Boris Dralyuk, ed.
240 Pages; Print, $14.95
As a translator and as an editor, Boris Dralyuk has quickly achieved success and status. There is a reason for this: he is a superb translator and editor. I always look forward to his books, and it is an additional pleasure in this instance that the publisher is Pushkin Press, which chooses books that engage and inform.
The book at hand, 1917, allows us to examine the poetry and fiction of that tumultuous year when the Bolshevik Revolution took place, unsettling a number of nearby countries. If you ever saw the movie of Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago (1965), you saw images meant to represent the 1917 revolution. (This was one of the few movies better than the book on which it was based. Pasternak was a very great poet but not a great fiction writer.)
Dralyuk has divided his book into two parts: poetry first, then fiction. Along the way he provides a good deal of interesting commentary, detailing the lives of poets and authors and clarifying their relationships with one another. Thus we are introduced to those writers who were writing at that time and sometimes influencing the world around them.
Some of the work is translated by Dralyuk, but not all of it. This makes the book even more enjoyable, as we derive a sense of variance from the poems. At the same time, Dralyuk’s ability to find rhymes and slant rhymes in English for Russian poems is exciting, as in his translation of Mikhail Gerasimov. “Fed by the dream of Communism, I stoked the furnace with new power, intoxicated by its rhythm, I forged my iron flowers.” Gerasimov was, of course, executed. Denunciation was the name of the game, and execution the eternal winner.
Two caveats: those of us who are English-speaking may find it odd that Russian poems include a plethora of exclamation marks (an American poet will go a long way to avoid an exclamation mark; it seems foolishly loud to us, but Russians had good reason to shout). Second, Russian poetry, especially that written by the Acmeists, a group of poets who got together at The Stray Dog Café in St. Petersburg, tends to slight metaphor (though there is metaphor) and emphasize direct statement. Knowing this was their aim helps us to relax into a sympathetic posture with respect to the Acmeists. Among them were Osip Mandelstam, perhaps the greatest of them all (I suggest you also read Christian Wyman’s translations of Mandelstam); Anna Akhmatova, perhaps even better known to English-speaking readers; Pasternak, whose poems dared to be lyrical; Marina Tsvetaeva, who turns up now and then in American and British novels, possibly because she committed suicide; and a good many others. They often addressed their poems to the Russian state, and in this, too, they were different from English-speaking poets. To us it may seem grandiose to speak to a nation, but that is because we can freely address anything or anyone we wish to address. And at least some American poets have indeed directed poems at our country: think of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsburg. We cannot say that no English-speaking poets have addressed the Western hemisphere. The Russian poets understandably wanted to speak loudly and clearly to their nation, praising, rebuking, offering ways of improving what seemed to them to need improvement. These poems tend toward the dramatic, as if the poet might die the next day. And that was not unheard of.
There were other groups of poets besides the Acmeists: Gumilyov’s Guild of Poets—Gumilyov was Akhmatova’s husband until he was executed “with sixty alleged co-conspirators”—Centrifuge (a Futurist group); New Peasants; Scythians; Imaginism. One can imagine all these poets writing feverishly in separate rooms, spied on by the press and the Cheka.
When Stalin came to power, pretty much no one was safe. He launched one Great Purge after another.
Sergey Esenin was a member of the New Peasants, later joining the Imaginism group. Dralyuk describes Esenin’s...