Said and read – November 2018

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“I love the idea of reading books as a brotherly, sisterly moral obligation to one’s people.” – Flights, Olga Tokarczuk 

Has November spawned a monster? I’m at the threshold of two major submission deadlines (and several smaller ones) in one study program (by the time I publish, all of this will be submitted) and should be polishing off a master’s thesis in another study program – both of which, it should go without saying, have required time, thought and a lot of reading. I will get through all of this but wonder at my own motivations. Why would I believe this was a good idea?

I am tired, possibly dispirited (which I know is temporary and largely tied to the moment in which I write this… update, yes, in fact, it was temporary… by the time I started to finish this, my mindset was completely different), and even though a couple of things will end in December, new things will start. I will not take the luxury of resting. I feel a certain dread about that. (Tomorrow I will probably feel elated about that.) The momentary dread arises because it’s all quite unknown, less because I don’t get a break. It’s still reading I turn to for “breaks”.

I don’t always read something ‘easy’ – in fact, I rarely do. But it makes me happy, regardless of the subject matter. I don’t think it’s the topic that is uplifting necessarily. And I stumbled across an article from 2015 that nods along with this assertion: reading may contribute to your happiness (I had no idea but apparently there’s something called bibliotherapy, but it’s a fascinating discovery for someone who is delving into psychology and therapeutic approaches to mental health. It’s an awful play on words perhaps to say that I found this particular approach novel).

If you find yourself curious about what I was reading, liking, thinking, hating and all the rest throughout 2018… here’s your chance to find out: October, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for November:

In November I found that I read much more than expected, perhaps something like 50 books. A couple of months ago one of my university classmates got in touch to discuss my blog posts on reading/literature and share his thoughts on reading Russian literature (we were in Russian studies courses together), and this brought many memories of that period in my life flooding back. Actually, it’s truer to say that being back at a university and interacting with people who are young (as I was then) started me on this trajectory, but that ended up being the first of the nostalgia triggers that led me to some unsettling news as November ends.

In September after I’d begun studying, a young woman asked me if I am still in touch with friends from my undergraduate years. I don’t think she realized that my undergrad years are almost as far away from us in years as her entire lifespan so far. It dawned on me that, no, in fact, I am friends now with only one woman from college. I formed a few very close but very brief friendships during that time, which, if I am honest, were, in the sum of it all, painful. One such friendship developed during the same time as/in the course of the Russian studies, and it ended with what I can only now call “ghosting” even if I could see the ways she backed off from me.

When I exchanged a few messages with the guy from the class, it opened the door to this distant past. It made me think of the Russian class, of very detailed memories of that whole period – the foods, the characters, the schedules, particular moments and vignettes, and most powerfully, I remember the fragile, vulnerable nature of a classmate/woman/friend, K, who hid beneath her retiring exterior a fierce intellect and emotional abundance. I wrote a few years ago about a few very specific memories – a day that our very small Russian class took a field trip together to Victoria, BC, Canada – and as those flooded back to me, I found myself revisiting some of the Russian readings, the music from our field trip day (Cowboy Junkies), and finally, today I thought that I’d look K up. I had tried once or twice to find her online in the past, but it seems all the friends from my past who disappear tend to be the types who have absolutely no online presence. As such, I never found K in my previous searches.

Until last night when I did just a small amount of digging and found…

She died two years ago.

And I was, to borrow a word from someone with whom I shared this, “floored”.

Worse yet, as I was processing this information, I happened to learn that someone else I had just been talking about had recently passed away. Learning about this kind of death – something about someone who is now distant but who was once a vital, important, daily fixture, someone who was once so meaningful – is like immersing one’s entire head in ice water. I am awake, so aware of my limitations and the limitations of time. But is it changing how I do things? Is it making me any less selfish?

Living’s mostly wasting time/and I waste my share of mine/But it never feels too good/ so let’s not take too long…/I’m soft as glass/and you’re a gentle man/we’ve got the sky to talk about/and the world to lie upon/days up and down they come/like rain on a conga drum/forget most/remember some/but don’t turn none away/everything is not enough/nothing is too much to bear/where you’ve been is good and gone/all you keep’s the getting there” – Cowboy Junkies (covering the late, great Townes van Zandt)… a song that will always make me think of K (1974-2016).

