Andrei Voznesensky died early this June, and his death marks the passing of a courageous, astute, and brilliantly ironic poet. His death marks, too, the ending of a cycle in Russia of humanistic struggle on his part and Pasternak’s, Yevtushenko’s, and other poets against the always eager manifestations of brutal power. Before I tell the story of how he came to read his poetry at my university, let me offer the introduction I gave to the packed hall in 1985:
It sometimes seems as if our world and its history are marked by peculiar and profound silences - one thinks of the varieties of silence surrounding the genocides in the twentieth century. And one also thinks of the icy ahd historic silence that prevailed between the United States and the Soviet Union. It is our privilege this evening to meet and hear a person whose art is helping to break the odd and terrible silence plaguing our era. Andrei Voznesensky's voice as a poet cuts through the silence by means of a wide and brilliant accumulation of strengths. And these strengths make him perhaps the most distinguished Russian poet in the generation after the death of Boris Pasternak, who was his mentor. Voznesensky's poetry joins a scrupulous private lyricism to public themes. "I Am Goya" is a poem about the horror of the world at war; "The Call of the Lake" is about how to face the helpless silence of the Holocaust - and in each we feel the force of the poet tapping a deep inner response to the enormities which disfigure history. The joining of a scrupulous intensity to public themes is to be heard also in the sharp irony, sadness, and humor combined in poems like "A Chorus of Nymphs" about Soviet life or "American Buttons" about our own. And a poem like "Chagall's Cornflowers" - written in the mid-seventies, about the art of the Russian-Jewish emigre painter - is another revelation of the courage of Voznesensky's art, in the face of much unspoken anti-semitism. Indeed as his critical and independent imagination ranges over the twentieth century and both Russian and American societies, this courageous artist should remind us of the degrees of courage and of cowardice in our own lives. Our visitor has written that "the task of the poet today is to look deep inside man," and as his art prompts us to delve into whether we are alive or somehow dead at the core, we feel indeed grateful for those poems Voznesensky has written which are full not only of beauty and wit but of what Robert Lowell called his "sorrowing sympathy," his understanding - as in "Nostalgia for the Present" - or our shared human struggle.
I was so moved by his poetry reading in Cleveland in 1980, five years before, that my imagination remained haunted for months afterward, and I felt compelled to write some fiction about it. The story grew beyond the specific circumstances of the reading (the passionate urgency emerging from this ironic man as he read “I Am Goya” or the irritating dead-pan of the reader of the translations), and finally the story grew to imagine ways in which an American college teacher might, too, feel haunted by his society and history; hence the story’s title: “Your Name is Hiroshima.”
In early 1985, the poet was visiting Oberlin College near Cleveland, and with a certain urgency of my own, I mailed my story to him. I did not hear from him and learned he had left Oberlin for New York. In late June, at 6 a.m., the phone rang, and I heard a clear, penetrating voice say: “This is Andrei Voznesensky. I received your story. I like it very much and not because it’s about me. I want to meet you. Let me visit this fall. I can arrange to read at your university.”
On a frigid December morning, I met him at the Cleveland airport, and we did not stop talking. He ate a lunch of lamb, salad, and good bread with my wife, Jeanette, and me in our cottage-like house in Cleveland Heights; he said it reminded him of his dacha in Peredelkino outside Moscow, and it made him homesick.
“You would like it there,” he said; “someday you must visit me.”
We spoke of Brodsky and Babel (“Do you know his great story ‘My First Fee’? You would love it.”) and of Rostropovich and Gorbachov, Auden and Lowell, Ginsberg and Balakian. For an afternoon party in his honor, I had invited all the usual suspects (ranging from a vice-provost to a brilliant undergraduate), but he would have none of it; he said he had come only to meet me and to read.
When I picked him up at his hotel before the reading, he asked me into his room and said he would be ready in a few minutes. He wore a fine silk robe as he finished dressing, and I was reminded of his remark that Rostropovich loved beautiful fabrics and furniture: “His home in Washington D.C., it is like a museum!” (The great Russian piano virtuoso Gilels once remarked that American supermarkets were like food museums.)
In order to promote his reading, I had pinned posters to the walls of the area’s universities, of Jewish delicatessens across the east side of Cleveland, etc. In the evening, the community of Russian Jews appeared in mass. The ballroom at the top of old Mather Mansion was filled to capacity. My introduction spoke of the Russian poet’s courage in breaking historic silences after Stalin’s death – about the Cold War, about the Holocaust – and I spoke of his poetry’s combination of wry critical intelligence and “sorrowing sympathy,” to quote Robert Lowell’s remark about him. For most of this audience, though, no introduction was necessary, and neither was the actor who read the translations (“I would have preferred you reading the translations”), for we were rapt by the power of his performance, which was only enhanced by his self-effacing ironic introductions in English.
As he read, he became his personae: Goya, then Gogol, then a witness to the killing of Jews in the nineteen forties. And we the audience became witnesses in turn; finding our ordinary preoccupations placed in stark perspective, we measured the degrees of cowardice and courage in our own lives. The applause shook the ballroom floor, as if he were one of those great Russian virtuosos, Oistrahk or Richter, who traveled here to stun America with their expressive force. No wonder he and Yevtushenko had filled stadiums in Moscow.
After the reading, he agreed to eat at a Greek restaurant; I gathered a half dozen of his most ardent listeners, and once there, we all raised our cloudy glasses of ouzo in toasts to honor Andrei.
The next morning on the drive back to the airport, Voznesensky asked, “Why, Danny, why is your story not published in America?”
“It’s a strange culture here, and publishing in America is a strange business.”
“A business,” he said and then added, “It is not easy to be American writer, no?”
I could not believe it: he was speaking something like what I had invented for him to say in the story I had sent him.
“Not easy,” he repeated.
“I think it’s harder to be a Russian writer, yes?”
He smiled with his characteristic self-irony and said, “I think, yes.”
[Daniel Melnick’s story about Voznesensky can be read if you click on the June 2010 post.]
About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art
A new book about Beethoven gathers together (and completely rewrites and supplements) my blog posts on Beethoven into a short introduction to the composer, Ways of Hearing Beethoven, which I'm now circulating to publishers. My novel The Fall of the Berlin Wall, completed a year ago, is about musicians and particularly the intense, irrepressible daughter of the legendary pianist featured in my previous novel Hungry Generations, now fifteen years after those events. Five years ago, my 2015 novel, The Ash Tree, was published by West of West Books in conjunction with the April 24, 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide; it's about an Armenian-American family and the sweep of their history in the twentieth century - particularly from the points of view of two women in the family.
There are three other novels of mine, which I sometimes circulate. One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962, which is as yet unpublished. Another is Hungry Generations, about a young composer's friendship in L.A. with the family of a virtuoso pianist, published on demand by iUniverse. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a rewriting and expansion of my earlier Acts of Terror and Contrition - a nuclear fable) is my political novella about Israel and its reactions to the possibility of a war with Iran (with the fear that it will be a nuclear war).
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]