Monday, April 11, 2011

Stopping the moment

Preparing for my trip on Wednesday, selecting some books for the journey, I came across a creased, beige folder stuck behind a bunch of dictionaries, of copies of letters I had had someone translate years ago from Russian for me. They were from F., a metal worker/dissident/political prisoner adopted by Amnesty International, who had been sent to live in exile in Kazakhstan.  I sent him a postcard once, and he responded.

From my post office went little packages of books [Thank you, Schoenhof's, for stocking Chekhov, Platonov, Tsvetaeva in Russian!], and socks, cigarettes, a magnifying glass, a hat, my nature photos, I've lost track.  From his side came letters and poems, animated discussions about grammar and fiction and life on the steppes.  I bartered with one of my then freelance clients:  I would type and edit his short stories if he would translate F's letters for me into English, as well as my responses in reply, in Russian, which I then copied out by hand.  It was the only way we could communicate, F. not knowing English, nor I, Russian.

From village of Krasny Yar, 1985:

"... among dark nights and the gray banality of days.   What we all should learn to do is to see.  I should correct myself: not everybody can do that; otherwise the world would have been populated by composers, artists and poets."

 "During the 2 months since I started living in this region of indefinite steppes, I had no desire either to speak or to write, as everything around has died.  But one shouldn't forget this joke: When you're in shit, don't sing.  I wish I could sing more, but the joke wouldn't permit me to do it."

"There is sun outside my window. And I want to sing and talk, but there is nobody to talk to. You wouldn't talk with bulls. But I see them, not during the day, I see them mainly during the night. When there is artificial light. And besides, they are quite stupid. I talk to them. And they listen. Their eyes are smart, and they want to lick your face. But they have tongues which are different from dogs' tongues--like sandpaper. So that's it. And if you are not careful, they will start chewing anything they can get--a jacket or a piece of trouser. Recently they ate my glove."

"Rereading great poems. You probably don't know this poet. About 13 years ago I discovered him. Nicolai Rubtsov. But this is a long story. Some other time..."

"I am one of the people who are called owls, and you are a Жаворонок (zhavoronok) [lark], so in this regard I am kind of lucky because I work the night shift from 7 pm to 7 am watching young bulls which are later used for meat.  Since I was born and bred in the big city, up to now I saw these animals only in pictures. At first I was kind of afraid of them, and I have about 500.  Now I got accustomed to it and even saw some interesting things about them. I can write stories about them.  They are very curious, more curious than cats. And really absent-minded.  They love attention but they are shy and timid, and if you stretch your arm toward them, they will jump away from you."

"This work is rather satisfactory for me, although sometimes it's annoying. Not so much because of the four-legged creatures, but because of the two-legged ones. They think that the hay which is the property of the village is very good for their own personal cows and horses...."

"Quite often people walk down the same road and they are not surprised, they don't see beauty in the mundane. But then an artist comes along the same road, and "Ah!" -- and rushes to his canvas. And people look at his creation and ask themselves, "I saw it myself, and never paid attention to it. It seemed to be mundane to me, but it is really beautiful."  And after that, when this viewer goes along the same road again, he will also start seeing the beauty in a modest flower, which grows up among rocks, and the softness of colors and elegant beauty of a separate leaf of a tree which is burning with autumn's fire..."

"...I walk home from my work, it is pitch dark ... through fairytale-like woods of poplar trees which look like bluish-silvery columns of light, or among rising, not water, but light frozen in the starry black infinity of the sky.  My language is unable to describe the beauty of this image."

"I wanted very much to borrow the words of Faust, 'Stop, moment--you are wonderful.'


It was that last entry ... that made me stop what I was doing, sit down, and re-read some of the letters.  So many years ago but ... like yesterday.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Vagabond, in search of love


 Georges Moustaki

In this song, Moustaki sings of a being a métèque, a wandering Jew, a Greek shepherd, a thief, a vagrant, his "hair with the four winds". He dreams of an eternity of love, with a soulmate, "that we will live until we die."  [Click for the lyrics translated into: English, Spanish and Dutch.

Le Métèque

Avec ma gueule de métèque
de Juif errant, de pâtre grec
et mes cheveux aux quatre vents.

Avec mes yeux tout délavés
qui me donnent l'air de rêver
moi qui ne rêve plus souvent.

Avec mes mains de maraudeur
de musicien et de rôdeur
qui ont pillé tant de jardins.

