Even if you do not know the name of Lev Ozerov, twentieth century Jewish-Ukrainian, you would likely recognize the names inside his posthumans collection of poetry, Portraits without Frames: Akhmatova, Chukovsky, Stravisky, Nesterov, and many other prominent artists of his time. Without even knowing too many details of the Ozerov’s biography, Portraits without Frames leaves no doubt in the reader’s mind that he was an observant and sensitive soul.
In his introduction, translator Boris Dralyuk writes that Lev Ozerov was uniquely situated inside the Soviet literary structure. He was quietly and persistently advocating for the artists of his time. Through the course of his life Ozerov must have crossed paths with dozens of poets, artists, musicians, architects, and he chose to capture those experiences in free-verse poems with create an unusual anthology of his time. Some of the people he writes about were artists he chancily met at a crosswalk, others introduction were made by friends, still others artists were colleagues or dear friends he shared intimate moments with. The result is a personal gallery of language and tender admiration now open to a wider audience. First published in 1998, Ozerov’s collection has now been translated into English.
But what makes his chronicle of interests? In his poem of Georgy Arkadievich Shengeli, he writes “I read it with attention.” Attention. That word wrings through over and over though the poem-filled pages. This gentle attention is what makes this collection such a treasure. Ozerov noticed the artists, but more importantly, his attentiveness spanned deep and wide: wide enough to see so many artists and deep enough to take time to commemorate them in his verse.
He was eager, yet patient, curious, yet gentle. And on this account, the reader can forgive Ozerov for painting himself into many of the portraits. All too often the reader comes across lines such as: “we never met again,” “I knew,” “I walk away,” “I remember.’ These interludes can make Ozerov’s free verse feel prosaic. Perhaps leading us to feel as though the first stanza is all but an unnecessary paving of a path, setting up the scene. Why not just jump in? But, with patience, the reader sees the lens zooms in and the portrait come through. There comes a stanza in which the reader locks eyes with the artists Ozerov writes about and sees something worth the attention: “He gazed / at me with those sorcerer’s eyes— / gray to the point of blueness, / touched with the Black Sea’s greenness—”