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The Boston Phoenix Table Talk

Zephyr brings us a new Russian era

By Catherine A. Salmons

JUNE 7, 1999: 

IN THE GRIP OF STRANGE THOUGHTS: RUSSIAN POETRY IN A NEW ERA, Selected and edited by J. Kates. Zephyr Press, 445 pages, $19.95.

Even you've never been to Moscow, you can get some sense of the literary scene from these lines by the much-loved late songwriter and poet Bulat Okudzhava:

To me, Muscovites are sweethearts out of old stories,
recast in Pushkin's verse.
I like their laziness, their tears and laughter,
and the bitter taste in their mouths.

When they sit together in an old kitchen,
in the grip of strange thoughts,
the bitter fate they hear on the guitar
is mocking and morose.

"In the grip of strange thoughts" provides the name for this new anthology from Brookline-based Zephyr Press, which is subtitled Russian Poetry in a New Era. And the volume is so richly ambient, so dynamic, so emotional, so thoroughly researched, and so well introduced, it transports you to the bittersweet kitchen of Okudzhava's poem, where you might even hear his songs calling wistfully from a scratched LP as the dense flow of talk, talk, talk keeps up its counterpoint till dawn. Page after page rings out with "tears and laughter . . . mocking and morose," till you can almost experience for yourself the "bitter taste" he describes.

"Kitchen" is also poet Mikhail Aizenberg's metaphor, in his foreword, for the loose assemblage of rivalries and alliances -- the hub of endless, informal debate -- that distinguishes the poetic ethos of today's Russia, an ethos flavored by deep tradition, "family" disputes, and the changing current of faiths and ideals. You could think of In the Grip of Strange Thoughts as the worn kitchen table around which 32 poets declare themselves (many for the first time in English translation) with all the eloquence and beauty of Russia's brooding, historic soul. Many of these poets, writes editor J. Kates, had long been fixtures of Soviet Russia's underground, banned at home but widely known among Russian expatriates in the US and Europe, their works smuggled out and published in "samizdat" ("self-published") literary journals. Here, the best of the samizdat poets Dmitry Bobyshev, Irina Ratushinskaya, Dmitry Prigov, Gennady Aygi -- share space with former Soviet-approved "Writer's Union" members like Aleksandr Tkachenko, one of the many ironies that make In the Grip of Strange Thoughts so compelling.

Kates's eye for irony is in fact his chief organizing principle. In his introduction he points out that poets in Russia have always been revered as folk heroes, more famous than rock stars, reading "in stadiums, to overflow crowds" -- but that with the end of the Soviet Era came the decline of the Cult of the Poet. Now, he observes, publishing funds have dried up, and poetry is forced into "samizdat" form no longer by political pressure but by economic necessity. Just when they can at last speak freely, Russian poets find themselves unheard.

Kates also has a lively, at times mischievous, sense of pacing. Underground "avant-gardists" like Aygi and Prigov -- postmodern heirs of the famed (and long-suppressed) Vladimir Mayakovsky -- appear alongside the "realist" poets once applauded in Soviet officialdom. Russian traditionalists -- the bards and songsters (Okudzhava), the virtuosi of formal narrative (Tkachenko, Elena Ignatova) -- march hand in hand with poets who've strayed into a looser, more contemporary, Western idiom: Viktor Sosnora, for example, whose muscular lines echo the bold, New Yorky cadences of a Whitman or a Ginsberg (and who is, in fact, the foremost translator of Ginsberg into Russian). From these disparate voices a strangely satisfying harmony emerges -- a chorus of vastly different styles here singing together of a common past, a common struggle, and common fears, as each poet tries to make sense of the latest "strange thoughts" to grip his or her troubled, impoverished land.

The story behind In the Grip of Strange Thoughts has its own "bitter taste" for many in Boston. The literarily inclined will recognize Zephyr Press as America's premier small-press publisher of Russian literature in translation, a niche it secured with its much-praised 1990 release of The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova. Much of the credit for that 960-page tome goes to Zephyr Press founder Ed Hogan, who died in a canoeing accident in Maine in the fall of 1997.

Kates pulled In the Grip of Strange Thoughts together in the wake of this sad event, creating a moving tribute to Hogan. With his team of gifted translators (which includes New Englander F.D. Reeve, father of Hollywood's Christopher), he refused to let the light go out on this "Moscow kitchen" -- proving that light, as Mikhail Aizenberg so poetically claims, "brighter than eternal eclipse."

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