Now, with the Wave Books release of Aygi’s poems, translated masterfully by Sarah Valentine, audiences worldwide are able to celebrate Aygi among his Russian contemporaries.
Gennady Aygi (sometimes spelled Aigi) is a classic poet of the Russian avant-garde movement. Mentored by Pasternak and befriended by luminaries such as the composer Sofia Gubaidulina, Aygi came to attention translating French and Scottish poetry into his native Chuvash. Throughout his life, Aygi came under fire for writing in Chuvash and eventually did make the transition to writing in Russian. Now, with the Wave Books release of Aygi’s poems, translated masterfully by Sarah Valentine, audiences worldwide are able to celebrate Aygi among his Russian contemporaries. While Into the Snow provides a comprehensive introduction to Aygi’s work, it also suffers from several editorial problems that minimize the power of Aygi’s work.
Aygi has been called “the poet of silence,” and it is easy to see why. The quiet tone, pastoral and ethereal imagery, and amount of abstractions do not make for a loud book. In “Regarding Our Long-Distance Conversation,” Aygi writes:
[…]we speak louder—circling around silence
using up what was added
from the winds of human heaven and the fates
“Field: At the Height of Winter” reads:
letting everything through (mileposts and breezes and faraway windmills:
still—from this world—in a dream—the horizon—o all of it—sparks—
the perpetual flames of an immortal fire)
While the windmills and mileposts ground the poem, the heavenly abstraction of the “perpetual flames” and “immortal fire” elevate the piece into one that is more difficult for the reader to enter. “Immortally shining / god-fire,” the poem ends. Here, the repetition of “immortal,” along with the other imagery, shifts the poem into religious melodrama. This melodrama also occurs in “Pine on Rock:” “Absolute: light, squeezed from bone is truer than / if it were from ‘the soul.'” Lofty metaphysical conceits are most successful when used sparingly and grounded in concrete details, and Aygi does not do that.
Aygi, however, also does not shy away from experimentation. One poem is an instruction on how to read the preceding poem, and includes musical notation. That preceding poem, “Untitled,” features two gray squares that stand in for text. “Summer With Angels” is a formal experiment that works, interviewing numbered, boldface lines with plain-type ones:
2. The appearance of cyclamens
angels play cards of course angel cards
3. Autumn: fog
birds fall leaves fly south
4. Continuation of the cyclamens
God’s geese go to pond
Another highlight of the book is the excerpts from variations on Chuvash and Mari folk songs. Here, the disjunction between stanzas is not as jarring as it is elsewhere in Aygi’s work, given the source material from which he draws. Many of the lines are quite stirring as well:
Your figure is a golden wire,
o, your face
from a scarlet flare,
above—the silken air.
Despite the beauty of the translation, Into the Snow has some problems with the poem selection and manuscript order. This book was not a volume penned by Aygi; rather, the poems were selected and ordered by the translator, Sarah Valentine. This arrangement is unfortunate in that the order of the poems seems disjointed, and the poems are removed from their original context and lose meaning because of that. The way the poems dialogue with one another is often jerky, taking the reader unnecessarily from one mode of reading to another. There are some questionable choices of inclusion as well. One piece, “A Few Notes on Poetry” may either be a didactic poem or a critical piece in verse, but whatever its purpose, it disrupts the flow of the manuscript.
Further, annotations throughout would have been helpful, as many of the poems feature dedications or references to people the text does not define. The editorial introduction is a good capsule biography of Aygi, but it does little to elucidate the poems themselves. In the introduction, Valentine writes that the “subject matter of Aygi’s poetry often seems devoid of political content—his writing does not directly address polemics or espouse a particular set of views—yet writing about what he did in the manner that he did it was and continues to be viewed by many as antagonistic to the hallowed tradition of Russian literature” (XIII). In that passage, elaboration on what, specifically, Aygi wrote about and how, specifically, he did it would have been of great benefit to the reader, as Aygi’s poetry is often opaque and oblique.
Into the Snow is a lovely primer into the work of a poet who is beginning to gain worldwide notoriety. As Aygi’s name recognition grows, so too, hopefully, will the body of work accessible to those who don’t read Russian. Perhaps then his poetry will be distributed in its original context with appropriate annotation so that his genius can shine through the language barrier that currently dims his light.