Poems

Essays

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

The following translations first appeared in Crossing Centuries: The New Wave in Russian Poetry
a new anthology of contemporary Russian poetry in English translation from Talisman House,
  Publishers. For more information about the anthology, visit the Talisman House website at — www.talismanpublishers.com

 

 

 

Neglinnaya reka

Excuse and Explanation

"don't pray or shout curses after me..."

"...it's true labor collectives drowned in drink..."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Neglinnaya reka1

 

I was born and raised, so the story goes, on the bank of a river

                        in a wooden house

                        almost a cabin

and returning one day from my journeys I'd probably have

                        pressed my lips to the river

but since 1819 it has flowed through a pipe

I learned of this fact not long ago in a book

 

for I was born not in 1819 but somewhat later

                        though I've lived long enough to go gray

you can verify this in the book of fate at an entry

                        under the letter "b"

and I recall this river now

                        because I am myself in a pipe

this may be less evident because I'm not alone

 

but a bagel's not only a hole

                        particularly if it's a torus

what in the world is topology

                        if not a search for genre

                        with a stop in this world

as it turns out even sandor petöfi2

                        didn't so much perish in battle

                        as get married

                        to the daughter of a postmaster from barguzin3

                        he was a sly one all right

and I learned of this fact not long ago in the papers

 

the bolshevichka factory outlet

                        opened on the very spot

                        where I was born and raised

where the absence of a fence
                        leaves nothing to obscure in shadow

where utmost fear and utmost courage

                        both turn the stomach

                        and cause diarrhoea

and this fact was related long ago by Montaigne

 

I've never been on the other bank of the river

                        although I've lived long enough

                        as I said to go gray

for you can't ford this river

                        and apart from kuznetsky

                        you'd think there were no bridges

 

a person differs from the collective in that he's always alone

the collective differs from a person in that it's always prepared

 

I don't like to play at partisans

                        at who betrayed and who informed

for everyone who's innocent today

                        is guilty in the next reel

man is a none-too-long-playing record

                        and not terribly serious

perhaps no one has yet related this but it's a fact

_____________________________________

 

1) Neglinnaya River (Neglinnaya reka) is a small river that runs through Moscow, flowing into the Moscow River at the foot of the Kremlin.

2) Sandor Petöfi (1823-1849), a Hungarian poet and patriot, and a major figure in 19th century Hungarian literature. His marriage to Julia Szendrey inspired some of his best love poems. He joined the revolutionary army in 1848, and after taking part in a battle near Segesvar on July 31, 1849, he disappeared.

3) Barguzin is the name of a town located some 20 miles east of Lake Baikal in Siberia.

 

Translated by Patrick Henry

Copyright © 2000 Talisman Publishers Inc. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

 

Excuse and Explanation

 

I'm not a poet1

is there really such a thing as a living poet

 

I'm a school teacher

I teach math

computer science

as well as ethics and the psychology of family life

 

on top of this I return home each day

to my wife

 

as a romantically inclined pilot once said

love is not when two people look at one another

but when they both look in the same direction

 

this is about us

 

for ten years now my wife and I

have been looking in the same direction

 

at the television

 

for eight years now our son looks that way too

 

I'm not a poet

is there a hole in the watertight round-the-clock alibi

set forth above

 

the combination of misunderstanding and happenstance

that leads now and then to the appearance of my poems

in the periodical press

compels me to confess

 

I write poetry when it becomes unavoidable

while I monitor in-class exams

in spite of all the public school reforms

individual pupils continue to cheat

 

to prevent this

 

I'm forced to sit with my neck craned

wide-eyed and vigilant

unblinking gaze fastened on a space just above the floor

 

this pose leads inevitably

to the composition of verse

 

anyone who's interested can verify this

 

my poems are short

because in-class exams rarely last longer than 45 minutes

 

I'm not a poet

 

and perhaps

that's why I'm interesting

______________________________________

 

1) This line plays on an entry in Vladimir Mayakovsky's autobiography, I Myself , where Mayakovsky states: "I'm a poet. That's why I'm interesting. And that's what I'm writing about. I'll write about all the rest only as it settles down in verbal form."

