but it's only in the next verse that we get to understand what the poem is about.

Mashenka, it was here you lived and sang
And wove a carpet for me, your fiance
Where are your voice and your body now?
Could it be that you are dead?

That's the power of the narrative form. His lost love's appearance is a shock because we're not expecting it, and a vital part of storytelling is the element of surprise. The narrator now moves on to explain his loss, though we're left to ponder if Mashenka is actually dead.

How you moaned in your room
While I, my hair powdered
When to present myself to the Empress
And never saw you again

At this point, the narrator's world, with its empresses, powdered wigs and carpet-stitching fiancees, seems a long way from ours, and even a little comical. But Gumilyov was writing for his day, when these references would have seemed less strange.

Now the narrator steps out of the story to show what he has learned of the world.

Now I understand - our freedom
Is just a light that breaks through from another world
People and shadows stand by the entrance
To the planetary zoo

Gumilyov now takes the narrative back to its starting point in St Petersburg, with a horseman who could have come out of Lord of the Rings.

And suddenly a sweet, familiar wind blows
And beyond the bridge, flying towards me
Are a rider's hand in an iron glove
And two hooves of his horse

A faithful stronghold of Orthodoxy,
St Isaac's Dome is etched in the sky,
There I will hold a service for Mashenka's health
And a requiem for myself.

To finish it off, Gumilyov has four infinitely sad lines.

But still my heart is filled with gloom
It's difficult to breathe, and painful to live.
Mashenka, I never knew it was possible
To love and grieve so much

The last two lines show how deft Gumilyov could be. If the narrator was just telling us of his grief, it would fall into cliche. But he introduces a level of indirection, and instead talks of how he has learned about the terror of grief. It is a superb finish to a superb poem.

*Americans might want to read this as "rutabagas"


Anonymous Dick said...

Thanks for this thoughtful commentary on my post. And thanks too for the introduction to Gumilyov. Off to Google for more info...

8:31 am  
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Blogger Keir said...

Thank you as well for the commentary. An intriguing piece from a poet pretty much unknown here in the abroad.

7:29 pm  

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