Archive for the ‘International Poetry’ Category

Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980)

Jean-Paul Sartre (France, 1905-1980)

Bad Faith

Bad faith is a condition people suffer when they deny to themselves that they are radically free, when they think their pasts determine their future. They turn themselves into inert objects rather than free beings who can make choices. The classic example of bad faith from Sartre’s book Being and Nothingness, published in 1956, is of a cafe waiter:

“What are we then if we have the constant obligation to make ourselves what we are if our mode of being is having the obligation to be what we are? Let us consider this waiter in the cafe. His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He bends forward a little too eagerly; his voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer. Finally there he returns, trying to imitate in his walk the inflexible stiffness of some kind of automaton while carrying his tray with the recklessness of a tight-rope-walker by putting it in a perpetually unstable, perpetually broken equilibrium which he perpetually re-establishes by a light movement of the arm and hand. All his behavior seems to us a game. He applies himself to changing his movements as if they were mechanisms, the one regulating the other; his gestures and even his voice seems to be mechanisms; he gives himself the quickness and pitiless rapidity of things. He is playing, he is amusing himself. But what is he playing? We need not watch long before we can explain it: he is playing at being a waiter in a cafe. There is nothing there to surprise us.”

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Giorgos Seferis (Greece, 1900-1971)

Mythistorema 15

Sleep wrapped you in green leaves like a tree
you breathed like a tree in the quiet light
in the limpid spring I looked at your face:
eyelids closed, eyelashes brushing the water.
In the soft grass my fingers found your fingers
I held your pulse a moment
and felt elsewhere your heart’s pain.

Under the plane tree, near the water, among laurel
sleep moved you and scattered you
around me, near me, without my being able to touch the whole of you —
one as you were with your silence;
seeing your shadow grow and diminish,
lose itself in the other shadows, in the other
world that let you go yet held you back.

The life that they gave us to live, we lived.
Pity those who wait with such patience
lost in the black laurel under the heavy plane trees
and those, alone, who speak to cisterns and wells
and drown in the voice’s circles.
Pity the companion who shared our privation and our sweat
and plunged into the sun like a crow beyond the ruins,
without hope of enjoying our reward.

Give us, outside sleep, serenity.
(translator unknown)

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John Steinbeck (USA, 1902-1968)

John Steinbeck is my favorite novelist. In college I became obsessed with his novel East of Eden. The story centers around the Hamiltons, who are based on Steinbeck’s own family. Below is a section from that novel and three clips from the 1955 movie East of Eden, starring James Dean and Julie Harris. The middle clip is a scene between James Dean and actress Jo Van Fleet, who won an academy award as best-supporting actress in that movie. Van Fleet’s resemblance, mannerisms and attitude so remind me of my mother I cry each time I see it.

Here is the section from the novel on the Hebrew word timshel:

“Do you remember when you read us the sixteen verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis and we argued about them?”
“I do indeed. And that’s a long time ago.”

Samuel Hamilton was Steinbeck's grandfather, who died in 1904. He came to the U.S. from Ireland in 1846 and moved to Salinas, California in 1873.

“Ten years nearly,” said Lee. “Well, the story bit deeply into me and I went into it word for word. The more I thought about the story, the more profound it became to me. Then I compared the translations we have—and they were fairly close. There was only one place that bothered me. The King James version says this—it is when Jehovah has asked Cain why he is angry. Jehovah says, ‘If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.’ It was the ‘thou shalt’ that struck me, because it was a promise that Cain would conquer sin.”
Samuel nodded. “And his children didn’t do it entirely,” he said.
Lee sipped his coffee. “Then I got a copy of the American Standard Bible. It was very new then. And it was different in this passage. It says, ‘Do thou rule over him.’ Now this is very different. This is not a promise, it is an order. And I began to stew about it. I wondered what the original word of the original writer had been that these very different translations could be made.”
Samuel put his palms down on the table and leaned forward and the old young light came into his eyes. “Lee,” he said, “don’t tell me you studied Hebrew!”
Lee said, “I’m going to tell you. And it’s a fairly long story. Will you have a touch of ng-ka-py?”
“You mean the drink that tastes of good rotten apples?”
“Yes. I can talk better with it.”
“Maybe I can listen better,” said Samuel.

