Review of A Blaze in the Desert: Selected Poems by Victor Serge

A Blaze in the Desert: Selected Poems by Victor Serge
by Victor Serge; translated by James Brook

PM Press, Oakland, CA, 2017

192 pp. Paper, $16.95

ISBN: 9781629633824

Reviewed by
Allan Graubard
July 2017

The writings of Victor Serge, well translated into English, comprise a unique library essential to understanding the fate of anti-capitalist revolution in Europe in the 20th century – from its early struggles and rare successes, to its tragic and bloody defeats. Some seven novels, six nonfiction studies, and six books of articles reveal a man, both player and witness, caught up in a history that, in large and small measure, influenced the formation of our world. Ever seeking to preserve for the individual the freedom to create, Serge also turned to poetry, which he wrote with clarity, lyricism, and poignancy. As much true to his time as to his own needs as a man, husband, father, and comrade, his poetry resonates, often piercingly so. And now we have this new translation, which gathers together the poems from the only such book published in his lifetime, Resistance (1938), along with an unpublished 1946 manuscript, Messages, and the last poem he wrote before he died in a Mexico City taxi in 1947, “Hands” –– an elegy of depth and feeling.

The first section of this book records Serge’s experience as a victim of Stalinist repression. Formerly a committed if critical Bolshevik related on his mother’s side to Maxim Gorky, whom he meets and comes to know, Serge sides with the communist international, becoming a journalist for them. Expelled from the party in 1928 for opposing the concentration of power that led to Stalin’s ascendancy, he is condemned some five years later to internal exile in a work camp near the Urals. There he ekes out a life for himself and his son, and sometimes his visiting wife who suffers from insanity. Unwilling to recant his opposition to Stalin, the brutal bureaucracy he directs and its repressive aesthetic of socialist realism – which would have enabled him to seek salaried work even then under duress -- Serge portrays in the poem, “Frontier,” the state of his world: a “terrestrial abyss deeper than the stellar abyss” where “a strange crimson beast” runs “spurred on by all the earth’s suffering.” This violent, near-mythic image, true enough to its historical moment to stand for an analogue, does not prevent Serge from depicting quite human subjects as in the poems “Old Woman” and “Just Four Girls.” A portrait of the Kurdish town of “Tiflis,” with its “women in red dresses, a little donkey ambling/down the back street of the Maidan,” shifts to the distant mountainous horizon, which offers Serge visual and moral access to “fertile continents of consent and refusal!” -- the very place Serge inhabits and which, despite his hope, encircles him.

The near-mythic and human, reciprocally interactive, sometimes in balance, sometimes not, is a counterpoint that Serge uses throughout this book. With it, he is able to contextualize our presence, our cultures, and the immense deforming, political pressures that we and they endure. In “Tete a Tete,” the cumulative effect of his condemnation and exile, from an ideology turned rabid, become transparent in the most intimate way, with this admission: “Sane as I am, there are moments when I feel I’m going mad…” I cannot believe that Serge wrote this lightly.

By 1936, because of his stature in France as a writer and translator of Russian literature, including leading contemporary poets, a majority of whom the regime will crush, Serge is freed, the result of organized international protests and the intervention of Andre Gide and Roman Rolland––the latter directly with Stalin. Serge returns to France and the language of his birth in Belgium as a known critic of Stalinist abuses. Of course, he is marginalized by the communist party’s control over cultural media. The poem “Sunday,” from 1939, chronicles the end of that period and the ironic and desperate air in Paris just prior to the German invasion. With that invasion and victory, Serge flees on foot to Marseilles. There he meets Varian Fry and works with Fry’s Emergency Rescue Committee to aid antifascist refugees. The poem “Marseilles” captures the scene with the immediacy and expansiveness that Serge expresses so well: “Planet without visas, without money, without compass/great empty sky without comets/The Son of Man has nowhere left to lay his head….”

When Fry rents a villa near the city for refugees, Serge goes to live there along with a retinue of leading Surrealists, including Andre Breton and Benjamin Peret. Other Surrealists are frequent guests. Although Serge recognizes in Surrealism a vivacious, radical current, he also keeps his distance, identifying it as less of a revolutionary movement than a literary one.

In 1941, Serge and his son Vlady find passage on the last boat to leave Marseilles for the Americas, with several of those same Surrealists he lived with and hundreds of other political refugees on board. The poem “Out at Sea” depicts the voyage from war-torn Europe and what would become a year-long absence from his companion, Laurette Sejourne: “Can it be that I am already fifty—with this all-consuming/black gold in my veins, this gold for you, this gold for/life?” The question pivots abruptly as he faces himself: “My past lives, torn to shreds, snap behind me in the trade/winds/like tattered flags.”

The boat arrives in Martinique where Serge and his son are interned in a former barracks for the quarantined ill. Serge continues to write, with one poem from that moment, “The rats are leaving…”: a fierce attack against the rich whose sole purpose is to secure and enjoy their wealth and hubris, whatever the political cost: “fat gray rats, rich treacherous rats that think/they’re great conquerors.” Serge counterpoints the moral plague they carry with the forbearance and strength that he and his friends possess and without which they might very well have given up or more simply be dead as so many others, known and unknown: “See,” he tells us, “even the plague can’t drive us to despair.”

Sometime thereafter, through the support of writer Dwight MacDonald in New York and other exiled Spanish comrades of note, Serge and his son are given asylum in Mexico by the Cardenas government. He quickly learns to love the country and its people, rejuvenated by the landscape, its vibrant cultures, and the legacy of the Mexican revolution.

His past, however, never leaves him. Stalinist agents slander him in the press while he lives in poverty, ever writing his novels as war rages. I will not go into the poems born in that temporal space here; rather, I leave them to you as poems not to be missed.

Translator James Brook has done valiant service in making this book available with the verve and elegance Serge’s poems deserve. A Blaze in the Desert: Selected Poems by Victor Serge revives a rare presence whose voice, for this reader––despite the travails that marked his life––sings.