Writing lines beyond the limit. Verses from a Russian prison evoke a poet's `second birth'
Beyond the Limit, by Irina Ratushinskaya. Translated by Frances Padorr Brent and Carol J. Avins. Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press. 121 pp. $22.95, cloth; $10.95, paper. Two months after her release from the Gulag, the poet Irina Ratushinskaya was granted a medical visa to the West. With her husband, also a professional physicist, she went to London. Earlier, she had told reporters that she hoped she wouldn't have to leave Russia, that the ``warming'' movement suggested by her release might make that ``tragic'' decision unnecessary. But once in London, she apparently decided to stay.
On Oct. 9, 1986, one day before the Reykjavik summit, Ratushinskaya (pronounced Ra-too-SHIN-skuh-yah) had been freed after serving four of the seven years of her sentence for anti-Soviet propaganda - to wit, her poetry and the letters she wrote with her husband in behalf of Andrei Sakharov.
In part a response to pressure brought to bear by the world literary community, in part an aspect of Gorbachev's strategy of glasnost, her release came as a surprise to her.
Thus, Ratushinskaya reached the West two years after her book of prison verse did in the spring of 1985. Her book, now published in English translation (with Russian on facing pages), is more than a document in the endless history of cruelty and suffering imposed on creative people by the Soviet communist regime.
The true nature of the book is suggested by the strange path it took on its way West.
While she was 300 miles southeast of Moscow in the strict-regime camp at Barashevo, Ratushinskaya's husband, Gerashchenko, received her poems from others who had either memorized them or had received copies from those who had. Once Gerashchenko had the completed book, he sent a typed Russian copy to the translators of this volume.
How did the poems come to be composed? Ratushinskaya was not allowed to have paper. After all, she was in prison precisely because she wrote ``beyond the limit.'' Ratushinskaya composed her verses on bars of soap. After she had polished and memorized them, she washed her hands, destroying the incriminating evidence. Ratushinskaya's hands were clean!
Later, at night, she would recite the lines to her fellow prisoners. Eventually they too knew her poems by heart.
Recited and memorized by the prisoners, the poems became part of the inner life of the prison.
Indeed, these poems bear witness to a specifically human mode of consciousness, a kind of throwing of the self into a potential future, imaginary and historical, an inner realm of freedom, vertiginous at times, at times gently consoling, and sometimes heartbreaking for the ideal light it sheds on the present.
``Beyond the Limit'' is quite simply a marvelous book of poetry. Far more than a miscellany, it has the unity of Keats's odes or Catullus' poems or Shakespeare's sonnets. Composed during the first 17 months of her term, 42 out of 47 are dated. As a whole, the book clearly shows the growth of the poet's understanding of what it means to go - or be pushed - beyond the limit.
The work is intimately tied to its context. Ratushinskaya addresses several prisoners by name, and the notes indicate the fate of some of them. Many poems describe the conditions of prison life, the cold of the isolation cell where prisoners were allowed only light dress - no blankets, no jacket - and slippers contaminated by previous occupants.
In a poem composed in August 1984, at the end of the miraculous period of creativity (on July 2, for example, she wrote two big poems!), a grating is mentioned. The windows of the isolation cell had thick grating but no glass, and the grating becomes a universal symbol. ``As for the grating that can never go away -/ through a grating, vision is sharper.''
Ratushinskaya's sharp vision is universal - and not unrelated to her awareness of her religious roots in the Polish Roman Catholicism of her grandparents. The poems are also varied in tone, imagery, and genre. Lullabies follow plain, confessional poems; historical scenes, visions. There is irony and apocalypse, intimacy and historical sweep.
And bad as the situation was, ``Beyond the Limit'' is a triumph of the human spirit. It describes a spiritual rebirth.
Referring to an occasion when it took six men to force feed her during a hunger strike, an early (November 1983) poem begins,
``I'll live through this, survive, and they'll ask me:/ how they beat my head on the prison cot,/ how it froze during the nights....''
It goes on to say that she'll honor ``the dry September'' - presumably the September of 1982 in which she was arrested by the KGB - as her ``second birth.''
In another poem, she address Tanya Osipova, an older prisoner whom she befriended and with whom she shared a freezing punishment cell for much of December 1983. Both were in need of medical care, both sacrificed themselves to bring attention to the condition of another prisoner who was critically ill. They fasted.
The poet says: ``How could two such voiceless ones not sing together?''
Ratushinskaya communicates her special hope-in-despair by exploiting the many aspects of the future tense. Throughout the collection, the future is tangible, pressing, urgent, and conveyed as exhortation, promise, threat, desire, wish, and vision.
``I wish,'' says the poet; ``Let us,'' she says. One poem of flight begins, ``This evening is made for a long walk,'' and quickly shifts into a desire-filled future tense: ``We'll fill our pockets/ with sugar drops.''
Thanks to this volume, many will wish to take the long walk with her. Tender or angry or rapt, Ratushinskaya's voice carries these sometimes merely accurate translations.
Very occasionally a book comes along that not only makes news, but history. ``Beyond the Limit'' is such a book. Indeed, the time Ratushinskaya spent at Barashevo must be a special time for all who love poetry and freedom, and the isolation cell a special place. From it, Ratushinskaya addresses not only fellow zeks, but all mankind.
Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.
Poem 32 from `Beyond the Limit' And for the cry from the well of ``Mama!'' and for the cross knocked from the cathedral, and for your lie of ``Telegram!'' when it's an order for arrest - You will dream of me, Russia! In the curse of your triumphs, the toil of your impotence, in your bragging, carousing. The nausea of your hangover - Why is it that fright breaks out? All is lamented, all laid to rest - Who is it, makes you suddenly flinch? Fling blame at the murdered - Deny it, weasel out with lies. All the same, I'll come before you, look straight in your eyes!
5 July 1984