Cover of Vsevolod Emelin’s “Bolotnaya Songs” / Image courtesy of Falanster
Last September, on the eve of the literary award season, Colta.ru 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).]
Life held up two great big juicy fingers,
so here you are,
stuck out in Ultima Thule, but you’ve still got
[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 Satunovsky’s 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.