JUNE 7, 2019
ONE OF THE MAIN refrains of Boris Slutsky’s poetry is “davnym-davno” — long, long ago. This tautological adverb holds a key not only to how Slutsky, one of the most important Soviet Jewish poets, treats the temporal, but also to his verse as a whole, which turns in on itself with repetitions, parallelisms, persistent rhymes, and echoing soundscapes. It seems Slutsky is constantly trying to attribute new meanings to what has already been said and set in stone. And yet, although Slutsky is always looking backward, his “long, long ago” applies not to ancient history or to the realm of the myth, but to the eras he has witnessed and survived: the reign of Stalin and World War II. “I recount history […] only its very last stretch,” he explains. And he divides this “very last stretch” into clusters, shuffling their chronology. “Into months I pack years,” as he writes, “push eternities into moments.”
The “long, long ago” enables Slutsky to lend the tragedies of his own age — the Terror of the 1930s, the war, the Holocaust, and Stalin’s postwar assault on the Jews — an almost biblical significance. And the centennial of Slutsky’s birth should be measured according to this protracted chronology. His hundred years are stretched wide and run deep, as he suggests in “The Old Sojourner”:
[…] I am the old law.
The new century does not know me
Like it does not know the Church-Slavonic letters.
I am from the pre-numerical system,
From the pre-solar, pre-temporal one,
From the system forgotten by those
Who are now laughing at me.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the distance Slutsky establishes between himself and his era, he is supremely attentive to its reality. In his lines, the mundane and contemporary is permanently intertwined with the historical and biblical. Slutsky rejected the Romantic notion of the poet as prophet, preferring the role of forecaster. While the prophet has his eye on the eternal, the forecaster is attuned to the worldly. At the same time, the destiny of the forecaster is not altogether different from that of the prophet, and so:
Suddenly the limping iambs arise,
And a forecaster of radioactive times
Signs his name thus: Jeremiah.
This is Slutsky’s credo. He is a limping poet, handicapped by his era’s tyrants and catastrophes, holding a prophet’s pen yet never turning away from the here and now, or from the horrors of “long, long ago.” He avoided sentimentality and grandiloquence, the stock-in-trade of Stalinist Soviet verse. As if heeding Theodor Adorno’s warning about the barbarity of writing poetry after Auschwitz, he wanted to foreclose, in Adorno’s words, the “possibility that pleasure can be squeezed from” his words, and refused to turn “victims […] into works of art, tossed out to be gobbled up by the world that did them in.”
It is not by chance that Slutsky’s paradigmatic prophet is Jeremiah, the prophet of Jewish exile in the wake of disaster. In Jeremiah’s verses, pictures of the smoldering Jewish present — the destruction of the first Temple — intermingle with visions of redemption. Putting pen to paper after the cataclysm of his own time, Slutsky was less hopeful in his forecast.
This Jeremiah of “limping iambs” was born a hundred years ago, on May 7, 1919, in Ukraine during the Russian Civil War, and was raised in the city of Kharkiv under Soviet rule. In the late 1930s, Slutsky became a prominent member of a group of young poets in Moscow whose careers would be shaped, transformed, and sometimes cut short by the experience of World War II, which the Soviets branded the Great Patriotic War. Like practically all of these poets, Slutsky enlisted in the Red Army in 1941 and, being a law student, had to serve initially as a military prosecutor — an experience that would haunt him for years to come — and then, after being wounded, as a propaganda officer in the countries “liberated” by the Soviet forces. In 1944, he sustained a severe brain injury and suffered for the rest of his life from debilitating headaches.
Slutsky fully matured as a poet soon after the war ended, but he only debuted in print in 1957. Delays and chronological ironies became a theme in his biography. Even after he began to publish, a great deal of his verse remained hidden away in the drawer, coming to light only in the 1980s, during perestroika, with the abolition of censorship. And for the last nine years of his life — he died in 1986 — he stayed creatively silent, broken by his wife’s death.
From the very beginning, Slutsky was conscious of two factors that would determine his path. First, he was born a Jew, and second, he was born in Eastern Europe at a pivotal point. The two facts forcefully and fruitfully merged in his poetic vision. The image of the poet as a witness and chronicler, prophet and forecaster, is evident in his earliest verse, written on the eve of the war. In “Poems about Jews and Tatars,” he both defines the Jewish condition as he sees it and pinpoints why the coming catastrophe would be different:
Intermarriages and pogroms,
What else does the future hold for us, except for that —
Us, the nation of scholars and tailors.
I too write my verses in Russian,
As is the custom in Moscow, not Bobruysk —
Though I have imagined them otherwise.
This time we might not survive —
The technology is different and the people meaner!
