Christine Dunbar, Susanne Fusso, Katherine Tiernan OâConnor, Sarah Pratt, Stephanie Sandler, G.S. Smith, Michael Wachtel,
Encounters with Alexei Tsvetkov:
Contact: Michael Wachtel,
Princeton University, email@example.com
Three Poems with Commentaries and an Interview
The Russian poet Alexei
Tsvetkov was born in 1947 and grew up in Zaporozhe, Ukraine. He studied
chemistry for one year at Odessa University, then history (1965-68) and
journalism (1971-74) at Moscow State University (MGU). In Moscow he was a
leading member of the underground poetry group Moscow Time (Moskovskoe
vremia). He traveled widely and worked at a variety of jobs. After
emigrating in 1975, he lived for short periods in New York and San Francisco.
He then moved to Ann Arbor, where he wrote a doctoral thesis on Andrei Platonov
at the University of Michigan. After a short teaching career at Dickinson
College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, he worked from 1984 to 1990 at Voice of
America in Washington, D. C., then at Radio Liberty / Radio Free Europe in
Munich and later in Prague. In 2007 he moved back to Washington.
With very few exceptions,
Tsvetkovâs poetry was published only outside Russia until 1989. By this time he
had stopped writing new poems; he began again in 2004, after a break of
seventeen years. He has since been extraordinarily prolific, posting regularly
to his blog, http://aptsvet.livejournal.com,
publishing selections in the leading Russian literary journals, and regularly
bringing his poems together in collections. His work was honored with the
Andrei Belyi Prize in 2007, and in an unusual formulation: he was cited both as
an established master and as a ânewâ figure. His later poetry has elicited
extravagant praise and indignant condemnation from Russian critics and fellow
poets. Tsvetkovâs writing continues to range widely beyond original poetry in
Russian. He is particularly interested in Shakespeare, and his translation of Hamlet
was serialized on his blog in 2008; he has also produced a substantial number
of poems in English (see the tag egononsum on his blog). Tsvetkov
comments copiously and outspokenly on cultural and political affairs and conducts
an animated on-record public discussion with readers of his blog in a manner
that has few antecedents in Russian literature.
In the discussion of three of
his poems below, we pay special attention to the formal elements. Tsvetkov
moves with agility among poetic forms and genres, reinventing them as he does
so. His rhymes are nearly always anti-grammatical and often ingeniously
enriched; he supplements rhyme with other forms of aural patterning, such as
alliteration and paronomasia. His poems long ago abandoned punctuation and
capitalization. They are marked by his introduction of seeming grammatical or
lexical errors, word choices that âmess upâ the smooth surface of the text and
keep its language vivid and alert. The syntax is unpredictable, and readers
must work all the harder to make out the sentencesâ logic because there are no
punctuation marks to set them straight. Tsvetkovâs poetic world is vivid and
dynamic, full of people, objects, and events both ordinary and exotic,
legendary and real. Even where a first-person lyric hero is explicitly present,
the significance of referents, particularly in terms of human emotion, remains
unstated. Similarly, the causal connections between events and people are left
unexplored: the texts often seem to switch abruptly between topics.
A poetic genealogy of the
twentieth century would find the roots of Tsvetkovâs themes, tones, thought,
and aesthetics in such predecessors as Pasternak, Khlebnikov, Mandelâshtam, and
Zabolotskii. In Tsvetkovâs verse, one often hears echoes of poems by a number
of Russian, and not just Russian, poets. The allusions do not work
systematically to create a set of keys that unlock the poemsâ complex meanings
so much as they anchor individual phrases or formal choices, attaching them to
earlier contexts and allowing for occasional implicit commentary on his
predecessors. Tsvetkov readily acknowledges the metapoetic aspect of his work.
Tsvetkovâs themes, as he says
in our interview, are love, death, and God. What else is there, one might ask?
Politics and history come immediately to mind, and in fact these topics appear
in some of his most significant texts, including his impassioned reaction to
the deaths of nearly 200 school children during the hostage crisis in Beslan,
âbylo tretâe sentiabriaâ (2004) http://www.vavilon.ru/diary/040907.html,
and a poem discussed below that uses the American political assassinations of
the 1960s as its point of departure, âkennedi kennedi king i prochie
specifically Shakespeareâs death, is the topic of âdvadtsatâ tretâe aprelia
gostei snariadil i leg,â and God quite clearly plays a part in âdialog khrista
i greshnoi dushi,â to mention the other two poems we consider.
Our choice of poems by no means exhausts the topics
and techniques of Tsvetkovâs poetry: we have not included a love poem (for
example, see âpomnishâ oni nas uchili na cheloveka,â 2006, http://aptsvet.livejournal.com/2006/01/22/).
Some of his most remarkable poems treat the subject of childhood and especially
adolescence (âia zhil plashmia ia stolâko let bolel,â 2008, http://aptsvet.livejournal.com/188083.html). Our goal is to introduce Tsvetkovâs work by
translating and commenting on three poems, and by offering a lengthy interview
with the poet. There, he reveals aspects of his creative process and creative
biography, and he speaks about his contemporaries and the poetic enterprise
We emphasize information
about the poet and his poems, hoping to create a context in which he may be
productively read. We include literal translation, detailed commentary, formal
description, and preliminary interpretations. Tsvetkovâs poems lend themselves
well to this approach, for they are dense and allusive, with complex syntax and
formal intricacy; their highly figurative language is often not immediately
clear. The formal design of each poem is complex. Our presentation is a kind of
pedagogical map, meant to show how Tsvetkovâs poems might be approached, in the
hope that readersâ curiosity will be piqued to read further and that they will
also be more prepared to interpret what they find with each new poem. A
bibliography of Tsvetkovâs writings (complete for his books, partial for other
publications) and of writings about him is offered as well.
Our choice of format also
emerges from our impression of what can be most useful to the study of contemporary
poetry more generally. Our small group of poetry scholars, which has been
meeting annually since 2000, has developed the practice of choosing two or
three new Russian poets each year and reading the texts slowly, closely. We
have found it a useful way of building for ourselves, as if from the ground up,
a larger impression of the contemporary scene, and we have found in every case
that reading slowly enough to query any word or turn of phrase or formal
idiosyncrasy has opened up each poem in gratifying and provocative ways. The
work of understanding and criticizing contemporary poetry is necessarily at an
early stage, and thus we offer this publication as a contribution to that work
and as a model that scholars might find helpful in discussing other poets. The
approach is not meant to exclude or blot out other possibilities, in fact the
opposite. As scholars build up a firmer sense of how individual poets are
developing and changing, and how living poets interact and influence one
another, it will grow easier to produce new readings on key topics: the
cultural institutions that support (or diminish) contemporary poets; the themes
their poems most often treat; the power relations among writers, journals,
anthologies, and editors; and the connections between poetry and other forms of
cultural expression. In other words, there is a great deal more work to do, but
we present this forum as a first step in drawing attention to one extremely
interesting contemporary poet and in laying out the terms through which his
work may be understood.
Our work on these poems thus
emerges from several years of collective study. Annual meetings have been
funded by the colleges and universities where we teach and by a Mellon Workshop
Grant. Our conversation about Tsvetkov began in 2007 at the University of
Southern California. In 2008, we met under the auspices of the Princeton
Institute for International and Regional Studies (PIIRS), whose organizational
and financial support we gratefully acknowledge. In Princeton, we drafted all
the translations and commentaries, and further discussed each poem. Alexei
Tsvetkov was present for a large portion of that three-day meeting, and he
kindly answered our questions about individual lines and images in the three
poems. We appreciated the opportunity to hear him read (a recording is linked
to each poem below), and we conducted the interview presented here. Although we
changed details in the translations and commentaries to reflect what we learned
during the three days spent with Alexei Petrovich, the views offered here are
not his (except where we cite him), and we take full responsibility for all
opinions and interpretations.
Books by Alexei Tvetkov, in chronological order:
Sbornik pâes dlia zhizni
solo. Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1978.
Sostoianie sna. Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1981.
Troe: Ne razmykaia ust, with Konstantin Kuzminskii and Eduard Limonov, with
an introduction by Sasha Sokolov. Los Angeles: Almanac-Press, 1981.
Edem. Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1985.
Stikhotvoreniia. St. Petersburg: Pushkinskii fond, 1996.
Divno molvitâ. St. Petersburg: Pushkinskii fond, 2001.
Bestiarii. Ekaterinburg: Evdokiia, 2004. [childrenâs verse,
written in 1970s]
Shekspir otdykhaet. St. Petersburg: Pushkinskii fond, 2006.
Atlanticheskii dnevnik. Moscow: Novoe izdatelâstvo, 2007. [interviews,
programs from Radio Liberty]
Edem i drugoe. Moscow: OGI, 2007.
Imena liubvi. Moscow: Novoe izdatelâstvo, 2007.
Rovnyi veter. Moscow: Novoe izdatelâstvo, 2008.
âLeaving Prague: A Notebook,â
Poetry, vol. 191, no. 5 (February, 2008), pp. 425-433.
âObâiasnenie v liubvi: Sergeiu Gandlevskomu,â Vozdukh,
no. 3 (2006), pp. 5-11.
âObâiasnenie v liubvi: Vladimiru Gandelâsmanu,â Vozdukh,
no. 1 (2008), pp. 5-11.
âSudâba barabanshchika: Primechaniia k
postmodernizmu,â Inostrannaia literatura, no. 9 (1997). http://magazines.russ.ru/inostran/1997/9/svetcov.html.
ââV proze mnogo slov, a zhiznâ korotkaâ [interview], Kriticheskaia
massa, nos. 3-4 (2005). http://magazines.russ.ru/km/2005/3/tc7.html.
Yuka, "Aleksei Tsvetkov: âUlamok i dosi vpevnenii, shcho vin --
Knizhnik Review, 9-10 (139-140), 2007, 12-13.
Bezhlian, Evgeniia. [review of Imena liubvi], Novyi mir, no. 10, 2007. www.litkarta.ru/dossier/vezhlian-kuizhnaia-polka/dossier_1668.
Gandlevskii, Sergei. [review
of Bestiarii], Znamia, no. 5 (2003).
Korovin, Andrei. [review of Shekspir otdkhaet],
Deti-Ra, nos. 5-6 (2007), pp. 31-32.
Kreid, Vadim.âO poezii
Alekseia Tsvetkova,â Novyi zhurnal, no. 167 (1987), pp. 206-14.
Kulakov, Vladislav. Postfaktum: kniga o stikhakh.
Moscow: NLO, 2007, pp. 11-18.
Pann, Lilia. âNa kamennom vetru,â Novyi mir,
no. 3 (1996). http://magazines.russ.ru/novyi_mi/1996/3/pann.html.
__________. âVozvrashchenie Alekseia Tsvetkovaâ
[review of Shekspir otdykhaet], Novyi mir, no. 8 (2006). http://magazines.russ.ru/novyi_mi/2006/8/pa15.html.
