Friday, March 8, 2013

Now That They’ve Hatched

Cover of Vsevolod Emelin’s “Bolotnaya Songs” / Image courtesy of Falanster

Last September, on the eve of the literary award season, ran a piece by Stanislav Lvovsky called “Chicken Count” («Подсчёт цыплят») identifying some of the major Russian poetry works of 2012. Since then, countless other critics, websites, and journals have put out their own lists (like these), but Colta’s was the first one to get me thinking about what the year’s landmark books might turn out to be. I found it humbling that some of the names on their list – even the older poets – were new to me, and I think it’s regrettable, but not really suprising, that many of them are not much available in English translation.

A new book of poems by the late Jan Satunovsky, for instance, has made quite a splash among Russian poetry critics, but I had only been dimly aware of his work before this winter. That’s a shame. I wish I had encountered him earlier; even a cursory glance at his stuff on Vavilon reveals a major poet with fine eye for the absurd. The new book is big – about eight hundred pages – and it is called Poems and Prose on Poems (Стихи и проза к стихам). In the Colta piece, Lvovsky writes, “This volume, when you consider the scale and personality of the author, as well as his influence (though often indirect) on contemporary Russian poetry, should have come out long ago. It’s nice that it finally happened.” But even though Satunovsky was an important modern Russian poet, he is little known here in America. Among the only translations I have been able to turn up are five by Alex Cigale from his “Anthology of Minimalist and Miniature Poems,” including this superb one:

In perfect pitch the outdoor brass orchestra,
the horns in pace with the concert master,
the sound quality ascending to the stars,
violins on key – like on his web the spider;
and swooning couples stride along the street
(as it was written, two of every monster.)

                                                Yalta, Apr. 30, 1974

[Всё в порядке в духовом оркестре, / дудки, капельмейстер — все на месте, / звук отличный, стереофоничный, / паучок на нитке — ключ скрипичный; / и, кружась, шагают пары на бульваре / (всякой твари, сказано, по паре).]

Lev Loseff’s new collected poems – with a foreword by Sergey Gandlevsky, who says Loseff wrote “in a peculiar dialect of Soviet nonconformity” – have also been widely reviewed in Russia. Loseff’s name is less obscure in America than Satunovsky’s, surely in part because he taught at Dartmouth for several decades until his death a few years ago, but even in his case the poetry is overlooked: American readers know him mainly through his critical work on Brodsky and other Russian authors. His biography of Brodsky (from the ЖЗЛ series) has been translated into English and taken its place on the shelves of academic libraries, and some of his earlier criticism is also easy to find. Loseff’s poetry, however, has only appeared in English translation in a few anthologies. That’s why I was happy to discover that Gerald Smith has been keeping up a blog in Loseff’s honor with new translations posted all the time. (Perhaps there’s a collection in the works?) Here’s the opening quatrain of one that I found especially good:

Life held up two great big juicy fingers,
so here you are,
stuck out in Ultima Thule, but you’ve still got
your samovar.

[Жизнь подносила огромные дули / с наваром. / Вот ты доехал до Ultima Thule / со своим самоваром.]

One of the younger poets that Lvovsky mentions in his Colta piece is Pavel Goldin, a dolphinologist (!) from Crimea. His third book, Chongulek: Sonnets and Songs: Texts Written without the Author’s Knowledge (Чонгулек. Сонеты и песни. Тексты, написанные без ведома автора), was published last year, and it sounds fascinating. One critic writes that Goldin has been “clearly seeking the means to sneak up on the inexpressible, to show those aspects of internal and external reality for which there is no name, and to ask why they should remain beyond language.” Goldin, as it turns out, has appeared in English at least once, when my ALTA colleague Peter Golub translated him for Jacket magazine’s feature on New Russian Poetry (an issue also edited by Peter):

White and wet morning
Like sheep cheese or school chalk

The fog is scattered by the precious trash
And every yardman seems an Adam

[Утро белое и сырое, / как овечий сыр или школьный мел. // Туман разбросан драгоценным хламом, / И каждый дворник кажется Адамом.]

The Colta list includes several other authors worth noting – such as Satunovskys fellow midcentury undergrounder Vsevolod Nekrasov, American poet Ilya Kaminsky (in Russian translation), and Sergei Kruglov in collaboration with Boris Khersonsky on an Orthodox theme – but I can only fit so many no-doubt deserving poets into my posts. Likewise with other lists: the hyperliterary Moscow bookshop Falanster put out its end-of-the-year poetry bestseller list, and nearly everything on it begs to be investigated, including books by modernist innovator Konstantin Vaginov, dissident nationalist Eduard Limonov, and Boris Ryzhy, a young man who committed suicide more than decade ago and whose reputation has only grown since.

But the book at the very top of the Falanster list is the one that especially caught my eye: Vsevolod Emelin’s Bolotnaya Songs (Болотные песни), a verse chronicle of the opposition movement in Russia last winter. (Its cover is the image that heads up this post.) Falanster is also the publisher of the book, and their site gives a sample poem called “December 10, 2011.” Here is my quick translation of the two opening stanzas:

I’ll tie on a white ribbon,
ask my mother-in-law’s forgiveness,
say goodbye to my little kids,
and go to Bolotnaya Square.

The children will sob as their papa leaves,
my wife will tear out sheaves of her hair.
Papa doesn’t need a white ribbon,
                        but white slippers
and a wreath of artificial white roses.

[Повяжу я белую ленточку, / Попрошу прощенья у тещи, / Попрощаюсь с малыми деточками / И пойду на Болотную площадь. // Зарыдают дети вслед уходящему папочке, / Будет рвать жена сноп своих овсяных волос, / Папочке-то нужна не ленточка, / а белые тапочки / И венок из искусственных белых роз.]

