Vic Peterson reviews ‘Babi Yar and Other Poems’ by Ilya Ehrenburg, translated by Anna Krushelnitskaya

4 July 2024

By Vic Peterson

Vic Peterson reviews Babi Yar and Other Poems by Ilya Ehrenburg, translated by Anna Krushelnitskaya [Paperback, £9.99, 126pp, ISBN-9781739473419, Smokestack Books, North Yorkshire, 2024]

Bilingual Russian and English, with an invaluable Introduction by Joshua Rubenstein, Babi Yar and Other Poems by Ilya Ehrenburg is an intriguing collection. Ilya Ehrenburg is a tragic, controversial, seminal figure in Russian poetry. Born in 1891, his poetic talent matured quickly. He spent formative years in Paris, a political exile from tsarist Russia, and became a correspondent for the daily broadsheet, Izvestia. Later, he went through periods of favor and disfavor with the changing Soviet regimes—yet managed never to get shot.

Ehrenburg was culturally a Jew but flirted with Christianity in early adulthood. Many of the opening poems in the volume have a Christian theme, containing tributes to the Blessed Virgin, a prayer for his home country, and the like. In my view they, are not his best, although are precsceint of his iconoclasm. They display a restless sensibility skeptical of received values and stand out against the dogmatic atheism of the Soviet state. One may be doubtful of his commitment to Christianity, but to iconoclasm, no. 

Still, it comes as something of a relief to encounter poems more ethically grounded—or at least more straightforward—than his life appears to be. These poems also have a more enduring value than the Christian poems. This untitled piece draws a poignant picture, a sort of still life in a secular humanistic mode:

When I was a young man, we were at war.
I’ve lived a long life—we’re again at war.
Here’s what I recall from that thunderous past:
Not a marching song nor artillery blast,
But a fisherman’s hut holding fast to a rock
In a small fishing village next to the dock.
A sailor was biding his woman farewell.
Her sad hands, like seagulls, soared and then fell.
Now years, it’s been years, and still, I recall
Those two moving shadows upon a white wall.
Когда я был молод, была уж война, 
Я жизнь свою прожил — и снова война.
Я все же запомнил из жизни той громкой
Не музыку марша, не грозы, не бомбы,
А где-то в рыбацком селенье глухом
К скале прилепившийся маленький дом.
В том доме матрос расставался с хозяйкой,
И грустные руки метались, как чайки.
И годы, и годы мерещатся мне
Все те же две тени на белой стене.

Ehrenburg is especially good at tableaux. One can feel Tolstoy and Chekov lingering in the background.

A different type of poem appears often in the collection, too, in a moralizing key:

Hatred – a bleak January noon,
Ice and a clot of icebound sun.
Ice. Underneath, the river is frothing.
The mouth is clogged. The hand does the talking.
There is no more porch, no more chimney smoke,
No more warm woman’s shoulder to stroke.
No kissing gate, no barking dogs outside.
No grief. Just the enemy and ice.
Hatred—the final frost of the heart.
Everything’s done, gone, and broken apart.
A heart-to-heart bullet will find its target.
A wisp will rise from the ice tinged with garnet.
Ненависть — в тусклый январский полдень
Лед и сгусток замерзшего солнца.
Лед. Под ним клокочет река.
Рот забит, говорит рука.
Нет теперь ни крыльца, ни дыма,
Ни тепла от плеча любимой,
Ни калитки, ни лая собак,
Ни тоски. Только лед и враг.
Ненависть — сердца последний холод.
Все отошло, ушло, раскололось.
Пуля от сердца сердце найдет.
Чуть задымится розовый лед.

We can thank Anna Krushelnitskaya for her commitment to bringing these poems into English. I do not put much stock in hypersensitive criticism that devalues a translator’s efforts by quibbling over the accuracy of a given word. Literalness rarely does poetry good. The famous translator, Gregory Rabassa, was asked once, purportedly, whether his Spanish was good enough to translate Marquez. Rabassa replied, “It’s not that. It’s whether my English is good enough.”

Still, on that note, I occasionally found the translations too rhythmically predictable (in English)—too monosyllabic or choppy—which worked against a fluidity that would underscore Ehrenburg’s biting insights. Varying syllable count of words, within the prosodic objectives of a line, can address that concern. My quibble is with musicality, not accuracy of definition. Two excellent examples of poet-translators who understand this challenge are A.E. Stallings, translator from Persian, and Vikram Seth, who translated three ancient Chinese poets. Both found a congenial home in English verse for their originals using rhyme and meter in ways that reflect the subtlety of the first tongue.  

But that is my ear only; others may disagree. Poetry is notoriously difficult to appreciate outside its original language. Word choice and many sonic values cannot be rendered justly in the receiving language. Bottom line, we owe Anna Krushelnitskaya immense thanks for making this striking and enigmatic poet available in English. Her effort is nothing short of heroic and makes discovering Ehrenburg’s poetry very rewarding.

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