âRechâ Dmitriia Kuzâmina pri vruchenii Alekseiu
Tsvetkovu Premii Andreia Belogo,â http://magazines.russ.ru/project/bely/2007/ku.html.
Skvortsov, A. E. Igra v sovremennoi russkoi poezii.
Kazanâ: Izdatelâstvo Kazanâskogo universiteta, 2005, pp. 273-307.
__________. âNado ne gorditâsia, a znatâ,â Voprosy
literatury, no. 3 (May - June, 2007), pp. 239-251.
Smith, G. S. âAleksej Cvetkovâs Lost Paradise,â SEEJ,
vol. 30, no. 4 (1986), pp. 541-552; revised and translated as âPoteriannyi rai
Alekseia Tsvetkova,â in Dzheralâd Smit, Vzgliad izvne. Statâi o russkoi
poezii i poetike. Moscow: Iazyki slavianskoi kulâtury, 2002, pp. 389-400.
Varkan, Ekaterina. âNaznachitâ novogo Voloshina,â Oktiabrâ,
no. 12 (2007), pp. 155-56.
Zorin, Andrei. âIzgnannik
bukvaria,â NLO, no. 19 (1996), pp. 250-260.
kennedy kennedy king
кеннеди кеннеди кинг и прочие жертвы
и с моста в
пела пока не
5 в год когда я
с лязгом зубы
10 в год когда я
дернул к иным
от рассвета по трайборо
до заката на
в путь по
зорь резеда в
смерти нет в
20 случае надо
the kkk took my baby away
меня в гугле
нимф и редких
был и смерти
не уйти в
35 под окном
(Our translations attempt to stay as close as possible to the semantics of the
original. We make no effort to reproduce the formal qualities. In this and the
following two translations we follow Tsvetkovâs practice of not using
capitalization or punctuation marks. For words and phrases that are in the
Latin alphabet in the original, we have used italics.)
kennedy kennedy king and
those other victims
and off the bridge into the
chasm of the tallahatchie but there is no death
billie joe macallister about
whom bobbie gentry
sang until she sank into the
5 in the year when i was
waiting on geary boulevard
in the termite hovel for
instant gifts of fate
their teeth into soups with a clank
and forgot to wipe their
spittle hung right down to
their medal ribbons
10 in the year when i took off
for other regions
to the dark-blue bay and
sing o string
from sunrise on the triboro
fording over to the bronx
to sunset on a dealerâs
wheels to the tenderloin
15 hernia holds to the azimuth
maybe weâll get there
setting out on the sunny side
and back on the shady side
reseda at late dusk in the
these jaws and bodies were
immured in granite
to spend the winter because
there is no death other-
20 wise it must be admitted that
there was life
towards the bed of the
missouri nymphs are crazy for fauns
over cbgb summer pours out unction
the bridge over the dark-blue
chasm on the radio punks
the kkk took my baby away
25 google me o lord of all the
if iâm counted among one or
another of their peoples
an enchanted resident in thy
connoisseur of nymphs and
nimrod of rare rhymes
through hickory and ginkgo the
blinding light is identical
30 through the chiton with an
x-ray any centimeter of bones
i have returned to reveal to
you the secret of the two oceans
the horizon is uninhabited as
before and there is no death
whoever lit the light is
forever responsible to the world
not to escape into the
half-dark of astrolabes and ancient books
35 beneath the window is a
parking lot children play on the asphalt
kennedy kennedy king
l.1 kennedy kennedy king: a reference to three assassinations of the
1960s: President John F. Kennedy, in Dallas, Texas, on 22 November 1963; the
Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., in Memphis, Tennessee, on 4 April 1968; and
Senator Robert F. Kennedy, in Los Angeles, California, on 6 June 1968 (he was
shot on June 5 and died on June 6).
and those other victims: Possible referents for âthose other victims,â given
the context of Mississippi in the first stanza and the 1960s time frame, are
the killings in Mississippi of civil-rights activists Medgar Evers in 1963 and
James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in 1964.
ll. 2-3 tallahatchie, billie joe macallister, bobbie gentry: The reference
is to Bobbie Gentryâs 1967 hit song âOde to Billie Joeâ (still popular in the
1970s): the songâs narrative, recounted as dialogue, concerns Billie Joe
MacAllister, an obscure individual, who has committed suicide by jumping off
Mississippiâs Tallahatchie Bridge; the narratorâs mother discusses this at a
family dinner, seemingly unaware that he was the boyfriend of her daughter.
l. 4 sank into the internet: Probably a play on the common Russian
phrase âkanutâ v Letuâ (to sink into
Lethe), which means to fall into oblivion. Bobbie Gentry last performed in
public in 1978.
l. 5 geary
boulevard: A major thoroughfare in San Francisco, culturally diverse, with
a significant Russian population. Tsvetkov lived here in 1976-78, after
emigrating in 1975.
l. 6 termite hovel: According to Tsvetkov, this refers to the
dilapidated wood-frame house in which he was living.
l. 7 antipode-forefathers: According to Tsvetkov, a reference to the
aging Soviet leadership in the 70s. Their false teeth âclankâ because they have
metallic parts. The poet draws a distinction between himself and these men in
terms of age, politics, and geography.
l. 9 medal ribbons: In Russia it has long been common for veterans to
wear decorations in public.
l. 10 i took off for other regions: This phrase (âia dernul k inym predelamâ) may be read as a variation on several
lines of Osip Mandelâshtamâs 1931 poem (âI was only childishly connected to the
sovereign worldâ (âS mirom derzhavnym ia
byl lishâ rebiacheski sviazanâ): âI ran away to the nereids on the Black
Sea, / And from the beautiful women of that time, -- from those tender European
women -- / How much embarrassment, strain, and sorrow did I receive!â (âIa ubezhal k nereidam na Chernoe more, / I
ot krasavits togdashnikh, -- ot tekh evropeianok nezhnykh -- / Skolâko ia
prinial smushchenâia, nadsady i goria!â). These lines are also connected to
Tsvetkovâs poem by the theme of ânymphs,â as well as by the way Mandelâshtamâs
poem articulates the poetâs relationship to his past, which he both rejects and
in a peculiar way celebrates.
l. 11 dark-blue bay: San Francisco Bay.
l. 12 sing o string: An invocation, presumably to the string of the
conventional lyre, appears in the last line of the first stanza rather than the
opening line of the poem.
l. 13 triboro: A complex of three bridges (officially Triborough Bridge)
connecting the boroughs of the Bronx, Manhattan, and Queens in New York City.
l. 14 dealerâs wheels: According to Tsvetkov, this refers to a drug
A bohemian San Francisco district known for drugs and prostitution.
l. 15 hernia holds to the azimuth: In discussion, Tsvetkov glossed this
as an internal compass, both spatial and moral. He adds, âyou donât say âheartâ
when you can avoid it.â
l. 17 reseda: A fragrant plant, also known as mignonette.
l. 18 immured in granite: The ashes of many Soviet leaders were placed in
the Kremlin wall. Others were buried in front of the wall with granite markers.
l. 21 towards the bed of the missouri: The line alludes not simply to the
river, but to the general region (the center of the country).
nymphs are crazy for fauns: According to Tsvetkov, the setting is a truck stop.
âNymphs are prostitutes, fauns are truck-drivers.â Readers familiar with Russian poetry may hear an echo of
Pushkinâs 1821 poem âTo Yurâevâ: âWith an involuntary flame in her cheeks / A
young nymph secretly, / Not understanding herself / Sometimes glances at a
faunâ (âS nevolânym plamenem lanit /
Ukradkoi nimfa molodaia, / Sama sebia ne ponimaia / Na favna inogda gliaditâ).
l. 22 cbgb: Short for âCountry, Bluegrass, and Blues.â A famous music club at 315 Bowery in
New York City that operated from 1973 to 2006, primarily known as a center for
l. 23 punks: The New York-based band The Ramones.
1. 24 the kkk took my baby away: A Ramones song released in 1977. The
Ramones appeared frequently at CBGB in its early days.
kkk: The Ku
Klux Klan, a clandestine white-suprematist organization, associated with the
racist atrocities of the 1960s. There is a disconcerting echo of the three Ks
of Kennedy, Kennedy, King.
l. 27 enchanted resident: The phrase âenchanted residentâ (ocharovannyi zhitelâ) echoes the title
of Leskovâs novella The Enchanted
Wanderer (Ocharovannyi strannik,
l. 28 nimrod: âA mighty hunter before the Lordâ (Genesis 10:9).
l. 29 hickory and ginkgo: Common North American trees, though the latter
is native to China.
l. 30 chiton: A white tunic worn in ancient Greece.
l. 31 secret of two oceans: The title of a very popular adventure novel (Taina dvukh okeanov, 1939) by Grigorii
Adamov (1886-1945), made into an equally popular movie in 1956.
l. 33 world: The Russian word âsvetâ
means both âlightâ and âworld,â allowing for the alternate translation âwhoever
lit the light is forever responsible to the light.â
l. 35 parking: in Russian, as in English, the word contains the name
l. 36 kennedy kennedy king: In this context (the reference to hickory in
line 29 and the children playing in line 35) the line evokes the counting rhyme
âhickory, dickory, dock.â
The poem consists of three
twelve-line stanzas, the first with rhyme scheme AbAbCddCeFFe, the second and
third with rhyme scheme AbAbCdCdEfEf. (Capital letters designate feminine
rhymes, small letters masculine rhymes.) It is written in a type of dolânik (a relatively strict form of
accentual verse, in which ictuses [stressed syllables] are separated by
intervals of either one or two unstressed syllables). However, there are some
zero- and some three-syllable intervals, which are ordinarily not found in dolânik. Dolânik first appeared in Russian poetry with frequency in Symbolist
poetry, but the Symbolists favored lines with three or four ictuses. Longer dolânik lines (and âfree dolânik,â with varying numbers of
ictuses per line) became common only recently, in particular in the work of
Joseph Brodsky. Most of the lines in Tsvetkovâs poem have five ictuses, though
a substantial number have only four, and a few have less. The final line of
each stanza is marked by its brevity (two, four, and three ictuses
respectively). The last line of the poem scans as dactylic trimeter, a rhythmic
shift with important semantic implications (see explanatory note above and
Tsvetkovâs dolânik lines have a tendency toward
maximal rhythmic organization at the beginning and end of the line. In
two-thirds of the lines there is an anapestic quality to the beginning of the
line, i.e. a stress on the third syllable (sometimes — as in traditional
anapests — preceded by a stress on the first syllable). As concerns the
end of the line: if one discounts the syllables after the final stress (as is
standard practice in metrics), most of the lines close with the pattern
w-s-w-w-s-w-s (w=weak, s=strong), e.g. и рты́
забы́ли. These same two rhythmic
tendencies are also typical of Joseph Brodskyâs dolânik poetry after 1972.
As if to vindicate the claim
in line 28, Tsvetkov displays extraordinary ingenuity in his choice of rhymes.
