The title, for a start, seems accurate. This dense and ambitious narrative poem is indeed constructed along the lines of a home movie: jerky, vivid, impenetrably domestic, alive with unanswerable queries. Why was Aunt Jane carrying that sack of tomatoes? Martha’s little boy is a terror, isn’t he? Is it Windsor Castle they’re all visiting? Or somewhere else? So the crazy procession of shots continues until the group gathered in the living room begins to show, however politely, unmistakable signs of fatigue: and if Uncle George is wise he will bring the show to an end so that his wife can circulate the coffee and the beer. Like Mr. Bennet’s daughter in Pride and Prejudice, the movie has delighted its home audience for long enough.

And yet it has demonstrated all the purposeful aimlessness of truth. A truth of the moment. There was a reason why Uncle Fedya was in Prague the day the Germans marched in. He was probably visiting the mistress who was a secret scandal in the family, and he never managed to make it back home. Mean-while Rosa was trying to pass her exams back in St. Petersburg, and Marfa was worrying about the man Katya had met on holiday, and someone had died on a train, and the Cossacks had dispersed a crowd in Odessa. Domestic affairs begin to merge into the larger absurdities and unknowables of history.

What does all this remind us of? Postmodernism or Eisenstein? Andy Warhol or Dr. Zhivago? A bit of each probably, but the last name gives us the clue. The poet Craig Raine, coming from a working-class family in the north of England, married in Oxford a niece of the great Russian poet Boris Pasternak. It was a coincidence that would have a very considerable effect on the poetry he himself would be writing. It was also a coincidence of the sort from which Pasternak had created the structure and philosophy of Dr. Zhivago. A superb talent for English words merged in Raine, by a kind of osmosis, with a Russian literary inheritance. This was not a question of influence. No poet—and certainly no poet writing in English—could set out to be directly influenced by Pasternak, any more, say, than he would try to imitate Shakespeare or Keats. The connection was not through the abstract world of literature but in the deeper, more random and atavistic, world of family life, where miracles of cross-fertilization and birth are the norm.

Craig Raine has in a sense constructed his poem out of a conscious recognition of this kind of miracle. Except in words themselves, fact is something with which liberties can be taken; and so in drawing up at the beginning of his poem a family tree, with the Pasternaks on one side and the Raines on the other, he makes the connection between the two a generation back from his own, thus distancing himself (and incidentally his wife) from what occurred in consequence. Not that it makes much difference in practice, because it is in the nature of a poetic movie, domestic or historical, to amuse and absorb its audience by deft bewilderment, rather than by the sudden revelations that are the outcome of a clear perspective. It is worth comparing Raine’s work with Ashbery’s Flow Chart, both difficult or obscure poems which feel their way along the edge of today’s sensibilities in verse. Ashbery succeeds by dissolving the banality of daily experience into an aesthetic effect, calming and satisfying his audience as beautifully as, say, Matthew Arnold in his day sought to do. He makes calm out of the knowledge of chaos, and does it as originally as Raine’s spirited attempt to make the materials of chaos, as she is, the raw ingredient of aesthetic delight.

But are you sitting comfortably? In that case we’ll start with a prologue as brief as that of the play inside Hamlet.

And me? Secret Police.
Third Department. Cheka.

An alphabet. Of course.
What else but the filth
In a thousand disguises?

Well, that isn’t very homey. It’s banal all right, but its banality is that of the media, not of the subtleties that should be implicit in a poetry dealing with a banality. Rather a disappointing start. But then the movie gets into its stride: jerking us into a true and oddball incomprehensibility. Now the uneasy and pretentious “me” becomes what Pushkin would call a real chudak, a uniquely authentic funny fellow, capering through words as if they were paper hoops.

Boris [this is the poet Pasternak],
   older, is in the garden,
a bee unnoticed on his arm,

frowning at the naval squadron
far out to sea. The red flag
he’s read reports about

is reading black against the sky.
“Shura!” he shouts. “Shura!” The name
a headache in the dark indoors.

He wants the telescope,
but Shura is busy being a girl,
his cock and balls

between his legs,
reflected in the looking-glass
of passe-partout and blackened mercury.

And where am I?
Seeing this son from behind,
arranged like a bulldog.

The presumed “I” now must be Leonid, the poet Pasternak’s artist father. (His paintings, many still in the family, have a charm contrasting with but reminiscent of those of his Russian contemporary Bilibin.) And yet his identity is no great matter, for this is not the world of poetic modernism, where waste lands or June days in Dublin can be pursued to the last letter of their presumptive meaning, but that of postmodernism, where everything goes, provided it makes its impact on cue, and in the surprised moment. The projector reels on erratically, careless of whether the picture makes sense or not, provided the viewers register its vividness in their gasps or laughs or sniggers.


