03 September 2015

The Petrograd Side / Петроградская сторона

The Petrograd Side, 1974 / Петроградская сторона, 1974
Photo: Lev Loseff

The Petrograd Side

And are my letters reaching you?
                  I’m as before...

On Sundays children used to come, checking
whether or not still floating in the pool
were soggy bits of bread and toffee wrappers,
whether still stuck in the birdcage netting
was lime-glued fluff and (if you’re lucky) plumage,
whether or not that bone still lay there rotting
away on urine-saturated sawdust,
and whether she still bawled her brutal anguish,
the ticket woman in her boarded cage.

It all remained exactly as before.
The cannon boomed, and yet the clock stood still.
A tram strummed on the bridge but held the rails.
The river rippled but refused to flow.
We said goodbyes, but still we didn’t part.
And only that notorious Neva wind
kept playing the bully at that barbarous crossroads
between the state-administrated mosque,
the constructivist stockade and fort, and
the lumpen high-ups’ temple-simulacrum,
raping the passersby in alleyways,
ripping at coats so savagely
you’d think it was alive.

And then in that big space the tumult died.
The tram that had my number on arrived.
And everything swung into motion.
All of a sudden, like an exclamation
made off the bat, that comes out stupid.

My friend jumped on the past just as it left,
leaving one foot back in this rancid hell,
the other one on something that was moving.

[From Чудесный десант (The Miraculous Raid), 1987]

(Translation © G.S. Smith 2015)

[Author’s note] The Petrograd Side is a borough in Petersburg. In the square mentioned in the poem, there is a big mosque and next to it two buildings, one constructivist and one stalinesque, built for the Party elite. The city zoo is not far away.
‘... you’d think it was alive...’: from The Captain’s Daughter, the novel by Alexander Pushkin.

Петроградская сторона

Доходит ли до тебя мои письма?
Я по-прежнему…

По воскресеньям дети шли проверить,
по-прежнему ли плавают в бассейне
размокший хлеб с конфетною оберткой,
по-прежнему ли к проволоке вольера
приклеены пометом пух и перья,
по-прежнему ли подгнивает кость
на отсыревших от мочи опилках,
по-прежнему ли с нечеловеческой тоской
ревет кассирша в деревянной клетке.

Все оставалось на своих местах.
Палила пушка, но часы стояли.
Трамвай бренчал, но не съезжал с моста.
Река поплескивала, но не текла.
И мы прощались, но не расставались.
И только пресловутый ветер
куражился на диком перекрестке
меж зданий государственной мечети,
конструктивистского острога и
храмоподобье хамовитой знати,
насилуя прохожих в подворотнях,
так беспощадно плащи срывая, что
казался одушевленным.

Но ветер вдруг в парадной помер.
Подошел трамвай мой номер.
Все задвигалось, пошло.
И это все произошло
с поспешностью дурацкого экспромпта.

Друг в прошлое запрыгал на ходу,
одной ногой в гноящемся аду,
другой ногой на движущемся чем-то.

26 August 2015

Historian and educator Vladimir Gerasimov has died in Saint Petersburg / В Петербурге умер историк и педагог Владимир Герасимов

Vladimir Gerasimov /  Владимир Герасимов 1935-2015
(Photo Lev Loseff)

Nina Mokhova-Loseff, Vladimir Gerasimov, Natasha Sharymova, Lev Loseff

(Photo Lev Loseff)

(Photo Lev Loseff)

Gerasimov and Brodsky
(Photo Lev Loseff)

Gerasimov and Brodsky
(Photo Lev Loseff)

Gerasimov and Loseff

Yuz Aleshkovsky, Gerasimov and Brodsky
(Photo Lev Loseff)

15 August 2015

Gutta-Percha / Гуттаперча

The Gutta-Percha Boy, 1928 edition


I’ve had it with all of this irony shit!
Let’s get back to the books from when I was a kid!
It squeezes my rubber-ball heart, when,
gutta-percha boy, time comes for parting.

‘Brownie’, ‘Blind Music-Man’, ‘Tiny Phil’—what?
Who was it wrote them—Tolstoy, or did God?
The Giver of Good, or Chekhov?
Some nuts for the monkey, I reckon—

he can pick them all up in his miniature paw,
and pop them with care in his miniature maw.
Our eyeballs are suddenly burning—
no use, the tears will come bursting.

For the sweetest of weeping who cares what reproach?
We still pity the hare and the wolf and the fox.
But bogeyman tempests are over,
gutta-percha is gone for ever.

