Sunday, September 27, 2015

Varlam Shalamov, the Poet of Kolyma

Kolyma was the heart of Stalin's Gulag, a vast Siberian territory governed by the NKVD, populated mainly by thousands of prisoners who mined gold and cut down trees. One of its many inmates was Varlam Shalamov (1907-1982), sent there in 1937 for his opposition to Stalin's rule. Shalamov is now well-known as the author of Kolyma Tales, a thousand-page collection of short stories, many of them very short, widely considered to be the most accurate account of life in Kolyma. Kolyma Tales was not published until 1989, seven years after Shalamov's death.

Shalamov seems to have considered himself more of a poet than a memoirist. His poetry, however, is not widely read either in Russia or elsewhere. Robert Chandler recently wrote an appreciation of Shalamov's verse that you can find online here. Chandler reads the poetry side-by-side with the prison narrative, and admires the way Shalamov remained a poet and a lover of poetry throughout his 12-year imprisonment. Some of his poems, as Chandler translates them, seem to be about this act of clinging to life and hope through poetry:

From a frost-chilled
line of poetry
my anguish will drop
like a ripe berry.

Rosehip juice will dye
fine crystals of snow –
and a stranger will smile
on his lonely way.

Blending dirty sweat
with the purity of a tear,
he will carefully collect
the tinted crystals.

He sucks tart sweetness,
this purple honey,
and his dried mouth
twists in happiness.


Alive not by bread alone,
I dip a crust of sky,
in the morning chill,
in the stream flowing by.

Something like this, from a long poem titled Roncesvalles, reads completely differently when you imagine it being written by a man laboring in the Kolyma gold mines:

And it may have been Roland’s horn
that called me, like Charlemagne,
to a silent pass where the boldest
of many bold fighters lay slain.

I saw a sword lying shattered
after long combat with stone –
a witness to forgotten battles
recorded by stone alone.

And those bitter splinters of steel
have dazzled me many a time.
That tale of helpless defeat
can’t help but overwhelm.

I have held that horn to my lips
and tried more than once to blow
but I cannot call up the power
of that ballad from long ago.

There may be some skill I’m lacking –
or else I’m not bold enough
to blow in my shy anguish
on Roland’s rust-eaten horn.

For years Shalamov had nothing to write with at all, but could only compose his poems in his head and try to remember them. Later, after he became a medical orderly and acquired some very minor privileges, he could find pencil stubs and scraps of paper. It was enough:

Our tools are primitive
and simple:
a rouble's worth of paper,
a hurrying pencil.

That’s all we require
to build a castle –
high in the air –
above the world’s bustle.

Dante needed nothing else
to build the gates
of icy Hell.

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