Vsevolod Nekrasov’s “I Live I See”

Reviewed by Ariell Cacciola

Image of Vsevolod Nekrasov’s “I Live I See”

In I Live I See, translators Ainsley Morse and Bela Shayevich have collected and translated hundreds of poems by the late Russian poet Vsevolod Nekrasov for his belated but welcome debut in English.  The collection is extensive, culling Nekrasov’s work from his first publications in1956 to the year of his death, in 2009.  There is something ironic about the scale of this memorial tome: Nekrasov's poems are themselves quite short and slight. Some poems consist, in their entirety, of one or two words strewn across the page; in other, “longer” ones single words repeat.

Repetitions were important to Nekrasov: to him monotony could also unlock multiplicity. In some cases, the sounds of the words themselves change with each line break. And because so few words actually appear on the page, Nekrasov practically invites the reader to imbue his words with her own impressions, perceptions, and associations.  It all comes across as being somewhere between a taunt and an exhortation—an earnest insistence and an arch deferral. 

freedom is
freedom is
freedom is
freedom is
freedom is
freedom is
freedom is freedom

In “freedom is” (above), the final line draws attention to the blank spaces in the preceding ones; where we’re left hanging after the first line (“freedom is”), the sixfold repetition almost acculturates us to accept the open-endedness of the formulation.  Then, with a palindromic touch, Nekrasov completes the sentence.  We’re at once aware of the emptiness of the preceding lines, their faltering predicate.  And yet, by ending on a tautology, there’s the parting joke of some final vacuity: there’s a full sentence, at last, but it rings out, empty of meaning

Other poems encompass a single line. For these, the translators wisely chose to put two companion poems on opposing pages.

When it's not bloodthirsty, socialism can be quite cozy.

and

Socialism or death. Why pick when you can have both.

Nekrasov is writing anti-poems, his translators tell us. By forsaking “writing with rhyme and in traditional syllabotonic meters,” they maintain, he was consciously breaking from the standard practice of his peers, who, regardless of their ideological leanings, produced more metrically traditional poems. Throughout his career, Nekrasov critiqued the official Soviet language and hackneyed phrases utilized by the government. Because of this, his poetry was deemed unpublishable. 

For all their political fallout, many of the poems are about nature—moon, air, rain. Again, the language is spare: Descriptions are monochromatic, rendered in black and white—he is not, as it were, fiddling with the color wheel; Nekrasov has no use for elaborate shadings. One of Nekrasov's more successful poems is “And I Too Will Speak of the Cosmic.”

(excerpted)     

darkness
war

nevertheless
moon
 
white
glow
 
white
snow
 
white
bread
there is no
 
no bread at all
 
I have long since returned to Moscow
And I dine almost every night
 
But the moon looked like it tasted good
                                    And moon tasted white
 
The white moon and every other white entity is something to strive for in comparison to the darkly benighted Soviet Russia. The white moon is out of reach—even the terrestrial white bread is unattainable. Bleakness and misery seem to be the reigning order, and yet the final image is an unexpected one. It is not explicitly positive, but more of a longing for something out of reach. In another of Nekrasov's longer poems he writes,

Your will is a little chilling
it's our nation after all

/Always the
White nights
 
But then the
Black days

The latter part of the collection includes poems from the post-Soviet era. These years, in a way, only underscore the poet’s heterodox views and keenness on ambiguity. In an untitled poem he warns not to lose your mind in fat times.  In one of his final poems, he ends with an uncharacteristically blissful stanza.

it's topsy-turvy
but there's something happy
there's dignity    even
in the idea
that not all the world's monsters
are ours

In all the darkness, the poet may have, in spite of it all, also seen light.