Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas at the "Dacha"

Moscow Clinical Psychiatric Hospital No. 1 (undated photo) / Image courtesy of

This Christmas, in place of my usual translation of a nativity poem by a Russian poet, I’m posting an excerpt from an article by Yelena Aizenshtein (Neva, #1, 2012). In this passage, she comments on a lesser-known Christmas poem by Joseph Brodsky, written on the eve of his famous trial and internal exile to the village of Norenskaya for “social parasitism” (тунеядство). I considered simply translating the poem that Aizenshtein describes, but I think her commentary sheds necessary light on parts of the text that could otherwise remain murky. Here is what she has to say:

In 1964, Brodsky spent the New Year holiday in a psychiatric hospital in Moscow: there had been a “war council” at the Ardovs on December 27, 1963, with the participation of Akhmatova. It was decided that he could avoid arrest if he got treatment with the help of some psychiatrists they knew at the Kashchenko Mental Hospital and then received a certificate of his “mental instability.” On January 8, 1964, the day after Orthodox Christmas, the newspaper Evening Leningrad published a selection of indignant “readers’ letters” demanding harsh punishment for the “social parasite Brodsky.” That January, Brodsky wrote the poem “New Year’s at the Kanatchikovo Dacha.”* He paints his lines in gloomy tones. The poet sees the absence of traditional Christmas images as omens of an unlucky year and its coming calamities:

No magi, no donkey,
no star, no blizzard
to save the child from death—
they disperse like circles
at the strike of an oar.

The poem is structured on the model of a lullaby for oneself, sung from the sixth ward—this is the Chekhovian “Ward No. 6,” and it is a terrible billet, “a land where insulin is king,” where Brodsky ended up “in clouds of bed sheets,” instead of in the sky of free thought. The poet sees himself as a Christmas goose devoured by the power of the state. The lullaby helps the speaker of the poem not to fear his fate: “Sleep, Christmas goose. / Fall quickly asleep.” Another image that stands in for the speaker is a cricket singing from behind the baseboard (was Brodsky thinking of Pushkin’s nickname?), whose song corresponds to the song of a large violin bow, somehow contrary to the violence of the institute:

The song sung by a cricket
here in the red baseboard
is like the song of a great bow,
since sounds always grow,
like the glint of your pupil
through the great institute.

The Christmas motif is made invisible in the USSR, like a “double winter” that has lasted two thousand years: only the blizzard and the winter landscape remind us of Christmas. The author cunningly structures the text as not quite “normal,” as unwell: the theme of fear is made urgently relevant, with white as an analogue for the hospital, lifelessness, death, unfreedom. But the poem contains the author’s ruefully ironic view on what is happening: “the night turns white with a key / split fifty-fifty with the head doctor.” It concludes with a tercet in which the rhyme words are ‘hospitals’, ‘eye-sockets’, and ‘birds’ [bol'nitsy, glaznitsy, ptitsy], images of the author’s existence in the psychiatric hospital, and his sense of dread at the endured moment:

bodies’ terror – of hospitals,
clouds’ terror – of eye-sockets,
insects’ terror – of birds.

[Translation mine]

*     *     *

I’m sure some will find the content of this post a tad gloomy for the holiday season, but if Brodsky’s experience is any indicator, Christmas is not always sugarplums dancing in our heads. Anyway, I find some solace in the mere fact of his turning that experience into art—and going on to write his nativity poems for decades to come.

Merry Christmas?


* “Kanatchikovo Dacha” is a well-known nickname for the Kashchenko Mental Hospital, whose official name is actually Moscow Clinical Psychiatric Hospital No. 1. Until 1994, the hospital was named for Pyotr Kashchenko (1858-1920), a noted Russian psychiatrist, and since then has been named for Nikolai Alekseyev (1852-1893), the Moscow city leader who founded the hospital in 1894. The hospital is located in the Kanatchikovo district of Moscow.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Chudakov, Word-Plyer

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]

Friday, September 25, 2015

Into Primordial Emptiness

First U.S. edition of Ilf & Petrov's travelogue (Farrar & Rinehart, 1937) / Image courtesy of Amazon

In a recent postscript to his weekly American Hour (Американский час) on Radio Svoboda, Alexander Genis articulated a conclusion he’d come to that struck me as remarkable in its insightfulness. The theme of the segment was “America through the Eyes of Russian Writers,” and special emphasis was placed on Ilf and Petrov’s 1935 travelogue One-Story America (Одноэтажная Америка), named for the predominance of houses with just one floor here. Previous episodes had focused on Maxim Gorky, Sergei Yesenin, and Vladimir Mayakovsky, each of whom had also visited and written about the United States in the early part of the twentieth century. 

