Lifesaving Poems: Yevtushenko’s ‘Damp white imprints dog the feet’

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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 year 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. john foggin

    You’re quite right….of course here’s a poem that speaks direct to what adolescent boys (and girls? who knows?) imagine is their heart. In other times it’s been The Smiths and Joy Division. I’ve been raw and desolate in my life on and off, but never so much as when I was 15 or so and as when I was (quite often) dumped by a girl. How bleak was the universe then.Thanks first to Geoffrey Summerfield for giving me Yevtushenko, and you for reminding me.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jess

    Translated poems with such beautiful meter and rhyme always make me wonder how true they are to the original language. That said, I’ve never read this poem before, and I love it. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. jazzcookie

    Well, Anthony, you have touched my very soul with this one…not so much the particular poem although yes yes and yes…but because I have carried a Yevtuskenko poem, hand-copied from one of his books, since 1967 in the midst of a melancholy time – Vietnam. The poem is “Colours” and no poem has ever spoken to me as this one does, one of those poems we learn by heart simply because we’ve turned to it so often. Yevtushenko understands many things, and just this past year, the poem again became the most important lifesaving thing for me, in a new time of melancholy. http://inspire-us.com/poems/yevtushenko.html#Colours Thank you for giving us another piece of his brilliance.
    Molly

    Like

    • Anthony Wilson

      Hi Molly. Thank you so much for sharing your own story, and this extraordinary poem, which I did not know, with all of us.
      It is quite something to hear how poetry has been a part of people’s lives across the years. I’m humbled, thank you.
      A

      Like

  4. Diane

    Dear Anthony,
    Goodness…a shot to the heart, and an older heart now. This poem allowed me to feel again the poignancy of love in my youth when all the smallest details were so important. How delicious it was. A lovely poem, but also reassuring to know love is a more quiet emotion now. Thank-you.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. martyn crucefix

    Great poem – and though I have no Russian, I suspect a great translation of it. Some of the Yevtushenko I’ve read can get (or at least in English reads) rather turgidly. This is full of melancholy fizz.

    Like

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