The Hamilton family. There are nine children in the Hamilton family in the novel.

While Lee went to the kitchen Samuel asked, “Adam, did you know about this?”
“No,” said Adam. “He didn’t tell me. Maybe I wasn’t listening.”
Lee came back with his stone bottle and three little porcelain cups so thin and delicate that the light shone through them. “Dlinkee Chinee fashion,” he said and poured the almost black liquor. “There’s a lot of wormwood in this. It’s quite a drink,” he said. “Has about the same effect as absinthe if you drink enough of it.”
Samuel sipped the drink. “I want to know why you were so interested,” he said.
“Well, it seemed to me that the man who could conceive this great story would know exactly what he wanted to say and there would be no confusion in his statement.”
“You say ‘the man.’ Do you then not think this is a divine book written by the inky finger of God?”
“I think the mind that could think this story was a curiously divine mind. We have had a few such minds in China too.”
“I just wanted to know,” said Samuel. “You’re not a Presbyterian after all.”
“I told you I was getting more Chinese. Well, to go on, I went to San Francisco to the headquarters of our family association. Do you know about them? Our great families have centers where any member can get help or give it. The Lee family is very large. It takes care of its own.”
“I have heard of them,” said Samuel.
“You mean Chinee hatchet man fightee Tong war over slave girl?”
“I guess so.”
“It’s a little different from that, really,” said Lee. “I went there because in our family there are a number of ancient reverend gentlemen who are great scholars. They are thinkers in exactness. A man may spend many years pondering a sentence of the scholar you call Confucius. I thought there might be experts in meaning who could advise me.

Liza Hamilton was Steinbeck's grandmother.

“They are fine old men. They smoke their two pipes of opium in the afternoon and it rests and sharpens them, and they sit through the night and their minds are wonderful. I guess no other people have been able to use opium well.”
Lee dampened his tongue in the black brew. “I respectfully submitted my problem to one of these sages, read him the story, and told him what I understood from it. The next night four of them met and called me in. We discussed the story all night long.”
Lee laughed. “I guess it’s funny,” he said. “I know I wouldn’t dare tell it to many people. Can you imagine four old gentlemen, the youngest is over ninety now, taking on the study of Hebrew? They engaged a learned rabbi. They took to the study as though they were children. Exercise books, grammar, vocabulary, simple sentences. You should see Hebrew written in Chinese ink with a brush! The right to left didn’t bother them as much as it would you, since we write up to down. Oh, they were perfectionists! They went to the root of the matter.”
“And you?” said Samuel.
“I went along with them, marveling at the beauty of their proud clean brains. I began to love my race, and for the first time I wanted to be Chinese. Every two weeks I went to a meeting with them, and in my room here I covered pages with writing. I bought every known Hebrew dictionary. But the old gentlemen were always ahead of me. It wasn’t long before they were ahead of our rabbi; he brought a colleague in. Mr. Hamilton, you should have sat through some of those nights of argument and discussion. The questions, the inspection, oh, the lovely thinking—the beautiful thinking.

Olive Hamilton was Steinbeck's mother.

“After two years we felt that we could approach your sixteen verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis. My old gentlemen felt that these words were very important too—‘Thou shalt’ and ‘Do thou.’ And this was the gold from our mining: ‘Thou mayest.’ ‘Thou mayest rule over sin.’ The old gentlemen smiled and nodded and felt the years were well spent. It brought them out of their Chinese shells too, and right now they are studying Greek.”
Samuel said, “It’s a fantastic story. And I’ve tried to follow and maybe I’ve missed somewhere. Why is this word so important?”
Lee’s hand shook as he filled the delicate cups. He drank his down in one gulp. “Don’t you see?” he cried. “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?”
“Yes, I see. I do see. But you do not believe this is divine law. Why do you feel its importance?”
“Ah!” said Lee. “I’ve wanted to tell you this for a long time. I even anticipated your questions and I am well prepared. Any writing which has influenced the thinking and the lives of innumerable people is important. Now, there are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.” Lee’s voice was a chant of triumph.

