Sliding [from The Thoughts of Grass]

Charmed Pilgrim



















Sliding [from The Thoughts of Grass]


          Poetry these days is reminiscent of a rag doll stretched over all five fingers (or even six) of the hand of that same "six-fingered falsehood", into whose hut the poet Mandelstam entered "with a smoking torch"* fifty-odd years ago.  And no one has come out of it since.

          Somewhere there exist fields or meadows of conscience, low places over which conscience spills of a morning in a light silvery haze.  For some reason these places are always pictured as uninhabited, and lying beyond the boundaries of urban life.  But no, these are not the trite first principles of the 'back-to-the-soil' movement.  In every building of the most over-urbanized city there are empty apartments (and occasionally entire deserted buildings), where nature has taken up residence, and through whose keyholes these same smoky gray, morning fields and meadows can be seen.  Rare indeed is the Moscow kitchen that has no such nature reserve.  If I were the government I would proclaim them all historical and cultural monuments, and hang a plaque saying "protected by the government," but I fear that as a result of such action kitchens would become a rarity in Moscow.

          I do not wish to adduce any proofs precisely because the presence of proofs invalidates the thing being demonstrated, just as a date beneath the "Paid" stamp invalidates a certificate of presence at Satan's ball.  But having buried our faces in the lapel of our conscience, we cannot but see truth as something abandoned, even risky, or hopeless.

          It's all a matter of courage.

          I love this life in its application to the preserved places of untrodden truth, places to which, thanks to their inconvenient location, one cannot build even the most wretched dirt road, much less haul an armchair and a writing-table.  Its landscapes abide not in the studied historical or genetic memory, nor in the memory that results from the accumulation of events and generations, but rather in the memory lived by us all -- the memory of the first act of creation.

          I am happy even standing in line in a store, and I know that happiness, like truth (they are identical), is impossible if based on tearing someone away, or leading him beyond his limits.  In short, happiness tolerates no spectators.  In the presence of spectators there is no longer happiness, merely transitory good fortune.  In both happiness and truth everyone, without exception, is a participant.

          Poetry is indemonstrable.

          Yes, I know.  But only by stumbling and jumping around from point to point can I retrace the genesis of poetry.  Only such an inconsequent sequence makes sense to me.  Perhaps this sort of thing could not be published in newspapers, or is simply needless, which amounts to the same thing.  Or perhaps it could not be passed off as a fundamental investigation into the realm of poetry.  I, however, proclaim this a fundamental investigation into the realm of the spirit, and that everything claiming to be a fundamental investigation suffers precisely from deficient investigation into the realm of the spirit.

          It is well that nothing can be summed up here.  To sum up is to make both ends meet.  And it is well not because you are afraid of miscalculating, but precisely because you prefer to miscalculate.

          There is nothing more fundamental than chance, for the regularity that determines it is akin to the regularity that puts our lives together.  Can a hopeless philistine really not reason that if he acted otherwise, his life would turn out differently?  After all, he is encroaching on the most fundamental thing, the dependence of personal attributes and actions.  He encroaches on the universal law of retribution, without which anything is possible, and chance becomes soul-murderous inevitability; without which anything at all could happen to you, and the famous brick, not yet having fallen on anyone's head, becomes an irrefutable argument.  The investigation of all these possibilities, the greater part of which are never realized, consists merely in your enumeration of everything that your mind, remaining in solitude, can imagine.  But is this really fundamental, that is, something based in reality?  Isn't the most fundamental reality the accidentally-formed chain of all the actions you have ever performed, or necessarily will perform?  And is that chain really accidental and adequate to the chance development of your thought?

