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I AM A CONTEMPORARY OF LARISSA MILLER: Notes by a Grateful Reader

Posted by Anatoly Rosenzweig, 18th February 2016

What follows is a guest article by Anatoly Rosenzweig, friend and contemporary of Larissa Miller, whose latest publication, Regarding the Next Big Occasion, launched our new pamphlet series last year.


Larissa Miller and I started off more than half a century ago as classmates at the Institute of Foreign Languages in Moscow. Upon graduation we went our separate ways until a reunion in the early 2000s when our communication picked up anew, albeit electronically and across the ocean. Since then her poems have evolved into a defining and supremely valued influence in my life. Our narrative with her has been one of staying connected while staying far apart.

The year 2015 has seen Larissa's jubilee landmark, and this essay is but as a homage to her. It tops an array of far more substantive contributions, foremost among them her three poetry books published respectively in Russia (Vremya, March 2015), Italy (Transeuropa, Toskana, June 2015) and the UK (ARC Publ., May 2015). The latter signified the second collection of Miller's poems Arc Publications brought out in translations by Richard McKane. The first one, Guests of Eternity, with the same translator, appeared back in 2008 to very good reviews. And both came, somewhat distantly, on the heels of The Dim and Distant Days, her prosaic autobiography, published in English by Glus New Russian Writing in 2000.

What motivated the subtitle and its underlying notion was my enchantment with Larissa Miller's verse. Not that I am alone or original in the way I feel about it. As far back as 1973 her mentor Arseni Tarkovsky (1907-1989), himself an eminent poet, scribbled on Afanassy Fet's collection of poems he gave Larissa as birthday gift: 'For cute Larissa - the one and only match Russia has for Fet'. Matching up to Afanassy Fet (1820-1892), a recognized classic of the 'Golden Age' in 19th century Russian poetry, was a well-deserved recognition of Larissa's extraordinary poetic distinction - the sentiment echoed in more recent times in and out of Russia by a host of literary critics. In Russia, the nation's foremost literary journal Novyi Mir declared in the Nomination Paper for the 1999 State Prize in Literature: "Larissa Miller's poetry is a spectacular triumph of Russian speech and Russian classical poetry with its exact rhyme and crisp laconism and the enigma she shares with Pushkin, Tyutchev and Fet ... Granted such poetry is never out of date,... Larissa Miller is keeping this tradition alive today' (). Outside Russia, Richard McKane, Kees Jiskoot, and Stefano Garzonio, copiously and not at all by chance, translated her poems into English, Dutch and Italian respectively, drawn by their powerful classical lure. To her and their credit, they did so without signing any contracts, indeed not even meeting Larissa in person, and going up against their hitherto lifelong commitment to translation of 19th century 'Golden Age' Russian poetry.

Genuine poetry always harbors an enigma of sorts, leaving people clueless about the techniques behind it, as suggested by Larissa's fellow poet Yuri Ryashentsev wondering about her verse: 'When I listen to Larissa Miller's poems, a mystery arises: whence come the means making her a success - a success with me, the reader? Only a few people I know would compose poetry so mysteriously. This poetic asceticism is amazing, and accessible to a very gifted few' (Literary Gazette, 02/19/1997).

In the same way one wonders about the obvious paradox germane to Larissa Miller's poetry, between its deep-seated enigma and the far from 'mysterious' techniques she employs. She seldom bothers to hide them but, instead, lays them bare, in plain sight, up for grabs, laid out on the surface in each and every poem. They are seemingly artless for the readers 'to swallow' them in one breath, even before they come to realize the quick-acting hypnotic powers of her incredibly terse verbiage. The words are blended into melodic arrays producing a music entirely her own; permeated with wisdom and keen insight; and consummated with the patent Larissa Miller punch lines - her poems' staggering endings which Arseni Tarkovsky, or so she told me, had portrayed with rapid zigzag movements of his hand. Though her stanzas appear to be easy to read, they linger in one's heart and memory for long if not forever; this amazing existential endurance is rooted in the author's uncanny ability to fit into a few lines the boundless infinity of Being.

