By DONNA URSCHEL
Renowned Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko dazzled the overflowing crowd in the Coolidge Auditorium April 29 at a poetry reading filled with dramatic flair, music and words of wisdom.
With a commanding voice and a penchant for moving about the stage and even into the audience, Yevtushenko presented an entertaining evening of poetry that his fans will not likely forget. He also recited for the first time in America "Kisses in Subway," a poem that deals with two recent events in Russia: a bureaucratic regulation to ban kissing on the subway and an explosion on the subway by Chechen terrorists that killed 200.
In his introductory remarks, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington welcomed Yevtushenko back to the Library after 28 years. Yevtushenko was the first poet from post-Stalinist Russia to read his work in the West and one of the few artists allowed out of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Yevtushenko became a voice for the young post-Stalin generation and called for greater artistic freedom in the Soviet Union. He read his poems in the Coolidge Auditorium in 1966.
Yevtushenko's 1961 poem "Babi Yar," a denunciation of Russian anti-Semitism, brought him international recognition and inspired Dimitri Shostakovich to write his symphony No. 13 ("Babi Yar").
Billington said, "He continues to travel widely to give readings, but his home for the past decade has been Tulsa, Okla., which he describes as ‘very American … where you can find the real soul of the country.'"
Yevtushenko started the evening by reading a long piece of prose on aging called "There Are No Years." He talked about his life and loves through the years and lamented at one point how "a charming young girl gave me my senior citizenship" when she offered him her seat on the subway. He also observed, "At 50, you begin to be tired of the world. At 60, the world is tired of you."
His next selection was the poem "Sleep My Beloved," which he read along with Anne Kepe, a young actress who recently received her master's in fine arts from the Shakespeare Theatre, Academy for Classical Acting in Washington, D.C. After Kepe read the entire poem in English, Yevtushenko read it in Russian. Russian and English readings also were given, verse by verse, for "Metamorphoses" and, line by line, for "I Love You More Than Nature."
"Metamorphoses," which describes the different stages of life, was a crowd pleaser with its humorous play on words. The four-stanza poem deals with childhood, youth, maturity and old age. The first stanza:
Childhood is the village of
Little Silly, Clamberingoverham,
Leapfrogmorton, going toward
through Unmaliciousness and Clearvisiondon.
The poems took a darker turn into the realm of death in Yevtushenko's next three selections: "Kisses in Subway," "The Execution of Stenka Razin" and "La Corrida." Before reading the newly presented "Kisses in Subway," Yevtushenko discussed the events in Moscow that inspired his poem—the Chechen terrorist attack and the ban on kissing in the subway. An excerpt of the first several lines:
You, new Russian hypocritical puritans
made overnight in a brothel,
were trying to forbid kisses in the Moscow subway.
But after the explosion
in the tunnel, stuffed with smoke and flames,
somebody's unkissed lips
torn from exploded bodies,
kissing only the charred railways.
After reciting "Kisses in Subway," Yevtushenko expressed gratitude for the friendly relations between Russia and the United States and their mutual goal of fighting terrorism.
Yevtushenko introduced music into the program by playing a Paul Robeson recording of an American folk song "The Plains," from the CD "The Songs of Free Men," before he recited the poem "Paul Robeson in Moscow." Olga Simonova came onstage to sing "Lara's Song" from "Dr. Zhivago" during the poem "Lara's Song in Tulsa." Svetlana Nikonova provided piano accompaniment.
"The City of Yes and the City of No" was the final poem of the evening. It was recited by Yevtushenko's young son, Zhenya.
At the end of the presentation, Billington returned to the stage for a few brief remarks and summarized the evening's performance: Yevtushenko "started with a piece on aging, took us into the realm of music, provided an invocation of relations between two countries and showed us hope for the future—a young Yevtushenko!"
Donna Urschel is a freelance writer in the Washington area.