In Memory of Gennady Aygi: Translation and Community

Series 3 No. 6 - After-Images

He devoted many years to creating an anthology of Chuvash poetry, from ancient pagan prayers, through folksongs and ethnographic descriptions of festivals, to poetry of the late twentieth century. This was to be his country’s ‘visiting card’ to the rest of the world, and thanks largely to UNESCO it now exists in many languages.

On February 21 this year the Russian and Chuvash poet Gennady Aygi died in a Moscow hospital. He had been suffering from terminal cancer for some months. Just over a month before his death, however, on an exceptionally cold January evening, he had come in from the snowy suburbs to the Chekhov Library in central Moscow to give what was to be his last reading. It was a moving occasion, the more so for me as I had to catch a plane back to Scotland the next morning, and I knew I was saying a last goodbye to a dear friend of over thirty years as we slithered over the ice to the jeep that was to take him back to his flat.

The evening began, surprisingly, with a group of my English translations – a warm-up for the real business of the evening, but also a gesture of welcome to the foreign visitor; so I read, for instance, the following poem from Veronica’s Book, a collection of 1983 devoted to Aygi’s daughter’s first six months:

Beginning of the ‘Period of Likenesses’

and the forces
of the tribe are stirred – and they float
and turn like wind-and-light – carrying over your face
cloud after cloud: all expressions
of vanished faces –

to manifest to confirm – the ‘definitive’
appearance – your own:

with fire – standing firm in turbulence! –

(is it not with this same heat that – peering – I shudder:

as if – amid some singing? –

pain – came in like the wind)

The bond and continuity with earlier generations – with Aygi’s own Chuvash forebears – is characteristic of this poet for whom poetry – including translation – was an act of communion between individuals, generations and whole peoples.

It was possible to begin with translation because the audience knew the originals – Russians often put us to shame by the ease with which they hold in their minds great swathes of poetry, while we in the West may have to struggle to remember a few lines. A Russian poetry reading is as much recital as actual reading. So it was on the occasion – Aygi read from books, to be sure, but at the same time he was plunging into his memory and holding the audience enthralled by his intense meditation on the verse he offered them. 

People had come from far away, from Scotland, from St Petersburg, and from Aygi’s native land, Chuvashia, some 500 miles away to the east among the snowy plains of central Russia. For these people poetry mattered. And the importance of poetry was demonstrated again a month later when the poet’s body was taken from Moscow to Cheboksary, the Chuvash capital, where the country’s president paid a moving tribute to their national poet, who was taken the following day to his last resting place in his native village. He was buried in the graveyard at the edge of the village, surrounded by the white snowy fields which are a central point of reference in his work. Those present will have recalled one of his early poems, on the death of his mother, which ends:

Oh, how quiet the snows,
as if smoothed by the wings
of yesterday’s demon.

Oh, how rich the drifts,
as if they concealed
mountains of heathen

sacrificial offerings.

But the snowflakes
keep carrying carrying earthwards

the hieroglyphs of god...

He was buried close to his mother and his maternal grandfather, the latter a peasant who was also the last pagan priest of the village. Aygi himself was often called a ‘shaman’ – he declined the term, but for him poetry was a ‘sacred rite’ whose role was to maintain human solidarity – and the solidarity of humanity with the natural world. Acutely aware as he was of the passing of the old communal culture – emblematised by the choral dance of the Chuvash – he worked to ‘preserve human warmth under the cold sky of the world’.

Friendship and brotherhood were vital in his work, so it was appropriate that he translated into Chuvash some poems of Robert Burns and helped to set up a Burns event in Chuvashia in 1996. Similarly, he had translated into his native tongue poems by a number of modern Scottish poets, Hugh MacDiarmid, Edwin Morgan and several more – a contribution to what was intended as a Chuvash anthology of Scottish poetry. This was a gesture of reciprocity, since the work of translating into English his own remarkable Anthology of Chuvash Poetry had been done by me in Scotland (I worked from Russian versions that he himself had made). His first visit to Britain was to Scotland, where he laid earth from a Chuvash graveyard on the steps of the Burns mausoleum.

Aygi’s versions of Scottish poetry were only a small part of his translation work. Like many poets in the Soviet Union (including his beloved master, Pasternak), he had been able to subsist as a writer partly on his earnings as a translator. In his case, given the importance accorded to the cultures of the different Soviet ‘nationalities’, this meant translating into his native Chuvash, first from what had become his own first poetic language, Russian, but then from several other European languages. In particular, having learned French at the Moscow Literary Institute in order to read Baudelaire in the original, he produced an extraordinary Chuvash anthology of French poetry from François Villon to Yves Bonnefoy, with a generous representation of modern poets such as Max Jacob, René Char or Pierre-Jean Jouve. These poets meant a lot to him personally, but they also revolutionised Chuvash poetry by revealing to his compatriots new poetic possibilities. So while some of his translation work was done to earn a living, much of it had a different function: to bring together far-distant writers and readers and to bring new riches to the land-locked culture of his own small nation.

