By ANNE STEVENSON.
THE POET I knew in England as Eugene Dubnov was born in Estonia in 1949 and brought up in Latvia before attending the University of Moscow where he began to write poetry in Russian.
His father was well known as a journalist sympathetic to the Communist regime, but his mother came from an orthodox Jewish family, and it was from her that, after the death in exile of his older brother, he absorbed the fear and dislike of Soviet-style Communism that drove him, in 1971, to immigrate to Israel. After taking a university degree in Jerusalem, he came to England to do postgraduate research on the poetry of T.S. Eliot and Osip Mandelstam at Queen Mary College, University of London; and it was in London that he and I first met in 1980 at the Poetry Society’s café in Earl’s Court. Subsequently Dubnov taught Russian and English literature at a number of English universities and colleges, but after a serious nervous breakdown in the later 1980s, he made his permanent home in Israel, only returning to England for summer holidays. He died in Jerusalem on August 5th, 2019.
Throughout a life of exile and a poet’s disturbed awareness of being uprooted, Dubnov’s happiest memories returned repeatedly to his Baltic childhood, while his imagination, like his poetic craft, remained emphatically Russian. This meant that although he spoke English fluently, he never trusted himself to turn his Russian poems into English ones. When he suggested I might be able to help him do this, he had already worked or was working closely with a number of English poets, among them John Heath-Stubbs, Peter Porter and Carol Rumens. When I explained that my knowing practically no Russian would surely handicap me as a translator, Eugene dismissed my qualms: Heath-Stubbs and Peter Porter knew no Russian, either, but had worked happily from the author’s English cribs.
So I said I would do my best. And indeed, the ‘exercise’ of making English poems out of Eugene’s literal translations presented a challenge. We would meet once a fortnight in the flat I shared with my husband in Belsize Park and work through three or four poems, which Eugene had read to me in Russian so that I could hear their rhythms and sounds. We’d then turn to his cribs and I would show him drafts of the English poems I thought might do justice to his Russian ones.
Sometimes we came to an agreement right away, but often enough, in adapting his strict Russian metres to freer English translations I would have introduced elements he couldn’t approve, and the sparks would fly. Arguments would last for hours, sometimes for weeks and months, but in the long run we usually found compromises that satisfied us, and, once a quarrel was over, I think we both felt that we had learned a good deal about poetry, about our respective languages, and not least about ourselves.
After about a year of these meetings, I moved from London to Wales and then to Durham with my husband, and for fifteen years or so Eugene and I lost touch. It wasn’t until the summer of 2004 that Eugene, after a serious breakdown and months of hospitalisation, wrote to me again, this time urgently and by e-mail. Would I look at some rough English translations he had made of his recent work and make what I could of them? Of course I said yes; and this time, the English cribs he sent me excited me very much.
Many of them brought to mind the dream-like paintings of Chagall – a more orthodox Russian Jew than Eugene, yet like him fascinated by folklore and myth and whose personal world, in the course of violently disturbed times, had also been turned upside-down. Now Eugene’s new proto-poems in English seemed to teem with startling, very unsettling images, behind which lay a painful love story set against a background of his Baltic childhood, a family tragedy, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and behind that, a preoccupation with the nature of time and experience that had carried him into a visionary world of his own.
Titles and first lines tugged at my imagination: ‘In the Depths of Frost-Eyelash Country’, ‘All Along a Calendar Road’, ‘Needles of the Shaken Pine Will Tremble’. With my interest alerted and my compassion secured, I began to feel that the challenge of making English poems out of Dubnov’s new Russian ones was giving me an insight into a process of creation that was compatible with my own views and yet entirely foreign to my Anglo-American habits of mind.
Not that working together became any easier. Eugene’s mental balance was still precarious, and the process of self-recovery and of rediscovering — even reinventing — himself as a poet after his breakdown was lengthy and painful. And while I sympathised with his determination to use his personal experience as a springboard to confront the metaphysical or mystical dimensions of a life in time, I was determined not to ‘spoil’ his poems in English by indulging what I considered his Russian proclivity to ‘overdo the universal’. For what particularly drew us together was not Eugene’s personal tragedy — he had so little interest in fortifying his ego that he usually referred to the self he addressed in his poems as ‘you’, not ‘I’ — but his recurring vision of time, or space-time, that was not, as far as I could see, grounded in his knowledge of contemporary science, and yet suggested that his view of reality had much in common with the beyond-common-sense discoveries of contemporary physics and quantum theory.
