Boris Leonidovich Pasternak (Russia, 1890-1960)
I first became familiar with Boris Pasternak when I was an undergrad in college. Walking through the library late one night, I was startled by a book falling off a shelf. When I went to see what it was, it was a book of his poetry.
I later found out he is the author of the novel Dr. Zhivago, which was made into a 1965 drama romance with Julie Christie and Omar Sharif. Years later I was visiting a friend on Vancouver island. She and her mother had recently bought a Victorian house. When my friend’s mother found out I was a poet, she said, “Oh, I have something you might like. It was the only thing left in this house when we moved in.” It was a book of poetry by Pasternak.
Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 and revolutionized Russian poetry. He once said that poets and artists traditionally have no assured place in society and can only live their lives outside it. I hear that voice in his poetry, the voice of a person who watches the world but lives outside the places and people he observes.
The Highest Sickness
Although the dawn thistle
kept on chasing its shadow
and in the same motion
made the hour linger;
although, as before, the dirt road
dragged the wheels over soft white sand
and spun them onto harder ground
alongside signs and landmarks;
although the autumn sky was cloudy,
and the forest appeared distant,
and the twilight was cold and hazy,
anyway, it was all a forgery.
And the sleep of the stunned earth
was convulsive, like labor pains,
like death, like the silence
of cemeteries, like that unique quiet
that blankets the horizon,
shudders, and beats its brains
to remember: Hold on, prompt me,
what did I want to say?
The story in Dr. Zhivago is of a poet whose idealism is shaken by war and the loss of the love of his life. The poet is more mystic than man and sees the world in a dreamlike, surreal way. In this poem, we hear that story again. The speaker sees the world through lenses of metaphor and mysticism but concludes it is all a forgery. The earth shudders and convulses at this revelation and beats its brains trying to remember what it once believed. He ends the poem with a question, “What did I want to say.”
This reminds me of a similar line in T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
“That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.”
The narrator in each poem is questioning what life means. At the root of the voice is loneliness. These are words spoken by people who are alone, who want to go back in time to live their lives differently. In another poem by Pasternak “A Sultry Night,” the world is also diminished. It was once a whirlwind, something full of power and force but it has become an orphaned and sleepless waste.
In the orphaned, sleepless,
damp universal waste,
groans tore from their posts,
the whirlwind dug in, abated.
Most the poems in this essay are taken from My Sister Life, a book published in 1922 and written by Pasternak during the summer of 1917, in the months before the Russian Revolution. These poems put Pasternak on the map as a poet. At the time he was living in Saratov, a port city in Southern Russia. He was too embarrassed to publish the poems at first because they are written in a nontraditional style. Socialist realism under Stalin called for more traditional forms.
All Russians had to choose between emigrating and living with the new Bolshevik order after the revolution. Pasternak stayed in Russia living in a communal flat in Moscow. Poets Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) and Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) also remained. Most of Pasternak’s family left Russia for Germany, never to return.
When he won the Nobel Prize in 1958, he was not able to accept the award. He wrote in a telegram to the Swedish embassy, “Considering the meaning this award has been given in the society to which I belong, I must refuse it. Please do not take offense at my voluntary rejection.” After struggling to remain in Russia most his life, he did not want to be stripped of his citizenship by leaving the country.
Born in Moscow, Pasternak was the son of painter Leonid Pasternak, a professor at the Moscow School of Painting, and Rosa Kaufman, a pianist. Pasternak’s early years were spent surrounded by art, music and literature. Visitors to his home included composers Sergei Rachmaninoff and Alexander Scriabin and writers Leo Tolstoy and Rainer Maria Rilke.
Boris Pasternak enrolled in the Moscow Conservatory in 1903 and studied composition. He dedicated six years of his life to this and left the school in 1909 to study philosophy, then later turned to poetry. Three finished piano pieces survive to this day.
The poems inMy Sister Life are structured around arrivals and departures, train rides to and from the city and around several relationships the poet had.
It was shadows taking your pulse, it was you
turning your face toward the fields
that burned, swimming on the hinges of gates
flooded with dusk, ashes and poppies.
It was the whole summer in a blaze of pods
and labels and sun-bleached luggage
sealing the wanderer’s breast with wax,
setting your hats and dress on fire.
This poem is full of light. The luggage is sun-bleached, the clothes and the field are on fire. This is a poem full of passion written by a poet who is in love. He is trying to show us the woman he fell in love with, her face turned toward the fields. She is a gate into a beautiful world where everything seems alive. Even the shadows want to touch her hand, take her pulse, feel her living and breathing within. The world in this poem is hinged on her beauty. Poppies are the dominant image. They are bright flowers with delicate skin-like petals. The pods next to them are bursting. These are two strong images of female and male sexual desire.
