The Russian poet Natalia Gorbanevskaya declared unequivocally that, for a poet, living in an alien land is “a source of new potency.”
It’s lucky that she thought so, because she really had no choice. The dissident writer fled the Soviet Union for Paris in the 1970s. And that’s where she died, last night, at 77. In one of those odd synchronicities, I had been excerpting a poem she wrote for something I was writing – perhaps the first time ever that I had done so. As soon as I finished typing, I clicked to my Facebook page, and the director of the Summer Literary Seminars in Vilnius, Mikhail Iossel, mentioned her death in the very top post on my screen.
According to her first translator and champion, Daniel Weissbort, writing in 1974, “Gorbanyevskaya has been a leading civil rights activist, one of the seven to demonstrate in Red Square on 5 August 1968 against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Because of her infant child, she was not tried along with the other demonstrators, and she continued to agitate on their behalf, compiling an account of their trial, Noon (published in England as Red Square at Noon). In December 1969 Gorbanyevskaya was herself finally arrested, and in April 1970 was declared to be suffering from schizophrenia and placed in a psychiatric prison hospital, first in Moscow, then in Kazan, where a course of drug treatment was administered. There has recently been a good deal of agitation in the West about the misuse of psychiatry in the Soviet Union as a means of dealing with dissenters, and whether for this reason or for some other, Gorbanyevskaya was released in February 1972.” Red Square at Noon included not only Weissbort’s translations of her poems, but a transcript of her trial, papers relating to her hospital detention, and an assessment by a British psychiatrist of her mental condition, based on evidence then available.
“One might suppose that Gorbanyevskaya verse would reflect her political activity,” Weissbort continued. “It is, on the contrary, intensely personal and non-public. It transcends politics, not accusing, but describing the psychic reality of her situation. One generation, has had the capacity of transmute her suffering into a universal image. The staccato pulse of her work, the near-hysterical shrillness, recall the poetry of that other poet of suffering, the great Marina Tsvetaeva. In Gorbanyevskaya’s love lyrics, the old Russian mystique of regeneration through suffering is evoked (this appears, less intensely, in Yuli Daniel’s poetry too). Physical love becomes an ordeal like Christ’s on the Cross. Gorbanyevskaya has had the immense courage to remain vulnerable. Hers is the poetry of pain, of separation, of isolation, of despair, of threatening disaster, of disaster present.”
In Gorbanevskaya’s 1991 interview, the poet had an upbeat outlook on her flight for survival: “I think that we poets are in general enriched by the experience of emigration or exile. Well, if we don’t snivel … that is if we don’t just start to describe the exotica or just start getting nostalgic – in so far as we are submissive to the language, we bring to it everything that we can beg, borrow or steal from other languages. And the language, in so far as it is grateful to us, has yet more to give us in return.”
She never sniveled. I met Gorbanevskaya in Kraków in 2011. As I wrote here: “The poet, by then in her midseventies, was short and unfashionably dressed, with short, grizzled hair and thick stockings. She held the small stub of a cigarette like a defiant wand, its end glowing in the dying day on a sidestreet in Kazimierz. When she spoke to me, in French (Paris has been her home since 1976), her voice was probing and intelligent, her eye contact unflinching. She seemed tough-minded, durable, and utterly lacking in self-pity.”
I didn’t know her well, but Daniel Weissbort, who died a few days ago (I wrote about that here), did. So I’ll let him speak. From his book, From Russian with Love: “While I appreciated the opportunity of working with a poetry so different from my own and indeed from the Russian poetry to which I had previously been drawn, I also suspected that I did not have the language adequately to express the agony, even if as a reader I was responsive.” At that time, Joseph Brodsky had just arrived in the West, and Weissbort didn’t realize that he was a friend of the Moscow poet:
“Anyway, as far as I can remember, we were lingering at the front of the Queen Elizabeth Hall auditorium, just below the stage, perhaps during an interval at the end of that day’s readings, when Brodsky said to me, apropos of the Gorbanevskaya versions (it surprised me that he was aware of them: ‘If you were to die tomorrow, would you want to be judged by these translations?’
It seemed unlikely that this was a simple inquiry! I must have been somewhat shocked. Not only because we had just met, but also because his remark echoed, if more forcefully than I would have put it myself, my own doubts and anxieties about the whole business of poetry translation, as well as about the whole business of poetry translation, as well as about my Gorbanevskaya versions. Although I had read the account of her trial and, in addition to translating her poetry, had also written about her ‘ordeal’, I doubt whether I had much grasp of its significance. I imagine that Joseph was trying to get across the gravity of a situation when art, in a way, was all you had; that is, he was not merely suggesting that my translations left much to be desired. Though I took what he said as a comment on the translations, I may have received the other message too, since I did not respond as defensively as might have been expected. …. my translations were largely the product of a kind of optimism. That they had their moments was perhaps the best that could be said of them. Still, I realized that, though possibly wrong-headed, Joseph was not being unkind or malicious. Certainly he was not mealy-mouthed, but this helped me begin to see that the context was larger than one simply of translation, the translation of words. My first exchange with Brodsky, thus, took the form of a kind of summons to greater personal commitment. What such a commitment might entail, in his view, was not immediately clear to me, although I already suspected that, prosodically at least, it had to do with formal imitation, the point being that this had a moral dimension.”
Here’s my favorite poem from Red Square at Noon, which I bought in the 1970s. The 1961 poem has remained my favorite ever since. In fact, it was the poem I was transcribing when I heard that she had died. In English and Russian:
among those Goya images
is nervous, faint, absurd,
as, after the screaming of jets,
the trump of Jericho.
В моем родном двадцатом веке,
где мертвых больше, чем гробов,
моя несчастная, навеки
средь этих гойевских картинок
смешна, тревожна и слаба,
как после свиста реактивных