15 December 2017

Sing some more, Alexander O’Boozer... / Спой еще, Александр Похмелыч...

Aleksandr Galich: 19 October 1918 - 15 December 1977

Sing some more, Alexander O’Boozer,
I’ll spring for a taxi, no fear…
Well away, are these pot-bellied losers,
with their whining and shedding a tear.

But he won’t. Even she can’t get round him,
that creature in rustling silk.
He proffers himself, quite grandly,
what’s left of our cognac to drink.

Tobacco, cognac, catarrh have
done a sandpaper job on his throat.
The guitar slides back in its cover.
He dons his imported coat.

He’s studying the stains on the linen,
is our singer, all moustache and nose,
and no one retains the least inkling
what was happening a moment ago.

No heart-swelling love’s been ignited, 
no summons to feats at high pitch,
the historical brow of the tyrant
will make no hysterical twitch.

The vodka’s gone. Song done and dusted.
We ate, though it wasn’t a feast.
How it grows on you, this kind of music.
What matters, though, more than the rest —

not the humour, the sly little whatsit, 
not the v-sign that no-one can see —
it’s the pluck of those strings in waltz time,
one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three.

From Чудесный десант (The Miraculous Raid), 1985

(Translation © 2017 G.S. Smith)

The negative hero here is the poet, dramatist, and ‘bard’ Aleksandr Galich (19 October 1918-15 December 1977); for a contrasting view of his merits, see Alexander Galich, Songs and Poems, translated and with an introduction by G.S.Smith (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1983), and also G.S.Smith, Songs to Seven Strings (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984). 

Спой еще, Александр Похмелыч, 
я тебя на такси отвезу... 
Разгулялась пузатая мелочь, 
подвывает, пускает слезу. 

Он не станет. Его не упросит 
даже эта в шуршащем шелку. 
Он себе одному преподносит 
что осталось у нас коньяку. 

Табака, коньяка и катара 
прогулялся по горлу наждак.
В свой чехол заползает гитара. 
Заграничный напялен пиджак. 

Изучает на скатерти пятна 
наш певец, и усат, и носат,
и уже никому не понятно, 
что творилось минуту назад.

Не наполнится сердце любовью 
и на подвиг нас не поведет,
и тиран исторической бровью 
истерически не поведет. 

Водка выпита. Песенка спета. 
Мы поели того и сего.
Как привязчива музыка эта. 
Но важнее, важнее всего —

нет, не юмор, не хитрое что-то,
не карманчики с фигой внутри — 
просто дерганье струн на три счета:
раз-два-три, раз-два-три, раз-два-три. 

08 December 2017

Khasbulat II / ХБ-2

Khasbulat in a scene from Dersu Uzala, Akira Kurosawa dir., 1975

Khasbulat II

It’s my heart going wrong,
or an old love forgot,
or a fragment of song
that a squeezebox grinds out,
or my joints aching bad,
I’m not young, maybe that,
Khasbulat, bonny lad,
Khasbulat, Khasbulat,
it’s no palace, your house,
much like mine, I agree,
you’re a little church mouse,
and the same goes for me,
our two homes are alike,
with the walls needing paint,
not so poor though am I
as to turn into saint,
rich enough I am not
to fetch drink in and share,
or a spade, cut-price lot
at the local hardware,
chores and cares all around
made our arteries hard,
now a new winter’s sound 
comes and scrapes at our heart.

From Чудесный десант (The Miraculous Raid), 1985.

(Translation © 2017 G.S. Smith)

The poem takes off from ‘Khasbulat’, an old but well-known melodramatic vengeance ballad featuring stereotypical Caucasian tribal masculinity and mores. See http://www.russian-records.com/details.php?image_id=22500. The words are by a certain A.Ammosov, and the tune by the ethnographer Olga Khristoforovna Agreneva-Slavianskaia (1847-1920), both of whom are otherwise forgotten, their work in this case having ‘become folklore’. In the song, a prince asks Khasbulat, who is old and poor, to cede him his young wife in return for rich rewards, but Khasbulat responds that the day before he saw the couple together, and later stabbed her to death. The prince whips out his sabre and beheads the old man, and then jumps into the river and drowns.


