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Bella Akhmadulina's Poetics Of Survival

Bella Akhmadulina in June 2010
Bella Akhmadulina in June 2010
The life of a poet is prosaic. Its main function, I would say, is socio-ecological or informative. It tells us whether we can still breathe, how poisonous the atmosphere is, what cultural tools are needed to clean the air, and whether it is worthwhile to continue living at all.

And it answers these questions itself, showing us how to live (if that's still possible), what lungs to breathe with, and which tools to employ in order to avoid suffocating or being deafened by what Osip Mandelshtam called "the noise of time," what Aleksandr Blok called "music," and what most of us rightly take to be pure stench. Marina Tsvetaeva called the poet a "Jew" because he lives permanently in Auschwitz, waiting his turn and breathing in the air of burned corpses.

Only to outsiders does it seem like the poet is an unearthly thing, a heavenly bird singing from happiness whose words clean the air. He simply lives and survives with his last bit of strength. Because living is always hard, almost unbearable, especially if we are speaking of the last stage of the Soviet epoch, the period between the Thaw and perestroika.

The poetics of Bella Akhmadulina, who died on November 28 in Moscow at the age of 73, clearly shows how hard it was to live and breathe if one remained inside the Soviet space and didn't allow oneself any indulgences. Her complex poetic utterances were the result of those incredible efforts that had to be undertaken by any honest, intelligent person in order to preserve the possibility of self-respect, which was the foundation of the respect of others.

Her poetry was not an artistic balancing act, but the mobilization of all the possibilities of the culture that was available to the ordinary Soviet person. She took from museums, galleries, libraries where, however, the thing that was most needed was not to be found -- the truth about the air that one breathed.

And in order to at least approach that truth, Akhmadulina used all the cultural traditions available to her -- the best ventilation devices tested successfully by the most responsible Soviet and prerevolutionary poets. She restricted herself exactly as that epoch restricted the ordinary person. She wanted to be honest, and honesty is always historical.

The Soviet authorities should idolize Akhmadulina. And we should be grateful they didn't imprison her. She saved the reputation of the epoch by proving that even the thin, oxygen-less air of the stagnation was capable of undergoing poetization, of being purified. She lived at the end of the Soviet epoch, but -- like the rest of us -- she did not know it was the end. Many people thought her verses were a sort of cultural borderline between one era and the next, but the Soviet epoch ended suddenly and an entirely new one began, one that was even more difficult poetically. But that is another topic.

Measuring talent and choosing encyclopedic labels like "great," "unique," or "genius" is probably best left as a parlor game. In order to best understand Akhmadulina's status, it is necessary to compare her. She didn't claim the inheritance of the avant-garde traditions adapted to the Soviet era like Andrei Voznesensky did. She did not demonstrate a tendency to confession, multiplied by a precise knowledge of how to make a Soviet career, like Yevgeny Yevtushenko did. Her verses were less psychological than those of Aleksandr Kushner, although they also lacked the tinkling of hysterics or emptiness at the approach of the limits of the permissible, beyond which it was too dangerous to venture.

She didn't take on burdens that were foreign or too heavy for her. But what she did take on was transformed into poetry -- that is, into something necessary for life. She was heir to the Silver Age, closer to Innokenty Annensky than to Boris Pasternak in terms of Annensky's understanding of the torment of the poet's path. And her complexity, her intentional poeticism immediately transmuted itself into clarity and precision without lurches, deceptions, or false moves.

It is less fruitful but nonetheless instructive to compare her with those who went beyond the limits of Soviet culture, who addressed an entirely different audience and took on entirely different problems. If we speak of poets and younger contemporaries like Joseph Brodsky, Dmitry Prigov, Adam Rubenstein, Viktor Krivulin, or Yelena Shvarts, then we must say Akhmadulina was only able to influence them in their formative years, before their final break with everything Soviet.

But no liberal-Soviet poet was as openly respected among the nonconformists as Akhmadulina was. Prigov respected her complexity and the uniqueness of her important social role, the consistency of her positions, and her personification of poetry itself. Shvarts, who had a jealous relationship with Akhmadulina, viewed her as an elder contemporary. Rubenstein, undoubtedly, used the image of her style in his own collections -- that is, paid tribute to her in another language.

Undoubtedly, Akhmadulina saved many readers who understood her complex aesthetics as a reflection of the social difficulty (or impossibility) of realizing oneself in an environment that forbade just this. Akhmadulina, like few others, opened up the possibility of living an historical life in the face of the most inhospitable historical circumstances. Not by rejecting them, but by overcoming them.

She was not afraid to reduce herself to small pieces in order to help others. She was an actress, in the sense of a person living out a life on a social stage. Bella Akhmadulina was a beautiful woman whom other women dreamed of approaching and whom men wanted to possess. She was defenseless in the sense that she did not want to defend herself from life. Incidentally, she sacrificed her beauty, exchanging it for the sincerity of torment. And that is why she was a poet.

Mikhail Berg is a Moscow-based literary critic and novelist. The views expressed in this commentary, which originally appeared on "Yezhednevny zhurnal," are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL