Memory Maps: 'Donald Davie and Boris Pasternak: Essex and Russia' by Angela Livingstone
This note is not about Donald Davie's place as a poet in 20th-century English poetry, or the influence on readers and scholars of his concern with 'purity of diction' and 'articulate energy' (titles of two of his books). It is not, either, about his importance in the founding of the University of Essex in 1962 or his initiation of its Department of Literature. It is not even about the uniquely interesting and inspiring structure of studies he introduced in this department, where every student of English literature simultaneously and in equal measure studied the literature of one of the great, more recent, literatures: Russian or Latin American or North American; and all students, moreover, in that linguistically more ambitious age than ours, read the foreign literature in its own language or, if North American was chosen, had at least to be well qualified in a foreign language. Nor is this note, exactly, about Donald Davie's love of Russian, although that is the cause of my having something to say on this website: I came to the county, and university, of Essex in mid-September 1966, forty years ago as I write these words, to teach Russian literature, and I worked with Donald for a while translating poetry by Pasternak.
What this note is about is his 1969 book Essex Poems. It especially concerns the poems in that volume which are about places, and, more especially, the ones concerning places in or near Essex; many refer to other places and some of these will be mentioned too, since all appear under the title Essex Poems - all, that is, were written while their author lived in this county. Because of my special interest and my work with him, I concentrate on the connection between those poems and Boris Pasternak, the greatest Russian poet of the twentieth century (though mainly known in the West for his one novel, Doctor Zhivago) and of very great importance to Donald Davie.
The poems I have in mind call for the remembering, or the making, of an idiosyncratic mental map. The map starts at Holland-on-Sea, moves south to 'the Sokens' -Thorpe and Kirby, north to Orford (still on the East Anglian coast), slightly inland to Tunstall, further inland to Ely in Cambridgeshire, then, after indicating far-off Barnsley and Stratford-on-Avon, leapfrogs all the way to Moscow, marginally taking in Marburg (in Germany) where the young Muscovite Pasternak, temporarily living there as a student, started 'fundamentally writing poetry'. As Pasternak later recollected, that first writing of his was 'about the sea, about the dawn, about the southern rain, about the coal of the Harz', about, that is to say, whatever was there around him, rather as Donald Davie, temporarily living in Essex, looked round him and wrote about those near-at-hand local places - very often with Pasternak in mind.
Many of his poems conduct an implicit dialogue with the Russian poet, some mention him, some are subtitled 'after Pasternak', and a few are translations from the Russian. 'The God of Details', bar two lines, is a direct translation of 'Let us drop words' (1917) and is the best English version of a Pasternak poem I have seen - the translator so clearly at home with the original's precise, brilliant diction, 'distracted' and 'profuse' as it is, at once lavish and sparse. It is interesting that prominent words from this poem reappear in adjacent poems of Davie's own: for instance, 'italic' in 'Thanks to Industrial Essex
Two of the 'Essex' poems, not quite translations, closely imitate the structure of Pasternak poems, recreating their moods and using some of their imagery. A late poem of Pasternak's, 'Grass and Stones', was taken by Davie as foundation for one to which he gave the name of a place not far over the Essex/Suffolk border, 'Orford'. 'Grass and Stones', puts two eastern European countries, Georgia (Gruziia) and Poland, in a catalogue of things which nature mixes or joins and to which grace is promised 'By earth in every crack of stone, / By grass growing out of every wall'. These two lines, repeated and varied, end up in 'Orford' as: 'Earth in every hollow of the stone, / Grass growing in advance of every doorway'. There is nothing here of actual Orford, unless that it is old, stony and grassy, as there is almost nothing of Gruziia or Poland in 'Grass and Stones', but a thinkable union is quietly suggested between East Anglia and East Europe, over-arched by the general title and concept of 'Essex'.
And 'White Night' (from Pasternak's novel) is the origin of Davie's 'Stratford-on-Avon'. Russian and English alike begin with a deliberate act of remembering, and with the invoking of several localities. Pasternak starts (in my rough translation):
I glimpse a distant time,
A house on the 'Petersburg Side'.