Follow some assessments of Larissa's poetry by English scholars:

Richard McKane: 'What, then, made - and makes - Larissa Miller's poetry different? What was it that immediately struck me as a reader and gave me the strong feeling that I could, and should, translate her?... There is a sensibility in Larissa Miller's poetry that is arresting and draws the reader into her poetry'.
The Introduction to Guests of Eternity (ARC Publ., 2008):

Sasha Dugdale: 'Her poems have an exceptionally strong lyrical and sonorous quality and a musicality which is hard to reproduce in English. She is an extraordinary technician. Her often complicated and dense rhymes and rhythms have an effortless quality to them, the 'unbroken movement' she observes in Blok's poems. All this creates the effect of a poetry which stands outside school and fashion and which appears to appeal to infinite worlds and gods...'
(The Introduction to Guests of Eternity (ARC Publ., 2008)):

And, as well, quotations from some reviews of Guests of Eternity:

Wendy Muzhlanova: 'If the English translation is able to stir your emotions, then Miller's original Rus­sian will rend them... We have here the physical, the meta­physical, the monotheistic and the pantheistic...' (Scotland-Russia Forum Review, # 21, June 2009);

Charles Beinbridge: 'These concise, delicate poems, translated with impressive lightness of touch from the Russian... celebrate moments of safety, of exhilaration, when the grander structures, the larger mechanisms of history and politics seem momentarily cast aside...' (The Guardian, 18 April 2009);

Ian McMillan: 'I love to sit in my conservatory with a dual-language Arc book; as Larissa Miller writes, "a word is a fire that does not burn the paper...' ("Why Arc is still way ahead of the curve", Yorkshire post, May 4, 2012).

So much for the views of professional critics - as a reader and amateur, I simply savor the opportunity to connect with her verse, which I am certain to find almost every day in her blog - the unique Larissa Miller project under the title 'Poems in a Single File'. It is mind-boggling how day in, day out for nearly five successive years she has put up in an unbroken flow one or two poems. Each one of them, seemingly bland and simple, delivers a powerful message and the writing of them is a daily feat of poetic devotion. For Hemingway, Paris was a "movable feast"; for me Larissa Miller's poetry is. Just as it is also for my numerous co-thinkers and her well-wishers whose insightful comments it seldom fails to elicit. Of these I will cite only a couple of exemplary ones: 'One must read your poems in the morning with a clean soul'; 'Larisa Miller's poems are full of allusions, moving the reader to come up with his or her own images. The impact of her poetry on the nervous system is transcendental'. Her daily readership numbers six to seven hundred at this Live Journal blog alone, not to mention its 'mirrors' at Facebook, etc.

These, and those other telltale traits of Larissa Miller's poetry which are highlighted above, have largely found way into the translations crafted by Richard McKane with admirable skill and sensitivity.

Just like anybody else, poets live in a certain time; unlike anybody else, they relive their day and age in a verse of singular, reverberating relevance a.k.a. "civil" or "political". Thus three years ago in the far-away American city of Reston I watched the TV-reporting of people in Moscow staging mass opposition demonstrations and, with a genuine shock, saw a young woman waving a poster with a catchy line from the above poem of Larissa Miller, printed earlier by Novaya Gazeta: 'But Russia never learned her lessons'.

Although 'political' poems claim a minor share of Larissa Miller's work, they are awesome! Hers is a narrative of the Holocaust, Stalin's Great Terror, the massacre of innocent people in South-East Ukraine in 2014 which inspired the heart-breaking verse: "And people are still running, running with babies on their shoulders... and they shoot them and shoot ... and you can not hide yourself even in the clouds". Not least of these is the life story of a Jewish teen clobbered by Soviet government-spawned anti-Semitism as exemplified in the month-long boycott and harassment by Larissa's schoolmates in 1953, at the time of the 'Doctors' Plot' case. Some time later came her serious encounters with the KGB over her husband's close alliance with Andrei Sakharov, the Nobel prize-winning champion of human rights and world peace.

The trials and tribulations Larissa faced at different periods in her life were vividly portrayed in the autobiography The Dim and Distant Days (GLUS, 2000), as well as her essays and the storied 2009 interview. Asked by the interviewer: 'To what degree is it possible for poetry to effect political change?' Larissa gave an answer that captured it all: 'When in the early 19th century Alexander Pushkin wrote: "We'll entertain the good people / By strangling at the pillory / The very last tsar / With the last priest's guts", this was not the cause of the revolution, which happened 100 years later in 1917, although revolution literally did just this. On the other hand, another great Russian poet, Fyodor Tyutchev, said: "We are not destined to foresee what consequences our words may have..." '.