Yuri Kublanovsky / Image courtesy of Российская газета
I was struck last month by the opening paragraphs of a book review by Victor Leonidov in Ex Libris, the literary supplement to one of Russia’s leading newspapers, Nezavisimaya gazeta. The book under review was the latest collection by Yuri Kublanovsky, called Reading in Bad Weather (Чтение в непогоду), and Leonidov’s piece began with these two quotations:
“This is a poet who is able to speak of the history of the State with lyricism and of his own personal turmoil with the tone of a citizen. His technical equipment is amazing. Kublanovsky has perhaps the richest lexicon since Pasternak.”
“Kublanovsky’s poetry is characterized by an elasticity of line, a boldness of metaphor, a vivid sense of the Russian language, an intimate kinship with history, and an ever-present sense of God above us.”
Only then did we learn who had spoken:
The first quotation belongs to Joseph Brodsky, the second to Solzhenitsyn. Today Yuri Kublanovsky is probably the only contemporary poet who has received such enthusiastic praise from two Nobel laureates, two geniuses of Russian literature in the twentieth century.
Wow. So who is Kublanovsky? If these two Nobelists thought so highly of him, then why don’t his books accompany theirs on the shelves of American bookstores? (I mean, the three percent problem aside.) My first question is rhetorical, but my second isn’t: I really can’t comprehend why someone like Kublanovsky is not better known among English readers. Perhaps our market can’t bear much more poetry—I don’t know—but surely we can try to make room among the hordes of mediocre MFAs for some of the best international poets. And Kublanovsky certainly fills the bill.
Yet almost nothing by Kublanovsky has appeared in English—just a handful of poems in a couple of anthologies. And ironically, I first heard about him not because of his own verse, but because of Brodsky’s. Back during my dissertation years, I came across a translation of an essay he wrote about Brodsky called “Poetry of a New Dimension,” which had first appeared in Russian in Novyi mir. About the influence of his slightly elder fellow poet, Kublanovsky said, “Poems that, had it not been for Brodsky, might have looked quite worthwhile, now seem flimsy. From now on a poem needs an idea, some philosophical ‘information’ twice as much. Brodsky powerfully concentrated lyrical speech.” Kublanovsky is right on the mark: without question, Brodsky altered the landscape of Russian poetry for all who came after.
Kublanovsky’s essay on Brodsky appeared in Russian Studies in Literature, that wonderful journal which translates major essays from fat Russian journals and redistributes them for an Anglophone audience. They were also the ones responsible for his other non-poetic appearance in English, a translation of an interview he had done in 1992 for Literaturnaya gazeta with his fellow “SMOGist” Arkady Pakhomov. The SMOG group had come together in the 1960s, partly with the collective aim of distinguishing themselves from the shestidesiatniki, or “men of the sixties,” who dealt with their ideological disillusionment more directly. (SMOG ~ СМОГ = «Самое Молодое Общество Гениев», or «Смелость, Мысль, Образ, Глубина», depending on your source.)
In light of Brodsky’s unusual comment that Kublanovsky speaks “of the history of the State with lyricism and of his own personal turmoil with the tone of a citizen,” it is worth noting that in the 1992 interview Kublanovsky explains that he the other SMOG poets set out to write poetry that was in fact apolitical—since “almost all poetry was engagé” back then—which ironically got them into trouble: “We were trying to block out everything Soviet and superficial and set ourselves only poetic tasks, which in and of itself seemed suspicious to the authorities” (96).
In the smattering of Kublanovsky poems I’ve sampled, he does succeed at removing himself from politics, and it quickly becomes clear that Brodsky is a major influence: he abstracts his poems from the mundane and personal in the same surrealist, mythic manner that Brodsky sometimes did. (Think “Part of Speech”/«Часть речи» or “May 24, 1980”/«Я входил вместо дикого зверя в клетку».) In the following poem, published in Russian in 1999 and borrowed here from the Dalkey Archive Press website, even the geographical references map neatly onto an existential space that seems as though it could have been imagined by Brodsky:
For a long time I’ve been a guest at home, not in foreign parts,
as if I’m waiting for a ferryboat beside the sparkling water.
And the birds, back from winter migration,
bring cock-and-bull stories about the motherland.
To seize the meaning of a line just happens to be harder
than extracting herring from a barrel.
Every syllable somehow salty, sour, dreadful,
yet beyond all this — there’s a self-assertion of sense.
And I, so long kept out of circulation,
find myself looking for connections.
Let the down-and-outers, the vagrants
tell me what swans in Stockholm feed on.
And we will share, we won’t conceal,
the diet of Venice’s doves and gulls.
And the current attitude toward the fatherland —
a test for lice — the choice? jealousy or disgust.
When the stars in the sky are in force, in focus,
let them discuss being in the grave,
and when they are unfocused, as if they brushed
the lips with radiance, let them chat about that.
And may that cool guy with a bullet in his belly
not die thinking of a whore
but, remembering the time he ran down my cat,
breathe a hoarse sigh.
Translated by Galina Detinko and Judith Hemschemeyer
Incidentally, this poem comes from Contemporary Russian Poetry: An Anthology (edited by Evgeny Bunimovich and J. Kates), one of the two English anthologies to include Kublanovsky’s poetry. In fact, it was featured on the publisher’s page for the book, where I found it roughed up so badly I felt compelled to post it here partly to remedy an injustice: the translators’ names had been stripped away entirely (shame!), and the line breaks had been removed so that it looked like a prose poem (disgrace!). I had the book on my shelf, so fortunately I could stitch it back together and put it up in proper form with proper names appended.
(Oddly enough, the other anthology to include Kublanovsky’s work is also called Contemporary Russian Poetry, but that one was edited and translated by Gerald S. Smith.)
As a final note, I’d like to call attention to Kublanovsky’s prognostication on the future of the printed book in Russia. Thank goodness, he’s optimistic:
Does poetry have a future? My lyric poetry, anyway, can exist only in a book: it needs a typographic font and a paper page. I can’t imagine that the people in Russia could make do without books, without traditional libraries… For a quarter century already, I have been keeping a daily journal, fragments of which have been published in the journal Novyi mir; our entire post-Soviet history is there.
I’m not quite sure how that last bit follows—since you can probably read those journal entries on the website ЖЗ—but regardless, yes, keep print alive!
Poems, especially, suffer on little screens.