Over 40 years
at the cutting edge
of poetry publishing
[Twitter] [rss feed] [Facebook]

Review: The Page and the Fire, ed. Peter Oram

from the article Disturbing Expectations

Reviewing the hard back edition of Peter Oram's translation of eighteen Russian poets (...) was sheer pleasure from first taking hold of the book. The truth is that we often do judge a book by a cover and this beautifully produced volume seduces from the start. Translations of Russian poetry have become gradually more accessible, but this book has a distinctive theme. All of the poems are written by Russian poets about other Russian poets. There's a complex web diagram showing the relationships, a very good potted biography of each poet featured and excellent endnotes to help with the reading, but the poems also clearly speak for themselves. Ranging from those strongly influenced by Classicism, like Mandlestam, to the more experimental Futurist poets like Mayakovsky there is a wide range of style in the anthology, but the reflexive theme ties the pieces together with an intricate, delicate thread.

There are well known favourites here like Akhmatova's small gem 'to Gumilev',written in 1911. But there are also less well known poets, like Severyanin, leader of the Ego-Futurists, and a specialist in assassination by poetry, as his poem 'Tsvetaeva' ruthlessly reveals.

Oram's philosophy of translation is a meticulous and self-effacing one; he translates for literal meaning and then works on structure, form and rhyme, but always with a light touch that doesn't compromise the lucid English and accuracy. Most importantly he works and re-works each poem with the voice of the original uppermost; he aims to write himself out of the translations to give those of us with no Russian the best chance of hearing something of the original. I have absolutely no Russian, but the voices in this book are sharp and distinctive and I have no trouble believing that Oram has succeeded admirably.

The book is not only a fascinating insight into the poetic, and sometimes intimate, relationships of literary legends like Blok and Pasternak and (the still living) Yevtushenko, but it is also a really good read. No doubt readers will have different favourites, but for me Akhmatova is the one who, in her own words about Pasternak, shines, as luminous and selfless as the stars.