He frequently uses enrichment (identical sounds to the left of the rhyming
vowel), e.g., the âdâ and âbâ in до
here as it were âcompensatingâ for the deviation after the rhyming vowel. (This
lack of phonetic coincidence after the rhyming vowel is not radical. Already in
the late nineteenth century, poets recognized that full coincidence was not
essential, and it is dispensed with in much early twentieth-century modernist
verse.) Tsvetkov also enriches exact rhymes, e.g. the ânâ and ârâ in наро́д/нимро́д.
As in most modern Russian poetry, Tsvetkovâs masculine rhymes are more exact
than his feminines, but there are nonetheless some striking inexact masculines,
where enrichment (t, n) offsets the different consonants immediately preceding
the stressed vowel (тендерлойн/теневой) and the extra
post-tonic consonant in
тендерлойн. In a closed masculine rhyme
like this one, the support consonants (immediately preceding the stressed
vowel) do not need to be identical, but poets still tend to make them so (as in
Part and parcel of this
virtuoso rhyming technique is the avoidance of grammatical rhyme, which occurs
at the end of the first stanza). Tsvetkov also takes advantage of a technique
that goes back to Pushkin, rhyming Russian words with foreign ones (cf.
еле́й/awáy, where the different alphabets
make it particularly pronounced). Beyond the rhymes, one is struck by the
ubiquitous alliteration; many of the words seem to have been chosen for
precisely this reason, e.g. âв теремке́
or âк ру́слу
The latter example leads to a final observation concerning the sound texture of
the entire poem. To an enormous extent, the poemâs lexicon is marked by
non-Russian proper nouns. This is surely to be explained by the theme: Tsvetkov
revisits a Russian Ă©migrĂ©âs first impressions of America, and the English
language itself — be it in the form of surnames, geographical markers, or
popular music — is central to this experience.
âKennedy kennedy kingâ is the
only one of the three poems we analyze that feels experientially
autobiographical and that was acknowledged as such by Tsvetkov himself in our
discussions. Although the poem was written some thirty years after he
emigrated, its first two stanzas evoke the America that first imprinted itself
on his senses (its music and pop culture, its landscapes, its exhilarating
sleaze) as well as the America already known to him beforehand âby reputation,â
that is, as the site of the three horrific assassinations that marked the
1960s, the decade that preceded his arrival. Despite the poemâs initial
enumeration of deaths — both historical and fictional/pop-lyrical (i.e.,
Billie Joe MacAllisterâs suicide in Bobbie Gentryâs 1967 hit âOde to Billie
Joeâ) — it also contains an affirmation of immortality. The phrase âthere
is no death/smerti netâ appears
together with these references to famous deaths, both literal-historical (the
assassinations) and metaphorical, namely, Bobbie Gentryâs âdisappearanceâ into
the Internet (her eventual fading from public view but yet her âafterlifeâ in
another world or medium). Thus metaphorical immortality, at the very least, is
assured for all of the dead. It is also associated with the experience of ânew
lifeâ that the poet feels has been bestowed on him as a result of emigration.
Although writing with obvious irony about his hopes for âinstant gifts of fate/skorye dary sudâbyâ while living in San
Francisco in a âtermite hovel/termitnyi
teremok,â the poet also conveys the sense of optimistic excitement that
marked his early response to America and that was accompanied by his youthful
disdain for the aging and drooling old fogies of the Soviet leadership whom he
gladly left behind when he left there
for here. Furthermore, the
expectations of sexual opportunities often held by newly arrived male Ă©migrĂ©s
are evoked by the reference to âpassionate maidens/pylkie devyâ (l. 13). By recalling not only the images of America
that the poet had both before and after his arrival, but also the two worlds or
polarities (Soviet and American) that have been bridged by his emigration, the poem expands the literal bridge of
l. 2 into a bridge-theme that will
reassert itself again in the next stanza. The comic and ironic use of the
traditional poetic invocation — âsing o string/zapevai strunaâ — to conclude the first stanza becomes even
more marked as the second stanza unfolds.
By introducing certain
details of a New York cityscape, the poem now transports us from the west coast
to the east and thus spans America itself. Although the New York City that is
conjured up here has distinguishing features of its own (the Triborough Bridge
complex, the CBGB music club), it also is kaleidoscopically fused with San
Francisco in that both cities seem interchangeably associated in the poetâs
mind with being young and being in America. If stanza one reflected on
Tsvetkovâs exuberant albeit naĂŻve expectations of what a new life in America
would bring, then stanza two provides a fast-action sampling of the sleazily
exotic and exhilaratingly lowbrow âlifestyleâ he enjoyed in those heady early
days: the all-night slumming, whether in San Francisco or New York, the ride at
dusk to the Tenderloin district (in San Francisco) in a drug dealerâs car, the
ride at dawn back over the Triborough Bridge to the Bronx, the musical club
scene at CGBG in the Bowery. Despite the apparent chaos and disorientation
associated with these youthful escapades, where New York and San Francisco melt
together in a kind of spaced-out blur, the poetâs inner compass is still on
course, as it were: âthe hernia holds to the azimuth maybe weâll get there/gryzha derzhit azimut avosâ doberemsia.â
The life and vitality of the poetâs Ă©migrĂ© youth in New York and San Francisco
is again contrasted (as it was in the opening stanza) with the old age and lifelessness of Moscowâs
party leadership. The decrepit medal-wearing âantipode-forefathers/antipody-pradedyâ of stanza one, who
were first seen slurping their soup through clacking false teeth, have
âprogressedâ here. Now they are the dead remains (the âjaws and bodies/cheliusti i telaâ) of the Soviet
leadership forever âimmured in granite/murovali
v granit.â This variant on the immortality-theme
(hence the repetition in l. 19 of the âthere is no death/smerti netâ refrain) creates a contrast between the quality of
immortality granted the âvictimsâ of stanza one and the implied victimizers of
stanza two. The dusk-to-dawn cycle of the poetâs nocturnal diversions in
America are also being contrasted with the âlate dusk/pozdnie zori,â associated with the âreseda in the party greenhouse/rezeda v parnike partiinom.â In this
latter context late dusk signals (with hindsight) the end of the Soviet era
whereas in the former American context dusk
is a cyclical marker of both the beginning (at sunset) and the end (at
dawn—as the Russian word âzariaâ
can mean either) of the poetâs ânightlife.â
The stanza concludes by
filling in the map of the America being spanned in the poem and by replaying in
another key the poemâs opening line. Now the American heartland (âthe bed of
the missouri/ruslo missuriâ) comes
into view, briefly displacing the bi-coastal cities but tonally aligned with
them in terms of the kind of scene it evokes. The ânymphs crazy for fauns/nimfy na favnov padkiâ is, according to
Tsvetkov himself, a humorous and ironically âlyricalâ allusion to a scene
witnessed by the poet at a Midwestern truckstop – the nymphs being the prostitutes who
approached the truckdrivers (fauns).
Thus the spirit of the Tenderloin makes itself felt across America! In the stanzaâs concluding two lines,
however, we are carried back to New York City while a connection is being made
between the end of the stanza and its beginning and also the poemâs opening
line. Enjoying live music (âunction/eleiâ
– the word has unmistakable religious connotations) at CGBG in summer
blends with hearing a Ramones song (with the refrain âthe kkk took my baby
awayâ) on the radio of a taxicab carrying the poet and a friend over the Triborough
Bridge (referred to in the stanzaâs opening line). In our discussions, Tsvetkov
recalled being in a taxicab with Eduard Limonov and hearing this very song
being played on the radio. The Ramones did in fact perform at CGBG and thus
serve as a connecting link between the club and the bridge. The fact that the
âblue chasm /sinii prolomâ spanned by
this bridge echoes the âchasm/prolomâ
spanned by the Tallahatchie Bridge at the beginning of the poem further
dramatizes the way in which the poetâs restaging of the 1970s is accompanied by
a musical score (Bobbie Gentry and The Ramones) that is diverse and yet
ingeniously coherent. The kkk-refrain
of the Ramones song recalls the alliterative three-word refrain that opens and
closes the poem, kennedy kennedy king.
Although the kkk of the Ramones
refers not to these assassinations but to the Ku Klux Klan, this in itself
reinforces the connection already made in the poemâs opening line between kennedy kennedy king and the âother
victims/prochie zhertvyâ of the 1960s
whose deaths were, directly or indirectly, connected to racism. Curiously, the
Tallahatchie Bridge, which Bobbie Gentryâs song virtually put on the map in
1967 as the site of the fictional Billie Joeâs suicide, was also associated
with a very real racist atrocity, namely, the 1955 murder of the 14-year old
Emmett Till, a young black boy from Chicago whose brutally beaten body had been
thrown into the Tallahatchie River. (The two white men accused of his murder
were acquitted by an all-white male jury). It was, in fact, Tillâs murder that
helped launch the subsequent Civil Rights movement. Since Bobbie Gentry was
herself from this same part of Mississippi, she was surely aware of the
Tallahatchieâs âhistory.â Thus her
composition of an oddly disturbing and enigmatic ballad about death in the
Tallahatchie River might indeed have had a subtext involving racist atrocities.
The songâs mysterious allusions have certainly contributed to endless
speculations: What were Billie Joe and the songâs female first-person narrator
throwing off the bridge? Did the narrator feel responsible in some way for
Billy Joeâs suicide? These were
some of the questions raised by the song, but the irony is, of course, that
they reflect the kinds of troubled emotions of upset and guilt that did not
seem to have affected the murderers of Emmett Till. Although Emmett Till was a
name that Americans of a certain generation would indeed connect with racist
violence, they would probably not have associated him with the Tallahatchie
River. The Billie Joe suicide echoes the Till murder by virtue of its being a
violent death without âclosure.â Finally, it is the marked repetition of the
noun prolom (translated as chasm) in regard to the two bridges, the
Tallahatchie and the Triborough (in lines 2 and 23), that calls attention to
these escalating interconnections – the full extent of which even
Tsvetkov himself may not have been aware of. Thus the poem has a particularly
complex and ingenious resonance for an informed American reader.
The poemâs third and final
stanza moves away from the geographically and experientially specific
recollections of the preceding two stanzas in order to reflect more generally
and philosophically on the poetâs âplaceâ in the universe of space and time.
The polarities of the two contrasting worlds — the demarcation between
the here and the there that inscribed the poetâs initial emigration experience
— now give way to a more detached and lightly ironic attitude to whatever
world posterity will link him to.
