The sacred tree of our old Celtic traditions lived magnificently in the mind of Alexei Kondratiev whose death last week has sent shudders across the endangered planet. He was a respectful student and teacher of some of the world's most precious and marginalized ways of musing. He was a beloved and learned scholar who understood old-mind cultures with the intimacy and respect of a sachem. His death is like the loss of a rare species. He nurtured languages, as many as 64, in real life, with acquisitional powers more believably attributed to mythological beings, but his wide array of friendships across language groups bespeaks how special a man he was. He will be remembered with a sense of magic conjured in the cauldrons of many cultures.
Alexei and I have talked in Gaeilge briste about how he was to me the mythological poet Fénius Farsaid who worked with his son Gaelic Glas and a team of other poets, to collect the languages of the earth when the Tower of Babel was knocked down. I idolized him in such bursts of association, and he carefully knew just the corrections or encouragements to respond with. As my Irish got better, he respected me more, and my confidence to debate him grew. He was a Chief motivator to me in New York and a person of genius whom I could talk to, who did one better than respect Irish Gaelic civilization, he understood it, and sincerely wanted Irish Americans to learn to respect with scholarship their rich--no joke--culture, starting with the language.
Alexei lived in an apocalyptic world replete with tumbling towers, but also spiritually threatening, because he saw and felt personally the death of ancient-minded cultures, dying by language-shift in terribly false reasoning. He assumed the Olympic race across the ages, and helped to carry Celtic consciousness and Algonquin consciousness and so many alternative thought modes into the modern age. He never did it for blood. He did it for mind. Celtic languages live in the mind of anyone who can take up the claiḋeaṁ soluis, the burning sword, and pierce through neurons like brain electricity to make those new connections that become the tree of fluent language in a good student's mind.
Kondratiev taught heroism--with literature and language--at the Irish Arts Center, which is named An Claiḋeaṁ Soluis, after an important emblem, like the harp, of Gaelic Irish culture. He retold tales of the Fiannaíocht, stories pre-náire, like Ó Riordáin looked-to, pre-Kinsale, to a time when the Irish had the dignity of selfhood. Irish Americans, myself included, were not normally the great champions Kondratiev hoped to inspire.
We failed him, though our poor little Arts Center employed him for more than two decades--a small income, but a needed one. We failed him in that we did not take up his passion in proper numbers, to become heroic acquirers of the language. We threw away the Claiḋeaṁ Soluis and took up the Black & Decker instead to cut down the quince tree growing somewhere in our ancestral memory. Alexei nurtured my love of the Ní Dhomhnaill poem--the last he ever read to me--and to which I am alluding.
The last time I saw Alexei was at Elaine Ní Bhraonáin's ciorcal comhrá. He and I read from Pharaoh's Daughter. I first picked the poem he had wanted to read coincidentally--An Fáth Nár Phós Bríd Riamh. We laughed about picking the same poem. I read An Fáth. He then read An Chrann. Other renditions were performed by others as well. A lovely poem was spoken as if by posession in good blas by a regular ciorcal maintainer. Crann is the Irish word for tree. Every Irish letter refers to a tree. This was among Kondratiev's favorite poems. I have heard him read it many times before. He was a druid, from that learnéd group who crafted an alphabet from trees, that grow in language systems of neatly knotted knowledge in the mind.
I have some audio clips of Alexei I want to share, and will with all my audio clips related to him below at the end of this article, below the dán I composed in his ómós. It includes a clip of him teaching me the nuances of Irish poem vocabulary, and recitations of poems he made himself.
I only delayed the bi-lingual interview we were planning so that I could impress him with my blas and fluency I have been working at especially so to impress him. I could put off my learning, because I never ever ever considered that Alexei, mo ghiolla mear, would die. I would walk with him after class or conversation circle eastward to the train, and we would have a few long city blocks to talk in broken Irish, and patient Irish, about things like the significance of direction in old Irish spirituality.