cover image Winter Dialogue

Winter Dialogue

Tomas Venclova. Northwestern University Press, $27 (148pp) ISBN 978-0-8101-1491-3

Venclova, who teaches at Yale University, is most widely recognized in the U.S. as a scholar and a critic, but in Eastern Europe he is known best as a poet of fierce moral tenacity. Born in Lithuania in 1937, Venclova's worldview was significantly shaped by the failure of the 1956 Hungarian uprising against the Soviet Union. As a contemporary of the postwar Polish poets, including Milosz, Venclova's work is similarly informed by political distrust and history, and colored by the cold winter Baltic landscape. ""And, in the blackish pane, the seaside's glow/ Becomes the bleak Antarctic in our minds,"" he states in the title poem, which investigates the Polish Uprising of 1970 as it poses questions of philosophical truth, reality, memory and the habit of existing. These are themes carried throughout his works, which also reveal the roles he gives to memory and the poet's craft in confronting a historic and linguistic crisis: ""Only memory, as the days pass/ Widens itself like a compass"" and ""The highest power, or the void/ Sends the angel down: rhythm and language."" Cultivating a rhetorical, almost unfashionably classicist style, Venclova demands a firm grasp of landmarks in a territory where many Western readers might lose their bearing. Fortunately, he proves a faithful guide, providing a handful of key notes as markers. A lengthy dialogue with Milosz about their home lands and an introduction by Joseph Brodsky offer further context. (June)