Stated in another way, the final stanza reflects Tsvetkovâs point of view in
the present of the poemâs composition
(2005) rather than in the past (the
1970s) that it nostalgically but unsentimentally recalls. The fact that the
Lord he addresses is globalized as the âlord of all the universes/gospodâ vsekh vselennykhâ serves to
minimize either the necessity or the desirability of affixing any particular
national or cultural label to the poet. Moreover, the poetâs self-description
as an âenchanted resident in thy healing groves/ocharovannyi zhitelâ v roshchakh tvoikh tselebnykhâ further attests
to his resistance to narrow definitions of nationality and citizenship,
although his amusing claim that the Lord should âgoogle [him]â to see what the
Internet says about his citizenship
suggests that 1) the Internet would provide plenty of information but that 2)
none of it would be definitive
– nor should it be. The reference here to googling necessarily recalls the earlier reference (in l. 4) to
Bobbie Gentryâs âdisappearanceâ into the Internet and thus further highlights
the poetâs irony in regard to his own âstatusâ in an alternate medium. The immortality-theme, however, also
reasserts itself despite the humorous juxtaposition of high and low, of
Tsvetkovâs âgodâ and googling. It is
also obvious that in the last stanza the poet is presenting himself as a poet
rather than as the âwildâ (and newly emigrated) young man of the first two
stanzas. The fact that Tsvetkovâs self-reference as an âenchanted residentâ (of
all the lordâs universes) recalls Nikolai Leskovâs âenchanted wandererâ also
serves to reinforce the idea that his âwanderingsâ (both across oceans and
bi-coastally) reflect his own mixed âcitizenship.â His further self-characterization as a âconnoisseur of
nymphs and a nimrod of rare rhymes/degustator
nimf i redkikh rifm nimrodâ advertises his poetic skills but in terms that
humorously echo the self-indulgent pastimes alluded to earlier. Heâs still âon
the prowl,â as it were, but now as a âhunter/nimrod of rare
rhymes.â Moreover, his claim to connoisseurship in regard to nymphs is ironic in view of his earlier
use of this poetic clichĂ© to refer to truck-stop prostitutes.
The subsequent lines (29-30)
and what they convey about light
serve to minimize the ultimate human importance of the kinds of polarities
typically associated with the emigration experience: the here versus the there,
Russian versus American, etc. Light shining through the branches of a tree is identical regardless of what kind of
tree it is (the ginkgo or the hickory) and which place it is native to
(China or North America, respectively), and all bones look alike on an X-ray.
This idea is reinforced further by the subsequent reference to the âsecret of
the two oceansâ that the poet claims, in mock-seer fashion, he âhas returned to
reveal.â Although the allusion here to the title of Grigorii Adamovâs
science-fiction novel serves to make light of the poetâs claims to visionary
status, the actual secret that then
unfolds is not treated ironically: âthe horizon is uninhabited as before and
there is no death/gorizont bezliuden kak
byl i smerti net.â Thus the
historical specificity of the poemâs first two stanzas yields here to a sense
of eternal continuum. Although the physical immortality offered by Eden does not
exist, immortality does — but in variant forms. The earlier âlord of all
the universesâ now appears as the creator-God of Genesis, who first âlit the
light/svet,â and who thus bears a
responsibility to the world/svet he
created. Furthermore, the humankind he created or, perhaps more particularly,
the poet-creator himself, has a responsibility of a different kind, which is to
engage with the world and not to seek refuge in âthe semi-darkness of
astrolabes and ancient books/ne uiti v
polutâmu astroliabii i vetkhikh knig.â Given that the poet next places
himself in a prosaic urban setting, looking out his window at a parking lot
where children are playing, he appears to be demonstrating that he has indeed
not sought that kind of refuge. The kennedy
kennedy king refrain that ends the poem is now freed of its earlier
exclusive associations with historical specificity, namely, the
assassination-ridden 1960s, and made to evoke the timeless rhymes and chanting
sounds of children at play.
To conclude, the truth of the âthere is no deathâ refrain
is upheld despite its parallel truth
of death and mortality. The poem kennedy
kennedy king celebrates immortality in all its manifestations – the
new life promised by emigration, the âafter-lifeâ made possible by the Internet,
the inscription (and seeming neutralization) of horrific events in childrenâs
rhymes, the timeless continuum and reversal of life and nature, night and day,
birth and death, old age and youth. Such imperfect immortality is a reminder
– perhaps ironic, perhaps not – that immortality may have been
forfeited in its edenic manifestation but that it still lives on as reassuring
âimitationsâ of a spiritual absolute that may not exist but is hard to forget.
april twenty third
учи не учи
месит сено с
кто тут обитает
он лежит в
чем прожил с
на лучшей из
за гранью мер
15 стынет взор
века куда не
может все уже
он им пел как
семь суббот в
25 изваял им
любое имя и
и автора нет
ночь и в
30 за щеколду
где не одна
но и двух не
где без снов
зла и добра и
море и реки
40 ибо с
светом ума и
в ужас но не
в тишине где
не было бога
april twenty third saw the
guests off and lay down
the whole day like rain
water in slippery foliage
dries out in the wind the
following the last light
sets over the torn-up river
5 jonsonâs off back to london
that daughter just try teaching her
rolling in the hay with
quiney but the time ahead is straight
midnight makes a hard bed
of cosmic rays
upon the scepterâd isle in
the silver sea
he crowned the tongueless
with speech and gesture but these days thereâs no
10 prompter of hired passions
for those who dwell here
guarded by planets faithful
he lies in what heâs lived
in since morning shakespeare takes a rest
on the better of the two
beds past measure of measures
in the house the lord mayor
erected for him
15 the gaze goes cold for whom
the dayâs return is forbidden
centuries will make their
road through stratford to where he didnât survive
even if before the profit
was often a glass in a pub
he who can do anything now
owes nothing to anyone
but he always paid in full
went for a second round
20 with the exact gold coin of
the word on stage the expense is covered
he stamped out speech for
them which will be carried
from the floodplains of the
missouri even unto the bogs of the euphrates
always before him lizbeth
and the northern barbarian james
he sang to them like an ox
to make seven saturdays a week
25 carved out for them any
name and every gesture
in this demi-paradise in
his other eden
that all might have the
means to live for thousands of years
even if the prompter has
fallen silent and there is no author
but as long as itâs night
and thereâs not a light in the town
30 touching the latch gingerly
tenderly it must be judith
her silhouette stealing and
darting past the windowM
into the room where sheâs
not alone but where two shall not be
where dreamless athwart the
bed sleeps the master
of half the world and more
the singer on his deathbed
35 compiler of a planet which
with tribes of evil and
good and with us too
just before his departure
from on high he can see
agincourt and verona the
bohemian sea and the rivers
of all nations in which
there is a share of his blame
40 for with supreme light of
mind and gift of speech
the entire world plunged
into horror but no kinder for it
is in silence where there
was no god and shakespeare is dead
l. 1 april twenty third: The day on which,
according to tradition, William Shakespeare was born in 1564 and also died, in
saw the guests off and lay down: No pronoun is provided, which is more normal in
Russian than in English, but it creates an ambiguity, since the understood
pronoun could be either âheâ or âI.â
In our discussion, Tsvetkov indicated that he considers the pronoun to
l. 5 jonsonâs off back to london: The poet
and playwright Ben Jonson (1572-1637), a close friend of Shakespeare. One
version of Shakespeareâs death has it that carousing with Jonson brought on a
fever from which he died.
ll. 5-6 that daughter . . . rolling in the hay with
quiney: Shakespeareâs younger daughter Judith (1585-1662) married Thomas
Quiney on 10 February 1616. There was an immediate scandal because of Quineyâs
sexual misdemeanors, supposedly leading Shakespeare to modify the will he had
made in January 1616 so as to avoid leaving anything substantial to Judith and
l. 8 the scepterâd isle in the silver sea: A
conflated quotation from the most famous apostrophe ever addressed to England
as a country, by John of Gaunt in King
Richard II, act ii, scene 1 (âThis
royal throne of kings, this scepterâd isle, / [. . .] This precious stone set
in the silver seaâ). Tsvetkov notes that few Russian readers are familiar with
Shakespeareâs history plays, so that this allusion would be far more obscure in
l. 12 shakespeare takes a rest: The phrase
âshakespeare takes a restâ is the title of the collection in which this poem
appears. In the context of the poem, the meaning is unambiguous, but as a title
standing alone, the phrase also has the slang meaning âShakespeare canât
compete.â The title elicited some
critical comment in Russian journals. Tsvetkov disavows any serious intention
of slighting Shakespeare with this title.
l. 13 on the better of two beds: In his will,
Shakespeare notoriously left his âsecond-best bedâ to his wife; it has been
pointed out that the best bed, on which he lies here, would be regarded as part
of the immovable goods and chattels belonging to the house, and that no
denigration is implied in the bequest.
past measure of measures: The phrase âza
granâiu merâ echoes the title of Measure
for Measure (Russian Mera za meru).
l. 14 in the house the lord mayor erected for him:
The house referred to is New Place, the rather grand property near the center
of Stratford-on-Avon, in fact the second largest house in the town, whose
purchase was finalized by the now prosperous and respectable Shakespeare in
1602. The house was built by Hugh Clopton (c. 1440-1496), Lord Mayor of the
City of London in 1491-92. Strictly speaking, the Lord Mayor did not build the
house for Shakespeare, but for himself. One can only say that he built it for
Shakespeare in the sense that it was preordained that Shakespeare would
eventually live there.
l. 21 he stamped out speech: The verb used
here, âchekanitâ,â can be used to
mean âmintingâ or âcoining,â but Tsvetkov maintains that the association for
him was with the expression for marching in goose step, âchekanitâ shag.â
l. 23 lizbeth and the northern barbarian james:
A reference to the two monarchs in whose reigns Shakespeare worked, Elizabeth I
(reigned 1558-1603) and James I (1603-25). James is called âthe northern
barbarianâ presumably because he was a Scotsman (he was King James VI of
Scotland before ascending the throne of England and Ireland in 1603), the
epithet presumably ironic in view of this manâs remarkably high level of
intellectual attainment. Geohumoral theory (regionally framed humoralism)
regarding Northerners like the Scots was quite complex during the period; James
and his admirers did a great deal to rehabilitate the popular view of the
Scots, who were often slandered as barbarous prior to his reign. See Mary
Floyd-Wilson, English Ethnicity and Race
in Early Modern Drama (2003).
Thanks to Natasha Korda, Associate Professor of English, Wesleyan University,
for this reference.
l. 24 seven saturdays a week: A reference to
Saturdays as days of leisure. Also a contamination of the Russian idiom âu nego semâ piatnits na nedele,â âhe has
seven Fridays a week,â meaning âhe keeps changing his mind.â
l. 26 his other eden: A reference to the
apostrophe to England by John of Gaunt in King
Richard II, act ii, scene 1 (see commentary to l. 8).
l. 38 agincourt and verona the bohemian sea:
The battle of Agincourt features in the action of King Henry V; Verona is the setting of Two Gentlemen of Verona and Romeo
and Juliet; a stage direction for act III, scene iii of The Winterâs Tale reads: âBohemia. A
desert Country near the sea.â
l. 42 there was no god and shakespeare is dead:
In view of the fact that the epigraph to the collection shakespeare takes a rest is from the Prologue to Nietzscheâs Thus Spoke Zarathustra, some readers
have seen this as a reference to the pronouncement in that same Prologue that
âGod is dead.â
The most striking formal element of this poem is the
14-line stanza, which rhymes each time according to the same scheme: aBaBcDcDeFeFgg. An Anglophone reader attuned
to poetic tradition immediately recognizes this sequence as that of the
Shakespearean sonnet. Russian readers are less familiar with the form, since
Russian poets have always preferred the Petrarchan sonnet, with its stricter rhyming and syntactic requirements.