 

Translated by Patrick Henry

Copyright © 2000 Talisman Publishers Inc. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

 

                * * *

don't pray or shout curses after me

I promise a bon voyage party

if I get the urge to go

what am I talking about

this isn't an international sleeper

it's a commuter train

on the moscow-vilnius1 run

 

I won't give you a light

don't intend to enter into dialogue

not the time or place

to tap a little chechotka with my teeth

because I live

because I can

i.e. could

walk out to the ponds

without soiling the knuckleduster in my pocket

 

a leap-year february fixed rings to us

like the birds around moscow

the heavenly ornothologist

tagged the rest

in march

I had this life

this city

country

and a book of ABC's

but to leave for paris

is the same as approaching death

 

no need for that

go on without us

the religion of hollow spaces

in the komsomol orgasm

with vibrating calves and forearms

is not yet alien to me

still not alien

the hopeless tongue of man

_______________________________________

 

1)This poem was written in 1991 when Lithuania was still formally part of the USSR, but had already strongly asserted its independence.

 

Translated by Patrick Henry

Copyright © 2000 Talisman Publishers Inc. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

 

                    * * *

 

... it's true

        labor collectives drowned in drink

and corrections were inserted into directives

and our military advisors

by invitation only

                            occupied continents

 

and every guard dog with trusty snout

could sniff out those who thought

                                                    differently

 

and though it's shameful

                                        my son

                                                        though it's strange

we were young

                            and life was longed for...

 

Translated by Patrick Henry

Copyright © 2000 Talisman Publishers Inc. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 Where Has the Space Disappeared To?

There Is No Russia But Russia, and Patriarchs' Ponds Lie At Its Heart

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where Has the Space Disappeared To?

 

            Not so long ago1 the intellectual 'cul-tourist' and postmodernist, Aleksei Parshchikov, returned to Moscow for the summer holidays from Stanford, methodically assimilating the discrete structures of existence.

            At one time, a millennium or even just a decade ago, we were young and met often, living in the tiny foxholes of socialist society in southwestern Moscow.  One bitterly cold winter day I left Parshchikov's and got on the city bus.  I had only one stop to travel, but in that distance all the endless expanse of Russia was compressed.

            At first there were the parallelepipeds of the Parshchikovian micro- region, then snow-covered fields, suddenly a small church on a hill, and further — dark woods, then there reappeared the snowy flatness of the plain, and finally, my microregion, with the same multistorey parallelepipeds, arranged in a different disorder.

            This last time we met at a fashionable literary seminar, entitled "The Postmodern,” in which we were less participants than exhibits, objects.  Parshchikov had crossed the ocean, I had merely returned from Paris, and we met in the center of Moscow, but the sensation of space had vanished.  Where had it disappeared to?

            My generation began to write during the death-pangs of the communist myth, to the savory unisexual kisses of General Secretaries, when the poetry of Russia was divided into two distinct currents:  official poetry, which was required to say “Yes” to the ideological absurdity of the surrounding environment; and dissident poetry, required, likewise, to say “No” in chorus.  The best of these poets became adept at saying “Yes” in such a way that “No” shone through, but even they did not notice how they were required to work on this given plane between fixed poles.

            “New wave,” “other poets,” “parallel culture,” “citizens of the night,” “the Soviet underground”; what won't they call the generation of poets who arose on the verge of the 80's, and broke free from the strong magnetic field, with its inevitable "+" and "-", into a different dimension, thereby acquiring a new volume and degree of freedom.  They advanced from the celebrated “Yes” and “No,” from the classic questions of the Russian intelligentsia — "What Is to Be Done?" and "Who Is to Blame?" — to the ultimate, universal questions of existence:  internal questions.  As Lev Tolstoi remarked, the true doors for the resolution of questions open "only on the inside" (this citation is not found in Tolstoi's writings, but in some article whose subject I do not recall).

            Such were the ethics of the "new wave"; they were, however, also an esthetics.  As gradually became clear, we were postmodernists, but our postmodern was intuitive, detected in the atmosphere; it was in the air at the time, not found in books or heard in university lectures.  "I don't know what postmodernism is, although I sense that I belong to it," wrote Yury Arabov in the 1987 manifesto "The Realism of Ignorance."

            I would point out that it makes sense to interpret the parallelism of "parallel culture" not according to Euclid, but rather Lobachevsky, who described how not one but an infinite multitude of parallel lines pass through a single point of origin.  The explanation (also mathematical) of this is contained in that same manifesto by Arabov:  "In our opinion, twice two cannot equal four, because this could never be.  The product of twice two is determined by everyone for his own purpose."  With purely poetic license Arabov pays no heed to the contradiction between "in our opinion" at the beginning of this statement and "everyone for his own purpose" at its end. 

