Photo: Lori Fagerholm
James Brook is a poet and translator living in the San Francisco Bay Area. His translations include works by Guy Debord, Henri Michaux, Gellu Naum, Benjamin Péret, and Alberto Savinio. His poems, essays, and translations have appeared in Big Bridge, City Lights Review, Exquisite Corpse, Gare du Nord, Montana Gothic, Mudlark, New American Writing, Poésie, Science as Culture, Two Lines, Volt, and other journals. He is the principal editor of Resisting the Virtual Life (with Iain Boal) and Reclaiming San Francisco (with Chris Carlsson and Nancy J. Peters). The New York Times named his translation of Jean-Patrick Manchette’s The Prone Gunman a Notable Book.
A Blaze in a Desert: Selected Poems
Author: Victor Serge • Editor and translator: James Brook • Afterword: Richard Greeman
Publisher: PM Press
Page count: 192 pages
Victor Serge (1890–1947) played many parts, as he recounted in his indelible Memoirs of a Revolutionary. The son of anti-czarist exiles in Brussels, Serge was a young anarchist in Paris; a syndicalist rebel in Barcelona; a Bolshevik in Petrograd; a Comintern agent in Central Europe; a comrade of Trotsky’s; a friend of writers like Andrei Bely, Boris Pilnyak, and André Breton; a prisoner of Stalin; a dissident Marxist in exile in Mexico . . .
Like Serge’s extraordinary novels, A Blaze in a Desert: Selected Poems bears witness to decades of revolutionary upheavals in Europe and the advent of totalitarian rule; many of the poems were written during the “immense shipwreck” of Stalin’s ascendancy. In poems datelined Petrograd, Orenburg, Paris, Marseille, the Caribbean, and Mexico, Serge composed elegies for the fallen—as well as prospective elegies for the living who, like him, endured prison, exile, and bitter disappointment in the revolutions of the first half of the twentieth century:
Night falls, the boat pulls in,
Exile relights its captive lamps
on the shore of time.
Throughout A Blaze in a Desert, Serge draws on the heritage of late- and post-Symbolist writers like Verhaeren, Rictus, Apollinaire, Blok, and Bely—themselves authors of messages of a more general resistance by the human spirit—to express the anguish of the failure of the Russian Revolution and to search out glimmers of hope in the ruins of the Second World War.
A Blaze in a Desert comprises Victor Serge’s sole published book of poetry, Resistance (1938), his unpublished manuscript Messages (1946), and his last poem, “Hands” (1947).
“Victor Serge was a major novelist, a revolutionary, and a historical witness, so it is perhaps not surprising that his poetry has been overlooked. But his poetry is for real. It is as grounded in specifics as you might expect from a fighter in some of the twentieth century’s great struggles, and as visionary as you’d hope from a disciple of Rimbaud and a friend to the Surrealists. Reading it is like coming upon an unsuspected corridor in the house of literature. James Brook’s lucid translation does it full justice.”
—Luc Sante, author of The Other Paris and translator of Novels in Three Lines by Félix Fénéon
“The voice of Victor Serge is needed now more than ever, and James Brook provides a fine edition and translation of his poems, bringing out the close relation between poetic expression and sensibility, and humane, revolutionary political engagement. History and the cosmos, individual and collective hopes, dreams and loss trace a subtle dance in this moving collection.”
—Bill Marshall, author of Victor Serge: The Uses of Dissent and Guy Hocquenghem: Beyond Gay Identity
“In these dark times, the poetry of Victor Serge illuminates the deep continuum of revolutionary history. As all great work, it shows the power of both resistance & acceptance. Serge is noted for his prose but his poetry is in many ways more moving. It inspires the reader to stay true to the revolutionary spirit and will in its compassion, defiance, and outrage.”
—David Meltzer, author of San Francisco Beat: Talking with the Poets, When I Was a Poet, and Two-Way Mirror: A Poetry Notebook
“In this meticulously translated collection of Victor Serge’s poetry, emotion is the force that swells beneath the poet’s acute observations and his reasoning, sobriety, and restraint.”
—Summer Brenner, author of Nearly Nowhere and My Life in Clothes
“An international rebel with a cause, ever the champion of the downpressed and foreclosed, and of ‘all the broken young wings,’ Victor Serge—deported, exiled, hounded from country to country and continent to continent—inhabited a ‘planet without visas.’ But in A Blaze in a Desert Serge’s poetry, which witnessed the rise of modern totalitarian political ideologies and ideologues, comes home to Walt Whitman’s band of brothers. And James Brook’s erudite introduction guides us well through Serge’s engagement with poetry and poets and the enduring struggle for justice.”
—Gloria Frym, author of Mind over Matter and The True Patriot
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A Blaze in the Desert: A Review
By Mitchell Abidor
"Now, thanks to Bay Area poet and translator James Brook’s brilliant and fluid translation of Serge’s two collections of poetry in the volume A Blaze in a Desert (PM Press, 2017, 192 pages), this least-known and vastly underappreciated element of the Serge oeuvre will hopefully reach a wide audience.
Much of the poetry was written when Serge was detained in the Urals for his anti-Stalin activity, conditions hardly propitious for poetry.”