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. 

24 May 2015

Nostalgia for the Divan / Ностальгия по дивану

Nina Mokhova (Loseff), Vladimir Lifshits, Lev Loseff, Komarovo 1971 (Photo by Joseph Brodsky)
Нина Мохова (Лосева), Владимир Лифшиц, Лев Лосев,  Комарово 1971 (Фото Иосифа Бродского)

Nostalgia for the Divan

On the diva… Oh, on the diva… Oh, on the divan…
                        Gleb Gorbovsky

Sturgeon, horseradish-garnished, sailed off,
away down Old Father Intestine,
and the beard-mantled jaws then scoffed
some salad, and started yawn-testing
— notes of booze and onion mixed in,
plus quotations from whom? — From Ilin.

Soft divan of my dear native land!
It’s your very own Ilia Oblomov!
Where’s Zakhar, my old butler, my man?
Nowhere. Now, there’s raikom- and obkom-y
ugly mugs. And there’s none more perverse
than the sort who once used to serve.

It’s the whiffy fish getting me down.
Troubled sleep. If I dream of something,
’s not the paradise childhood I owned,
but coachman on blood-spattered tumbril,
executioner’s garbled speech,
plus quotations from whom? — From Ilich.

Fine man, Stolz, but he turned out to be
not the fodder of time. Not a mention.
Komsomol-type do-gooder was he,
1860s-style noble intention.
Instead, doing each other in,
there’s only Ilich and Ilin.

Where’s it now, that divan? Under whom?
Where’s the pie with viziga, I’m sorry?
Where’s the night-fragrance lilac bloom?
Where’s the muslin maid reading her story?
Like a drinking pal’s dark-glass reflection,
there is nothing I want to see.
I’m chucking my clock in the bedpan.
Wake me up in a century.

(Translation ©2015 G.S. Smith)

[From Sisyphus Redux, 2000]

The epigraph refers to a famous song, ‘On the Divan…’ (1960) by the Leningrad/Petersburg poet Gleb Gorbovsky (b. 1931).
Ilin: Ivan Ilin (1883-1954), religious and political philosopher, expelled from Russia by Lenin on the ‘Philosophers’ steamer’ in 1922; he became the principal ideologue of the White movement in emigration.
‘If I dream…’: a reference to the famous Chapter IX of Goncharov’s Oblomov (1859).
raikom (regional committee), obkom (district committee); the ground-level administrative units of the Communist Party of the USSR.
Ilich: Vladimir Ilich Lenin (1870-1924).
Stolz: Andrei Stolz, son of a German father and Russian mother, whose practical, active outlook contrasts with that of the eponymous hero in Oblomov.
viziga: the spinal cord of large fish of the sturgeon family, considered a delicacy in pre-revolutionary Russia, always in short supply.

Ностальгия по дивану

На дива... эх, на дива... эх, на диване...
                           Г. Горбовский

Осетринка с хренком уплыла
вниз по батюшке, по пищеводу.
Волосатая пасть уплела
винегрет, принялась за зевоту
с ароматцем лучка да вина,
да с цитатами из Ильина.

Милой родины мягкий диван!
Это я, твой Илюша Обломов.
Где Захар, что меня одевал?
Вижу рожи райкомов, обкомов
образины, и нету лютей,
чем из бывших дворовых людей.

Это рыбка с душком тянет вниз.
Тяжкий сон. Если что мне и снится,
то не детства святой парадиз,
а в кровавой телеге возница
да бессвязная речь палача,
да с цитатами из Ильича.

Не в коня, что ли, времени корм,
милый Штольц. Только нету и Штольца,
комсомольца эпохи реформ,
всем всегда помогать добровольца.
Лишь воюют один на один
за окошком Ильич и Ильин.

Где диван? Кем он нынче примят?
Где пирог, извините, с вязигой?
Где сиреней ночной аромат?
Где кисейная барышня с книгой?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
В тусклом зеркале друг-собутыльник,
не хочу я глядеть ни на что.
Я в урыльник роняю будильник.
Разбуди меня лет через сто.

04 May 2015

The Hydrofoil / Гидрофойл

The Hydrofoil

Neither in galley, nor mouse-ridden hold, but
down in the engine room’s where it took hold, that
new sort of elegy’s complex rapport.
Moët-rinse gullet, and hasten with boarding,
onto the pyroscaphe follow the poet.
Poem starts to function. Sail raised aloft.

I spy a sailor suit, blue-stripy jersey.
Wotcha there, Kushner! Cooee, Kublanovsky!
Is there much living still left to our lot?
Anchor of hope. But despair with its cannon.
Seagulls in shedloads; no cuckoo to hand, though.
Is then our answer to be: ‘not a lot’?