Plenty of stuff to snigger about too, as it were, from the old jest of Aunt Kate’s garters inadvertently displayed on holiday to the authentic Raine touches: a quaintly old-fashioned rape in the Woodstock Road; Lenin’s body “tanning the colour of biltong,/ deep in his bath of marinade… The vascular system / still flooded with formaldehyde.” Boris Pasternak (also known as Borya) “reflects / on the way a mouth works…/this versatile valve / for kissing and conversation / a sphincter restlessly red.” At the end of the movie young Craig and his wife come to Berlin to look up their relatives, alight from “the electric train am Zoo / like a dead fly on its back” (every artifact in the poem must masquerade as something natural and by preference obscenely anatomical) while Craig’s father, once a soldier and a boxer, becomes “a zzzzz on the armchair,”

dead to the world
while his healing hands
make a masturbatory click, click,
like a gramophone record come
to its end, its end, its end.

At moments the author strikes one as less poet-projectionist than a bright-eyed dirty-minded urchin, devising smutty analogies in dazzling words for a shocked and enthralled audience of his tousled peers. Ten years in the making? So the English publisher’s blurb tells us, but the process seems nonetheless a very repetitive and physical one, as if indulged in satisfyingly every day. The novelty effect of history as what you can do with your-self, and the conceits you can excrete, soon begins to wear off.

Yet the pages do also begin to have the authority of a true original—nothing quite like it done before (and an ideal gimmick for a new-style New Yorker). Boris Pasternak himself is wonderfully present, not in the hallowed and hackneyed sense of “great Russian poet” but as the embarrassingly turbulent and awkward young creature of My Sister Life, the title of his first book of poems, who amazed and thrilled his contemporaries by seeing natural objects in an intoxicatingly new way (the grass of the steppe, the stars’ reflections on a road surface). This novelty, as I said, might have leaked by osmosis through the membrane of a foreign tongue, thus both emphasizing and transforming its own inner being. The metaphysical high jinks of Donne and Cleveland are convulsed into a new world of Muscovite animation. This long poem is really a celebration of the way such a thing can occur, and of how the bizarre procession of time and event—Russia, England, Moscow, Oxford—has led up to and created a new, odd synthesis of language and experience.

By this means the poem is given an impressive semblance of inner inevitability, as Milton gave to his tale of man’s disobedience, or Pushkin to his touching scherzo of Tatyana falling in vain for Onegin, and Onegin, too late, falling equally vainly for her. A Russian formalist pointed out that Pushkin’s poem is not telling the story of the pair but “having a game with that story”; and in the same spirit Raine is having a game not so much with family and historic event as with the biology of encounter and coincidence that has made it possible for the poem to be written. The poem is an account of its own inevitable being, how it could not but be itself, and not another thing.

That is all very well, but its operation is still irresponsible and gratuitous: it would hardly be postmodern otherwise. One of Raine’s early collections had the title of what at once became its most notorious poem: “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home.” In England “Martian” poetry became briefly the rage, with all the naive high spirits of a new form of pop art. Mist, to a Martian, for example, “is when the sky is tired of flight / and rests its soft machine on ground.” A Martian, like a poet, sees things differently, and Raine’s verbal talent was just the right vehicle to explore and develop the difference. But when there is no point to it, other than the poet’s compulsive wish to find that, say, old persons’ gums are like pretzels, or a bruise on the shin is like a new potato, this verbal nose-picking can become as wearisome for the reader as the mechanical rhythm of the home movie itself, its metrical monotone stamping out each brand-new phrase like a clever machine.


But that is not entirely fair. The reader who manages to keep a close eye on what is taking place will be rewarded between blurs of incomprehension by a sudden sharpening of focus: history is about to live over one of its “meaningful” moments. Rasputin, mentioned only as the Starets—holy father—was clumsily murdered by aristocrats (one of whom had been an Oxford student) and then pushed under the ice of the Neva River in the desperate year of 1916. The style of Raine’s verse might have been made for the horrid incongruities of that business, and for the voice of the chief conspirator, Prince Yousoupoff.

Almost his English is perfect.
The accent is: eating his words
like caramel toffees, chewing

the diphthongs.

The poisoned Starets grabs the officer’s epaulet, “like a gardener clutching a clod,” but still he does not die, and the terrified would-be murderer rushes up the stairs to where his comrades are playing cards,

as if they were sitting an exam.
They seemed not like the ones who’d failed

but like ones who had succeeded

The sublime quotation from Dante’s meeting with his old schoolmaster in hell is slipped in as part of the general transmogrification, though we are told that the allusion was lost on everyone present, including Raine’s grandfather Henry, who as a “Scout” or servant, at University College, Oxford, had looked after the prince now so incompetently attempting the murder (Yousoupoff had a fine black chow dog by the way, whom he called “Scout.”).

