Translators’ Note

by Philip Metres and Dimitri Psurtsev

Arseny Alexandrovich Tarkovsky was born in the Ukrainian city of Elisavetgrad (now Kirovograd) in 1907 and moved to Moscow in 1923, working as a newspaper journalist and publishing his first poems. By the late 1930s, he had become a noted translator of Turkmen, Georgian, Armenian, Arabic, and other Asian poets. During the Second World War, he served as a war correspondent for the Soviet Army publication Battle Alarm from 1942 to 1944, receiving the Order of the Red Star for valor. He would come to write some of the most stunning and intimate poems about the Second World War, which, unlike many popular war poems of the time, viewed war through an unheroic lens. His first book of poems had been accepted for publication in 1946, but in the wake of Andrei Zhdanov’s ideological attack on the celebrated writers Anna Akhmatova and Mikhail Zoshchenko, the book was never published. Tarkovsky’s first volume of his own poems, Before the Snow, only came out in 1962, when the poet was fifty-five, and rapidly sold out. His fame widened when his son, the internationally acclaimed filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, included some of his father’s poems in his films. He died in 1989, just before the Soviet Union fell.

In an interview toward the end of her life, Akhmatova called Arseny Tarkovsky the one “real poet” in the Soviet Union. In her words, “[O]f all contemporary poets Tarkovsky alone is completely his own self, completely independent. He possesses the most important feature of a poet, which I’d call the birthright.” Tarkovsky’s work emerges from a visionary sensibility that became his way of forging a Russian art outside of Soviet realism. Of course, it’s the music of the poems that guaranteed his reputation, as much as the vision. In a time when Russian poetry was anything but independent, Tarkovsky’s verse maintained its resolute allegiance to his own poetic vision. In his poetic and spiritual freedom, Tarkovsky outlasted the slag and dross of totalitarianism. His poetry is the internal cinema of the Soviet era, an unscrolling testimony of the gentle ferocity of a soul surviving a deadly and soul-crushing period.

The following poems are from I Burned at the Feast: Selected Poems of Arseny Tarkovsky (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2015).

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