Gerald S. Smith - Flight of the Angels. The Poetry of Lev Loseff

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Теги: Gerald S. Smith. Научная статья. Литературоведение. Лев Лосев. Lev Loseff. Джеральд Смит
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Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies
Flight of the Angels: The Poetry of Lev Loseff
Author(s): Gerald S. Smith
Source: Slavic Review, Vol. 47, No. 1 (Spring, 1988), pp. 76-88
Published by: Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies
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GERALD S. SMITH
Flight of the Angels: The Poetry of Lev Loseff
Among the poets of the Third Emigration' are a few who were officially recog-
nized and published in the Soviet Union. The vast majority of them, though,
hardly published anything in that country; sometimes because they were denied
access and more often because they did not seek publication in the Soviet Union,
preferring samizdat or publication abroad. Lev Loseff is a unique figure who
falls into neither of these categories. He was a professional journalist and writer
for children until he left the Soviet Union in 1976, but, although he was a pcpular
figure in Leningrad's unofficial literary life, he was not known to be a poet. In
fact, Loseff began as a serious poet in 1974 at an age-thirty-seven-that by any
standards is very late and by Russian standards is something like the beginning
of the afterlife: It is the age at which Pushkin was killed.
Loseff started publishing his poetry in 1979, and selections have been
steadily appearing in the journals of the Third Emigration since that date.2 Just
over a decade after he began writing poetry, his first collection appeared,3 and it
established him as an important and very distinctive voice. In the introduction to
this book, Loseff has given his own explanation of why he was such a latecomer
as a poet. He was brought up, he says, in a literary family and then, as a young
man, was fortunate enough to be close to some of the principal figures involved
in the extraordinary flowering of poetry that began in Leningrad in the late
1950s. Besides Joseph Brodskii, Loseff mentions Sergei Kulle, Gleb Gorbovskii,
Evgenii Rein, Mikhail Eremin, Leonid Vinogradov, and Vladimir Ufliand as
poets whose work he admired especially.4 This rich environment satisfied Loseff's
I am grateful to Lev Loseff for his comments on this article; I take full responsibility for all statements of fact and opinion and also for translations of Loseff's poetry, none of which are to be taken as authorized. Statements in this article pertaining to the lyric hero of Loseff's poetry should in no wise be taken to reflect upon the character and habits of Loseff himself. 1. So far we have no general studies of Third Emigration poetry; an overview is contained in
G. S. Smith, "Russian Poetry outside Russia since 1970: A Survey," in Soviet and Emigre Literature, A. B. McMillin, ed. (Columbus, Ohio: Slavica, in press); this collection will contain papers delivered at the III World Congress for Soviet and East European Studies). Valuable discussion of Third
Emigration writing, including specific comment on certain individual poets, is to be found in Olga Matich with Michael Heim, eds., The Third W4ve: Russian Literature in Emigration (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1984); Olga Matich, ed., Soviet and East European Literature in Exile (Los Angeles: UCLA Slavica, 1984); the entire issue of Humanities in Society 7 (Summer-Fall, 1984); and Lev Loseff, "Emigre Literature, Russian: Third Wave, 1970-," in The Modern Encyclopedia of Russian and
Soviet Literature, Harry Weber, ed. (Gulf Breeze, Fla.: Academic International, 1982) 6:148-151.
2. The major publications are as follows: Ekho 4 (1979): 52-65; Kontinent 24 (1980): 89-98; Chast' rechi 1 (1980): 77-83; Russica 81 (New York, 1982): 72-78; Kontinent 34 (1982): 95-106; Kontinent 38
(1983): 76-82; Tret'ia volna 15 (1983): 16-17; Strelets 3 (1984): 12-13; Kontinent 44 (1985): 110-120; 22
45 (1985): 3-8; Strelets 1 (1986): 6-7. 3. Lev Losev, Chudesnyi desant (Tenafly, N.J.: Ermitazh, 1985). References to this book will be
given as page numbers within the text of this article. The collection was reviewed by A. Kopeikin,
Kontinent 46 (1985): 381-384; Aleksei Tatarinov, Russkaia mysl', 3595, 15 November 1985, p. 10; and
Boris Paramonov, Grani 140 (1986): 149-160. An important statement by Joseph Brodskii was
appended to the poems in Ekho 4 (1979): 65-66. The latter publication includes eleven poems not
collected in Chudesnyi desant. Brodskii's statement, with a rejoinder by Konstantin Kuz'minskii, is
reprinted along with a selection of Loseff's poems in K. K. Kuz'minskii and G. Kovalev, eds., The
Blue Lagoon Anthology of Modern Russian Poetry, (Newtonville, Mass., 1986) 2B: 342-363. 4. Loseff gives an account of his friendship with Eremin, Kulle, Ufliand, and Vinogradov during their student years at Leningrad University in his essay "Tulupy my," in Kuz'minskii and Kovalev, eds. Blue Lagoon Anthology (1980) 1: 141-149.
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The Poetry of Lev Loseff 77
needs as far as poetry was concerned. As he grew older, however, things changed.
His poetry-writing friends faded away, and he went through a period of illness.
As a result, Loseff began to "listen to himself" and "look into himself." His
notation of the results has been a steady stream of lyrics that has shown no sign
of drying up.
Given his family background, and his professional literary experience before
he left the Soviet Union,5 it should go without saying that the technical standard
of Loseff's poetry is unwaveringly high. In one of his half-dozen or so metapoems,
Loseff says that the verbal work of art, like a Swiss watch, "should tick and tell
the time" (p. 68); this image admirably suggests the finely wrought, resilient, and
tradition-tested craftsmanship of Loseff's own verse. While he usually sticks to
the classical metrical repertoire, within which he moves with consummate com-
petence, he achieves considerable formal variety, especially with his stanza forms
and occasional concrete poems.6 The phonetic texture of his verse is often bril-
liant; his strongest effects sometimes derive from the combination of colloquialism
and barbarism, as in (p. 28)
KaK He noBbIMepeTb. KTO He rIoBbIMep.
