The Year 1937: An Ode
On some forgotten date... Oh, come now, really,
it was a date that people surely know—
on this date, then, a new note had its birthday,
sprang into being, then began to grow,
muscling its way out from the orchestra
like Gorky into life, like breast from bra,
like the proud forelock on the Cossack’s brow,
or by Picasso shaped from a guitar, or
imported to Old Russia by the Tartar,
or knife-scratched onto glass by a small boy.
So, here comes June, recruit to village hall.
Terror sun-like over the USSR.
A foetus lies there like a comma, sort of.
The girl’s already gone to fetch some water,
‘A-Apple’ dying to start the alphabet.
Krylov’s already tuned up his quartet.
June strides with squeezebox to the village hall.
The stratonauts soar high above the Union,
above this woman too, her belly huge, who
waits for a tram that just won’t come at all.
For the state holiday granite’s polished bright,
the garden sleeps in curlers of cast iron,
in an Egypt-worth of pyramid-stacked carbines
there’s forage caps, whose stars rise with the night,
and buckles with their brass stars too ascending,
in the capital the walls of the old kremlin
touch up the morning with a tender light—
the way that mummy sprinkles talcum powder
on nappy rash. Aggrieved by his valet
the son of man is bawling ever louder.
Yakir’s no more, Blyukher’s extinguished too,
and Tukhachevsky takes down Uborevich.
Some things can’t happen, then they bloody do.
Ouch! Never mind, dear—it’ll soon get better.
O poplar down, why fly hither and yon,
those handbills you can never ever whiten—
Chelyuskin’s crew! won’t be chewed up! by winter!
like teeth they are extracted, one by one…
The Star of Nonsense might make you a loan,
but only for amounts too small to matter.
‘So, we shall sing, let the red rooster run,
reduce the juice, leave levity less labour’
—the thoughts of Daniil Ivanych Kha.
And Mikhail Mikhailych Z., his neighbour,
nibbled a sandwich, sipped his rosé wine,
and thought, ‘What ever next, just wait a while,
the people’s pathway ’s not grown over—even,
in fact, the mob comes crowding every day
to sport and feast over the yawning grave’.
(He exits, sandwich not completely eaten.)
One hundred years before, bullet in belly,
convulsed, the poet Pushkin passed away—
that’s why the people now are making merry.
But why is it for us the carriage waits?
Why’s it for us the piper toots his toot?
Why ever do we, scorning sleep and rest time,
at a nag that dawdles launch a salty cuss,
why, like the head lad of the village, hasten,
responding to the call of Russian blood
when water’s thicker between that and us?
The gloom of night lies over Georgia’s peaks,
the Star of Nonsense switches on its lustre,
and here’s what now is clear as clear can be:
that poetry is both base and superstructure—
it sings out like a flute, creaks like a bed,
and meanwhile flies high over its own head,
like mattress fluff above a bloody pogrom,
like MIGs above the rugged Kurile coast,
like mignonette o’er Gorky Park, or pong that
floats o’er the sturgeon at the Writers’ House.
So here’s your June! Recruit to village hall,
into this great big world the baby falls,
and sees on some tough Baltic sailor’s chest
a tattoo that announces (just in jest)
that in this world no happiness can be,
a plant that looks to be a kind of flute,
is tooting forth, reading from its own leaf,
‘The Turkish March’. What’s this, though? Hang about.
Are you the one, or not, you unknown note?
Yes, yes! You are the one, you are in truth.
You are the one. You grew up, it turns out,
you weren’t done in by hitman or physician,
you have a birthday that is not a date,
a tone that in the scale holds no position,
in terms of where is home you have no level,
remaining on this side of good and evil,
scratching a knife across a dark glass surface,
with nose and lips scrunched up to it, then boom!
A drumbeat! Listen! Trumpets? Trumpets surely!
Trumpet and drum through background noise and gloom.
... facing us stand columns row on row,
a blue and sunny day, and tenderly exposed
’s a jasmine flower, and from round the corner
striding to meet us is a golden cohort—
their uniform! not made! of common stuff!
