Monday, May 21, 2007

Reading. Yevtushenko.

According to Czeslaw Milosz, Joseph Brodsky resigned from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in protest when his compatriot Yevgeny Yevtushenko was inducted into the same Academy in 1987. (When I read this, I began to read Brodsky and fell immediately in love, but that is another story). It seems rather an extreme reaction, and I confess that I still do not know why, but it was enough to send me back to Yevtushenko, who I have not read in many years, and who I first discovered in his preface to Alexander Solzhenitysn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. I loved the sound of his name said aloud, Yev-ge-ny Yev-tu-shen-ko, a long drawn-out caress, the way Russian names always are. (Which is what I love most about that language, why I studied it, why I read aloud to myself in the quiet of my room, those words written across centuries and continents by the great masters).

I found a slim volume of his selected poems in some used bookstore near my home, a tiny storefront with one wall lined floor-to-ceiling with books, more bookcases against the other walls, books stacked on a table in the middle of the room and on the floor, with a tiny spiraling staircase leading to a sort of mezzanine level (about the size of a playpen) crammed with even more books. (In another year or two my apartment will look like that bookshop, or perhaps it already does). The book is yellowed with age, the cover smooth and cool in my hands; the poems within were chosen, so the notes tell us, because they were favorites of the translators.

I have, admittedly, raged against the travesty of translating poetry; I feel some justification when I see the translators feel that "some of [Yevtushenko's] finest poems would have lost so much of their meaning or vitality that it would have been hopeless to attempt any English versions." In my mind reading poetry in translation is like trying to drink Champagne through the tiny holes of a sippy cup, the plastic cap leaving you unable to smell the sparkling fragrance of the wine, unable to feel the effervescent bubbles against your lips, giving you just a dribble of taste. Enough to make you want more.

But after all, translated poetry is better than no poetry at all, and the collection gathered in this selection of poems begins with Zima Junction, written after Yevtushenko's return to his hometown at the age of twenty, having spent the previous several years in Moscow. It reminds me of how I feel upon returning to a place after a distance of many years, measuring the changes in a place I loved once against the changes I could see in myself. If the way I see you now is not the way/in which we saw you once, if in you/what I see now is new/it was by self discovery I found it, the poet tells us, and how true it is.

Yevtushenko, Yevgeny. Selected Poems: Yevtushenko. Penguin Books, 1966. p 87, 19.

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