<> 3y,HT, o6e3yMeB, KaK <>,
B ,oniroiH 3eBOTe jamais
There are some striking juxtapositions of barbarism and high style: "Zhuiu/iz
tostera iz"iatyi khleb izgnan'ia" (p. 143). Loseff is one of the rare Russian poets
gifted with genuine wit and talent for parody. His work is accessible, but intellec-
tually rigorous; and he is never vapid or dull.
Loseff is a poet of small forms. His preferred vehicle is the taut, compact,
half-page to one-page lyric, though there are a few longer discursive works in the
Loseff canon. It is true that when publishing selections of his work in journals,
Loseff has sometimes grouped poems into what would appear to be thematic
sequences. An arrangement of this kind is used in his collection, which is divided
into four sections with thematic titles. It is also true that Chudesnyi desant seems
to be arranged almost entirely in chronological order of writing, inviting us to
follow the author's progress into emigration and to share his largely retrospective
views of his lost motherland. The connections between individual items, however,
are actually loose, even between the serially numbered constituents of groupings
with a common title. In this respect, Loseff is at the opposite extreme from his
friend Brodskii and akin to his friend Eremin, the latter being the ultimate
miniaturist among the Leningrad pleiade.
5. Loseff has reported on his experiences as a working Soviet writer in a number of authoritative essays and reviews, the most important ones of which are collected in his Zakrytyi raspredelitel' (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1984). The poem ". . . v 'Kostre' rabotal. V etom tusklom meste" (p. 54) gives
a graphic account of his job on the Leningrad children's magazine Koster. 6. The metrical typology of 140 lyrics published by Loseff up to the beginning of 1986 is as follows: iambic, 42.8 percent; trochaic, 5.7 percent; ternary, 31.4 percent; dol'nik, 13.6 percent; others, 6.4 percent; the proportion for the ternary meters is extraordinarily high. The most prominent indi- vidual measures are iambic pentameter, 36 poems; anapaestic trimeter, 16; iambic tetrameter, 10; amphibrachic trimeter, 8; mixed iambics and 4-i ctus dol'nik, 6 each; and 3-ictus dol'nik, 5. Of the 140 poems 65 are in quatrains of various kinds, and the unusually high proportion of 15 are in six-line stanzas. All but three of the poems use rhyme. For a contex-tual description of the current metrical repertoire of Russian poetry outside Russia see G. S. Smith, "The Metrical Repertoire of Shorter Poems by Russian Emigres, 1971-80," Canadian Slavonic Papers 27, no. 4 (1985): 385-399.
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78 Slavic Review
This scaling-down, this apparent anxiety about extended statement, does not
mean that Loseff is a notator of fleeting sense impressions and fugitive emotional
states in the manner of Afanasii Fet. Even less does it mean that he is concerned
with trivia, although his work does include a number of welcome pieces that are
consciously "light" in the English sense.7 Loseff's poetry is often concerned with
serious public themes; and, referentially, it is dense and highly specific, abounding
in crisply described objects and scenes. More surprisingly, the use of small forms
does not preclude a ballad-like narrative element from appearing at times. With
the aid of their thematic and stylistic pedal points, the individual small pieces of
Loseff's oeuvre eventually build up into a well-defined, interesting, and original
poetic world.
As is proper with the lyric, the construction of a self-image is a central
concern. The self-images form the most original and memorable components of
the world that Loseff's lyrics have placed before us. The lyric hero that accumu-
lates from the various "Is" of the individual poems becomes for the reader an
interesting personality-though one who is neither attractive in any conventional
sense nor conventional in any attractive sense.
First and foremost, Loseff's hero is a creature whose responses to both the
internal and the external world are filtered through an acerbic intellect and whose
emotional temperature never rises above the cool. Loseff's poetry contains no
grand emotions, positive or negative, and, indeed, very few explicit emotions of
any kind. In dealing with the emotions-even in naming them-Loseff is rigor-
ously restrained, in strong contrast to his unbridled explicitness in most other
respects. Rather disconcertingly for a lyric poet whose subject is so often his own
openly autobiographical self that the reader suspects a certain narcissism, Loseff
chooses not to discuss his relations with those who, one senses, are and have
been closest to him in life. A wife and a child make one incidental appearance
each in the entire corpus of nearly 150 lyrics he has published so far. There is no
mother, the briefest glimpse of a father, and no siblings or lovers; and there is no
emotional bonding or conflict between the author and other human beings, of
either sex. As Loseff asserts in one of his many poems whose subject is another
work of art-in this case a painting of Phaedre-love, that "criminal passion," is
embarrassing when portrayed in art and becomes a subject for discussion by
"charlatans of various stripes" (p. 76). There is no "great love," the theme that
has been a bottomless receptacle for self-display, self-pity, and self-flagellation in
Russian poetry. The emotions associated with love and loss of country have
been cauterized or repressed. When they are named, they are always undercut
with irony: "Tak tianutsia uroki nostal'gii,/chto dazhe i ne khochetsia domoi"
(p. 141). This poetry contains very little human drama. Scattered among Loseff's
poems, it is true, are some appealing accounts of the hero's companionable
relationships with other men, but these accounts are almost all retrospective,
involving emotion recollected in what borders on indifference. The closest of
these men is disconcertingly introduced as "Moi samyi luchshii drug i poluvrag"
(p. 55). It is tempting to apply this same formula in characterizing the poet's
definitions of himself.
