sat 15/06/2024

theartsdesk in Moscow: Three Poets on the Metro | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk in Moscow: Three Poets on the Metro

theartsdesk in Moscow: Three Poets on the Metro

The spirit of Jerome K Jerome lives on in poems inspired by the Russian capital's subterranean palaces

Two men on the Metro, photographed by a third: poets Paul Summers and Andy Croft go undergroundW N Herbert

Poetry on the underground – we all know it: those well-intentioned verselets that set out to brighten the weary traveller’s journey. But poetry about the underground? You begin to worry about some sub-Larkinesque aubade on the brevity of life and the length of the trip.

In Three Men on the Metro, poets Andy Croft, W N Herbert and Paul Summers face the challenge squarely, though they skip the stations of their native Tyne and Wear, bypass what passes for a mass transportation system in London, and journey to the mother of all metros – Moscow.

In the process they discover as much about what’s above ground, in the city, indeed in Russia itself, as about the gloriously decorated lower depths of the system; the reader enjoys also their sometimes bemused meanderings between the two. Think of Jerome K Jerome’s unlikely heroes jostled by the masses, stirred by artistic glories and the heavy weight of history behind them – and, of course, in search of a dog.

The Moscow Metro might seem an unlikely inspiration, but Croft is having none of that. “It is one of the seven wonders of the world!” he practically barks. “The first time I visited Moscow and saw Revolution Square station, I was completely overwhelmed. Amazing! So much history, art, culture, geology and technology in one small space - and none of the commuters even seemed to notice. Then late one night, tired, I put my feet on one of the seats and was told by a rather scary-looking skinhead to take them off. In the UK, public spaces belong to no one. This was clearly a public space over which people still felt a large degree of ownership. This seemed like a set of important contradictions, which warranted further investigation.”

Herbert concurs, remembering an earlier trip in the same company (sending poets to Siberia being one of the more unusual missions undertaken by British arts funding bodies): “I remember staring at the roundels in Park Kultury and thinking how calm kitsch could look. I remember realising that the Metro was where the dead, whether practical, literary, heroic, or disgraced, were all welcomed back into the fold - in my mind the misericordia of Mother Russia. Everyone could be ‘redeemed’, everything was always being rewritten. Shyly, all three poets on that trip shuffled up to each other and confessed to having similar thoughts.”

So off, eventually, they went on a proper return journey of research, three slightly dishevelled fortysomethings. They went armed with facts and figures that speak drily of what is indeed extraordinary: 2.5 billion travellers a year, speeds and frequency unknown, say, to Londoners, a network of around 180 stations, its number growing still year by year, in almost every range of architectural style, with new ones built though the harsh years of the Great Patriotic War and the depressed early 1990s alike, often at considerable cost in human casualties. It’s as if each year has left its own stamp on the system, which brushes up against the reality that now surrounds it; the marble halls still stand, the ideologies that inspired them now largely betrayed, leaving its passengers to negotiate spaces that once seemed sacred and have now morphed into something more battered and lived-in.

Croft, Herbert and Summers are particularly sensitive to these ambiguities. They have memories of parents and others joining the British Communist Party in its heyday, and all had vague personal allegiances to what was left over of the CPGB by the 1980s. Titles, like “the beautiful lie”, “ghosts” and “someone else’s heaven”, all hint at that. Here’s Croft at Mayakovskaya station, one of the masterpieces of the network, its late 1930s ceiling mosaics glorifying the Soviet flyers (pictured left), caught a year or two before the hell of war would be unleashed on them:

Like Tantalus’ fruits, they shimmer
Above our heads, each juicy peach
Within our grasp but out of reach.
The future fades, the stars grow dimmer.
But when the carriage doors slide to,
The sky beyond is just as blue.

At the same Mayakovskaya station, Herbert enjoys a more bathetic memory in the company of the grandson of its architect:

One drunken night Alexey Dushkin
showed us his grandfather’s game in his hall:
sending a coin to orbit and fall
round steel-grooved arches – this must push can
flip time, til I look down, mid-trick:
the first coin in the five kopeck flick.

I happened to accompany the trio on some of their adventures, and this one stands out, a particular and unique moment in time and experience. As we threw coins up and around the fluted metal ribs of the many platform-support arches (pictured right), to catch them on the opposite side, in what once must have once seemed a hallowed temple we were watched with bemusement by passers-by and police. Only the latter’s surprising apathy prevented a marvellous headline that would have entirely chimed with the venture's Jeromesque spirit: “British poets arrested throwing money in Moscow Metro.”