          I am fed up with quasi-scientific texts.  Rather than satisfy your hunger, they just give you heartburn.  I love the fundamental sliding of apparently spontaneous thought, its whimsical design that implies some fullness, one which fundamentalist science then attempts to reconstruct, endeavoring to enumerate its components.  But fullness does not decompose into component parts; it will not be easily caught.  It can be dismantled, but to reassemble it is impossible, just as it is impossible to dissect a fly into its components parts and then reassemble it.  Before you finish dissecting the fly, its life has disappeared.  The success of a surgical operation depends less, after all, on how the organ is sewn on (a task a tailor could manage), than on keeping it alive during the sewing.  To this end a surgeon will sometimes take a stopped heart in his hand and slap it, forcing it to beat, so that the life within it will not vanish.  Only the danger of life vanishing and rendering senseless the work of the surgeon distinguishes him from the tailor.  Were it not for this, everyone would be sewing donated kidneys on themselves, or additional ears, all without any particular necessity, just as punks draw little hearts, lips, or eyes on their cheeks.  If pain did not dilate the pupils, and humiliation did not eat away the soul, then this life would be nothing but a big practical joke.

          In a sense, a tailor is more a scientist than a surgeon.  In the surgeon's work there is a measure of dilettantism, quackery and charlatanism.  After all, he's almost never sure of the outcome.  The tailor works without taking risks.

          You might ask, how is poetry related to this.  It is like a tiny bow, affixed to the side of things.  But if you ponder how poetry is related to life, and you don't see its blood relationship to everything else, does it not appear as a tiny bow?

          Yes, I know.  It would be possible, from a scientific standpoint, to cut this life out like a pattern, and sew poetry on like a sleeve or a pocket.  Then the place of poetry would be clear, but we would learn nothing more about poetry than that it is a sleeve or a pocket, depending on where we had attached it.


*  Images from the poem "Ya s dymyashchei luchinoi vkhozhu...", or, roughly, "I enter with a smoking torch...", by Osip Mandelstam, dated April 4, 1931.


Translated by Patrick Henry

Copyright © by Five Fingers Review, 1992. All rights reserved.


This translation first appeared in Five Fingers Review, 1992, No.11.




Charmed Pilgrim

(This essay first appeared as the introduction to The Inconvertible Sky (Talisman House, Publishers, 1997), selected poems by Ivan Zhdanov in English translation.)



In 1979 I first saw the world "God" printed with a capital letter, not counting

pre-revolutionary publications. This was not especially religious literature as we

usually conceive of it. It was an eclectic, densely metaphorical and occasionally surrealist poem by Ivan Zhdanov called "Radiator's Rhapsody," which appeared in the miscellany Poetry.


A poem so saturated with metaphor and smacking of surrealism could not possibly leak through the censors' fine sieve into the rigidly ideologized, maniacally realistic Soviet literature and remain politically indifferent. Even less could there be a "God" with a capital letter when Party workers found attending church services were sacked from their jobs, and every Easter night Western musical programs, so seductive for those on a strict ideological diet, were shown on television to keep people glued to their screens and prevent them going to watch the festive church processions.


In that same year I was invited to read my poetry along with other young poets

at the Central House of Workers in the Arts, next door to the sinister building

on Lyubyanka Square1. On a frosty December night, when darkness falls early in Moscow and the street lamps emit a weak, suspended light to dispel the winter gloom, I dimly saw a distant crowd of people stamping their feet by the entrance, asking for tickets all the way from the subway. It was tempting, of course, to regard this rush to attend a poetry reading as referring to me, but common sense whispered that I shouldn't flatter myself, as this was my first public reading. This pack of youths doing all it could to slip past the staunch ticket-taker had come to hear Ivan Zhdanov read with two of his friends, Aleksander Eremenko and Aleksei Parshchikov, who had already become a canonical trinity making waves in the underground.


Without perceiving it, the country had entered an era of liberal bureaucracy.

The totalitarian kingdom of socialism still seemed an indestructible thousand-year reich. Brezhnev and his full clip of aged communist godfathers were still

alive, fostering social immobility and economic stagnation with a sacral

trembling. But in this tightly sealed atmosphere a leak appeared, a widespread

poetry boom, mistakenly called the "third wave" (in fact it should have been called not a "wave" but a "leak," "the last leak of socialism"), which, in spite of the

reigning common sense was not ignored steadfastly in the press. Lengthy critical

articles and reviews began to appear in the officially sanctioned newspaper

"Literaturnaya Gazeta," dedicated in the main to this canonized trinity of poets,

who had along the way acquired the name "metarealists", or even

"metametaphorists". This was a typical Soviet phenomenon: to discuss or condemn works that almost no one had access to, just as happened with Pasternak's novel and Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago.