7. For example, "Klassicheskoe" (p. 97), in which the name of the Aegean Sea (in Russian,
Egeiskoe more) is derived from the exclamation "Ege!" There are also the shorter items from the
"Vypiski iz russkoi poezii" sequence (pp. 82-86) that are reminiscent of clerihews.
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The Poetry of Lev Loseff 79
The process of cauterizing emotion, perhaps thereby to master it intellectu-
ally, is conducted in the first instance by the poet in relation to his own self.
When Loseff stands outside his own skin and looks at himself, the result tends to
be something not far short of systematic character assassination, taking in physi-
cal appearance, habits, morals, ethical standards, and professional competence.
Here are the first two stanzas of a recent poem whose title is the poet's own pen
name,8 written as one word and therefore suggesting an animal or even an object
["a," or "the, " "levlosev"]:
JieBJioceB He 11O3T, HeKH4Dapeg. OH MapHHHCT, OH BeeMHPOBeg,
6pOACKHCT B OxKaX H c pegeHbKOHi 6OpogKOft, OH ocHIIoJIor c cHrIJii rJIOTKOi,
OH naXHeT BOAKOHN,
OH IOPeT 6peg.
JIeBJIOceBJIOceBJIOceBJIOceBOH-
OHOHOHOHOHOHOHOH Hyga, OH rpegaa Pycb, OH npegaeT CHOH,
OH ribeT JIOCbOH,
He OTJIHqaeT go6pa OT xyga, OH HHKOrga He 3HaeT, xITO OTKyga, XOTb cJibILuaJI 3BOH.9
As we see, no punches are pulled. Loseff even allows himself here the most
calculatedly rebarbative way a poem could possibly begin-with a denial that
what follows is the work of a poet; and he compounds this self-deflation by
asserting that he is not even an entertainer either. The suspiciously muse-ish zvon
he is said to have heard is revealed a few lines later to have come from the
telephone-which he does not answer, because, he says, he is not at home. This
self-denigration, which in this passage eventually goes so far as to deny that self's
actual existence, is a keynote in Loseff's work. The passage quoted includes
examples of the most persistent characteristics the lyric hero discerns when he
looks at himself from the outside.
To begin with, the hero is a drunkard. He does not, however, regard this
habit as reprehensible, and he is certainly not shy of talking about it. The first
section of Chudesnyi desant is a seeming valedictory called "Pamiati vodki."
Halfway through the book, the hero cooks a leg of veal on a rainy day and
woozily worships Bacchus ("Slegka zapletaisas'," p. 77). And on page 114, his
horizons broadened by the variety of liquor to be had in the west, the hero is still
wondering what will best "knock us off our hooves." In considering Swedish
"Absolut" vodka, he adds a new episode to the history of Russian Symbolism:
"ego ia nazyvaiu "solov'evka,"/sharakhnesh'-i sofiia tut kak tut." One of the
last poems in the collection opens with a faintly surprised realization: "Proshla
subbota, dazhe ne napilsia" (p. 141).
8. Loseff's real surname is Lifshits; his pseudonym was invented for him by his father, a well- known writer for children. In one poem Loseff makes a typically sardonic, self-deflating pun on his real name: "Lif popravliaet lenivo rybachka./Shit-s na peske ostavliaet sobachka" (p. 28). 9. 22, 45 (1985): 3; reprinted, Strelets, 1 (1986): 6. The phrase "slyshal zvon" plays on the saying "slyshal zvon, da ne znaet, gde on," which is used of a person who argues from false assumptions.
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80 Slavic Review
Outside his poetry, Loseff has actually set down one of the most startlng
confessions ever made by a Russian writer about this normally taboo subject:
BCeM XOpOUIHM BO MHe X o6a3aH BogKe. Bogia 6bIua KaTaJ1H3aTOpOM
gyXOBHOrO pacKpenoigeHHs, OTKpbYBaJ1a gBepgbI B HHTepeCHbIe nogBaJbI
noJAco3HaHHR, a 3aogHo npHyliana He 6oJqTbcq-rno,reH, BJIacTei4 ...
3gopoBbe-To, He rOBOp3 yxce o Kaphepax, MbI ce6e InbhHCTBOM nonopTHJIH,
HO 3TO gpyroe egeno, He6onbIuas, B o6iieM-To ieHa, 3a cBo6o9y, 3a
IIOHHMaHHe, 3a npexpacHbie CTHXH.10
While never made quite so explicit in Loseff's poems, this attitude may be sensed
underlying the frequent references they contain to drink and drinking. The nearest
approximation to it is a four-line passage in "My nabliudaem pri solntsa vos-
khode" (p. 102), an epicurean poem whose unqualified major tonality is quite
exceptional in the context of Loseff s work as a whole:
TOMOp, rapMOHH.I, Boo6pa)KeHbe,
BbIXO0KH BOJKH H nHBa 6poweHbe,
)KaxKga H mKap, H weniaHbe 3anHTb-
KaK 3TO B CYIIHOCTH BCe H30MOp4DHO!
Besides the drinking, Levlosev mentions the hero's professional concerns as
a teacher and scholar." But even though the hero "talks nonsense," this particular
lyric is uncharacteristically positive, playfully referring to the names of some
major Russian poets in whose work the hero asserts expertise. Also, a serious,
committed attitude underlines the satirical wordplay of his most substantial
comment on academic literary study, "Tkan' (doktorskaia dissertatsiia)" (pp.