Genis, a brilliant essayist, concluded the series by throwing in his own two cents on the subject, extrapolating outward from the commentary by correspondent Vladimir Abarinov and his guest Nikolai Rudensky. That’s when my interest was piqued.

First, a quick tangent: note that Ilf and Petrov’s book was published in English the first time, cleverly, as Little Golden America (trans. Charles Malamuth, 1937) and more recently as Ilf and Petrov’s American Road Trip (edited by Erika Wolf & translated by Anne O. Fisher, 2007), in an edition that includes the photographs Ilya Ilf took for the Soviet magazine Ogonyok. I recommend the newer book; it’s great fun to flip through!

Now, back to Genis and his insight on Russians in America. I’ll let him speak for himself:

…Vladimir Abarinov has to admit that our fellow Russian writers who visited this country didn’t like it—not Gorky, not Yesenin, not Mayakovsky, and not Ilf or Petrov (to these names, one might add Pilnyak, Ehrenburg, and many others).

Why? Perhaps because they had all come to the New World for new impressions. From dilapidated Europe, the traveler arrived in the land of the machine, where, as Yesenin put it, “every cigarette butt grew into a smokestack.” Not noticing the machine in America was as hard as not finding the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

Ilf and Petrovs true heroes are highways, gas pumps, assembly lines, automobiles, dams, electricity, and of course, a bridge (this time in San Francisco). They wanted to wrap it all up and haul it home so they could get to the bright future more quickly.

As for “one-story” America, the two authors, like many other Russian travelers, came to an unpleasant conclusion: this great country is populated by a small people—mercantile, greedy, narrow-minded, and not worthy of America’s technological might.

And now it’s time to pose a question: why is the machine, which was inevitably found in America by Russian writers, absent from the work of American writers? Without technology, all of them managed to get by: Hemingway, Faulkner, Salinger, Steinbeck, Henry Miller, and—stepping further into the past—Jack London, Mark Twain, Melville, Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. Why weren’t Americans themselves captivated by their technological civilization? Why didn’t the industrial novel spring up here? Why, as Ilf and Petrov asked, didn’t the engineer become a national hero?

Because America is not principally an urban nation. And that’s what the outsiders from the Old World didn’t notice. They looked for America somewhere other than where it prefers to live. Cities in America are the exception that proves the rule…

Setting skyscrapers aside for offices and visitors, Americans themselves have always preferred to live on the first floor of their own home, a little further away from the excesses of technology. Having traded civilization for geography, nature for culture, and artificial landscapes for a natural one, America came out ahead. But you can only evaluate this deal when you learn to travel like an American.

The secret of that art lies right on the surface: it’s in the road, which is an end in itself. Greedily covering mile after mile, the wayfarer dissolves himself into primordial emptiness, vast reserves of which the New World still contains within its shores. Beneath the wheels of the automobile, space takes on an almost physical palpability. The map comes to life, tears away from the page, and moves from two-dimensional abstraction into real life.

America can only be understood on the move.
[Translation mine]
Fascinating! And to my mind, mostly on the mark. It’s nothing new to say that wilderness and the open road loom large in the American imagination, but it does seem to be true that many visitors from Russia have somehow missed that key point. 

Not surprisingly, though, two Russian writers who don’t fit the city-centric New World pattern are Nabokov and Brodsky: the former wrote one of the classic American road novels, and the latter set some of his finest poems in the woods of New England and small towns of the Midwest. They got the lay of the land better than their machine-head compatriots did.

Leave it to exiles to complicate things!

Friday, September 18, 2015

They Can't Get Us Here

Ivan Papanin (left) at the arctic drift station «Северный полюс-1» (1937) / Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Like just about everyone who translates Russian poetry into English, I keep my eye on the Compass Award, which is given each year for a translation of a single poem by a Russian writer. Early in the spring, we all wait to see which writer the Compass committee will choose for us—typically one who is underrepresented in English—and then we dash off to our computers and bookshelves to find a poem that suits us. (The committee selects the poet; the translator picks the poem.)