This is his legacy, old Boratynsky,
that we should squander his paladin metre
on evanescence and stomach-churn fear?
Russians have too long been partial to thinking,
‘life’s but a kopek and fate but a turkey’.
If we sing, why not his big-seas idea?

See the waves coming, one after another.
Could this be death? Where’s thy sting, if no other?
Sting see I none. Spitting over the side,
I see the azure horizons of Tuscany, 
à la Voronezh I pour out a vodka,
down it in one, pour another. All right!

Golgotha—yes, sure, I too take my hat off,
only, the thing is, the sugary decaf
coffee of faith doesn’t suit me, nor will.
Whether it’s heaven or Jungian ocean,
in these suspensions the I has no portion—
letter in long poem, thread in thick twill.

What lies before me? The site of the scaffold,
or an Elysium that mourning makes cheerful,
shades that I cherish, of father and friend?
Something is ending, and I really mean it.
Something from which it begins its beginning—
that thing that God begins from the end.

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

(Translation © 2015 G.S. Smith)

Translator's notes: Loseff’s poem colonises the distinctive metre of Evgenii Boratynsky’s classic ode ‘The Pyroscaphe’ (1844), a six-line stanza in dactylic tetrameter rhyming AAbCCb, to reclaim and reassert his stance of defiant resolution in the face of danger; the poem was written on board ship at night during a voyage from Marseilles to Naples. Boratynsky (b. 1800; Loseff uses this form rather than the more customary ‘Baratynsky’) died suddenly soon after this voyage. Loseff equates Baratynsky’s steam paddle-wheeler with a hydrofoil, perhaps thinking of the ‘Meteor’ class introduced for river traffic on the Neva in the late 1950s and still in service.
The Leningrad/Petersburg poet Aleksandr Kushner (b. 1936), a long-term friend of Loseff, published his first collection in 1962, and has gone on with his quiet and consistent lyric poetry ever since. See most recently Apollo in the Grass: Selected Poems, translated by Carol Ueland and Robert Carnevale (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2015).
Yurii Kublanovsky (b. 1947) began as a Moscow-based dissident poet; he was expelled from Russia in 1982, returned there in 1990, and has since attained eminence as poet, editor, and consultant; among other activities, he is a member of the Patriarchal Council on Culture. For some translations of his (and Kushner’s) earlier poetry, see G.S.Smith, Contemporary Russian Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1993).


Не на галере, не в трюме мышином,
он задышал в отделенье машинном,
новых элегий коленчатый лад.
Прополоскав себе горло моэтом,
на пироскаф поспешим за поэтом.
Стих заработал. Парус подъят.

Вижу матроску, тельняшку, полоски.
Кушнер — ку-ку! И ку-ку, Кублановский!
Много ль осталось нам на веку?
Якорь надежды. Отчаянья пушки.
Чаек до чёрта, да нету кукушки.
Это ль ответ на вопрос: ни ку-ку.

Это ли нам завещал Боратынский —
даром растрачивать стих богатырский
на обмиранье, страх в животе?
В русском народе давно есть идейка:
жизнь-де копейка, судьба-де индейка.
Петь — так хотя бы о той же воде.

Вижу: волна на волну набежала.
Смерть это, что ли? Но где ж её жало?
Жала не вижу. В воду плюю.
Вижу я синие дали Тосканы
и по-воронежски водку в стаканы
лью, выпиваю, сызнова лью.

Я, как и все, поклоняюсь Голгофе,
только вот бескофеиновый кофе
с сахаром веры, знать, не по мне.
Рай ли вдали, юнгианское ль море,
я исчезает в этом растворе —
буква в поэме, нитка в рядне.

Что там маячит? Палаческий Лисий
Нос или плачущий светлый элизий,
милые тени — друга, отца?
Что-то подходит к концу, это точно.
Что-то, за чем начинается то, что
Бог начинает с конца.

26 April 2015

Reading The Greek Anthology / Над греческой антологией

Archilochus with wife(?) and slave, marble relief, Archaeological Museum of Paros
с женой(?) и рабом, мраморный рельеф, Археологический музей Пароса

Reading The Greek Anthology 

The Muses’ move, though, was a shocker,
’mid olive groves and cyclamen —

nicking those cows off Archilochus
and leaving him a lyre instead.

Since then the fellow’s earned his living
with words to sounding strings well set —
no more the cowbell clanking-clinking,
the mooing, and the flowers’ scent.

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

(Translation © 2015, G.S. Smith)

Lev Loseff reading this poem in Hanover, NH
Video by Natasha Sharymova


Но музы поступили плохо,
среди олив и цикламен
украв коров у Архилоха
и лиру дав ему взамен.

Вот он с тех пор и заработал,
струн перебор с набором слов,
взамен позвякиванья ботал,
мычанья, запаха цветов.