Doll Falls
I've spent the last three days in bed thanks to whatever seasonal bug is felling professors at the University of Washington.  I am falling further and further behind on my to-do list.  I have, however, been able to read a little.

Right now, I'm in the middle of Andrei Federov's Innokentii Annenskii:  lichnost' i tvorchestvo (Innokenty Annensky:  His Personality and Work) (1984).  I'm trying to get a handle on a poet who perplexes me.  Annensky (1855-1909) was a formidable scholar.  He translated all of Euripides's plays into Russian.  He was an admirer of Mallarme and Rimbaud.  According to his son, he knew fourteen languages, including French, German, Italian, English, and Polish.  His literary criticism was so well written that it is still held up as a stylistic model.  He managed to do all these things, too, while teaching high-school-level Latin and Greek for most of his life (Anna Akhmatova was one of his students).

His poetry is full of images that are hard to figure out, and important events seem to happen just out of view.  I'll read one of his poems, understand every word, yet still not have a clue what it's saying.  Here's an example, taken from the series of three poems titled "Trilistnik Osennii" (Autumn Trefoil) (1910):

It Was at Vallen-Koski

It was at Vallen-Koski.
Rain fell from misty clouds
And yellow wet planks
Ran down the sad slopes.

Since the cold night we had been
Yawning, and tears came into our eyes.
For the fourth time that morning
In delight they tossed a doll for us.

The water-swollen doll dived
Obediently into the gray waterfall.
At first it whirled around for a while
As if it would spring back up.

But in vain the froth licked
The joints of her clasped hands.
She was rescued only
For further new torments.

Look, the turbulent torrent
Now grows yellow, meek,
And slack; the Finn was honest.
He took half a ruble for the job.

And now the doll’s on a rock
While the river keeps going . . .
This comedy was, for me,
On that gray morning, grave.

There’s such a sky, and
Such a play of sunbeams,
That injury to a doll’s heart hurts
Worse than injury to one’s own.

We were then as sensitive as leaves:
For us, a gray stone could become
Something animate, and a friend’s voice
Sound false as a child’s violin.

And my heart was deeply conscious
That with it had been born only fear,
That in all the world it was alone
Like an old doll on the waves.

One has to read the poem several times to begin to make sense of it.  The "yellow planks" that "Run down the sad slopes" in the first stanza, for example, must refer to waterfalls, although it's disconcerting to have a word (doska) that usually means "plank" or "slab" or "slate" standing in for something that moves and flows.  A doll has ended up in the water, and it moves along by fits and starts, alternately being "tossed" and "whirled about."  Eventually, one of the onlookers pay a Finn a half-ruble to fish the doll out of the water (which is why the water then turns "meek" and "slack"--he's removed the obstacle, the doll, that caused the water to be turbulent in the first place).

The speaker is with someone at the poem's beginning, but it doesn't turn into a love poem, or if it does, it's a peculiar one, since the end result is a feeling of fear and solitude and falseness.  I'm reminded of a poem that Annensky could not have known, Emily Dickinson's "There a certain slant of light."  Both authors portray speakers who are preternaturally "sensitive" to the natural world and to what happens around them; everywhere they look, they find wrongness and encounter intimations of mortality.

Why are poems about despair so pleasant to read when one is sick and stuck in bed?  I can't imagine doctors would approve.  Positive attitude makes you well and all that.  Bah.  Give me another dose of East European soul-torment!

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