Photo of Sergei Chudakov by Roman Prygunov (1988) / Image courtesy of galchi
This month, Znamia published a recently rediscovered cycle of poems by Sergei Chudakov (1937-1997), the Moscow underground poet who was famously—if prematurely—elegized by Joseph Brodsky in “To a Friend: In Memoriam” («На смерть друга», 1973). In his own poem, Brodsky called Chudakov “a word-plyer, a liar … a white-fanged little snake in the tarpaulin-boot colonnade of gendarmes,” and something of that blend of poetic inventiveness and misfit presence comes through loud and clear in these newly published poems. They function like a time capsule into a place where you can finally hear the voices you weren’t supposed to hear.
Chudakov wrote his cycle of 30 poems in the summer of 1965, and editor Vladimir Orlov tells us that they were inspired by Lev Eidlin’s translations of classical Chinese poet Bai Juyi. Appropriately enough, Chudakov’s poems appear in Znamia under the title “Stuck in Moscow for the Summer, I Imitate a Chinese Author.” (Funny, I can think of a few American writers who were doing the same thing at the same time… Snyder, anyone? I guess cultural cooptation was all the rage on both sides of the curtain back then.)
Bai Juyi, who lived during the Tang Dynasty, wrote his poems in four-line regulated verse, which translator Eidlin then modified by breaking each line into two, with a caesura after the second beat, thus creating a new and exotic form: the Russified eight-line pseudo-Chinese poemlet. And Chudakov, it seems, loved it. (You can read an example of Eidlin’s work, in Russian, on Wikilivres.)
The key thing to notice about Chudakov’s poems, especially in this cycle—really, the thing you can’t help but notice—is the casual, gritty style. Unlikely as it may seem to anyone who knows midcentury Russian poetry, Chudakov writes in the colloquial, banal, autobiographical vein familiar to those who have read the poets of the New York School. These are Lunch Poems for Moscow. Not much happens in them, but the voice is irresistible. My favorite of the bunch is the third one, “On How I Nearly Became Amphibian-Man,” which seems to me to present the very image of the “unofficial” poet of the period: apart from the crowd, amid the detritus of Soviet life, powerless:
The water is 18ºC. I swim.
I watch the riverbank.
I keep a close eye on my pants.
I don’t have another pair.
If someone makes off with them,
I’ll have to swim forever
in the middle of the river
among cigarette butts and oil slicks.
[All translations mine]
Number twelve, “Visual Art,” returns us to the beach, as do quite a few of these summertime poems. Like I said, not much happens in them, but they nonetheless fascinate me:
Above a blooming potato plant looms
an abstract scarecrow made of bent strips of iron.
Nearby on the beach a diver made of plaster
bends over the blue concession stand.
His cap and trunks are painted
with green oil paint.
The scarecrow doesn’t scare
To state the obvious, I’ll point out that the New York poets were also nutty for art. Clearly, Chudakov is a kindred spirit. The next thing you know, he’ll be telling us why he’s not a painter.
Lastly, among those poems in the cycle that flirt with political ideology, number 21, “On Abstinence,” is especially good:
Crowds of women hustle, clutching
their cheap artificial adornments.
They mingle with the crowds
of men—everywhere, everywhere.
Under the conditions of mass society
solitude is valued as much
as the finest treasures were valued
by ancient kings.
My gosh, when I encounter something like this, I can’t help but think, why couldn’t this guy have been given a chance to find a real readership in his day? I’m not necessarily saying that Chudakov is better than this or that well-known poet, but he’s just so damn different. What path might Russian poetry have taken if more than a handful of dissidents had heard his voice?
Well, someone is hearing him now, I hope. It’s been a long time coming.