So. The poem is dense enough, certainly, and it should be a pleasure for its readers to come back and savor again the nuggets of allusiveness as if they were slowly enjoying chocolates. There is something slightly ignominious, nonetheless, about our own and the poet’s pleasure here, as there might be with chocolate eating. Moreover Prince Yousoupoff’s prose account of the murder, on which Raine necessarily depends, is in its own way even more bizarre than anything the poem can provide. A poet taking a great transformation of events as his subject, as Eliot did in The Waste Land or Anna Akhmatova (more significantly for Raine) in Poem Without a Hero, is quite right to ignore generalizations about the sweep of history and work with the fragments of meaning that make up personal life. But Raine is in the slightly false position of trying to deal with “great events” as if they were as importantly trivial and cozily domesticated as the things that happen to ourselves.

There is a significant exception though, and one that remains strikingly and effectively ambiguous in the poem. Among his many criminal acts was Stalin’s treatment of Russian poets and artists; and one of his victims was the poet Osip Mandelstam, as gifted and original a poet as Pasternak himself, perhaps even more gifted. A lampoon on the great leader, incautiously confided to friends, led to his arrest. Stalin, who never considered Pasternak politically dangerous, and had indeed referred to him with tolerant contempt as “the cloud-dweller,” actually rang up Pasternak from the Kremlin to get his view on the status of Mandelstam in Russian poetry. Was he a genius? Naturally enough the unfortunate Pasternak scarcely knew afterward what he had said, but it seems he spoke of the needs of Russian poetry, about which he hoped for another chat sometime with Stalin, who promptly hung up. Raine’s terse account of the conversation does not blame Pasternak, who could almost certainly have done nothing to save his fellow poet, but it pungently makes the point that all poets cannot help being more interested in their own reputations than in those of their fellows. At the same time they are fascinated and seduced in the presence of power.

When Stalin mentions Mandelstam,
Boris feels, profoundly feels
there must be some mistake.

Is Mandelstam a genius?
(Osip Emilyevich? Mandelstam?
But what about me?)

Disappointed, downcast, genuine,
Boris addresses the question:
A good writer, yes. A genius…

His voice trails off.
Trails off, he suddenly thinks,
Like drops of blood

and sees them there,
splintered on the parquet floor,
as he sees the question,

at last, for what it is.

It is the closest Raine comes to identifying with the hypothetical feelings of his relative by marriage and fellow poet, in this appalling situation. And yet he fails, perhaps deliberately, to give the moment its drama. The compulsive schoolboy inside his poetic talent insists on decking out the moment with a full complement of domestic and sexual detail. The communal telephone, the young daughter having her weekly bath (“Stella and Stella’s new breasts,” each of which is “tipped like a billiard cue/ with pink morocco plush”) while on the wall Papa Leonid’s portrait of Tolstoy wears the Russian peasant shirt (rubashka), which makes him look like a German dentist. Peter the Great comes into Boris’s mind, and the tsars’ old habit of pulling out their subjects’ teeth by the sackful, and that makes his own teeth begin to ache “like testicles/after hours of foreplay.”

And yet the reader is entitled to feel he is being merely distracted from the fearful glimpse into Stalin’s tsarist world of power; distracted by the poet’s brilliantly conceited (in all senses) self-indulgence, and his absorption in its effects. Boris Pasternak’s hypothetical “But what about me?” seems all too typical of the poet Craig Raine. This may be a deliberate tactic of the postmodern novel inside the poem, but it is certainly quite alien to the spirit of Russian writing, which even in our day retains its dignity, a sort of ultimate pudeur. Pasternak’s own translations of Shakespeare are notorious for their bowdlerization: he preferred not to notice the dirty bits, and this was a matter of decorum which suits the Russians even if it does not suit Shakespeare. The same goes for the Russian poema, with which in some sense Raine aligns himself. Both Evgeny Onegin and Akhmatova’s Poem Without a Hero are crammed with domestic detail; but these great narrative—and in the latter case historic—surveys have an instinctive taste and poise built, as it were, into their mellifluous cadences.

A home movie need not have any poetic dignity, which is fair enough, and yet Raine’s reader may persist in feeling that this ambitious poem has too many moments that call aloud for dignity in some form, and call in vain. His poetic temperament cannot deal with many of the emotions and situations his poem necessarily conjures up. Love, joy, sorrow, guilt, and despair?—his way of writing poetry seems never to have heard of them. Power comes in as a concept—Pasternak has an overwhelming sense of it when Stalin rings him up—and yet this is in no sense a “powerful” poem.

T.S. Eliot, tongue perhaps in cheek, once speculated in a letter about the ways in which poets see themselves in action, as poets. He himself sometimes felt he was reading to a friend in hospital. Tennyson was declaiming to an after-dinner audience. Raine himself has objected to the last line of Larkin’s splendidly gloomy “Aubade”—“Post-men like doctors go from house to house”—from which, however, it is surely clear that Larkin saw his poems as letters written to amuse or console the recipient. History: The Home Movie is not a bit like that. Perhaps Craig Raine sees himself as a projectionist performing a lively running commentary. If we receive his poem in that spirit we shall enjoy it, and in our modern way be not so unlike those pilgrims who were entertained by Chaucer on the road to Canterbury.

This Issue

March 23, 1995