Curiously, Tsvetkov was astonished to hear that his
American and British readers connected this poem to the Shakespearean sonnet.
In his view, a sonnet is by definition written in iambs, so this poem could not
qualify. Tsvetkovâs argument rests on firm ground; the overwhelming majority of
Russian sonnets are indeed written in either iambic pentameter or iambic
hexameter. (Shakespeareâs own sonnets, with very rare exceptions, are likewise in iambic pentameter.)
However, modern poets have played freely with sonnet conventions. In a poem on
the subject of Shakespeareâs death, it is hard to ignore a rhyme scheme that
completely conforms to a Shakespearean sonnet (whether or not this was the
The poemâs meter is dolânik and thus at odds
with sonnet tradition. Most lines have
five ictuses, though some have only four. The lines feature the same two
rhythmical tendencies that were noted in âkennedy kennedy kingâ: an âanapesticâ
opening and a cadence of w-s-w-w-s-w-s (w=weak, s=strong), e.g. âгосте́й снаряди́л и лёг.â
True to form, Tsvetkov displays particular
inventiveness in his rhymes: до́жил/до́лжен, дже́ймс/же́ст, неде́ле/эде́ме.
The poem âapril twenty thirdâ stands out as
particularly important, in that it contains the phrase that serves as the title
of an entire collection of Tsvetkovâs verse: âShakespeare takes a restâ (âshekspir otdykhaetâ). As a book title,
it is open to numerous interpretations, but in the context of the poem, it
rather straightforwardly describes the central action. On April 23rd, after
seeing off some guests, Shakespeare lies down to rest and dies in his sleep.
Tsvetkov explores the meaning of this death from a
characteristically mobile point of view. The absence of a pronoun in the first
line creates a confusing effect: the subject can be understood as either âheâ
or âI.â The latter reading would allow for the possibility that we hear
Shakespeareâs interior monologue as he lies dying, just as we hear his reported
speech in line 5 (âthat daughter just try teaching her/dochâ uchi ne uchiâ). Moreover, the structure of the opening lines
– a date followed by a report of actions accomplished during the day
– mimics a specific genre of first-person accounts: the diary entry. Line
12, however, refers to Shakespeare in the third person (âhe lies in what heâs
lived in/on lezhit v chem prozhil s utraâ).
In the remainder of the poem, third-person pronouns coexist with snippets of
reported speech (such as âtouching the latch gingerly tenderly it must be
judith/za shchekoldu berezhno nezhno
dolzhno bytâ dzhuditâ). This fundamental ambiguity provokes questions about
the temporal status of the events (such as they are) described in the poem: is
Shakespeare still alive at the beginning of the first stanza? Does the third-person reference and the
phrase âthese days thereâs no prompter/nyne
net [âŠ] sufleraâ indicate that he has died, or does the description of his
daughter Judithâs arrival in the third stanza suggest that life has not yet
left him (âwhere two shall not be/i dvukh ne budetâ)? The invocation of the diary format
further complicates matters. The birth and rapid growth of diary culture during
the Renaissance – from Italy to England – has been linked by
cultural historians to the development of an individual self-consciousness;[i]
to account for oneâs time at the end of the day by turning life into text is to
attempt to leave a lasting trace of oneâs being.[ii] The gesture toward the diary form,
understood in this way, lends dramatic irony to Shakespeareâs final act of
In keeping with the liminal character of the poem
– the diary bridges the intimate and the public, the spontaneous and the
self-conscious – the lyric narratorâs perspective moves rapidly between
the quotidian and the cosmic. After Shakespeareâs recollection in the first
stanza of his daughterâs affair with the despised Quiney, the narratorâs vision
expands to embrace all England, and extends into a future âwhere he didnât
survive/kuda ne dozhil.â In the second stanza, we see
Shakespeare in a pub, turning out verse in exchange for beer, and producing so
much poetry that he provides âthe means to live/zhitâ po sredstvamâ not just for himself but for all humankind,
long after his death. In the last stanza, Judith steals into the house after
seeing Quiney, continuing the earlier subplot of petty household squabbles, but
the poem concludes with a global statement about Shakespeareâs achievement: he
is, godlike, the creator of a planet and its peoples.
The final lines seem to reflect a secular humanist
exaltation of the author, possibly a refutation of postmodern claims about âthe
death of the author,â which Tsvetkov evokes with the phrase âthere is no
authorâ at the end of stanza two.[iii] The world created by Shakespeare,
according to the poem, is in fact the world we inhabit – certainly that
âhalf the world/polumirâ that speaks
the English language, but beyond that as well, since the âspeechâ that
Shakespeare âstamped outâ for his countrymen (chekanil im rechâ) is being made comprehensible to a Russian reader
who may know no English but can read this poem. In a world âwhere there was no
god/gde ne bylo bogaâ Shakespeare
becomes a kind of divinity, a feat he seems to have accomplished precisely by
mastering language as an instrument of national, and self-, creation. In his
work on translating Hamlet into
Russian and in his responses to our questions about the poem (as well as in
other remarks on Shakespeareâs status on his blog and in his essays), Tsvetkov
insists upon the existence of a coherent worldview and vision that derives from
a single figure named William Shakespeare and animates that writerâs texts.
According to Tsvetkov, the poem is, at least in part, a polemical response to a
widely-read book by Ilya Gililov that argued against attributing Shakespeareâs
masterpieces to the man from Stratford.[iv]
Yet just as the diaristâs attempt to keep death at bay
is displaced by an (almost) omniscient third-person voice for whom, in the
poemâs last line, Shakespeare really is
the poemâs vision of an authorâs status is a somber one. The poet who âsings
like an ox/pel kak volâ for the
powers that be is described starkly as a âprompter of hired passions/platnykh strastei suflera,â and the
poemâs depiction of the (pernicious) interdependence of aesthetic and economic
energies further underlines the socially-constructed, unglamorously
historicized nature of the performance that assured Shakespeareâs fame.[vi] The language that allows Shakespeare to
create his (our) world proves, in the end, powerless to effect a
transfiguration of human reality: for all the enlightenment Shakespeare has
bequeathed us, the world has not grown kinder (l. 41).[vii] And as a supreme creator, Shakespeare,
like Christ in âdialogue between christ and a sinful soul,â and like the entity
who âlit the lightâ at the end of âkennedy kennedy king,â bears some blame for
this state of the world. The poem brings two of Tsvetkovâs major themes - death
and God - to bear on each other with the help of a poetic form conventionally
used to explore the third, love (sonnets). Tsvetkov lays bare the stakes of
poetic creation but suspends final judgment about literatureâs future by
rendering the demise of the author both inevitable and infinitely deferred:
Shakespeare is, after all, just taking a rest.
dialogue between christ and a sinful soul
Sound file: dialogue.mp3
стоишь у врат
жизни в канун
5 век твой
душа как ты
жила на свете
точно ли ты
из тех кому
почитала ли родных
10 достойно ли
в судный час
отец мой к
жила как сама
закон зуб за
зуб око за
ты ли это
милости а не
так не суди
в дар но не в
со свиньями в
где я исчезну
не верю в
всё равно я
не сущность а
меня оставь в
кто ты душа
всего добра а
а отец сына
35 за все чужие
будут и были
какие вам не
тех пор в
и не бог вам а
кто погряз в
40 тот меня на
здесь не зуб
за зуб а за
вокруг не бог
вам враг но
45 кайся душа
пока тело не
да читала у
этих со львом
что был де
жертвы да в
50 быть без
греха чтобы в
если бог то
не под силу
и если эти
ты сказал там
не судите да
55 нынче в
конце дней на
тебя на слове
пусть в аду
на кресте с
ни на ком нет
dialogue between christ and a sinful soul
so now human soul you stand
at heavenâs gate
seems your body sent you off
when it was dying
sweet is the fruit of a
righteous life on the eve of its demise
only an evildoer has no cause
5 the life you ledâs no secret
itâs all accounted for
so soul tell the story of
your life in the world
are you in fact one of those
for whom we seek salvation
did you pray fervently give
alms to the poor
did you respect your kinsmen
temples and thrones
10 did you keep christâs
commandments in a worthy way
i see your brow darkening
cast off your pride before
heaven if only at the hour of judgment
my father is merciful to the
fallen who are meek in spirit
turn your gaze inward let
your hearing pierce your hear
15 answer unto your lord why did
i acted and lived as i
decided for myself
if your law is a tooth for a
tooth an eye for an eye
then the renaissance and the
baroque labored in vain
i forded the vale of hiccups
as best i could
20 to ask finally o lord or
whoever you are
was it you who asked for
mercy and not sacrifice
so judge me not by the
tablets of tin
this heaven i can accept as a
gift but not as a reward
or shout an order to the
25 to cast me down with the
swine into the abyss
prescribe infernal darkness
where i will disappear
insofar as i do not believe
in the reality of our meeting
all the same i am not
substance but a figure of speech
to whimper peccavi domine
and all that sort of
30 leave that to your servants
leave me in peace
who do you think you are soul
to complain cursing the father
heâs the author of everything
good and youâre bare dust
for their faults mortals have
an eye or hand taken away
but the father consigned his
son to torment on the cross
35 for all the faults of others
that will be and were
for lives that are no dearer
to you than dirt
the entire created world
since then bears the scabs of this blood
and itâs not god who chooses
the part you play itâs you
whoever is mired in pride and
has rejected forgiveness
40 has forsaken me on the cross
truth is disappearing from
the world bit by bit
now itâs not a tooth for a
tooth but a leg for a toenail
is it meet to sin and cast
the blame on high
take a look around itâs not
god who is your enemy but you
45 repent soul before your body
is a corpse under a lid
sure i read in those lion and
that you were quote crucified
and rose again on the third day
only why now turn straight
from victim into judge
signing warrants with your
50 being without sin so as to
cast stones at sinners
if you are god you could have
forgiven without a cross just like that
if youâre not up to being a
doctor at least be an orderly
and if these books of yours
are so essential
youâre the one who said judge
not that ye be not judged
55 today at the end of my days
on their precipitous slope
iâll permit myself to take
you at your word
let me be nailed to a cross
in hell with two others for company
as atonement for godâs
forever with an inscription
in letters plain to see
60 the court is adjourned and
nobody is guilty
Epigraph mementote peccatores: First words of an oratorio by Marc-Antoine
Charpentier (1634-1704), Dialogus inter
Christum et peccatores (Dialogue between Christ and sinners). The text, by
the Jesuit Father Commire, takes the form of a dialogue between Christ and
repentant sinners. It is sufficiently important to the poem that we quote it in
full (the Latin original is followed by an English translation).