То ль на сердце нарыв, 
то ли старый роман,
то ли старый мотив, 
ах, шарманка, шарман, 
то ль суставы болят, 
то ль я не молодой, 
Хас-Булат, Хас-Булат, 
Хас-Булат удалой, 
бедна сакля твоя, 
бедна сакля моя, 
у тебя ни шиша,
у меня ни шиша, 
сходство наших жилищ 
в наготе этих стен,
но не так уж я нищ, 
чтобы духом блажен,
и не так я богат,
чтоб сходить за вином, 
распродажа лопат
за углом в скобяном, 
от хлопот да забот 
засклерозились мы,
и по сердцу скребет 
звук начала зимы. 

12 November 2017

D’you hear me... / Ты слышишь ли...

Shooting on the Prairie, Currier & Ives, late 19th century

D’you hear me, the shutters are open, hey you, rise and shine,
unwashed and uncombed, as you are, just get yourself out,
to where some enamel’s been chipped from the rim of the sky,
and daybreak holds forth with its whistling and steaming spout.

How time is bent back in this looking-glass small world of ours.
How minutes pass slowly but years rush on by, crazily.
Try checking your token, the first three digits it shows,
for sure there’s a three, then a seven, and next comes the quee-

navigating her wings, one left and the other one right,
hop-hop she goes, over the tablecloth and the green baize,
it’s warm, and that ‘drinky-drink-drink’ that was stuck in your throat
alerted the black-barrelled hunter who lay there in wait.

You plump little quail, your head full of misty stuff,
what on earth was that song that you sang for a farthing’s hire,
you took wing for that pittance, not all that much higher than the turf,
enough, though, to put you square in the line of fire.

(Translation © 2017 G.S. Smith)

From Чудесный десант (The Miraculous Raid), 1985

Ты слышишь ли, створки раскрылись, але, не кемарь, 
как есть, неумыт и нечесан, ступай за порог,
туда, где от краешка неба отбита эмаль
и носик рассвета свистит, выпуская парок.

Как время изогнуто в этом зеркальном мирке. 
Как длятся минуты, как бешено мчатся года. 
Проверь-ка три первые цифры в своем номерке: 
конечно же, тройка, конечно, семерка и да- 

махая старательно левым и правым крылом, 
вприпрыжку по скатерти и над зеленым столом,
и тянет теплом, и торчащее в горле колом 
«пить-пить» встрепенуло охотника с черным стволом. 

Ах, перепел жирный, с туманной твоей головой, 
ну, Господи, что ты такое на грошик пропел, 
взлетел на копейку, ну только едва над травой,
но все же достаточно, чтобы попасть под прицел. 

11 October 2017

It is in fact a coffin, that dark wood... / А лес в неведомых дорогах —

Lev Loseff, Yuz & Irina Aleshkovsky, Hanover, NH, USA, October 16, 1994

It is in fact a coffin, that dark wood
with paths untrod.
Thus taught us, on his hen’s legs stood,
Professor Propp.

Morning was nigh before I slept; once more
I visited that corner of my nightmare
where a log hut, which nothing could surprise,
was hopping from one hen’s leg to the other,
turning its rear, as was its wont, towards
the forest with its fir trees all unshaven
(which meanwhile creaked and champed and moaned, that forest,
a bit bear-like, covered in sergeant’s chevrons,
outstanding member of the frontier force),
the hut just stood there with its windows blinking, 
and then it said, ‘This duel is appalling!’
What dream is this? Why’s Aleshkovsky in it?
Where is that squad of craftsmen marching to?
And what the craft that they are being taught?
They’re coming here.
                                  Greetings to thee, O tribe of
the young, that I know not. May God not grant
that I live long enough to see thy mighty

(Translation © 2017 G.S. Smith)

