By Rebecca Townesend
A Blaze in a Desert is a slim volume of selected poems by Victor Serge. Serge was a revolutionary and writer who witnessed many of the great political highs and terrible lows in the first half of the 20th century.
He was inspired by the revolution and arrived in Russia in January 1919, shortly afterwards joining the Bolshevik Party. He consistently opposed Stalin and was exiled.
I approached this volume not knowing much about his life and works and I am sure that those with a more detailed knowledge would experience these poems differently.
However I would encourage anyone to spend some time with this collection. There are notes and essays that accompany the poems, which include a broad chronology and some interesting details about Serge’s relationship to poetry.
The poems reflect a life filled with challenging political and personal circumstances. They are beautiful and often suffused with strong feelings of great sadness, aching and longing and he moves from anger, sorrow and grief to love, occasionally displaying flashes of wry humour.
The collection is in three parts. Resistance includes poems generally written by Serge “during the period of deportation that he spent in Orenburg (1933-36)”. His original dedication to the poems in Messages is included. He wrote from Mexico City in 1946 that he dedicated them to “my surviving friends and comrades from the black years and to our dead, too numerous to name”. The final part, Mains/Hands is just one poem and it is his final one.
Throughout the poems there are lots of references to his comrades and friends and their often tragic stories, which are referred to in the notes. One such figure is Jacques Mesnil, who died “fleeing the Nazis during the fall of France”. Serge writes of him, “His emaciated face bore the marks of a great, dogged/ courage.”
He specifically takes on the Moscow Trials in his poem “Confessions”. In it he rages at “this confession of an insane degeneration/ this fall into darkness”.
What is most special about his poetry for me is his commitment to continue to struggle, and write. He writes in “People of the Ural” in 1935, “Let’s get to work so that one day a passerby might see/ in the lines taking form at this moment/ patches of a clearing sky I cannot see in them”.
Ultimately, whatever deep sorrow at loss, both personal and political, that is contained within these poems, I am hanging onto lines from “Constellation of Dead Brothers”. This poem was written in 1935 and the book’s title is drawn from it: “The ardent voyage continues/ the course is set on good hope”.