Dialogus inter Christum et
peccatores, mementote quid fecerim vobis. Nonne vos creavi, nonne servavi,
nonne nutrivi, nonne vos fovi sicut aquila provocans ad volandum pullos suos et
super eos volitans?
Vos autem, incrassati et
impugnati, dereliquistis Deum creatorem servatorem et patrem vostrum.
Ah cor durum, ah cor ingratum,
cor saxeum haeccine reddis Deo, creatori tuo?
Quis capiti meo dabit aquam et
oculis meis fontem lacrymarum ut plorem et dicam: peccavi Domine, sed miserere
Heu! stupiditas cordis mei,
heu! mentis meae caecitas infesta!
Sic vivo, sic puto, sic loquor
et ago, quasi solum circa coeli sphaeras occupatus ambulares de me autem non
Ah cor durum, ah cor ingratum,
cor saxeum, haeccine reddis Deo, creatori tuo?
Peccavi Domine, peccavi
multum. Erubescit vultus meus nec audeo respicere in coelum prae multitudeine
iniquitatis meae. Agnosco vulnera mea, confiteor tibi Jesu bone, Jesu misericors,
horret vultus meus sordes animae meae; ingemiscit cor meum, confectus est
moerore spiritus meus, commota sunt viscera mea et contritio mea magna est
Parce Domine, parce Jesu
mitissime et ne despicias me in humilitate mea.
Factae sunt lacrymae meae
potus meus et cineres refectio mea. Miserere Domine, miserere paenitentis,
miserere Domine, miserere!
Convertere Deus mitis,
convertere aliquantulum ne irascaris mihi amplius. Non, non, non ultra peccabo
in te, non, non, non ultra.
Parce Domine, parce Jesu
mitissime et ne despicias me in humilitate mea.
between Christ and sinners
Remember, sinners. Remember what I have done for you. Did I not create
you? Did I not save you? Did I not nourish you? Did I not cherish you as the eagle,
encouraging his chicks to fly and flying always above them?
you, grown fat and without provocation, have deserted God, your creator, your
savior, and your father.
hard heart! O ungrateful
heart! O heart of stone, is this
how you repay God, your creator?
will give water to my head and a fountain of tears to my eyes that I might weep
and say, âI have sinned, lord, but pity me.â
for the dullness of my heart! Alas
for the destructive blindness of my mind!
live, I reckon, I speak, and I act as if you walked caring only about the
spheres of heaven but did not take thought for me.
hard heart! O ungrateful
heart! O heart of stone, is this
how you repay God, your creator?
have sinned, Lord; I have sinned much. My countenance blushes, and I do not
dare to look up to the heavens because of the greatness of my injustice.
acknowledge my wounds; I confess to you, good Jesus, merciful Jesus: my
countenance shudders at the filth of my soul. My heart groans; my spirit is
consumed by sorrow; my vitals are
thrown into confusion and my contrition is great indeed.
me, Lord! Spare me, Jesus most
gentle, and do not despise me in my lowness.
have become my drink and ashes my sustenance.
Lord! Pity a penitent! Pity, Lord! Pity!
gentle God! Change a little, lest
you be angry with me any more. No. No. I will sin no more against you. No. No.
me, Lord! Spare me, Jesus most
gentle, and do not despise me in my lowness.
translation courtesy of Andrew Feldherr, Classics Department, Princeton
l. 6 tell the story of your life in the world: Christ as judge is evoked
numerous times in the Gospels, including John 5:26-30: âFor as the Father hath
life in himself; so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself; And hath
given him authority to execute judgment also, because he is the Son of man.
Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the
graves shall hear his voice, And shall come forth; they that have done good,
unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the
resurrection of damnation. I can of mine own self do nothing: as I hear, I
judge: and my judgment is just; because I seek not mine own will, but the will
of the Father which hath sent me.â[viii]
l. 9 temples and thrones: See Colossians 1:16: âFor by him were all
things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and
invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers:
all things were created by him, and for him.â Colossians 1:15-20 is known as the âChrist hymn.â
l. 10 christâs commandments: Christâs commandments incorporate the
commandments of the God of Israel. When asked by a young man, âGood Master,
what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?â Jesus responds, âIf
thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments,â referring to the
commandments handed down by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. Pressed by the young
man to specify which ones, Jesus says, âThou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not
commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness,
Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyselfâ
(Matthew 19:16-19). When the young man continues to press him, Jesus adds his
own commandment: âIf thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give
to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow meâ
(Matthew 19:21; see also Mark 10:17-22). In the gospel of John, Jesus says, âIf
ye love me, keep my commandmentsâ (John 14:15). In John 13, Jesus offers what
he calls a ânew commandmentâ: âThat ye love one another; as I have loved you,
that ye also love one another.â
l. 14 let your hearing pierce your heart: In the Russian the use of the
word âslukhâ (âhearingâ) as the subject of âpierce your heartâ is very
unconventional. It may allude to the many instances in which Jesus refers to
the faculty of hearing, as for example Mark 4:9 and 23, where Jesus says in
reference to the parable of the sower: âHe that hath ears to hear, let him
l. 17 a tooth for a tooth an eye for an eye: A reference to the âlex
talionis,â found in the Code of Hammurabi, King of Babylon (ruled ca. 1796 BCE
– 1750 BCE). In the Hebrew Bible, it appears numerous times, for example:
âAnd if a man cause a blemish in his neighbour; as he hath done, so shall it be
done to him; Breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth: as he hath caused
a blemish in a man, so shall it be done to him againâ (Leviticus 24:19-20; see
also Exodus 21:23-24 and Deuteronomy 19:21). The law was intended as a means of
putting limits on vengeance, restricting it to punishment that would be no
worse than the crime. In the Gospels, Jesus offers a new type of response to
injury, based on forgiveness rather than retribution. In the Sermon on the Mount, he says: âYe have heard that it
hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you,
That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek,
turn to him the other alsoâ (Matthew 5:38-39; see also Luke 6:29-30). In the
context of Tsvetkovâs dialogue, the sinner is reproaching Jesus for seemingly
abandoning âgraceâ for the âlaw.â
l. 19 vale of hiccups: An ironic twist on the expression âvale of tears,â
which appears in both the Russian and Roman Catholic (Douay-Rheims) Bibles in
Psalm 83:7 (compare the King James Bible, Psalm 84:6). The expression also
evokes the reference in Psalm 23 to the valley of the shadow of death. Tsvetkov
glosses the phrase as âWhen you cry for a long time you start hiccuping.â
Tsvetkov had used the same phrase in a much earlier poem, âsudâba byla
l. 21 was it you who asked for mercy and not sacrifice: When the
Pharisees ask Jesus why he eats with publicans and sinners, he answers, âThey
that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. But go ye and learn
what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to
call the righteous, but sinners to repentanceâ (Matthew 9:12-13).
l. 22 tablets of tin: An ironic reference to the stone tablets on which
the Lord gave the law and the commandments to Moses (Exodus 24:12, 34:1, 4).
l. 25 to cast me down with the swine into the abyss: The story of the
Gadarene (Gerasene) swine. Jesus met a man possessed by demons; he ordered the
demons to enter into the swine, âand the unclean spirits went out, and entered
into the swine: and the herd ran violently down a steep place into the sea,
(they were about two thousand;) and were choked in the seaâ (Mark 5:1-16). The version
of this story found in Luke 8:32-36 serves as the epigraph to Dostoevskyâs
1871-72 novel translated as either The
Demons or The Possessed (Besy). The
full story is found in Matthew 8:28-34, Mark 5:1-20, and Luke 8:26-39.
l. 29 peccavi domine: âI have sinned, Lord.â Repeated by the sinners in Part 2 of Charpentierâs oratorio
(see commentary to Epigraph).
l. 46 those lion and book guys: Tradition assigns symbols to each of the
four Evangelists, based on the âfour beastsâ mentioned in Revelation 4:7 (âAnd the first beast was like a lion,
and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and
the fourth beast was like a flying eagleâ). The lion is traditionally the
symbol for Mark. Often the Evangelists are portrayed in dual guise, both as the
âbeastâ with which they are associated and as humans in the act of writing or
holding a book.
l. 52 if youâre not up to being a doctor at least be an orderly: An
ironic reference to the fact that much of Jesusâs activity in the Gospels relates
to healing and even to bringing the dead back to life (thus the epithet âChrist
the great physicianâ). See note to 1. 21.
l. 54 judge not that ye be not judged: Matthew 7:1, also from the Sermon
on the Mount (see also Luke 6:37).
l. 57 with two others for company: At the Crucifixion, Jesus was executed
along with two common criminals (Matthew 27:38, Mark 15:27, Luke 24:32-33, John
l. 59 with an inscription in letters plain to see: A reference to the
mocking inscription above Jesusâs head during the Crucifixion, âthe King of the
Jewsâ (Matthew 27:37, Mark 15:25-26, Luke 23:38, John 19:19).
l. 60 the court is adjourned: In the Russian, the word for court, âsud,â is the same word as âjudgmentâ in
the Last Judgment, âStrashnyi sud,â
literally âthe terrible judgment.â The emphasis in the poem is on Christâs role
as judge (see note to l. 6).
To accommodate the dialogue
genre, which has its roots in Western culture of the medieval period (mediated
in the case of this poem by the baroque), Tsvetkov chooses a form with a
distinctly archaic sound: syllabic verse. Based on western models, syllabic
versification became the standard system of Russian literary poetry in the
period c. 1660-1735, but it fell into oblivion (and even disrepute) as a result
of the reforms associated with Vasilii Trediakovskii and Mikhailo Lomonosov. No
poet before Tsvetkov has ever sought to resurrect the form in a serious way. As
a point of comparison, one might look at the very loose
stylization of syllabics in Joseph Brodskyâs 1967 poem âK stikhamâ (with an epigraph from Kantemir). See Sochineniia Iosifa Brodskogo,
Sankt-Peterburg, 1998, vol. 2, p. 191.
It is conceivable that Tsvetkovâs interest in syllabic verse also reflects his readings of the Polish poet BolesĆaw LeĆmian (1878?â1937), whom he greatly admires (see interview below). Polish poetry, of course, continues to use syllabic verse to the present day.
Russian syllabic verse was
almost invariably written in rhymed feminine couplets, and the 13-syllable line
was one of the favorite measures. Tsvetkov follows this example, yet his lines
diverge from historical precedent in important ways. Eighteenth-century poets
relied on a caesura (after the seventh syllable in a thirteen-syllable line),
thus breaking each line into two distinct parts
and introducing (especially in the second) a trochaic tendency. In Tsvetkovâs
lines there is no caesura and no trochaic tendency. The ratio of stressed to
unstressed syllables in his poem is 1:2.59, which is close to the ratio that
occurs in non-metrical Russian.
