NORTH COUNTRY PASSING

Impressions from the diary of a great Russian poet’s journey across Canada

ANDREI VOSNESENSKY December 1 1971

NORTH COUNTRY PASSING

Impressions from the diary of a great Russian poet’s journey across Canada

ANDREI VOSNESENSKY December 1 1971

NORTH COUNTRY PASSING

ANDREI VOSNESENSKY

Impressions from the diary of a great Russian poet’s journey across Canada

Canada is horizontal. Only a comparatively narrow strip above the American border is populated. Like a layer of cream on a jug of milk. Or as in the landscapes of Rerich — a strip of earth and an expanse of sky. This sky is eversensed above Canada, untamed nature to the pole — green sky of summer and white of winter. “The white geometry of winter” — as Robert Ford says so purely and compellingly in his verses. I caught both summer and winter in Canada.

Winter Canadians — all wear rubber overshoes. The overshoes are huge black galoshes with zippers. The pedestrians are hatless like at Sunday mass. The overshoes stick in the whitish-rust mush.

My notebook is the same whitish-rust color. It lost its cover long ago from being carried in my pocket. Its edges have swelled and shredded — almost to pulp. In it are half - obliterated notes, sketches, the latest catchwords: “Women’s Lib,” “Grass in Class” — after all, any details about Canada are interesting since so little is written about Canada here. In the notebook

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A raccoon snuck by the ushers into my reading.

A leather coat perfectly fitted like a falcon’s hood took a seat on the balcony.

I still remember: that sinuous pelt dying for the light to go out, her jaw-breaking yawn like an acrobat doing the splits.

She stretched languorously,

Blok’s La Belle Dame, and put out her paws like the legs of a chaise-longue . . .

Old Scar-Paw and Pluto understood me without translation — because poetry’s not in the grammar, but in the gut.

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are figures, jottings about the trial of Paul Rose, charged with the murder of Laporte, the incredible offensive plays of professional hockey, tourist truisms, and verses, verses — worse luck, a lot was written on this trip.

Vancouver is called the Canadian San Francisco. The city echoes with single houses cooing and preening, a blond bay, topsy-turvy student life, bushy beards, mountain-top ski slopes, and evergreen old-maid parks, skyscrapers with earthquake-proof foundation rumps like roly-poly dolls, forest “coo-coos” and human “Where’reyou-froms” — and the devil knows what else Vancouver echoes with.

Vancouver is almost on the same parallel as Alma-Ata. This is the grazing ground of hippies. (Toronto gave them a hotel skyscraper in the centre of town. They have entangled it, like ivy, from inside with their shaggy manes, posters, plantlike living, a sweetish haze. In Vancouver they were allotted half a beach.)

The aim of my trip to Canada was to read poetry to students. One of my friends, a poet, joked before my departure: “Careful, America’s next door!”

America burst into my hotel room early one morning. It filled the room with hoots of laughter. In its hands was a round loaf of bread. One of its heads wore a grey karakul Muscovite hat and thrust threateningly with its aluminum beard. The other was blond-haired and its eyes flashed like Scandinavian lakes.

The first was Lawrence Ferlinghetti — poet, activist, leader of the San Francisco protest movement. Recently he did time for his Vietnam activities. Two years ago he took a trip on the winter express train from Moscow to Vladivostok. In the hospital in Nakhodka they barely saved him from death by. pneumonia.

The second head belonged to Robert Bly, also a poet-rebel, a maned giant in a white Mexican poncho. They flew in for some “prolife” talk, and to encircle us with their poetry.

I shall describe one of the Vancouver readings. The darkened amphitheatre-auditorium at the university stirred picturesquely. Mixed in with the students, Great Danes, Saint Bernards and reddish Canadian collies lay in poses of lazy unconcern, like living illustrations of the movement for the liberation of animals. An orange-hued raccoon picked his way efficiently and elegantly along the top of a decorative wooden partition. Children of intuition, they, it seemed, were breathing in time to the reading.

The gathering took on the form of

a coming-together of three poetries — Canadian, American and Russian. The voice of the young Canadian poet, Seymour Mayne, joined with Ferlinghetti’s husky roar. The latter read about Vietnam. How they listened to him! He read about a little man, a dull-witted cog of the system, he destroyed him, stamped around the stage, mocked him and mourned him.

Robert Bly in his poncho, like a decorated box kite or a Viking banner, soared over the audience, conducting with the long fingers of a hypnotist-surgeon.

This university, which is named after Simon Fraser, is one of the most beautiful in the world. On the heights of a hill pure horizontals cleave the skies. Another — the University of British Columbia is enveloped in greenery. Its pride, the graceful economy of an authentic Japanese garden. It is a good thing for education institutions to be located in the country. We have one like that in Dolgoprudnaia, it’s a shame that as yet we have so few.