Highly recommended

*Application for Release from DeathTony Hoagland 

I started reading Hoagland last month (and loved that book also). It turns out that I started reading around the same time that he died (October 2018). I’m going to read the rest of his work in in December. Poetry, of course.

*Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World – Suzy Hansen

I can’t say enough about how good this book is for challenging American blindness and brainwashing about the world and the American(‘s) place in it.

*Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs – Johann Hari 

I’d intended to read Chasing the Scream for over a year; I was going through a phase of reading books on addiction and new takes (scientific and otherwise) on the nature of addiction. Somehow I never quite got to this one until now. It’s extraordinarily well-written in a gripping narrative form, and it ties, strangely, to one of the books I read this month and hated (The Culture of Narcissism – see below). I am not drawing a parallel between addicts and narcissists, if that’s what you’re imagining. No, instead, I think of some points Lasch made in The Culture of Narcissism and see their applicability.

From Hari’s book:

Bruce came to believe, as he put it, that “today’s flood of addiction is occurring because our hyperindividualistic, frantic, crisis-ridden society makes most people feel social[ly] or culturally isolated. Chronic isolation causes people to look for relief. They find temporary relief in addiction . . . because [it] allows them to escape their feelings, to deaden their senses—and to experience an addictive lifestyle as a substitute for a full life.”

and

Bruce says that at the moment, when we think about recovery from addiction, we see it through only one lens—the individual. We believe the problem is in the addict and she has to sort it out for herself, or in a circle of her fellow addicts. But this is, he believes, like looking at the rats in the isolated cages and seeing them as morally flawed: it misses the point. He argues we need to refocus our eyes, as if staring at a Magic Eye picture, to see that the problem isn’t in them, it’s in the culture.” 

and

If we think like this, the question we need to answer with our drug policy shifts. It is no longer: How do we stop addiction through threats and force, and scare people away from drugs in the first place? It becomes: How do we start to rebuild a society where we don’t feel so alone and afraid, and where we can form healthier bonds? How do we build a society where we look for happiness in one another rather than in consumption?” 

* Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book – Susan M. Love

I wish I had been able to read this book a long time ago. Detailed but simplified for the layperson. It is also sad to see the part on practical considerations, e.g., about American health insurance and financial constraints. That is, can you afford your treatment, and whether you can or not, are you one day away from being unscrupulously discriminated against for having cancer? Ugh.

*Le sanglot de l’homme noirAlain Mabanckou

A series of essays/reflections on being black, on prejudice, on colonialism.

Tu es né ici, ton destin est ici, et tu ne devras pas le perdre de vue. Demande-toi ce que tu apportes à cette patrie sans pour autant attendre d’elle une quelconque récompense. Parce que le monde est ainsi fait : il y a plus de héros dans l’ombre que dans la lumière.

Good – really good

*Sarajevo MarlboroMiljenko Jergović

There’s no point in not letting a fire swallow up things that human indifference has already destroyed.

Stories of Sarajevo and the diversity of life found there.

Life is only valuable because you know you have it. Death always finds you unprepared, without tangible proof that you ever lived.”

*The Panther and the LashLangston Hughes

*HumJamaal May

*HiveChristina Stoddard

I loved all the references to the Pacific Northwest (Tacoma and surrounding environs!)

*Search Party: Collected PoemsWilliam Matthews

Because poetry, as always. It doesn’t really need much more explanation than that (particularly if you read this blog; I rarely post my own writing on a regular basis, but I post a poem daily).

*This Boy’s Life: A MemoirTobias Wolff

I can’t really say why I read this or why it makes my list of something I really enjoyed. It probably comes down to how characters and scenes are described, which is the only way a piece of writing comes alive.

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*Flow: The Cultural Story of MenstruationElissa Stein

*New Blood: Third-Wave Feminism and the Politics of MenstruationChris Bobel

Technically I finished both of these right at the end of October, so they didn’t make it into my October write-up. These are not necessarily books suited to everyone but they formed part of my thesis research on period poverty and thus were informative and might be useful for people (particularly men) who have no clue about menstruation and the unequal economic (and other) burdens it places on women. Most surprising to me is how many women know so very little about their own bodies and the economic situations of others (i.e., period products are taxed in many countries as non-essential luxury items, meaning that a lot of women struggle to afford them and are often making choices between tampons or food).