As well as translating into Chuvash, he worked to spread the Chuvash word abroad. The Chuvash people, speaking a Turkic language, have preserved much of their own culture and relics of their old religion in the face of centuries of Russification. It was Aygi’s belief that ‘small peoples’ such as his had their word to say in the concert of nations, an important word that larger, more confident cultures would be unwise to ignore. To this end he devoted many years to creating an anthology of Chuvash poetry, from ancient pagan prayers, through folksongs and ethnographic descriptions of festivals, to poetry of the late twentieth century. This was to be his country’s ‘visiting card’ to the rest of the world, and thanks largely to UNESCO it now exists in many languages. (Interestingly, the English-language version published by Forest Books in 1991 was reviewed in Verse alongside the reissue of Alexander Carmichael’s famous collection of Gaelic folk poetry, Carmina Gadelica).

Aygi translated a great deal then, but as a Russian poet he has in his turn been much translated. The story of his worldwide reception is an exemplary one. As a young poet, growing up in a remote village, he naturally wrote in Chuvash, but his father had been a Russian teacher and quite early on he discovered modern poetry through the Russian poetry of Mayakovsky. On being ‘talent-spotted’ and sent to the Literary Institute in Moscow, he found himself in a Russian-speaking milieu, and began to translate his Chuvash poems into Russian. But it was above all the persuasion of Boris Pasternak, a master, friend and neighbour, and of the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet that determined him to move to writing in Russian – the very first poem written directly in that language being the poem on his mother’s death quoted above. So while he continued to translate into Chuvash, as a poet he now belonged to a great culture which plugged him in more directly to the modern art and literature of the whole world.

At the same time, unfortunately, he was cut off from Russian readers. His friendship with Pasternak (at the time of the Nobel affair) and his own highly unorthodox poetics made him persona non grata with the cultural establishment, and virtually none of his Russian poetry was published in the Soviet Union until the late 1980s. He said in an interview he gave in 1985: ‘For over twenty years I had fewer than a dozen readers’ – a small circle of like-minded artists and writers.

Meanwhile, though, from as early as 1962, his work began to appear outside Russia. The very first poems were translations by his Polish friend Wiktor Woroszylski. These were noticed by the German translator Karl Dedecius, who in 1971 published with Suhrkamp his own Aygi volume, Beginn der Lichtung – and before this there had also been volumes in Czech and Slovak. By 1980 translations had appeared in many countries, notably France, where Léon Robel worked tirelessly to bring Aygi to the attention of French poets and readers, and Germany, where Felix Philipp Ingold assumed the mantle of Dedecius, publishing numerous volumes, including a two-volume Ausgewählte Werke (1995-98). The first English translations, by Robin Milner-Gulland, figure in the 1977 Penguin Russian Writing Today; they were quickly followed by translations by Edwin Morgan and myself, and there have subsequently been six books in English in addition to the Chuvash anthology.

We have therefore the situation, by no means unique in modern times, of a poet being better known at home than abroad, and this above all through translation. Of course there were also Russian-language publications of his work outside the Soviet Union, both Russian-only editions and bilingual volumes, but I think it is fair to say that these were carried along on the wave of translation. This state of affairs did not endear Aygi to the authorities at home. The publication of some of his poems (in Russian) in the Paris émigré journal Kontinent in 1975 brought him considerable harassment in Chuvashia – for many years he was unable to travel from Moscow to his native land. And in more recent years, as he has been increasingly recognized and published in post-perestroika Russia and Chuvashia, there have been those who have sought to cast doubt on his achievement, portraying him as a poet for foreigners. It may indeed be true that Aygi’s free verse, with its highly original punctation and creative use of type-face and layout, is more easily assimilated in the West, and particularly in France, than in the still quite traditional poetic culture of Russia. But this is only to say that through his creative reading of some of the masterworks of modern poetry he has been able to bring something new to the poetry of Russia. His poetry is world poetry, perhaps, but it is in no sense rootless, burrowing deep into the resources and sonorities of the Russian language. His themes and leitmotif images – snow, field, forest, flowers, but also pain and grief – are both Russian and Chuvash, as in the short and mysterious poem of 1981, ‘To an Icon of the Mother of God’, which I also read in translation on the evening of January 17 (I have kept something of the neologisms of the original, but not the beauty of sound):

in dreamings and visionings
in dawn day of nonevening
in the house blazing with coals
of joygrieving!
in a corner-sanctuary that as with heart’s coals
in dreamings and visionings
as if amid the field the Living
to the abandoned feasting table
like signs many assembled

This is difficult poetry, and many will not easily accept it, in Russia as elsewhere, but it does seem now that as well as being for the last twelve years the Chuvash national poet, Gennady Aygi has found his place in the canon of Russian poetry. Meanwhile his career as a translated poet of the world will continue. Translation brought him many honours – and in the last eighteen years much travel – but above all it has helped create a network of friends/readers all round the world who can share through his poetry a universal vision that is still grounded in the distant fields and forests of the Chuvash land. Let me finish, by way of a tribute, with a valedictory sequence from his Salute – to Singing, a collection of a hundred quatrains, variations in Russian on Chuvash and other folksongs:

The village is long since out of sight,
but the windows in our father’s house
whistle through cracks in the frame,
calling us home again.

Mother, you will start sweeping the room,
and remembering me, perhaps,
you will stop short
by the door and burst out crying.

A candle burns,
unseen by the red fox’s eye,
farewell – my young soul’s features
will abide among you.

Enough, we have swung and swung
like resounding silver coins,
we shall bow, we shall bend before you,
like paper money, all white.

And where we stood,
may there remain
the shining of our

Peter France

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