Slutsky does not write in the language of Bobruysk, a heavily Jewish city in Belarus — that is, he does not write in Yiddish. But he had imagined his poems differently. And this means his verse had to be translated from his innermost Jewish tongue. And that tongue is endangered. In the two lines that follow this confession, he identifies the two main features of the approaching pogrom: its unparalleled evil, and the cold technical means by which it will be carried out.
This kind of concision is characteristic of Slutsky. His dedication to expressing his thoughts in brief lyrics was absolute, almost maniacal; he is practically the only major Russian poet who produced not a single long narrative poem. He shares his artistic lineage, however, with the rest of his cohort. The young poets of World War II drew inspiration from Vladimir Mayakovsky and Velimir Khlebnikov, who started as bold and wildly inventive Futurists, and especially from Mayakovsky, who committed suicide in 1930 and was posthumously heralded by Stalin as the finest poet of the Soviet era. But Slutsky was also increasingly influenced by the recondite, sonorous lyrics of Osip Mandelstam, who died in the Gulag in 1938, and by the dramatic, syntactically complex verse of Marina Tsvetaeva, who committed suicide in 1941, after returning to the Soviet Union from the West.
Boris Pasternak, another important poetic influence, would leave a tragic imprint on Slutsky’s life, affecting the reception of his work to this day. In the midst of the “Zhivago Affair” — the Khrushchev regime’s hounding of Pasternak for winning the 1958 Nobel Prize for Doctor Zhivago, which was published abroad — Slutsky spoke at an official anti-Pasternak meeting. His speech lasted for three minutes and plainly stated, without mentioning Pasternak’s name, that a poet must strive to achieve recognition among his own people, instead of seeking it in foreign lands. In the eyes of many, those three minutes nullified Slutsky’s entire career. He did see his speech as an error, and bore a great burden of shame. Nevertheless, while it corroded Slutsky’s image and own sense of integrity, it did not alter or destroy the foundations of his poetic gift. Yevgeny Rein, a younger poet close to Joseph Brodsky, said it best:
To the salutes of blood and fate,
The sound of military trumpets,
He went up proudly to the stage,
And shattered everything in minutes …
But I cannot resolve it here.
It’s not my place to fire arrows
At him …
Rein’s measured, empathetic take on the situation speaks to the role Slutsky played for this younger generation of poets, who, like Brodsky, were on the margins of Soviet literature or directly opposed to it. As for Brodsky himself, the case is more complicated. While Brodsky never changed his view of Slutsky as essentially the most original, innovative, and metaphysical poet of the postwar era, his treatment of this “father figure” illustrates another difficulty facing the older poet’s reputation. With its essays on Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, and Anna Akhmatova, Brodsky’s influential collection Less Than One, released the year before he was awarded a Nobel Prize, proposed a canon of Russian poetry for American intellectuals. But for anyone familiar with Brodsky’s poetic pedigree, the absence of Slutsky from its pages was conspicuous. The decision was undoubtedly deliberate; incorporating his first inspiration would have added a strong Soviet component to Brodsky’s presentation of both Russian poetry and of his own biography, something he, an exile from what Ronald Reagan termed the “evil empire,” was loath to do for reasons both personal and political.
The idea of Slutsky as “too Soviet” can also carry reverse connotations, especially in today’s Russia. There, his current champions prefer to cast him as an avowed communist who, even when retreating from some of the Party’s postulates, remained committed to its goals. As the most recent Russian biography of Slutsky puts it, “Nobody ever took away his Party membership, and he never left the Party.” Within this reductive framework, his Jewishness is simplified and downplayed, presented solely as an ethnic heritage that he might have viewed positively under the pressure of antisemitism, but that had hardly anything to do with his poetry, which was Russian and Soviet to the bone. In order to justify this interpretation, the poetry is read selectively and biographical facts are distorted or made from whole cloth. The same Russian biography, for instance, states that “Slutsky was seen in a Christian temple, and not in a synagogue,” insinuating that even if this communist thought about God, he could do so only via Christianity. Recent editions of Slutsky’s poetry, as well as this biography, omit a key confession:
Growing older, or more mature —
I detect in myself a Jew.
And I thought I had made it,
I thought I broke through.
I didn’t make it, but unmade myself.
I didn’t break through, but broke down.
I am to be read not from left to right,
But in Jewish: from right to left.
I dreamt of great glory,
But lived to see great wrath.
I, who crossed with one foot,
Into either permanent residency or citizenship,
Return now to my kinless kin,
Return from this point into the Expanse …
Dense with wordplay and alliteration, this meditative poem grows directly out of the modern Russian poetic tradition, yet Slutsky inverts this tradition to proclaim his Jewishness, demanding that he be read “from right to left.” The Russian-Jewish cluster he creates is singular and uncompromising. This singularity is what makes him arguably the most misunderstood and idiosyncratic of 20th-century poets. Perhaps his time has come in the 21st.