Over a gilded horn that silvery note
ascends and winds above.
(Translation © 2017 G. S. Smith)
[From Тайный советник (Privy Councillor), 1987]
Translator’s Notes (and Queries)
I am very grateful to Mikhail Efimov, Nikita Eliseev, Robin Milner-Gulland, and Sarah Pratt (personal communications, September 2015), for generously sharing their expertise in explicating this text. I am solely responsible for the selection of notes and queries as presented below.
Lev Loseff was born in Leningrad on 15 June, 1937, at the height of Stalin’s Great Purge.
Nikita Eliseev summarizes his view of the poem as follows: ‘I think this is an ode about the way that no matter how they tried to do in poetry and poets, no matter how they tried to reduce them to the level of night soil men (zolotarei), they held on, survived, squeezed that silver note out of themselves and turned out to be a genuine golden company, a company covered in gold and not shit… Something like that’. [Мне думается, что это ода про то, что вот как ни гробили поэзию и поэтов, как ни опускали их до уровня золотарей, а они остались, выжили, выжали из себя серебряную ноту и оказались настоящей золотой ротой, ротой в золоте, а не в говне... Вот как-то так...]
Robin Milner-Gulland argues that ‘This poem has a distinct journey, and distinctive tonalities, I feel. Beyond its amazing kaleidoscopic collage of Russia in that birth-year, it’s an investigation into what musicality (progenitor of all the arts and culture: both base & superstructure!) is, how it manifests itself—both discordantly and harmoniously—not least in the poet himself, how it relates to all of nature. An ‘Ode’ is at heart a musical form, and often structured as a logical progression. You might say it’s an investigation into the birth and nature of the ‘note’, ‘no-ta’. The tonality (to-na!) takes us back to some of the best poets of the 1930s, with basically 18th c. structures, often diction, disrupted by startling ‘sdvigi’.’
The nature of this ‘new note’ is curious. It is unambiguously musical in origin, but is capable of being scratched on glass. The non-Russian element in its putative ancestry (Spanish, Cossack, Tartar) is intriguing.
As with the other poem of his most closely comparable to this one, ‘1937-1947-1977’ (see http://levloseff.blogspot.com/2015/07/1937-1947-1977.html), Loseff does not maintain strict chronological order in the presentation of his material, but moves freely in time forward and backwards, between private and public spheres, and between physical locations (chiefly Leningrad and Moscow).
The form of the poem deserves comment. It uses the 10-line stanza length that was canonical for about 75 years for the panegyric ode in Russian from its introduction by Lomonosov in 1738, based on German practice. Only the first stanza of Losev’s poem uses the canonical rhyme scheme, though: AbAbDDdEEd (except that Losev’s lines 5 and 6 have what I once called a ‘pseudo-masculine’ rhyme). No two subsequent stanzas preserve this same scheme. And instead of the iambic tetrameter of eighteenth-century practice, Losev uses pentameter.
The phrase ‘like Gorky into life’ plays on the title of Part II of Gorky’s autobiography, usually translated into English as In the World (1916); the original Russian means something like ‘Being Someone’ (В людях, literally Among People), i.e. leaving home and getting a job, entering life as an adult individual.
Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ was painted in June 1937; his guitars, generally held to represent the human (female) body, come from earlier periods.
Идет июнь, как рекрут в сельсовет. What is the force of the simile? Is June just doing what it has to do, called by some authority? Later in the poem, it seems that joining up is done with enthusiasm and communal support, which is based on no good reasons.
Уже пошла девица за водой, а азбука раззявилась арбузом: on the first phrase, see Stanza VI below: this is the first allusion to Pushkin in the poem. On the second: in Russian children’s books for learning the alphabet, the letter ‘A’ is always illustrated with a watermelon (arbuz). The couplet is presumably meant to suggest the beginnings of literary consciousness in the young child.
Krylov: the well-loved monument to Krylov stands not far from the entrance to the Summer Garden in Petersburg. The four animal-musicians from the fable ‘The Quartet’ appear at the right-hand front corner of its pedestal. Nikita Eliseev points out that the reference is sarcastic: in the fable, no matter which way round they sit, the animals (Monkey, Ass, Goat, and Bear) cannot manage to play in tune.
