December 19, 2021

"And All Is Only This" | review essay by Douglas Messerli on Gennady Aygi's Child-and-Rose

And All Is Only This
by Douglas Messerli

Gennady Aygi, Child-and-Rose, trans. from the Russian by Peter France, with a preface by Bei Dao (New York: New Directions, 2003)

On the book cover of this collection by the noted Russian poet, the book is touted by Jacques Roubaud, Roman Jakobsen, Fanny Howe, Paul Barker (writing in the London Times), and Michael Palmer—all writers I highly respect. The preface by the renowned Chinese poet Bei Dao proclaims what a wonderful human being Aygi is, and suggests that, along with Pasternak (a friend of Aygi's) and Mandel'shtam, Aygi is one of the greatest of Russian poets. Just as importantly—to my way of thinking—is Bei Dao's insistence that Aygi is an engaging drinking companion: "illuminating" in his conversations, "sociable, sensitive, and full of insight." Peter France, in his excellent Introduction to the book speaks of Aygi in the context of his Chuvashia, the small republic in the Russian Federation where the poet is hailed as a national treasure, and France expertly explains how Aygi's writing, although composed in Russian, is highly influenced by the Chuvash chants, riddles, festivals, and Khorovod or choral dance. His work is difficult, but not indecipherable insists France. Aygi has been nominated for the Nobel Prize several times.

   If all that weren't enough, the book begins with a short foreword by Aygi himself in which he describes most of the book we are about to read as being a joyful celebration of the birth of his daughter. With five sons, he had long looked forward to the birth of a daughter, particularly having grown up in a culture where most of the men had died in World War II, and women were the bond between families, creating a kind of "sacred" femininity." I had recently finished a review of Charles Bernstein, praising him for employing the language of his children and that of others in his poetry, and here was a writer arguing not only for a poetry expressing the childhood experience, but a "respect for children" and childhood, a love for the child in all of us.

     It would seem that one would have to be particularly ornery—perhaps even malicious—not to love the poetry of such a man!

     I'm as sentimental as anyone. I almost always cry at the swell of the orchestra and the rise of movie credits, even if the movie has been completely empty-headed. Perhaps that's why I recognize sentimentality so well; and this book suffers from it. A substantial number of the poems here represented seem particularly trivial, focused as they are on his beloved baby. It is not that they are uninteresting—I love children and enjoy their parents' observations about them—but Child-and-Rose is a bit like being subjected to too many baby pictures. Aygi's daughter's "gurgles" "show forth / the clarity of the treasure 'my quiet god.'" The father feels a "heaviness" as the child falls to sleep. The baby's "a-a-of-lullaby" again "shows forth" "with clear-simple-shining / …(in firstguessing / like firstcreation)." The poet's world, we are told, contains, "you know-[only] you," the child. And a part of one poem is made up, presumably, of the baby's attempt at language:

Bwol bzilda grad
ei tselestine
bzilda and grad
obei verty

     I actually find that more interesting than some of the other conceits.

     However, it is not just the focus on child and father that creates, at times, frustration, but the many pauses, dashes, colons, word combinations and other visual devices that accompany such concentrated subject matter. Normally, these devices would delight simply because of the complexity of the text. And at first reading there appears to be a kind of Celan-like quality to Aygi's "father-wandering," "First-circle," "fresh-and-new-bound," "common-shining." The "mother-come-again," "birchcherry," "falsely-adult-clearsighted" images create a kind of "Word-face," that brings an easy resonance to otherwise quite transparent passages. But in the end, I fear, it is a kind of "face," with none of the dark "breathturns" of Celan's painfully wrought compositions. Dare I suggest that Aygi's writing—at least in this book—is a bit like e.e. cummings's poems: superficially experimental, but actually quite straight-forward, even mawkish?

     Having said all that, there is no doubt that this likeable poet is, at times, also quite brilliant. Particularly in poems where his focus is broader, the pauses and shiftings of thought create a linguistic sensuality and narrative wonderment, as in "Song from the Days of Your Forefather (Variation on the Theme of a Chuvash Folk-song)," "Little Tatar Song," "Story of the Level-crossing Gate and the Crossing Keeper's Cabin," "Story of Harlequin Grown Old," "Chuvash Song for a Girl Your Age," "Little Song for You—About Your Father," "Now There Are Always Snows," "Again: Appearance of a Bluetit," "My Daughter's Autumn Walk," and "Drawing Long Ago." Even from the titles of these poems, one can perceive that, at least to my way of thinking, Aygi is on the most solid ground when he immerses himself in the landscape and culture of his homeland. And in conveying that world, Aygi is a true master. Can there be any poem that more clearly portrays a world that, although infused with human spirituality, is equally at the whim of nature as in "Now There Are Always Snows"?

Like snow the Lord that is
and is what is the snows
when the soul is what is
the snows the soul the light
and all is only this
that those like death that is
that like them too it is

confess that it is so
among light darkness is
when once again the snows
how can it be it is

and is not to be checked
as corpses are and not

oh Deathmask-Land that is
no question that it is
then when the People verb
which signifies is not


it is as is an not
and only by this is
but is what only is

miracle sudden swirl
there is no Deadness-Land
oh God again the snows
the souls the snows the light

Oh God again the snows
but be there there are none
the snows my friend the snows
the soul the light the snow

oh God again the snows

and snow that is there is

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