Ivan Papanin (left) at the arctic drift station «Северный полюс-1» (1937) / Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Like just about everyone who translates Russian poetry into English, I keep my eye on the Compass Award, which is given each year for a translation of a single poem by a Russian writer. Early in the spring, we all wait to see which writer the Compass committee will choose for us—typically one who is underrepresented in English—and then we dash off to our computers and bookshelves to find a poem that suits us. (The committee selects the poet; the translator picks the poem.)
At least, that’s the way it should work. In truth, though, I’m lazy. I wish I could say I’ve sent in something to the contest each summer, but as I look back over the roster of previous poets—Nikolai Gumilev, Marina Tsvetaeva, Maria Petrovykh, and Arseny Tarkovsky—I realize I’ve only submitted a translation once before this year. Somehow, life has a knack for getting in the way of my good intentions.
This year, though, when Boris Slutsky (1919-1986) was identified as the Compass poet, I wasn’t about to let the summer pass without making time to choose, translate, and submit a poem for the contest. Not that I’m going to share my translation in this post! No, no, it’s a secret. I’m too superstitious to reveal it—at least until after the Slutsky winners have been announced. But I will talk about what I learned in the process of translating him.
Another benefit I’ve gotten from Compass each year has been the opportunity to educate myself on a poet I may not have known all that well previously. For instance, two of the poets from previous years—Gumilev and Tarkovsky—I had known mainly through association with other figures: Akhmatova in the first case, and the poet’s filmmaking son in the second. I had been aware of them both, of course, but I had never dived beneath the surface of their work. So the award got me to pay a bit more attention to them in their full complexity. As for Maria Petrovykh, I hadn’t known her at all.
Even Tsvetaeva, for whatever quirk of my own taste, wasn’t a poet I had ever particularly cared for. She had always seemed too ornate, too complicated, too clever in her language. For me, the form of her poems got in the way of their content. But now my view of her is different, in great part due to the time I spent reading a late-Soviet collection of her poems and then choosing one of them to translate for the Compass Award. I’ve muscled through her dense style, and I can now say I enjoy reading her.
This year, it was a particular pleasure to become acquainted with the poetry of Boris Slutsky. I’ve sometimes felt alienated by mid-twentieth-century Russian poets (that is, those before Brodsky), but this did not at all turn out to be the case with Slutsky. On the contrary, reading his poems, I encountered a voice unlike any other I’d heard, one that immediately engaged me with its conversational quality and ethical drive. Here is how the Compass committee describes his work and his place within the Soviet literary landscape:
Slutsky belongs to the WWII generation of Russian poets, whose anti-war poetic intensity was intertwined with the anti-Stalinist messaging. Though originally a devout Communist, Slutsky’s philosophical and often cynical works were largely foreign to the prevailing traditions of socialist realism. His verse was often devoid of euphony and traditional poetic devices; some have classified it as prosaic, conversational, and even coarse.
I would say that Slutsky’s combination of casual tone and fundamental ethics makes him almost instantly likeable and trustworthy, which is certainly not what I expected when I opened his collection. (The book I worked with, by the way, was a 1990 Moscow selection of his poems entitled Судьба: стихи разных лет.) Throughout his work, Slutsky seems haunted by Soviet history and therefore intent upon revisiting it so as to comprehend it. By candidly examining his own past and thoughts, he emerges as both judge and interlocutor, providing an ethical context in which author and reader can interpret events together.
To get a sense of how Slutsky’s persona takes shape in his poems, I think it helps to trace a particular thread through them—specifically, several of his reflections on the emblematic year 1937, when Stalin’s Terror reached its tragic peak. In one poem, he thinks back on his own experiences that year, when he had just begun his studies at Moscow Law Institute:
Too young for the camps, too old to be happy:
I was eighteen in 1937.
I think of that year more and more often.
It seemed to me that none of it concerned me—
the things that were happening around me,
the things that nailed that year to my memory.
(Слишком юный для лагеря, слишком старый для счастья: / Восемнадцать мне было в 37-м. / Этот 37-й вспоминаю все чаще. // … // Мне казалось, касалось совсем не меня / То, что рядом со мною происходило, / То, что год этот к памяти так пригвоздило.)
And what exactly was happening around him? Well, for one thing, his fellow students were being made to disappear. Yet nothing changed on the surface of Slutsky’s life: he continued writing abstracts about France’s Convention nationale for his History course, took his meals in the cafeteria, and rode home on the streetcar. That is, he simply went about his business, like other Soviet citizens. Only later did he allow himself to recognize the monstrosity of those tragic times: “I sought hidden meanings in the papers, / and little by little, I felt the real answer” («И в газетах отыскивал скрытые смыслы, / Постепенно нащупывал верный ответ»). The question of his own and others’ culpability is raised in the poem, but Slutsky’s conclusions about it remain appropriately ambiguous.
In another poem, Slutsky considers the legacy of the Terror, which he knows is a collective trauma that has gone unhealed. It must be talked through, he implies, if the country is to move forward. The poem opens with his address to the children of those were killed and sent to the camps:
Children of enemies of the people—
the stock that remains,
splinters of the tree
that flared and burned up
in nineteen thirty-seven.
Now again with nothing to do
I will spend the day with you.
Long conversations will unfold;
we must discuss
many verdicts and sentences.
Not ‘discuss’, but remember
calamities and people.
Somehow we must finish
this endless day.
(Дети врагов народа — / Дочери, сыновья, / Остаточная порода, / Щепки того дровья, / Что / вспыхнуло и сгорело / В тридцать седьмом году, / Нынче снова без дела / С вами день проведу. // Длинные разговоры / Будут происходить. / Многие приговоры / Надобно обсудить. / Не обсудить, а вспомнить / Бедствия и людей. / Надо как-то заполнить / Этот бескрайний день.)
The wound remains open, and Slutsky understands that traumas such as these—personal, local, national—cannot be ignored or forgotten, even as these “children” of the USSR attempt to move towards closure. “What’s done is done,” he writes in the closing lines. “You can’t redo it.”
And yet sometimes one wishes that history could simply be erased, that a year could be torn from the calendar and thrown away. Such, in any case, is how I read the poem with which I’ll wrap up this post—as an embodiment of the impossible fantasy of moving beyond and outside of history, unreachable by its terrible grasp.
The poem concerns Ivan Papanin, the leader of “North Pole-1” («Северный полюс-1»), a Soviet research station that was established on Arctic sea ice in June of 1937 in order to study ice movements. Papanin and the three members of his team spent the second half of that watershed year far removed from the Terror, out on the Arctic wastes. But doesn’t some degree of doubt creep into his final thought? Are he and his men truly unreachable? To close, here is Slutsky’s poem in its entirety:
At the Pole
Where west and east come together
and flow into north,
where everything’s south, wherever you look,
there stands the pole.
It was once the point
where heroes’ hopes converged,
but now it’s a station on the ice
with a local union,
a brief mail delay,
and a bulletin board.
There stands the pole. Some are permitted
to go there, but grudgingly,
since it’s already all been described,
even too much,
like the arrests
of nineteen thirty-seven,
when Papanin sat on the ice,
at the pole,
they can’t get us here.
* * *
Где сходятся восток и запад,
сливаясь в север,
там юг везде, куда ни взглянешь,
там — полюс.
Когда-то — точка приложенья
а ныне — станция на льдине
недолгим ожиданьем почты
Там полюс, и командировку
туда дают, но неохотно,
поскольку он давно описан,
и даже слишком,
тридцать седьмого года,
когда Папанин сидел на льдине,
сюда — не доберутся.
* * *
N.B. All translations in this post are mine. – J.O.