Thursday, June 13, 2013

Return to childhood

As though there were a peace in storms. 16"×20" (40.6×50.8cm), oil on linen panel, April 2013.
In his "Letters to a Young Poet", Rainer Maria Rilke advises his correspondent to turn his attention inward, to his childhood, "that precious, royal richness, that treasure house of memories"; to try and "raise the submerged sensations of that distant past".

That's what I did in this painting; it translates one of the first poems that got through to me in my distant childhood, Michail Lermontov's "The sail". Here is a partial translation:

The white of a solitary sail in the blue fog of sea:
What is she looking for in the distant country?
What has she left behind in her native land? <...>
Beneath her, a lighter-than-azure stream,
Above, a golden ray of sunshine,
A rebel, she is searching for a storm,
As though there were a peace in storms.

The painting is based on a plein air study from Tomales Bay. Lermontov was, most likely, thinking of (and maybe even looking at) the Black Sea. And my own childhood memories associated with this poem are anchored in the Gulf of Finland. However different and far away from one another these seas might be, isn't that the point, the essence of art: the ultimate unity of it all? The subtle, often evasive links between each and every place, and each and every moment in time, tentatively captured by human mind? Isn't that why great art can talk to us through the expanses of time, across boundaries drawn on maps? For me, at least, this spark of energy, this feeling of universal unity emerging at the crossroads of poetry, painting, and personal memories and impressions, is the core and essence of life: the place where it all crystallizes into unmistakeable, undeniable beauty.

It is by no means an accident that this is one of the first poems of my childhood. To begin with, Michail Lermontov forever remains a very young man, almost a boy by modern standards: he was killed in a duel before his twenty seventh birthday (the epoch's self-destructive behavior of choice seemed to be serial dueling). He was twenty two at the time this poem was written. And even though his poetry and prose occasionally reach the depths of understanding truly astonishing in someone so young, most of it, and this one among them, are very romantic, very Byronesque, very resonant with the existential themes of adolescence; this first encounter of a young mind with the realities of human condition. Rilke was right, after all: there are lots of very important things better felt and understood in childhood, nearly forgotten, as though hidden by the veil of life, in our mature years. Now, I have to deliberately return to my childhood, to its empty autumn beaches of the Gulf of Finland, to hear this little poem again, not to mistake its simple truth for plain simplicity.

But there is more to this. Lermontov wasn't just a very young man; he also belongs, if not exactly to the childhood, then to the adolescence of the Russian poetry. There is an inner logic to the evolution and growth of a language's poetry, and at that time, this journey was only beginning for the Russian language. The thing is, Russian has a huge "natural", easily accessible, pool of rhymes, because its grammatical structure heavily relies on word endings, which are often syllabic. Since there is a limited number of these endings, and they have to be attached to nearly every word, they naturally repeat themselves in speech and thus endow Russian with its fundamental, inherent rhyming potential. This potential had long since been exhausted by the classical Russian poetry, and the poets of the last century moved it on to more complex, less straightforward, deeper rhymes. Now, this "original" type of rhyming is all but impossible in genuine poetry (and can only be found in a teenager's diary).

It wasn't the case for Lermontov, though: it was all fresh, new, easily audible, unexplored; this poem in particular relies for its rhymes, and its overall melody, almost exclusively on this inherent potential of grammatical structure, the natural poetry of the language. Not only is this melody easier to hear for a child than the more sophisticated later poetry, but children might have an advantage over adults here, insofar as they are still close to the age of natural language acquisition, more in touch with the internal melodies of their native tongue.

And so this painting is a somewhat more naive, straightforward "translation" of the poem than I would have done had I remained fully at this, twenty-first century, moment of my life; my inward return to childhood carried itself over to the painting as best it could.     
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