78-79), with its challenging conclusion: "Tkan' eto tekst eto zhizn'. Esli ty dok-
tor-dotki." In other statements in which he looks at himself as a professional
Slavist, the poet expresses a distaste bordering on revulsion that is more charac-
teristic of his self-image as a whole. He can say, for instance, "sam togo ne
ponimaiu,/chego studentam govoriu" (p. 128), and he includes himself in the
inglorious company of emigre hacks who peddle their native culture to foreigners:
"ital'ianskie diad'ki, Karl Ivanychi, Pniny, kaleki" p. 80.12 The most extreme
10. "Tulupy my," p. 143. The statement is undercut by the fact that its opening phrase parodies
Maksim Gor'kii's famous declaration "Vsem khoroshim vo mne ia obiazan knige."
11. Loseff is professor of Russian literature at Dartmouth College; he has published several
academic studies of Russian literature, including On the Beneficence of Censorship: Aesopian Language
in Modern Russian Literature (Munich, 1984); he is the editor of Poetika Brodskogo (Tenafly, N.J.:
Ermitazh, 1986). Loseff has contributed several substantial articles to The Modern Encyclopedia of
Russian and Soviet Literature, including: "Children's Literature, Russian" (1981) 4: 71-87, and "Emigre
Literature, Russian: Third Wave." 12. For the Italian tutor, see E. A. Baratynskii, "Diad'ke-ital'iantsu," Polnoe sobranie stikho-
tvorenii (Leningrad, 1957), pp. 201-204; for Pnin see Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin (New York: Putnam,
1953). Tolstoi's character Karl Ivanych is the hero of a separate poem, Stikhi o romane, II ("Ia
neizmennyi Karl Ivanych") (pp. 90-91), Loseff's most extended comment on his situation as an emigre
teacher. This poem contains the couplet "O ia priv'iu germanskii genii/k stvolam rossiiskikh sikh
rastenii," a sardonic echo of Khodasevich's famous claim: "I kazhdyi stikh gonia skvoz' prozu,/Vy-
pikhivaia kazhduiu stroku,/Privil-taki klassicheskuiu rozu/K- sovetskomu dichku." See Vladislav
Khodasevich, Sobranie sochinenii, I, Stikhotvoreniia (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1983), p. 141.
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The Poetry of Lev Loseff 81
expression of this contempt for the professional self-true, for its social rather
than scholarly aspect-is a grotesque poem in which a conference of Slavists is
held in the same hotel and at the same time as a conference of Freemasons. The
parties are equally determined to drink themselves senseless, and the evening's
swilling culminates in the most demeaning of the hero's many self-dismissals (p.
129):
A 3TO qTO TaM, HOKHgaq 6ap,
Bgpyr 3ar qe0ioCb B 3epKajiO, HiKai,
qTO 3a 3Me5 )KHAOBcKa1 TaKaa?
Ax, 3TO 1. Hy, 3TO X .ban.
It will be clear from this genuinely masochistic sentiment, as from the accusations
of treason and betrayal that the poet directs against himself in Levlosev (which
would be actionable if published by a second person), that there seem to be no
barriers of modesty, taste, or decorum that he is not prepared to break in spelling
out the miserable view he takes of himself.
The poet feels that he has never been more good-looking than in a crude,
exaggerated portrait drawn by his young son (p. 42). The suspicion of narcissism
that the reader sometimes feels towards Loseff as the portraits of himself accumu-
late is somewhat diverted, though, because there is never any sentimentality or
self-pity. In the self-deprecation of Loseff's lyric hero, the attitude is clinical
rather than voluptuously self-lacerating. Loseff's eyes are never moist."3
Thus, when Loseff stands on the outside looking at himself, he tends to see
things that for most people would be intolerably shameful, things certainly not
to be confessed in public. But as important as these views of himself from the
outside, and more conventional as lyric poetry, are the pieces in which Loseff
stands inside himself and introspects. Here, he is more concerned with the nota-
tion of private experience than with the evaluation of it.
In this mode, he has given us some stark accounts of what it feels like to be
seriously ill. There is the sardonic miniature "Na lone prirody" (p. 32); there is the
sick man's relief at finding he has lived through the night ("Ante lucem," pp.
112-113); there is the schizophrenia of "Mestoimeniia" (p. 136); and there is the
most striking example of the poet's listening to what is going on inside his own
body, "Noch"' (p. 142). The longest and the best of the poems dealing with
sickness is the three-part "Zemnuiu zhizn' proidia do serediny" (pp. 92-95). This
poem plainly refers to the illness that helped make Loseff a poet; after a graphic
account of being callously X-rayed and prepared for an operation (seen from
outside the self), the hero "finds words for the first time" and attempts to converse
with God. He does so in vain; he can only perceive darkness and unending
regress, "an infinite matreshka." This enigma is the result of the most substantial
encounter with the spiritual dimension to be found in Loseff's work. It is by no
means the only confrontation with death, though. Loseff is not at all superstitious
about contemplating his own demise. He pictures himself as being refused burial
near his father and grandfather ("I, nakonets, ostanovka 'Kladbishche'," p.
119); at one point he dies in an overcrowded Leningrad tram, and nobody takes
any notice (pp. 111- 112).
13. On "dry-eyed" as against "wet-eyed" emigr6 Russian poets, see G. S. Smith, "Russian Poetry Outside Russia since 1970."
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82 Slavic Review
In the poems dealing with illness and death, Loseff attempts to capture states in which the conscious mind is not in control. He makes the same attempt in a
number of poems that treat sleep and dreams-which are, as often as not,
menacing nightmares. They usually threaten the loss of identity, as in "Son" (p.
132). They include, however, a rare moment of joyful reunion with absent friends
("Tem i prekrasny eti sny," p. 116). The most common sensation of all in Loseff's
dreams is of powerlessness, of being controlled by a malign external force.
