Books: The random rattle bag of modern Russia

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The Independent Culture
In the Grip of Strange Thoughts: Russion Poetry in a New Era

by J Kates

Bloodaxe pounds 12.95

A n anthology is supposed to condense the best from a variety of sources into a single, convenient volume, or else in some way to add up to more than the sum of its parts. Most are organised according to some obvious principle, bringing together work by similar writers (poets of the First World War, love poetry, hymns); or selecting the best from the literature of a particular country or period; or illustrating the individual taste of the anthologist. None of these principles appears to have governed this bilingual selection of modern Russian poetry. Whatever thoughts may inhabit the poets, they are less mysterious than the motives of the anthologist.

There are around 30 poets here, most represented by only three or four short poems. From the title, you might expect work by a new generation; but the youngest contributor, Olga Popova, was born in 1960 and the average age is 56, so we are not dealing with rising talents which have come to maturity in post-Soviet times.

The poets have been arranged in no particular order, alphabetical or chronological. The first among them, Bulat Okhudzhava, was a well-known, semi-underground poet and songwriter, much of whose work circulated in self-published (samizdat) form. So is this "unofficial" writing? Not altogether, because writers such as Alexandr Kushner and Fazil Iskander were quite in favour with the old regime. Others (Dmitry Boibyshev, Elena Ignatova, Irina Ratushinskaya) chose exile, while several seem to have made a smooth transition from Socialism to Yeltsinism (or, at least, as smooth as any of their compatriots). Alexandr Tkachenko's "Dynamo Stadium 1980" reads like a conventional occasional poem for the Moscow Olympics.

It is not good enough to say, as the editor appears to in his introduction, that this eclecticism reflects the chaotic state of modern Russian cultural life, where old orthodoxies and old dissidence are mutating into new forms of rebellion and conformity. In any case, this is certainly not the impression that emerges from this collection, where there is little evidence of any kind of tendency or school. There are some marked differences between poets - comparing, for example, the profuse outpourings of Viktor Sosnora with the witty poems of Dmitry Prigov or the minimalist humour of Vsevolod Nekrasov (whose contribution consists of four poems, totalling 77 words). But merely to say that all is diversity and confusion is no sound basis for an anthology.

The one hint that we get is when Kates tells us that certain poets have been left out because they are too well-known (so we do have Bella Akhmadulina, but not her former husband Yevgeni Yevtushenko). Others, he says, have been omitted because no adequate translations exist of their work. The versions here, culled from various sources in scholarly publications, are generally readable, but do tend to confirm the old cliche about poetry being what is left out in translation. It takes little Russian to realise that, from the opening line, the translator has abandoned any attempt to reproduce the internal rhymes and assonances of Inna Lisnianskaia's (untitled) poem "Veter duyet i svet zaduvayet..." ("The wind blows and makes the light tremble..."). As always with anthologies of foreign poetry, one is grateful for the originals on the facing page.

Poets are still highly regarded in Russia. When Akhmadulina turned up for a gala screening at the 1997 Moscow Film Festival, she was immediately recognised and acclaimed by the crowd with shouts of "Bella! Bella!" Not even Seamus Heaney could expect such treatment here.

This anthology is no more than a taster, an hors-d'oeuvre, chiefly composed of leftovers from yesterday's feasts. But most of the work is not easily available elsewhere, so we should probably be glad of these random pickings.