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Ringing the Button

An Arrow in the Wall: Selected Poetry and Prose

by Andrei Voznesensky, edited by William Jay Smith, by F.D. Reeve
Holt, 344 pp., $22.95

When Yevtushenko and Voznesensky began to tour the world in the 1960s, they entered the Western imagination as more than celebrities. Perhaps only Allen Ginsberg came close to achieving a comparable effect, and saying as much suggests one reason for a certain unease in present-day assessments of these writers. The preference for poetry that lives in words on the page, without the benefit of voice and presence, has once again reasserted itself. There are other reasons for one’s unease, however. The most important of these, suspicion of Russian poets who are not seen to oppose the regime, was given expression in this journal by Clive James some years ago,1 and continues to be widely felt; hence no doubt the stress the editors of this volume lay upon poems such as “The Driver,” in which the Caesar hailed in Soviet Georgia is clearly Stalin. Other responses are to do with our perception of what is acceptable poetry in translation.

It is hard to live anywhere close to the centers of privilege with clean hands, and while the threats and temptations of Soviet society are incomparably greater, the charges Leonid Borodin makes against the Moscow intelligentsia in his novel Partings are not so easily repudiated in the West: “The intellectual’s constitution…permits only one object of worship—himself.” It is at this level of self-examination that Andrei Voznesensky’s finest lyrics ask to be considered. Voznesensky, with Bella Akhmadulina, was among the most centrally placed of Glavlit, or union, writers to take part in the publication of the short-lived literary paper Metropol. A Lenin Prize winner, with an enormous popular following, he was attracted to the idea of helping good writers not accepted by official unions to publish alongside established literary figures. He was also a friend of Aksyonov, Yevgenia Ginsburg’s son, who was one of Metropol‘s leading spirits. Of the twenty-three contributors, fourteen were members of Party unions in good standing; of these fourteen, predictably, the least celebrated writers suffered most when Metropol was banned. Voznesensky and Akhmadulina continued to enjoy a very high reputation, and it was Aksyonov who went into exile. The most significant idea in the lyrics of Voznesensky to be included in Metropol, an ironic questioning of the desirability of taking man as the measure of all things, runs throughout his Selected Poetry.

A bitterness in this questioning makes him an altogether less ebulliently personal writer than Yevtushenko. “We’ve lived shamefully. Pettily,” he writes in “A Conversation in Rome.” Perhaps for this reason, it is language rather than thought or feeling that has dominated his responses. Throughout the extremely varied poems in his Selected Poetry, we are always conscious of the literature of the past. We can hear echoes of Paul Eluard and García Lorca alongside early Mayakovsky, and unmistakable notes of Whitman:

I exalt what is common.
I discover, wheezing,
In America—America.
Me—in myself.2

Perhaps it is in the freshness of his impressions of America that we are most conscious of Voznesensky’s experience of the present, but that is a matter to which I shall return. He can write equally movingly of a hare crying out before death or a girl freezing in a telephone booth, huddled in her flimsy coat, her face stained by tears:

It is the start of winter glittering on her cheek,
the first frost of having been hurt.

He enjoys the conceptually fanciful, and is for that reason intrigued by bizarre lives that can generate fanciful imagery. Where he writes about an Amazonian motorcyclist riding around a “Wall of Death,” of the kind used in the Moscow circus, what interests him is her “longing/ for the horizontal” as “her orbit whirls her round the wall.” The absurd thought occurs to him that

It’s the plight
only of vestal virgin and suburbanite
to live vertical and upright.

He takes a sharply sensual pleasure in visions of extremity: a czar’s wife’s head, cut off by her husband’s ax, is held up like a red-topped turnip root. We are asked to smell borscht and peas as the czar is rocked by the passion that speaks from her dead lips. At his best, the everyday world is transfigured by resemblances that demand no further explanation, as when he sees the floor of a garage as a “trout’s back stippled with light.”

