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Tenderness is healing

· ​A conversation with Olga Sedakova ·

Olga Alexandrovna Sedakova, born in Moscow in 1949, is one of the most profound and original voices in contemporary Russian poetry. Her works have been translated into about 15 languages, and published in Italian, among others, are: Solo nel fuoco si semina il fuoco. Poesie (Qiqajon 2008) [only in fire is fire sown. Poems] and Apologia della ragione (La Casa di Matriona 2011) [an apology for reason].

In her book on Rembrandt, “A Travel with Eyes Closed” (published in St Petersburg in 2016), her hypotheses for interpretation deeply impressed me, that is, the fact that this painter saw with touch, almost as if he were blind, and the secret, almost autobiographical bond which she established with the poet’s destiny. Like Homer, her poetic vocation implies a sort of blindness or a different gaze on things. How does a poet see? How does a poet perceive reality?

The new frontiers of art (for example, photorealism, but that is not all) often show us a repugnant, dead reality. And this is so because these artists see it only with the eyes, as a sort of optical instrument. It is a kind of experiment. But in truth we do not only see it with our eyes, or rather not with our eyes alone. In our gaze are included memory, empathy and imagination. We do not see empty outlines in the void or on a screen, but space, relations of attraction or repulsion, energies in movement. In a certain sense we see the cold and the heat. We see, of course, in a slightly different sense from that which is purely optical. We see what we feel exists. And this is the most important thing of all. People in the vortex of daily life pay no attention to it. But the poet, when he is a poet, succeeds in seeing it.

“Tenderness”, you believe, “is healing”. An Orthodox philosopher, Alexander Filonenko, quoting your poem (from Chinese Journey), spoke of Pope Francis’ “revolution of tenderness”, maintaining that without tenderness even authority in the Church would be perverted into something terrible. What do you think?

I don’t believe that tenderness is inevitably bound to the feminine principle. Most of the time and this is natural, we see it in maternal attachment. But for me the most profound image of tenderness is the father’s hands on the prodigal son’s back in Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. I think that authority without tenderness is terrible. Even love, if it is not imbued with tenderness, can give rise to fear. Tenderness concerns not only its object but also the subject who shows it; and it demands a lot of him. In his own way he also likes the excessive, the authoritarian and the passionate: but such a man would never be capable of showing tenderness for something. For this reason I speak of tenderness as of healing. Those who are healthy, those who are not preoccupied with themselves know how to be tender. Moreover, the love described by St Paul (in 1 Cor 13) is without any doubt at the same time also tenderness.

In one of the first chapters of Dr Zhivago, on Christmas night the protagonist on a sleigh hurtles past beneath a window in which a candle is shining, an omen of his poetic vocation: “A candle was burning on the table. A candle was burning”. This poem reminds me of one of your lyrics, “An invisible flame burns”. How was your poetic vocation born? And your sentiment of faith?

I would not be able to name some object like Zhivago’s candle. Rather it is a place, a certain light, the weather. Deep into autumn, the Russian plain harsh. Bad weather, cold, a road impassable and cut off; and a strong wind. Like the end of the world. I am 15 years old, I am alone on this road. And it is all such wretchedness and desolation: who are you, where you come from, because you don’t know and there is no need to know. Suddenly – not through all this but precisely in it – some incredible freedom is revealed: as if it were not the end but the centre of the world. From this centre one can see what one wishes, one feels the breeze of some eternal great future. This breeze is what echoed for me in those verses which for the first time I recognized as my own (I used to write before, but only worthless scholastic imitations). And every time that I felt the closeness of poetry it was as though I was finding myself once again on that empty, inhospitable road. “Forgotten and useless / good for nothing / on enormous stairs / descending into the deep darkness”. For me, since childhood, the sentiment of faith has been linked to fire, as in the verses that you recalled: the candle, light. But these manifestations of it are many and different, unlike Pasternak’s solitary candle. And they need to be looked after: the oil must be poured, the wick must be straightened.

If I am not mistaken, you are the only poet who has been awarded the Vladimir Solovyov Prize, established by John Paul ii. What could or would you say about this pope who was also a poet?

Yes, I was the first and the last to receive the Christian Roots of Europe Prize in 1999. Meeting John Paul ii – I met him on four occasions and every time the conversation lasted some time – was the great event of my life. In fact he was an attentive reader of my poetry! He told me this the second time we met. What made an immediate impression on me was the strength and integrity of his faith. It was a faith that became ceaseless, silent prayer. And further: how he honoured people. He addressed each person as if he hoped to learn something from them, something important and necessary for himself. To tell the truth, I have never seen such a thing in other spiritual leaders. They are usually ready to help you and to teach, but they don’t need anything from you. Today John Paul ii’s holiness has been recognized, but even before his canonization it was not possible not to feel this element of holiness.

Her latest book, “the tears of Mary Magdalene” (published in Kiev in 2017) is dedicated to the poetry of Byzantine and Slave liturgical hymns. Anna Achmatova and Marina Cvetaeva among others have written about Mary Magdalene.

And Boris Pasternak. His poetic Magdalene and the one quoted in Doctor Zhivago are my favourites in Russian poetry. Those who recognize Magdalene in my Wild Rose are few but she says these lines. The episode of the encounter with the gardener after the Resurrection is for me one of the most moving in the whole of the New Testament.

Adalberto Mainardi

The wild rose

You unfold in the swollen heart of suffering, wild rose,
oh, the wounding garden of the universe.
Oh you, wild rose, white rose, the whitest of them all.
The one who names you will out-argue Job.
I am silent, though disappearing in the mind out of the beloved sight,
concentrating my look
and not taking my hands off the fence.
The wild rose walks, like a stern gardener who knows no fear,
with a crimson rose,
with compassion’s hidden wound under his wild shirt.
(translation by Richard McKane)




St. Peter’s Square

Aug. 22, 2019