Thaddeus Rutkowski Reviews
by Lev Loseff
Reviewed by Thaddeus Rutkowski
Selected Early Poems
By Lev Loseff
Translated by Henry W. Pickford
Spuyten Duyvil, New York, 2014
$20.00, 276 pp, Paper
The poems in this annotated, bilingual volume shed light on life in mid-20th-century Russia and, to a lesser extent, the life of one professor in New England. Lev Loseff (1937-2009) was born and educated in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). He immigrated to the U.S. at age 39, earned a Ph.D. at the University of Michigan, and became a professor of Russian literature at Dartmouth College. In his lifetime, he published eight collections of verse and fiction in Russian, works of criticism, and a biography of Nobel winner Joseph Brodsky.
Loseff’s early poems are accessible, fairly straightforward, and filled with layers of meaning. A sample, “A Cat’s Lament,” can be read as an allegory, with the cat (the speaker) having qualities of a small, furry animal as well as traits of a human resident of Russia:
Woe is me, O wretched, hapless me.
Neither in feline nor in mouse will I find succor.
Ah, how dark it is in October, alas, it’s darker
in October than in a black man’s armpit.
The devil pawned his claws with me.
I tear another day from the calendar.
Wrap me up, O Life, in a neat bundle,
and bear me away on your lap in a tram.
Or, faster yet, in a taxi.
And after surveying the assortment of people,
ask of the grumpy old lady,
“Who’s last in line for being put to sleep?”
There is some humor here, but for the most part the scene is bleak. The Russia of recent memory seems a dreary place in October, when there isn’t much to do other than tear pages off the calendar. The reference to the devil brings us down from the possible arousal of the mouse, and the question about mercy killing ends the poem on a sober note.
Elsewhere, a sequence of six poems recounts a journey Loseff made through Europe. My favorite in the series tells of an encounter with a Jewish watchmaker in Geneva. What I like (in addition to the description of the merchant) is the comparison of the telling of time with the writing of poetry:
Suddenly I hear, from beneath a moustache’s bristles,
the plaintive voice of the local Jew:
“Ach, sir, all that one needs from watches
is that they tick and tell time.”
“That they tick and tell time …
Hey, are you talking about verse?”
“No, about watches, wristwatches and pocket watches …”
“No, that’s about verses and novels,
about lyric poetry and other trifles.”
What this exchange suggests to me is that poetry was something Loseff couldn’t get away from, and that he, like many poets, struggled to nail down its importance. Why do poets do what they do, when people don’t know what they are talking about? Maybe the fact that verses, novels and lyric poetry (like watches) “tick and tell time” is enough to make these things matter.
These poems are perhaps most effective when they show the poet looking back at his native land, as in “At Christmas.” Here, light shines from “the star of the Magi,” which rises above “that orphaned place, my damp homeland”:
The star will rise above the station’s building
and absentmindedly interrupt the radio in
the village general store’s window, in the middle
of its dance-music request program, and will
linger a little, as though to pray for
the shepherds, the Magi and czars,
the Communists with their Komsomol members,
and the rabble of drunks and bums.
The star shines equally on the rulers and the underclass—the old czars, the Komsomol members (Communist-led youths) and the “rabble.” Its effect is like that of a prayer, bringing together images in the poet’s mind so he can put them down in “unhurried lines” on “the white page.”
Henry W. Pickford, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, has done a great service by translating these poems and providing informative notes on the translations. The last section of the book lists numerous references and allusions contained in the poems. Students of Russian poetry—as well as fans of poetry in general—should welcome this book.
Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of the innovative novels Haywire, Tetched, and Roughhouse. He teaches at Medgar Evers College and the Writer’s Voice of the West Side YMCA in NewYork.