[From Sisyphus Redux, 2000]

(Translation © G.S. Smith 2015)

The Gutta-Percha Boy is a story for children (1883) by D.V.Grigorovich (1822-1900), about an orphan who is trained as a circus acrobat and comes to a tragic end; it was made into what became a classic Soviet film in 1957.
‘Brownie’ (Каштанка) is a story by Chekhov named for the mongrel who is its hero, ‘The Blind Music-Man’ (Слепой Музыкант) is a novel by Vladimir Korolenko, and ‘Tiny Phil’ (Филиппок) is a story for children by Tolstoy.


Как осточертела ирония, блядь;
ax, снова бы детские книжки читать!
Сжимается сердце, как мячик,
прощай, гуттаперчевый мальчик.

“Каштанка”, “Слепой музыкант”, “Филиппок” —
кто их сочинитель — Толстой или Бог?
Податель Добра или Чехов?
Дадим обезьянке орехов!

Пусть крошечной ручкой она их берет,
кладет осторожно в свой крошечный рот.
Вдруг станет заглазье горячим,
не выдержим мы и заплачем.

Пусть нас попрекают сладчайшей слезой,
но зайчика жалко и волка с лисой.
Промчались враждебные смерчи,
и нету нигде гуттаперчи.

28 July 2015

1937 — 1947 — 1977

1937 — 1947 — 1977

The dacha’s fast asleep. Out back,
caped in his brave Caucasian cover,
the Georgian elder, hunching over,
puffs on his native home-grow bacc-
-y. Worried. Seized by an attack
of sadness. Here he’s raised a daughter,
now Jewboys have her in the sack.
Poster with smiling Mamlakat.

That Bessarabian slice he got,
that watery bowl of soup, the Baltic—
with molars smoke-cured by tobacco
he’s managed to grind down the lot.
No end of rellies need a slot.
Enemies buried. Toadies quaking.
A play called Tanya. Novel, Sot′.
Thou didst create this flesh, O God.

Life has got better. Happier too.
Three cheers! The Soviet Union’s building.
The troikas have wound up their business.
You’re Jewish — no one gives a hoot.
Suvorov kids in bullfinch suit.
There’s bread and butter, caviar, bottles.
‘Why don’t you take this hundred rou…?’
I’m sad it’s gone now, even though...

‘No hands under the blankets, titch!
Then you might grow up just like Khomich.
Don’t f*ck with Daddy’s change, just watch it!
No tears about some little glitch’.
‘Don’t blame the war for all your shit’.
(‘There really was one, Yerofeich?’
‘We must have dreamed it, Spotykach’.)
Grandad’s an army doc, a catch.

From thinking back I’m feeling bright.
Soon I’ll be too far gone to rescue.
Let me go home, to that extensive
apartment that deletes delight.

(Translation © 2015 G.S. Smith)

[From Чудесный десант (The Miraculous Raid), 1985]

Translator's Notes: This is probably the most allusive of all Lev Loseff’s poems. For non-Russians, and probably also for Russians not of his generation, the following points may clarify some of the obscurities. Despite the implication of the poem’s title, the subject matter departs from chronological order.
The verse form unmistakably alludes to a famous virtuoso lyric by Boris Pasternak, ‘Second Ballad’ (1930), but does not reproduce it exactly. Loseff lays bare the allusion by re-using Pasternak’s first line, and then addresses public events of the Stalin period, before turning to the private world that Pasternak deals with exclusively in his poem. Losev is much more intimate, though.
Stalin’s daughter Svetlana (1926-2011) had an affair in 1942 with the film director Aleksei Kapler (1903-79), which resulted in his being arrested for ‘anti-Soviet activity’ and given 5 years in the GULag. 
Mamlakat Nakhangova (1924-) was a Stakhanovite record-breaking cotton-picker from Tadzhikistan, famous for being photographed with Stalin, and for a poster of her smiling face. She later became a college teacher of English, retiring in 1985.
The USSR annexed part of Bessarabia, and the Baltic countries of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, in 1940 under the provisions of the Nazi-Soviet (or ‘Ribbentrop-Molotov’) pact of 1939.
Tanya by Aleksei Arbuzov (1908-86), first performed in 1939, remained one of the most widely performed plays in the USSR.
Sot′ (1930), by Leonid Leonov (1899-1994), is a classic Soviet industrialisation novel, set on the river of that name, which flows through the Yaroslavl region of European Russia, northeast of Moscow.
‘Life has got better, comrades, life has got more happy’ was a phrase used by Stalin in his speech to the 1935 Conference of Stakhanovites; it became perhaps the most famous slogan of the entire Soviet period.
‘The Soviet Union’s building’ refers to The USSR Constructs, the title of a lavishly illustrated propaganda monthly that was published from 1935 to 1941 and then again in 1949.
‘Troikas’ here refers to the three-person NKVD kangaroo courts that pronounced hundreds of thousands of summary sentences during Stalin’s Great Terror.
Cadets at the elite Suvorov Military Academies, founded in 1943 in Leningrad, wear distinctive black and red uniforms. They are named in honour of the national hero General Suvorov (1730-1800), for whom Derzhavin wrote an elegy called ‘The Bullfinch’, because the song of his caged bullfinch reminded him of the fife in military bands.
Aleksei ‘Tiger’ Khomich (1920-80) was a legendary goalkeeper who started his career with Dinamo Moscow.
Yerofeich and Spotykach are classic strong flavoured vodkas.

