Speaking of translation, some of us suffer from the suspicion that truly great literature is being written somewhere else, by somebody else, in a language we can't read. For us, translation is a telegram from the outside world telling us that wars have been won or lost, weddings consummated or bitterly broken off, loved ones alive and well, or otherwise. If the language in question is particularly obscure—to Anglophone Americans—or particularly difficult to translate, the anxiety is proportionally greater. (I really do lose sleep at night, on occasion, wondering what Ismail Kadare is actually writing, since his numinous novels appear to come to us from the Albanian via French, as in a game of international telephone.)
Gennady Aygi (1934-2006) is a problematic poet even for Russians. For one thing, he typically wrote in free verse, rather than in any form of rhyme or meter. For another, his aesthetic heritage allied him with the suppressed Russian avant-garde of the 1920s and 1930s. For a third, he wasn't ethnically Russian; he was Chuvash. For a fourth, he wrote in Chuvash, rather than in Russian, at least in his early years—and his later Russian is peculiarly inflected, even by the rather complex standards of Russian poetry. Aygi remained at the margins of Russian poetry well into the nineteen-eighties and never did achieve the fame or readership his exquisite verse demands. Aygi's verse first reached Americans in 1997 when Northwestern University Press published a Selected Poems from the hand of the Scottish translator Peter France. France went on to produce three additional Aygi volumes, Child-and-Rose (2003) and Field-Russia (2007), both from New Directions, and Winter Revels and Even Further into the Snow (2007) from the San Francisco small-press publisher Rumor. Now Wave Books has brought out a new selection of Aygi's work, Into the Snow, translated by Sarah Valentine.
Aygi's verse is spare—rather in the formal manner of Celan, and like Celan placing almost perverse pressure on single words (including neologisms), cognates, puns, and etymologies. Unlike Celan, however, Aygi's vision is essentially ecstatic, even salvific. It was Aygi who referred to the free-verse lyric as "a kind of unrepeatable temple." His verse constitutes an argument for aesthetic and affective scale, a lyric ripple or tremor in the fabric of the language and the sensual life: individual, collective, planetary.
Side by side, Valentine's and France's translations are for the most part quite close; as many times as I have read France's translations, I never felt I hit a false note (false to a recollected note) when chancing upon the same poem in Valentine's hand. What Valentine's volume has perhaps over France's is work emphasizing Aygi's connection to the Russian avant-garde past. Aygi was fond of memorializing his friends (living and dead, flesh-and-blood or literary: anyone to whom he felt a debt) in poems; the many attributions and epigraphs in Valentine's collection lend the book the feel of an album, with Aygi's particular lyric intelligence acting, provisionally and deciduously, as the constellating force. This is a poetry of community, Valentine's selection and arrangement seems to emphasize.
And not just of Russian (or Chuvash) poets. Here is "Field: At the Height of Winter," which Aygi dedicated to the French poet René Char:
god-fire!—this clear field
letting everything through (mileposts and breezes and faraway
windmills: still—from this world—in a dream-the horizon: o all
of it—sparks—the perpetual flames of an immortal fire)
alpha-omega—with no worldly traces
Hopkins's windhover, sans fowl: the bare field in sunlight is enough. Presence and absence merge for Aygi into a single sensation. As Aygi makes clear in another poem ("In the Middle of the Field"), the field is not only where friends meet, it is also where "roads say goodbye:"
they are startled—finding themselves
in the past (inexpressibly-kindred)
in the future (as if biting
into something "personal" even hostile-secret
In Aygi's lyric world, field, rose, oak, birch, phlox, snow, sky all take on iconic properties, or perhaps Platonic: these are the idealized forms, around and through which man strolls or stumbles "like a Voice like Breath / amidst the trees, waiting to hear / their Names for the first time" ("Untitled"). There is something stylized and delicate about Aygi's idiom that could easily cloy, but does not, perhaps because the poet's vision is so self-effacing, perhaps because of the essential humility of the voice. As with the icon, the reader (viewer) is invited to peer through the material, into the ineffable. The poem exists to focus the reader's attention, a kinetic cynosure, a vehicle for cathexis. It even has its own weather. As Aygi remarked concerning the vast silences that appear to surround his poems, "Even 'objective' quietness begins to exist for us only when we hear it, that is when we begin to converse with it."
Any new Aygi in English is good news, and I am particularly indebted to Valentine for two sequences of Aygi's I was previously unfamiliar with, the minimalist "Summer with Angels" and "Summer with Prantl." But for a collection in English that showcases the particular-and peculiar-pressures Aygi placed on language, my point of reference remains Peter France's Field-Russia. Field-Russia is a crucible, the field and its inhabitants defined as crucible, against which language is hammered, planished. A representative poem:
RYE—ALWAYS THE SAME—RYE
sun in rye—like my dream—as in scarlet—antique!—
through tops of corn-ears (the way is lost)
moves in redness and cuts as with achingness-me
the dream—now vivid—of birches: here and there with nightingales (as if in places
in the wind they were hiding—not many
of a tender: in freedom: mind)—
it-grows-cold-it-touches as if in flight with nods-as-of-wafting-of-blood
the timid—through souls somewhere—places of nature—
somewhere in them for a long time (though we do not—hear but with gladness)
concealing heights of singing
(as if in their own depths)
Aygi's debt to Celan is obvious, and to Hopkins too; there is perhaps even a bit of Dickinson in that "gladness." But his most sublime lyrics swim in their own depths, inviting the reader's meditative gaze.
A poetry of such hypnotic power could well slip into frigid solipsism, as one could argue Celan's did in his final days. Aygi's hermeticism, though, remains an attrahent hermeticism. (Aygi once remarked that hermeticism, for him, was a poet's way of respecting his reader's intelligence.) In this his poetry is ultimately aligned more with Char's. For both Char and Aygi the lyric remains at its bloody, beating heart an invitation, as among friends, old or new, living and dead. Come, such poems say, and live with me. In this way. Here. Now. Here is the title-poem from Field-Russia, once again in Peter France's translation:
so this I wish you!
in the field to fall silent ("oh God" we say
with more-heart: a valley
Perfection) oh how this wind
did not touch even radiance of breath!
was vanishing: oh them let it be
for a long time now
not knowing—as whom it was smiling:
It is a valediction, a poem that compresses hail and farewell into a single, sweeping gesture. The word "valediction" itself comes from the Latin valere, to be well, combined with dicere, to say. Each and every Aygi poem wishes us well in the act of its saying. Gratitude to translators like Peter France and Sarah Valentine who convey the message with its ecstatic urgency intact.