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Books: Periscope of The Buried Dead

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NOSTALGIA FOR THE PRESENT by Andrei Voznesensky Edited by Vera Dunham and Max Hayward Doubleday; 268 pages; $10 hardcover, $4.95 paperback

Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations spans some 5,000 years, from the Egyptian Book of the Dead (circa 3500 B.C.) to the verse of Andrei Voznesensky (born 1933). The book ends are astonishingly apposite. The King Tut exhibition demonstrates that ancient art has modern resonance. Nostalgia for the Present proves that Russia’s contemporary poet tells ageless parables.

Voznesensky’s tenth book reinforces his reputation as a major lyricist and enhances his role as the last of the international troubadours, a public man as recognizable on American campuses as he is on his own soil. Literary and political celebrities throng these pages: Poets Robert Bly, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Richard Wilbur are among the many translators; Senator Edward Kennedy and Playwright Arthur Miller contribute moving forewords. Several poems recall encounters with Robert Lowell. Robert Kennedy, Boris Pasternak and Marc Chagall. By all customary standards Voznesensky should be thoroughly corrupted by recognition and applause. Instead, his work has retained its pure, almost elemental force.

Nearly every poem glistens with irony: the man who is regularly censured at home is not one to go gentle into that good night. Muffled by Soviet bureaucracy, he seethes:

I’m . . . 35th for a place in Vagankovo Cemetery . . . 16th at the optician’s . . . 110th for an abortion (not pregnant now, but ready when my time comes).

In “Technology” he admits:

With all due respect to samovars, in the very middle of this provincial hole, I long for plumbing and freedom of thought.

Throughout, Voznesensky’s work is transfigured by metaphors. A man clothes himself in a suit, a car, a garage, a nation, a planet, a cosmos—and then realizes that he has forgotten his watch. Timeless, he has lost his place in history. A girl’s black bell-bottomed trousers “flare out as shadow would flare out/ If the source of light/ Were centered in her belly.” The poet moves in his leather jacket, “a cow’s hide stuffed with soul.” In “War” he compresses the century’s anguish to four barbed-wire lines:

With the open eyes of their dead fathers Toward other worlds they gaze ahead—Children who, wide-eyed, become Periscopes of the buried dead.

Nostalgia presents a single poetic vision and a choir of translators. They are not of equal worth. Robert Bly makes Voznesensky sound like Robert Bly, all curt stanzas and quick vignettes. Ginsberg jettisons the author’s rhymes for some ungainly free verse. The best work is the least obtrusive: working with Voznesensky’s supple and difficult lines, Max Hayward, Vera Dunham and William Jay Smith have given the Russian, both man and language, a new voice.

At its most eloquent, that voice echoes the lurching prophecies of Yeats:

A man in the dark, drunkenly seeking his matchbox, cries: “Mary is pregnant again, and again the world is not ready! . . . “

Or the hellish stanzas of Brecht:

You and I, George, let us drink together, in our eyes the wildfires of centuries glow. Each sister is raped by her own brother, and nobody knows whose brother is who.

Other lines evoke the imagery and attitudes of Auden and Whitman. But for the most part Voznesensky recalls no one except himself. This courageous and unique writer never retreats into metaphysics, never merchandises the jargon of protest. Though all of his works concern human rights, most are addressed to the human condition: to accidental death and still more accidental love, to the encroachments of the state, to the ives of ordinary citizens of any country who will not succumb to blind authority or cheap despair.

On each page the poet attempts to contemplate his epoch with the emotions of a participant and the eye of a future observer. The task is impossible; one can no more feel authentic nostalgia for the present than get in front of one’s nose. In the end, Voznesensky does not emerge with perfection, but with something better: rare and unsuspected truths that are the great goals of poetry. In the author’s indelible metaphor:

The poet thrusts his body like a tolling bell against the dome of insults. It hurts. But it resounds. — Stefan Kanfer

In Russia 14,000 people gathered in a Moscow sports stadium last year to hear Andrei Voznesensky read his verse. As many as 500,000 Soviet citizens have subscribed to buy a volume of his poetry. In the U.S. more modest but still impressive numbers of students jam college auditoriums whenever the poet pays a visit. In New York City after a two-month, 21-campus tour (his fifth in the U.S. since 1966), Voznesensky charted his journey past the language barrier in America.

“At first I was exotic,” the 45-year-old poet recalls in fluent, strongly accented English. “People were listening to me more for the sound of my poetry than for the sense. It helped that in those days I was writing in a more musical and aggressive style than I am now. My work was also more constructivist. You could see, and even hear, how my poetry was made: the rhythm, rhymes, associations and metaphors. My poems were easy to catch hold of. When my book, Antiworlds, came out in English, translated by W.H. Auden and other marvelous poets, it prepared audiences for the more delicately orchestrated poetry I’ve been writing lately. It’s more surreal, analytical and elusive—quite impossible to catch.”

On his current tour, Voznesensky’s readings have been more muted than his galvanic performances of the ’60s and early ’70s. In those days he would scuttle back and forth across the stage in spurts of convulsive energy, flailing the air with one hand while his powerful baritone voice rolled with the rhythms and assonances of such poems as Goya, his now famous war dirge. (“I am Goya/ of the bare field, by the enemy’s beak gouged/ till the craters of my eyes gape.”

In contrast, at Voznesensky’s reading last month in Joseph Papp’s Public Theater in New York City, the poet created an atmosphere of almost monastic serenity. A large, white, Russian Orthodox church candle burning on the podium provided virtually the only lighting. “It is more intimate for you, my friends,” Voznesensky explained to an audience that included Mstislav Rostropovich, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and C.P. Snow. As Poet William Jay Smith, a favored translator and friend, read English versions from Nostalgia for the Present, Voznesensky could be glimpsed in the wings, his slight figure rigid with apprehension, as if braced for combat. Following the English readings, Voznesensky moved forward to recite the Russian originals. Among them was a new poem: “Fighting eternal idiocy,/ born to the greatest deeds there are,/ the literature of Russia/ conducts civil war.”

Voznesensky recited for nearly two hours, from memory as he always does. His voice, softened in maturity, was alternately playful, mocking and most often sorrowing. As a spotlight shot harshly into his face, his gaze turned inward in painful concentration. Asked why he appeared so pained, Voznesensky explained: “When I read, I repeat the process of creation. I remember my mood when I was writing a poem, as if I had walked into a forest. It is necessary masochism; it means suffering, but I like it.” He even welcomes the intrusion of the spotlight. “It blinds me, and I forget about the faces in front of me. I lose all connection with people. I can say everything then. It is like talking to God, to your life and death. On stage, you are another person. You belong to language.” ‘

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