Into the Snow
By Gennady Aygi
Translated by Sarah Valentine
Wave Books, 2011
128 pages / $16 Buy from Wave Books
“Sidelined in a mass-media, technology-driven culture, the American poet seems to have a slim chance of connecting with an audience, and even less of a chance to effect large-scale change through poetry. But elsewhere in the world many poets…continue to write poetry at the risk of losing their lives and livelihoods. For them poetry is an ethical act, an act of humanity, regardless of the cost.”
– translator Sarah Valentine, in her Introduction to Gennady Aygi’s Into the Snow
Gennady Aygi’s collection of poems all speak of simple people and minimal places. Most involve a specific location, like a clearing or a forest. The simplicity is an illusion that he skillfully employs to challenge the reader to see more. The metaphors are powerful in their simplicity: as Aygi describes a “clearing in the field,” we may first imagine a meadow, but it could be that he’s referring to a transformation in the political climate—moving us from a tangible location to an intangible concept.
Notable poets like Liu Xiaobo, Pablo Neruda and Yannis Ritsos (and countless more) similarly use ordinary descriptions to fuse their words with personal humanity rather than with the political structures in place (in their respective regions) that would prefer to look at individuals as a unified mass to control and homogenize. By focusing on a single action or a nominally important place, “like dust in the creases,” these poets re-establish individual identity with their own form and the nature of their homeland. In each case, this “ethical act” that Valentine refers to usually costs the poet personal freedom by exile or imprisonment.
In “People,” he connects fleshly beings to inanimate objects, uniting both human features with furniture to expose a deeper commonality.
The lines of chairs, frames, bureaus,
I have seen off with movements
Of my arms and shoulders
On their regular
And unknown paths.
I didn’t notice
How this happens too with people.
I must admit: when I talk to them,
I imagine my finger measuring
The lines of their eyebrows.
And they were everywhere,
So that I did not forget
About life in the form of people…
And there was the idea of thinking
So that I knew
The patches of light on their pianos
In hospitals and prisons.
While Aygi avoided overt political commentary in his poetry, his work was still seen as “antagonistic to… Russian tradition” (Valentine XIII). Part of this goes back to his Chuvash heritage, and the pressure placed on him to abandon his native tongue in favor of writing in Russian. Eventually he did concede, and the beloved Pasternak was an esteemed mentor. Yet the locations he places his poems are solidly Chuvash. Some of the poems are variations on Chuvash folk songs, putting in words an oral tradition that predates the most violent and well-known periods of Russian history.
Aygi was part of the Russian Avant-garde movement: “The Russian avant-garde utilized […] verbal and visual disruptions to convey humor, parody and an ambivalence about Russia’s past, present, and future.” His visual twists include the use of colored shapes, alternative fonts, experimental text size and spacing, and even particular use of white space to reinforce wordless confusion. It seems that ambivalence is most reflected in Aygi’s work through his use of parenthetical questions; rhetoric that makes the reader interact in reflection.
His dry wit shocks at times, such as in “Reading Norwid” when he states “I am happy as a corpse that you’re among the living.” The humor extends further into “Tale of the Aging Harlequin,” as he remembers the years of attention and affection lavished on him when he performed: the women who tried to hide their attraction but appearing as jerky as marionettes in his presence (he being the Puppet Master). Those “dolls” all got married, and he’s drinking coffee alone and reading Yevtushenko. Aygi doesn’t suggest pity for the aging actor, or regret. Instead, he implies the contentment felt from being out of public view.
It is horror edged with realism in “Hunger-1947,” a reference to the famous “Seven Pennies” story by Hungarian author Zsigmond Moricz. Moricz’ short story was a simple game of a mother and son looking for coins to buy food. Poverty was the villain they were attempting to trick. In Aygi’s vision, he takes the story further, with a poem intensely startling in its imagery. It explains that the need for food supersedes everything, eventually:
My favorite of the collection is “Now Always Snow,” a quiet and repetitive piece that is best appreciated when read aloud. Aygi uses logopoeia to drive the meaning with visual and emotional clues to stimulate a reaction that moves from acceptance to denial to rage, finally returning to grim recognition that the power of the snow (in all of its symbolism) will always overwhelm in the end.
When all there is is snow
When the soul is all there is
The snows the soul and light
But still just this
That there are those
Like death is all there is…
When the snows come again
As maybe all that is to come
But there is no way to know for sure
As corpses do and do not exist…
But there is one thing that exists
When these are suddenly no more
–oh God again the snows!—
They are not just as this one thing is
A whirlwind as if by a miracle is
In a moment Death-Country is no more
Oh God again the snows
The soul the snows and light
Oh God again the snows
But should it be that they are not
The snows my friend the snows
The soul and light and snow
Oh God again the snows
And snow is all there is
The white imagery is void of all but the primal elements of life and death. The snow can represent so many different things that the meaning of the poem varies with interpretation. A blanket of snow can soften a dark landscape but can also smother life, alluded to in the verse about “Numbness Country.” The repetition of words combines with the choral refrain “Oh God again the snows,” which could be rendered contextually different (depending on where the reader places the emphasis in the phrase). Within the entire collection, this appears most to me as a masterpiece of Aygi’s subtlety and grace.
Many of his poems relate to friendships, both present and past, and in my research I found an interesting side-note on Aygi and his own translating of other works. In a moving tribute by Peter France, Aygi’s obituary in Modern Poetry in Translation reveals an unexpected side to the Chuvash poet:
The idea of Aygi translating Burns often naughty and comical verses into Chuvash amazed me, and seems to illustrate the transcendence of poetry over national and cultural divisions. It returns directly back to the superior introduction that Valentine wrote which illustrates how important and vital poetry remains in all languages. In fact, Aygi’s work shows how even simplicity can be revolutionary when it reinforces the power of the human soul over political obstacles.
Amy Henry is a freelance writer and reviewer working on an English degree. She spends her free time obsessed with British crime shows, wrangling an octopus, and abusing copper to make literary art jewelry. She blogs at www.theblacksheepdances.com where the main focus is on Eastern European and Russian translated literature.