In what I believe is a mistaken attempt to secure dissident status for Voznesensky, the editors severely restrict the meanings of certain poems such as “Old Song,” written for George Dzhagarov. (“Who can doubt,” the editors write, “that in ‘Old Song,’ although he is referring to Turkish janissaries, he is in reality writing eloquently of his revulsion at the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia.”) The references in “The Driver” are another matter. It seems entirely plausible that a hitchhiker in Soviet Georgia would challenge a youngster with a picture of Stalin displayed on his truck’s windshield because Stalin remained a favorite son in his native state in spite of everything he had done to the local peasantry. “What do you really know about Caesar, kid?” he asks. In the mind of the poet the statues of those whom Stalin killed, and those who killed themselves, lean toward the truck and follow its progress. It is a line that is not likely to pose many questions, except in the mind of an English reader, priggishly disturbed by the Americanism.

The translations in this book are in general extraordinarily good. Voznesensky has attracted a very high caliber of translator: notably W.H. Auden, Stanley Kunitz, and Richard Wilbur. The reason for this is clear. Voznesensky’s poetry, even in literal versions, remains highly metaphorical, dazzling. Yevtushenko, in contrast, is at his best using a very spare colloquial Russian, whose purity is a translator’s nightmare. With Voznesensky the loss is subtler. The poems are often produced by a pattern of sounds that suggest and lead the sense, and the translator without such a thread can be lost. A famous example of that thread being caught and held with near genius is to be found in the early poem “I Am Goya,” where the words for “grief,” “hunger,” and “gullet,” miraculously assonant in Russian, are charged with something of the same inevitability in Stanley Kunitz’s version.

Some of the poems here are so musically translated that we accept the pleasure instantly. I am thinking now of the poem for Robert Lowell, “Family Graveyard,” somewhat broadly translated by William Jay Smith and Fred Starr:

How is it, Robert, there in your wild land?
Within us we all bear our family graves;
How can we name the heart of sor- row’s flower
As it races past us through dark cosmic waves?
Here on the stone the name that you once had rests like discarded clothes.

The translations of Richard Wilbur are remarkably felicitous throughout, sometimes indeed finding rhymes and neatness not there in the original, as in “Anti-worlds,” which is a tour de force:

But Anti-Bukáshkin’s dreams are the color
Of blotting paper, and couldn’t be duller.

W.H. Auden’s effortless command of rhyme similarly enabled him to deal with the excitement of the opening section of “Parabolic Ballad,” so that the sounds of his English version make a detour comparable to the Russian.

Ironically, a reader of this volume faces as much difficulty in making the transition from the Sixties to the present day as from Russian to English. I’ve already spoken of Voznesensky’s eager seizing upon his experiences in the West, and particularly those in the United States. It is a problem. Yevtushenko, essentially, brought the Soviet Union to us. He spoke for Russia, perhaps even Siberia—in any case for a peasant world. Voznesensky seems instead to have been ensnared by his observation of the details of our style and behavior. As a result many of these poems express the thoughts and occasionally the slogans of an age—the Sixties—that has gone, one we observe more coolly because we can place it even as we may regret its innocence.

Of Voznesensky’s poems in this vein, one of the most telling is “American Buttons,” translated here with some verve by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The word button for a bell to be pressed for admission is exotic in Russian, and perhaps for that reason it leads Voznesensky to explore assonances that leave Ferlinghetti with a trail of much less evocative associations. What Voznesensky is doing is making a game out of American references, and teasing his Russian readers with their strangeness. He is taking the world of Allen Ginsberg and hippie slogans back to the country of Mayakovsky. It’s almost impossible for a translator to cope with these ironies:

Buttons flash over yawns.
The funnier they are, the more terrifying
And like bull’s-eyes for bullets.

GOD HAS MOVED TO 43 AVENUE OF PEACE.
RING TWICE.

