Also just finished reading Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s Selected Poems.
Born in Irkutsk to a family of Ukrainian exiles in 1933, he moved to Moscow as a boy and attended the Gorky Institute of Literature. Yevtushenko was one of politically active authors during the Khrushchev Thaw. In 1961 he produced the poem “Babi Yar,” in which he attacked Soviet indifference to the Nazi massacre of the Jews of Kiev in September 1941. The poem was widely circulated in samizdat but a typical Soviet policy regarding the Holocaust was to present it as atrocities against Soviet citizens, not acknowledging the genocide of the Jews and this politically incorrect poem was published in the state-controlled Soviet press only in 1984. In the same year that he released Babi Yar, he also published “The Heirs of Stalin,” claiming that the legacy of Stalinism still dominated the country. Published originally in Pravda, the poem was only republished a quarter of a century later, under the more liberal leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev. In 1963, Yevtushenko, already an international literary sensation, was banned from traveling outside the Soviet Union; the ban was lifted in 1965.
In the post-Soviet era, Yevtushenko has been active promoting the works of former dissident poets, environmental causes, and the memory of victims of the Soviet Gulags. [from Wikipedia]
His most important poem, titled “Zima Junction” (1956) records his return to his childhood home in Siberia after a long absence in Moscow (Zima is a small town near the trans-Siberian railway). The poem is a powerful narrative of his memories and of his experience of remarking the areas of his memories. The poem is pastoral at times, self questioning at others, and documentarian (major portions of the poem are quotes from different people he meets there – their voices of struggle rising powerfully from the narrative creates an ethic not only of personal memory but of the responsibility of the artist to remember the voices of those who suffered – the poet as witness. The narrator becomes a kind of Odysseus entering the underworld, the dead requiring of him and recovered through story.
“There were so many hardships
anxieties of survival,
however much they bent their labouring backs,
it always turned out not be them
who ate the bread, it was the bread that ate.
Threshing, reaping, cleaning-out,
in the fields, in the house, in the barns.
There’s truth enough where there’s enough bread,
see to the bread and truth sees to itself.”
“I grew up
and at hide-and-seek
uncatchable whatever guard you kept
we peered out from the barn through bullet-holes.
There was war at that time;
Hitler not far from Moscow.”
“I couldn’t sleep.
Texture of dark
showed faces faintly. Woman’s voice. Whisper.
I strained my ears to listen.”
Reading “Zima Junction” with Cesaire’s “Notebook of a Return to the Native Land” – which also explores a return to a home affected by imperial power. Yevtushenko is much more of a journalist and documentarian than Cesaire. Cesaire is more certain and aggressive, whereas Yev. is more searching and receptive. Cesaire’s use of surrealism proposes that the colonized can find agency in decolonizing the unconsciousness – whereas Yev. is more interested in the use of memory – that remembrance itself is a political act.
I AM inside the church of Koshueti:
on a wall without dogmatic loyalty
unruly saints and questionable angels
tower upwards in front of me.
And I the savage and the unawakened
can understand hiding my awkwardness
below the painted wall of the vast church,
this picture is not part of this building —
but this building is part of this picture.
The land of Lado Gudiashvili drew
the guilty on it, not the sanctified,
neither in ridicule nor in detraction
being himself tarred with the same brush.
He was God and guilty. He was angel and devil.
Writers of poems, painters of pictures,
all we creators of the invisible change,
there are so many walls we have painted
like this one in the church at Koshueti.
We painters of icons
have had amusement from the heads of the great,
we were urbane enough to get commissions
and put a bite into their execution,
and whatever the risk and whatever
the suffering we painted faithfully
the godlike humans and the human gods.