Daughter of a poor steppe landowner,
You were a student, born in Kursk.
I look a long way back
To a house near Stratford.
You had come out of our black
Barnsley, a girl, to Oxford.
Not Essex places, yet all - from Petersburg to Oxford - remembered in, thus abstractly united by, the county of Essex. In each, the poet-as-boy talks, in the far past, to a girl in a house amid moonlit countryside. Davie's poem, with its lines:
And yet within the echo
Of our lame exchanges
No grasses ceased to grow,
No apple pair turned strangers...
contradicts the carefree spirit of Pasternak's apple trees (blossoming 'in the echoes of our conversation'), while asserting, in pasternakian fashion, that nature continues to flourish despite human failures.
Are these memory maps? Perhaps four-dimensional ones? In 'Stratford-on-Avon' Davie rehearses emotions he had in the past in English places, tacitly bringing into the same picture, or map, a Russian poet's rehearsal of past emotions felt in Russian places. In 'Orford' a philosophy of nature is associated with a near-Essex place, again tacitly bringing with it the Russian's association of that same philosophy with places close to Russia.
The most local - to Colcestrians - of all the Essex Poems is 'Sunburst', set 'a few miles distant' from Holland-on-Sea (adjoining Clacton, not far from Colchester). Although the poem does not allude to Pasternak, the fierce and positive response in it to a meteoric change - 'all this wheeling and flashing' - and then its deriving a thought, furious and creative, from that phenomenon, bring to mind several Pasternak poems; the mere title of one of them, 'Thunderstorm, Momentary For Ever', could have inspired it.
As it is not one of the Essex Poems, I am not looking at Donald Davie's later poem 'Portland', though it is complexly and splendidly based on Pasternak, but in the Essex volume I find something similar achieved by the very fine ' Tunstall Forest'. This has as its subtext Pasternak's poem 'Tishiná', Silence. I give the Russian word because Davie indicates his source by a partial echo of its title, 'Tishina: Tunstall' - same initial, similar prominence of 'n' and sibilant - and confirms it by opening his poem with the word 'Stillness'. As in 'Silence', a 'tense stillness' is evoked by the image of a deer feeding in the forest.
True, the Davie poem is about people desiring the deer and the stillness, while in Pasternak's the deer is vividly present, enchanting (Orpheus-like) everything around it, and there are no people, only a sort of edgeless essence of them in the behaviour of trees, flowers and a stream. Let people stay away, nature is already human, this late, straightforward poem of Pasternak's seems to say. Donald Davie, on the contrary, writes about a human wish for something not obtained: that same perfection of the natural through the stillness of the deer. But he doesn't refer to 'Silence' in order to lament an inability to do what the Russian poem does. The absent deer, with 'liquid eye and elegant head', is as present in his poem as it might have been in reality, or - rather - the deer-evoked stillness, which in reality, it seems, 'did not come', does come for the reader of the poem. An acute recollection of Pasternak's 'Silence', making the poet mind that he does not have that unhuman, elusive sensation of stillness, also enables him to imagine it and so, after all, to recreate it.
Lastly: ' A Winter Landscape Near Ely', one of the finest poems in the volume, asks a question of the sort Pasternak, too, asked himself all his life:
What stirs us when a curtain
Of ice-hail dashes the window?
To which the laconic, vastly evocative answer -
It is the wasteness of space
That a man drives wagons into
Or plants his windbreak in...
- is strangely complemented by the closing lines:
Spaces stop time from hurting.
Over verst on verst of Russia
Are lime-tree avenues.
These seem to refer less to the versts of Russia (where actually birch trees tend to predominate) than to a poem placed next but one after 'Silence' in Pasternak's last collection: 'Lime-Tree Avenue'. In this poem a dark tunnel of wintry limes is transformed into almost intelligible blossom and scent. Thus Pasternak's memory of a Russian place transfigured creeps, through a cryptic hint, into the conclusion of Donald Davie's memory of bleak East Anglian landscape.
Another of Davie's poems ' Out of East Anglia' is also included here.
Copyright © Angela Livingstone (University of Essex)