Adam Trask is based on Steinbeck's father John E. Steinbeck.

Adam said, “Do you believe that, Lee?”
“Yes, I do. Yes, I do. It is easy out of laziness, out of weakness, to throw oneself into the lap of deity, saying, ‘I couldn’t help it; the way was set.’ But think of the glory of the choice! That makes a man a man. A cat has no choice, a bee must make honey. There’s no godliness there. And do you know, those old gentlemen who were sliding gently down to death are too interested to die now?”
Adam said, “Do you mean these Chinese men believe the Old Testament?”
Lee said, “These old men believe a true story, and they know a true story when they hear it. They are critics of truth. They know that these sixteen verses are a history of humankind in any age or culture or race. They do not believe a man writes fifteen and three-quarter verses of truth and tells a lie with one verb. Confucius tells men how they should live to have good and successful lives. But this—this is a ladder to climb to the stars.” Lee’s eyes shone. “You can never lose that. It cuts the feet from under weakness and cowardliness and laziness.”
Adam said, “I don’t see how you could cook and raise the boys and take care of me and still do all this.”
“Neither do I,” said Lee. “But I take my two pipes in the afternoon, no more and no less, like the elders. And I feel that I am a man. And I feel that a man is a very important thing—maybe more important than a star. This is not theology. I have no bent toward gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed— because ‘Thou mayest.’”

Here are three clips of James dean with:

Julie Harris

Jo Van Fleet

Raymond Massey

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Ivo Andric (Yugoslavia, born 1892 in Travnik, Bosnia. Died in 1975.)

The following is from the opening of Andric’s novel The Bridge on the Drina, published in 1945: Here, where the Drina flows with the whole force of its green and foaming waters from the apparently closed mass of the dark steep mountains, stands a great clean-cut stone bridge with eleven wide sweeping arches. From this bridge spreads fanlike the whole rolling valley with the little oriental town of Visegard and all its surroundings, with hamlets nestling in the folds of the hills, covered with meadows, pastures and plum-orchards, and criss-crossed with walls and fences and dotted with shaws and occasional clumps of evergreens. Looked at from a distance through the broad arches of the white bridge it seems as if one can see not only the green Drina, but all that fertile and cultivated countryside and the southern sky above.

On the right bank of the river, starting from the bridge itself, lay the centre of the town, with the market-place, partly on the level and partly on the hillside. On the other side of the bridge, along the left bank, stretched the Maluhino Polje, with a few scattered houses along the road which led to Sarajevo. Thus the bridge, uniting the two parts of the Sarajevo road, linked the town with its surrounding villages.

Actually, to say ‘linked’ was just as true as to say that the sun rises in the morning so that men may see around them and finish their daily tasks, and sets in the evening that they may be able to sleep and rest from the labours of the day. For this great stone bridge, a rare structure of unique beauty, such as many richer and busier towns to not possess (‘There are only two others such as this in the whole Empire,’ they used to say in olden times) was the one real and permanent crossing in the whole middle and upper course of the Drina and an indispensable link on the road between Bosnia and Serbia and further, beyond Serbia, with other parts of the Turkish Empire, all the way to Stambul. The town and its outskirts were only the settlements which always and inevitably grow up around an important centre of communications and on either side of great and important bridges.
translated by Lovett F. Edwards

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Saint-John Perse, pen-name Alexis Léger (France, 1887-1975)

The following excerpt is from his poem Anabase, published in 1924:

He who makes it his business to contemplate a green stone; he who burns for his pleasure a thornfire on his roof; he who makes on the ground his bed of sweet-smelling leaves, lies down there and rests; he who thinks out designs of green pottery for fountains; and he who has travelled far and dreams of departing again; he who has dwelt in a country of great rains; the dicer, the knuckle-bone player, the juggler; or he who has spread on the ground his reckoning tablets; he who has his opinions on the use of a gourd; he who drags a dead eagle like a faggot on his tracks (and the plumage is given, not sold, for fletching); he who gathers pollen in a wooden jar (and my delight, says he, is in this yellow color); he who eat fritters, the maggots of the palmtree, or raspberries; he who fancies the flavor of tarragon; he who dreams of green peppers, or else he who chews fossil gum, who lifts a conch to his ear, or he who sniffs the odor of genius in the freshly cracked stone; he who thinks of the flesh of women, the lustful; he who sees his soul reflected in a sword blade; the man learned in sciences, in onomastic; the man well thought of in councils, he who names fountains, he who makes a public gift of seats in the shady places, of dyed wool for the wise men; and has great bronze jars, for thirst, planted at the crossways; better still, he who does nothing, such a one and such in his manners, and so many other still! those who collect quails in the wrinkled land, those who hunt among the furze for green-speckled eggs, those who dismount to pick things up, agates, a pale blue stone which they cut and fashion at the gates of the suburbs (into cases, tobacco boxes, brooches, or into balls to be rolled between the hands of the paralyzed); those who whistling paint boxes in the open air, the man with the ivory staff, the man with the rattan chair, the hermit with hands like a girl’s and the disbanded warrior who has planted his spear at the threshold to tie up a monkey . . . ha! all sorts of men in their ways and fashions, and of a sudden! behold in his evening robes and summarily settling in turn all questions of precedence, the Storyteller who stations himself at the foot of the turpentine tree . . . .
Translated by T.S. Eliot

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Salvatore Quasimodo (Italy, 1901-1968)

Enemy of Death

(For Rossana Sironi)

You should not have
ripped out your image
taken from us, from the world,
a portion of beauty.
What can we do
we enemies of death,
bent to your feet of rose,
your breast of violet?
Not a word, not a scrap
of your last day, a No
to earth’s things, a No
to our dull human record.
The sad moon in summer,
the dragging anchor, took
your dreams, hills, trees,
light, waters, darkness,
not dim thoughts but truths,
severed from the mind
that suddenly decided,
time and all future evil.
Now you are shut
behind heavy doors
enemy of death.

Who cries?
You have blown out beauty
with a breath, torn her,
dealt her the death-wound,
without a tear
for her insensate shadow’s
spreading over us.
Destroyed solitude,
and beauty, failed.
You have signalled
into the dark,
inscribed your name in air,
your No
to everything that crowds here
and beyond the wind.
I know what you were
looking for in your new dress.
I understand the unanswered question.
Neither for you nor us, a reply.
Oh, flowers and moss,
Oh, enemy of death.
(translator unknown)

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Boris Leonidovich Pasternak (Russia, 1890-1960)

I first became familiar with Boris Pasternak when I was an undergrad in college. Walking through the library late one night, I was startled by a book falling off a shelf. When I went to see what it was, it was a book of his poetry.

I later found out he is the author of the novel Dr. Zhivago, which was made into a 1965 drama romance with Julie Christie and Omar Sharif. Years later I was visiting a friend on Vancouver island. She and her mother had recently bought a Victorian house. When my friend’s mother found out I was a poet, she said, “Oh, I have something you might like. It was the only thing left in this house when we moved in.” It was a book of poetry by Pasternak.

Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 and revolutionized Russian poetry. He once said that poets and artists traditionally have no assured place in society and can only live their lives outside it. I hear that voice in his poetry, the voice of a person who watches the world but lives outside the places and people he observes.

The Highest Sickness

Although the dawn thistle
kept on chasing its shadow
and in the same motion
made the hour linger;
although, as before, the dirt road
dragged the wheels over soft white sand
and spun them onto harder ground
alongside signs and landmarks;
although the autumn sky was cloudy,
and the forest appeared distant,
and the twilight was cold and hazy,
anyway, it was all a forgery.
And the sleep of the stunned earth
was convulsive, like labor pains,
like death, like the silence
of cemeteries, like that unique quiet
that blankets the horizon,
shudders, and beats its brains
to remember: Hold on, prompt me,
what did I want to say?