Voznesensky’s prose is more difficult to assess. It is likely to strike most contemporary Western readers as pretentious. The influences upon it seem to belong to another part of the century, to a modernism now bypassed. We have never lived in the situation of enforced Socialist Realism, and so it is difficult for us to understand the seduction of this kind of modern experiment.

Of the two prose pieces, the one on Pasternak is more interesting because of its subject matter. Pasternak has attracted a great many reverent memoirs already, of course. Two or three of us were, I remember, taken to Peredelkino by Yevtushenko on the last night of our trip to the Soviet Union in 1978. He took us to Pasternak’s grave, where we sat with a bottle of wine in the moonlight, discussing Pasternak’s genius. Yevtushenko reflected with awe on the age Pasternak had reached. “A fantastic age for a Russian poet,” he added somberly. Ghosts from the past, of D’Anthès and Captain Martynov, have always haunted Russian poets, and for the generation of which Voznesensky and Yevtushenko formed a part Pasternak was in several ways an encouraging figure, and not only because his reputation was reestablished as theirs emerged.

Russian tyrants have traditionally feared poets as dangerous political opponents, and during much the same period as these moving, adolescent encounters Voznesensky had with Pasternak, Zhdanov was making a brutal assault on the arts, of which Akhmatova and Zoshchenko were notable victims. It is not something a Russian reader of Voznesensky would forget, any more than he is likely to forget where he was when he received the revelations of Khrushchev’s Twentieth Party Congress, or his astonishment upon reading the great neglected poets in Novy Mir, under the editorship of Tvardovsky. To all these events Pasternak is intimately connected in the consciousness of any Russian lover of poetry, which is why an almost iconic significance has gathered about his name.

But this is not the significance that Voznesensky has chosen to stress. His insights are more human. He reflects on Pasternak’s generous interest in his own early poetry, and the pleasure he took in listening to Pasternak read his own poetry aloud. “Perhaps what he liked in me was himself, who had run to Scriabin as a schoolboy. He was drawn to his childhood. The call of childhood never died in him.” There are passages describing Pasternak’s talk in which we can almost hear the stumbling voice of the poet himself. There is a diversion about a vividly observed secondhand bookseller, to whom Pasternak had introduced him, who keeps a first edition of Tsvetayeva’s Versts in a dusty glass case. And, best of all, there are vivid pictures of Pasternak striding about Moscow, with his coat open and his hat on one side, with the snow just beginning to melt, talking about the importance of losing things, and claiming to have lost a third of what he had done without regret.

There is another, more surreal, vision of the poet, approaching from the other side of Peredelkino pond, and seeming to soar above it supernaturally because his trousers blend with the color of the boards of a bridge. Voznesensky describes him as floating on the waters with a “childlike smile of puzzlement and delight on his face.” Something in Pasternak touched the homages that were written to him with a sense of his being more than human; Bella Akhmadulina’s tribute to him has a similar quality. It is as if in writing about him, Russian poets were honoring something close to an ideal of poetry itself.

The second piece of prose here—“O”—is an occasion to explore other memories; it consists of sharp, quick sketches and fancies, often a matter of only a few lines. There is a portrait of Akhmadulina reading with “her crystal chin so high that neither her lips nor her face is visible, her face is in shadow [so that] all we can see is her defenselessly open neck with the pulsing, unearthly, chilling sound of convulsive breathing.” A black hole flies into Voznesensky’s room in the writers’ colony and ironically claims to be his lost civilization. He makes a kind of pet of it and comments, “I learned that black holes are clots of compressed memory.” The O that gives this piece its title is playfully used to string together reflections about meetings with Henry Moore, Picasso, and many others. Voznesensky is more interested in language than he is in anecdote.

Letters

Andrei Voznesensky January 21, 1988

  1. 1

    The New York Review (August 16, 1979; Letters, November 8, 1979).

  2. 2

    From The New Russian Poets: 1953–1968, edited and translated by George Reavey (London, 1968).

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