Although long recognized in the Soviet Union and later Russia as a great poet continuing in the tradition of Osip Mandelstam, Arseny Tarkovsky — father to renowned film director Andrei — has been little known to Western readers, and almost entirely unknown in English. The close friend to early 20th century Soviet greats such as Marina Tsvetaeva (who sought out a romantic relationship with Tarkovsky before committing suicide), Anna Akhmatova, and numerous others, few Americans might have imagined that Tarkovsky, as Akhmatova described him, was perceived by many as the one “real poet” in the Soviet Union:
[…]of all contemporary poets Tarkovsky alone is completely
his own self, completely independent. He possesses the most
important feature of a poet, which I’d call the birthright.
There are numerous reasons for the oversight. Although recognized as a war hero for his actions in World War II as a correspondent for the Soviet Army publication Battle Alarm, during which time he was seriously wounded, his leg eventually sacrificed to gangrene, Tarkovsky came of age after Central Committee secretary Andrei Zhdanov’s ideological attack on the works of Akhmatova and Mikhail Zoshchenko, and, accordingly, Tarkovsky’s own 1946 book, although accepted for publication, was withdrawn. It was not until 1962 that the poet was able to publish his first volume, Before the Snow, when he was 55 years of age. Although his work did gain some fame in the West through his son’s films Mirror (1974) and Stalker (1979), which included quotations from a few of his poems, his writing is nearly impossible to convey into English, based as it is on the long Russian traditions of end rhyme and meter. Tarkovsky died in 1989, just prior to the fall of the Soviet Union.
Finally, in Philip Metres and Dimitri Psurtsev’s I Burned at the Feast: Selected Poems of Arseny Tarkovsky we get a fair idea of what Tarkovsky’s work might sound like in Russian. If the poetry that results sometimes seems to lack the excitement of other major Russian poets of the day, the translators are certainly to be commended for their brave attempts to render a completely “other” poetic tradition into a language that makes sense to the American ear.
Indeed, one of the most important aspects of this book is just how much it reveals the difficulties any translator faces. The afterword by Philip Metres, presented as 25 Propositions about the process of translating, is worth the price of the book.
Rather than presenting these concerns as an academic exercise, Metres, often with humor and always with intelligence, outlines some of the basic impossibilities of translating an “authentic” poetry. The fact that Tarkovsky was a noted translator of numerous languages into Russian who well knew of the translator’s difficulties may have provided Metres and Psurtsev a tacit feeling of support. Metres quotes from Tarkovsky’s poem “Translator”
For what did I spend
My best years on foreign words?
O, Eastern translations,
How you hurt my head.
“Of course,” notes Metres, Tarknovsky “wrote nothing of the kind. He wrote…”—a passage in Cyrillic follows. “Or,” continues the translator, “as an email once encoded it”:
Besides the poet’s deep reliance on Russian root words and other tropes from Romance languages dating back to Pushkin, Metres notes just a few of what he describes as “Russian poetry’s acute and irreducible particularities, the most acute and irreducible its relationship to meter”:
The regularity of Russian conjugations and declensions, the
flexibility of word order in sentence meaning, and the multi-
syllabic nature of Russian words all combine to create a seem-
ingly endless wellspring of rhymes and metrical possibilities.
In contrast to the poetries of the West, which inhaled modernism’s
breath of free verse and only rarely return to the formal rooms of
strict meters, Russian poetry has, until only very recently, been
almost entirely faithful to its high organized and lush meters. In
Tarkovsky’s poetry alone, one can find poems not only in iambic,
but also in trochaic, dactylic, anapestic, amphibrachic, not to
mention folksong prosodic patterns, unrhymed metrical poems, and,
yes, even free verse. It’s as if, in the United States, our poetry,
metrically speaking, plays its tune within the limits of the pop form,
while in Russian, whole symphonies continue to be produced.
To recognize these and the many other impediments to an easy assimilation of Tarkovsky’s work in English, is not to suggest that the translators do not, time and again, find a way to convey the grandeur and beauty of this Russian poet. Many of these poems begin within the confines of a simple metaphor that quickly spirals out into another time and world. The image of a “table set for six,” for example, in the wartime poem beginning with that image, soon moves into a somewhat frightful nostalgic scene:
Like twelve years ago, her hand,
still cold to the touch.
Her silks, blue and old-fashioned,
Still rustle and swish.
By the next stanza the poet takes the simple dinner-time activities of “wine singing” and “crystal ringing” into a dark, haunted song of the past:
How much we loved you,
How many winters ago.
Ending the poem in what might at first seem like a snapshot memory of prior events, it is transformed through the presence of a vague female voice (whom, we discover in the footnotes is the now-deceased poet Marina Tsvetaeva) speaking out from the dead:
My father would smile at me,
my brother, pour some wine,
Her ringless hand in mine,
the woman would say:
My heels are caked with dirt,
my plaited hair’s gone clear,
and our voices now call out
from under the earth.