The stratonauts: During the 1930s, the USSR was among the world leaders of ascent into the stratosphere, using balloons. The three-man crew led by Georgii Prokof′ev (1902-39), which consisted of the Petersburger Konstantin Dmitrievich Godunov (1892-1965), and Ernst Karlovich Birnbaum (1894-1965), broke the world altitude record on 30 September 1933 at 60,698 feet. There were many catastrophes during the period 1931-9; seven of the 16 leading Soviet stratonauts perished. Prokof′ev committed suicide as a result of one such incident. The most famous Soviet achievement of 1937 in terms of aviation was and remains Chkalov’s 63-hour transpolar flight, from Moscow to Vancouver, which took place on 18-20 June.
над женщиной с ее огромным пузом,/трамвая ждущей, а его все нет: again Nikita Eliseev: ‘I think you’ve missed the allusion to an idiotic Soviet anecdote: ‘There’s two pregnant women and a pot-bellied old bloke standing there. [...] One woman says to the other, ‘What’re you looking for, boy or girl?’ ‘Boy’. ‘Me, a girl’. The fat bloke: ‘Me, a tram’.’ [Думаю, что Вы не заметили отсылки к идиотскому советскому анекдоту: "Стоят две беременные женщины и один пузатый дядька. Одна другой говорит: "Вы кого ждёте?" — "Мальчика" — "А я девочку" Пузатый дядька: "А я трамвая"..."]
The woman concerned here is evidently Loseff’s mother. In another poem, ‘There But For… (15 June 1925)’ (S grekhom popolam (15 iyulya 1925)), whose title names a date 12 years to the day before his actual birthday, Loseff imagines being aborted. Abortion was made illegal in the USSR in 1936, and legalised again in 1955. For a translation of this poem, see As I Said, 96-101.
в Египте карабинных пирамид: Nikita Eliseev thinks this refers to ‘the Summer Garden opposite the Mikhailovskii (Inzhenernyi) Castle’, the spot where in 1941 the people’s militia was assembled, one of them being Loseff’s father, Vladimir Lifshits; their rifles would have been pyramid-stacked. These, though, are carbines, so the image refer not to real weapons, but depictions of them as a decoration, perhaps as part of a cast-iron railing.
The couplet ‘in the capital the walls of the old kremlin/touch up the morning with a tender light’ paraphrases the opening lines of one of the best-known ‘mass songs’ of the Stalin period, ‘Moscow in Maytime’, created in 1937, with words by Lebedev-Kumach and music by the Pokrass brothers. See http://www.mmsk.ru/notes/note/?id=45273. There are several videos online of performances of this song for May Day parades in Red Square during the Stalin period. cf. ‘Нежным светом озарялись/стены древнего Кремля./Силомером развлекались/тенниски и кителя’, Timur Kibirov, ‘Послание Н.Л.Рубинштейну’ (1990), another long poem that abounds in references to cultural paraphernalia of the 1930s and high Stalinism, similar in tone to Loseff’s.
Yakir, Blyukher, Tukhachevsky, Uborevich: this couplet refers to what was officially labelled ‘The Case of the Trotskyist Anti-Soviet Organization in the Military’, the component of Stalin’s Great Purge that decapitated the officer corps of the Red Army. Marshal Tukhachevsky and seven other high-ranking officers, including Yakir and Uborevich, were arrested on 22 May 1937, accused of spying for Germany, tried in secret on 11 June, and executed that night. Vasilii Blyukher was a member of the tribunal. He went on to serve in the Far East and was promoted to Marshal, but was arrested as a Japanese spy in October 1938. Brought back to Moscow, one month later he died in prison after being tortured.
‘Poplar down’: the down from thousands of cotton-poplar trees deluges Moscow in June. These trees were planted by command of Stalin, because, in theory, the down could be used as a component in making ammunition; see http://www.mk.ru/editions/daily/article/2006/06/17/181203-spasibo-stalinu-za-puh.html.