The biggest "leak" of the "third wave" was Ivan Zhdanov, whose book Portrait, published by the Sovremennik publishing house in 1982, contained none of the normally obligatory words, such as "Party," "Communism," "socialism," "Lenin," "Revolution," "motherland," or "Russia," and once more contained the word "God," although now with a capitulatory lower-case letter. Alongside appeared an abundance of such non-poetic and ideologically useless words as "radiator," "can opener," "bronchitis," "X-ray"; that is, an utterly apolitical modernism.


How do such paradoxes occur? What has to be done to carry them out? A practical person would say such a thing would take "blat," or pull, and as always he would be wrong.


Ivan Zhdanov could have had no blat in principle, born the eleventh son in a peasant family in a backwoods village near Barnaul in the far-off Gorny Altai region of Siberia. As regards his resume, of course, such origins were an undoubted plus in the eyes of the functionaries from the state apparat, practically all of whom had, by definition, sprung from this same class in what had recently been a primarily peasant country, although this never hindered them in following state and Party policy and destroying their own age-old peasant way of life.


But Ivan Zhdanov’s “Aryan” origins were undermined in the eyes of those same functionaries by his questionable, intellectually saturated poetics, which deviated as far as possible from vulgar realism and destroyed their class-based doctrines of literature at the roots. One literary bureaucrat who became acquainted first with Zhdanov’s work, and only later with the author himself, said with astonishment: “I thought he was a lad who only knew the way from the grand piano to the bookshelf.”


By that time, however, Ivan Zhdanov was not a lad at all. He had tramped down the most varied roads, doing stints as a factory worker, a roughneck on an oil derrick in Yakutia, a “crackpot, healed” by doctors in a psychiatric hospital where he was dragged by the dean of the journalism department at Moscow State University, who also dismissed him from the ideological faculty, which had no room for unstable psyches. A string of jobs followed: stagehand in several Moscow theaters, a short-term  desk-job at the Bibliophile Society, a turn at the state film company, MosFilm, then back to the theaters, and finally an elevator repairman for MosLift, Moscow's elevator board. And all this without a permanent residence and the permanently looming threat the police would expel him from Moscow because he had no residence permit. For the same reason he periodically had to flee Moscow and return to Barnaul. During the first such flight he managed to graduate from the Barnaul Pedagogical Institute.


It should be noted that this biography was typical for the opposition-minded intelligentsia, or even for dissidents, suggesting as it does the idea of a conscious deviation from conformism. But in Ivan Zhdanov's case it was misleading. So many falsely intellectual notions proved upon inspection to be no less unconsciously classist. I had known him for several years already by this time and was well informed about his epic Altai roots, yet I was struck by the incompatibility of his extremely patriarchal origins (the eleventh son in a peasant family) which I learnt of in the annotations to his first book, with his acutely modernist poetry, ascribed in class theory to the dyed-in-the-wool, degenerate and decadent urban intelligentsia.


Misled in turn by his solid pedigree and his innovative poetics, the Communists, the national-patriots, the “back-to-the-earth movement” and the postmodernists frantically tried to tame Zhdanov and enlist him in their ranks, but none of them succeeded. Therefore if one is to speak of Ivan Zhdanov having blat, he must recognize any blat Zhdanov had resulted from this unlikely combination which impressed people from the most diverse schools.


It was simply that when Ivan Zhdanov recited his verse at that 1979 reading in the Central House of Workers in the Arts, the indisputable self-sufficiency of a self-originating source was present, intensified by his manner of reading his verse not to the outside world — that is, not appealing to his audience as would have logically been warranted — but inwardly, to himself. The lines seemed to occur within him, and he supervised their development as he revealed their occurrence in a somnambulistic, monotonous rustling of words.