Indeed, given the fact that Tarkovsky wrote many of these poems during War II, death haunts a number of his earliest works. The inevitability of death is most evident in a poem like “[A German machinegunner will shoot me in the road, or]”:
A German machinegunner will shoot me in the road, or
a detonation bomb will break my legs, or
an SS-boy will slam a bullet in my gut—
in any case, on this front, they’ve got me covered.
Without my name, or glory, or even boots—
with frozen eyes, I’ll gaze at the snow, blood-colored.
The poem is made even more sardonic by the translator’s explanation that during the early days of World War II, when Russian “valenki” boots were in short supply, dead soldiers were often stripped of their footwear, one story telling of hundreds of frozen legs that were sawed off by Russian troops so that they might remove the boots which had frozen to the dead men’s feet.
And even in such later poems as the multi-part elegy to Anna Akhmatova, from 1967, Tarkovsky writes about death in a manner that expresses deep grief while yet accepting its inevitability. That poem ends in painful tolling out of the words “all night,” reiterating the endlessness of death when faced by the living:
All night we promised
you immortality, all night
we longed for you
to take us from the house of grief—
all night, all night, all night,
as it was in the beginning.
Given the suffering Tarkovsky endured during his lifetime, it is rather amazing that, despite these dark expressions of grief, so many of his poems look to nature for regeneration and new possibility. Sometimes that rebirth, as in section IV of his poem “After the War,” represents the violence between the forces of life and death the poet has personally experienced:
Like a tree splashing the earth
above itself, having collapsed from a steep
undermined by water, roots in the air,
the rapids plucking its branches—
so my double on the other rapids
travels from future to past.
From another height, I trail myself
with my eyes, clutch my chest. Who gave me
trembling branches, a sturdy trunk
yet weak, helpless roots?
Death is vile, but life is worse,
and there’s no binding its tyranny.
Are you leaving, Lazarus? Well, go away!
Nothing holds us together. Sleep,
Vivacious one, fold your hands
on your chest and sleep.
But, more often, the horrors of his life are transformed into scenes of renewal and beauty through the natural world. One need only read his remarkable “Field Hospital,” which recounts Tarkovsky’s leg injury of 1944. About to have his leg amputated, the poet begins the poem with an out-of-body vision of himself, one might say “etherized upon a table”:
The table was turned to light. I lay
my head down like meat on a scale,
my soul throbbing on a thread.
I could see myself from above:
I would have been balanced
by a stout market weight.
Soon after, as his leg is cut away, time seems to stop:
On that day,
the clock stopped, souls of trains
no longer flew along lampless levies,
upon the gray fins of stream;
neither crow weddings nor snowstorms
nor thaws penetrated this limbo
where I lay in disgrace, naked,
in my own blood, outside the future’s
Yet the poem continues with an almost miraculous “coming-to” (predicted in the repetition of “and also”) as the poet calls from his inner self the language of an almost biblical past, bringing him back to life and to a vision, once again, of the beauty of the natural world:
My lips were covered with sores, and also
I was fed by a spoon, and also
I could not remember my name,
but the language of King David came
alive on my tongue.
even the snow disappeared,
and early spring, rising on tiptoes,
draped her green scarf over the trees.
Even at the front in 1942, Tarkovsky, through the glory of nature and his memory of the past, was able in the unforgettable poem “Beautiful Day” (which in Russian means “White Day”) to recover an almost radiant joy. The poem is among those quoted in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror:
Beneath the jasmine a stone
marks a buried treasure.
On the path, my father stands.
A beautiful, beautiful day.
The gray poplar blooms,
and milky grass,
and behind it, roses climb.
I have never been
more happy than then.
I have never been more
happy than then.
To return is impossible
and to talk about it, forbidden—
how it was filled with bliss,
that heavenly garden.
I don’t know how that poem works in Russian, but in English the third stanza, with its simple statements of joy, each altered with their enjambments and attenuations, express some feelings about the world which remain unspoken if read merely as one long sentence. The narrator begins with an incomplete phrase that suggests a sense of his non-existence (“I have never been”) before continuing on in the second line with his expression of joy. The third line extends that feeling, “I have never been more,” suggesting that happiness is just a portion of the fullness of his feeling, before the stanza continues with the (now limited) happiness that closes stanza.
Accordingly, even in expressing his great joy, he seems already aware, as it puts it in the last stanza, that such joy is somehow beyond himself, is something to which he can never return. The happiness comes from somewhere outside of his being, and, once experienced, beyond even his memory of it. It is, in fact, a “white” world, a void that is at once pure and cleansing, yet nonetheless a forbidden territory to the surviving adult.
Tarkovsky’s world, we quickly realize, is not simply fragile, but lost, a postlapsarian universe, a place perhaps haunted by an Edenic past, yet permeated with the smell of death, the burning of flesh. As he puts it in “My sight, which was my power, now blurs”:
I am a candle. I burned at the feast.
Gather my wax when morning arrives
so that this page will remind you
how to be proud and how to weep,
how to give away the last third
of happiness, and how to die with ease—
and beneath a temporary roof
to burn posthumously, like a word.
I Burned at the Feast: Selected Poems of Arseny Tarkovsky (2015) is published by Cleveland University Poetry Center and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.