From Чудесный десант (The Miraculous Raid), 1985

Vladimir Propp (1895-1970), author of the classic The Morphology of the Folk Tale (1928, translated into English only in 1958) was still teaching at Leningrad University in the late 1950s, when Lev Loseff was an undergraduate there.
‘…once more I visited…’ is instantly recognisable to educated Russians as the opening phrase of an elegiac late poem by Pushkin; the last two sentences of Loseff’s poem refer to its valedictory ending.
‘This duel is appalling’ is a quotation from Chapter 50 of the novel The Hand (1977, published 1980; translation by Susan Brownsberger, 1989), by Loseff’s friend Yuz Aleshkovsky. ‘The Hand’ is the nickname given by Stalin to the direct-speech narrator, a veteran NKVD hitman.

А лес в неведомых дорогах —
на деле гроб.
Так нас учил на курьих ножках
профессор Пропп.

Под утро удалось заснуть, и вновь
я посетил тот уголок кошмара,
где ко всему привычная избушка
переминается на курьих ножках,
привычно оборачиваясь задом
к еловому щетинистому лесу
(и лес хрипит, и хлюпает, и стонет,
медвежеватый, весь в сержантских лычках,
отличник пограничной службы — лес),
стоит, стоит, окошками моргает
и говорит: “Сия дуэль ужасна!”
К чему сей сон? При чем здесь Алешковский?
Куда идут ремесленники строем?
Какому их обучат ремеслу?
Они идут навстречу.
                                   Здравствуй, племя
младое, незнакомое. Не дай
мне Бог увидеть твой могучий

06 October 2017

In the Bosom of Nature / На лоне природы

Mark Rothko: Black, Red and Black, 1968

In the Bosom of Nature

Caw as much as you like—however,
you’ve still let it all go to the crows,
and those scavengers party together,
surrounding the clobbered corpse.
There’s a bright red puddle congealing.
There’s a deadeye branch proud to be,
as it lets fall an apple, worm-eaten,
onto doctor-dispatched little me.

From Чудесный десант (The Miraculous Raid), 1985

(Translation © 2017 G.S. Smith)

На лоне природы 

Чего там — каркай не каркай, 
проворонили вы ее.
Над раздавленной товаркой
разгуливает воронье.
Красная лужица сохнет ярко.

И меткая ветка горда, 
уроня источенное червями яблоко

на задроченного врачами меня. 

03 September 2017

Foucault / Фуко


I once went to a lecture by Foucault.
My seat was by the podium, right up close.
And as I watched the cocky little freak,
I couldn’t understand what made him tick.

What set this dolichocephalic’s route
to the far side of evil and of good?
Some boy dumped him, or a girl wouldn’t put out?
Or mum had failed to pet him as she should?

Foucault was hairless as a billiard ball,
not just his head, but somehow overall.
Explaining as he raked through history’s gut
all mysteries in terms of nothing but

bare-naked violence and lust for power. 
I had to pun: foucault worth having here!
Alien to laughter and to tears, Foucault,
as far as life’s concerned, got nowhere near.

That elongated skull droned on about the ways
whatever aims to rise is always base.
Then later on a rancid ailment called,
via the anal passage of Foucault.

This man who seemed to know but didn’t know
(idiot savant), a virus brought him low.
And history continued on her way,
with ever newer mysteries on display.

(Translation © 2017 G.S. Smith)

[From Говорящий попугай (The Talking Parrot), 2009]

Michel Foucault (1926-84) lectured (in English) at Dartmouth College on 17 and 25 November, 1980. There is an abundant online literature discussing these lectures.