1937 — 1947 — 1977

На даче спят. В саду, до пят
закутанный в лихую бурку,
старик-грузин, присев на чурку,
палит грузинский самосад.
Он недоволен. Он объят
тоской. Вот он растил дочурку,
а с ней теперь евреи спят.


Плакат с улыбкой Мамлакат.

И Бессарабии ломоть,
и жидкой Балтики супешник —
его прокуренный зубешник
все, все сумел перемолоть.
Не досчитаться дядь и теть.
В могиле враг. Дрожит приспешник.
Есть пьеса — «Таня». Книга «Соть».


Господь, Ты создал эту плоть.

Жить стало лучше. Веселей.
Ура. СССР на стройке.
Уже отзаседали тройки.
И ничего, что ты еврей.
Суворовцев, что снегирей.
Есть масло, хлеб, икра, настойки.
«Возьми с собою сто рублей».


И по такой, грущу по ней.

«Под одеяло рук не прячь,
и вырастешь таким, как Хомич.
Не пи..ди у папаши мелочь.
Не плачь от мелких неудач».
«Ты все концы в войну не прячь».
(Да и была ли, Ерофеич?» —
«Небось приснилось, Спотыкач».)


Мой дедушка — военный врач.

Воспоминаньем озарюсь.
Забудусь так, что не опомнюсь.
Мне хочется домой, в огромность
квартиры, наводящей грусть.

13 July 2015

Polemic / Полемика


No—only happenstance has beauty
in this appalling world of ours,
where prison escorts grimace, bare teeth,
and make us grovel on all fours.

A sudden opening in a cloudbank,
a botched line by the poet Blok,
a fragment from the Soviet songbook
in neighbourhoods of cinderblock.

(Translation © 2015 G.S. Smith)

[From Тайный советник (Privy Councillor), 1987]


Нет, лишь случайные черты
прекрасны в этом стрaшном мире,
где конвоиры скалят рты
и ставят нас на все четыре.

Внезапный в тучах перерыв,
неправильная строчка Блока,
советской песенки мотив
среди кварталов шлакоблока.

05 July 2015

Strolling with Erëmin / Прогулки с Ерëминым

Mikhail Erëmin, Leningrad, 1975 / Михаил Ерёмин, Ленинград, 1975 г.

Strolling with Erëmin

A wonder of the world, an eighth one,
makes this city fair —
Petrov-Vodkin and Malevich,
shrine to sphere and square.

From back there a bird flies, coming
to my dreams sometimes,
asking me to take communion
of the whitest white.

Then we two step sprightly, spot-on,
along the granite bank.
Down the river sails a squadron,
cannon bang-bang-bang.

Our horizon’s concave-curvate,
broad the river flows,
and we sport a sprig of carrot
in our buttonholes.

[From Sisyphus Redux (2000)]

Translator's note: Mikhail Erëmin (b. 1936), the Leningrad/Petersburg poet and long-time friend of Lev Loseff.

(Translation © 2015 G.S. Smith)

Прогулки с Ерëминым

Как восьмое чудо мира
украшает град
храм Кузьмы и Казимира —
сфера и квадрат.

Иногда оттуда птица
прилетает в сны,
приглашает причаститься
белой белизны.

Мы тогда шагаем складно
по граниту плит.
По реке плывет эскадра,
пушками палит.

Горизонт наш кругл и вогнут,
широка река,
и пучок моркови воткнут
в лацкан сюртука.

23 June 2015

Strolling with Gandlevsky / Прогулки с Гандлевским

Sergei Gandlevsky / Сергей Гандлевский (Photo: Dana Sideros)

Strolling with Gandlevsky

Sergei, I recall your Tartar-style yard,
threading back from the Yakimanka,
and your little white boxer lifting his paw
to the old farewell march, the ‘Slavyanka’.