Chelyuskin’s crew: The vessel Chelyuskin, not an icebreaker, was sent to explore the Northern Maritime Route in August 1933, with a crew of 111. After being crushed in the ice, the vessel sank on 13 February 1934. The crew built an airstrip on the ice and was eventually flown to safety; the pilots who rescued them were the first to receive the nation’s highest decoration, Hero of the Soviet Union. Nikita Eliseev asserts that ‘those handbills’ refers to a famous newsreel image showing the returning Chelyuskin crew being showered with messages of greeting by the crowds lining their route; see http://mos80.ru/ch/chaadaev_chhaidze/chelyuskintsy.html. Also, the image and exclamatory style of ‘Chelyuskin’s crew! won’t be chewed up! by winter!’ refer to Marina Tsvetaeva’s lyric on the subject (1934), which begins: ‘O men of the Chelyuskin! The sound/is like clenched jaws!/Frost bursts out of them,/Bears bristle at them./And indeed by their jaws/into world fame/from the jaws of the ice/the comrades have been torn!’ (‘Челюскинцы! Звук —/Как сжатые челюсти./Мороз из них прет,/Медведь из них щерятся.//И впрямь челюстьми/— На славу всемирную —/Из льдин челюстей/Товарищей вырвали!)
‘The Star of Nonsense’ is an image from the concluding lines of the dramatic poem of 1931 by Aleksandr Vvedensky (1904-41), ‘God is Possibly All Around’, a classic of the absurdist literature associated with the OBERIU group of Leningrad writers. Another principal poet from the group, Daniil Kharms (1905-42), appears in Stanza V. ‘Like Kharms, Vvedenskii devoted his life to an essentially theological attempt to reconcile a denial of rational meaning with an affirmation of meaning beyond human reason. This is implicit in his concept of the “star of nonsense” (zvezda bessmyslicy) and is elaborated, albeit absurdly, in works such as “God Is Possibly All Around” (“Krugom vozmozhno Bog”), “Fact, Theory, and God” (“Fakt, teoriia, i Bog”), and “A Saint and His Subordinates” (“Sviatoi i ego podchinennye”)[…]’ (Sarah Pratt, Nikolai Zabolotsky: Enigma and Cultural Paradigm, Evanston, Northwestern UP, 2000, p. 85). However, Nikita Eliseev considers that ‘[…] here there is a general feeling of the absurd, not tragedy, in so far as in tragedy some meaning is inherent, whatever it may be, but meaning all the same, and in this case, of sanguinary senselessness, for which reason we have the frequent references to the poetry of the OBERIU, which more fully than anything else has conveyed the sense of the absurdity of the year 37’. [Я думаю, что тут общее ощущение абсурда, не трагедии, поскольку трагедии присущ хоть какой-то, но смысл, а именно, что кровавой бессмыслицы, по таковой причине частые отсылки к стихам обериутов, наиболее полно передавших ощущение абсурда 37-го...]
«Что ж, будем петь, пуская петуха,/поменьше пить, потешничать потише»: Nikita Eliseev asserts that ‘This means that in the circumstances of 37 one needs to live as quietly as possible. Take care to emphasise the official good humour and the official joyfulness […] but genuine relaxation—friendly feasts, private gatherings, pranks—you need to keep that tied up. It was a time to bury yourself in your burrow’. ['Это о том, что в условиях 37-го надо жить, как можно тише. Старательно подчёркивать официальное веселье и официальную радость ("петь, пуская петуха"), но настоящей раскованности — дружеские пиры, посиделки, розыгрыши — вот с этим надо завязывать. Пора забиваться в норку.'] The gravity of the statement is undercut, of course, by the over-the-top alliteration. ‘Release the red rooster’ is an expression usually referring to anarchic arson by peasant rebels.
Mikhail Mikhailovich Zoshchenko (1895-1958), the Leningrad short-story writer known for his lugubrious depictions of ordinary people in ordinary situations, who was not oppressed during the 1930s, but subjected to official condemnation in 1946.