Vancouver is almost on the same parallel as Alma-Ata. This is the grazing ground of hippies

The new architecture of Canada is very interesting. The Fine Arts Centre in Ottawa is concentrated, self-contained — what a miracle of intimacy! And the City Hall skyscraper in Toronto. Its two vertical planes soar like the two halves of a partly-opened shell; it seems that at any moment the roar of the sea will be heard between them.

Marshall McLuhan lives in Toronto. To some an oracle, to others an electronic shaman, he caused a great stir with his books on the influences of communication media on man. The paradoxicality, the searching, the provoking of consciousness in his books has always struck me. In his latest book, Counterblast, which he gave me, a lot is said about the word and its transcription.

Professor McLuhan is lean, tall. In appearance he resembles Jules Verne. When his interest is aroused, he looks right through the person he is talking to, as if farsighted. He sits up very’ straight, his sharp knees pressed together with striped trousers fitting closely over them — like the statue of Osiris on his throne.

In order to get away from the

crowd, we went up a creaking wooden stairway to a mezzanine. Below us, illuminated hairdos, goblets, bared shoulders were visible through the rectangular door to the reception room. The little room floated above them, like a raft. Our conversation was about versification and, of course, about the extensions of our feelings

— telecommunications systems.

In conversation, he is clear and metaphorical, like algebra. It is hardly likely that he has read Khlebnikov [Viktor Khlebnikov (1888-1922), experimental Russian poet, one of the fathers of Russian Futurism], but the key to McLuhan is in Khlebnikov’s statement: “A mankind of numbers, who conceptualizes through vision and not through the sense of hearing, is armed with both an equation of death and equation of human nature.”

He called the morning after my reading in Toronto and through a needle-shaped telephone wire, sublimating himself into sound energy

— after all he is McLuhan — for a very lively half hour or so, shaped his impression of Russian poetry; he droned on, a child and a fanatic, about auditory and sound structures. It has always seemed to me that a poetry synthesizing sound and vision will become the basis of a new, future consciousness.

The translations at that reading were done by W. H. Auden, a living classic, a mammoth of versification, without doubt a great poet of the English-language world. More than once I’ve had the opportunity to read with him in the United States and it is always hellishly difficult, for the magnetism of him, seated to the right on the stage, turns out at times to be stronger than the magnetism of the audience. Everything swings around to him!

I was at a reading of Auden’s in Toronto. It’s not quite right to say that they don’t listen to poetry in the West. Good stuff they listen to. The hushed young audience listened intently to the most complex, linguistically medieval and magical passages, with their flashes of biting humor. Auden read quietly like an academic, with a small microphone tied around his neck under his tie. The mike was capricious: it whistled and sputtered. The experienced master archly narrowed his eyes in confusion. Technology had the poet by the throat — isn’t it McLuhanesque?

At readings and get-togethers I talked about the current works of Tvardovsky and Martinov, Akhmadulina and Bokov, Yevtushenko and Mezhirov, Tarkovsky, Simonov, Oku-

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dzhava, and other poets of ours. I was very moved when, at the name of Sergei Yesenin, applause broke out in the hall. I read them some of his lyrics. It was probably the first time Yesenin was heard in Russian from the stage in Canada. I read Mayakovsky, too, and others.

Despite, it would seem, its northern temperament, the Canadian audience is receptive and keen.

Canada’s poetic mentor is Irving Layton. Head modeled on a large scale, hair heavily molded. A breast chain out of a Holbein plate lies on his sweater — a bulky knit, sombre and ancient, like the elephant’s hide in his famous poem. He loves poetry for itself, not the dilettante chatter about it. Something like Vinokurov. Cohen, a poet-musician, Canada’s melancholy bard, is very popular.

The searchings of John Colombo are significant and profound; he is a constructor of verse, similar in a way to Semion Kirsanov. In his poems he montages popular sayings, mythological quotes, as in a collage.

(All these are English-language poets. Of the very interesting poetry in French I shall write separately.)

It’s a pity that we don’t yet know Canadian poetry in our country. We should know the poetry of our neighbors. What would Pushkin and Lermontov have been without their knowing Voltaire or Byron in the original?

What are students reading?

During my long flights, I was studying two serious sociological volumes: Theodore Roszak’s The Making Of A Counter-Culture and Charles Reich's The Greening Of America. “They are our gurus right now, they are more contemporary than M c L u h a n and Marcuse,” said a Vancouver girl with Indian cheekbones.

Of course, these authors are naïve in their positive slogans, but they have caught much of the psychology of those young people who are demonstrating on the Mall in Washington.

