‘EIMI: A Journey Through Soviet Russia’

Travel Books: E.E. Cummings's book chronicling a 36-day trip in 1931 has been reissued after almost 50 years out of print. Frank Bures says it's a tough read, but worthwhile.

08.14.07 | 9:49 AM ET

EIMIIn 1933, a small publisher called Covici Friede put out a strange book called “EIMI,” written by a strange writer. E.E. Cummings was known for nothing if not his “eecentric” style, punctuation and verse. He was always pushing the limits of the typewriter.

Usually, Cummings employed his creative urges in the service of poetry, which resulted in brilliant work, much of which is still read today, still fresh, and still like nothing anyone has written.

But it isn’t widely known that Cummings also steered his curlicued craft into the waters of travel writing. Perhaps prose was the only way he could deal with the rising Soviet monster which Cummings—himself a radical embodiment of creativity—instinctively abhorred. 

Cummings traveled to the USSR in the summer of 1931 for 36 days. He took what must have been copious notes, and then when he returned, he wrote EIMI: A Journey Through Soviet Russia, which, after nearly 50 years out of print, has been reissued. Eimi is Greek for “I am,” an obvious reference to the value of the individual, which was being crushed under Stalin, a fact which many in the United States, especially artists and writers, did not see until decades later.

But Cummings saw it clearly, though he said he did not go to the Soviet Union with any specific agenda in mind. Early in the book, he has this conversation, which he transcribed in his idiosyncratic style with a hotel clerk:

“Have you any rooms?” I said.

“Yes” (not at all disagreeably).

“How much are they?”

“five dollars. But that includes breakfast.”

“Five… The redfox leans toward me. Why do you wish to go to Russia?

because I’ve never been there.

(He slumps,recovers). You are interested in economic and sociological problems?

no.

Perhaps you are aware that there has been a change of government in recent years? 

yes(I say without being able to suppress a smile).

And your sympathies are not with socialism?

may I be perfectly frank?

Please!

I know almost nothing about these important matters and care even less.

(His eyes appreciate my answer). For what do you care?

my work.

Which is writing?

and painting.

What kind of writing?

chiefly verse;some prose.

Then you wish to go to Russia as a writer and painter? Is that it?

no;I wish to go as myself.

(An almost smile). Do you realize that to go as what you call Yourself will cost a great deal?

I’ve been told so.

But Cummings did go as himself, as he recounted in “EIMI,” an account that’s not strictly a travel narrative. In fact, it was originally published as a novel, though it is not clear why. There is nothing novelistic about it.

Maybe it was the way he layered his own travels with allusions to Dante’s Inferno. Maybe it was the way he used pseudonyms for everyone including himself. Or maybe in 1933—four years before Robert Byron’s Road to Oxiana redefined the genre—publishers thought that would help sales, or protect it from ideological backlash. Then again, maybe nothing E.E. Cummings did was straightforward.

Whatever the label, at its core “EIMI” is clearly a loose account of Cummings’ month in the Soviet Union, where he visited Lenin’s tomb, attended various propaganda plays and met other artists and writers, before taking the train back into the real world.

But the Soviet Union was as real as any, and Cummings knew. It is what terrified him most. At a deeper level, “EIMI” is a very political travelogue—one of my favorite kinds. I don’t mean political in the narrow sense, but in the vein that James Fenton wrote All the Wrong Places, and Ryszard Kapuscinski wrote The Soccer War, and even Emma Larkin wrote Finding George Orwell in Burma. In “EIMI,” Cummings sees the political landscape as integral to the place. Through it, he gets at bigger questions about the kind of worlds we create and that create us.

To call “EIMI” an easy read would be a lie. It’s a long, slow slog (like taking a train through the Soviet Union!) that requires tiresome mental gymnastics to understand each sentence. Much of it is impenetrable. Other parts are incomprehensible. Some parts, I have to admit, I read really, really fast.

But it’s worth a look, nonetheless, at least as a glimpse of a time and place that’s no longer with us, and a journey with one of the most unusual writers ever, and one who didn’t like the world he saw being created on his journey into the heart Stalin’s empire. It was a world that made him, in the end, cry out in a plea for what he saw being extinguished, for the very thing that made him a poet, and for that which makes us all human:

Voice

(Who:
         
Loves;

Creates,

Imagines)

OPENS