*Communication and Social Change: A Citizen PerspectiveThomas Tufte

This was something that informed my thesis work, but as someone interested in how we communicate about and for social change and justice, this is an essential volume.

*Winter is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be StoppedGarry Kasparov

Kasparov’s work really speaks for itself. The only issue I had was minor and factual; the book made the mistake of confusing Slovakia and Slovenia, which had nothing to do with the overall content of the book. But a basic fact check or proofread should have caught this.

And there are valid, timely warnings for what we’re going through now.

“Despite the attempt to rebrand the method as “engagement,” the smell of appeasement is impossible to mask. The fundamental lesson of Chamberlain and Daladier going to see Hitler in Munich in 1938 is valid today: giving a dictator what he wants never stops him from wanting more; it convinces him you aren’t strong enough to stop him from taking what he wants. Otherwise, goes the dictator’s thought process, you would stand up to him from the start.”

When I am asked if Putin was inevitable, this is why I say you have to start ten years before anyone knew his name. By the time Yeltsin made Putin the heir apparent, Russians were demanding stability and looking for a tough guy to stand up to the criminals and to the Western influences they’d been told were damaging the country and their pensions. To prevent Putin, or a Putin, from coming to power, the 1990s would have required a very different script with less appeasement of Yeltsin and his entourage and stronger support for democratic institutions.”

*BecomingMichelle Obama

I had seen all the publicity around this book and had no intention of reading it. But one Saturday or Sunday morning, tired of reading social psychology papers and even more tired of the embarrassing, frightening circus that is the contemporary political landscape,  I decided to latch onto the bittersweet nostalgia of the Obamas via the former First Lady’s autobio. While it mostly read as expected, the moments around the first Obama presidential victory re-awakened the emotion I felt on election day 2008. I want to scream about our current dilemma/disaster, “How did we get here?” except that I know the answer: we were always here.

Coincidences

*The Culture of Public Problems: Drinking-Driving and the Symbolic OrderJoseph R. Gusfield

This is not exactly a coincidence, but more of a “crossover”. I suppose it’s inevitable that if you’re doing two study programs simultaneously, even if they are in entirely different disciplines, you will stumble across topics and theories that have some applicability (even possibly novel applicability) in the other. I have to say that the vague, esoteric nature of one of my fields has made it more difficult to engage fully with and apply theory adequately, but the much more grounded and detailed nature of psychology studies (and research methods) has helped. I came across Gusfield in some of my psych readings and realized that there are aspects of his work on making private/individual problems public that could be an interesting angle for my other line of inquiry…

I had never really thought about drinking-driving, as he refers to it, in the way he frames it. While I certainly do believe that the individual does have responsibility for drinking-driving as a choice, I can appreciate Gusfield’s analysis that the rest of society has been built in a way that doesn’t offer many choices. (It’s more complex than this, of course, but that’s why the book was worth reading.)

Biggest disappointment (or hated/disliked)

I read quite a few independently published books of poetry this month, and most of them were pretty disappointing. I won’t call any of them out because they all offered something worthwhile even if, on the whole, I wouldn’t buy these books again.

Also, I was writing a paper about narcissism and democracy, and found a book that seemed like it might be interesting as background information:

*The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing ExpectationsChristopher Lasch

The narcissist has no interest in the future because, in part, he has so little interest in the past. He finds it difficult to internalize happy associations or to create a store of loving memories with which to face the latter part of his life, which under the best of conditions always brings sadness and pain. In a narcissistic society—a society that gives increasing prominence and encouragement to narcissistic traits—the cultural devaluation of the past reflects not only the poverty of the prevailing ideologies, which have lost their grip on reality and abandoned the attempt to master it, but the poverty of the narcissist’s inner life. A society that has made “nostalgia” a marketable commodity on the cultural exchange quickly repudiates the suggestion that life in the past was in any important way better than life today. Having trivialized the past by equating it with outmoded styles of consumption, discarded fashions and attitudes, people today resent anyone who draws on the past in serious discussions of contemporary conditions or attempts to use the past as a standard by which to judge the present.”

