By Mitchell Abidor
“…THANKS TO THE LABORS of occasional Blog-Shmog contributor Richard Greeman, the great Belgian-born revolutionary and writer Victor Serge has become an important figure, not just in politics, but in literature. Reprints of his novels appear with regularity, and his classic Memoirs of a Revolutionary remains an essential text for understanding the struggles of the first half of the 20th century.
Now, thanks to Bay Area poet and translator James Brook’s brilliant and fluid translation of Serge’s two collections of poetry in the volume A Blaze in a Desert (PM Press, 2017, 192 pages), this least-known and vastly underappreciated element of the Serge oeuvre will hopefully reach a wide audience.
Much of the poetry was written when Serge was detained in the Urals for his anti-Stalin activity, conditions hardly propitious for poetry. But along with the beauty of the poetry written under such horrific conditions — with his descriptions of his surroundings, of “Kurdish women in red dresses, a little donkey ambling/down the back street of the Maidan,/ chance colors, their capricious fits of sleep, their waking/ amid the bazaar’s shifting arabesques…” — what strikes the reader is the warmth and sympathy Serge feels, not just for his fellow prisoners, but for those living in this forbidding area. There are, for example, the four girls who “wade gaily into the water to ford the Ural,/ the sparkling, shimmering, life-giving water./ The water grasps the firm calves of these walkers from the /edge of the steppes,/ and invisible caressing hand discreetly/ takes their knees, then a brisk coolness/ wed their legs and rises to brush their secret flesh…”.
Even in Orenburg, cut off from family, friends, politics, and literature, Serge is an intellectual, referring to Holderlin and Freud, quoting Baudelaire, citing the Paris Commune and the bloodiest events of the French Revolution. But what haunts him above all, as it would in the articles he wrote, is the fate of his comrades, the men and women who made the Bolshevik Revolution, then were imprisoned and murdered by Stalin and his henchmen. The first of his volumes of poetry was dedicated to twelve of them by name, and the second was dedicated “in loyalty to my surviving friends and comrades from the black years and to our dead, too numerous to name.”
His collective name for these opponents of Stalinism was the lovely “constellation of dead brothers,” and as early as 1928 he recognized, in a poem written before his imprisonment, “Farewell, everything is ending, world, brothers, plains,/ eyes,/ snow, cities, stars,/ International…”
The poems collected here were written in Russia, in Marseille, on the high seas, and in the Dominican Republic, where he made a brief halt until his final exile in Mexico, where he produced beautiful appreciations of what he didn’t know would be his final home and where he would be buried.
Serge was a man of broad human sympathies, a man who sincerely appreciated the beauty of the people he met and the places he inhabited. He was defeated but never crushed. Poetry occupies a small place in his oeuvre, but in James Brook’s translations, it is an important one.”