They write of a “Third Consciousness.” (The “First Consciousness” was that of the original discoverers of America, supermen, individualists. This was replaced by a “Second Consciousness,” that of the cogs of the technocratic machine.) “The Third,” a new wave, is that of today’s youth with its anti-linear way of thinking. For them, the criminal thing is to kill yourself inside. “Our hierarchy is almost as immovable as the medieval, but we don’t have a God to justify it.”

And so the search for a new way of communicating. The cigarette, or even a bottle of pop, goes around the circle as a unifying ritual.

Youth aspires to make the world natural and human. Its psychology is changing. From contemplation to transformation of the world. The answer of some lies in the blue-eyed

whisper of Alyosha Karamazov: “Shoot them down!” (to the question of what to do with a wild fanatic tearing a child to pieces before its mother's eyes).

How to shoot them down is taught in an underground issue of the San Francisco magazine Scanlan’s. It was brought by a stemlike girl correspondent, with three cameras hanging from her neck, like penitential chains. They were unable to get it printed in the States. It was done in Quebec. The issue is called Guerrilla Warfare In The U.S.A.

Forty pages of small print list acts of sabotage and diversion against a consumer society. “We decided to strike against property, things, for they are what is uppermost in the consciousness of America,” says a member of the organization called the Weathermen, after a song of Bob Dylan’s. Their movement is the happening, the theatre of life, where the stage moves out of the hall into life itself. They themselves admit this: “We always try for a little more uproar and a little less chance of getting into a mess. Because it has gotten through to us — it is not for us to destroy the whole police system or the corporative society. We understand that we are at an elementary stage — the theatrical.” Their guerrilla tactics are sometimes naïve — they penetrate a supermarket, stuff themselves full or interchange the price tags. But also in the magazine are diagrams of street operations and recipes for incendiary mixtures.

Not that acquiring arms is any problem: “Father Daniel Berrigan told

about how they burned army draft notices with homemade napalm. The recipe for the napalm was read to them over the phone by a housewife calling long-distance from South Carolina, and she got it out of the Manual For The Green Berets, which she keeps in the kitchen together with her other recipes ...”

But young people are getting more and more serious. More than ever they are coming to the essence of Daniel Berrigan’s idea, to his slogan: “No prison bars for mankind!”

How do Canadians feel about the States?

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau jokes: “It’s not a simple matter to sleep in the same bed with an elephant, even if it's a good elephant; sometimes it tosses and turns and snores in its sleep ...”

Pierre Trudeau is the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. The press is full of tales about his eccentricities and surprises. They argue, admire, are

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indignant, but all will acknowledge his breadth of character.

At home in his cosy private residence, appointed with azaleas, at a modest dinner, he proved to be simple, affable, wearing an austere suit with a chrysanthemum.

Trudeau is slender, artistic. A youthful, tanned, expressive face (something about him reminds me of portraits of Camus), the dynamic body of a slalom skier. He talks about Turgenev, has a lively interest in Russia.

Two hours later I observed him on the bench in Parliament, collected, an acute polemicist, stealthily and boyishly winking, among that sedate Parliament, where two days later he mischievously blurted out at his opponents an expression a bit more daring than “go to the devil!”

One can’t complain about the hospitality of the marvelous Canadian public, the perception and sensitivity of the audiences, especially young people, but it was very pleasant to appear in the port of Montreal on a ship of our Murmansk fleet, to read and speak Russian, to learn about the ups and downs of the sailor’s life, to exchange opinions about the amazing country of Canada.

In general, Canadians take a friendly and serious interest in Russia. Michael Futrell, an ironic Vancouver professor, expert skier and connoisseur of Russian literature, gave me a monograph about Rezanov. I was attracted by the fate of our tireless fellow-countryman. A traveler, creator of a dictionary of the Japanese language, gentleman-in-attendance and friend of Derzhavin, he got as far as California in 1806. A beautiful girl, Concha Arguello, the daughter of a San Francisco commandant, fell in love with him. They announced their betrothal. But the sudden death of Rezanov prevented their marriage. Concha took the veil. And so she became the first nun in California. Several admiring monographs about N. P. Rezanov have come out abroad. Bret Harte wrote a ballad about him.

I wrote some poems in Vancouver, bolting off into some parkland and hiding from my kind hosts, at the risk of being considered rude; well, what does one do? I felt like writing.

No matter what you might feel like writing about, no matter what you might see on Vancouver’s thawed paths, all that sky and snow, that whispering of fir needles, that breathing of student audiences, cannot help but be reflected in verse — the pure breath of that great land, Canada. ■ Translated by Catherine Leach, Maureen Sager, Vera Reck and Seymour May ne.