By Greg Bem
And here we speak with voices
and are seen in shades of color,
but no one will hear our true voices,
and, having become purest light
we will not recognize one another.
“and you begin to sing—and I am disappearing” opens Into the Snow, the new translation of 20th-century Russian poet Gennady Aygi. Translator Sarah Valentine puts a fresh spin on the experimental master’s Russian and Chuvashian poems, capturing Aygi’s brilliantly diverse styles and forms in a compelling and genuine space. As sprawling as it is specific, Into the Snow serves as a powerful introduction into the work of the cold, desolate writer who learned to embrace his immediate landscape, political and natural, highlighted with a transcendental struggle, and a love for a poetics of minimalism.
For admirers of poetry that is straightforward, accessible, and coddling for the reader, Aygi’s work may come off as frigid and frozen – as impenetrable as the infinite Russian landscape from which he drew his inspiration. The poems resonate with those of Rene Char, the contemporary French poet Aygi pays homage to both in style and countenance. Aygi’s work reaches a wide strain of styles, but, as this collection highlights, there is a natural, seasonal decay that creates the structure of beauty and openness throughout the verse. Aygi’s enlightenment is through an investigation of the power of death and all resulting energies.
That said, these poems on occasion do succeed in being quite familiar, strange, provocative, and concrete. For example, “Girl in Childhood” is valuable for its images alone: “she goes out/like a bright breath into the field//like board-white buckwheat/cuts through the wood.” Aygi invokes a heightened sense of realism and propels characters through their senses of place and crises quite well. But the mastery in this poetry is in the layers of meditation that follow the imagery:
I have read the envelopes in my pocket a hundred times:
That is why in places they are faded, the endings blackened out.
you will not reproach me again:
Shamefully, you forget that I was at home as I ought.
Like the American Objectivists, Aygi’s work splits the seams and pairs the contemplative with the observational. If the reader chooses to enter the muffled internal thought process, there is opportunity to do so. But the chill of the barren is present, haunting, and ready to cripple. As each poem follows in the stride of the surrealists and Soviets, they are relatively poignant and bask in a tight, narrow structure. Empathizing with Aygi is not a requirement, but these poems do offer a magnetism that lead into a jarring dichotomy of self-cruelty and humbled recognition. Living through the 20th century Russia, with its horrors, its crimes, its struggles, and national ambition, is also a funnel for escape.
At times Aygi’s work feels almost natural and Romantic, like it is a mimicking of or coincidence to an Emersonian awareness. The poems bound off on their own, reflect the “shaman” Aygi archetypally defines in his “The Shaman and the Potato” and represents with each snapshot and still breath of verse. This formal spirituality, even if it is an allusion, allows a penetration into the coldest landscape imaginable, that which synchronizes with the passions and arousals of Aygi’s artistic self. “Not to shock the unfortunate” he says in “A few Notes on Poetry (page 35) but rather to numb into the mental vortex of the Poet:
with someone else’s
somehow strained face:
above a place non-material
– Winter Bender
Aygi is enigmatic yet practical and normal in his role as a poet. He represents how his world operates, shifts, and restructures itself, and allows for process of expansion. “smeared with poisonous death/ a young man sculpts—the day’s reflection/along the brow and eyes” Aygi says in “Reading Norwid”. As far as he distances himself, he defines, and brings to order the chaos and difficulties he is faced with, displacing his own voice for the rights and struggles of the people.
Despite his power as a figure of community and action, as a historian and lover of man, Aygi is an experimental poet. He plays with form, derives and influences, and his work is consistently exciting. Into the Snow, as buried as it is by the symbolic weather and its fortitude of decay, is a great comment on experimental poetry. Aygi can write skeletally-minimal surreal comments but can create list poems and variations on folk songs. His strength in Confessionalism is matched by his subtle forays into Concrete and Visual work. Here we have a writer operating on so many levels it’s hard to find one quality to define his work yet at the same time it is difficult to address his weakness.
Sarah Valentine has done an amazing job at fitfully translating the many modes, styles, and tones of Gennady Aygi’s work. The voices within the poems remain separate yet inherently linked. There is certainly a natural, genuine appeal to the verse—a challenge that translators are often confronted with. But the ease and readability of Into the Snow reflects the success in the recreation of Aygi’s troubling, controversial horizons.
Into The Snow: Selected Poems of Gennady Aygi