I’ve heard it said if you want to know what’s really on a person’s mind, read the postscript. It translates the letter into a new light. In a p.s., we write those last few things we must say. This postscript is plowed through a layer of images. In the structure of the sentences, we hear a speaker trying to get something off his mind and sum it all up: It was this, it was that, it was the way she made me feel, it was how she looked. He paints a picture of her spirit swimming in light. Even her many hats say something about her vibrant character.
The spirit sweats—the horizon’s
Windmills image a fishing village:
boats and weathered nets.
The village of torpid windmills
hovers like a motionless harbor.
All smells of weary stasis,
uneasiness, and grief.
The hours skip past like stones,
ricochet across the shallow,
not drowning, keeping afloat,
There’s time before the train
but it’s drowned by apathy,
sunk in limbo, the roiling
turbulence before a storm.
Even the windmills in this fishing village are still. The buildings are cracked and weathered, the horizon is tainted by tobacco stains and the water is stagnant. We don’t want to eat these fish.
In Postscript the images surrounding the poet are ripe in his hands, and he wants to show each one of them to us. But no light is in this poem. Time stands still because the machine behind the poet’s vision has slipped into indifference, into a separate place where it is hard to believe anything outside this world is moving.
This is the gray backdrop for an urban working class, and it is weary with grief, uneasiness and apathy. In the calm before the storm, we see the speaker smoking cigarettes, looking out on the water. The “hours skip past like stones, ricochet across the shallow, not drowning, keeping afloat.” Rocks don’t float, but the image gives us a sense of what it feels like when everything around us remains the same and nothing is changing.
In Addition to All That There Was the Winter
Through lace curtains— ravens— frozen in terror of frost.
It’s the October whirling, it’s terror clawing, crawling, up the steps.
Begging, sighing, or groaning, they all rise in unison for October.
The wind grabbed the hands of the trees— they raced downstairs to get wood.
Snow falls from their knees as they enter the store—It’s been so long since we’ve met!
Did the snow, so often trampled, scatter from hooves like cocaine?
What impressed me most when I watched the movie Dr. Zhivago was all the snow. People trudge through snow from one scene to the next and tried to stay warm. Having lived in the mountains for years, I know what it’s like to live many months in snow. You grow weary of the color white. Staring into that empty color is like staring into your own soul.
In this poem we have white snow contrasted with a black raven. Ravens or large crows are also common in the mountains where I lived. Seeing one perched on top of a tree cawing out to others in the distance is ominous. These scavengers have a panoramic view of the world on their high perch and seem to speak not only to each other but to us.
The raven is also a symbol of mysticism. In Benedictine monasticism, Saint Benedict is often pictured feeding a piece of bread to a raven in the desert. In Native American cultures, the raven is thought of as a kind of supernatural guide that gives voice to our inner life.
The mystical image of the raven in this poem is contrasted with people wiping snow from their pants, breathing in and out the cold air and carrying wood, involved with the mundane tasks of life. They are on earth, in a physical place where people get cold and need to stay warm. It is another image of the poet and the mystic coming up against the cold realities of life.
One evening when I was sitting on the mountain alone I heard what sounded like many hinges bending over my head. I looked up and saw several hundred ravens passing above me. They flew to some mysterious place in the west where the sun was setting in the mountains.
Everything else on the mountain seems very quiet when you are listening to several hundred wings pass overhead, as if their wings were on hinges of many heavy doors. I felt I had a window into a world no human had ever seen. Ravens are often the shape of loneliness in poems or paintings. In my mind that night, they become something human in their need to fly together, not self-effacing mockers who sit alone in trees.
from To Love—To Go—In Endless Thunder
And so I sang, I sang and died,
I died and circled back to her
embraces like a bommerang and—
as I recall—kept on saying goodbye.
One of the most haunting scenes in Dr. Zhivago is near the end of the movie where Yuri sees Lara for the last time. He is on a bus and sees her walk by. They are old now, time and circumstance have separated them, and he had lost all hope of ever seeing her again. When he sees her pass, he stops the bus and tries to run to her but dies of a heart attack on the sidewalk just out of her reach. She walks away and never sees him.
The poems in this essay are written by a man who is full of both doubt and hope. Some poems are theaters of loneliness and silence and others are full of great applause. But whichever voice we hear, it opens on the page in an illusory, trancelike way to reveal an emotional state of the poet. Pasternak lived in a time when the landscape of the country he loved was changed by hardship. Each of these poem seems to be about surviving something, whether that be war or anguish or love.
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