            And yet, in this contradiction lies the explanation of the rapid rise of the different schools within the "new wave,” and of the inevitability of their disintegration, already evident today. 

            The Poetry Club, which sprang up in Moscow in 1986, became a significant alternative to official literature.  It united an enormous variety of poets from the new stylistic currents of the 1980s:  metametaphorists, conceptualists, polystylists, and others.

            The metametaphorists (Ivan Zhdanov, Akeksei Parshchikov, Vladimir Aristov, Mark Shatunovsky, Konstantin Kedrov) oppose to the sham simplicity, pedantry, and bloatedness of the official poetic model a departure to another world, in which it is impossible to distinguish the waking from the dreaming state, molecules from galaxies, yesterday from tomorrow.  All of these are present simultaneously in their verse, mutually reacting and being transformed, and causing each word to mean more than it had before its inclusion in the metametaphoric text.

            The reactions of the conceptualists (Dimitry Prigov, Lev Rubinshtein, Vsevolod Nekrasov, Igor Irtenev, Timur Kibirov, Mikhail Sukhotin, and others) to the official organs was outwardly different from that of the metametaphorists.  Their poetry is characterized by constant intellectual and moral provocation, the baring of the metallic carcass of ideological monuments, an attack on the mythology of the contemporary world and Soviet society in particular, play with clichés and stereotypes that have faded and run together with constant usage, and crazy space in which context is more significant than text and the word means nothing at all.  Many listeners go no further than the first comic and parodic level; they do not sense the underlying tragic cause of this debilitated spate of words.  And it is this very audience that provides the conceptualists with their noisy success at readings, exhibitions and performances.

            It is as difficult to give a pure example of the slippery essence of polystylistics, the third noteworthy trend in "new wave" poetry, as it is to come up with a list of its adherents, for to do so runs counter to the very essence of the aesthetics of poly-stylism, its all-embracing nature.  Anyone seeking elucidation of this point should consult Nina Iskrenko's poem, "Hymn to Polystylistics".

            In the polystylists’ attempt to construct a new harmony from confusion, chaos, and the heterogeneity of objects, it is easy to discern a link with both the metarealists and the conceptualists.  This link consists in the conceptual usage of clichés of mass-consciousness and the simultaneous appeal to all the geological strata of culture.  The thinking of a metametaphorist poet could be represented in the form of a winding spiral, compressing and condensing space and time into the text. The poetic work of a polystylist could also be represented as a spiral, but one that is unwinding, seizing all new shades of thought with each spire, and expanding into the entire universe.

            The complex geography of the new poetic wave is not fully subsumed under the three headings outlined above.  Polystylistic methods, absurdist moves, and the thickness of metametaphors are also found in the work of other "new wave" authors, such as Aleksandr Eremenko, Sergei Gandlevsky, Yury Arabov, Viktor Korkiya, and in my own work. While these authors attach themselves in varying degrees to the above-mentioned currents, they each follow their own course. 

            What is the situation today?  Gone are the first readings of the Poetry Club in overflowing halls with the distinct smack of forbidden fruit, scandal, persecution, and rigid police cordons.  Harsh criticism, direct accusations and attacks appeared in the official press, but they only further aroused interest.  Sensational group publications of the poets in the Poetry Club came out in newspapers with circulation in the millions, and sacks full of enthusiastic and disturbed letters arrived in response.

            Passions gradually eased, serious and extensive publications of the "new wave" poets appeared, and in various countries the first books came out.  Literary critics have moved from evaluative articles to interpretation of the phenomenon called "new literature.”

            In this environment the new literary wave in Russia found itself once more in a unique situation, as it suddenly encountered competition from all of world literature. Following the recent abolition of censorship, Russian readers are for the first time reading such authors as Solzhenitsyn and Brodsky, Pasternak and Borges, Orwell and Joyce, and they are reading them concurrently with "new wave" writers, on the pages of the same journals and collections.

            Today, by a stroke of fate, everything has overlapped.  As my generation bids farewell to youth, no single path has emerged; rather, each writer has found his own.  We have also parted with context.  Alas, my generation is not the first free generation, as it seemed to us, but rather the last generation of Soviet poetry, closing the tragic and farcical circle.  The realities of Soviet society will fade and grow shabby, those things with which, through denial, annoyance, or the refusal to participate, we were linked, as it turns out, quite strongly...