Avec ma bouche qui a bu
 qui a embrassé et mordu
 sans jamais assouvir sa faim.

Avec ma gueule de métèque
de Juif errant, de pâtre grec
de voleur et de vagabond.

Avec ma peau qui s'est frottée
au soleil de tous les étés
de tout ce qui portait jupon.

Avec mon cœur qui a su faire
souffrir autant qu'il a souffert
sans pour cela faire d'histoires.

Avec mon âme qui n'a plus
la moindre chance de salut
pour éviter le purgatoir.

Avec ma gueule de métèque
de Juif errant, de pâtre grec
et mes cheveux aux quatre vents.

Je viendrai, ma douce captive
mon âme sœur, ma source vive
je viendrai boire tes vingt ans.

Et je serai prince de sang
rêveur ou bien adolescent
comme il te plaira de choisir.

Et nous ferons de chaque jour
toute une éternité d'amour
que nous vivrons à en mourir. 

Et nous ferons de chaque jour  ...
toute un éternité d'amour ...
que nous vivrons à en mourir.

~ ~     ~ ~     ~ ~     ~ ~    ~ ~

Georges Moustaki was born Yussef Mustacci in Egypt, in 1934, of Italo-Jewish-Greek origin. His parents came from Greece; they moved to Alexandria, Egypt and at home everyone spoke Italian, his playmates outside spoke Arabic, and at school he learned and spoke French.  He sang songs in French, Italian, Greek, Portuguese, Spanish, English and Arabic.

The word métèque comes from the Greek  μέτοικος (métoikos) and in ancient times was used to denote a stranger coming from another city.  In 20th-century France it became pejorative and suggested an immigrant from a mixed race.

For a version sung in German [Ich bin ein Fremden (I am a Stranger), click here. Lyrics (in German) here.]

Here's another version (same music, different words) by Greek singer Melina Mercouri:

It's translated on the referenced site as "The Emigrant" ["Like a cloud left  ... all alone in the sky/ as a child I hit the road.  I walked all over the earth/ with a song in my heart/ and the rain on my shoulders..."  -- "I will come back to you."]

[Sung in Greek; for the lyrics in English, click here.]

O μέτοικος

Σαν σύννεφο απ' τον καιρό
μονάχο μες τον ουρανό
πήρα παιδί τους δρόμους

Περπάτησα όλη τη γη
μ' ένα τραγούδι στην καρδιά
και τη βροχή στους ώμους

Μ' αυτά τα χέρια σαν φτερά
που δεν εγνώρισαν χαρά
πάλεψα με το κύμα

Κι είχα βαθιά μου μια πληγή
αγάπη που δε βρήκε γη
χαμένη μες το κρίμα

Με πρόσωπο τόσο πικρό
από τον ήλιο το σκληρό
χάθηκα μες τη νύχτα

Κι ο έρωτας με πήγε κει
που 'χα στα χείλη το φιλί
μα συντροφιά δεν είχα

Με την καρδιά μου μια πληγή
περπάτησα σ' αυτή τη γη
που είχα να τη ζήσω

Μα μου τα πήρανε μαζί
το όνειρο και την αυγή
και φεύγω πριν αρχίσω

Σαν σύννεφο απ' τον καιρό
μονάχο μες τον ουρανό
θα 'ρθω ξανά κοντά σου

Μέσα σε κείνη τη βροχή
που σ' άφησα κάποιο πρωί
κι έχασα τη ζωή μου

Θα 'ρθω ξανά απ' τα παλιά
σαν το πουλί απ' το νοτιά
την πόρτα να χτυπήσω

Θα 'ναι μια άνοιξη πικρή
που όλα θ' ανοίγουνε στη γη
κι απ' την αρχή θ' αρχίσω

Θα 'ναι μια άνοιξη πικρή ...
που όλα θ' ανοίγουνε στη γη ...
κι απ' την αρχή θ' αρχίσω

Vagabonds, emigrants, 'foreigners', strangers -- we are all wanderers, even sometimes those who never leave home.  And those of us who do, take it with us.  Home is not a place, it is a state of mind, and can be anywhere, or nowhere, or everywhere.

Thank you, Georges and Melina, for the chance to sing along!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011


"The sun! The sun!"
I heard them say,
leaning in unison

So I put them there
and they stood up to look out,
say hi to the birds

Springtime --
one little melt
at a time