With the exception of the two
final lines (which are clearly set off to emphasize closure), Tsvetkov follows tradition
by using only feminine rhymes. However, rhyme in traditional Russian syllabic verse was nothing more
than a way to highlight the end of a
line. Euphony (rather than originality) was the goal. In contrast, Tsvetkovâs anti-grammatical, phonetically inexact rhymes reflect
centuries of poetic evolution (as well as his own proclivity to search for the unexpected
and unprecedented, e.g.
In terms of the broader structure of the work, each of the speakers is given two
fifteen-line stanzas. However, it is
striking that the soul both gets the last word and even âinterruptsâ each
of Christâs speeches by giving the second line of a couplet that Christ begins
(in each case, this is a rare instance of grammatical rhyme: греши́ла/реши́ла, кры́шкой/кни́жкой). In contrast, the soulâs speeches end in complete
During his Princeton
interview, Aleksei Tsvetkov identified love, death, and God as key themes in
his poetry and clarified his relation to these themes as follows:
itâs probably in the biographical details simply. I was for years a Roman
CatholicâŠ. If I have to specify, Iâm definitely a Christian atheist, in a more
narrow sense a Catholic atheist. Thereâs no point in being an Orthodox atheist,
I never was an Orthodox, and besides, it doesnât have any theory, any doctrine
Oxymoronic as the terms
âChristian atheistâ and âCatholic atheistâ might seem, they nonetheless
encapsulate the issues that form the intellectual structure of Tsvetkovâs poem
âdialogue between christ and a sinful soulâ: a struggle between belief and
non-belief; an examination of the nature and process of redemption; and an
implicit weighing of the Western Christian or Roman Catholic tradition against
the Eastern Christian or Russian Orthodox tradition.
poem emerges from a distinctly Western Christian source, the motet âDialogus inter Christum et peccatoresâ
(âDialogue between Christ and sinnersâ) by
Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1634-1704). The
Latin text for the motet was written by the well-known Jesuit Jean Commire, and
Charpentier himself served as the maĂźtre
de musique at the principal Jesuit church in Paris, LâĂglise St. Louis,
thus linking the motet to the most scholarly, analytical branch of the Catholic
Church.[ix] In our interview, Tsvetkov maintains
that he became Catholic rather than Orthodox because of the Jesuit intellectual
tradition, asserting, âI use my head in anything I do,â and then adding by way
of contrast with Russian Orthodoxy, âIf thereâs a theory in Orthodoxy, itâs
that you shouldnât [use your head].â
Developing a similar line of comparison in a scholarly vein, denoting
practitioners of the Eastern Christian tradition as âGreeksâ and those of the
Western Christian tradition as âLatins,â Timothy Ware writes in his study The Orthodox Church:
the start Greeks and Latins had each approached the Christian Mystery in their
own way. The Latin approach was more practical, the Greek more speculative;
Latin thought was influenced by juridical ideas, by the concepts of Roman law,
while the Greeks understood theology in the context of worshipâŠ. When
reflecting on the Crucifixion, Latins thought primarily of Christ the victim,
Greeks of Christ the Victor; Latins talked more of redemption, Greeks of
deification [of the whole world], and so on. âŠThese two distinctive approaches
were not themselves contradictory; each served to supplement the other, and
each had its place in the fullness of [the Christian] tradition.[x]
It is clear that Tsvetkov
does not embrace Orthodoxy. At the same time, a number of the issues that
trouble the âsoulâ in the âdialogue between christ and a sinful soulâ relate to
peculiarities of the Western Christian tradition: its âjuridical ideas,â its
emphasis on quid pro quo in the
redemptive process, on Christ as a victim, and on individual redemption as
opposed to universal deification. These problems would perhaps not be resolved,
but would be ameliorated by adherence to the less scholarly, less
rationalistic, and more holistic approach of the Eastern tradition, although
the most tormenting issue of belief versus non-belief would remain.
Both Charpentierâs and
Tsvetkovâs dialogues reflect the practice of religious meditation propounded in
such works as the Spiritual Exercises of
St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, and Spiritual Combat by Lorenzo Scupoli. The process of religious
meditation follows a threefold progression from memory (hence, âmementote
peccatoresâ – âremember, sinnersâ), to understanding, to will,
this last stage often embodied in a colloquy
or dialogue, very likely with Christ, or in a straightforward statement of
belief or religious ecstasy. [xi] Many European cultures developed forms
of poetry based on religious meditation: John Donne, Edward Young and the
âGraveyard Poetsâ in English; Opitz, Gryphius, and Angelus Silesius and other
practitioners of the Gedankenlyrik in
German; and in the Russian or Russian-Ukrainian context, Gregorii Skovoroda and
Dmitrii Rostovskii, who prefigured Tsvetkov in their use of poetic âdialoguesâ
or âconversationsâ to examine issues of belief, their use of syllabic verse,
and their tendency to ignore established strictures of style and lexicon. The
Russian tradition then passes to Mikhailo Lomonosov and, in more diffuse form,
to Derzhavin, Tiutchev, Boratynsky, Zabolotsky, and Brodsky, all mentioned by
Tsvetkov in Princeton as being of special importance to him, especially the
Tsvetkov uses the first words
of Charpentierâs motet, Christâs admonition âmementote
peccatores,â as the epigraph of his poem and follows Charpentierâs dialogic
form while altering it slightly to suit his own purposes. Tsvetkovâs dialogue
comprises four 15-line utterances alternating between Christ and âthe soul,â
while Charpentierâs motet has a prose text and features Christ only in the
opening, followed by two segments in which âthe sinnersâ respond. Charpentierâs
sinners express profound contrition, attributing their sins to the âdestructive
blindnessâ of their minds, while – and this is a major difference –
Tsvetkovâs soul, engaging in testy point by point arguments with Christ in the
manner of a Jesuitical debate, neither confesses her sins nor expresses
contrition of any kind. (Although the role of the soul within the dialogue does
not suggest any particular assumptions about gender, it seems appropriate to
represent the grammatically feminine dusha
[soul] with feminine pronouns and modifiers in English, as is the case in
the original Russian.)
Turning now to the poem
itself, in the first stanza we see Christ taking a stance that is judgmental,
somewhat pedantic, and at times self-contradictory. He states that the soulâs
life is all accounted for (vse uchteno v
smete) but nonetheless poses the question, âwere you really one of those
for whom we seek salvation/tochno li ty
iz tekh komu spasenâia ishchem,â and then proceeds with an inquisitorial
list of particulars with the ring of a catechism: âdid you prayâŠ did you giveâŠ
did you respectâŠ did you keepâŠâ
блюла заповеди христовы
you pray ardent prayers give alms to the poor
you respect the temples and thrones of your kinsmen
you keep christâs commandments in a worthy way
When Christ states, âmy
father is merciful to the fallen and the meek in spirit/milostiv otets moi k padshim kto smiren dukhom,â he is clearly
trying to elicit a confession from the soul as a step toward redemption, but
his manner verges on bullying rather than mercy. The subsequent line, âturn
your gaze inward and let your hearing pierce your heart/obratisâ vnutrâ ochami pronzi serdtse slukhom,â suggests the use of
the senses in religious meditation to make spiritual experience more immediate.
This technique should, in theory, move the soul voluntarily toward repentance.
This Christ lacks the patience to wait for results, however, and in the final
line of the stanza he reverts to his accusatory role as he demands, âanswer to
your lord why did you sin/otvetâ gospodu
tvoemu zachem greshila.â
In the next stanza in the
soulâs first response — one could even say rebuttal — to Christâs
assertions, the soul argues in the manner of a syllogistic proof: âif your law is tooth for tooth and eye
for eye / then renaissance and
baroque labored in vain/esli tvoi zakon
zub za zub oko za oko / znachit zria
staralisâ renessans i barokko,â which is to say, then neither the brutality nor the legalistic particularity of the
Old Testament has been overcome. As the argument continues, the soul rejects
the notion of quid pro quo inherent
in Christâs demands, as she distinguishes between mercy, which is freely given, and sacrifice, in which a price is paid for something; and between a gift, which is freely given, and a reward, which is provided in response to
a specific act. She asks rhetorically, âwas it you who asked for mercy and not
sacrifice/ty li eto prosil milosti a ne
zhertvy,â making reference to Christâs words in Matthew 9:13, and concludes,
âso judge me not by the tablets of tin/tak
ne sudi menia po skrizhaliam iz zhesti,â which is to say if you yourself asked for freely given
mercy rather than sacrifice, then you
have no right to judge me on the basis of laws or commandments. The flimsy
nature of tin tablets, as opposed to the gravitas of the stone tablets given to
Moses by God, represents a further attack on religious legalism. Likewise, the
soul is willing to accept heaven as a gift, but not as a reward for good
behavior (etot rai mogu priniatâ v dar no
ne v nagradu).
The movement away from a
catechistic, syllogistic approach to faith and redemption is reinforced by
gentle echoes of Dostoevsky. The most obvious echo relates to the story of the
Gadarene swine, which serves as an epigraph for Dostoevskyâs Besy (translated as The Demons or The Possessed). The soul suggests that being
cast into the abyss like the demonic swine would be preferable to gaining
entrance to heaven as a reward for toeing the line. Perhaps more significant,
however, is the echo of Ivan Karamazovâs âpoem,â âThe Grand Inquisitorâ from The Brothers Karamazov, which involves
Jesuits, issues of faith, free will, and salvation, and the murkiness of
reality. In Ivanâs so-called poem (which is written in prose) the aged, and
possibly mad, Inquisitor represents an extreme and distorted version of Jesuit
practice, while Christ represents mercy – demonstrated by the silent kiss
he gives the Inquisitor – and free will. This is the kind of Christ whom
Tsvetkovâs soul seeks, but does not find.
But more than this, in both âThe Grand Inquisitorâ and Tsvetkovâs
âdialogue,â Christâs very identity and existence are questioned. For all that
Tsvetkovâs soul debates Christ using specific passages in the Bible to
substantiate his charges, he nonetheless addresses Christ with the words âo
lord or whoever you are/gospodi ili kto
tyâ and asserts, âi do not believe in the reality of our meeting/ne veriu v realânostâ nashei vstrechi.â The age and possible madness of the
Grand Inquisitor and the instability of Ivan Karamazovâs personality create a
similar hallucinatory effect in âThe Grand Inquisitorâ; a later section of The Brothers Karamazov provides a mirror
image of these issues as Ivan questions the existence of both the devil and God
in his nightmare conversation with the devil.
