Damp white imprints dog the feet;
snowbound trolley, snowbound street.
Her tip of glove to lip and cheek,
Deathly, into soaring snow
and stillness, as expected, go.
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.