The April-time blah blended in with the brass,
the corpulent tubes blew their noses,
as if we had managed to make a sly pass
into 1913, from those closed-in

Tartar back yards, and rear-entrance ways,
with wind licking over the ice skim,
past trashcan cats with vigilant gaze —
then we waved down a lift (unofficial),

bowled bold through the puddles to Trubnaya Place,
at an inn left a bottle much dryer,
and set free some birds, from one rouble apiece,
and higher, and higher, and higher.

From Sisyphus Redux (2000)

Translator's Notes:

Sergei Gandlevsky (b. Moscow, 1952), the eminent Russian poet. See A Kindred Orphanhood, Translated from the Russian by Philip Metres, Brookline: Zephyr Press, 2003, with a preface by Lev Loseff, ‘Fathoming Gandlevsky’; and Trepanation of the Skull, translated by Susanne Fusso, DeKalb, Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press. 2014. Gandlevsky is the author of one of the most insightful essays on Losev’s poetry, ‘Nezhestokii talant’, in Lev Losev, Stikhi, St Petersburg: Ivan Limbakh, 2012, 5-10.

Yakimanka: a street in central Moscow just south of the river from which the surrounding area takes its name, historically associated with residents of Tartar origin.

The ‘Slavyanka’: original title ‘The Slavic Girl’s Farewell’, a march written in 1912 by the military bandsman Vasilii Agapkin with words about soldiers going off to war; it has remained popular ever since. Hear it here.

Trubnaya Place: a square in north-central Moscow, under which the river Neglinnaya is channelled in a ‘tube’ (truba); hence the name, which here echoes the ‘tubes’ of the military band in stanza 2. From the 1840s to 1924 this square was the site of the ‘bird market’; there was a folk custom of buying a bird here on the Feast of the Annunciation (25 March/7 April), and setting it free.

The translator is deeply grateful to Olga Sventsitskaia for her expert advice about this poem.

(Translation © 2015 G.S. Smith)

Lev Loseff at the Gandlevsky home, Moscow, 1998 / Лев Лосев в гостях у Гандлевских, Москва, 1998 г.
(Photo: G.F. Komarov / Фото Г. Ф. Комарова)

Прогулки с Гандлевским

Сергей, я запомнил татaрский Ваш двор,
извилистый путь с Якиманки
и как облегчался Ваш белый боксер
под звуки «Прощанья славянки».

Так с медью мешался апрельская муть,
так толстые трубы сопели,
как будто в тринадцатый год улизнуть
мы с Вами в апреле сумели —

с татарских задворок, от черных ходов,
где ветром облизана наледь,
под пристальным взглядом помойных котов
удрать, леваку посигналить

и, лихо по лужам к Трубе подруля,
в трактире пузырь раздавивши,
мы птиц выпускали — ценой от рубля
и выше, и выше, и выше.

02 June 2015

Sky-High Sonnet / Сонет в самолёте

Sky-High Sonnet

Each fear you feel flares up a hundredfold.
Those howling turbos. Tender stench of vomit.
And God knows what... He actually does behold
what’s nightly packed into an aircraft’s stomach.

Each place is taken (bingo card’s been filled),
and everybody makes you think of something,
or rather, nothing — outer layer flown,
they look a bit like linings from their clothing.

Lo! Prophet, I foresaw and did indite,
and portents did appear in heaven’s height.
We’re beddie-byes in stinky murk up here,

while boeings fly around like garbage tubs,
and clouds worry each other, mongrel pups
atop a dumpsite for fear, fear, fear, fear.

[From Новые сведения о Карле и Кларе (New Information concerning Karl and Klara), 1996]

(© 2015 G.S.Smith)

Read Walter Arndt's 1993 translation of this poem HERE.

Сонет в самолёте 

Отдельный  страх, помноженный на сто. 
Ревут турбины. Нежно  пахнет рвота. 
Бог знает что... Уж Он-то знает, что 
набито ночью в бочку самолета.

Места заполнены, как карточки лото, 
и каждый пассажир  похож на что-то, 
вернее, ни на что — без коверкота 
все как начинка собственных пальто.  

Яко пророк провидех и писах, 
явились знамения в небесах. 
Пока мы баиньки в вонючем полумраке, 

летают боинги, как мусорные баки, 
и облака грызутся, как собаки 
на свалке, где кругом страх, страх, страх, страх.