The story in Dr. Zhivago is of a poet whose idealism is shaken by war and the loss of the love of his life. The poet is more mystic than man and sees the world in a dreamlike, surreal way. In this poem, we hear that story again. The speaker sees the world through lenses of metaphor and mysticism but concludes it is all a forgery. The earth shudders and convulses at this revelation and beats its brains trying to remember what it once believed. He ends the poem with a question, “What did I want to say.”

This reminds me of a similar line in T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.

If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.

The narrator in each poem is questioning what life means. At the root of the voice is loneliness. These are words spoken by people who are alone, who want to go back in time to live their lives differently. In another poem by Pasternak “A Sultry Night,” the world is also diminished. It was once a whirlwind, something full of power and force but it has become an orphaned and sleepless waste.

In the orphaned, sleepless,
damp universal waste,
groans tore from their posts,
the whirlwind dug in, abated.

Most the poems in this essay are taken from My Sister Life, a book published in 1922 and written by Pasternak during the summer of 1917, in the months before the Russian Revolution. These poems put Pasternak on the map as a poet. At the time he was living in Saratov, a port city in Southern Russia. He was too embarrassed to publish the poems at first because they are written in a nontraditional style. Socialist realism under Stalin called for more traditional forms.

All Russians had to choose between emigrating and living with the new Bolshevik order after the revolution. Pasternak stayed in Russia living in a communal flat in Moscow. Poets Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) and Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) also remained. Most of Pasternak’s family left Russia for Germany, never to return.

When he won the Nobel Prize in 1958, he was not able to accept the award. He wrote in a telegram to the Swedish embassy, “Considering the meaning this award has been given in the society to which I belong, I must refuse it. Please do not take offense at my voluntary rejection.” After struggling to remain in Russia most his life, he did not want to be stripped of his citizenship by leaving the country.

200px-pasternak_self_wifeBorn in Moscow, Pasternak was the son of painter Leonid Pasternak, a professor at the Moscow School of Painting, and Rosa Kaufman, a pianist. Pasternak’s early years were spent surrounded by art, music and literature. Visitors to his home included composers Sergei Rachmaninoff and Alexander Scriabin and writers Leo Tolstoy and Rainer Maria Rilke.

Boris Pasternak enrolled in the Moscow Conservatory in 1903 and studied composition. He dedicated six years of his life to this and left the school in 1909 to study philosophy, then later turned to poetry. Three finished piano pieces survive to this day.

The poems inMy Sister Life are structured around arrivals and departures, train rides to and from the city and around several relationships the poet had.

From Postscript

It was shadows taking your pulse, it was you
turning your face toward the fields
that burned, swimming on the hinges of gates
flooded with dusk, ashes and poppies.

It was the whole summer in a blaze of pods
and labels and sun-bleached luggage
sealing the wanderer’s breast with wax,
setting your hats and dress on fire.

This poem is full of light. The luggage is sun-bleached, the clothes and the field are on fire. This is a poem full of passion written by a poet who is in love. He is trying to show us the woman he fell in love with, her face turned toward the fields. She is a gate into a beautiful world where everything seems alive. Even the shadows want to touch her hand, take her pulse, feel her living and breathing within. The world in this poem is hinged on her beauty. Poppies are the dominant image. They are bright flowers with delicate skin-like petals. The pods next to them are bursting. These are two strong images of female and male sexual desire.

I’ve heard it said if you want to know what’s really on a person’s mind, read the postscript. It translates the letter into a new light. In a p.s., we write those last few things we must say. This postscript is plowed through a layer of images. In the structure of the sentences, we hear a speaker trying to get something off his mind and sum it all up: It was this, it was that, it was the way she made me feel, it was how she looked. He paints a picture of her spirit swimming in light. Even her many hats say something about her vibrant character.


The spirit sweats—the horizon’s
tobacco-tinged—like thought.
Windmills image a fishing village:
boats and weathered nets.

