Book Review: Apollo in the Grass
by Aleksandr Kushner
translated from the Russian by Carol Ueland & Robert Carnevale
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015
Carol Ueland and Robert Carnevale, in their brief Introduction to Apollo in the Grass, a thin volume of selected verse by St. Petersburg poet Aleksandr Kushner, point out what an allusive writer this is, how steeped in the prose of Russia, how full of echoes and imprints:
He seems at times like some magus-spider who, scarcely touching a nearby strand, sets off all kinds of answering resonance at the other end of the web. But amid all this inertextual play, Kushner’s voice remains unmistakable, and his style distinctive. He plays Russian poetry like an instrument until we hear not just the instrument but the player himself.
Overlooking the typical poetry-writing rodomontade (we hear the player himself? What, sneezing?), the point is an especially important one for translators to make, since of all translations, poetry is notoriously the most difficult. And indeed, our translators this time around quickly make the same kind of concessions many others have made before them. “Translators simply have to admit,” they admit, “that most of the music of most all lyric poetry, and most of its phenomenal presence, stays at home, in the native tongue.”
As concessions go, it’s a bit premature; if Apollo in the Grass is a failure to convey original Russian music, it’s certainly not going to read like a failure to most readers. Indeed, considering the fact that Kushner has written over a dozen volumes of poetry, those readers might find themselves wishing Ueland and Carnevale had gone on failing for quite a bit longer – 80 pages seems more like “decimated” than “selected.”
Kushner was born in 1937, lived through the horrors of Russia’s Great Patriotic War and its bleak aftermath, and gained increasing prominence under the post-Stalinist ‘thaw’ and, eventually, the flourishing of glasnost, when he visited the West where so many of his colleagues, including Nobel laureate Harold Brodsky, had fled into exile. But Kushner remained bound to the city of St. Petersburg, where he made his home and published his work even in the midst of the expected interference from the Soviet censors. One key to his ability to survive where more volatile talents like Brodsky could not will be immediately evident to readers encountering these translations of Kusher’s verse: this is lyric poetry at its most genial, its most contemplative, and – at least on any level a censor might be expected to detect – its most unobjectionable.
It’s an element of his own poetry of which Kushner was keenly aware. In a 1991 poem, for instance, he imagines Brodkey, styling himself as the wandering “Odysseus,” sending him a letter provocatively musing on their two very different temperaments:
You who are deluded, like that grazing herd of suitors. –
The traitor’s lotos
Remains untasted, and you have still your homeland, your sorrows,
And your sins. A man dies, but verses survive.
Hail to the gentle mind and straightforward, masculine meekness.
Whether you, like me, were aided by God or the swarthy gods,
Emerging as from a niche or the air pit of a dream,
The chill embraced you,
Wafting love across to a country strewn with snow …
I embrace you. Odysseus. (No need to reply.)
Kushner reflects on his friend (and himself) again in his touching – and ingeniously ambiguous – memorial “In Memory of J. Brodsky”:
I looked at the poet and thought: it’s a good thing
He’s writing verse and not ruling Rome
For, in both, power’s the idiom
And, once in his grip, we wouldn’t last
A single year – he would shackle us all
In iron stanzas where life’s enjambment
Falls on the side of glory and catastrophe.
Hounding tyrants, he was one himself;
And my head would surely have rolled
For its lyrical gift and a love of objects
Irrelevant to his stately successes,
Warmed by a light decidedly softer.
Ueland and Carnevale append a few pages at the rear of Apollo in the Grass for some very controlled and useful notes explaining the more obvious references in the few dozen poems they include, and that’s the extent of the scholarly apparatus here. A larger and more exhaustively annotated Collected Poems remains a thing to hope for.