In I Live I See, translators Ainsley Morse and Bela Shayevich have collected and translated hundreds of poems by the late Russian poet Vsevolod Nekrasov for his belated but welcome debut in English. The collection is extensive, culling Nekrasov’s work from his first publications in1956 to the year of his death, in 2009. There is something ironic about the scale of this memorial tome: Nekrasov's poems are themselves quite short and slight. Some poems consist, in their entirety, of one or two words strewn across the page; in other, “longer” ones single words repeat.
Repetitions were important to Nekrasov: to him monotony could also unlock multiplicity. In some cases, the sounds of the words themselves change with each line break. And because so few words actually appear on the page, Nekrasov practically invites the reader to imbue his words with her own impressions, perceptions, and associations. It all comes across as being somewhere between a taunt and an exhortation—an earnest insistence and an arch deferral.
freedom is freedom
In “freedom is” (above), the final line draws attention to the blank spaces in the preceding ones; where we’re left hanging after the first line (“freedom is”), the sixfold repetition almost acculturates us to accept the open-endedness of the formulation. Then, with a palindromic touch, Nekrasov completes the sentence. We’re at once aware of the emptiness of the preceding lines, their faltering predicate. And yet, by ending on a tautology, there’s the parting joke of some final vacuity: there’s a full sentence, at last, but it rings out, empty of meaning
Other poems encompass a single line. For these, the translators wisely chose to put two companion poems on opposing pages.
When it's not bloodthirsty, socialism can be quite cozy.
Socialism or death. Why pick when you can have both.
Nekrasov is writing anti-poems, his translators tell us. By forsaking “writing with rhyme and in traditional syllabotonic meters,” they maintain, he was consciously breaking from the standard practice of his peers, who, regardless of their ideological leanings, produced more metrically traditional poems. Throughout his career, Nekrasov critiqued the official Soviet language and hackneyed phrases utilized by the government. Because of this, his poetry was deemed unpublishable.
For all their political fallout, many of the poems are about nature—moon, air, rain. Again, the language is spare: Descriptions are monochromatic, rendered in black and white—he is not, as it were, fiddling with the color wheel; Nekrasov has no use for elaborate shadings. One of Nekrasov's more successful poems is “And I Too Will Speak of the Cosmic.”
warneverthelessmoonwhiteglowwhitesnowwhitebreadthere is nono bread at allI have long since returned to MoscowAnd I dine almost every nightBut the moon looked like it tasted goodAnd moon tasted white
Your will is a little chilling it's our nation after all
But then the
The latter part of the collection includes poems from the post-Soviet era. These years, in a way, only underscore the poet’s heterodox views and keenness on ambiguity. In an untitled poem he warns not to lose your mind in fat times. In one of his final poems, he ends with an uncharacteristically blissful stanza.
but there's something happy
there's dignity even
in the idea
that not all the world's monsters
In all the darkness, the poet may have, in spite of it all, also seen light.