After we had renewed our correspondence, I soon understood, despite my empiricist upbringing and general suspicion of the portentous in poetry, that Dubnov’s poems had to be set in layers of time much deeper than his own life’s story; that these layers were dependent on the existence of the natural world; and that nature itself, for Eugene, owed its splendour and wonder to a universe that was infinitely marvellous yet somehow miraculously accessible through language, especially the language of poetry.
I suspect it was this personal, Romantic, very un-English sense of an enduring or eternal existence underlying Dubnov’s intense preoccupation with his own life that rendered his work inaccessible to many of his ‘post-modern’ contemporaries. His poems, however, convinced me that our mutual translations deserved an English publisher. I therefore approached John Lucas, founder and editor of Shoestring Press, and he generously agreed to publish a collection of Dubnov’s poems in Russian and English parallel texts.
The Thousand Year Minutes was published in 2013 and is now out of print. It was followed by Beyond the Boundaries in 2017, and since Shoestring’s print-runs are not large, and since neither collection was much reviewed or even noticed by influential British periodicals, with John Lucas’s permission I am reprinting a selection of our published translations as a postscript to this article.1
—from The Thousand Year Minutes (2013)
This first poem in this collection introduces the idea of time as a stream of accumulating and disappearing minutes in which everyone alive is continually and without respite passing from the present into the past. The poem also suggests that the poet who writes the poem has necessarily to struggle with a ‘stubborn’ second self or doppelganger who silently undergoes an identical experience of living, seeing, breathing, measuring, looking for ‘a fading goal’ which only materialises, when ‘the pain of thousand-year minutes/ many times magnified,’ is brought to awareness in a finished poem.
1. In This Continuum of Time
In this continuum of time, a half-transparency
pursues you, the doubt of shadow and light,
the havering of luminous specks on glass,
a glint in a mirror, and at morning and evening,
the wave’s crested unpredictable plash.
An obsessive dialogue follows you
with somebody stubborn, silent, one who
in equal agitation tears through the bushes,
just as steadily gazes at lake, river and pond,
all the time measuring his labour against the sky.
Fixation possesses you – the depth of creviced stone,
the strain of breathing in and out, inspired movement
towards a fading goal, the pain of thousand-year minutes
many times magnified, brought to awareness here.
The prevailing metaphor in ‘The Quarry’ is also of time, but here it is time past, viewed as a map of a bare riverbed where, in his Moscow youth, the poet overheard the antagonistic words of the Party’s ‘tonton-macoute’ in the political wires that drove him into exile. He stares into the unreachable past and the boundaries it might have had, ‘stretched between fire and frost.’
2. The Quarry
This is a place where time’s architecture
shows itself in cross-section: here you stopped once
to examine a relief-map of the river-bed
when everything was still laughter and pranks;
there is where you quickened your step
to hear words booming in the naked wires;
you stumbled, did not fall, flew over the heads
of the tonton-macoute, amazed at your trajectory;
and as you stand now at the quarry’s edge where
your whole being reels, you see in cross section
your life’s yet unreached boundaries
exposed, stretched between fire and hard frost.
Human lips serve both love and language. Here the poet plays with his experience of both, beginning lightly but after a few lines, engaging with the serious labour of ‘hard working lips’ finding the exact words to express his feeling in poetry.
What is the structure of lips
That take care of sounds,
That can scream loud and long,
That can wait and be silent?
Yesterday I was mastering words
And kissing lips lightly –
Their loving weakness
Now remains on my own
Hard working lips,
Exacting, as if forever,
My terrible punishment.
In the final section of The Thousand Year Minutes, Dubnov grouped a selection of what he called ‘Triptychs’: eleven three-stanza poems of different lengths that reflect on his traumatic experience of breakdown and hospitalisation. I have chosen three of them; their disturbing message, which set recurrent memories of his Baltic youth and a recently broken love affair against a presiding sense of loss and anomia.
4. In the Depths of Frost-Eyelash Country
In the depths of frost-eyelash country
furry bear suits and caps with ear-flaps flourish.
The road there runs through blizzards and snow banks
and versta stones softened by mossy hoarfrost.
