Georgy Ivanov, one of the major Russian poets of the twentieth century, remains a divisive figure. He began his career in the tumultuous atmosphere of pre-Revolutionary St. Petersburg, during the so-called Silver Age of Russian Poetry, first as part of the dandified Ego-Futurist group, then as an Acmeist — a member of Nikolay Gumilyov’s “Guild of Poets,” alongside Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam. Unlike Gumilyov, Ivanov survived the transition to Soviet power; and unlike Akhmatova and Mandelstam, he left his homeland in 1922. It was in emigration that Ivanov found his voice. In the late 1920s his lyrics took on a new tone — forlorn, pessimistic, but not without human warmth. In fact, the poems are profoundly human — casual, intimate, alive with the “interplay of tiny contradictions.” That last phrase belongs to Vladimir Markov, one of Ivanov’s longstanding champions. In a letter to Markov dated January 18, 1956, Ivanov ascribed a witty formula to Paul Valéry, though it may be entirely of his own invention: “What are thoughts? 1) A thought comes into my head; 2) I fix it onto paper, making a stylistic effort; 3) the stylistic effort transforms it, right up to the point of total contradiction; 4) what results is my thought.”
This programmatic embrace of contradiction has alienated some readers. Ivanov’s imaginative memoir of literary life before the Revolution, Petersburg Winters (1928, rev. 1952), which he himself presented as a half-recollection, half-dream, a kind of metaphysical portrait of the era — it begins with Gumilyov receiving a Satanic chain-letter from his cobbler — has been attacked as a vicious misrepresentation, an insult to his former friends, both living and dead. Ivanov and his wife, the poet and memoirist Irina Odoevtseva, were also baselessly accused of collaborating with the Nazis during the occupation of France. These rumors seem to have been motivated partly by envy; unlike many of their fellow émigrés, the couple had lived quite well, even lavishly, in the years before the occupation. They owned a villa in Biarritz, but the Germans confiscated their property in 1943, and the villa was later destroyed in an Allied bombing raid. After the war, Ivonov and Odoevtseva sank deeper and deeper into poverty, ostracized by many of their colleagues.
Ivanov’s final poems were dictated to Odoevtseva in an almshouse in Hyères, France. They make up a “Posthumous Diary,” in which Ivanov contemplates death from every angle. He is haunted by lines from his own and others’ poems, asks for and offers forgiveness, and begs for companionship; the cycle begins with a plea to Russia’s greatest poet, Alexander Pushkin — “to sit with you, drink tea with you” — and ends with a plea to Odoevsteva — “talk with me a little longer.”
The first poem below is an aesthetic statement. Ivanov’s inspirations are trifles, beautiful and fleeting — in fact, beautiful precisely because they are fleeting. The second poem, drawn from his “Posthumous Diary,” is an effort — a brief, intense stylistic effort — to convince himself and his addressee of something in which he does not believe. And for the duration of a few lines, of a single stanza, he manages it. The third poem is my own — a translator’s homage to the man and his beguiling voice.
I still find charm in little accidental
trifles, empty little things —
say, in a novel without end or title,
or in this rose, now wilting in my hands.
I like its moiré petals, dappled
with trembling silver drops of rain —
and how I found it on the sidewalk,
and how I’ll toss it in a garbage can.
The smoky blotches of the neighbors’ windows,
and windswept roses bending, drawing breath —
if I could think that life is but a dream,
that we cannot help waking after death.
To wait in heaven — heaven is so blue —
to wait in that cool bliss without a care.
And then, never to part with you.
With you forever. Do you see? Forever…
* * *
after Georgy Ivanov
Take a small table on the sidewalk,
the one that’s farthest from the door,
in such a way that no one wonders
if you were here the day before.
It is as if you’ve signed a contract
to sit here like a statuette.
How well you know the terms that bind you:
Boredom, and pity, and regret.