The village of torpid windmills
hovers like a motionless harbor.
All smells of weary stasis,
uneasiness, and grief.

The hours skip past like stones,
ricochet across the shallow,
not drowning, keeping afloat,
tobacco-tinged—like thought.

There’s time before the train
but it’s drowned by apathy,
sunk in limbo, the roiling
turbulence before a storm.

Even the windmills in this fishing village are still. The buildings are cracked and weathered, the horizon is tainted by tobacco stains and the water is stagnant. We don’t want to eat these fish.

In Postscript the images surrounding the poet are ripe in his hands, and he wants to show each one of them to us. But no light is in this poem. Time stands still because the machine behind the poet’s vision has slipped into indifference, into a separate place where it is hard to believe anything outside this world is moving.

This is the gray backdrop for an urban working class, and it is weary with grief, uneasiness and apathy. In the calm before the storm, we see the speaker smoking cigarettes, looking out on the water. The “hours skip past like stones, ricochet across the shallow, not drowning, keeping afloat.” Rocks don’t float, but the image gives us a sense of what it feels like when everything around us remains the same and nothing is changing.

In Addition to All That There Was the Winter

Through lace curtains— ravens— frozen in terror of frost.
It’s the October whirling, it’s terror clawing, crawling, up the steps.
Begging, sighing, or groaning, they all rise in unison for October.
The wind grabbed the hands of the trees— they raced downstairs to get wood.
Snow falls from their knees as they enter the store—It’s been so long since we’ve met!
Did the snow, so often trampled, scatter from hooves like cocaine?

What impressed me most when I watched the movie Dr. Zhivago was all the snow. People trudge through snow from one scene to the next and tried to stay warm. Having lived in the mountains for years, I know what it’s like to live many months in snow. You grow weary of the color white. Staring into that empty color is like staring into your own soul.

ravenIn this poem we have white snow contrasted with a black raven. Ravens or large crows are also common in the mountains where I lived. Seeing one perched on top of a tree cawing out to others in the distance is ominous. These scavengers have a panoramic view of the world on their high perch and seem to speak not only to each other but to us.

The raven is also a symbol of mysticism. In Benedictine monasticism, Saint Benedict is often pictured feeding a piece of bread to a raven in the desert. In Native American cultures, the raven is thought of as a kind of supernatural guide that gives voice to our inner life.

The mystical image of the raven in this poem is contrasted with people wiping snow from their pants, breathing in and out the cold air and carrying wood, involved with the mundane tasks of life. They are on earth, in a physical place where people get cold and need to stay warm. It is another image of the poet and the mystic coming up against the cold realities of life.

One evening when I was sitting on the mountain alone I heard what sounded like many hinges bending over my head. I looked up and saw several hundred ravens passing above me. They flew to some mysterious place in the west where the sun was setting in the mountains.

Everything else on the mountain seems very quiet when you are listening to several hundred wings pass overhead, as if their wings were on hinges of many heavy doors. I felt I had a window into a world no human had ever seen. Ravens are often the shape of loneliness in poems or paintings. In my mind that night, they become something human in their need to fly together, not self-effacing mockers who sit alone in trees.

from To Love—To Go—In Endless Thunder

And so I sang, I sang and died,
I died and circled back to her
embraces like a bommerang and—
as I recall—kept on saying goodbye.

One of the most haunting scenes in Dr. Zhivago is near the end of the movie where Yuri sees Lara for the last time. He is on a bus and sees her walk by. They are old now, time and circumstance have separated them, and he had lost all hope of ever seeing her again. When he sees her pass, he stops the bus and tries to run to her but dies of a heart attack on the sidewalk just out of her reach. She walks away and never sees him.

The poems in this essay are written by a man who is full of both doubt and hope. Some poems are theaters of loneliness and silence and others are full of great applause. But whichever voice we hear, it opens on the page in an illusory, trancelike way to reveal an emotional state of the poet. Pasternak lived in a time when the landscape of the country he loved was changed by hardship. Each of these poem seems to be about surviving something, whether that be war or anguish or love.

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