Pushkin died on 10 February 1837, after being fatally wounded in a duel two days before. The centenary of his death was commemorated in the USSR with massive pomp and wholesale re-imaging of him as a Russian national hero with dissident democratic and republican views rather than as aristocratic rake, imperialist/chauvinist in politics, and (at least towards the end of his life) a believing Christian. See Stephanie Sandler, Commemorating Pushkin: Russia’s Myth of a National Poet, Stanford UP, 2004.
Loseff’s poem makes passing reference to some of Pushkin’s best-known lyrics: in Stanza II to ‘Winter Evening’, in which the poet asks his old nurse to sing him old songs, including ‘how the girl went for water early in the morning’; in Stanza V ‘the red rooster’ possibly refers to ‘The Prophet’ (1826), with its final exhortation ‘with your word burn the hearts of men’, i.e. write engaged, public poetry; also in Stanza V, ‘Exegi momumentum’ (1836), with its boast about ‘the people’s path will not be overgrown’; and ‘Whether I wander through noisy streets’ (1829) with the phrase ‘at the entrance to the grave’; stanza VII cites the first line of ‘The gloom of night lies over Georgia’s hills’ (1829); and in stanza VIII, ‘…in this world there is no happiness’, comes from ‘It’s time, my friend, it’s time…’ (1836?).
Lines 4-10 of Stanza VI seem perhaps to present the poem’s core; is LL really suggesting that the Russians seem to respond enthusiastically to terror?
Gorky Park: in Russian ‘The Central Park of Culture and Rest, named after Gorky’.
‘the Writers’ House’: the building housing the administration and dining facilities of the Union of Writers, open to members only.
растение, похожее на дудку,/«Турецкий марш» со своего ж листа/уже дудит. Nikita Eliseev sees in this a reference to Nikolai Zabolotsky’s poem ‘Lesnoe ozero’ (1938); the experience to which it refers probably occurred near Leningrad in the autumn of 1937 (Pratt, 233), and the poem was actually written in a railway coach for prisoners (vagonzak) en route to Siberia after Zabolotsky was arrested in 1938: ‘Один лишь кулик на судьбу негодует/И в дудку растенья бессмысленно дует.’
‘The Turkish March’: Association with the famous piano piece by Mozart would appear to be a red herring. The reference, suggests Mikhail Efimov, is rather to Soviet-Turkish relations, for which 1937 was a pivotal year, when, as a result of Turkey’s realignment with Fascist Germany, the friendly relations with the USSR that had been maintained since the revolutions in both countries began to cool. These friendly relations are documented in several films: see "Анкара — сердце Турции" (1934), commissioned by Ataturk; see http://www.kino-teatr.ru/doc/movie/sov/12283/annot/; and "Турция на подъеме" (1937), see http://www.eleven.co.il/article/14953. In July 1936 the Montreux Convention was signed, whereby Turkey regained control over the Straits, contrary to the interests of the USSR.
‘A drumbeat! Listen! Trumpets? Trumpets surely!/Trumpet and drum through background noise and gloom’. Mikhail Efimov suggests that the music concerned here may be Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47, which was composed between April and July 1937, and first performed on 21 November by the Leningrad Philharmonic under Evgenii Mravinsky. The performance was a triumph; it marked the composer’s return to the public after being brutally criticized the previous year. There is the additional connection that Shostakovich was called in by the KGB after the arrest of Tukhachevsky and interrogated about their relationship; the exact facts of this incident are disputed.
The jasmine flower is an enigmatic image.
a golden cohort: ‘The Golden Cohort’ (Zolotaya rota), originally an elite detachment of grenadiers, formed as an honour guard for the Tsar in 1827; later, by ironic contrast the phrase came to mean the urban dregs, with criminal associations. It also evokes zolotorotsy or zolotari, night soil men or honey bucket men, i.e. workers who removed human waste from dwellings before flush toilets came into general use (see Eliseev’s summary of the poem’s theme, above). The phrase probably indicates primarily the cohort of Leningrad poets and intellectuals born between 1930 and 1940, and in particular Loseff’s own particular group of friends, who appear constantly as individuals and as a group in his writings in poetry and prose.