A slight inarticulateness in his pronunciation gave the impression that you were observing this occurrence through a dark, magic crystal in which you could just make out the poems’ characteristic, thinly populated and biblically primordial landscapes where individual, contemporary characters were placed — characters, that is, from our densely populated communal apartments and our strained contemporary society  in general. And in their transformation in the poetry, their deliverance from the crush and press of our life, they became mythical heroes who discovered anew the worth and sense of the existence they had squandered in never-ending communal quarrels and scraps. In the depths of Zhdanov's dark landscapes, the social dimension, which indisputably rules the everyday world, lost its authority, and some of its significance as well.


Transformed into the primordial, ultimate and timeless landscapes of Zhdanov's poetry, a father, mother or sister,  who live and perish in obscurity, or a beloved woman, who is invoked simply as "you," ceases to be the poet's own father, mother, sister or lover and becomes a generic Father, Mother, Sister or Lover. Any city transplanted in these landscapes becomes Babylon, any building in that city, the Tower of Babylon. And including these people and places in generically specific relations, he extracted them from their customary, particular social context and transported them into a primordial void where everyone — communists and the intelligentsia, national-patriots and cosmopolitans, members of the “back-to-the-soil” movement and modernists — found themselves in one common dimension from which no one is ever finally free and where each of us sooner or later remains alone with his fate and his conscience. This is why, sensing in Ivan Zhdanov a call to ultimate truth, various groups sought to win him over to their side. But this call gave them nothing to sink their hooks into, and even the publication of his book failed to recruit him into their ranks.


So for all these reasons, when I first heard Zhdanov read his work, I recognized in him a perfectly clear incarnation of a revered archetypal character, the charmed pilgrim of Nikolai Leskov's fiction, who with an abundance of physical strength and psychological resources mastered that which is, in theory, beyond the strength of man. As if Zhdanov — growing up in the Altai backwoods, a place so remote that communist class-based propaganda reached it only in a watered-down form — did not know how harmful modernism was said to be. For that reason, in the few models of modernism that made it to his village — cut-out reproductions of paintings by Salvador Dali, René Magritte or Paul Delvaux published once in a great while in the popular magazine "Ogonyok," or monographs on modernism, couched in abusive or denunciatory language, which their authors had fought to see into print, or works of Russia’s own modernists from the early years of this century that circulated semi-legally — in these, Zhdanov recognized material possessing a new expressiveness suitable for making contemporary myths that would be both the work of the author, in the modernist vein, and the work of no one, like anonymous folk verse: myths impossible to unify because ignorant of unification, whose very achievement forced the reader to recognize their indisputable universality.


So Ivan Zhdanov was published when others were forbidden to publish and was accepted by those who should not have accepted him. The image of Leskov's charmed pilgrim, wandering through life like a somnambulist, passing unharmed over ground that fell away beneath the feet of others, was repeated in characters who appeared in Zhdanov's poems, be it Odysseus, or Orpheus, or a nameless lyric hero who quit the home of his youth only to realize the inevitability and simultaneously the futility of the journey he had undertaken. A particular vision of the universe, canonized in the poems, could be found in this image: the land of youth — for Zhdanov the hills of his youth, his precious Altai, to which it was as impossible for him to return as to step twice into the same stream — which served as a traditional, universal reference point, conditioned by the primordial, generic, ancestral nature of popular legend, of myth. This amalgamation of the morphology of archaic myth with modernist myths that seemed to have lost all connection with their prototypes astonished his contemporaries — residents, as they were, of totalitarian, socialist slums where the difference between things was determined by how closely their ideological aims conformed to regulations, where one thing was declared harmful, another useful, one life-giving, another still-born. In Zhdanov’s poetry ideological opposites not only met without causing one another obvious harm, they entered into a complementary relationship, thanks to which the life of archaic myth was extended into the present, and kinless modernist myth forged blood ties with the genesis of the whole world. This is why prophets of various persuasions, not seen among us since the days of the Old Testament, resumed their work in his poetry, and an ordinary hill in the steppe country, lost in the expanses of the central Russian lowlands a thousand kilometers from the original, acquired the ability to transform itself into Golgotha.


