In 1937, with the Soviet Union firmly in the grip of Joseph Stalin, the Yezhovshchina or Great Terror began. “Thousands are executed,” Duncan Bush writes, “millions arrested and deported to concentration camps. Among those who “disappear” are intellectuals, Red Army leaders and former revolutionaries. Over the next decade of Stalin’s rule, among those groups most systematically subjected to repression, arrest, imprisonment and death are writers.”
One of those writers was a poet named Victor Bal, little known in his own time, unheard of today. Born in Petersburg in 1898, the son of a doctor, Bal attended the same school as Osip Mandelstam and Vladimir Nabokov, but his later studies at Petersburg University were interrupted, apparently permanently, by the October Revolution. He fought on the side of the Bolsheviks in the Civil War until he was wounded in 1920. Subsequently, he settled in Moscow, where he began working on film scripts. A member of the Writers’ Union, he was sent into exile somewhere east of the Ural Mountains in 1937, and all trace of him disappears after the spring of 1938.
What little we know of him, offered in English for the first time by Bush, a Welsh poet, comes from 15 finished poems and a handful of unfinished fragments and drafts, a few pages from Bal’s Civil War journal, a short autobiographical essay, notes from a series of interviews with Bal conducted by Yevgeni Nikolayevich Gubski in 1937, and a much later interview with Aleksandr Stepanov, who had known Bal peripherally in the 1920’s. Out of these scant fragments, Bush manages not only to resurrect a vanished life but to recreate on an intensely human scale two of the most cataclysmic events of 20th-century Russian history.
Bal’s surviving body of poetry is simply too small to allow for generalizations, let alone to attempt to judge him against such contemporaries of his as Mandelstam and Isaac Babel. (There is evidence that Bal published at his own expense a book-length collection of poetry called Sunflowers in 1922, but no surviving copy has yet surfaced.) What there is, however, suggests a poet of great sensitivity and subtle power. A poet, like Mandelstam or Pablo Neruda or Kim Chi Ha, honest enough and courageous enough to be dangerous. As Mandelstam’s wife, Nadezhda, once said, “People can be killed for poetry here—a sign of unparalleled respect— because they are capable of living by it.” Such respect, it seems, was given to Bal.
Of the poems themselves, three apparently predate the revolution. “The Galley” is a thinly veiled condemnation of the Czarist government. “Summer. Evening” is a bucolic reverie. “For Marina” is a love poem so tender it seems out of place amid the destruction of war and the politics of terror that fuel the later poems. He writes that his lover’s body is:
. . . so long and beautiful
sometimes it hurts my heart
and makes my eyes
flinch almost so I have to look
away, as from a mirror
flashing all the sun into my face.
Five poems deal with the Civil War, with Bal’s comrades and with the hapless peasants who are always the earth upon which armies tred. Though Bal was a Bolshevik by choice, the poems are empty of politics and ideology, conveying instead only the sadness and the cost of war. “What we come upon,” he writes in “Black Smoke”:
In “Archaic Profile,” about a soldier who has had his nose shot off, Bal reflects:
or leave are dead and dying.
And only in mythology
can Daphne change into a tree.”
In “Toy Soldier,” Bal manages a double irony: that a soldier would waste precious bullets to make a child’s toy, and that the toy should be a lead soldier. And in “Peasant Burial,”
Who can explain these things?
And why try, when death already
chafes us no more than an old boot?
The best that Besmanov will hope for now
is not to lose his nose in one corner
of the Ukraine and his body,
six weeks later, in another.
. . . the second-born is borne
in a child’s small coffin
in her brother’s washed white nightdress
still and now forever too big for her.
That Bal consciously considered, and rejected, any sense of the “heroic” in these poems, that he was doubtful whether the ends justified the means, is suggested by an unfinished draft in his journal. “Now pawns trudge mud//to mindlessness, slewing up/stolen field guns to defend or/take an empty square,” he writes. Two stanzas later, he seems to try to elevate the war to an overtly ideological level. “The white Red blood/has had to melt[, ]” he begins to say, but these last two lines are crossed out, as if he could not reconcile the pedestrian mindlessness of mud and the struggle for an empty square with some abstract and ultimately romantic image of blood melting—be it Bolshevik blood or not. At last, he abandons the poem unfinished.
The finished poems are consequently universal: they might have been written about any war, and they are deeply moving. That they lack “proletarian heroism” or “socialist realism” may help to explain why Bal did not find much success with Stalin’s state publishing houses. Quietly “subversive” as the Civil War poems may be, however, the seven later poems, all apparently written in 1937, are both politically barbed and courageously bitter. If the Civil War poems made Bal suspect, these later poems must surely have sealed his fate.
In “Writers’ Union Building, Moscow, 1937,” Bal describes the members of the union as “[S]heep/milling for the microphone/like wolves. And, like wolves, getting//stronger the longer you run.” In “The Leader,” he pokes holes in Stalin’s ruthless vanity while articulating the danger he faces by doing so, acknowledging “the future/some of us won’t see.” He speaks of “the times’/skullduggery and paranoia” in “The Age of Rust.” Not only the physical cost, but also the awesome psychological cost of Stalin’s Great Terror is hauntingly conveyed in “Night, Day”:
We lie awake at night and dream
the knocking at the door through which
we’ll disappear for ever. By day, commune
our fate and share deliverance with
surprising crowds left on the pavements still.