Veins of emerald light, like rainbowed water-dust
tell you plainly, ‘This is the unmapped land of fairy tales.’
Slicing the dark, the headlights blinded me,
swerving, flooding the road with quaking light
that magnified the trees and sent their shadows
cantering across my path into the night.
Then suddenly I became aware
of a low, insistent murmur
like fur trees rustling in a wind.
Now louder, now again still louder,
as if a river of immeasurable power
were drilling through a vast steppe
searching for an unknown sea –
and I followed that urgent sound.
5. All Along the Calendar Road
All along the calendar road
Everything’s been gently blown away
Past clusters of rowan
From an unlived life
Down the misty river to the ocean.
Rowans are nowhere to be found here,
Only the snore and fart of the ward,
The stove’s insufferable heat,
The hollow beating of my heart.
And tomorrow at dawn
I’ve got to be up and on my way…
Give me at least a list of credits
For suffering this pain.
I seem to see across the morning
My own distant shore rising
Over the city – a fire bird soaring
With the burning sun.
But for some reason it feels too cold
For this time of year: it’s the seasonal
Fever of departure
Telling me to put on my coat.
Here’s a bridge, silence, a descent
To water itself; here’s late evening,
The timber of the railing is giving away its warmth,
Here two in love are meeting.
Come at the time when night comes,
Boldly and without knocking; I will not
Lock or even fully close the door
While I know you’re so close to me.
A year’s gone by, but evenings are still the same;
This mixture of anxiety and hope
Goes on poisoning me
At sunset, with the long day’s audit.
I’m holding on to my life; they’re growing dark,
The paths, the meadow and the near bank where
Later, when I turn on the light, they’ll start watching
From their moored boats.
Time is totally time,
body, totally body:
in urgent life
the child’s smile, youth’s way of walking,
the clock has stopped
like a pulled blind
so your thoughts can take their time;
and we see –
through the greenery
that is testing our imagination,
behind the windows
that are looking attentively
over the chiaroscuro
where the earth is rising to meet us ¬–
how all these years
Time has followed us
right here in our own bodies.
The poems of Eugene’s second Shoestring collection, Beyond the Boundaries, for the most part rehearse the autobiographical material of The Thousand Year Minutes, but they tell a less traumatised story of the poet’s exile from his homeland, beginning with a song that recalls his Baltic childhood. The fact that Dubnov here writes of himself in the first person singular suggests that he has reconciled himself with his memories and has come to terms with his past life enough to remember it vividly and even gratefully.
7. Estonian Song
I was swaddled at birth in double Estonian vowels,
lullabied by the sea. In my dreams there were
islands and straits, and the winds, each in its season
gave me directions for thought. The words
I uttered were Russian but I wrenched their sounds
far away from the Russian language: eesti maa!2 I cried,
Careering a Finnish sleigh about the evening city.
As a child, my best girl was the Baltic winter.
Everything I remember from childhood is elementary:
Sky, sea, earth, parks, streets, two languages;
And, ever grateful for that to someone or something,
I sense at my temples at times that chill of spring.
Dubnov wrote very little about his relationship with Israel before he came to England; he never felt at home there, either with its desert landscapes or its torrid weather. The one Israeli poem he did submit to me for translation, however, is a brilliant piece of observation in which he abandons his role as the Romantic hero of his own lifelong adventure and remembers a scene in Tel-Aviv in 1973.
8. AT THE BUS STATION, TEL-AVIV
At the bus station, at the sunset hour
near the rack of pornographic magazines
with their painted tawdry girls,
among hippies joshing, hanging out,
among tragic-looking rabbis
in coats black as Jewish fate,
among loud-mouthed tourists and louts
shouting obscenities and toilet-talk…
There in the midst of blasphemy and prayer,
in the melee of rush hour indifference,
an old man was singing, softly strumming
a kinor, with its cobweb of little cracks.
He sang in Jeremiah’s consolatory tongue,
in Abraham’s, who spoke with Isaac on the road
as they ascended to the place of sacrifice;
sang in the language a great king loved
when, not far from here, he conceived and penned
The Song of Songs, and in the Temple
on Days of Destiny the high priest blessed
the multitudes standing motionless before him…
The blind man sang with anguish, indistinct,
as he made to question God Himself.
