“Poets in our civilization,” a famous poet wrote in his most famous essay, “must be difficult.” He went on to explain his thought, and his Englishspeaking audience understood him. When the thought was translated, it went on living in other languages. But would an English-speaking audience understand his famous lines:

Please come with me

When night

Like a man undergoing surgery . . . ?

Or, for that matter, would any audience understand these lines and appreciate them as poetry? Yet, quite possibly, this is just what the opening of “Prufrock” sounds like in another language.

Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherised upon a table . . .

But why translate back into English the words of a hypothetical translation of an English poem into another language? I have just finished translating “Prufrock” for the winter number of Kontinent, the Russian-language emigre quarterly, and this is how it begins:

Let us go for a walk, us two.

When the volume of autumn twilight

Is expanded as through tears . . .

What gibberish, you may say. Well, I have worked on my translation for many months, and I hope my Russian readers think otherwise. The point is that, unfortunately, of the three quotations above only the, middle one can be understood and appreciated as poetry in English.

All this is by way of introducing my reactions to a book of poetry recently published in England. Let us open it at random:

We have learned, indeed, to throw time into tins

And have stirred in the condensed night at all times.

This century grows ever darker, and the next will not come soon.

To wipe clean the names of yesterday’s prison wall.

Thus begins a translation of a poem by Irina Ratushinskaya in her collection Pencil Letter, published simultaneously with her memoir Grey Is the Color of Hope. It is astonishing how much this English “equivalent” of the poem sounds like our hypothetical “Please come with me/When night/Like a man undergoing surgery . . . ” And yet, there it is.

Why on earth would this poe—any poet—want to “throw time into tins”? If she tried to preserve time by canning, or tinning, it, that would be understandable—that would be a metaphor. But to “throw” it? Throw it away—perhaps. Throw it at something—possibly. But certainly not into, especially not “into tins.” Still, let us imagine that she has something in mind. Surely throwing a thing into a tin is an easy operation; surely throwing it into a tin cannot require a great deal of learning. Then why “We have learned”? After all, that is how the poem begins; there must be some news in the line, some fact deserving of our attention. And, to top it all, that preposterous “indeed”!

If you are so smart, someone said, why don’t you just translate it yourself, instead of carrying on like a maniac? I have. But I do not wish to sound didactic. It’s just that I cannot understand how anybody can be so tonedeaf. In offering my own version of the poem to the reader of Chronicles I merely want him to agree that—unlike the version just quoted—it could have been written by a poet. Honestly, that’s all I want. For the answer to the question, “Is poetry simply a set of arbitrary words describing meaningless actions?” has to be, in the mind of a Chronicles reader, an unequivocal No. Otherwise I’m out of a job.

As I said, all of this is by way of introducing my impressions of Ratushinskaya, for it is poetry, no more and no less, that she writes in Russian, and it was for the writing of poetry, no more and no less, that she was imprisoned in Russia. The poems she wrote during her ordeal in isolation cells and prison camps are more than a testament to her suffering: they are a new, iridescent incrustation upon the surface of Russian culture. This is why it is so painful to see her work, which years of physical and spiritual torture had failed to emasculate trivialized and profaned by civilized and carefree men and women who transmute these crystals of anguish into lumpy vers litres, often with a “feminist” message.

Grey Is the Color of Hope is a factual record of those years. “Never believe them, never fear them, never ask them for anything!” was the key lesson of the poet’s schooling, which began with her arrest in 1982 on a charge of “anti-Soviet agitation.” Judging by Ratushinskaya’s public utterances, it seems she is not about to unlearn that lesson now—as the wishful, ever-wishful West reads a desperate faith into her former captors’ every pose, including the pose of clemency that they struck announcing her release in October 1986. That particular pose, she understands, was timed to coincide with the Reykjavik summit.

“It’s nonsense to talk about limited human rights,” Ratushinskaya recently told an interviewer, “it’s like limited breath.” Indeed, is it not nonsense to talk about human rights at all—as if these were a natural phenomenon, more or less limited under different regional conditions? Would it not be more accurate to say that human rights have never been limited in Soviet Russia—for the simple reason that they have never existed in Soviet Russia? Half-intuitively, half-rationally, Ratushinskaya knows, it seems, that what has existed is a succession of tactical decisions, made by the rulers of totalitarian Russia in their 70-year effort to deceive and disarm the free West. As part of that effort, Lenin’s New Economic Policy, Stalin’s New Constitution, Khrushchev’s New Liberalism, and the present-day New Openness have all done their job. What they have not done is give the individual even a tiny grain of genuine freedom—which is, and has always been, the ability to defend himself against tyranny. Like it or not, the totalitarian order is immutable, and only its visible features—from criminal justice to poetry, from Ratushinskaya’s arrest to her release—vary to suit its propaganda needs of the moment.

Indeed, in Ratushinskaya’s world, the color of hope is grey. The prison walls of that world do not divide the free from the unfree: they encircle it, like some sort of inverted paradise within which they delineate concentric circles of diminishing physical liberty. Yet intellectually a denizen of this paradise is as free in the first circle as in the last. Paradoxically, Ratushinskaya was not deprived of freedom when, still in her 20’s, she began- her prison journey: she merely crossed from one state of unfreedom into the next, both of them essentially physical. Nor did she ever manage to reach the lowest circles of the paradise; in fact, her life in the “Small Zone” of JH-385/3, the Barashevo camp in Mordovia, was almost as comfortable, in physical terms, as it is for millions of Russians on the “outside.” The poet was confined to a special unit for political prisoners: unlike, for instance, the death of Anatoly Marchenko in December 1986, her death from cold, starvation, or torture would have been a public-relations setback for the Soviets in the West. This is why the prisoners in Ratushinskaya’s unit had a hot plate and a television set. This is why Ratushinskaya had a pencil, with which to write her Letter.

Reading all but a handful of translations in Pencil Letter (those by Alyona Kojevnikov), I kept thinking they were written with crayons.