If the persona Loseff chooses to project in his lyrics is generally detached
and cerebral, he nevertheless sometimes lets slip some clues concerning the fires
beneath. The clearest of them occurs when the hero is listening to an open-air
concert by a band in a Cologne park. In his effort to resist the seductive combi-
nation of sound and setting, (and seemingly embarrassed by his own superb
phonetic manipulation in the preceding two lines), he permits himself a couple of
puns (p. 65):
B napKe riog CBogaMH rpa6OB H 6yKoB, KOIInTC5I ropbI Harpa6IeHHbIX 3ByI(OB:
qepHoro BarHepa, KpacHoro JIHCTa,
>KeJIToro C MegJieHHOCOHHbIX gepeB-
(The name Liszt is a homonym of Russian list; the adjective medlennosonnykh
evokes Mendelssohn; and the passage names the three colors of the flag of the
Federal German Republic.) The hero then recalls Nietszche's warning about the
danger of being seduced by music, realizes he is in danger of losing his political
awareness, and chides himself for this near-submission to the emotions. The
phrase "Protiv muzyki" is actually used as the title of one of the four divisions of
Loseff's collection, and it is a highly significant choice. In his longest piece dealing with music, "Pokuda Mel'pomena i Evterpa" (pp. 56-57),"4 Loseff's combination
of Tolstoi and Belyi in his alienation-effect description of an opera performance, the music actually takes second place to a much more enthusiastic appraisal of
what is to be had at the buffet. The essence of his approach is expressed elsewhere
in the aphorism "V teatre khorosho, kogda nas net," echoing the Russian pro-
verbial equivalent of "The grass is greener" (p. 52).
Music, then, is rejected as a dangerous threat to intellectual control. Loseff
is much more comfortable with certain of the sister arts-particularly with graph-
ic art, which occupies a very prominent place in his work. One poem is set out
on the page to mimic a picture; inside the frame, the subject-narrator calls for
alcohol and soon fades into drunken incoherence.'5 No trace of denigration is to
be found in Loseff's retrospective tribute to the "anti-icons" of the dissident
Leningrad painter Oleg Tselkov (p. 73). The most important piece dealing with
graphic art is the series of five poems called "Captions to Pictures Seen in Child-
hood" (pp. 58-60), the first three of which contain a subtle evocation of an
engraving that includes a human being alone and beset by a menacing crisis; the
fifth contains a Leningrad winter scene and closes with the most unambiguously
14. The same version of the poem appears in Kontinent 38 (1983): 78-79; a truncated version of it was published in Chast' rechi, p. 83, and Kontinent 24 (1980): 98. 15. The poem appears without a title in Chudesnyi desant, p. 63; it was earlier published twice with the title "Natiurmort"; see Kontinent 41 (1984): 96, and Strelets 10 (1984): 8.
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The Poetry of Lev Loseff 83
optimistic and powerful personal statement by Loseff the emigre in the whole
book: "Kogda-nibud' ia vozvrashchus' tuda" (p. 60).
More intimately than by any other art, Loseff's way of perceiving the world
is shaped by literature, and, specifically, by Russian poetry. He is the intertextual
poet par excellence. Loseff's quotations and echoes are deliberately kept at a
readily accessible level; he is not playing coy games with his reader but making a
bid for recognizable echoes and the accruing semantic enrichment of the text.
Loseff's usual tendency, in keeping with his generally disenchanted view of the
world, is to quote and echo in order to make the point that current reality is
more sordid than that which evoked the original utterance. For example, in
"Zhaloby kota" the hero, finding no amusement in "ni koshkoi ni myshkoi"
makes the following appeal (p. 43):
YBRWKH MeH5, WH3Hb B y3eTioK,
YBe3H Ha KOJIieHJX B TpaMBae. H4JIH, WTo6bI cKopee, B TaKCH.
Only the average Soviet schoolchild's knowledge of Russian poetry is necessary
in order to recognize the echo of Zabolotskii's "Ustupi mne, skvorets, ugolok,/
Poseli menia v starom skvoreshnike" (1946). We see that the elevated romanticism
of the original has been deflated, vulgarized. A particularly stark example of this
process is the passage quoted earlier from the poem on the meeting of Slavists;
these lines echo Khodasevich's famous "Pered zerkalom" and manage to bring
even that dejected self-image down further. Pushkin is the poet most frequently
used as a pretext for deflation; in one of many references to the great poet's
best-known lyrics, Loseff's monument is a five-story brick-built Leningrad house
"with sparrow droppings on its shoulder." Its head, however, is higher than Len-
in's bald pate as the Leader stands on his armored car "amid hospitals and
prisons" (p. 64).
In addition to his tendency to perceive the world through the literary texts
of the past, Loseff also likes to use literature and writers as actual subject matter
for his poetry. He debunks them as consistently as his quotations debunk their
texts. Antiokh Kantemir cannot avoid writing satires, since he has to live in
sordid rooms that stink of the kitchen or the toilet (p. 84). Empress Catherine
rips up the ode that Vasilii Petrov has labored to create and ceremonially present
(pp. 84-85). Pushkin's "miraculous moment" was short-lived because there was
no privacy to be had for more extended sexual encounters. 16 Tolstoi and
Dostoevskii are reduced to the stature of peevish manikins (p. 89). In what could
be read as a cutting comment on "reader-oriented criticism," a nature sonnet by
Fet evokes the following response:
THTaTeJb, B3AYBIUH caMOBap,
B pa3ymbe qaH CBOR A0onHBaeT:
CTOJIb BOCXHTHTeJIbHbIH ToBap?>17
16. "Pushkinskie mesta" (p. 94) was originally published as "Pskovshchina" Kontinent 38 (1983): 80-8 1. 17. Strelets 1 (1986): 6.
