Book Review: Twentieth-Century Russian Poetry

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Published in 1993, and therefore missing seven years of potential inclusions, Twentieth-Century Russian Poetry is nevertheless an impressive contribution to my poetry library. Translated into English so a non-Russian reader like me can still appreciate it, it encompasses several difficult periods in Russian and world history including World War I, the subsequent revolution, the Stalinist years, World War II and the later Soviet years.

The big names in Russian poetry are all here: Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, Wassily Kandinsky (yes, he was a poet as well as a painter), Vladimir Nabokov (of Lolita fame) and hundreds more I’d never heard of. The two poems I’ve chosen to showcase here are reproduced in their entirety because they are as perfect as poems get and I would hate to be responsible for interfering with that.

“Retribution” by Ilya Ehrenburg

She lay beside the bridge. The German troops had reckoned
To cheapen her by this. Instead, her nakedness
Was like an ancient statue’s unadorned perfection,
Was like unspotted Nature’s loveliness and grace.
We covered her and carried her. The bridge, unsteady,
Appeared to palpitate beneath our precious load.
Our soldiers halted there, in silence stood bare-headed,
Each transformed, acknowledging the debt he owed.
Then Justice headed westward. Winter was a blessing,
With hatred huddled mute, and snows a fiery ridge.
The fate of Germany that murky day was settled
Because of one dead girl, beside a shaky bridge.

“Forest Fire” by Vadim Shefner

A careless hunter, breaking camp,
Failed to trample his fire down,
Went off into the forest, left it
To smoke away till dawn, burning itself out.

But in the morning, when the wind arose, dispersing
The mists, it also fanned the dying embers,
And, strewing sparks about it in the clearing,
Set crimson rags of flame among the trees.

It scorched the grass and flowers, then ignited
The bushes, and into the green forest
Advanced, dashing from trunk to trunk,
Like a pack of terrified red squirrels.

And the forest roared in the fiery blizzard,
With a frosty crackle, trees collapsed,
Sparks flying up from them like snowflakes
Over the gray drifts of ash.

The fire overtook the hunter who, tormented,
Suffocated in the fiery prison.
He had brought this fate upon himself,
But what a way to expiate his guilt.

Does not conscience work like this?
I dream,
Sometimes, in the stillness of the night,
That somewhere I have left a fire burning
And already roaring flames are in pursuit…

The collection includes mini biographies of all the poets, offering a unique insight into the circumstances of birth and later life events that shaped their experiences and inevitably their poetry. The book can be viewed as history from a different perspective, from those with the skills necessary to be able to distil the horrors of war and oppression that the average soldier and sufferer lacks.

It’s not a light volume (either in weight or subject matter) but it’s important. I bought this book the year it was published, over twenty years ago, and it still takes pride of place amongst many other poetry books.

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