Then lifting his blank sockets to the sky,
he’d listen anxiously a long while,
and hearing, finally, a reply, he would
cry out and wildly tear at the strings.
And that was when a soldier hurried up
and, embarrassed, dropped a coin into his cap.
The varied middle section of Beyond the Boundaries includes poems of settlement and resettlement in London and in the English countryside where he felt at home. ‘England’s greatest gift to me, apart from the language’, he wrote in his introduction to this collection, ‘has been her landscapes and seasons, almost identical to those I grew up with in the Baltic republics and in most ways similar to Moscow and environs….I didn’t respond to nature in Israel, which, with all its own beauty and grandeur, is too different from the world of my childhood and youth. I found the English landscape always reassuring and, amidst my turbulent periods, soothing and healing.’ The three poems that follow are part of a group of English pastorals that achieve a difficult balance between settled resignation and nostalgia.
9. Outside my new Window
Here are trees outside my new window, and to the right
a chain of lights from other houses. The nearby grass is lit
by my own light. From outside come clicks like hockey sticks —
but there’s no ice-rink here — it’s probably a fire.
I used to skate once, not badly, I even took a prize –
second prize for speed skating. I know all about the glowing
thrill of flying along, the ice creaking under your skates,
the curve, and the straight, and the ceaseless swishing, the singing
in your ears of a wind cut in two — so that your heart soars
from the way your own strength works through space and time.
Yes, it’s a fire. I’m told a petrol station is burning close by.
I watch the dark-red smoke rising to hide the contours
of this new land – and my old one. Outside this new window I hear
the voice of my life seeming to recede ever further, approach
10. With My Back to Emptiness
Once, with my back to emptiness,
I stood on the bank of a river
in the first glimmer of day
and rubbed my frozen forehead.
In front of me white winter
was sealing my footprints
in moulds of watery ice;
from behind, a fog in patches
settled on my shoulder. So close
was the mystery that I was already
preparing to turn over my duties
when my senses awoke: fresher air
rose from the river; a tear
swelled on my lashes; the dream
was over, and someone was saying
I am your unseen guardian, with you still.
11. WELWYN GARDENS
Once again here are fields of bright yellow irises,
Mixed with grass, and spaces of tranquil water
Where fat carp gape as if telling you something
Just so Welwyn Gardens greets its visitors.
Sunday. April. Everybody’s picnicking. First raindrops
Sprinkle the trees, the hummock, the hands, the foreheads.
We look up – no blue anymore, not even one clear patch, already!
We’ve hardly had time to notice – the sky is covered with clouds.
So pastoral England – in its welcome apparel of soft light,
Unobtrusive speech, not-too-noisy rain,
Apologies for every inconvenience – rose around me,
To be thanked profoundly in a foreigner’s tongue.
The last section of Beyond the Boundaries, is dominated by the long title poem that in memory reunites the poet with his parents in an imaginary future-past as he prepares to join them in a visionary afterlife. Too long to reproduce or even try to explain here, I have decided to bring this selection to an end with a Triptych called ‘The Cradle’, which seems to me one of his finest and most positive expressions an unabashedly Romantic poet’s quest to make a meaningful unity of his life. Drawing together images of his Baltic childhood — ‘a small fragment of earth’ with its forest of berries and birds — he sets his ‘cradle’ in a timelessness that, for him, is forever. For Dubnov, this is not a religious concept of immortality, but a spiritually valid vision brought about by memory, language and a continuously imaginative apprehension of life itself.
12. THE CRADLE
Do you remember the mushroom-berry forest?
The sharp November sea-wind?
Do you at times sense with joyous
Anguish the chill of the Baltic sky?
Can you hear the trill of a bird
In May time? There, behind your back,
The place is marked down in your mind, ‘cradle’ –
A piece of space, a small fragment of earth.
There’s music in this. See: one window
Seems as always to be opening into
Fragrant summer air for you.
You raise a surprised eyebrow.
Words show green, translated
Into Time, and the harmonious speech
Of the milestones resurrects
The tears, the laughter.
These thoroughfares, these gardens,
These rivers, meadows and fields,
The winter forest with its white fell of hair,
The sky and the earth.
Anne Stevenson is an American-British poet and writer. She is a recipient of a Lannan Literary Award and the translator of Eugene Dubnov’s poetry.