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84 Slavic Review
Loseff's bent for denigration spares no variety of Russian literature. The
officially sponsored "village prose" school is murderously lampooned in the lyric
of that name (p. 13); but, equally, a dissident bard who can only be based on
Aleksandr Galich is portrayed as a gluttonous, calculating poseur in two separate
poems."8 A withering tirade against the poverty and banality of Russian spiritual
and material culture is put into the mouth of "a poet" (p. 25). Mikhail Bakhtin's
crucial critical insight dawns as he is surreptitiously peeing in a ransacked church
in Saransk (pp. 71-72). The only literary saint is Tsvetaeva; Loseff condemns to
be doused in pitch and brimstone from everlasting cauldrons "those who in
Elabuga didn't fork out a bit of money or bring something to eat" (p. 75).
Loseff finds not only Russian man's intellectual and cultural labors con-
temptible. He has a handful of poems on various aspects of Russian history that
assert futility on a wider scale. The Russians are the victims of history, sitting
passively in their peripheral territory, waiting to be knocked off for sport by the
barbarians.'9 Nothing can be done about it: In "Shag vpered. Dva nazad. Shag
vpered" (p. 22) Loseff ends a catalogue of historical Russian sufferings with a
shrug: "Chto propalo, togo ne vernut'." The Russians during World War I have
no idea of the worse horrors awaiting them ("Dokumental'noe," p. 98, a poem
that superbly evokes contemporary black and white newsreels). Another poem
observes the doomed but still gibbering intelligentsia of Petrograd on the eve of
revolution ("PBG," pp. 92-93).2? When the postrevolutionary horrors are over,
and "the Georgian tyrant is dead," though, all that is left is the enigmatic wink of
stars "floating in thick red kakhetian wine" (p. 44). To cap it all off, there is even
a poem that appears to savor the prospective atomic destruction of Russia, as an
aesthetic spectacle ("Prorochestvo," p. 14).
It was observed earlier that in Loseff's interior world the passions are not
allowed a place and the lyric hero is hardly ever seen taking part in close rela-
tionships with other people. This limitation is a general feature of the external
world that Loseff reports for our contemplation. In some respects, this world is
childish, in terms of the things that actually happen in it and the way they are
notated. The obsessive drinking that was discussed before with reference to the
first-person hero is a salient aspect of the oral gratification that seems to be the
highest value in Loseff's world. Drinking is accompanied by other childish
things, such as fear of the dark, ceaseless searching for warmth (the dream of
"Kraia, gde kalendar' bez ianvaria," p. 50), taking comfort from food and sleep,
and belief in miracles. There is silly fun-poking at foreign languages ("Kak udli-
nilsia moi mir, Vermeer,/ia v Oostende zhraal uustrits," p. 66; to cite only one
example of Loseff's ingenuity, the name "Vermeer" in this poem rhymes with
Veer, vernee, and vremia). There is much selfish petulance, and there are no deep
relationships between adults. In Loseff's pastiche medieval "Petition" (p. 88) the
subject begs his sovereign for a bride "made of plain Russian dough, a beauty
with red jam inside."
18. "Spoi eshche, Aleksandr Pokhmelych" (p. 38); "Nu, slava Bogu, est' chto pit' i est'," Ekho 4
(1979):63. 19. "Tevtonskie voinstvennye gongi," Ekho 4 (1979): 64. 20. The title PBG is the contemporary abbreviation for "St. Petersburg" and also the initial
letters of the title of Anna Akhmatova's Poem without a Hero. Loseff has published a scholarly essay
on the latter poem: "Who's the Hero of the Poem without One?" Essays in Poetics 11, no. 2 (1986):
91-104.
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The Poetry of Lev Loseff 85
The cumulative effect of the debased and underdeveloped humanoids who
populate Loseff's poetry is one of the most devastating condemnations of Soviet
society that has yet been put on paper. For the setting inhabited by these people
is, unmistakenly, the country in which Loseff lived and worked until he was
nearly forty. His awareness of its climate and geography is acute; his poetry drips
with every imaginable kind of precipitation and notates the dampening effects it
has on the natural and, particularly, the man-made environment. He covers the
length and breadth of the land. The provincial scenes are particularly memorable:
Outstanding among them is the miserable, sodden airfield near Lake Onega, with
a drunken pilot, a sinister goat cropping at they runway, crows, and, for a wind-
sock, something that looks like "the only sausage left in the oblast" ("Neletnaia
pogoda," p. 15). There is the dismal soullessness of the suburbs ("Vse priazhi
rassuchilis'," p. 127). Then there is the idiocy of urban ceremonial life in the May
Day parade ("M," pp. 16-17); the buglike leaders of today-"Uzh eti ne vedaiut
tochno. Da, sobstvenno, i ne tvoriat" (p. 111); and the ultimate leader, "V gal'-
vanicheskoi vanne kremlevskii kadavr" (p. 23). The summit of Russian cultural
achievement is the laborious drunken daubing of the most common three-letter
(Tartar loan) word high on a wall ("Pod strekhoiu na samom verkhu," p. 40),
evidence of ineradicable-and in Soviet conditions, salutary-phallic paganism.
