TIME OF GRATITUDE
by Gennady Aygi
translated by Peter France
New Directions, 135 pages
reviewed by Ryan K. Strader
When I was a twenty-one-year-old college student and had zero sense of self-preservation, I rode alone on the train in Russia several times between Petrozavodsk and St. Petersburg—unaccompanied, on an overnight train, sleeping in a bunk car with strangers. I was also very chatty because I was trying to learn Russian. Talking up Russians who wanted to sleep seemed like a way to endear myself to my bunkmates and perfect my language at the same time.
At first, it was hard to start conversations. Finally, at one point, one drunk Russian man was lamenting my lack of useful knowledge—I didn’t know card games or anything about professional swimmers. “What do you study?” he asked me.
When I mentioned that I knew Pasternak’s poetry, his face lit up. “Your schools aren’t complete shit after all!” he said joyously, as though his faith in American education had just been fully restored.
Suddenly we had something to talk about. Poetry. Russians know their writers. That lesson stayed with me. From then on, I advanced conversationally on my bunk-mates by mentioning Pushkin, Pasternak, Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva. If they didn’t care for poetry, I could switch to the novelists. The tactic rarely failed.
When I received Time of Gratitude to review, I was expecting to discover a new Russian poet. That is, a poet who fit in well with the other Russian poets I knew. A poet “like” Pasternak, or “like” Blok, even if it was in some intangible abstract way that we like to describe one poet as being like another. I had expectations about what a Russian poet would sound like, given my experience of the modernist Russian canon.
But Time of Gratitude is unexpected, in many ways. Its very first lines, which are an opening to an essay that pays tribute to Boris Pasternak, read:
I am writing of a Poet who possessed an Apollonian beauty at the age of seventy and of an ecstatic twenty-two-year-old…myself—‘and I cannot draw a line between us’: not between myself now and myself then, nor between them both and the divinity of the Poet whom the young man adored.
These lines took me by surprise—Aygi can’t, he says, “draw a line” between himself and Boris Pasternak, and, in truth, his poetry itself doesn’t sound “Pasternakian.” If I started conversations on the train by bringing up the work of Gennady Aygi, I am not sure how far I would have gotten.
In fact, I wouldn’t have gotten far at all: Aygi’s assertion of his place alongside Pasternak would likely have been contested, and perhaps even seen as subversive. Aygi is not easily granted a spot in the canon of Russian poetry, for a number of reasons.
While he has many admirers, among them the poet Alex Cigale, and his long-time friend and translator Peter France, and while many scholars of Russian literature have encountered his work, he is often described as “avant-garde” and as being outside of the Russian lyrical tradition, with very little apparent influence from Russian masters. Such detectable influence from the writers that Russians think of as “theirs” is important.
It is possible that Aygi’s Chuvash background and its influence on his work might have something to do with his outsider status as well. A rural region almost 500 miles east of Moscow, Chuvashia has its own Turkic language and rural culture. Aygi’s work is marked by rural images, values, and a spirituality rooted in nature. In his poetry, this background melds with European modernism in unexpected ways: Time of Gratitude also comments on Kafka, Nietschze, and Kierkegaard.
On top of all this, Aygi was writing in a singularly oppressive historical moment. In my search for interviews and information about Aygi, I found critics that see his work as genius, those that see his work as spiritual, and those that see him as “not Russian,” almost a fraudulent presence amongst Russian poets. The tributes in Time of Gratitude ended up striking me as Aygi’s own commentary on participating in multiple worlds—erasing the lines between Chuvash and Russian, between languages, between philosophies of writing—or re-framing those relationships to create a new sense of unity within himself and his own experience. Such moves are always threatening to someone, and it seems that Aygi has his detractors.
In his introduction to Time of Gratitude, translator Peter France claims that Aygi, who died in 2006, clearly did not suffer from Bloom’s “anxiety of influence” but was instead “a poet of gratitude, gratitude for the human and natural world, gratitude for the artistic creations of others.” “Gratitude” might be another way of describing “influence” for Aygi, but it struck me as a lovelier description because it encompasses the many ways that Aygi felt literary influence as both personal and communal, not simply a matter of poetics. One of Aygi’s most touching memories in Time of Gratitude is a conversation with Pasternak when Aygi was going over a draft of one of the older poet’s novels:
At our second meeting he asked me a question with some embarrassment, slowly and hesitatingly: “Tell me…you are a man…of the people…forgive me for talking like this!…Tell me, does my novel seem to you not to be ours?”
