Peter Daniels’ translations of poems by Vladislav Khodasevich would seem to tick all the boxes, says David Cooke


Vladislav Khodasevich Selected Poemskhodasevich cover
 Translated by Peter Daniels
 Introduction by Michael Wachtel.
Angel Classics, 2013
ISBN: 9780946162826


Admired by Nabokov and Brodsky and recognized, increasingly, as one of the great Twentieth Century Russian poets, Vladislav Khodasevich (1886 -1939) is not a name that will be familiar to many English poetry readers or even to those with some grounding in Russian Literature. Selected Poems translated by Peter Daniels, a fine poet in his own right, is the first coherent selection of his work to appear in English. It presents Daniels’ versions alongside Khodasevich’s originals. There is a substantial Introduction by Michael Wachtel, professor of Slavic Languages and Literature at Princeton University, which is complemented by Daniels’ own Translator’s Preface, both of which are absorbing and informative. They examine the early reception of the poet’s work, its relationship with the poetic trends of his day, and its subsequent eclipse during the poet’s years of self-imposed exile. The edition concludes with twelve pages of notes in which Daniels gives a wealth of information on virtually every poem included and, perhaps most interestingly, frequent insights into the challenges he faced in translating them and the compromises he has had to make.

Although Khodasevich was born and brought up in Moscow, he was always something of an outsider.  His parents were Lithuanian Poles from Vilnius and Khodasevich identified strongly with Polish literary traditions.  Like his literary hero, Pushkin, he imbibed Russian language and culture from his wet nurse.  Embarking upon his poetic career at a time of political and literary ferment, it is the clarity and coherence of his poems that keep them alive and accessible.  Rooted in the realities of everyday life, Khodasevich’s poetry has a sharp focus and is sometimes tinged with irony.  Self-deprecating, yet having a clear sense of his poetic vocation, he published his first poems when Symbolism was on the wane.  Having little sympathy with the hieratic gestures and vagueness embraced by some of its epigones, he was even less inclined towards the Futurists’ brash excesses:

God alive! I’m not beyond coherence:
mindfully, I walk among my poems
like a disobliging abbot
among his humble monks.
I shepherd my obedient flock
with a staff that’s bursting into bloom.

The concluding couplet of this untitled poem from his last published collection, European Night, neatly encapsulates his love of tradition: O may my last expiring groan / be wrapped inside an articulate ode.

While still in his twenties, Khodasevich published two collections, Youth (1908) and Happy Little House (1914) which he later dismissed as juvenilia.  Daniels has limited himself to three pieces from these volumes before moving on to the work that Khodasevich published in the wake of the October Revolution.  The Way of the Seed appeared in 1920, the year in which T.S. Eliot published ‘Gerontion’ and his poems in quatrains.  The Heavy Lyre, with its title poem inspired by the myth of Orpheus, followed in 1922, one year before Rilke’s Die Sonette an Orpheus.  European Night, his final collection, was published in 1927, after which he mainly wrote prose until his death at the age of 53 in1939.

Written in December 1917, a few months after the Revolution, the title poem of Khodasevich’s first mature collection is a poem about death and renewal which takes as its point of departure John 12:24. It’s a piece composed in rhymed elegiac couplets that have an epigrammatic finish, the first of which evokes a world of timeless ritual against the backdrop of the seasons: Here’s the sower walking along the even rows: / his father, and his father’s father, went the way he goes.  Such certainties are in marked contrast to the violence of political events as the poet tries to make sense of the chaos around him:

And you my native country, and her people, you
will perish and survive, after this year is through –

because this single wisdom is given us to obey:
every thing that lives shall go the seedcorn’s way.

Russian is a highly inflected language in which it is far easier to find natural-sounding rhymes than it is in English. Traditionally, too, it alternates masculine and feminine rhymes.  This is virtually impossible to replicate in English without strain.  Daniels’ attempt here and elsewhere to get close to the form as well as the sense of his originals manages to avoid the pitfalls of convoluted syntax and far-fetched rhymes.  However, among the most impressive poems in this collection are those written in blank verse,  a form of capital importance in the English tradition, but less frequently used in Russian.  ‘2nd November’ is a magisterial description of the atmosphere in Moscow during the early days of the Revolution:

                         Long queues were trailing
at the shops. Wires hung in shreds
above the streets. Broken shards of glass
crunched underfoot. With a yellow eye
the unwarming sun of November
was looking down, at women who had aged,
and unshaven men.

Focusing upon mundane reality and the details of ordinary lives, the poet creates a picture that is authentic and unforgettable.  Powerful, too, is ‘Monkey’ in which the Khodasevich anthropomorphizes a monkey in a red skirt.  Having offered a drink of water to this forlorn creature and the vagrant Serb who owned it,  the poet soon finds himself identifying with it: I have shaken hands with beauties, poets, / leaders of nations – not one hand displayed / a line of such nobility! Not one hand / has ever touched my hand so like a brother’s!  In the light of this epiphany, the poem’s matter of fact conclusion is all the more devastating: That was the day of the declaration of war.

Khodasevich, however, does not merely claim our attention as a commentator upon momentous events, although his art was necessarily shaped by them.  There are also  impressive poems of self-evaluation such ‘On Himself’ and ‘In Front of the Mirror’: Me, me, me. What a preposterous word! / Can that man there really be me?   In ‘An Episode’ he observes himself from the perspective of an out of body experience:

And the person sitting on the sofa
seemed to me a simple, old, old friend,
who had been worn out from years of travelling;
as if it happened that he’d called on me
and, falling silent in our peaceful talk,
he turned suddenly, gave a sigh, and died.

In ‘The Music’, the first poem of The Heavy Lyre, his leisurely description of country life and its minor irritations has a warmth and gentle humour that is not dissimilar to Robert Frost’s. In ‘Not my mother, but a Tula peasant’ he writes movingly about his wet nurse, who  gave up everything she had for me: / including her own bitter motherhood. However, in his later years, he is above all a poet of exile, traipsing across Europe and deprived of any audience beyond small groups of bickering emigrés.  Here he is in ‘Berlin View’: And sliding through the stagnant night / the tramcar windows as they pass / reflect my café tabletop / in every alien pane of glass.

It was not until 1989 that Khodasevich’s poetry was republished in Russia.  With the publication by Angel Classics of Peter Daniels’ bilingual text there is now also an opportunity for English readers to discover the work of this marvellous poet.  Steering a path between the self indulgence of ‘imitations’ and the unreadability of metrical versions that frequently privilege form at the expense of everything else,  Daniels’ Khodasevich would seem to tick all the boxes.  For those proficient in Russian there is a generous sampling of the originals in a text that has been supervised by a specialist. Those whose knowledge is more rudimentary will find that Daniels’ versions are genuinely helpful.  Many, of course, will only ever aspire to read Khodasevich in English, and for them Peter Daniels’ versions will have the authentic stamp of real poems.