At least, that’s the way it should work. In truth, though, I’m lazy. I wish I could say I’ve sent in something to the contest each summer, but as I look back over the roster of previous poets—Nikolai Gumilev, Marina Tsvetaeva, Maria Petrovykh, and Arseny Tarkovsky—I realize I’ve only submitted a translation once before this year. Somehow, life has a knack for getting in the way of my good intentions.

This year, though, when Boris Slutsky (1919-1986) was identified as the Compass poet, I wasn’t about to let the summer pass without making time to choose, translate, and submit a poem for the contest. Not that I’m going to share my translation in this post! No, no, it’s a secret. I’m too superstitious to reveal it—at least until after the Slutsky winners have been announced. But I will talk about what I learned in the process of translating him.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

J.B.’s Jubilee

Brodsky on his balcony at Muruzi House (date unknown) / Image courtesy of

If Joseph Brodsky were still alive, he would have turned seventy-five on Sunday, May 24th, so the web has been awash with Brodskiana. Everybody and his brother, it seems, have got something to say about the man. Me too: I wanted to post something in his honor on the jubilant day itself, but at the time—unfortunately yet quite appropriately—I was hard at work on my Brodsky contribution to a new volume entitled American Writers in Exile. (To learn how he fits into that category, read my essay when the book comes out.)

First off, in the biggest news, it looks as though the Brodsky apartment museum in Saint Petersburg is finally opening after years of fundraising, bureaucratic hoop-jumping, negotiations, and logistical troubles (including a battle against 32 types of mold). This is the space that Brodsky wrote about in his essay “In a Room and a Half,” located in the Muruzi House at the intersection of Liteyny Prospect and Pestel Street, where he lived with his parents for almost two decades. Tatyana Voltskaya notes that the famous room and a half was open last month, fittingly, for a day and a half: several hours for journalists on May 22, plus a full day for the birthday festivities on May 24. Now it’s closed again, with plans to reopen for good after renovations wrap up sometime this winter. The museum doesn’t have much of a web presence yet, especially in English, but when the apartment finally opens and stays open, it should obviously land at the top of the must-do list for all Brodsky enthusiasts. I certainly plan to visit the next time I’m in Petersburg.

Back in April, another domicile-museum opened in the village of Norinskaya (or Norenskaya), in the Arkhangelsk region, where Brodsky served out his internal exile in 1964 and 1965 for “social parasitism”—that is, freeloading (тунеядство). During his time there, he wrote and translated poems, published occasionally in the local paper («Призыв»), and worked on a collective farm. Ironically, Brodsky later called it one of the happiest times of his life. The museum is situated inside a peasant house formerly owned by the Pesterev family, with whom Brodsky stayed during his sentence. According to, the exhibit includes “things that Brodsky used: a chair, a table, a couch, a kerosene lamp, a tank for developing photographs, and the plywood cover from a package sent to Brodsky by his father in Leningrad, which was found during the restoration of the house.”

Interestingly, both new museums have met with opposition from a certain hyperpatriotic element in the Russian crowd, despite the poet’s growing popularity of late. (Just last month, in fact, Alexander Genis and Solomon Volkov were discussing Brodsky’s transformation from “esoteric” to “popular” poet in Russia.) In Norinskaya, a group of locals balked at the five-million ruble price tag and filed a suit demanding that the museum be closed and the regional governor be punished for supporting it:

[Brodsky] was exiled to our region for social parasitism. But instead of thanking the leadership of the USSR for his early release, he emigrated to the U.S., took a passport there under the name ‘Joseph Brodsky’ [spelled Джозеф Бродски, as opposed to Иосиф Бродский], and began to slander the Soviet people.

The suit also asks for a hundred thousand rubles in compensation for the “moral harm” the plaintiffs experienced. This whole episode reminds me of an article I posted about a few years ago, when another Norinskaya resident and loyal communist said the following:

And just who is Brodsky? A parasite, a freeloader! … How could they have given him the Lenin Prize, that lazy good-for-nothing?! … He was a smart bastard. But Russia is a fool! Gave him a prize… America, America! He’s a leech, and they put up a fucking plaque for him!

The two gentlemen quoted above are indeed different people, but they’re clearly kindred spirits.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Ehrenburg's Traveler

Ilya Ehrenburg in the 1910s / Image courtesy of Чтобы помнили

In the Train Car
by Ilya Ehrenburg

The gentleman swayed and dozed in his cabin, swaying
to the right, to the left, and back again.
He swayed alone, restless.
He swayed away from life and what he’d lived.
My friend, you are on your way as well,
but where will we be bound tomorrow?
Believe me: these feeble faces,
the darkness, suitcases, and parcels,
the dawn that silently steams
among charred peasant houses
under a white sky, fleeing aimlessly,
shaking off and then absorbing
sleep, half-sleep—
everything lusts, flags, and maddens at last
for its one and only end.

