Spun in drafts

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Damp white imprints dog the feet;

snowbound trolley, snowbound street.

Her tip of glove to lip and cheek,

“Goodbye.” Go.

Deathly, into soaring snow

and stillness, as expected, go.

A turn:

    the plunge to the metro.

A blare of lights. A melting hat.

I stand, am spun in drafts, see black

take the tunnel, train, and track,

sit and wait as others sat,

touch cold marble, chill my hand

and, heavy-hearted, understand

that nothing ever really happened,

ever would, ever can.

 

Yevgeny Yevtushenko, translated by Anthony Kahn, from Stolen Apples (Doubleday, 1971)

 

Standing under a Métro sign in Paris last week brought to mind this poem.

I first encountered it in an English lesson at school, aged 13-14, some thirty-seven years ago. If Einstein is right, and education really is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school, then it is safe to say most of my education concerns the stories, poems and plays shown to us and expounded by the peerless English department of my school, each of whose names I still recall with gratitude.

I am struck by a number of things as I re-read the poem now I am firmly in middle age, with some twenty-five plus years of my own teaching experience to draw on. Part of me wants to say that it is a fantastically bleak poem to put in front of a class of adolescent boys.

At the same time I am drawn to the riskiness of that, the courage and the bravado. In some ways, it is the perfect poem for such a group. It is about love (or lack of it), misunderstandings, being frozen, and longing for things to be otherwise: classic adolescent themes.

It also moves along at quite a clip. It is very filmic. Each line is a new angle or camera shot: ‘A turn:/ the plunge to the metro./ A blare of lights. A melting hat.’ To misquote what Pasolini said about screenplays, it is as though the poem’s structure wants to become another structure.

Yet a poem it remains. From the ‘dog’ metaphor in the opening line to its deft handling of end-of line rhyme (surely in itself a kind of pun on the subject of the break-up) the poem resolutely retains faith in itself as a crafted object in fierce contrast to the chaos of the emotions it describes.

I seem to remember the lesson we had on it was bookended by commentary focussing mainly on the dog metaphor and the bleak closing lines. I remember feeling fantastically excited and nervous all at once, entering, in the poem’s words, a space both ‘soaring’ and one of ‘stillness’.

Memory being what it is, you will have to take my word for it.

10 comments

  1. Robin Houghton

    What a wonderful poem, thanks so much. And a very clever translation. I’m not always sure about translated poetry, it worries me that something crucial may be missing. But this is brilliant in its own right. Beautifully simple and moving.

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  2. Tricia

    An amazing poem. I love it. Especially the ‘spun in drafts.’ However, on first reading that, to me, suggests a much more dynamic take on memory than the ending of the poem does…I have just begun The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. Just before the main story there’s a couple of short passages about time/memory. It ends like this:

    If I can’t be sure of the actual events any more, I can at least be true to the impressions those facts left. That’s the best I can manage.

    And that’s what we return to – the impressions, and yet…as we return don’t we spin new drafts of those impressions, so they are not fixed, more recreated every time, therefore new every time…? I understand this is not what the poet is suggesting here…is it? It made me think, though, thank you.

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    • Anthony Wilson

      Thank you so much for your reading. I like the idea of spinning new drafts of impressions, memories, senses… I hadn’t thought of that. Barnes is probably right. Probably. True to impressions is probably the best we can manage.
      As ever with grateful thanks
      Anthony

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  3. Fiona Quilty

    This is a wonderful, mystic poem!
    The dizziness of finding oneself suddenly dismissed and carrying on as ‘normal’ with ones head spinning. Going d
    o
    w
    n
    into the metro. The shock of lights and thinking it is all too much.
    Thanks for a great start to the day!
    I also liked your comment on stillness. As if everything is rushing around you and you are standing still -a cinema shot that is used often.

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    • Anthony Wilson

      Hi Fiona
      It is cinematic, isn’t it? The rushing/stillness shot is one cinema does so well. And so often. I once heard Don Paterson say he felt cinema and poetry were sister arts. I wonder if this is the kind of thing he meant?
      All best to you as ever
      Anthony

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  4. Rebecca Gethin

    A wonderful poem. Needs re-reading and re-reading. Yevtushenko came and read his poetry in Russian at Southampton University in the early 70’s. We were spell bound by his power and had fallen in love from the beginning. Unforgettable he was even if we couldn’t understand a word. I have a signed copy of a book… (but the ruddy dog once picked it out of the bookshelf and chewed a corner.)

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    • Anthony Wilson

      Hi there.
      What stories: Russia in Southampton. That dog.
      I love the disconnect of hearing something in a language I do not know.
      What a privilege. I’m sure you won’t forget it.
      As ever with grateful thanks
      Anthony

      Like

  5. Rebecca de Pelet

    Just about to offer this fabulous poem to some Year 10s as a comparative piece to Rossetti’s ‘The Woodspurge’…I’ll let you know how it goes…as ever, thank you.

    Like

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