Saturday, July 12, 2014

when you recognize fire, say wherefore you yearn - some poems of Alexander Vvedensky

The book is An Invitation for Me to Think, a collection of the avant-garde poems of Alexander Vvedensky, the second of the NYRB Poets series.  Miguel Hernández led me not to another Spanish poet, but to a book that looks the same, but with a blue cover rather than green.

The two poets do share one terrible similarity.  Vvedensky died in 1941, just six months before Hernández, while being transported between prisons.  He was born in 1904, so he made it to age 37, while Hernández died at 31.  Vvedensky is closely associated with the somewhat better known poet Daniil Kharms (1905-42).  Died in prison, yes.  Their crime was, essentially, writing avant-garde poems.

Vvedensky and Kharms were in the cohort of poets after the Stray Dog Cabaret group, poets like Mayakovsky and Akhmatova, so I can see why they thought that the new regime tolerated and maybe even encouraged experimental literature.  They would have grown up in that little window when it was true.  They missed the moment when the window closed, or perhaps it was too late, experimental poetry was ingrained.  They both actually made their living writing children’s literature.

Vvedensky was a language poet, and is thus obviously untranslatable in some key way.  Not in other ways, though.  This is from a late poem, “Elegy” (1940):

With envy I look at beasts,
I trust neither thoughts nor words,
our minds have suffered a loss,
there’s no reason to struggle.
We apprehend all as a fall,
even the day the dream the shadow,
and even the buzz of music
won’t escape the abyss.

The poem is a cry of despair, a survey of the ruins.  It is an apology for poetry:

No swans above the festive boards
flap the white pinions of their wings,
together with bronze eagles
trumpeting hoarsely.
Eradicated inspiration
now visits for almost no duration,
orient yourself death by death,
singer and poor horseman.

The translator informs me that “Elegy” is, as is fitting for a poem about poetry, crammed with references to other poems.  Maybe even in English I can catch a glimpse of Pushkin in there; otherwise, I will take his word for it.

In an earlier prose piece, from “The Gray Notebook” (1932-3), Vvedensky is explicit about why he writes like he does:

The era of verbs is ending right in front of our eyes.  In art, plot and action are vanishing.  Those actions that exist in my poems are illogical and useless, they already can’t be called actions.  Of a person who used to put on a hat and walk outside, we used to say: he walked outside.  This was meaningless.  The word walked, an incomprehensible word.  But now: he put on his hat and it was getting light and the (blue) sky took off like an eagle.  (75)

There is a terrible irony here.  The Soviets , who could not understand what he wrote, accused Vvedensky of hiding anti-Soviet messages in his poems.  But Vvedensky wrote the way he did because he feared there was nothing in poems at all.

from The Meaning of the Sea

to make everything clear
live backwards
take walks in the woods
tearing off hair
when you recognize fire
in a lamp a stove
say wherefore you yearn
fire ruler of the candle
what do you mean or not
where’s the cabinet the pot

And so on for a couple more pages.  There is no logical stopping place, but rather a series of continuing associations based on image and arbitrary aspects of language, of which rhyme, which the translator keeps in various ways, is just the most familiar.  A lot of Vvedensky’s poems look like this one; then again, many do not.

The poems are translated by Eugene Ostashevsky and Matvei Yankelevich, both poets themselves who have translated other anthologies and collections featuring Vvedensky and his circle.  This would be a great little project, reading more of these poets, if it were not too overwhelmingly depressing that they are all senselessly murdered.


  1. I don't claim to understand most of Vvedensky but two or three Russian poets whose judgement I trust and respect rate him extremely highly, possibly the greatest Russian poet of his century. "Elegy" is a surprisingly intelligible poem, and it's about death. The last two lines are, literally: "Eyes death-wards, death-wards [as in the military command, "eyes right!" although "orient yourself by death" is OK], o singer [=poet or bard, not crooner] and poor horseman." The last line in Russian is, "Певец и всадник бедный." Pushkin's Bronze Horseman is медный всадник. Puskin's "poor knight", which you probably know from Dostoyevsky's "The Idiot", is рыцарь бедный. Vvedensky's всадник бедный is a contamination of the two. Vvedensky actually uses Pushkin's vocabulary throughout the poem but the last line is a hint of last resort.

  2. "a hint of last resort" - that's a good phrase. That's how it worked for me.