RUSSIAN POET Boris Ryzhy spent his entire brief life in the Urals, a region in the geographic center of Russia that has from time immemorial been known for mining and metallurgy, heavy industry, and military plants. Born in Chelyabinsk on September 8, 1974, Ryzhy was still a child when his family moved to Yekaterinburg or, as the city was called throughout most of the Soviet period, "Sverdlovsk."

Ryzhy graduated from high school and the university in Sverdlovsk. He became a mining engineer like his father, a leading specialist in the field. As far as I know, however, Boris never saw mining as his calling; his real passion was literature.

Practically since his adolescence, he had been acquainted with the "principles" of criminal associations, with the laws and jargon of the world of thieves. He had been schooled in them in the courtyard of the apartment house in which he lived. During Boris's adolescence, his father typically left for work in an official car at daybreak and returned home only after midnight. He did not realize that most of the other tenants in his apartment building were former prisoners and that his son's character was being shaped in a very difficult and dangerous milieu until several years after their arrival in Sverdlovsk.

The subject matter of many of Ryzhy's poems can be traced to his early experiences: the striking portraits of the philosophizhing old thief "Uncle Sasha," who promises to give "the little yid" (the future poet) a Finnish knife; Serzh, who slugged a cop in the jaw and had to serve time; Vitiura, who wrapped a steel switch in newspaper and raced off to a gang fight. Ryzhy does not try to win us over by separating himself from his unfortunate and criminal characters. He feels love and pity for them and instills these emotions in his readers.

His boyhood chums lie under the imposing marble tombstones in the section of Yekaterinburg's cemetery filled with "new Russians." "They fell," Ryzhy writes, "with bits of brass in their skulls, as the first foremen of perestroika." These are Ryzhy's temporal and spatial circumstances; this is his homeland, beloved and monstrous. Other poets have perhaps touched upon similar aspects of Russian life, but Ryzhy's vision was organic and unique: he saw and loved his country in the shape in which he found it. Ryzhy loved this unhappy, terrible world, peopled, as Solzhenitsyn described it, half by prisoners and half by their guards. All this was in the poet's blood; it was drawn from the "scrap heap of his memory," the product of a psyche shattered by a difficult Soviet adolescence.

It is this aspect of his complicated and many-sided talent that led to his unusually early and prominent success

The jury of the Anti-Booker Prize in Moscow recognized Ryzhy's work with honorable mention. In June 2000 he was invited - in a great stroke of fortune - to Rotterdam for the annual Poetry international Festival. One month after Ryzhy passed away, I vse takoe ... received the prestigious Northern Palmyra literary prize in Saint Petersburg.

Ryzhy killed himself on the night of May 7, 2001, at the age of twenty- six. Trying to identify the factors leading to an individual suicide is almost always senseless: often the causes are insignificant and fleeting, unlike the tragic, permanent result to which they contribute. Ryzhy was young, handsome, successful, and had already achieved considerable literary fame. Sometimes subjective factors are, however, more important than objective circumstances. The poet's lifestyle did leave him "at risk": alcohol is constantly mentioned in his verse. Boris's persistent efforts to fight his tragic compulsions were not successful.

The word music appears quite frequently in Ryzhy's verse: a poet, for him, is a person who, with the help of "mortal words," cleanses the banal melodies of everyday life of their grime and raises them to the heavens. The melody to which the poet sets words and, for that matter, the words themselves, he must take from life regardless of how unbearably pitiful it may seem. Real poetry does not require exoticism, it has long been clear that all good poems are essentially about the same thing: love and death or, more accurately, love and life/death - they explore the existential.

Now, after Ryzhy's death, many lines in his verse seem to have prophetic significance; they are filled with the menace of twilight; they foreshadow that final May night. In them, one glimpses a dark abyss of passion and emotion. Without such passion, however, there can be no great poetry, just as there can be no love without awareness of the beloved's mortality. Ryzhy understood this perfectly and expressed it clearly in his verse.

Aleksey Purin

This is an abbreviated version of the article “Music alone, on the poetry of Boris Ryzhy” , translated by Emily Johnson/ University of Oklahoma 2005

download as a pdf