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Collected Poems, By Vladimir Nabokov. Penguin Classics, £20

 

In his wonderful autobiography Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov looks to the summer of 1914 and records that it was at this moment that "the numb fury of verse-making came over me". "A moment later", he writes, "my first poem began." It does seem to be true that the summer of 1914 marked the inaugural moment of Nabokov's poetic career – a career occluded by the shining heights of his fiction. It flickered into life with the shimmering poem "Music", published in this elegant volume for the first time, and now we have his earliest works.

In this deceptively simple poem, Nabokov imagines a fountain, sparkling at night, encompassed by a halo of silent dragonflies, "their wings in a sparkling/ counterpoint to the magic display". Readers familiar with Nabokov will recognise a hint of the passage in Lolita where moths dance around Humbert and Quilty, and the fountain in Pale Fire that accompanies John Shade's apprehension of another world. Yet "Music" is beautiful, introducing a collection that crepitates with visions of elsewhere.

Often the elsewhere is Russia, as in the heart-breaking "Softest of Tongues" (1941), in which the poet thinks of all the things to which he has said goodbye – flats, trees, dim waiters and dimmer towns, and concludes that "life has been an endless line of land/ receding endlessly". In other poems, the elsewhere is here, as in "The Room", where death lurks "in pencil, just above the bed", in the plangent inscription of a previous inhabitant. Yet, as both these poems show, wherever Nabokov's elsewhere might be, his subject, often, is love and the absence of love.

The reader will find "light" verse and narrative verse here, too, but whatever the genre, Nabokov is not without flaw. Rhymes can be weak, constructions mannered. But his achievements are not the literary curiosities of so many poet-novelists: they stand as a sparkling counterpoint to the magic of his fiction. To encounter the best is to encounter a poet alive to "the agitation and the beauty of daily life", singing of "all the loved things/ that in life elevated us" – things that "called us toward love and shining heights".

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