I was staggered—it was as if all the depth of the suffering of my incredible interlocutor was revealed to me. “Boris Leonidovich, what are you saying! It’s ours, it’s ours absolutely!” in the ardour of my reply I was almost choking. Pasternak threw his arms around me.
This conversation underscores Pasternak’s perspective on art, which seems to have been Pasternak’s primary influence on the young Aygi. He describes Pasternak as an artist who saw each human being as “a complete world” in themselves; this dignifying of the individual endowed them with what Aygi calls the “Pasternakian Freedom,” an individual spiritual significance which both dignified the individual’s voice and connected all people into a shared humanity. This perspective seems to have both validated Aygi’s unique voice as a Chuvash-Russian poet and connected Aygi to what was ours—a literary tradition of “the people,” one that values connectedness to the extant literary tradition but also cherished individual voice: “I simply abandoned myself to the power of his Freedom—this mattered more than ‘literary problems,’” writes Aygi. “And this Freedom discovered for itself where he could spread himself in the expanse of its flight and its magnificence.” Such recollections are important to what Aygi refers to as his “spiritual orientation,” by which he seems to mean both his spiritual beliefs and the “spiritual orientation” of much of his poetry. Peter France touches on this spiritual affinity between Pasternak and Aygi in the obituary he wrote in The Guardian: “like Pasternak’s, his poetry was a poetry of light, seeking to assert the values of human community and oneness with the rest of creation.”
It does not seem odd to me that “community” and “oneness” would have begun with an appreciation for the individual, particularly an individual who crossed ethnic and linguistic categories as Aygi did. Born in 1934 in Chuvashia, Aygi moved to Moscow in his early twenties to pursue his education. His first poems were written in his native Chuvash, earning him disapproval from the Russian community. Pasternak encouraged him to switch to Russian, assuring him that “only writing in Russian will allow you to articulate fully everything that is happening within you, in the way of an emerging poetry, as we talk.” The choice to switch seems to have been a difficult question of identity for Aygi, both because claiming a place amongst Russian poets was to claim a “greatness” and literary influence that would quickly be resented, and because it may be seen as rejection of his Chuvash heritage.
Peter France records in Aygi’s obituary from The Guardian that it was at this time, when deciding to write poetry in Russian, that Aygi changed his name: his original surname was Lisin, a Russified name, and Aygi was properly Chuvashian, meaning “that one.” It seems like a calculated choice, but it did not protect Aygi from being shut out of both Russian and literary circles for most of his life. In the same essay on Pasternak, Aygi notes that the writer Hikmet warned him, “There is no question you must go over to Russian, it will correspond to what you have in you. But remember: They will never forgive you for this move,—that you, the son of a small nation, will exist within a great literature.”
While Aygi does not clarify an exact “they” that Hikmet is referencing, such lack of forgiveness seems evident in the larger critical community. Since perestroika such silencing is probably not malicious; rather, it is the unfortunate historical aftermath of a political environment that sought to silence difference. It is startling to realize how limited our knowledge of Russian writers of the twentieth century might really be, given the extent of Soviet censorship, and it humbles the notion of a “canon” that is easily recognizable to American students and Russian traingoers alike, to think of what might have been missed. Aygi was still alive and living in Moscow when I was there, but no Russian literature instructor ever pointed me to him. Nor would they have known to do so.
Time of Gratitude is an unusual text: the collected pieces are both prose and poetry, some of them written for events and some written as personal reflection. Translator Peter France has organized the book into two sections. The first one is devoted to Russian and Chuvash writers and artists, including Boris Pasternak, Kazimir Malevich, Varlam Shalamov, and Chuvash poet Mikhail Sespel. The second section includes pieces in honor of non-Russian writers and artists, and includes Kafka, Baudelaire, Max Jacob, and the Swedish writer Tomas Tranströmer. The title, “Time of Gratitude,” was borrowed from a cycle of poems that Aygi wrote in 1976-7, marking a time of grieving over the politically inspired murder of his friend Konstantin Bogatyrev. In publishing this new collection of Aygi’s works that pay tribute and gratitude to other friends, France concluded that the same title was still appropriate.
