Winter Dialogue

by Tomas Venclova, Diana Senechal,
148 pages,
ISBN: 0810114917

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Timeless Music Of Saved Generations
by Bogdan Czaykowski

Strolling over the Yorkshire moors, the ground rolling beneath my feet, the sky moving in swift, gray-blue clouds that have no time to rain, and that pass so low overhead that the horizon vanishes. Or reading Keats’ “Endymion” in a Nissen hut made of corrugated iron sheets, the refugee camp dead silent, no dog barking nor rooster alerting you to time. Or sitting on a bench in the Monaghan Cathedral with no other soul inside except the figures in the Gothic stained glass windows through which waves of light and shadow pass... Now that is solitude. These recollections came to me as I read Tomas Venclova’s Winter Dialogue. The voice, a finely shaped poetic voice, speaks from the depths of a loneliness that is not just the physical being alone in space, but that is historical, political, imperial, and totalitarian as well. It speaks from the enormous cell of isolation that stretches from the Elbe to Kamchatka, and that contains Venclova’s native, yet alienated, city of Vilnius. In this solitude, the conversations one has—if they be intimate, truthful—are conversations with dead poets: a Mandelstam, a Pasternak, a Dante. Or with dissidents like Josif Brodsky, who comes to Vilnius to seek another, like-minded soul in order to shatter momentarily the loneliness. Or with the beloved. Or with God, in absentia. In reality cut from reality, What you hear or perceive, I don’t know. The paved banks of the Acheron Withstood the insensible flow. Each nothingness stands on its own, And without us the world still persists. And the Muses and silence alone Can, in truth, be said to exist. Brodsky, in his foreword, casts a light on the poems when he insists that “art is a form of resistance to the imperfection of reality as well as an attempt to create an alternative reality.” Of course, the roots of Brodsky’s insistence and of Venclova’s poetics are the same: the desire for a home that transcends the concrete country and historical time and that allows one to partake in a timeless communion of souls described so well by another Lithuanian poet, Czeslaw Milosz. When you enter the gate it’s as if they were waiting for you... You don’t have to say who you are. Everyone here knows and loves you. Eyes meeting eyes, hands touching hands. What communion. What timeless music of saved generations. Venclova’s landscapes, cityscapes, seascapes are wintry, desolate, steeped in reflective twilight, eerie in their concreteness. The objects of vision are transmuted into an inner, verbal space that flows like a semantic darkness melodied into metre. The formal language substitutes for the reality—an anti-world of feeling secreted by a cultured psyche—which is poised against the actually real. There are few colours, and those that are described are not lively, but subdued—as Brodsky puts it, “monochromatic”. There are no beautiful bodies or supple limbs, no glories of sense, no joy, no rapture, no ecstasy, no laughter (but for an occasional “glimmer of smile”), no bursting into song, no celebration. There is no metaphysical wit, philosophical epiphany or analytical metaphor. But there is a kind of wisdom—a wisdom of sadness. A kind of metaphysics—a metaphysics of melancholy. A kind of historiosophy of suffering and heroism blending with profound pessimism. And there is sustained reflexive poignancy. The turns of phrase are often memorable, quotable—more for themselves than for the insight they offer”, more for their intonational and verse music, than for any definable meaning. Take the title poem, “Winter Dialogue”. A note tells us it is “about the Polish uprising of 1970”. What uprising? you wonder. There were workers’ demonstrations and riots in the Baltic cities of Gdansk and Gdynia in which over forty workers were shot to death. A tragic enough event, a significant event in the series of workers’ rebellions against communist rule in Poland. But the term “Polish uprising” amplifies too much. And when you read the poem (a very fine poem, indeed), there is nothing in it that would tell you how it was occasioned, how it was set into verbal motion, how it gathered its arresting imagery, how it composed its tonal modulations. It is at such a great remove from what occasioned it that even the most perceptive or suspicious censor would not (one can assume) have suspected its ultimately political impulse. Once you know its genesis, however, you realize why the poem is as it is. It is about an event that is not in the news, whose vague contours seep through and are magnified by the silence around it or mythologized by the propaganda that falsifies it. It is about an event that you can neither discuss openly nor write about directly. It is about an event that happens fairly close by, along the coast of a sea that hugs your own shores, but that you cannot witness. It is about an event whose importance you sense, whose tragedy you feel intensely, but whose consequences are unclear, and which may evoke hope, but that, too, is uncertain: Beneath the meshes of a weighty cloud, The squares, like fish, are glittering and playing. “Do you remember what the stars were saying?” “This century is managing without A sign; there’s just statistics.” “Gravity Of death has fettered person, plant, and thing, But sprouts burst forth from seed and sacrifice, And then not all is over, or so you think.” You can see how, if the poem had appeared in a Lithuanian journal soon after “the Polish uprising”, readers skilled in deciphering Aesopian language might read it as a poetic reflection on an event across the border; but even then, some vagueness would have remained, some obscurity, which only those adept at interpretation might try to clarify and render meaningful or transparent. And it is precisely this distance from the recognizable reality that elicits praise from Brodsky: The lyrical quality of his poetry is fundamental, for as a poet he begins where normal people give up and where the great majority of poets, at best, switch to prose: he begins at the depth of consciousness, at the far limit of joylessness... In this characteristic lies the exceptional moral value of his poetry, because the ethical focus of the poem is in its lyricism rather than in any narrative element. For the lyrical quality of the poem is a sort of utopia attained by the poet... Brodsky calls this accomplishment “good news”, since it either “provokes a similar internal motion in readers” or, “at the least, liberates them from dependence on the reality they know, making them aware that this reality is not the only one.” Yet one need not—in fact, should not—treat Venclova merely as an exemplification of the interesting but hardly uncontroversial view of poetry that Brodsky tried to disseminate. What one is grateful for to the translator, with whom the author collaborated closely, is the fact that English-speaking readers have been given an opportunity to discover a highly distinctive poetic voice and sensibility through versions that are finely wrought and that appear to be optimally faithful to the traditional stanzaic form, rhyme scheme, and spirit of the original poems. Thus one more unquestionable poetic achievement, accomplished under severe conditions and continued, after 1977, in exile (when Venclova was able to leave the Soviet Union and settle in the United States), has been made available, adding in a significant way to the already rich and varied landscape of East Central European poetry of the postwar period. One is also grateful for the inclusion of “A Dialogue about a City”, an exchange of epistolar essays between Czeslaw Milosz and Venclova about Wilno/Vilnius. The very fact that the city here described, remembered, and evoked, with its difficult history and varied character, is and is not the same city (for it is the predominantly Polish-Jewish Wilno of the interwar period in the case of Milosz, and a mixed Lithuanian-Russian Vilnius/Vilna of the postwar Soviet era in the case of Venclova), makes the inclusion particularly valuable as background to and context for Venclova’s poetry. Here the poetically very different, more realistic, and discursive Milosz draws out of the esoteric and lyrical Venclova a similarly realistic and discursive response, showing us not only the historical, national, and cultural problematics of Wilno/Vilnius, but also the actual, experiential, and ideological physiognomy of the Lithuanian poet. It is good to know what kind of intellectual quality sustains the more abstruse, lyrical, and semantically indirect style of Venclova’s poetic expression. Bogdan Czaykowski is a poet and Professor of History at the University of British Columbia.

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