These public, open-air scenes are matched in power by an unforgettable evocation
of life in a communal apartment:
Pa3MbImlgImT6, KaK Haaojiro coce,ciKHiH HaIxaH--OHaHHCT
3anpeTCA B COpTHpe Ha 3TOT pa3,
gpo)KaTb HO yTpaM, KaK OCHHOBbIH JIHCT, He CJ1HHIKOM JIH rpOMKO cKKpHnefi MaTpac,
pa3J1HqaTb HITb qaHHHKOB HO rojiocaM,
Hi1iaTHTb 3a KpeTHHoB, OCTasBJ1ISHOLHX cBeT,
y coceg,KH yra,bIBaTb nO riia3am,
xapiKana OHa B Cyn HnJI HeT.2'
Inevitably, there is one place Loseff's poetry comes back to more than any
other: his native Leningrad. He is undeterred by the onerous weight of literary
tradition.22 Arriving last among his extraordinary generation of Leningraders,
Loseff has managed to capture the city's presence more memorably than any of
them. Leningrad turns up time and time again in the poems that have other sub-
jects and places at their center. Of the poems specifically set in the city, some are
especially memorable. The Petrograd side (pp. 20-21) is evoked in a contrast
between short-focus everyday details and famous state monuments seen from
afar and includes a ghostly moment when all movement is frozen. Well away
from the famous sights, the sordid Leningrad freight station gives Loseff an
excuse to put down God's whole material creation in seven dismissive lines (p.
31). The second stanza of the retrospective "Tramvai" (pp. 122-123) epitomizes
Loseff's relentless eye for the sordid, with its image of emptied condoms "like
21. "Maiakovskomu, I. Rasskaz kompozitora I. Koizerova o vselenii v novuiu kvartiru," Strelets 1 (1986): 7.
22. The most recent discussion of this tradition is Sidney Monas, "Unreal City: St. Petersburg and Russian Culture," in Kenneth B. Brostrom, ed., Russian Literature and American Critics: In Honor of Deming B. Brown (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1986), pp. 381-391.
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86 Slavic Review
jellyfish sacs" floating down the oily Obvodnyj Canal. The most startling of all
the Leningrad images occurs in the context of a phantasmagorical "return of the
native" poem, when the golden frigate on top of the Admiralty spire is seen as a
landed spaceship.23 Elsewhere, this same spire becomes a hypodermic whose
glittering jab instantly "freezes to its borders/that place where Russia used to be"
(p. 10).
It has been pointed out already that Loseff often views reality through the
prism of literature. Apart from the echoes and the poems on literary subjects
that were discussed before, there are some accomplished parodies. The most tell-
ing of them is Loseff's Valerik (pp. 18-19), which uses Lermontov's famous lyric
to illustrate the mental state of a Soviet infantryman who has been killed in an
ambush in Afghanistan; the soldier is made to write home posthumously to his
brother. He cynically describes the fleshpots of Kabul, expressing mindless con-
tempt for the native culture, and then gives a barely articulate account of the
action that led to his death. For Loseff's soldier, the ideological dimension does
not exist. Similarly, the composer who briefly visits the BAM construction in
order to improve his chances of getting a new apartment is exlusively concerned
with his material situation; his monologue updates that of one Maiakovskii's
heroes.24 Both parodies are triumphs of skaz in verse, with the author "in charac-
ter" throughout the piece and offering no comment on the proceedings.25
The Lermontov and Maiakovskii parodies, with their unlovely nonintellec-
tual characters, boldly risk the accusation of intellectual and social snobbery.
But as we have seen, in his subjective introspection Loseff discerns with equal
pitilessness an Untermensch within himself. It is refreshing to encounter a writer
whose vision is not warped by any of the common Russian myths about the
sanctity of the folk and the motherland. Among Loseff's poems are some
accomplished balladlike lyrics in which other "little men" appear. There are "The
brothers K*," for example, one of whom is a bathhouse attendant and the other
a bass drummer in the Central Band of the Red Army.26 In an uncollected piece
a certain Petrenko gets up in the morning, showers, curses, cooks breakfast for
his son and daughter, bids them a tender farewell, and then hurries off to work,
leaving his children "in the control of two women, who live in the control of
rotten moods and strange ideas."27
For some time now, Loseff has been scrutinizing the wider world of the
emigre. On the whole, he has been fairly mild. The meditative pastoral "Norkovyi
ruchei" (pp. 146-148), "an imitation of Robert Frost," contentedly relishes the
comforts of life in the United States. In several of his references to himself as a
teacher, Loseff has poked fun at the efforts of his American students to under-
stand Russian language and literature. The jaundiced view of New Hampshire
23. "Serdtsu slyshitsia privet," Kontinent 44 (1985): 110-111. 24. The poem parodies Maiakovskii's "Rasskaz liteishchika Ivana Kozyreva o vselenii v novuiu kvartiru" (1928). 25. Another masterpiece of skaz, but without an element of parody, is "Pis'mo na rodinu" (p. 115), in which a member of the Third Emigration not from the intelligentsia reports on his new- found prosperity in the United States; within it Loseff's lyric hero permits himself a blunt declaration that he would perhaps not utter in his first-person role: "A, vse zhe, svoboda luchshe uiuta,/v rabot- nikakh luchshe, chem v rabakh." 26. "Brat'ia K*," Kontinent 44 (1985): 111-112. 27. "Petrenko vskochil v polovine vos'mogo," Ekho 4 (1979): 64-65.
