Monday, April 26, 2010

A "Russian-American Romance" to End Our Journey

As soon as I read the poem "Russian-American Romance," I knew that it would be a perfect conclusion to my blog on Russian literature. Andrei Voznesensky has been called one of the "most controversial poets of post-Stalinist Russia" (Pushkin). He wrote during the midst of the Cold War - he was first published in the 1950s - after being mentored by Pasternak. He continues to write and speak today at 77 years of age and lives in Moscow.

Russian-American Romance

In my land and yours they do hit the hay
and sleep the whole night in a similar way.

There's the golden Moon with a double shine.
It lightens your land and it lightens mine.

At the same low price, that is for free,
there's the sunrise for you and the sunset for me.

The wind is cool at the break of day,
it's neither your fault nor mine, anyway.

Behind your lies and behind my lies
there is pain and love for our Motherlands.

I wish in your land and mine some day
we'd put all idiots out of the way.

This poem hits at the heart of the Cold War attitude. The speaker points out similarities between the people of the Soviet Union and the people of the United States. Both groups of people experience sunrises and sunsets, moonlight and wind, peaceful slumber. And, most importantly, the "lies" that the governments of each country tell each other, and their own people, are in defense of and becuase of love for the motherland - be it Russia or America. Voznesensky sees the conflict between the two world superpowers as caused by a bunch of "idiots" whom he would like to see "put out of the way." He knows that, deep down, the people are cut from the same cloth. The enemies are more similar than they believe they are. In those similarities, they may find peace.

What really strikes me about this poem is its title. Instead of referring to the conflict as a war, Voznesensky calls it a "romance." And this romance continues today. I am currently taking a History of Russia course. Americans are still fascinated with this country, arguaby more so than with any other country in the world. We want to know who the people are, why the Cold War happened, and what the future holds for Russian-American relations. Russia holds an air of romance that will likely never fade. It will live on in its customs and, especially, in its literature, which even today continues to capture the essence of Russian belief and tradition. America will forever be tied to Russia. It is time we started noticing the similarities instead of the differences; for only when we can relate to a culture can we fully appreciate it.

Pushkin, Michael. "Andrei Voznesensky". The Literary Encyclopedia. 01 Nov 2005. Web. 26 April 2010

Joseph Brodsky

Joseph Brodsky is yet another controversial figure in Russian literature. He was sentenced to a five-year term in exile by the Soviet government, but he only served a year and a half of his term. In 1972, he was exiled permanantly and lived in London and Vienna before coming to live in the United States where he died in 1996. In 1987, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Brodsky, like other Russian poets, also translated the works of others, and his own works have been translated into at least ten languages. Follow this link to see his biography on the official Nobel Prize website.

Part Of Speech

...and when "the future" is uttered, swarms of mice
rush out of the Russian language and gnaw a piece
of ripened memory which is twice
as hole-ridden as real cheese.
After all these years it hardly matters who
or what stands in the corner, hidden by heavy drapes,
and your mind resounds not with a seraphic "doh",
only their rustle. Life, that no one dares
to appraise, like that gift horse's mouth,
bares its teeth in a grin at each
encounter. What gets left of a man amounts
to a part. To his spoken part. To a part of speech.

The first few lines of this poem remind me of the Chekhov quotation from the video we watched in class that said, "The Russian people adore their past, hate their present, and fear their future." When Brodsky writes that when the future is mentioned, "mice rush out of the Russian language and gnaw a piece of ripened memory which is twice as hole-ridden as real cheese," I cannot help but think how closely Russia's past ties in with its present and its future. Memory fades over time. This seems to be the real meaning behind "Part of Speech" When memory fades, people tend to remember only the best of times. The bad things get blocked out. Russians adore the past because they remember only the good times. The present is hated because it is filled with daily issues and problems to solve. The future is feared because it is uncertain, unlike the past which has already occurred and is concretely etched. When man dies, as the speaker points out, "What gets left of a man amounts to a part. To his spoken part. To a part of speech." Chekhov's words prove exactly this. He is remembered for what he said. We are all remembered for what we do and say, not for who we are.

Regina Derieva

Regina Derieva has already lived a fascinating life, and she is still just 60 years old, so she likely has time left to fascinate fans and biographers and even critics. She was born in the USSR but her official website describes how she and her family (all of whom had converted to Catholicism) moved to Isreal in 1990 but were refused citizenship because of their religion. Still, they were unable to leave the country. In 1999, the state finally allowed them to leave for the United States and Sweden. Derieva's son went to college in the U.S., and Derieva currently resides in Sweden where she continues to publish her own poerty and translate the work of others.
(Photo taken from Regina Derieva's official website.)

"It Was Not Necessary To Study"

It was not necessary to study
the language
of a strange country;
anyway, it would be of no help.
It was not necessary to know
where Italy or England
is located;
travel was obviously
out of question.
It was not necessary to live
among the wild beasts
of Noah's ark,
which had just devoured
the last dove of peace,
along with Noah
and his virtuous family.
It was not necessary to strive
for some holy land
awash in milk and honey,
according to rumor.

I cannot help but think that this poem describes Derieva's time as an alien in Israel. It was published in 2000, a year after she was granted permission to leave the country. I am especially drawn to the lines "It was not necessary to strive for some holy land awash in milk and honey, according to rumor." She was in the Holy Land. She experienced discrimination for being a non-Jew in the land of God's chosen people. She knew that Israel was the supposed Promised Land of milk and honey, and yet experienced nothing of the sort when she lived there. Also, I am sure that living in Isreal during the time of turmoil between the Jewish homeland and the Arab states surrounding it brought about the middle lines which talk about the "wild beasts of Noah's ark" that "devoured the last dove of peace along with Noah an dhis virtuous family." I doubt her time there was peaceful in any sense. She was a stranger in a country filled with terror and confusion, unable to leave, and unable to become a part of it. She wanted to leave and knew she would never be accepted there, so she thought it unnecessary to learn the language of the people or know where any other country was located because she could not leave and she could not stay.