I was wrong. It had interesting parts but I suppose I had bigger expectations for it than it could have lived up to and had no applicability to the paper I was trying to write. To find the good points, you’d have to read very carefully and ignore a lot of unsavory moralizing.

It’s my own fault for not looking at anything about Lasch before reading it – he leans heavily conservative on social issues, and many good points are masked by this moralistic tone. For example, he argued that the unshakeable and often unrealistic American clinging to the idea of “Progress” (and its inevitability) makes Americans deaf and resistant to (his) warnings or ideas – but frankly, it, by extension, makes Americans deaf and resistant to all ideas that don’t fit in with this uniquely American and blind construction of the world.

A denial of the past, superficially progressive and optimistic, proves on closer analysis to embody the despair of a society that cannot face the future.”

he took her

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Sex – A Five-Minute Briefing
Nina Iskrenko
He took her through a fire hydrant
And through her mouth an herbarium began to fall
An aquarium of innards shimmered and banked
He threw up with both legs
It snowed and snowed the whole weekend in Iran
He took her
from one end of the train to the other

He ate her organics while the gas fumes
choked his bronchial tubes exhausted from his chase
the way he ate away at her tissues swilled from her loins
and copper seethed in his throat
It snowed and snowed all month from the fog
He lit a smoke
took a break

Later he took her through a plate of glass
through a system of lenses and a condenser
like a bobber began to shake with a gorged tremor
when he took out his paddle his drill
It snowed and snowed
and snowed

Then he even crawled away and yelled SIC HER
began to observe how the others proceeded with her too
Then he remembered a close-up shot from the film Nostalgia
and he took her again through a hyphen this time
It snowed and snowed from the screwdriver to the fine
trim.
Drink to the brotherhood! Like a drunken slave
Wrapped for a night in wolf’s clothing.
He rummaged among the fixtures
It snowed and snowed
He took her in a coffin
And like a simple art investigator
he pressed her bone marrow to her stomach
overcoming the sensation of pathos and intestinal smog
he took her without roses
and almost without pride not posing at full height
through anabiosis and converter

And having hunched over her out of violence out of tenderness and abuse
he pulled out her soul having taken her the best he
could
across the Urals Then he closed the gate
trembled until morning in the cold and sweat
prick open the door
but no he never picked grandaddy’s lock
It snowed and snowed from Easter to May Day

A wet snow fell the barge-haulers groaned
And it was unbearably genitalia genius
his Adam’s apple
dropping to his shin
like a pelican with the Pirquet reaction
that doesn’t fit the law of a draftman’s tools
It snowed and snowed he pulled out of the nose dive

A wet snow fell the sky it grew dark
the wind picked up the pond hawked
smoke in the stove pipe untwirled
whistling the opera Don Phallus
It snowed and snowed he came out of the water
Dry like Shchors
And then he took her once more.

Original

секс-пятиминутка (конструктор для детей преклонного возраста)
-Нина Искренко
Он взял ее через пожарный кран
И через рот посыпался гербарий
Аквариум нутра мерцал и падал в крен
Его рвало обеими ногами
Мело-мело весь уик-энд в Иране

Он взял ее
на весь вагон
Он ел ее органику и нефть
забила бронхи узкие от гона
Он мякоть лопал и хлестал из лона
и в горле у него горела медь
Мело-мело весь месяц из тумана
Он закурил
решив передохнуть

Потом он взял ее через стекло
через систему линз и конденсатор
как поплавок зашелся дрожью сытой
свое гребло
когда он вынимал свое сверло
Мело-мело
Мело

Потом отполз и хрипло крикнул ФАС
И стал смотреть что делают другие
Потом он вспомнил кадр из “Ностальгии”
и снова взял ее уже через дефис
Мело-мело с отвертки на карниз
на брудершафт Как пьяного раба
завертывают на ночь в вольчью шкуру
Он долго ковырялся с арматурой
Мело-мело
Он взял ее в гробу

