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

Peter Oram's brief but pertinent introduction to The Page and the Fire suggests that, in the turbulence following the Russian revolution, an acute awareness grew between the practitioners of the solitary art of poetry. As a result of this, a body of poetry arose in which poets wrote not just isolated poems but whole cycles of poems to other poets. As Oram also suggests, such an anthology would be a fairly tedious read were it not for the very high quality of the poetry itself. Oram has taken the decision to follow the rhyme schemes of most of these poems, but without being slavish. He also provides useful notes on both the poets and many of the poems.

What's absolutely certain is that these poems are evidence of an intensity of fellow-feeling that it is very difficult to imagine contemporary 'western' poets evincing to any degree. Central to this book is Mayakovsky's magnificent elegy for Yesenin. We tend to think that the stepped line originated with W.C. Williams but Mayakovsky uses it to suggest a jagged, brooding quality to the relationship with Yesenin, that mirrors the life of the dedicatee. Elsewhere, there is Yevtushenko's lovely elegy on Akhmatova in which Akhmatova's coffin, which lies beyond life and death ... beyond everything ... beyond all time is compared to the coffin lying next to hers. This latter like a folk tune / next to a bible contains the body of a peasant woman whose serenity in death is, in turn, compared to the horrors of her life. At this point, however the peasant woman takes on Akhmatovan grandeur and nothing divided the two. Oram is, however, not afraid to publish the bitchiness of Russian letters, and includes two of Severyanin's splenetic sonnets about his fellow literati; the one on Paternak being particularly unrestrained.