Thursday, December 6, 2012

Did You Wash Behind Your Ears?

Moidodyr postage stamp (Russia, 1993) / Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

All good Soviet children knew the importance of bathing properly. They knew it from their grandmothers, certainly, but they also knew it from Kornei Chukovsky, author of the classic children’s poem “Moidodyr” («Мойдодыр», 1921). In the poem, when a filthy young boy’s clothes and other belongings flee from him, a talking washstand named Moidodyr comes on the scene to sort things out.* Moidodyr, whose name means something like “scrub to the bone,” announces himself as “leader of washstands and commander of sponges” and orders his crew to get to work. “Kara-baras!” he shouts nonsensically, and they set off after the boy.

The soap and brushes do their duty, stinging the boy like wasps, but the “rabid sponge” has to chase him all over Saint Petersburg. Only after he is taken to task by a sponge-eating crocodile does the boy finally agree to get cleaned up. Now freshly scrubbed, he stands by as his pants willingly come back to him and a sandwich hops right into his mouth. The young speaker then delivers a classic bit of didacticism:

You must, you must wash up
every morning and every evening,
and as for unclean chimneysweeps,
they should be ashamed!
They should be ashamed!

(«Надо, надо умываться / По утрам и вечерам, / А нечистым / Трубочистам – / Стыд и срам! / Стыд и срам!»)

All of this is a way of talking not about Chukovsky, but about Timur Kibirov, the contemporary Russian poet whose work I have been translating lately. Kibirov appeared last month on Radio Svoboda’s program Over the Barriers, where he contributed a reading to their ongoing “radio-anthology” of contemporary poetry. The poem he read was “Kara-Baras! An Experiment in Interpreting a Classic Text” («Кара-Барас! Опыт интерпретации классического текста»), whose title derives from the nonsense word that Moidodyr shouts to rally his troops.

Now, Kibirov and I differ on what’s translatable and what’s not – with me being the more optimistic one – but this is one poem that I have no intention of ever tackling. It defies translation. The problem is that every line in Kibirov’s poem refers to an original line in Chukovsky’s, with plenty of puns along the way. Essentially, “Moidodyr” is the soundtrack that plays continuously beneath “Kara-Baras!” Readers who don’t know Chukovsky inside and out won’t make heads or tails of Kibirov. Well, okay, since I am such an optimist, maybe I could imagine a side-by-side, heavily annotated double translation for an academic audience, but such a thing would suck the pleasure right out of the text. Why bother?

Even so, readers of this blog – especially those who have some Russian under their belt – might enjoy a taste of Kibirov’s intertextual method, which happens to be one that he has used before. For instance, a few years back he published a book called In the Margins of “A Shropshire Lad” (На полях «A Shropshire Lad») that reworked Housman’s classic text for a post-Soviet, Russophone audience – a group of readers whose likeliest cultural references include Pushkin and Putin instead of Tennyson and Queen Victoria. Likewise, his most recent book, Greek and Roman Catholic Songs and Nursery Rhymes (Греко- и римско-кафолические песенки и потешки), collects poems that reinterpret Christian scripture with a poet’s ear, a believer’s earnestness, and an iconoclast’s sense of humor. An intertext for Kibirov is nothing new.

With “Kara-Baras!” the source text he plays against is “Moidodyr.” In Kibirov’s opening lines, however, it is not the Chukovskian bedspread (одеяло) that flees from the unwashed boy, but an undefined “ideal” (идеал – perhaps Soviet communism?) that flees from the figure of the poet, who has replaced the boy as speaker of the poem. But then Kibirov corrects himself by switching to the plural – ostensibly for the sake of rhythm, though we know he’s up to something else – so that it becomes “ideals” that have abandoned him («Идеалы / Убежали»), taking with them “the meaning of life” and even his girlfriend, who hops away like a frog. What else goes with them? Well, let’s see: the Orthodox faith, secular humanism, Gnosticism, atheism, and the post-structuralism of Derrida and Foucault, just to name a few. And who steps in to clean the boy, so to speak? Logos! The Word of God! The divine and “ancient” figure, who is “forgotten” and “barely alive,” dispatches his minions – gnawings, regrets, and insights – to set the poet back on the righteous path; predictably, they succeed.

Since Chukovsky closed his poem with a heavy dose of didacticism, Kibirov rises (or sinks?) to the same moralizing standard. But his conclusion is all about keeping the soul clean, not the body:

You must, you must praise God
every morning and every evening,
and as for unclean nihilists
and as for asshole
they should be ashamed!
They should be ashamed!

(«Надо, надо Бога славить / По утрам и вечерам, / А нечистым / Нигилистам / (вариант – / а засранцам- / вольтерьянцам) – / Стыд и срам! / Стыд и срам!»)

For all its high-flown intellectualism, Kibirov’s poem doesn’t actually wrap up all that differently from Chukovsky’s. The closing lines of either poem could conceivably be directed toward a child at bedtime – well, except for the “asshole” part. Oh, and this kid is no Young Pioneer, but a budding Orthodox believer. In essence, here’s what it all comes down to:

Did you wash behind your ears?

Did you say your prayers?

* Appropriately, “Moidodyr” rhymes, more or less, with “boy-mud-ear.”


  1. and Moidodyr is of course Scrubtoholes: мой - imp.of to wash, до - to, until, дыр - of дыра - hole, meaning well-scrubbed.

    Another interesting translation challenge is the word [бешеная] мочалка. Мочалка isn't really a soft washing sponge but a hard-scrubbing washer traditionally made of мочало, the stringy soft underlay of lime-tree bark. The same material is used for лапти. Loofa is also used for мочалки in Russia. But loofas never have the frayed, disheveled look that a well-used мочалка has. Hence the terrifying image of a witch-like 'rabid wash-scrubber' chasing the boy.

    Мочалка is also a slang word for a woman. Don't ask me to explain why. The word was glorified in an 80s song Mochalkin Blues from the iconic film ASSA.

    Here's a definition of mochalo:мочало

    Re Kibirov's paraphrase. While Chukovsky's Moidodur is a didactic cautionary verse, it is also a wonderful anthem to human body. I thought Kibirov's was an ironic (steb) piece not a straightforward religious didactism.

  2. Alexander, you've hit the nail on the head: there's practically always a layer of irony in Kibirov's poems. And thanks for your fascinating commentary on Russian sponges!

  3. Lost in parody are all those cute references to Petersburg geography (and to Chukovsky's earlier poems about the rocodile). It's been quite a run around town, and the wrought-iron fence to jump in a futile attempt to get away from the Mad Sponge isn't small either

  4. " (идеал – perhaps Soviet communism?) "

    Probably not: rationalism in general, or perhaps liberalism specifically, are more likely to have been the author's "ideals" that have failed him and left him unhappy and without inspiration.

    Both Kibirov and his typical reader are, to me, so dissociated from all things Soviet, that it would have required stating it explicitly to make "soviet communism" stand for his unspecified "ideals"

  5. Maybe you're right, Maxim. Whatever "ideal" Kibirov writes about on his first pass must be something monolithic that has just faded, which is why my mind jumped to the Soviet "ideal," but rationalism more generally does seem a safer bet. I guess I took the initial singular "ideal" as an expression of collective (and ironic) nostalgia, not personal disillusionment.