Izbrannye stat’i o russkoi poezii: Invarianty, struktury, strategii, interteksty. Moscow: Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi gumanitarnyi universitet, 2005. 654 pp. Cloth/ Slavic and East European Journal, v. 50, 2 (2006). P. 321-322.

This collection brings together some 25 of Aleksandr Zholkovsky’s articles, written over the three decades leading up to the volume’s appearance. The emphasis is primarily on the Silver Age: Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Pasternak, and Mayakovsky are all discussed in three or more of the studies. However, the chronological reach both extends further back (Pushkin’s verse is the main topic in some five articles) and reaches up toward the present, with Okudzhava, Brodsky, and, perhaps surprisingly, Limonov all getting their share of attention. The division into four sections, though, is based not so much on when items were first written or on the dates of the texts that are discussed, but instead on approach. As a result one article devoted to Pushkin’s “Ia vas liubil” appears in the first section, while another on the same poem appears in the last section, and a third, devoted to Brodsky’s ‘Ia vas liubil” and its relationship to the Pushkin text, shows up in section three.

Those interested in a particular poet will therefore be likely to deviate from Zholkovsky’s ordering as they peruse the book, but his grouping into categories does suggest certain unities among investigations that roam over a broad range of writers and works. All four of the articles that were originally published in the 1970s, along with two others, appear in the first section and illustrate his efforts to define a particular author’s “poetic world”—the system of invariant themes and their realizations that characterizes an author’s texts. Thus, the first article attempts to describe Pushkin’s poetic world, while the second applies those findings to “Iavas liubil,” noting the specific invariant motifs and their combinations that create the poem’s meaning. The remainder of this second article goes on to offer a detailed, line-by-line commentary on the poem’s structure. For the purposes of this volume Zholkovsky has not significantly revised his articles, but he precedes the notes for each with a brief commentary, where he may describe the chief goal of the article, offer a self-critique, or include the comments of others, sometimes in a self-deprecating fashion, Thus he mentions that he sent a preprint of these first two articles to the eminent verse scholar, Kiril Taranovsky, who disapproved of the analyses but found something positive with which to conclude his commentary: “you have a lot of quotations, and it is always pleasant to reread Pushkin” (523). While on the whole I find Zholkovsky’s articles in this volume (and for that matter his writing in general) to be extremely informative and perceptive, I share a little of Taranovsky’s feeling about the earliest articles, where the effort to define the poetic world, while impressive in the sheer amount of data that is conveyed, ultimately seems mechanical. The later writings, even in this section, while hardly lacking detailed examples, wear their erudition a little more lightly. Thus, in a 1993 article on Mayakovsky’s “Dachnyi sluchai” he concisely and effectively analyzes what he calls a bad but hardly uninteresting poem of the Soviet era.

The last two sections examine various kinds of intertextuality and are reminiscent of the first in their reliance on rich arrays of examples to state their claims. Thus, in section three, where the focus is on poems that directly respond to others, Zholkovsky points out that Brodsky’s “Ia vas liubil…” is not only an obvious take-off on the Pushkin work, but also embodies the more modern attitudes of poets such as Mandelshtam, Mayakovsky and Akhmatova. Limonov, who seems to deny tradition at every turn, in fact writes a poem (“Ia v mysliakh poderzhu drugogo chelovcka…”) that bears traces of familiar genres and intertextual relationships with other writers. When Pushkin’s “Ia vas liubil…” turns up in the final section, it is to show how various word groupings, structures and thematic elements from this famous poem have infiltrated verse texts over subsequent generations. Several items in this last group (on Pushkin’s “Iz Pindemonti,” on Brodsky’s “Lenklos” [the second poem in his “Litovskii divertisment”], and on Shershenevich) are also devoted to one of Zholkovsky’s more recent interests, the phenomenon of “infinitive writing,” where the work contains sentences in which the main verbal element consists of an infinitive that is not linked to a concrete person or to modal meanings (433).

I have saved the second section for last, because, in describing how the key themes of certain writers’ poetic worlds are also of biographical significance, Zholkovsky’s writing frequently takes on a different tenor, becoming more negative about some of the poets he discusses. In an article on Sestra. moia—zhizn’ he holds that all Pasternak’s key themes appear compressed in the image of the work’s title, and the unpacking of this trope explains both the various kinds of ambivalence that Pasternak expresses and the creative energy that allowed him to undergo more than one rebirth as a writer. A piece subtitled “Progulki po Maiakovskomu” (the notes elaborate on the reference to Siniavsky, who reacted negatively to the work, 551) concerns “not Mayakovsky personally but the poetic figure of the implied author” (195). That said, Zholkovsky expounds at length on the misogyny that appears in Mayakovsky and ultimately relates it to a broader dissatisfaction with life, which resulted in his extremism and attraction to revolutionary violence. His success as a poet, accordingly, owes much to his giving expression to, inter alia, his anger, pain, hyperbolic tendencies, and exaltation of the new over the old. The first article in this section, “Anna Akhmatova — piat’desiat let spustia.” is perhaps the most controversial. Zholkovsky declares he is writing not so much about Akhmatova’s poetry as about the aura surrounding her, and he states that the cult of Akhmatova has proved to be longer-lasting than that of Lenin and Stalin (141). In describing the circle in which she held sway, he claims that she was an imperial figure who reigned with some of the devices typical of the Soviet regime. The demythologizing of Akhmatova continues in two other articles in this section, one on her attitudes toward Mayakovsky, and the other on Akhmatovian subtexts in stories by Tatiana Tolstaya and Viktor Erofeev.

The volume requires a serious reader. Zholkovsky often introduces specialized concepts, provides densely argued close readings of poems, and includes extensive series of quotations from a wide variety of poets. At the same time his analyses offer ample awards. He is almost encyclopedic in his knowledge of Russian poetry, allowing him to trace various “anxieties of influence” or to construct the “poetic worlds” of the figures he discusses. With his original and probing intelligence he often establishes new approaches to the material or uncovers previously unexamined aspects of poetry, such as infinitive writing. One may not agree with him when he is at his most polemical, but he is always thought-provoking and frequently droll as he takes his readers on journeys of discovery through both well-known and less familiar territory.