FORTY YEARS AGO, WHEN I was a newly minted Russian major at Occidental College (having transferred from the math department because I discovered I liked language more than calculus), I was checking the shelves of the campus bookstore when my eye was caught by a blue paperback called Antiworlds. I picked it up and saw that it was a bilingual edition of Russian poetry, and leafing through it I learned that the author had given up architecture for poetry and that he wrote about things like parabolas, airports, and New York City. I read a short poem called “Goya” whose punchy rhythms, bravura off-rhymes, and fiery antiwar message took my breath away. I bought the book and read it obsessively. When I visited London on my way to the U.S.S.R. I stopped off at Foyles—sacred ground for a lover of bookstores—and bought a slim black Soviet hardcover of Voznesensky’s Akhillesovo serdtse (Achilles’ heart); I carried it with me everywhere, inspiring envy and some anger on the part of Russians my age, equally enamored of the young poet but unable to get hold of his books, which sold out the moment they were published.
I was actually a little embarrassed that I had the book and they didn’t. He was, after all, theirs and not mine; I was a foreign dilettante to whom his poetry was an adornment, while for them he was a peer, an inspiration, a vital necessity. They packed stadiums to hear him read alongside his fellow rebellious poets Evgeny Evtushenko and Bella Akhmadulina. They knew, as I did not yet, that he had been publicly threatened by Khrushchev at a Kremlin meeting, called an agent of foreign enemies, and told by the head of the KGB that he should leave the country. I did know that he had denounced censorship and criticized the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. He was one of my few heroes.
OVER THE YEARS, ALTHOUGH I never lost my affection for him and his work, a deeper acquaintance with Russian poetry led me to qualify my appreciation. When I read Mayakovsky and Pasternak, his main teachers and models, I saw that what I had thought original in his versification was hand-me-down, though pleasingly deployed, and realized that the older poets had excavated life and language more deeply. When I was finally able to read Brodsky in the original (the translations give off only a pale reflection of his genius) I realized that he was the one truly great contemporary Russian poet. And after the fall of the Soviet Union, the old dissidents had to come down off the mountain and find their way in a suddenly ordinary country; Solzhenitsyn became a scold who called for a return to monarchy, while Voznesensky organized provincial poetry festivals and apparently became something of a recluse. In his public appearances, he looked unwell. While it was a shock that he died at seventy-seven, it wasn’t really a surprise.
But poetry isn’t a contest, and life always ends badly. He was brave when it mattered, and he wrote beautifully and memorably. A two-word line from his poem “Bicycles”—Smolá, shmelí (‘Resin, bumblebees’)—stays with me long after I’ve forgotten my calculus. Goodbye, Andrei Andreevich: you were a good man and a good poet.
Stephen Dodson is a lover of language who lives in Massachusetts, where he edits books and writes the popular Languagehat website at languagehat.com.
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