The word “God” with a capital letter is, of course, essential to such poetry. Therefore, during one of the charged discussions in the Kirill Kovaldzhi's experimental literary seminar, once quite famous in Moscow, where the poetic splash later called the "Third Wave" occurred, when Zhdanov was asked to define the meaning of this new poetry, he replied: “the cultivation of a new conscience.” Later, speaking about the meaning of Russian literature as a whole, he brought this thought to its logical conclusion: “the writing of a new patristic literature."


But Ivan Zhdanov’s “God” is not the bankrupt god of comic books on biblical themes intended for children and those suffering from intellectual dystrophy, nor the god of pulpits and sermons puffed up with self-importance, but the “orphaned god” who in one of his poems “enters" the night which “isn't chosen," — that is, a God of the marginal and the outsiders, and therefore a God of the absolute majority, because whoever we might be, each of us, individually, is alone with himself, marginal, an outsider2. This is why, in the waning days of our totalitarian society, when we all instinctively strove to escape the oppressive collective existence thrust upon us by the system and involuntarily were marginalized, Zhdanov’s poetry was in demand from so many quarters.


It seemed that shortly the whole country would hear him, that the whole world was ready to pay heed. Russia seemed poised to cast off totalitarianism, and revelations were expected from her that would save the world. Zhdanov's poetry was actively translated into other languages. A new book came out in Paris. He was invited to international poetry festivals.


But less than six years later, in an era of revived capitalism, Ivan Zhdanov's countrymen, who so recently seemed determined to get rid of their oppressive collective existence, have quickly and without the slightest internal resistance allowed themselves to slip into the crowd of mass culture's consumers. The overwhelming majority of them was beguiled by the mirage of a modernist, capitalist paradise. They made it legal to write the word "God" with a capital letter, and did so with the most vulgar banality. That same majority fell into banalities of a criminal hue which the Western world outgrew long ago and which were of no interest to anyone. They proved incapable of catching a single word about the "orphaned god" or nights not chosen. Once more the majority chose its own night; but now instead of the night of socialism, they chose the night of capitalism. The Russian boom passed. Any world-saving revelations that might have been heard from Russia went unheard even here. The country was converted from the pathos of saving the world to realizing the egoistic slogan "every man for himself."


And while the Western way of life, with its avant-garde material culture, failed to save Russia, with its arrival the avant-garde poet Ivan Zhdanov, who had once broken out of the underground under socialism, was shoved back down again. He returned to his old unstable existence, although, it is true, he now had a one-room apartment he managed to wrangle from the once mighty Union of Soviet Writers as it collapsed before our eyes. Thus as it vanished this organization which had embodied conservatism supported an avant-garde poet left without means by the avant-garde economic and political changes in Russia, just as he had been in the classical Soviet era. Ivan Zhdanov has now gone even deeper and more hopelessly into the underground.


This is no longer an ideological underground, but the underground of life itself, which stands opposed to practical human activity, focused ultimately and unswervingly on extracting immediate profit and material benefit.


The phenomenon of Ivan Zhdanov is the result of a strategic natural combination. At the back of beyond a boy was born with perfect poetic pitch. He therefore skirted the ideological and aesthetic extremes which traditionally proved the ruin of poetry, literature and culture generally at that time, and more unerringly than others restored poetic space to the ethical balance essential to Russian cultural perception. In this  thoroughly human dimension, the milieu of the avant-garde does not become an end in itself, and world views do not harden into ideology. At the rupture of two eras — the old lie weakened and the new lie not yet in force — he saw in the emerging dawn not a distorting mirror but genuine eternity where modernism and realism, avant-gardism and conservatism, "the eleventh son of a peasant family" and the refined intellectual all were reconciled. And in the reflected light of this eternity all the new deceptions now raining down on our heads continue to be invalid.


1) Headquarters of the former KGB (now FSB).

2) The poem referred to is "Such a night isn't chosen..."


Translated by John High and Patrick Henry

Copyright © by John High and Patrick Henry, 1997. All rights reserved.