И как простой искусствоиспытатель
он прижимал к желудку костный мозг
превозмогая пафос и кишечный смог
он взял ее уже почти без роз
почти без гордости без позы в полный рост
через анабиоз

и выпрямитель

И скрючившись от мерзости от нежности и мата
он вынул душу взяв ее как мог
через Урал Потом закрыл ворота
и трясся до утра от холода и пота
не попадая в дедовский замок
Мело-мело От пасхи до салюта
Шел мокрый снег Стонали бурлаки
И был невыносимо генитален гениален

его
кадык
переходящий в
голень
как пеликан с реакцией Пирке
не уместившийся в футляры готовален
Мело-мело Он вышел из пике

Шел мокрый снег Колдобило Смеркалось
Поднялся ветер Харкнули пруды
В печной трубе раскручивался дым
насвистывая оперу Дон Фаллос
Мело-мело Он вышел из воды
сухим Как Щорс
И взял ее еще раз

more dead than graves

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Untitled
Natalya Gorbanyevskaya
In my own twentieth century
where there are more dead than graves
to put them in, my miserable
forever unshared love

among those Goya images
is nervous, faint, absurd,
as, after the screaming of jets,
the trump of Jericho.

Original

В моем родном двадцатом веке,
где мертвых больше, чем гробов,
моя несчастная, навеки
неразделенная любовь

средь этих гойевских картинок
смешна, тревожна и слаба,
как после свиста реактивных
иерихонская труба.

between dog and wolf

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I have read this poem a million times in the original and translation without ever giving much thought to the expression “entre chien et loup”. It suddenly hit me this time; ever the wonder of translation. (Incidentally also led me to read Sasha Sokolov’s book of the same title.)

Waiting
Christiane Baroche
Waiting
savagery of love just lent

Waiting
divert it and at once no longer love
so much.

Tumble from loss to loss
moments occupied in being occupied elsewhere
Great chasms where love remains
at the edge
shivering
guard-rail of impatience

Wait ah
open up to minutes weighed down
to longings gone gluey
to blunted desire
like an old frayed sail thinning
with time…

I hurt in this man I’ve ceased
waiting for
he’s dying
in the murky light
backing slowly away
unfaithful memory abrasion of his features.

And you, you don’t yet know
that drab mounting-up of defeats
when no one waits for you any
more.

Original

Attente
Attente
sauvagerie de l’amour juste prêté

Attente
la divertir et déjà ne plus aimer
autant.

Tomber de perte en perte
de moments occupés ailleurs
Grands vides où l’amour reste
au bord
frileux
Garde-fou de l’impatience

Attendre ah
s’ouvrir aux minutes alourdies
aux envies qui s’empoissent
au désir émoussé
comme un vieux gréément s’ébarbe
au temps qui passe…

J’ai mal à cet homme qui j’ai cessé
d’attendre
il meurt
entre chien et loup
il recule à pas lents
mémoire infidèle abrasion de ses traits.

Et toi tu ne sais pas encore
la morne addition des défaites
quand on ne vous attend
plus.

drömland

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I recalled a nightmare from a few nights ago. In it, I lived in Paris and worked as an English teacher for three French kids. I got through one 45-minute lesson with them, and I was miserable, counting the seconds until the lesson was over. In my mind, I was feverishly thinking about how I could get out of this huge mistake. How did I end up being in that situation and how could I possibly teach even one more lesson when just one was interminably long and hellish?

It made me wonder how I had spent something like half a year teaching kids. What an eternity ago that was (almost 20 years!), and what a horror show.

I also had a dream in which I married someone I had only met the previous week. And we were happy for one week. But then misery came in massive clusters. I am pretty sure I know what that was all about.

And last night I was dreaming in Russian for the first time since I was actively studying Russian. It was a strange mix of things. I was reading and speaking Russian, but I ended up having a conversation with a guy (American) I had known many years ago about a Russian poem I had (in reality, not in the dream) shared with him back then: “The new blast-furnace in the Kemerovo metallurgical combine” by Bella Akhmadulina. (I can’t find an English version of it to share here right now.) I have not read the poem or talked to the guy in question for at least 15 years. Maybe the guy came to mind both because the poem entered my dreaming mind and also because I had been thinking about how he’d been in thousands of dollars of debt because he was making local long-distance phone calls, which seems ridiculous when considered today with the array of tools we can use to call people anywhere in the world basically for free.

