Jun. 6, 2009

The air vibrated
with the sound of cicadas
on those hot Missouri nights after sundown
when the grown-ups gathered on the wide back lawn,
sank into their slung-back canvas chairs
tall glasses of iced tea beading in the heat

and we sisters chased fireflies
reaching for them in the dark
admiring their compact black bodies
their orange stripes and seeking antennas
as they crawled to our fingertips
and clicked open into the night air.

In all the days and years that have followed,
I don't know that I've ever experienced
that same utter certainty of the goodness of life
that was as palpable
as the sound of the cicadas on those nights:

my sisters running around with me in the dark,
the murmur of the grown-ups' voices,
the way reverence mixes with amazement
to see such a small body
emit so much light.

"Reverence" by Julie Cadwallader-Staub, from Friends Journal. ©Religious Society of Friends. Reprinted with permission.

Today is the anniversary of D-Day, the day in 1944 when the Allied armies launched the invasion of Normandy.

It's the birthday of novelist Thomas Mann, (books by this author) born in Lübeck, Germany (1875). He said, "A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people."

It's the birthday of French poet and dramatist Pierre Corneille, (books by this author) born in Rouen, France (1606). He said, "Reason and love are sworn enemies."

It's the birthday of poet Maxine Kumin, (books by this author) born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1925). She's the author of many poetry collections, including Up Country (1972), which won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, and The Long Marriage (2001).

It's the birthday of the man considered Russia's greatest poet and the father of Russian literature, Aleksandr Pushkin, (books by this author) born in Moscow (1799). The descendent on one side of Russian nobility and on the other of East African slaves, he was blue-eyed, five foot five, self-conscious, precocious, crass, a womanizer, a carrier of various venereal diseases, and a prolific and brilliant writer. He wrote more than 700 poems, a novel in verse, dozens of plays, short stories, fairy tales, and essays, and 800 personal letters. Today, he is one of Russia's great national heroes, their most revered writer and, in a recent poll, the second-greatest historical figure, assigned this rank by his modern countrymen between Lenin and Peter the Great.

Everyone in Russia can quote bits or large pieces of Pushkin. But his work is notoriously hard to translate, and so Pushkin is not widely known outside of the Russian-speaking world. Russian-born novelist Vladimir Nabokov made a prodigious effort at translating Eugene Onegin, Pushkin's novel in verse. Nabokov had been teaching a university seminar at Cornell on Russian literature and was complaining to his wife, Vera, about how horrible the translation of Eugene Onegin was that his class was using for a text. Vera suggested that he write his own translation.

It was a suggestion she would come to regret more than any other in her life. The Pushkin translation and annotation became all-consuming. Nabokov spent 12 years working intently on the project, twice the amount of time he spent writing Lolita. In fact, Nabokov became convinced that he would be remembered in posterity as much for his translation of Onegin as he would be for writing Lolita.

For Pushkin's 100-page novel in verse, Nabokov filled a waist-high stack of shoeboxes with 5,000 index cards.

The manuscript that Nabokov turned in to Bollingen Press was 3,000 pages long. The treatise that the publisher finally printed, in 1964, was 1,945 pages long and filled four volumes. Whereas previous translations of Onegin had preserved Pushkin's rhyme scheme, Nabokov was unwilling to sacrifice meaning for rhyme, and translated the verse into loose iambic form, though he still preserved Pushkin's 14-line stanzas.

Pushkin himself, like the protagonist of his great novel, died in a duel. He had challenged a man whom he thought his wife was sleeping with, and the man mortally wounded Pushkin, who died two days later, age 37.

Other Pushkin masterpieces, besides Eugene Onegin (1833),include Boris Godunov (1831), The Queen of Spades (1834),and a lyrical love poem entitled "I Recollect a Wondrous Moment" (1825). A film version of Eugene Onegin came out in 1999. A rare English biography of Pushkin appeared in 2002, written by T.J. Binyon (titled simply Pushkin: A Biography), and it won the BBC Prize for nonfiction.

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