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The Poetry of Lev Loseff 87
college-town life in "One Day in the Life of Lev Vladimirovich" (pp. 143-145),
however, is completely eclipsed by a passage on Russian culture in emigration
that matches any of the unpleasant things Loseff left behind in the Soviet Union
("Sen'kin perepryg/iz komsomol'tsev priamo v bogomol'tsy/svershen"). The most
outspoken comment he has made on the United States scene so far is in the
context of another Maiakovskii pastiche, this time of the famous Soviet passport
poem, in which a Bible-thumping, expensively tailored evangelist addresses his
"teleflock" and drives Loseff to the thought that there may be something in
atheism, after all.28 Several of the poems from Loseff's European trip of 1984
have been referred to earlier. One testimony to the consistency of Loseff's themes
is a recent meditation on where it would be best to die and be buried; Germany,
the United States, and England are rejected in favor of Paris where death could
approach disguised as a prostitute and invite him to come along for 300 francs
("Maiakovskomu. 3. Parizh").29
In some crucially important respects, Loseff's poetry cries out to be com-
pared with that of two of his great predecessors in the Russian emigration, Vla-
dislav Khodasevich and Georgii Ivanov. Some of Loseff's echoes of Khodasevich
have already been mentioned. There are many more. The poet observing himself
in a mirror and the poet standing outside his physical body and examining himself
with detached distaste are classic situations in Khodasevich.30 The sense of being
a mind trapped inside a decaying body is central to Khodasevich's lyrical persona,
as it is with Loseff; the latter, though, is much less inclined to speak of also
having an eternal soul in the same predicament. Khodasevich believed in the
rationality and adequacy of human language and boasted of his ability to control
it ("Zhiv Bog! umen, a ne zaumen," 1923);31 for Loseff, though, it is language
that is sovereign ("Grammatika est' Bog uma," p. 96), and its majesty dwarfs the
contribution of the individual. Loseff's poem, though using Khodasevich's
beloved iambic tetrameter, instead of the younger poet's more habitual pentame-
ter, still reads like a tribute as much as a polemic. Both poets clinically notate the
soulless, ugly trivia of everyday life; and they both express contempt for the
politicians and public figures (including writers) who claim that things either are
or could be otherwise. Loseff would probably put his name to Khodasevich's
two rules: "have no pity for the vanquished, and give no praise to the victors."32
Khodasevich's most memorable poems are those in which he longs for, and
at rare moments even glimpses, the divine intervention that would transfigure the
sordid farce of human history. The most important difference between the two
poets is that for Loseff, as he contemplates the events of the fifty years that have
elapsed since Khodasevich's despair dried him up, divine intervention is no longer
either immanent or imminent. The title poem of his collection (pp. 26-27) de-
scribes an entirely Khodasevichian vision in which a detachment of God's angels
makes a "miraculous raid" on "the hell of Leningrad." There is no transfiguration.
They are forced to retreat, to "melt into the fading sky." But of all Loseff's
poems, the one that most clearly evokes Khodasevich in tone, manner, and
28. "Maiakovskomu. 2. Stikhi o molodetskom pastyre," Strelets 1 (1986): 7. 29. Ibid. The poem echoes Maiakovskii's "Parizhanka" (1929).
30. On Khodasevich, see most recently David Bethea, Khodasevich: His Life and Art (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983).
31. Khodasevich, Sobranie sochinenii 1:141-142. 32. "Skvoz' oblaka fabrichnoi gari," ibid., p. 203.
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88 Slavic Review
form is "Stansy" (p. 74), and it is also the poem that most categorically rejects
the last apocalyptic hope that the older poet sometimes allowed himself:
Pacojio)iKeHHe iUIaHeT
H MpaqHbIH BHA KO4CeH_HOH ryuIA HaM rOBOpMT, WTO Bora HeT
H aHreJIbI He BcemoryH.
The "wing flying overhead" that appears in the last couplet of this poem fails to
relieve the terminal nihilism that fills the six preceding stanzas. Here we have the
dead center of Loseff's world. There is no hope for a solution through poetry;
inspiration is only a warning that something bad is going to happen: "Ia chto-to
respisalsia, a stikhi-/vot samaia nedobraia primeta" (p. 140).
Before Loseff, the most obnoxious self-image and the most explicit self-
condemnation in Russian poetry had been perpetrated by Georgii Ivanov,
Loseff's other great male predecessor in the emigration besides Khodasevich.33
Ivanov permitted himself many liberties; he was capable, for example, of signing
off one poem, addressed to a Jewish person, "vash predannyi antisemit."34 Loseff
has not gone quite as far as Ivanov and actually rejoiced that there is no God.35
But in terms of self-denigration he can now take over Ivanov's mantle, and with
a good deal to spare. It may be no accident that in broad formal terms-scale of
utterance and metrical typology-Ivanov is the closest antecedent Loseff has
among modern Russian poets.36
To have picked up and developed leads that were taken by Khodasevich and
Ivanov, and then were neglected for many years, is no small feat of the creative
imagination; Loseff may yet turn out to be the most authentic of all the Russian
emigre poets.
In this essay we have moved from poem to poem irrespective of the positions
they occupy in Loseff's collection, and we have not attempted a close analysis of
a single individual text. Perhaps, however, enough has been said to indicate that
in Loseff we have a challenging, original, and highly accomplished poet whose
continuing growth is quietly demonstrating that for the really talented and expe-
rienced writer, the emigre situation may be a stimulus for rather than a damper
on creative achievement.
33. On the poetry of Georgii Ivanov, see Vladimir Markov, "Georgy Ivanov: Nihilist as Light- Bearer," in Simon Karlinsky and Alfred Appel, Jr., eds., The Bitter Air of Exile: Russian Writers in the
West, 1922-1972 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), pp. 139-163; the article contains an
extended comparison between the work of Ivanov and that of Khodasevich.
34. "M. V. Abel'manu," Izbrannye stikhi (Paris, 1980), p. 176. 35. "Khorosho, chto net Tsaria," ibid., p. 25.
36. Compare the information given in note 6, with the details of Georgii Ivanov's versification in G. S. Smith, "The Metrical Repertoire of Russian Emigre Poetry, 1941-1970," The Slavonic and East European Review 63, no. 2 (1985): 210-227.
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