In a sense, this collection is a complement to the earlier collection of poems, as expressions of thanks to writers who helped to sustain Aygi through the “difficult times,” which Aygi describes as beginning in 1958 “like a single immense dark avalanche.” While he is not always specific about the precise nature of the difficult times in Time of Gratitude, the reader understands why France says that Aygi “wrote from a deep awareness of the losses and destructions of the 20th century.” In Time of Gratitude, Aygi touches on the imprisonment of Chuvash poets, the death of friends, the censorship of his own work and the censorship and death of Pasternak.
In an interview published in New Directions’ 2007 edition of Aygi’s poetry, Field-Russia (also translated by Peter France), Aygi describes how he understands “literary influence,” and his comments shed light on the structure of the pieces selected for Time of Gratitude. Aygi claims that his “literary education” can be traced to “something different,” which he describes as “addressing the writers themselves rather than their ideas, whether literary or otherwise.” During dark periods of his life, he insists that his mind would turn to the ideas of certain writers, and he would write to them as people with whom he was having an existential debate, rather than write as if he were trying to build images in accordance with the structure of their work. Because of this relationship with writers as partners in conversation rather than as masters to be imitated, “the continuingly influential and genuinely living images of certain teachers constituted for me their ‘legacy,’ their life-long support, and the strength of this kind of ‘contact’ was more powerful than any literary considerations.”
This existential “dialogue through poetry” is present in his poems in Time of Gratitude, such as “For a Conversation About K.” Dedicated to Olga Mashkova, “K.” refers to Kafka:
earth is just a thought—freely visiting:
sometimes known to me
in a thought that is Prague:
and then I see
a grave in the city—
it is like a grief-thought:
earth—of suffering!…his—as of that thought
which is now so constant!…
I shall say of that grave “a dream”:
and—as even wounds do not make us believe it is real—
he seems dreamed
in another sleep:
as if unending:
Of all the poems in Time of Gratitude, this one struck me as most “like” Aygi’s work in other published volumes. Sleep is a theme in many of his works, and the ethereal sense of questioning reality seems to be a consistent quality of his writing, even in his prose in Time of Gratitude. While the poem is thematically “Kafkaesque” in that it deals with the nature of reality and the mystery of suffering, it also flouts expectations of “Russian” poetry with its use of free verse and its chant-like syntactical structure. Several critics have described his work as “shamanistic,” an adjective that recalls his rural background and emphasizes his avant-garde characteristics.
It was not uncommon for Soviet writers to be unpublished at home and have their works published—sometimes without them even knowing—in the West. With perestroika, Aygi developed a broad European audience, and his work has slowly become better known to American readers. Peter France points out in an interview in Beloit Poetry Journal that while Aygi is considered a “modern classic” to a few, he is still fairly unknown, despite being a pioneer of free verse in Russia and bringing recognition to Chuvashian writers. Time of Gratitude is one attempt to gather and publish more of Aygi’s work; France hopes that at some point Aygi’s extensive collection of letters to people all over the world will be gathered together and published.
I did find Time of Gratitude to be a personal and intimate way to enter the world of Aygi’s poetry for the first time. Since I began with Aygi by reading his memories of those who had been “fathers” and mentors to him, I felt invited to encounter the poet as a person first, aside from the poems, and thereafter it was difficult to separate the poet from the poems. France has commented that, as Aygi’s friend, he often experienced the same difficulty. Given Aygi’s approach to other writers though, as “genuinely living images” that sustained him in ways poems by themselves never could, it seems fitting that Aygi might be introduced to a wider American public this way.
Ryan Strader earned a B.A. in Russian Literature from George Mason University, and an M.A.T. from Clayton State University. She is currently an instructional designer and researcher. Her most recent instructional design project is the development of a class in writing and qualitative research methods at Georgia State University, where she is also a doctoral student. Her most recent publication is an upcoming book chapter on populism in young adult novels. She lives and works in the Atlanta area.