            Prohibition and persecution no longer have any status.  The publications, appearances, and festivals of the "new wave" are an appreciable, constitutive force in the literary life of Russia.  The literary process in Russia is becoming normal.  But can the literary process really be normal ?

            Not only the "new wave,” but all of Russian poetry now seeks its place.  Accustomed for centuries to substitute itself for politics, religion, philosophy, journalism, shows and circuses, today the poetry of Russia yields to politicians, religious leaders, erotic competition, economic programs, and journalistic essays; it seeks, perhaps for the first time, to find its own territory, and to form its own reader, one elected and summoned, qualified and discriminating.

            Confusion can be felt in interviews, pronouncements, and texts.  The esthetics of the postmodern have been exhausted.  The ethics of unhappiness have likewise been exhausted.  The spirit of the times has changed with the epoch.

            During the putsch of August, 1991, the "new wave,” too, stood before the Russian "White House.”  There is, however, no adequate language to enable the new literature to describe those days, nor the events of the present moment.

            Stylistics and poetics are eroding. Everyone must be prepared to move ahead on his own, and this is fruitful.  Who now isn't occupied with this very task?

            Eremenko is organizing exhibitions of prison artifacts.  Shatunovsky is writing a novel, Parshchikov a quasi-scientific work about our youth.  Korkiya is writing political plays and trading in cement.  Arabov is writing scripts for poetic films, and I these notes, some articles and essays...  Still and all, where in the world has the space disappeared to?  The devil only knows.  But only excruciating individual effort will make it possible to find it again.

_____________________________

 

1) This essay was written in December 1991.

 

Translated by Patrick Henry

Copyright © 2000 Talisman Publishers Inc. All rights reserved.

 

This translation appeared in Crossing Centuries: The New Wave in Russian Poetry, a new anthology of contemporary Russian poetry in English translation from Talisman House, Publishers. For more information about the anthology, visit the Talisman House website at — www.talismanpublishers.com

           

 

 

 

 

There Is No Russia But Russia, and Patriarchs' Ponds Lie At Its Heart

 

            as far back as my student days there arose the conjecture thought hypothesis that no land but russia existed or could exist and that all other countries had been dreamed up by the kgb a legend disinformation secret agent's exploit and there is only our free fatherland soviet bulwark and reliable union

            this hypothesis deserved to be accepted as all formerly inscrutable facts packed themselves into their corresponding cells having displayed an orderly picture of the world no worse than Einstein's with his independence of the speed of light from the movement of source and  observer consequently of that same kgb officer and a vagrant

            the departure of compatriots of various stripes to the common historical homeland in no way disproved my hypothesis and even translated the problem into a seemingly metaphysical region where israel embodied all foreignness at once like some artificial respirator

            and what is more letters from there confirmed the conjecture via air mail and it was worth noting the date of the postmark who in the world has seen the plane that could fly for two or even five months without landing like some flying dutchman such that good citizens relied on fools

            however there are no fools and my conviction that there is no russia but russia as there is no earth but earth was not shaken even by the appearance in a certain paris of a book of my poetry there is simply no such city as paris for my booklet in pure russian russian was pulled and do they really speak such a language in paris

            well I've been to your paris cool disneyland they laid out the people's economic achievements1 just like a real city the pigeons are mechanical but they soil your head like the real ones and there's the statue of liberty and they prod into paris and for new york there aren't enough props

            so there is no land whatever but russia and in the middle of russia are patriarchs' ponds bottomless and immense and he who moves three steps from the ponds departs for three days and he feels an ineffable grief called nostalgia

            and now john high the american has come to us on patriarchs' ponds from san francisco and guzzles a case of vodka without blinking we've seen this san francisco and it's another kolomenskoe take the subway to to lubyanka station exit from the first car turn left second floor fourth door the password is poetry unnecessary? response unnecessary! then poetry

 

are we really to part unbearably

    to dissolve in imported distance

        if 15 - 20 people

            make up the earth's population

                is there really a poet other than eremenko

                    is there really any benefit but harm

                        do reservoirs really exist

                            besides patriarch's ponds

__________________________

 

1) VDNKh — Vystavka dostizhenii narodnogo khozyaistva, or Exhibition of the Achievements of the National Economy, located in northern Moscow.

 

Translated by Patrick Henry

Copyright © 1993 by Five Fingers Review. All rights reserved.