April 1915

Friday, March 6, 2015

Where the Black Sea Breaks Its Back

Column of White ships fleeing to Constantinople (1920) / Image courtesy of Сегодня.ua

Much has been made of the way that Vasily Aksyonov’s 1979 Sci-Fi novel “The Island of Crimea” predicted Russia’s takeover of Crimea last year (for instance, in this New Yorker piece), but a new essay in НГ Ex Libris claims that one can find similarly prophetic moments in poetry too. Mikhail Epstein, the author of the essay, focuses on two Crimea-themed poems—one by Osip Mandelstam and one by Andrei Voznesensky. Mandelstam’s untitled 1916 poem describes a visionary moment during a walk he took with Marina Tsvetaeva in the Alexandrov Kremlin, the fortress from which Ivan the Terrible ruled Russia and where he killed his own son:

Doubting the miracle of the resurrection,
we strolled in the cemetery.
– You know, the land all around us
reminds me of those hills.
Where Russia breaks away
above a black and silent sea.

(Не веря воскресенья чуду, / На кладбище гуляли мы. / – Ты знаешь, мне земля повсюду / Напоминает те холмы. / …………………………. / …………………………. / Где обрывается Россия / Над морем черным и глухим.)

The reference to Crimea in the last two lines is so clear that Mandelstam struck from his draft the two previous ones, whose outright naming of the peninsula he must have felt too obvious and unnecessary. Epstein even thinks that the long ellipses are better than the missing lines, since they “demonstrate more vividly than any words the blackness and silence into which the country breaks away.”

Epstein says that what unifies Crimea and the cemetery in the poem is “the presentiment of death.” After all, Russia was about to begin killing its own sons in a civil war, and the Crimean peninsula would play a key role: in 1920, just a few years after the poem was written, the last White forces left from Crimean ports, taking 100,000 refugees with them. Somehow, Mandelstam had foreseen his country’s violent end in that place. “There,” Epstein writes, “pre-Soviet history broke away. But where and when will post-Soviet history break away?”

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Patchwork with Tyutchev

Photograph of Fyodor Tyutchev by Andrei Denier (1864) / Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I don’t often translate nineteenth-century Russian poetry, but since the Tyutchev poem that follows is one of two key intertexts for Timur Kibirov’s “Historical Cento” («Исторический центон»), from a 2009 book I’ve been translating, I decided I needed to make my own English version of it. That way, I could lift the pertinent pieces from Tyutchev for my Kibirov translation.

‘Cento’, by the way, is a term that was new to me but which I learned that Dr. Johnson defined as a “composition formed by joining scraps from other authors.” So says the OED, which also gives the more general definition for ‘cento’ of a “piece of patchwork; a patched garment.” Kibirov’s other patches, besides the lines from Tyutchev, come from Blok’s infamous revolutionary romp “The Twelve.” Quite a pairing!

Anyway, if you’re going to make patches, you’ve got to have cloth to cut from. Here’s one of mine:

With your impoverished settlements
by Fyodor Tyutchev

With your impoverished settlements,
With your most meager natural gifts,
My native realm of sufferance,
You are the realm where Russia lives!

You can’t be grasped or noticed by
The proud outsider’s fleeting gaze:
It misses hidden lights that shine
Within your humble naked scapes.

All over you, my native land,
Bearing the burden of His cross
In peasant’s rags, our holy King
Meandered, blessing all He saw.

August 13, 1855

Translated from the Russian by Jamie Olson

(See below for Tyutchev’s Russian original.)

In case you’re curious, here are the first two stanzas of my translation of Kibirov’s cento, which might give you a sense of where he’s going with his ostensibly post-Christian pastiche:

All over you, my native land,
blessing each place, dressed in white,
a crown of roses on his head,
walked, I’m sad to say, not Christ.

No. Christ, of course, also wandered
through this Russian hell of ours,
but—never doubting for a second—
we said, “He doesn’t meet the standard!
He’s much too crucified for us!”

So who, you might ask, is not too crucified for Russia? I’ll give you a hint: he doesn’t wear white, but waves a red flag. 

Yep, you guessed it.