Also wondering whether I should reread The Master and Margarita?

Photo (c) 2013 Boston Public Library used unchanged under Creative Commons license.

The art of letting go …

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 …or ‘it wasn’t a dry fuck’

“It sucks to be reliable.”
“Maybe we should teach you the art of letting go.”

Yesterday apparently was the birthday of poet David Ignatow – a poet whose few works I’ve rather haphazardly come across impressed me and were worthy of going back and reading again at different points in life. I first heard of him in high school – during the hated poetry unit we were force fed. Our teacher assigned us each a poem to explicate and investigate and then present to our class. She had apparently taken some care to match our personalities up with poets she felt somehow had something to offer us. I was given Adrienne Rich. Don’t get me started. The teacher had hoped we would each respond to these assigned poets and pursue a more in-depth research project on the one we were already acquainting ourselves with. By this time I was deeply entrenched in my 20th century Russian women (Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva and Akhmadulina) and could not be bothered with Rich.

Meanwhile my dear friend Mike, whom the teacher had previously referred to as a “miscreant” (for some unknown reason?), was given a poem (I believe) by David Ignatow. Mike decided he would pursue Ignatow as a research project but ran into the problem we all ran into back then: a dearth of information thanks to … well, the limitations of libraries and access to information. Libraries were well-connected networks, of sorts; you could look up and order information, but it was not instant or immediate. There were still barriers to all the information you might have wanted – primarily temporal barriers, particularly the more obscure your topic. If you could find what you wanted eventually – time was often the ultimate limitation. School assignment deadlines – waiting for some book or resource to arrive at the local library – really not practical. But once upon a time, it was the only way. And probably was the reason that many viable but difficult research topics ended up abandoned by well-meaning and curious students. I suspect this is why, in the pre-internet era of too-little-information at the fingertips, Mike abandoned David Ignatow.

Now I run across Ignatow fairly frequently in my readings and find gems, such as this Paris Review interview from 1979. I loved to read about Ignatow’s attempts to succeed at business, only to find that he felt more like a (willing) prisoner to his writing and had to write. Or that it was an inevitable pleasure: “I didn’t will myself to become a writer. It was just a natural outgrowth of the pleasure readers got from my work. I wanted to give pleasure and give myself pleasure. It wasn’t a dry fuck, in other words.” HAHA. And also was inspired by reading the following passage, feeling as though this ‘background of immortality’ is a guide:

“INTERVIEWER

A Mexican writer, José Gaos, was quoted in Octavio Paz’s beautiful book The Bow and the Lyre as saying: “As soon as a man enters life he is already old enough to die.”

IGNATOW

That’s good. When you assume that knowledge, you begin to live a very vital life, because everything you do is in the background of immortality. The background is the immortality of death. That’s when you can say you are a man in the full sense of the word. You’ve become an existentialist. That’s what it’s all about.”

Photo (c) 2013 Jana Reifegerste

Rilke exposure

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If the neverending New Age books brought me nothing else (but in truth, they did bring me more than this), they connected me to the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, whose works I had glimpsed only only through his correspondence with Marina Tsvetaeva and Boris Pasternak (writers much more in my milieu for so much of my life).

Most beautiful, the Duino elegies (Duineser Elegien).All thought-provoking, but on this particular occasion, it was the eighth that struck me:

“We are, above all, eternal spectators
looking upon, never from,
the place itself. We are the
essence of it. We construct it.
It falls apart. We reconstruct it
and fall apart ourselves.

Who formed us thus:
that always, despite
our aspirations, we wave
as though departing?
Like one lingering to look,
from a high final hill,
out over the valley he
intends to leave forever,
we spend our lives saying
goodbye.”

But it renews my objections to and troubles with translation. I read several translations of the elegies – all are quite different, and create quite different impressions. I could easily immerse myself in these differences for days, for weeks, as I once did with Akhmatova translations.