The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 465

Written in the late 1950’s, Andrei Voznesensky’s “The Last Train to Malakhovka” illustrates the poet’s concern for the fate of his fellow human beings in an increasingly alienating and depersonalized world and reflects his belief in the revitalizing power of poetry. Like much of Voznesensky’s early work, “The Last Train to Malakhovka” is intended to be read aloud. The translation by poet Jean Garrigue preserves many of the aural qualities of the original Russian, although Garrigue’s interpretation does not rhyme, using blank verse instead. The poem is divided into ten four-line stanzas; lines vary from four to eleven syllables.

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The opening stanzas present the passengers on the late train to Malakhovka, a run-down suburb of Moscow known for its prostitutes and its criminal element. The poem’s first line introduces switchblade-carrying toughs, and the next depicts a rough group of girls whose gold-capped teeth mark them as members of an underclass, possibly gypsies. The stanza closes with a glimpse of the conductors napping. The second stanza reveals a division among the passengers. Tired workers sleep in the front of the coach; the rougher, rowdier group is at the rear. This is where the poet, introduced in the third stanza, chooses to ride, among the “Thieves and guitars.” The back of the train, noisy and littered with trash, is likened to a gypsy camp. In the midst of the din, the poet begins to recite “First Frost,” a comparatively uncomplicated verse also written by Voznesensky in 1959.

This poem describes a young woman talking in a telephone booth on a cold night; the “first frost” of the title refers both to the weather and to the pain of the conversation the young woman is having with a lover who is leaving her. “First Frost” fails to capture the attention of the young men on the train because, as stanzas 6 and 7 indicate, they are too callous and self-absorbed to care either about the girl in the poem or about her flesh-and-blood double sitting nearby. This young woman is described in the eighth stanza as someone who has been sexually used and discarded by a number of men like the ones currently ignoring her. The accuracy of the poet’s perception is demonstrated in the penultimate stanza as the young woman indicates that she has listened carefully and taken the poet’s words to heart. In the final stanza, she detrains with a graceful and surprising leap that causes the other passengers to view her as remarkable: “Astounding everyone/ You leap to the platform—/ Purer than Beatrice.” The closing vision, which alludes to the figure of Beatrice in Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), inspires Voznesensky’s poet to compose “The Last Train to Malakhovka,” thus giving the work a circular structure.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 599

Voznesensky is noted for his virtuosity, and in “The Last Train to Malakhovka” he takes full advantage of the flexibility that the Russian language affords, a flexibility not available in English. As a result, translation cannot reproduce some of the formal features of the original, yet Jean Garrigue’s version remains faithful to the spirit of the Russian. Garrigue’s translation re-creates a sense of a train moving over uneven patches of track and preserves the rich aural qualities through ornamental alliteration and assonance. For example, in the opening line, initial sounds in stressed syllables are repeated in the phrase “fancy flick knives,” and the terminal assonance of “knives” and “smiles” in lines 1 and 2 suggests the rhyme pattern of the original Russian.

The repetition of sounds also softens the tone of the early verses, working against the dinginess and potential danger of the scene. Wordplay and punning inject a playfulness that corresponds to the possibility of excitement and liveliness described in the latter portion of the second stanza and indicate that the poet feels at ease with his traveling companions. When he begins to recite “First Frost,” the rear of the train is noisy, “where jigs/ A hubbub of drunken strings.” The inattentiveness of the young men in his audience is explained as resulting from “rackets of their own,” alluding both to the noise they are making and to their own, most likely shady, interests.

These playful qualities, combined with some commonplace description, such as “Cigarette butts, a litter of/ Spat-out sunflower seeds,” disguise the sophistication of the structure. The poem’s syntax underscores the relationships among the passengers, who fall into two distinct groups but share a common destination. The unsavory-looking riders are introduced in fragmented phrases, while the hardworking, law-abiding people appear in completed clauses; however, a vague pronoun reference and inverted construction in the opening line of the second stanza connect them: “They’re all nodding, our workaday citizens.” The antecedent of “They” first appears to include the rough gang from the first verse, which is composed entirely of phrases and ends in an ellipsis; however, it is “our workaday citizens” who are nodding—the ruffians are wide awake. The initial ambiguity connects, if only for a brief time, the separate groups, and hints at thematic significance.

Syntax in the seventh stanza is revealing as well. The young woman who will emerge as a major figure by the poem’s end is introduced almost incidentally: “this one here/ All bangs, plastered with powder.” The indefinite pronoun “one” and the subordinate construction in which she is described illustrate her insignificance. The terminal stop at the end of the line cuts off further description—unlike lines ending in ellipses, which suggest unfinished thought—so that the woman is left faceless; the words “plastered with powder” have nothing to describe but the indefinite pronoun “one” from the previous line.

The most dramatic structural device in “The Last Train to Malakhovka”is the description of Voznesensky’s “First Frost,” which, significantly, is never quoted exactly. In the latter work “A girl is freezing in a telephone booth,” “Glass beads in her ears,” and winter can be seen “glittering on her cheek”; in “The Last Train to Malakhovka” the poet recites a piece “About a girl who’s crying/ In the glassy night of a telephone booth,” while the girl who is listening to him is “shining with tears” in the overheated coach. Because the imagery is similar but not identical, the two poems maintain a distinct identity, although the meaning of each is changed by the existence of the other.

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Themes