Monday, February 19, 2007

My Afternoon with a Poet Laureate

Mother of Georgia

I’ll always be grateful I had wine with lunch that day. Just enough wine, in fact, to loosen and relax my inhibitions sufficient unto gregariousness. Otherwise I’d never have walked up and simply presented myself to the poet laureate of the USSR. Let alone wind up spending the afternoon with him.

It’s early April 1990, Tbilisi, Georgia. Back when Georgia was still a Republic in a Soviet Socialist Union of the same. As my companion and I return from our repast to the InTourist (don’t ask) Hotel, I suddenly recognize the lanky figure unfolding himself from the cramped confines of the car stopped in front of us. “Oh my God,” I thought to myself, “that is the first poet to criticize Stalin, the artist who demanded literature should be judged by aesthetic, not political standards. The author of Babi Yar, the poem which inspired Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony!” Well - maybe if I’d been sober I’d have thought all of that. What really came into my mind and right out of my mouth was, “It’s him!” I dashed over to the thin, quiet man at the curb side, “Mr. Yevtushenko, I just want to shake your hand!” I exclaimed, extending my arm.

Looking up into those kind eyes, I remember thinking to myself how elfish he looked for a man so tall. He focused his attention on me for a second a two, broke into a smile, and in perfect English replied, “An American, how delightful; whatever brings you to Tbilisi?” And he shook my hand. I stammered something about being an actor in town shooting a children’s film in conjunction with Kartuli Telefilmi, with a cast of Georgians and Americans. Another, broader, smile, “These are remarkable times,” he said, “if you’ve finished filming for the day, why don’t you join me in my room for a glass of splendid Georgian wine?”

And I did. We scrupulously avoided any talk of politics – being an approved hotel for non-Soviets, the rooms were most likely bugged – this was confirmed as we entered the suite and he silently pointed to the ceiling, placing an index finger to his lips. Georgian independence was thick in the air all around Tbilisi during my time there, and I followed Yevtushenko’s lead. We spent the better part of an hour sipping a delightful vintage and discussing art, poetry and the indigenous people of Siberia (he was especially intrigued by my Yupik heritage.)

It was a meeting and an afternoon I shall never forget.

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