By the Kremlin wall, too, a queue lengthens
in patience, as if to view
the calf’s blood and pig’s bones
of Christ. While with every swivel-perfect
change of guard, even Lenin,
waxen in the mausoleum, thinks
that they have come for him at last.
And then came the knocking at the door through which Victor Bal disappeared forever, and only through the chance discovery of a hatbox that had once belonged to Gubski do we have any knowledge that Bal ever existed. Y.N. Gubski, the failed poet, who survived the Terror only to die by suicidal hanging in 1954. Gubski, who once tried to publish “The Galley” as his own work. As Bush observes: “Out of the past that is irrevocable, it is one of the ironies of historical and biographical research that isolated facts or grounds for compelling supposition emerge, when they do, in so random and irrelevant a form.”
In that hatbox was found most of the material which comprises The Genre of Silence. To this material, Bush has added the interview with Stepanov, which was recorded in the geriatric wing of a Leningrad hospital in 1987, a few historical annotations to the poems, and some material by and about Mandelstam and Babel that helps to clarify comments Bal made to Gubski during their 1937 interviews.
One learns, for instance, that the five bullets in “Toy Soldier” are a reference to Bal’s habit of keeping one chamber empty to prevent an accidental discharge of his pistol. And “Peasant” takes on a deeper meaning when one reads this entry from Bal’s Civil War journal: “A sickle sharpened on a fieldstone, hour by hour for centuries: that’s what they are. They’ve been here so long they think they’ll outlive the world.” The inspiration for “Black Smoke” lies in a journal entry dated Aug. 19, 1918: “A mother, grandmother and daughter—probably no more than fourteen—whom we found gang-raped (no doubt was possible) then bayoneted upon the same hut floor.” Then, on Aug. 20: “I kept thinking afterwards of the lordly jokes the Greeks made about Zeus’s satyriasis. lope having to change into a cow to get away from him, Daphne into a laurel tree. That stuff won’t work now, not any more.”
The interview material that Gubski recorded is equally fascinating, illuminating the Stalin-era poems less directly but no less powerfully. When asked by Gubski why he wrote so little, Bal replied, “What do you want me to say? A real poet, after all, can be judged by the poems he rejects or abandons just as much as by those he chooses or is lucky enough to find a publisher for.” Yet that measured and artistically-couched response demonstrates the tension between honesty and survival which faced anyone in Bal’s uneasy position, especially when one compares Bal’s reply to his own unfinished poem, “Geranium”:
You must, I tell myself,
live slow and sure and silent
and within yourself. Act
blind and deaf and
dumb. Above all, dumb.
Shape words, but give forth
It was Babel, speaking at the 1934 Writers’ Congress, who described himself as “the master of the genre of silence.” But Bal understood, as well as Babel, that to say anything at all was dangerous. As Bal wrote in a poem for Mandelstam, referring to a then-unpublished poem of Mandelstam’s:
Indeed, there was politics and danger even in a goldfinch, for as Bal pointed out to Gubski, “That bird’s not a stuffed bird. It isn’t a vulture in a case.”
Safer, you thought, in days
like these, to live a bird
than as a man,
pretending to forget that
cagebirds sing, and can be heard.
Yet even silence offered no safety, as both Babel and Bal must surely have understood. Bal tells Gubski of a chance encounter he had with Babel on the night Babel spoke of the genre of silence: “He looked drained, empty. I thought it was a look I’d seen on soldiers at the front. After an attack, or sometimes just from sheer exhaustion, you’d suddenly notice a man looked like a corpse. As if he were already dead. “He’s gone,” we used to say. “He’s just waiting to stiffen up.” Babel would have understood what I mean by that.”
One can only wonder if Bal was thinking of himself as he spoke. “What I suppose I’m trying to say,” he told Gubski, “is that you look for a pattern in all these things, some higher meaning. Until you realise that there’s only one meaning and it’s this: that’s how things are for us. We’re one of those generations. We weren’t bom in a bed just so we could die in one.”
And, like countless others, Bal did not. Instead he disappeared into the vast wilderness of Siberia and simply vanished for fifty years. That he has not vanished forever is a matter of fortuitous chance coupled with the extraordinary talent of Duncan Bush. That Bush has been able to recapture so much with so little is a testament to Bush’s own sensitivity and power.
Bush, I ought to point out, is an accomplished poet in his own right. Author of three previous books, Aquarium (Poetry Wales Press, 1983), Salt (Poetry Wales Press, 1985), and Black Faces, Red Mouths (Bedrock Press, 1986), Bush has won numerous honors in Britain, including a Gregory Award and several Welsh Arts Council Prizes. Aside from a few individual poems in Cumberland Poetry Review, Archive and NER/BLQ, however, his work has hitherto been unavailable to U.S. readers.
The Genre of Silence offers a chance to correct that, and it is a fine introduction to a fine poet: part poetry, part history, part mystery. Yes, mystery. I would like ever so much to share that mystery; without doing so, it is impossible to convey the full brilliance of Bush’s accomplishment. But to explain it would ruin the fun, the sheer sense of jolting discovery one can only experience by reading the book. After all, a secret, once told, is never a secret again.
So I will say only that while The Genre of Silence deals with specific events and specific people, it speaks clearly to the timelessness of repression and resistance, brutality and resilience. If the indomitable human spirit is a cliché, it is nevertheless what finally and triumphantly remains of the life of Victor Bal, and the lives of the nameless millions all over the world, now and for all times, that Victor Bal represents.