The Petersburg critic Andrei Ar’ev has written: ‘… Loseff considered [existentialism] ‘the most interesting, important, and exciting’ phenomenon in the intellectual life of the twentieth century, regarding it as ‘broader than a philosophical school’. That is, postulating with some justice that existentialism was generated not only by philosophical thought, but also by the poetry of Rilke, the novels of Camus, the plays of Beckett, the films of Bergman, and so on. Postmodernism, a pestilence in philosophy unrelated to philosophical discourse, one that departed from striving for the transcendental in the direction of mere linguistic operations, disgusted him. Which is the subject of a late poem, with its expression, unusual for this poet, of plain revulsion for the newer thinkers, who are embodied for him in the image of ‘Foucault’. ‘Loseff the Unsentimental’, Zvezda, 6(2007), 134-9, reprinted in Лифшиц—Лосев—Loseff. Сборник памяти Льва Лосева, М., НЛО, 2017,149-61.

Об экзистенциализме здесь важно обмолвиться, потому что Лосев считал [экзистенциализм] явлением “самым интересным, важным и волнующим” в интеллектуальной жизни ХХ века, рассматривая его “шире, чем философская школа”. То есть закономерно полагая, что экзистенциализм генерирован не одной лишь философской мыслью, но и стихами Рильке, романами Камю, пьесами Беккета, фильмами Бергмана и т.д. Позднейшие философские поветрия, отвлекшиеся от стремления к трансцендентному в сторону лингвистических экзерсисов не совпадавшего с философским дискурсом постмодернизма, ему претили. О чем и написано позднее стихотворение с неожиданным для поэта выражением прямого отвращения к новым мыслителям, олицетворенным им в образе “Фуко”.


Я как-то был на лекции Фуко.
От сцены я сидел недалеко.
Глядел на нагловатого уродца.
Не мог понять: откуда что берется?

Что по ту сторону добра и зла
так засосало долихоцефала?
Любовник бросил? Баба не дала?
Мамаша в детстве недоцеловала?

Фуко был лыс, как биллиардный шар,
не только лоб, но как-то лыс всем телом.
Он, потроша историю, решал
ее загадки только оголтелым

насилием и жаждой власти. Я
вдруг скаламбурил: Фу, какая пакость!
Фуко смеяться не умел и плакать,
и в жизни он не смыслил ни хрена.

Как низко всё, что метит высоко,
нудил, нудил продолговатый череп.
Потом гнилая хворь пролезла через
анальное отверстие Фуко.

Погиб Foucault, ученый идиот
(idiot savant), его похерил вирус.
История же не остановилась
и новые загадки задает.

19 August 2017

Bakhtin in Saransk / Бахтин в Саранске

Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin / Михаил Михайлович Бахтин 

Bakhtin in Saransk

Capuchins with their rosaries clacking.
Saracens with their dawdling dances.
Gross giggle of Gog and Magog.

‘M.Bakhtin’, the Saransk students stated,
in disgust at their coursework ratings,
‘isn’t much of a pedagogue’.

Though Bakhtin was not superstitious, 
he knew this grey-suited official
was no imp of a student sprog—

‘The dean’s office has something on you,
but meanwhile your alter ego 
gets this town into dialogue’.

It’s the world capital for trachoma.
The bedbugs have made it their homeland.
Couple of factories. Chemical works.

It’s where pudgy no-hopers and nasties
manufacture alkalis and acids,
and engender their rickety whelps.

Where the crucified Deity’s temple
is no more than a small heap of rubble.
Tall weeds in the sanctuary.

Some old git of a watchman, not sober,
rises up like a clit in the hole for
a door that has nowhere to lead.

Here, spuds have gone bad by the shedload,
icons burned, and books have been shredded, 
folks have dropped by to do you know what.

Which is why, from decay, dusty matter,
charred coals and fabric in tatters,
here is humus, as much as you’d want.

People say, ‘sacred sites stay settled’.
So Chrysostom’s gold lips have been fretted
and turned into compost, pure grade.

In this place, what had been putrefaction
now miraculously finds resurrection—
it’s sending forth shoots, the dead grain.

An inscrutable joy filled the soul of
Professor Bakhtin; he recalled how,
in some idiot dream long ago,

Golosovker appeared with a yoke on.
And suddenly meaning awoke from
all thе bother, thе fuss, thе ado.

It all jelled. This town in Mordovia.
That ridiculous carrot-like penis.
Stars. The universe. And all the rest.