It is usually taboo to label the speaker of the poem as the poet herself, but, in this case, I feel that the poem fits all too well with Derieva's biography, leaving me to judge as I did what the poem means from my viewpoint.

Here is the link to Derieva's official site which provides more of her biography and links to more of her fascinating poetry:

Boris Pasternak

Boris Pasternak was another poet born in Moscow. He did not originally set out to be a writer. He initially wanted to compose music and study philosophy. Pasternak's adult life in the Stalin era of the Soviet Union turned him away from writing his own poetry. He translated the works of famous poets and playwrights, including Shakespeare, for much of his adulthood. Pasternak wrote other things besides poetry such as short stories and a novel, Doctor Zhivago, his most popular and well-known work. In 1958, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, but declined to accept it, supposedly under pressure from the Soviet government. Pasternak died in 1960 at the age of 70.


The sun is hotter than the top ledge in a steam bath;
The ravine, crazed, is rampaging below.
Spring -- that corn-fed, husky milkmaid --
Is busy at her chores with never a letup.

The snow is wasting (pernicious anemia --
See those branching veinlets of impotent blue?)
Yet in the cowbarn life is burbling, steaming,
And the tines of pitchforks simply glow with health.

These days -- these days, and these nights also!
With eavesdrop thrumming its tattoos at noon,
With icicles (cachectic!) hanging on to gables,
And with the chattering of rills that never sleep!

All doors are flung open -- in stable and in cowbarn;
Pigeons peck at oats fallen in the snow;
And the culprit of all this and its life-begetter--
The pile of manure -- is pungent with ozone.

"March" caught my attention because of its descriptive quality - the imagery in conjures. Spring is always a time of rebirth and growth. Winter is leaving behind a trace of cold and snow, but, for the most part, the sun dominates the day. Pasternak makes it seem that Spring itself is coming alive on the page. Personifying it as a milkmaid helps to show such an idea, especially since she is "busy at her chores." In a farming community, spring is the time for planting, for getting the fields ready and wiping the dust off the machinery. Pasternak grew up as agriculture changed in Russia. Serfs were free, famine struck on and off again, farming communes developed and gave way in favor of insustry, new machinery and advances in technique came into being. The Soviet Union itself (Russia included) experienced Spring for decades. Gone was the winter of Tsarist Russia. Here was the rebrith of the Russian people and identity, the springtime of the country. Pasternak captures both a literal and a figurative spring in his poem "March," a spring that is new and exciting with its "rampaging" ravine of animals and plants, people and ideas. 


Marina Tsvetaeva

Marina Tsetaeva was born and raised in Moscow, but later traveled to Koktebel, a common retreat for Russian poets near the Blak Sea. Her father was a professor, and her mother was a concert pianist. She had a fascinating love life including affairs with two poets - one male, and one female - which she chronicles in many of her poems. Her fmaily, consisting of her husband and two daughters, was hit hard by the famine that struck Moscow in the late 1910s and early '20s. One daughter died, and the family moved to Prague, where Tsetaeva continued to run wild with society's elite, this time a former military officer. Tsetaeva and her family lived abraod for years, returning to the Soviet Union in 1939 where they were viewed with much suspiscion for having chosen to live away for decades. The suspiscion ultimately took its toll. After two years of struggling to live in the paranoid USSR, Tsetaeva hanged herself in 1941. She was not yet fifty.

Much Like Me

Much like me, you make your way forward,
Walking with downturned eyes.
Well, I too kept mine lowered.
Passer-by, stop here, please.

Read, when you've picked your nosegay
Of henbane and poppy flowers,
That I was once called Marina,
And discover how old I was.

Don't think that there's any grave here,
Or that I'll come and throw you out ...
I myself was too much given
To laughing when one ought not.

The blood hurtled to my complexion,
My curls wound in flourishes ...
I was, passer-by, I existed!
Passer-by, stop here, please.

And take, pluck a stem of wildness,
The fruit that comes with its fall --
It's true that graveyard strawberries
Are the biggest and sweetest of all.

All I care is that you don't stand there,
Dolefully hanging your head.
Easily about me remember,
Easily about me forget.

How rays of pure light suffuse you!
A golden dust wraps you round ...
And don't let it confuse you,
My voice from under the ground.

This poem surprised me with its honesty. All of the other poems I read of hers were more metaphorical and harder to decipher. This one, though, was so heartfelt that I could not help but think that this is how she must have felt when she returned to her homeland to closed doors and whispers about her goings on abroad. "Much Like Me" is written from the perspective of Marina after death. But, instead of it being from a ghost's point of view, it seems to be spoken by the corpse itself who misses being remembered and having life in her face and her curly hair. Marina wants to be remembered for something. Anything. She does not want to be someone who is mourned and forgotten. She is asking the passerby to feel something for her other than sadness. I belive that, if the reader is to believe that Marina is indeed Marina Tsvetaeva, that this poem goes as far as to say that Tsvetaeva was wrong to mourn over the loss of her daughter. She writes, "I too kept [my eyes] lowered" as she walked through graveyards; but, now, she seems what it is like to be feared and pitied after death. I feel that the honesty in this poem shows Tsvetaeva's power to connect events in her life, past, present, and future. She discussed her death in straight-forward terms, and learned from writing about it, just as she learned from what actually occurred in her life on a daily basis.