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American Literary History 16.2 (2004) 263-289

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Martial Lyrics:
The Vexed History of the Wartime Poem Card

Cary Nelson

It is the midst of World War II.1 Invaded by Adolf Hitler's army in 1941, the Soviet Union had suffered three years of death and blood on Russian soil, but as of 1944 victory was finally imaginable. Meanwhile, a Russian poet known before the war for writing children's literature was now composing wartime propaganda. Printed opposite a color portrait of the Kremlin's Spasskaya ("Savior's") clock tower (Fig. 1), one poem is an effort to turn established figures of terror into prospective figures of joy:

Every day the Kremlin fireworks
Grow brighter, more decisive, more splendid!
Soon the day will come when their last reverberations
Herald our victory throughout the land.

We will declare victory over fallen enemies
Crushed against the granite of our will.
And once again the flag of Lenin
Will light up all the corners of our native land.

As our villages rise from ruin,
the cities will bloom even brighter.
Soon Stalin will command
"Fireworks for the triumphant motherland!"

The poem, by Samuel Yákolevich Marshák, translated here from the Russian, is on an air letter sent from the field on 28 July 1944 by a soldier who signs himself "Your father Kolya," a diminutive form of Nikolai (Fig. 2). Here is Kolya's handwritten message, again translated:

Dear Vera,

I am writing to you even though I really have nothing to say. But I write so as not to break the chain that connects us. [End Page 263]

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Figure 1
Opposite the Kremlin's clock tower-Samuel Marshak's poem on a 1944 letter.

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Figure 2
Kolya's 1944 letter in Russian (translated above).

[End Page 264]

I write this letter while hiding from the sun under a little bush. I just took a swim in the sea and soon I will have lunch. There, I can hear the lunch trolley approaching. So we will eat, and then the war will begin again. I am fighting in a field, or rather in a mountain valley. When will I see the last of these damn mountains? Mountains and more mountains! When will I see a plain stretched out before us? But there is nothing for it. Soon we must advance and draw closer to the enemy. Otherwise we'd have to wait here for them forever.

There, lunch has arrived. So I will eat. And thus I end my letter. Say hello to everyone.

I send big kisses.

Part of what is uncanny about this little paragraph is its characteristic wartime negotiation of the relationship between the incidental and the monumental—the bush, the swim, the lunch wagon surface amidst the impending clash of armies—along with its translation of grim battlefield necessity—"Soon we must advance and draw closer to the enemy"—into an apparently childlike logic: "Otherwise we'd have to wait here for them forever." The initial dichotomy—between a pastoral respite and imminent battle—follows the logic Paul Fussell noted in many World War I poems, which structured their intelligibility around an opposition between a pastoral prewar world and the carnage of trench warfare (36-74, 230-69). Whether Kolya was consciously emulating a literary tradition is impossible to say, but the contending tropes certainly help give his letter the character of a prose poem. In any case, he then amends his pastoralism with the logic of childhood. If this results in a kind of grim fairy tale, with childlike surrealism overlaying the mad fatefulness of battlefield action, it also hints at the way Russians had to deal with a late Nazi tactic. Early in 1944, in a costly delaying tactic, the German army was ordered to pick arbitrarily chosen sites and hold them as "fortresses" until death (Weinberg 673). Marshák's poem also reinforces the juxtaposition of historical process with personal experience, invoking the larger canvas on which Nikolai Mikhailovich Troshin inscribes his family communication. Whether...