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Outspoken Soviet Poet Makes Waves in East and West

April 08, 1987|DICK RORABACK | Times Staff Writer

He was a house guest of Picasso and Chagall.

He was a protege of Pasternak, and a plague on the house of Khrushchev.

He dines with Armand Hammer and Dennis Hopper.

He has the entire Soviet Union--by extension, the whole world--dancing on a tightrope.

And he can't get a bowl of fish soup.

Andrei Voznesensky, poet, philosopher, boat-rocker, has no use for the menu.

"Something light," he rumbles to the waiter in a coffee shop of the Beverly Hills Comstock. (Voznesensky's voice rumbles naturally, like a far-off thunderstorm moving across the Steppes.) "Some soup. Fish?"

"Shrimp cocktail," suggests the waiter.

"Cocktail? Too early," the poet says. "You have soup, no?"

"Tomato soup."

"Is cold or hot?"

"Hot."

Voznesenky shrugs, ladles something pink and prepared into the mouth that roared.

He cocks an eyebrow over a blue orb that's seen it all, possibly even Heinz's tomato soup.

Borscht it's not.

Andrei ("In Russia they call me just Andrei; they never set poet above poor man") shouldn't be here at all, here in America.

"It's a hot time at home," he says. "My family called me yesterday and said, 'Andrei, we need you.' I'm only here, very quickly, for the book tour." Henry Holt has just published "An Arrow in the Wall" ($22.95), a collection of poetry and prose that is startling in its resonance, even in English.

There are readings across the country. Nothing, though, like the packed stadia in the Soviet Union, where Andrei has been hotter than Madonna for more than 30 years. Or like Paris, where Pierre Cardin opened his personal theater to Andrei, followed by Champagne at Maxim's. Nor London, where Andrei's Goudonov-ish basso dueled Olivier and Scofield to a tie.

No such triumphs in America, but increasing enthusiasm. At UCLA last week, auditors kept Voznesensky reciting their favorites until long past his allotted time. Still, these were the cognoscenti, not exactly "the people." It troubles Andrei (though not unduly) that in America, his poetry-- any poetry--has the approximate public appeal of lacrosse.

"In Russia," the poet muses, "I was treated like rock star. I was younger. I began to think of myself as a prophet. It went to my head. Then Khrushchev cut it off. . . . "

But "It's hot back home now," he repeats. Indeed it is.

Spearheaded by Voznesensky, and at least tacitly abetted by Chairman Gorbachev, Pasternak's "Doctor Zhivago" probably will be published this year. Nabokov too. Chagall's works will be on display for the first time. (Chagall, not incidentally, is a Jewish emigre.)

"People will question," Andrei says, his eyes sparkling in anticipation of another challenge to the Establishment--or perhaps it's simply a reflection of the pink soup.

"They will read this wonderful 'Zhivago,' and they will ask, 'Why haven't we been allowed to read this for 30 years?' They will see Chagall's beautiful paintings and they will ask, 'Why haven't we seen this? It was painted 70 years ago!' "

Other questions have been asked of late, with Voznesensky posing a fair share.

He tells a vivid tale, at once horrific and hopeful, of a mass grave recently discovered in the Crimea.

"The Germans had killed 12,000 Jews and buried them in a ditch. No gold teeth stolen; they were in a hurry. Nobody knows the place but one policeman, who cooperated

with the Germans.

"Two years ago he sold the secret to a group of ordinary Soviet people: a physician, workers, an engineer, a pregnant young woman. They begin to dig and break skulls and take golden teeth.

"They were caught by police. It was secret trial; nobody knows. Not one line in press. The authorities, they do nothing to them. Even this doctor of medicine now is working in Moscow.

"I come to this place last year. Two fresh holes, with skulls; small children's boots with bones inside; even hair still with hair ribbon.

"I was shocked. It was not Auschwitz by movie or book. I saw it myself.

"I write long poem, about Chernobyl, our corruption, the grave. Some of my friends steal documents of the trial. I published poem and documents in a magazine last summer. Three million copies were sold. They reopened the case for this.

"One year ago, it was impossible to even think these things. Maybe not arrested, but terrible time. Even now, I know the magazine director was brave guy. He didn't even ask authorities. So it's changing. I don't know personally Gorbachev, but I think somebody around him read this poem and said, 'It's OK.' "

The visitor from Russia smiles, at his audacity and its acceptance, but bristles when asked if a poet would be permitted to criticize the occupation of Afghanistan.

"I have not seen such a poem," he says shortly. (Then, parenthetically, "I'm sure that this war has to be finished as shortly as possible.")

Yet he has written: "For an artist true-born/ revolt is second nature:/ he is both tribune/ and troublemaker."

It is an apparent paradox, then, that Andrei Voznesensky has remained in a country that historically does not tolerate troublemakers, real or imagined.

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