"People" by Yevgeny Yevtushenko


In any man who dies, there dies with him
his first snow and kiss and fight.
It goes with him.

There are left books and bridges
and painted canvases and machinery.

Whose fate is to survive.
But what has gone is also not nothing:

by the rule of the game, something has gone.
Not people die, but worlds die in them.

Whom we knew as faulty, the earth's creatures.
Of whom, essentially, what did we know?

Brother of a brother? Friend of friends?
Lover of lover?

We who knew our fathers
in everything, in nothing.

They perish. They cannot be brought back.
The secret worlds are not regenerated.

And every time, again and again,
I make my lament against destruction.

From люди (People), Yevgeny Yevtushenko, 1961
Translated by Robin Milner-Gulland and Peter Levi;
Yevgeny Yevtushenko: Selected Poems, Penguin Classics, 2008

In my twenties, I came under the spell of modern Russian poetry, especially the work of Boris Pasternak, Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Bella Akhmadulina. I encountered their poems not only in English translations but through recordings. (Yevtushenko was an excellent performer of both his own work and the poetry of Pasternak, Mayakovsky, Tsvetaeva and others.)

The Russian poems were full of open vowels, rolled r's and emphatic consonants that made them more sensual that the English-language poetry I knew, and the Russians seemed more at ease expressing powerful emotions. The link below to a 1979 Yevtushenko reading will show what I mean.

Returning to Yevtushenko's work now, it still impresses me with its warmth, its insight, its lightly-worn eloquence. In this poem, which closes the Penguin selection of his verse in Robin Milner Gulland and Peter Levi's fluent translations, Yevtushenko reminds us that every lament is, in part, a celebration of those we mourn.


Yevtushenko performing in 1979 (see second link below)


Arthur Miller, New Yorker artist Saul Steinberg and Yevtushenko in 1966.
(Photo by Inge Morath, courtesy of the Saul Steinberg Foundation.)

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