A review of Russian Poets edited by Peter Washington

Reviewed by P.P.O. Kane

Russian Poets
Edited by Peter Washington
Everyman’s Library, May 2009
ISBN: 9781841597805

Close to 180 poems, from just over 30 poets, are to be found in this compact, beautifully designed book. Along with the greatest (Pushkin) and the great (for example, Akhmatova and Pasternak and Mayakovsky) there are many poets here who will be unfamiliar to English readers; or at any rate there were quite a few (such as Vyazemsky and Batyushkov and Fet, for three) who were unknown to me. It will come as no surprise, surely, to learn that favoured themes include love and death and Mother Russia herself.

Only Pushkin would have the nerve and the bottle to write ‘Exegi Monumentum’, a poem at once arrogant (‘And I shall be famed so long as underneath / The moon a single poet remains alive.’), magnificent (as a for instance, when he claims that ‘in centuries to come’ he will be loved ‘For having glorified freedom in my harsh age / And called for mercy towards the fallen.’) and deeply ironic (it is in the last verse that the poet comes clean – kind of – and urges his Muse to ‘not argue with a fool’). You can tell that Pushkin had a thing for Byron, but this is a poem that echoes Shakespeare’s fifty-fifth and sixty-fifth sonnets above all, and it serves as a companion piece to both.

The great discovery was Andrei Voznesensky and he happens also to be the sole living poet represented in the volume. In ‘Dead Still’ two lovers lie close together, their warm contentment ‘like a flame held between hand and hand’; later the poet urges the souls (sic) of his companion to ‘flutter like the linnet / In the cages of my pores.’ He, Voznesensky that is, fills this poem with a slue of other gorgeous images too.

‘Ballad of the Full Stop’ is a playful poem about the nature of death: ‘Our sentence in nature has no period’, writes Voznesensky. We are granted no definite guaranteed span, nor any assured neat ending come to that. There is a vibe akin to A.R. Ammon’s great poem ‘Play’ at work here.

A lovely erotic poem, ‘Her Shoes’, is Voznesensky’s final offering. And he uses those coveted consumer items, pedestals by another name, that lay like ‘doves perched in the path of a tank’, to celebrate their wearer. That the poem manages to be both poignant and pervy (e.g. ‘The world is pitch-black, cold and desolate / But they are still warm, right off her feet.’ and that’s not the end of it…) is to Voznesensky’s credit, I feel.

There is an abundance of that much vaunted Russian soul – spiritual and cynical, sometimes both at once; continually celebrating and kvetching about creation – in this fine collection.

And finally, God bless translators!

About the reviewer: P.P.O. Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at ludic@europe.com