Just a little over an hour ago, I found out that Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the acclaimed Russian poet, passed away.
I beg everyone’s forbearance for the hurried nature of what follows but there’s no way I can do justice to such a larger-than-life figure in so short a time. But here goes:
Several years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting the Yevtushenko who had recently taken up residency at the University of Tulsa. Shocked, really when I thought about it. Here was the world’s greatest living poet taking up a teaching post, not in some Ivy League institution but my alma mater.
It was Spring, 1996 I believe and he was going to give a reading of his famous poem “Babi Yar”. We had been invited by a friend who’s family had endowed a Russian literature chair at TU. (Our kids were friends.) His Siberian accent was so thick you could cut it with a knife but every word, every syllable, was understood. He not only spoke with good effect, he had the presentation of a well-trained actor: knowing when to pause, when to accent, when to walk and when to turn his head –just so. (Only much later did I learn that he was an acclaimed filmmaker and actor as well.)
He was gracious, answered our questions and spoke to each of us (who weren’t intimidated enough to actually talk to him). There was a twinkle in his blue eyes when he found out I was Greek. He loved Greek food and wanted to know where he could find good Greek food in Tulsa.
They say the world’s a small place. And it is. I had heard he moved to Tulsa a year earlier when I saw his name in my son’s school directory. This was about 1995 or so. I looked at it –once, twice and then a third time. “No,” I said to myself, “it can’t be possible”. And yet it was. Even more astounding was the fact that he lived right not two blocks away from us.
Hands trembling, I pointed to the directory and told my wife but she was unimpressed. “Who?” she asked. “Yevtushenko, only one of the world’s great literary giants! You haven’t heard of him?” “No, should I have?”
I first heard about Yevtushenko sometime in the eighties. In my senior year I had taken a year of Russian and invariably his name came up with all the other literary greats of the twentieth century: Pasternak, Bulgakov, you know the drill. I didn’t have to take Russian but for some reason I wanted to. But that’s another story.
What I knew was that he was a controversial figure but he was more than that. An author as well as poet, a filmmaker, actor, dissident and all-around bon vivant. I had heard that as a young boy (sometime in the late 30s), he had come upon a tent which had been pitched in the Siberian forest somewhere. Inside were a couple who were otherwise engaged. According to this story, they were none other than the loathsome American commies Dashiel Hammett and Lillian Hellman. Anyway, that surely couldn’t have been true and I wanted to ask him about it but I just didn’t think the time was right.
Anyway, my son Mikey and his two sons were fairly close, Yevgeny the older, was a year older than my son while Dmitri was a year younger. They would go back and forth to each other’s houses every now and then. One day, Mikey told us that he had Rasputin’s ring. Imagine that. It was so unbelievable that it had to be true. (No more unimaginable than the fact that the Yevtushenkos lived right around the corner on the other side of the esplanade.)
Life is funny like that. With Yevtushenko, nothing was out of the ordinary. Nothing he did was half-assed. Nothing would have surprised me about him.
He was much older than me (almost thirty years) so he wasn’t a regular at PTA meetings. We were closer to his wife Maria. Even so, we would run into him every so often. The last time I saw him was at the Y, about three years ago. I was just stepping out of shower and sitting by my locker was one of the most grizzled specimens of humanity that I had every seen. It was Yevgeny. And boy, did he looked ancient. Something my dad had told me suddenly rang true: it wasn’t the years, but the mileage son. And boy was there a lot of mileage there.
His eyes were the most cold-metallic blue you had ever seen and despite the callouses, liver-spots and scars, I could tell that he must have been handsome during his heyday. Looking back at old photographs of him, I saw that this was indeed the case. I sat down by him and we talked. Mostly about women. We had some laughs. Yep, the guy was a player.
Anyway, where was I?
Doesn’t matter. Enough for now. Memory eternal.