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Review: As I Said, by Lev Loseff

Lev Loseff's As I Said comes with a very enlightening introduction by Narry P. Scherr, Professor of Russian at Dartmouth College, which details the importance of rhythmic structures and sound patterns in the original Russian poems and underlines the challenges facing the translator attempting to render them in English. He presents Loseff as very much a classicist and one whose roots, despite his long exile in the United States, remained firmly in his native city of Leningrad/St Petersburg. Almost half his life was spent in New England. Loseff was himself a scholar and a specialist on Joseph Brodsky, to whom his indebtedness is obvious; but his poems are no means literary in their inspiration, as is clear in these excellent versions by G.S.Smith, Professor Emeritus of Russian at Oxford. Much of what Loseff writes arises from perception of the surrounding world whether immediate or remembered:

Awakened by an unexpected silence,
a sudden gift from heaven, white as white,
with indignation I reject? should say
indifference? the horrors of the night.

These lines give a fair idea od how the poet's subject matter so often appears existing in the immediate present yet inextricably linked to dimensions of past time and imagination, for, as the second verse makes clear, it is of the nature of perception to be shaped by the roots of experience:

Vertically downwards, through the matted
Growing things that crowd my garden plot,
Here comes the God of atmospheric matters,
In order to disperse our parlous lot.

It is almost unnecessary to say that such roots inevitably touch matters political, for although almost all of Loseff's work dates from his time in America, had had reached the age of 38 before leaving the USSR and therefore had lived with the suffocating presence of ideological conformity, or non-conformity and its consequences. In Joseph in 1965 he writes

Those Party activists were bloody-minded
enough to hound a flower for its fragrance
or a star for its twinkle.

From the poet they demanded
Poems "with civic resonance".

and makes Brodsky's period of enforced hard labour into an act of silence resistance:

He listened to his heart's fading quake,
To the clamorous squawk of roots,
and mended those tatty roofs.

However, such roots are also deep n the fabric of Russian life in all its aspects. Towards the end of the volume, a long sequence, 'The Extended Day and Other Memories', begins with an evocation of a timeless Russia:

I see it clear: the dacha, the wild roses,
the wooden fence, the gate with rusted latch,
the shiny-wrinkled, baggy trousers;
I touch wood, superstitious as I am.
I see it clear: the samovar is fuming
like tsar or some high officer annoyed?
a colonel who's been fuelled up with fircones,
and shakoed by a plume of lilac smoke.
So near, how out your hand and you can feel it

And it is the immediacy with which the memory informs the present that seems to be the source of the power in Loseff's work. This volume makes better known an undoubtedly major Russian poet to be placed alongside those greats who have unflinchingly borne witness to a troubled century, to the impossible love of a homeland from which one is exiled, and to lives lived with courage in the face of repression.