Along the way the threesome send up themselves and one another. “Therefore three rubes went on the bummel/ and scavenged verse in every tunnel," writes Herbert (Jerome's follow-up to Three Men on a Boat was Three Men on the Bummel, set in Germany) “Hapless Herbert” is a particular target, mainly thanks to his map-reading failings, but also for nearly losing a shoe on an escalator (“The poet’s merely lost his sole/ - A joke which he’s no doubt intending/ To celebrate in Orphic song,/ Next time, perhaps, he’ll lose his tongue”: Croft). There’s football and a visit to a bathhouse along the way, too. For all their limited abilities in the local language, they come up with shrewd insights into the darker side of the popular Russian spirit, and its current tendency towards nationalism. These aperçus tend to be expressed elliptically in the sonnet form favoured by all three – the glimpse of a moment briefly developed, before the 14th line closes it down.

The volume takes as one of its mottos the adage of Jerome, “There will be no useful information in this book.” It is, however, useful to know that Jerome in 1902 wrote to The Times to bemoan his success in Russia. “My gratification”, he complained, “has been considerably marred, however, by my powerlessness to prevent the issue of unauthorised translations which, so I am assured by my Russian friends, are at the best garbled and incorrect and at the worst concoctions.” Croft eagerly takes up Jerome's complaint as a challenge. In two sections titled “The Worst Concoctions”, he offers an expert set of tributes-cum-parodies of Russian literary giants, each wittily tagged with a modest qualification. “From a lost play”, goes one, “unlikely to be by Vladimir Mayakovsky”; or “Sergei Esenin did not write this.”

A second batch of parodies are in prose. Among the writers lampooned is Sergei Lukyanenko, Russia’s foremost contemporary fantasist, whose novel Night Watch was made into a hit film in 2004. The novelist Victor Pelevin, meanwhile, was so delighted with “The Tale of a Dog”, a page-long parody which alludes to espionage, Bulgakov, Stalin and the delights of cutting-edge technology, that he has translated it back into Russian, as part of a planned Russian translation of Three Men. And then there is the enigmatic conceptualist poet Lev Rubinstein, given to writing numbered lines in prose. Croft catches his style gloriously in “And This Is Us”:

16. This is us with a drunk by a statue of a dog.
17. This is us with a dog by a statue of a drunk.
18. This is us drunk with a dog by a statue, asleep outside the Metro.

And so to the dog, without which no Jerome-inspired tale would be complete. The Moscow Metro has dogs-a-plenty at every station, especially those winter mutts who seek warmth in its entrance passes, or wander like (for the most part) gentle-spirited cerberi along the deeper platforms. But one special dog stands out. Herbert recalls from an earlier visit waiting on the platform at Mendeleevskaya (dedicated to the creator of the periodic table), staring at lights arranged like the model of an atom, and thinking that he should write about this. Coincidence worked its magic: little did he know that years on, the dog they were looking for on their invented journey, their Moscow Montmorency, would be found in bronze in the same place, a memorial put up by the public to a much-loved and lamented canine regular of the station:

And here it was the supermodel
sank a stiletto in the eye
of Malchik, leaving him to die –
a stray who’d been malako
-coddled
by all babushkiy, here his bones
are sanctified, a cur in bronze.

And then Croft finds another dog memorialised in Revolution Square station among the ranks of sculptures portraying soldiers, sailors, Stakhanovites, collective farmers and the other dramatis personae of the great Soviet myth. But this canine has lost its bollocks.

Commuters rub the guard-dog’s nose,
Till you could even say it glows;
They also stroked its genitalia
But higher organs disapproved
And now he’s had his balls removed.

Throughout the volume, riffing on this rich subject matter, the trio of voices overlap or branch out in search of broader horizons. They even go native by occasionally using the Pushkin stanza, modelled on the great Russian poet’s celebrated verse novel Eugene Onegin. Thanks to differences in expectation and rhyme types between the two languages, it’s a verse form that doesn’t always read - or write - easily in English. Vikram Seth used it in his comic verse novel The Golden Gate, where rhythms are light, and the form itself drives on the story with an energy that’s hard to hold back. Two years ago Croft deployed the Pushkin stanza in The Ghost Writer, a small but wide-ranging masterpiece which treats of the poet protagonists of the Spanish Civil War and chicanery of present-day publishing.

For Herbert, the Pushkin stanza offered a kind of host form to grapple with and adapt. “I wanted the container to feel as battered by the culture shock of engagement with Moscow as the sensibility was,” he says. “I wanted the eloquence, if it ever arrived, not to seem pat. Because the stanza is so well designed, so well built, it can take it.”

It is a great shame that this kind of poetry is the first to be culled by bookshops in the pursuit of the bottom line. To paraphrase a much-hated sales pitch, Three Men on the Metro is ace poetry with a rather brilliant portrait of Moscow attached. Or if you’d prefer a more portentous recommendation, this slim volume will lighten any Slavic syllabus - in every sense.

Three Men on the Metro is published by Five Leaves Publications. Find it on Amazon

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