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Now here’s a case of something I had completely forgotten. I knew it once; I remember being flabbergasted when I first found out about it. But then it slipped my mind. As my friend the choreographer and movement guru Gennady Abramov jokes about the delights of growing older and losing memory: “Isn’t it wonderful? Every day is full of news!”
Well, that applies to me in regards to this small little monument to Russian literary history on Bolshaya Nikitskaya Street. The address for sticklers is 15, Bldg. 1. I now remember coming upon it some 25 or 26 years ago when I first arrived in Moscow, soaked wet behind the ears, to begin my research on the playwright Nikolai Erdman. I knew well that Erdman had begun his life in literature as a poet and that he had published a handful of his poems in various publications put out by the Imagists, a group of writers who congregated around the famous poet Sergei Yesenin. I’d never seen any of the actual publications, but that is one of the things I expected to be able to do soon at the Lenin Library, where I had an application put in for a reader’s card. But this day I was merely out walking around Moscow, getting a feel for the city I expected to be living in for just the next 10 months. And then it happened. I looked up at a little plaque on a building as I approached the Moscow Conservatory from the north, and I was thunderstruck. The plaque stated that Sergei Yesenin had worked right here in a small bookshop that sold, among other things, the books and magazines published by the Imagists. Holy Moses. A real-live, brick and mortar place to put Erdman and his colleagues in a real context. I walked back and forth and looked in the window and walked inside and just looked around at the air there. It was a marvelous discovery.
And then life set in and I forgot. I didn’t stay in Moscow 10 months, I stayed 26 years and counting. You’d be amazed at all I’ve forgotten in that period! That is, until I was recently walking along Bolshaya Nikitskaya towards the Mayakovsky Theater from the south and – boom! – there it was. Again. That reminder of Yesenin and Erdman and Rostislav Ivlev and Shershenevich and Anatoly Mariengof… the Imagists. As Gena Abramov promised me, I experienced the thrill of discovery all over again!
The Imagists, as the name implies, refers to a short-lived group of Russian poets from about 1918 to 1922 who ostensibly played around with images in their poetry. They put out a handful of manifestos, like everybody else did, proclaiming the greatness of their task. It was all very much in the spirit of the day. They may have put out one more issue of their eclectic periodical Inn for Travelers in the Sublime in 1923, but, still, by that time they were done for. In the historical record the Imagists are routinely referred to as a group of semi-harmless hooligans, not nearly worthy of the respect and attention that is offered to, say, the Futurists or the Acmeists. It may be a fair assessment, although the Imagists were of no small interest. Every single individual connected with them was quite a personality. These days the memoirs written by Ivlev and Mariengof are oft-quoted and Mariengof has even become something of a cult figure.
The fact of the matter is that, in their time, the Imagists – purportedly – were more famous for their hijinks than their high culture. In one famous, frequently-mentioned, incident, they all went out late at night when everybody else was sleeping and they “vandalized” several street signs around what we now know as Strastnoi Boulevard. They blacked or whitened out the name of various streets, replacing them with their own names. Thus, as the legend goes, Muscovites awoke in the morning to be greeted by the unfamiliar names of Yesenin Street, Erdman Lane and Mariengof Road. If I remember correctly, the police even got into the act at some point.
Still, I wonder if the Imagists have been given short shrift. Even to this day one of the most important studies of the Imagists – Russian Imagism 1919-1924 – remains a work written by the great scholar Vladimir Markov. It’s very nice that he wrote a book about the Imagists, but Markov was a specialist on the Futurists. He couldn’t have been a little biased there, could he? I’m just asking.
I’ve always thought (in those periods when I have not been visited by forgetfulness) that this little bookstore says something important about the Imagists. I mean, if you’re going to actually rent a space, find the money to pay the rent, get people to work for you (or, as Yesenin apparently did, actually spend hours out of your day working at the store yourself), doesn’t this imply a seriousness of intent that goes beyond that which would be expected of some “hooligans”? Again, I’m just saying. One thing I do know is that the historical record is clumsy and distorted. It can’t be otherwise. It’s written by human beings.
With that thought in mind, allow me to insert the ending of a poem, “Let Time Strike the Hours,” that Erdman wrote in 1921, and which was first published in 1987 in the popular Soviet magazine Ogonyok (rather like the old Life magazine in the U.S.) by poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko:
But I know weighty glory shall sprinkle
Even my cold lips with dust.
And my head will exchange this burnished steel helmet of hair
For one made of silver.
But I shall not stagger beneath it, I shall not tremble,
I will accept the joyless gift as my due,
And a rainbow shall unfurl before a frozen road
Into the heavens with a triumphal arc.
Study the polar silence of the night…