I was introduced to Regina Derieva’s work in 2000, or thereabouts, when I was sent a poem by my friend Igor Yefimov of Hermitage Publishers, who wondered if I might want to try and translate it. It was a striking poem. The Russian was not all that difficult, but some things puzzled me. The word Led, for instance. Obviously a name, since it was capitalized. The only thing that seemed to fit was the genitive plural of the name Leda, as in Leda and the Swan. So, Ledas, or (if you will) Ledas’. I queried Igor, and he confirmed that this was correct.
Led is not a word you’ll find in any Russian dictionary, any more than you’ll find Ledas’ in an English one. Russian declension dictates that for feminine nouns ending in -a, the genitive plural is formed, not by adding anything, but by dropping the final -a. For poetry, this has some advantages. Generally the word gets shortened by a syllable. In this case, a two-syllable word becomes a monosyllable. It’s more concise and forceful. And if you’re going to rhyme it, many more rhymes are available.
Igor passed my translation on to the poet and her husband, Alexander Deriev. They liked it, and asked if I could do more.
Over a six or seven year period I translated maybe twenty of Regina’s poems (she also translated two of mine into Russian). With one or two exceptions, I chose not to translate any of her free verse poems. It was her poems in rhyme and meter that interested me, and it was there that I felt I had something to offer. But getting versions that seemed even passably good was slow work. Hence the small output.
Our first and only meeting was in 2003. She was in New York for a reading. She and Alexander were staying at the loft of Arcady Kotler, the artist, in Jersey City, and since I had a car, I offered to pick them up there and drive them into Manhattan for the reading. Denis, their son, would come to the city in his own car and drive them to Massachusetts afterwards.
She was reserved, but cordial. We had some brief conversation, mostly about logistics, before we had to leave. My spoken Russian was functional but hardly fluent, and her English was about the same. Alexander I had already spoken to a number of times on the phone. He had been sending me more poems to translate and consulting me on matters concerning his new English-language journal Ars Interpres, on whose editorial advisory board I served.
At one point I asked her how she felt about reading her poetry aloud. She shrugged and said something to the effect that it was just something one did, and that she neither particularly liked or disliked doing it.
The reading was being given at the Russian Samovar, the West Side restaurant and bar started by Roman Kaplan in the ’80s with Baryshnikov and Brodsky as partners. I dropped my passengers at the door and went to look for a parking space. After sixteen years in the city, I had considerable experience at that. I was back at the restaurant in plenty of time for the reading.
Regina read well, in that traditional lilt most Russians use when reciting poetry. Whatever opinion she had of her own performance, she clearly did care how her poems sounded. She may have had texts in front of her, though I’m sure she knew them all by heart (Russian poets who don’t know their own poems by heart are rather rare, I think). I read the translations before or after, as she directed.
A good part of New York’s Russian émigré literary community was there. I met Vladimir Gandelsman, Irina Mashinski, Andrey Gritsman and others. Quite a few of them, like Regina, had first published with Hermitage, or with the late Carl Proffer’s Ardis. I had invited a few friends as well. The only one I remember for sure being there was the late David Kozubei. He had helped start the original Borders bookstore in Ann Arbor when I lived there, as well as his own store, David’s Books. His life’s project, Five Thousand Poets Under One Roof, probably the largest and most idiosyncratic anthology of poetry in English ever compiled, is still unpublished.
After the reading, David, Denis and I went into the bar for a drink. Regina and Alexander said they would wait for us. She looked tired and ready to leave.
As far as I know, Baryshnikov, though he came to the restaurant often, was not present (he would have been hard to miss), and Brodsky, of course, whose opinion of Regina’s work had done more than anyone’s to promote it, had died in 1996.
The following year she was scheduled to give another reading in New York at the Cornelia St. Café, as part of a series organized by the poet Andrey Gritsman, but was ill and unable to attend. I went, and read some translations of her poems. In 2006 I was scheduled to fly to Stockholm for the second of several literary festivals Alexander organized in connection with Ars Interpres, but family matters intervened and I was forced to cancel.
So those are all the personal memories I have of her. We never had another chance to meet. She had chronic health problems, and had to save most of her energy for her poetry, her writing. This barely left room for a personal life, let alone a public persona, had she even been interested in such a thing. Most of the job of getting her work published, promoted and translated fell to Alexander, whose devotion to her work, her reputation, and now her memory are clear to everyone who knows him.
What remains to be said? Over my life I’ve translated some thousands of lines of poetry. She was the first living poet I ever translated. And now she no longer is.
To return to that first poem, the next to last line contains another, more striking use of a genitive plural. This time it’s svobod, genitive plural of svoboda, “freedom.” My translation of the line says “all that lives to be free,” but that’s not quite right. The literal translation is “all that lives for freedoms.”
In English that would just be awkward. But the concision and force of the “zero-ending” genitive plural give the line in Russian the sort of self-assured, strong oddity that makes poetry. The fact that svobod also rhymes with myod (“honey”) two lines back, doesn’t hurt either.
Making a word plural that everyone else, without thinking, makes singular is the sort of thing real poets do. This is a poem that clearly aims to be about freedom (As Brodsky put it, “the real authorship belongs here to poetry itself, to freedom itself.”). But one freedom keeps breaking into many, a chorus, until it’s clear that its essence can never be singular. Only the plural is potentially infinite, and freedom requires (freedoms require) no less. So that what remains is, as she says elsewhere:
Only the purest fluff, to every beat
And every breeze, ecstatically aquiver.
Note: This remembrance will be included in a forthcoming collection of tributes to Regina Derieva.