The white ribbon, of course, is the symbol of the opposition movement, but what might be less obvious to non-Russians is the significance of the white slippers. Well, to put it simply, if you happened to end up wearing them, you’d soon be six feet under (if you weren’t already there). With that in mind, one can surely figure out what the “artificial white roses” are doing here as well. The political stakes are high these days.

Closing out the Falanster list is Maria Stepanova’s Kireyevsky (Киреевский), a copy of which I happen to have picked up in Russia last summer. One critic calls her “a Prigov who doesn’t joke,” and that’s intriguing – although I must admit that Prigov’s comic antics may be what I most value in his poetry. In any case, I’d better get started reading her. If I don’t get moving, the 2013 lists will surely start rolling in!

Postcript: I can’t help but note the irony of writing this post on International Women’s Day and just mentioning one woman – and her only in passing. Let’s hope we see many more women on 2013’s end-of-year lists.


  1. Thank you for the lively commentary, and for the "shout out". Another one by Satunovsky was in this very brief survey of Russian Minimalist poetry:, and three, unfortunately no longer among their online content, were recently included in the 10th Anniversary issue of Also, you'll be glad to know I just heard from Matvei Yankilevich that he's doing a Vsevolod Nekrasov book at his Ugly Duckling Presse. Keep up the good work Jamie, and speak soon. Alex

  2. Thanks for the link, Alex. I think I must have missed it in my earlier searches because of the spelling of Satunovsky's first name on the Alba page ("Yan," from the Cyrillic "Ян"). My instinct told me to spell it "Jan," but of course in any library catalog search I also try the LOC-style "Ian." I hadn't even thought of "Yan." So complicated!

    I'm glad to hear about Yankelevich's Nekrasov project. I'm sure it will be a good one.

  3. I suspect that two of the translations above have missed the meaning of some idiomatic expressions that the originals invoke. But maybe that was the translator's conscious choice? Anyway, here's what has caught my eye:

    "stuck out in Ultima Thule, but you’ve still got
    your samovar."

    This actually invokes the Russian idiom "to the city of Tula with your samovar"; this is supposed to mean "bringing something unneeded", because Tula used to be the place where the best samovars were made. This makes me think that "still got your samovar" is not the best translation - "who needs your samovar there" would be closer.

    "Каждой твари, сказано, по паре" - "As it was written, two of every monster"

    "As it was written" hints to the Old testament story of the Noah's Ark (although it doesn't quite say exactly that, but so the idiom has it); what is meant is "a (male-female) pare of every creature", not "every monster". "Всякой твари по паре" is actually pretty widely used in the sense "a large variety", as Google would confirm; the author could have been also playing on the modern sense of "тварь", which is indeed "monster", but this is far from obvious and would be - at best - a secondary meaning.

  4. Maxim, you're certainly right that Losev had the Tula saying in mind when he used the phrase "со своим самоваром", but I think Smith's translation gets us close enough. In any case, only a footnote could really make the meaning clear to an English reader who didn't know the saying.

    As for Cigale's translation of the Satunovsky line, perhaps a word like "creature" would have made the Genesis reference clearer, but as it stands, I think it comes across pretty well. Actually, I wonder more about Cigale's choice to use the word "written" instead of "said" ("сказано"). Perhaps he did so for the meter? Or maybe "written" helps make the connection to the Bible more obvious for English readers?

  5. Well, my issue with "still got your samovar" is that it does not - for me - invoke the negative sense of it (and this negation should echo the negative "дули с наваром" (a.k.a. "фиги с маслом" - three-fingered gesture of mocking refusal) - from the previous line. E.g. "life had always bluntly refused to give// anything you desired// as you went on, finally getting to Ultima Thule// to preach to the choir" (not a serious attempt, just trying to show what I mean).

  6. Replies
    1. Thanks, Jamie! I also thought that "coals to Newcastle" would be another possibility ("you finally reached the port of Newcastle bringing your precious coals"), but the idiom in question is probably too dated and too British, and it would also make one abandon the Ultima Thule...

  7. Jamie. I was at the St. Mark's Poetry project and you'll be happy to know the Vsevolod Nekrasov Selected in English is out and it's a lot of fun: One of the translators, Ainsley Morse is at Harvard so that she and Bela are likely to repeat the performance in Boston. Maxim, it is an honor that you should care enough to defend the original. Jamie is right on this one. I've always called it "Degrees of Freedom" and have allowed myself one, two absolutely maximum per poem, to serve the new poem in the target language, in this case for musical purposes of rhythm and rhyme. Here follow the originals of my Satunovsky in St. Ann's Review. I had a conversation with the scholar and translator Maxim Shreyer regarding the straying from the original in the last of them. I translated "Литфонд" as "Writers Union" as it would have been clunky, inexplicable, and requiring a footnote to be "faithful". Lastly, I have translated the work of another Russian Minimalist, Ivan Akhmetyev, in

    Мне говорят:
    какая бедность словаря!
    Да, бедность, бедность;
    низость, гнилость бараков;
    сырость смертная;
    и вечный страх: а ну, как...
    да, бедность, так.

    ... я уважаю Вашу работу,
    ваши заботы об урожае хлеба и меда;
    откуда же эта уверенность
    что я все пойму, все прощу?
    нет, Саша, нет, я не спрошу,
    какого Вы года рождения:
    поэтов в лесу что грибов;
    я тоже моложе Рембо.
    27 ноя 73

    Я не член ни чего.
    И ни, даже, Литфонда.
    Мне не мягко, не твердо,
    и ни холодно, ни тепло.
    Ночь, как черная гусеница (почему бы нет?),
    или черная бабочка (главное — это цвет),
    ночь, который час? Шесть, должно быть.
    Слава Богу, уже зажигаются окна напротив.
    24 дек 77