Over a gilded horn that silver keynote/ascends and winds above: Could this be the Golden Horn in Istanbul? Or does it refer to the hull of the ship on top of the St Peter-Paul Fortress in Petersburg?
Ода на 1937 год
Какого-то забытого... Ах, что ты,
какого-то известного числа
был день рожденья новой нотой —
она вдруг народилась и росла,
и выбивалась из мотивчика,
как Горький в люди, как грудь из лифчика,
как гордый чуб на запорожский лоб;
то ль вычесал ее Пикассо из гитары,
то ль завезли ее на Русь татары,
то ль мальчик по стеклу ножом проскреб.
Идет июнь, как рекрут в сельсовет.
Стоит террор, как солнце над Союзом.
Лежит зародыш в виде запятой.
Уже пошла девица за водой,
а азбука раззявилась арбузом,
уже Крылов настроил свой квартет.
Идет июнь с гармошкой в сельсовет.
Летают стратонавты над Союзом,
над женщиной с ее огромным пузом,
трамвая ждущей, а его все нет.
Отполирован к празднику гранит,
спит сад в своих чугунных папильотках,
в Египте карабинных пирамид
восходят ночью звезды на пилотках
и медные посереди ремня,
в столице стены древнего кремля
подкрашивают утро нежным светом —
так мама марганцовочкой кропит
опрелость. Огорченный туалетом
сын человеческий ревет ревмя.
Угас Якир и Блюхер наш потух,
за Тузачевским рухнул Уборевич.
Клюется в жопу жареный петух.
Бо-бо, но ничего, переболеешь.
Зачем летишь ты, тополиный пух —
листовок всех ты не перебелеешь:
челюскинцы! из челюстей! зимы!
удалены по одному, как зубы...
Звезда Бессмыслицы дает взаймы,
но только незначительные суммы.
«Что ж, будем петь, пуская петуха,
поменьше пить, потешничать потише»
так думал Даниил Иваныч Х.
А рядом Михаил Михалыч З.
ел бутерброд, прихлебывал розе
и думал: «Это надо же, поди же,
не заросла народная тропа,
напротив, ежедневно прет толпа
играть и жрать у гробового входа».
(Уходит, не докушав бутерброда.)
Сто лет назад от выстрела в живот
скончался в корчах Александр Пушкин —
вот почему народ навеселе.
Но почему нам подают телегу?
Но почему нас дудочка зовет?
Но почему, презревши сон и негу,
по матушке лошадку кроя,
летишь, как первый парень на селе,
откликнуться на голос русской крови
своей седьмой водой на киселе?
На холмы Грузии легла ночная мгла,
Бессмыслицы Звезда себя зажгла,
и вот что выясняется дотла:
поэзия есть базис и надстройка —
поет как флейта и скрипит как койка,
она летает над самим собой,
как над погромной кровью пух перинный,
как МИГи над Курильскою грядой,
как дух в ЦПКО над резедой,
как в ЦДЛ душок над осетриной.
Ну и июнь! Как рекрут в сельсовет,
младенец вваливается в белый свет,
он видит: со стальной груди балтфлота
татуировка заявляет в шутку,
что счастья в жизни нет,
растение, похожее на дудку,
«Турецкий марш» со своего ж листа
уже дудит. Но что это? Минутку.
Та нота новая — ты та или не та?
Да, да, ты та, ты та, ты эта нота!
Ты та. Так значит, все же, проросла,
не извели врачи и душегубы,
имея день рожденья без числа,
звуча, но не имея места в гамме,
по отношенью к дому кверх ногами,
по эту сторону добра и зла,
водя ножом по мутному стеклу
и об него ж расплюша нос и губы —
ба! барабан! чу! уж не трубы ль? трубы!
Труба и барабан сквозь гул и мглу.
... навстречу нам стоят ряды колонн,
день синь и солнечен, и нежно оголен
цветок жасмина, из-за поворота
на нас шагает золотая рота —
мундир! не лыком! шит!
Над золотым рожком серебряная нота
взлетает и кружит.