Arseny Tarkovsky, I Burned at the Feast: Selected Poems of Arseny Tarkovsky, trans.
Philip Metres and Dimitri Psurtev, Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2015

Reviewed by Will Cordeiro

[Review Guidelines]

Arseny Tarkovsky, father of the renowned filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky whose cinematic excerpts of his father's work are the likeliest source through which American audiences would have heard of this significant Russian poet, grew up in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and died shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Many of those in his generation of Russian poets who weren't driven to suicide or didn't have their lifeblood drained by Soviet bureaucracy were silenced instead by censorship, internment camps, or war. Tarkovsky himself lost a leg in World War II working as a correspondent on the front and had his poetry suppressed until he was in his mid-fifties. And it is only now that English speakers can obtain a book-length selection of his poetry, I Burned at the Feast, sensitively translated by Philip Metres and Dimitri Psurtev.
     Praised by Akhmatova, courted by Tsvetayeva, revering Mandelstam, and imbuing his work with an aura of Christian prophecy like Blok, Tarkovsky resembles the Silver Age poets who preceded him by a decade or so. Tarkovsky's work, unlike the more rhetorical and declamatory Russian poetry that followed—Yevtushenko, Voznesensky, and, in a different way, Brodsky—remains interior, a nocturnal hive of intuitions, even when addressing its most public concerns: history, politics, famine, and war. His imagery reduces to a dripping candle or a cricket's "secret song," (17) his quiet symbols cracking open like a hairline fissure along an icy sheaf. One step, another, delicate, precise, and then the reader sinks into the chilled undercurrent that rives below a poem's hard surface.
     Yet even at its shrillest and most explicit, in a poem that begins with a "German machinegunner" and a "detonation bomb," for example, Tarkovsky's language nonetheless shifts back to conclude with a line that achieves its power through understatement: "with frozen eyes, I'll gaze at the snow, blood colored" (39). The soldier's eyes, open but lifeless, stare at the snowpack, where others have been buried, each crystal tinted with a hopeless dawn the drifts cannot erase. More typical—and poignant—is the poem "Valya's Willow," in which a soldier revisits a favorite tree:

Killed in action, Valya came back
under his willow in a military cloak:

Valya's willow,
Valya's willow,
like a white boat floating on the creek. (53)

The poem, as Metres explains in an illuminating afterword on translation, "relies on the musical play in Russian between 'iva' (willow) and the soldier's name 'Ivan'" (191). Thus, the soldier returns in a coffin, locked within another tree, coasting down a creek that is at once the river of life and the river Lethe. In English, the title "Will's Willow," which the translators considered, would have sounded too playful and quaint for the poem's somber tone. The reticence of the final version, by contrast, allows each word to resonate with an elegiac austerity.
     The book's facing-page translations offer the reader with no Russian, such as myself, a sense of the originals' shape and music. The translators have tact enough to suggest such effects rather than trying to replicate them, knowing well the risks that exotic meters or exact rhymes run in English. These translations seem most intent on capturing Tarkovsky's simple yet hermetic voice in a contemporary American idiom, one that renders his tortured, haunted, and at times quite mystical worldview comprehensible to our auto-tuned, tone-deaf ears, which prefer free verse and colloquial speech rhythms to the rich and various soundscapes instinctive to Russian verse traditions. Metres, speaking of the much-vaunted failures of translation, writes that they "are not failures between languages as much as a property of language itself" (183). Despite the many shortcomings of our vernacular, though, Metres and Psurtev succeed in fashioning rough-and-ready parallels in a spare, enveloping style gray-lit with despair and revelation.
     The translations rarely if ever seem sententious or heavy-handed, giving each phrase enough breathing room to ramify and implicate. "Between the lines my fate was burned, " Tarkovsky says, "while my soul sloughed off its skin" (123). Religious and orphic longings abound in Tarkovsky's work, and the translators have succeeded not only in producing the tenuous metaphysical quality of the lines themselves but also in stealing something of the fire that's between them.