Saturday, November 03, 2012

Yevgeny Yevtushenko's "Stolen Apples"

When Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko asked ten of the best American poets to translate a collection of his poems that he had assembled for Doubleday and Company in 1971, he gave his translators "full freedom" in their work, for only "a free and unrestricted translation can in any way claim to be poetry." The translators would only translate the poems that they liked and translate them in the manner that they chose. So it is apt to call the English poems that resulted from this remarkable Cold War collaboration "translation adaptations," as the front cover does. The Yevtushenko obtained in Stolen Apples is not the man himself, but the image of the man as seen through the lensing personalities of James Dickey, Geoffrey Dutton, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Anthony Kahn, Stanley Kunitz, George Reavey, John Updike and Richard Wilbur.

It is a remarkable characteristic of the Russian's work that poets as different as Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Richard Wilbur responded so strongly to it. The angry protestor is heard in Ferlinghetti's translation of "Flowers & Bullets." Wilbur translated one of my favorite poems in the book, "Procession with the Madonna." In simple, precise quatrains, rhyming abcb, the poem looks at the hopeful young girls at the front of the procession, before looking at their "fates impending," the strong but cynical women at the back. The speaker turns out to be not a spectator but a marcher too. She marches beside the Madonna, between the girls in their white dresses and the women in their black attire, finding in the candles no "glad radiance," but "a muddled vision/Full of sweet hope and bitterness at once."

The poem shows a poet strongly self-divided, between styles, between political engagement and lyrical introspection, between manic exuberance and despairing acuity. The poem also shows a poet dramatizing powerfully the life lived in that division. His own foreword to the book is an uneasy mixture of inordinate pride and chastizing humility. He quotes Pasternak's line "Being famous isn't pretty" for the title of his foreword, but claims that by doing so "I've acted without arrogance or self-disparagement, a thing far worse than pride." These are not the words of a man who had arrived at a serene judgment of himself, but speak of constant tiring and tiresome evaluations and re-evaluations.

This sense of being both the judge and the object of judgement is expressed through the trope of hunting in another favorite poem, "Mating Flight of the Woodcock," translated by Stanley Kunitz. The poem is in four quatrians. The last two lines of every quatrain end with the same word, creating a doubling effect. This effect is explicitly stated in the third stanza, which doubles the word "double" itself. "Hunter, he is your unarmed double./You are his doomed and wingless double." Hunter and woodcock are mirrors of each other. Kunitz translated another poem that I like very much, "Incantation," with its haunting repetition at the beginning and end of the poem.

Think of me on spring nights
and think of me on summer nights,
think of me on autumn nights
and think of me on winter nights.

I don't much care for the free-verse poems with long lines that descend like steps across the page. But one, translated by James Dickey who had a taste for the grotesque, is riveting for its premise. "Doing the Twist on Nails" pictures not Jesus but Mary Magdalene dancing on nails "shot through" the stage. At the end of the poem, the speaker wishes to wash the wounded feet, not like a brother would do for a sister, but "like a sister for a sister." This doubling casts the poet as both the dancing Magdalene (the suffering artist) and Magdalene the healer.

One of the most moving poems in this collection approaches the death of Anna Akhmatova with the idea of the double too. "In Memory of Akhmatova," translated by Anthony Kahn, is in two parts. The first part is a hyperbolic elegy for one of Russia's best-loved poets. It ends with a conventional use of the double to praise Akhmatova's uniqueness.

For, certainly, two Russians cannot ever
exist or two Akhmatovas be made.

The second part, by undercutting that assertion, veers into new territory. It describes the funeral of a peasant woman "near Akhmatova in age." She has "nothing left to darn or wipe or sweep." She lies "absolvingly serene," in a telling detail, "her dry hands folded on her breast." She cannot be more different from Akhmatova, "disdainful, droll," an "Aristocrat." The two women belong to two different Russias, "a Russia of the hands and of the soul."

Then the poem begins to draw out their similarities. Akhmatova's hands, in writing, too "labored to their limit." In her funeral posture, she, too, lies "absolvingly serene," "resigned/and fragrant with a peasant girl's fatigue," with "fingers met upon her breast." The nameless peasant woman never looked on Nice but "on her brow/appeared Akhmatova's stern grace." She was not only a reader of the Russian poet but a worshipper, for above her body hung "Akhmatova's patrician profile."

So by comparing the funerals of these two women, otherwise so different in social situation, the poem brings them together. It elevates the death of this unknown domestic while underscoring the humanity of the dead poet. In doing so, the poem also reconciles the doubleness in Yevtushenko's poetry, between high and low, between cosmopolitan and local, between writer and reader, concluding that "between them there was no frontier."

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