And the wrinkles were smoothed from his forehead.
But a mob of Mordvins was appealing
for permission to retake their test.

(Translation © 2017 G.S. Smith)

From: Чудесный десант (The Miraculous Raid, 1987)

The celebrated literary thinker Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975) was arrested with his informal circle of associates in December 1928, just after completing his Problems of Dostoevsky’s Art (published 1929), with its key concept of dialogism. He was exiled rather than imprisoned, first to Kazakhstan, then in 1936-7 to Saransk, the capital of the Mordovian Republic, about 400 miles east of Moscow; at the time its population was just over 50% ethnic Russian. In 1945 he went back and taught there at the Pedagogical Institute until he retired in 1961. He was in fact a valued Head of Department (Russian and Foreign Literatures) and teacher, and a highly productive scholar. In particular, his Rabelais and his World (as the first of his works to be translated into English was called in 1965; in Russian The Work of Francois Rabelais and the Folk Culture of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance), to which the first stanza of Loseff’s poem alludes, was largely written in Saransk. See N.L.Vasilev, ‘Mordovskii universitet v sudbe M.M.Bakhtina’ in M.M.Bakhtin v sovremennom mire (Saransk, Izd-vo Mordovskogo universiteta, 2016), 28-33, with abundant bibliography.
Yakov Emmanuilovich Golosovker (1890-1967) was an eminent philosopher and classicist, famous for his translations into Russian of Ancient Greek lyric poetry and German philosophers. He was arrested in 1936 and spent three years in Vorkuta; he was allowed to return to Moscow in 1942. The ‘yoke’ he is imagined to be wearing here refers to an extended metaphor in Chapter IV, ‘Thesis and Antithesis’, of Golosovker’s Dostoevsky and Kant (1963), where the philosopher’s antinomies (from the Critique of Pure Reason) are said to be ‘ingenious constructions made of four swinging yokes’. See A.V.Korovashko, ‘K interpretatsii stikhotovoreniia Lva Loseva “Bakhtin v Saranske”: Semantika i kontekst’, in M.M.Bakhtin v sovremennom mire, 200-202.

Бахтин в Саранске

Капуцинов трескучие четки. 
Сарацинов тягучие танцы. 
Грубый гогот гог и магог. 

«М. Бахтин, — говорили саранцы,
 с отвращением глядя в зачетки, — 
не ахти какой педагог». 

Хотя не был Бахтин суевером,
но он знал, что в костюмчике сером 
не студентик зундит, дьяволок: 

«На тебя в деканате телега, 
а пока вот тебе alter ego —
с этим городом твой диалог». 

Мировая столица трахомы. 
Обжитые клопами хоромы. 
Две-три фабрички. Химкомбинат. 

Здесь пузатая мелочь и сволочь 
выпускает кислоты и щелочь, 
рахитичных разводит щенят. 

Здесь от храма распятого Бога 
только щебня осталось немного. 
В заалтарьи бурьян и пырей. 

Старый ктитор в тоске и запое 
возникает, как клитор, в пробое 
никуда не ведущих дверей. 

Вдоволь здесь погноили картошки, 
книг порвали, икон попалили, 
походили сюда за нуждой. 

Тем вернее из гнили и пыли, 
угольков и протлевшей ветошки 
образуется здесь перегной. 

Свято место не может быть пусто. 
Распадаясь, уста златоуста 
обращаются в чистый компост. 

И протлевшие мертвые зерна 
возрождаются там чудотворно, 
и росток отправляется в рост. 

Непонятный восторг переполнил 
Бахтина, и профессор припомнил, 
как в дурашливом давешнем сне 

Голосовкер стоял с коромыслом. 
И внезапно повеяло смыслом
в суете, мельтешеньи, возне. 

Все сошлось — этот город мордовский. 
Глупый пенис, торчащий морковкой.
И звезда. И вселенная вся. 

И от глаз разбегались морщины. 
А у двери толкались мордвины,
пересдачи зачета прося.