The story of the Grand
Inquisitor will become relevant again at the end of the poem, but for now we
return to Tsvetkovâs Christ who, following the soulâs confused tirade in the
second stanza, provides his own rebuttal marked by irritation,
self-contradiction, and a clear note of victimhood. He begins by rebuking the
soul for her complaints and asserting that God the father is âthe author of
everything good/avtor vsego dobra.â But then, referring to the soulâs
earlier remark that the law of âtooth for toothâ negated the progress of the
renaissance, he argues that mortals actually have an enviable lot and laments
that in his role as the Son of God, he has been consigned âto torment on the
cross / for all the faults of others that will be and were/a otets syna poslal na krestnuiu muku / za vse chuzhie viny chto budut
i byli.â He whines further
that âthe entire created world bears the scabs of this blood/vse mirozdanâe s tekh por v strupâiakh etoi
krovi.â So much for âthe
author of everything good.â Worse
yet, it is possible that this sacrifice has been in vain, because the soul,
unlike her predecessors in Charpentierâs piece, has yet to make a move toward
confession. As the third stanza closes, Christ again issues an imperative:
ârepent soul before your bodyâs a corpse under a lid/kaisia dusha poka telo ne trup pod kryshkoi.â
None of this proves
compelling for the soul, who turns the tables, arguing in the final stanza that
Christ could forgive âjust like that/zadaromâ
by means of mercy, but has instead focused on legalistic aspects, capitalizing
on his role as victim in order to justify acting as a judge. He signs warrants
âwith stigmata hands/stigmatnymi rukamiâ
and lives without sin not for the sake of virtue, but for the right to cast
stones at others. Much as Christ set out to remind the soul of the necessity of
contrition – âmementote peccatoresâ
– the soul now reminds Christ, âyouâre the one who said judge not that ye
be not judged/ ty skazal tam ne sudite da
ne sudimy.â In closing,
the soul once again turns the tables, this time in an act that combines
self-sacrifice, irony, and hubris: she proposes that she herself take on the
role of Christ and give herself up for crucifixion. There is, however, a catch.
While the New Testament conveys the message that Christ died to atone for the
sins of humanity, the soul turns this message inside out, casting it back into
the Old Testament as she proclaims her readiness to die âto atone for Godâs
vengeance/vo iskuplenâe bozhâei mesti.â
There is yet another reversal
to come, this one hammered home by the sudden switch from the well-established
pattern of feminine rhymes to masculine rhymes in the closing couplet, as the
soul requests an inscription on her cross in letters well visible:
ни на ком нет
an inscription in letters well visible
court is adjourned and nobody is guilty
Instead of an inscription of
identity, âThe King of the Jewsâ as in the crucifixion of Christ, the inscription
requested by the soul does not deny the existence of sin, but eliminates the
legalistic concept of guilt leading to punishment: âcourt is adjourned and
nobody is guilty,â or more literally, âthe court is adjourned and there is no
guilt on anyone at all.â As some
readers see it, this is an affirmation of atheism: Christ is defeated and âthe
soul wins.â This understanding was
confirmed by Tsvetkov himself, who said during our discussion, âOf course the soul wins, because itâs the winning argument.â As noted by other readers,
however, such an understanding recapitulates the irony of the story of the
gospels themselves. The world puts Jesus on trial (the chief priests, the
Romans, and the people who wag their heads at Jesus on the cross and say âIf
you are the Son of God, come down from the crossâ), and yet the life of the
church and world history represented in the resurrection show that the
worldâs judgment of Jesus was really the foolishness of the wise.[xiii]
Another way of understanding
the conclusion — albeit in contrast to Tsvetkovâs own view as expressed
in our discussion — is to see the poem not as a total denial of the possibility of belief, but a denial of
Jesuitical thinking and a corresponding movement toward the precepts of Russian
Orthodoxy. [xiv] The inscription on the soulâs cross can
be seen as leading the poem towards the Orthodox emphasis on deification of the
universe: sin and sinners exist, but there is no guilt on anyone at all because
all are redeemed. [xv] This, of course, is opposed to the
Jesuitical emphasis on a practical, piece by piece, sin by sin and sinner by
sinner approach to exculpation and redemption.
As readers, we do not know
whether or not the soul actually will be crucified, or whether such a
crucifixion would accomplish atonement for Godâs vengeance, the sins of
humanity, or even the soulâs own sins. But the reversal in the line of
argument, the undercutting of the poemâs initial apparent meaning, brings the
poem again into the orbit of âThe Grand Inquisitor.â When the would-be atheist Ivan Karamazov finishes telling
the story, his saintly brother Alyosha likewise reverses the direction of the
all that is absurd!â suddenly exclaimed Alyosha, who had hitherto listened
perplexed and agitated but in profound silence. âYour poem is a glorification
of Christ, not an accusation, as you, perhaps, meant it to be. And who will
believe you when you speak of âfreedomâ? Is it thus that we Christians must
understand it? It is Rome (not all Rome, for that would be unjust), but the
worst of the Roman Catholics, the Inquisitors and Jesuits, that you have been
This is the shifting ground
of belief and non-belief, reality and chimera, and interweaving Christian
traditions, that provides the context for Tsvetkovâs âdialogue between christ
and a sinful soul.â What readers make of it is up to
them – and no one is guilty.
Interview with Aleksei Tsvetkov from 19 June 2008
Q: Tell us about your
compositional technique. Do you think for a long time, then sit down and write?
Do you write poems quickly or slowly?
Is it a process of days and days?
A: It is certainly not days.
It varies, of course, but the most typical situation is this. . . I have to
have a certain space of time in front of me, otherwise I simply cannot do
anything. But if I do, I just sit down and write. I do not necessarily have an
idea. Sometimes itâs a meter, sometimes itâs a very general plot. And I have to
have it finished before I get up, because I never do it in two sittings. It has
to be a kind of instant gratification. Of course, the gratification part is
doubtful because afterwards you seldom understand what you wrote. . . I never
write very long poems because I smoke, and Iâll die much faster than Iâve planned,
but an average sized poem takes an hour and a half, two hours. If the poem is a
bit longer, it lasts almost three hours, but Iâm usually exhausted by that
Q: What about revisions? Do you come back to them later?
A: No, no, no. Just a word or
two; it has to be completely finished. I remember that when I reissued my very
early poems, I corrected some, but never as much as an entire line, for
instance. In two hours I have an entire poem. Now I usually post it.
Q: When we were asking you
about the image of the foliage in the Shakespeare poem, you mentioned that you
donât see the images. Would it be accurate to describe your writing as words on
paper and hearing?
A: Yes, itâs about hearing,
of course, the sound in my mind, but itâs just words. I just put words
together, and maybe I run ahead in the poem and consider what would look nice
in this or that stanza. But I do not visualize anything; itâs only words
— and sound, of course.
Q: You said that when you
came back to writing poetry you tried a few things and you were feeling your
way around, but that youâve finally discovered the themes and things you wanted
to write about and that youâre now exploring them.
A: Well — they kind of
discovered themselves. I do not usually have control over the general topics
that I deal with. People have remarked — and I can see it myself —
that mostly what I write about is love and death . . . and God. I have an
English poem where I expressed it more succinctly:
âbut really all he
gave us from above
was love and death and much
more death than loveâ
So thatâs how it turned out
in the endâŠ I do not have a real border between humorous poetry and serious
poetry, because I use the same devices in both. Some of those [humorous poems]
I include in my books, so they might not necessarily be about these subjects,
but basically, I return to them. As far as the word âdeathâ is concerned, I
believe that I am the Russian poet who uses it the most.
Q: What are the merits of
blogging for poetry?
A: I would have never written
without it. Living under the Soviet regime taught us a certain conspiratorial
life. When I emigrated I still had my soapbox, I still had my friends in the
Soviet Union, so we would write letters and put our new poems in without
breaking them into lines, so that whoever read the letter in between didnât pay
any attention to it. Then weâd wait for a month or so for somebody to say
whether your poem was good or not. I do not believe I could do this today.
Besides, blogging is the only way to deal with the geographical separation.
When I lived in Prague I visited Russia quite often, but now I donât, and this
is the way to keep up with the living language, which is very much of interest
to me. I consider language the ultimate toy. The way it changes is interesting
— even people living in Russia do not quite know what to do with many of
those new words. There are people I know who simply do not notice the changes
that happened during the last 20 or 30 years. Writers in Russia are now
divided. Thereâs a particular vocabulary that some people use, who are called neo-akmeisty [neo-Acmeists] —
which is not really a meaningful term, because I believe akmeisty [Acmeists] never existed. These people more or less follow
the classical tradition. Then there are the ârevolutionaries,â and they use
different vocabularies. I own both, and I do not see that there should be any
division, so usually in my poetry you can find archaic words or curse words. I
mix it up. To follow the actual usage you have to be present in Russia. You can
see it even in Brodskyâs poems, that his vocabulary kind of dries up towards
the end. He didnât know what to do with all those words that he had already put
in as many combinations as possible. I thought it was only my impression, but
many people who like him and his poetry very much, but who live in Russia, say
that this is obvious.
Q: Since you mentioned
Brodsky: did you know him personally?
A: Yes, I knew him, but our
relationship wasnât good. He greeted me in the beginning, and actually his word
was very instrumental with Ardis [Publishers], with Carl and Ellendea
[Proffer]; he said I should be published. But for the rest of his life he never
praised me or said a good word about me — not that I expected this from
him, but it was odd.
Q: And what about his
poetry? You mentioned the later
poetry, but what about the earlier poetry?
A: There are poems of his,
not that many, which I consider among the best in the Russian language. I think
he was a great poet.
Q: Your reference to the pylkie devy [passionate maidens] in
âkennedy kennedy kingâ recalls the idea that Ă©migrĂ©s coming to the United
States have some sort of fantastical visions of what theyâll find. When you
first came to the United States, what most conformed to your expectations and what
most deviated? What came as a
A: What least conformed
— I think this was the experience of everyone from Russia. This drudgery,
this everyday work which everybody hated — people thought that in the
United States you didnât have to do it, but it turned out that here you
actually did. But for me, the atmosphere that I tried to reflect in the poem
âkennedy kennedy king,â — I say âtried,â because I didnât do anything on
purpose, it wrote itself — is the way itâs a new life. You arrive in a
new country where nobody knows you, you have — in my case — no
useful skills. You are like a high school graduate. I was twenty-eight years
old at that stage, so this was kind of the expectation. And then, of course,
you move to San Francisco, which at that point still had some remainders of
Haight-Ashbury and all that stuff, which was very interesting.
Q: Why San Francisco? Why is that the place you chose?
A: Because some of my friends
lived there, and they invited me, and I wasnât going anywhere in New York. I
think I wanted to enter Hunter College, and I think I was accepted, but I
thought better of that, and I decided instead to have a year of rest. They
called me, and I moved to San Francisco, and I liked it much better than
Yonkers, where I had been living.
Q: And how long were you in
A: A year and a half.
Q: And then you went to
Q: Why did you go to
A: Because I was invited.
Sasha Sokolov came to San Francisco, and we met, and we liked each other, and
he brought my poetry to Ardis, Carl [Proffer] gave it to Brodsky, and they told
me to come to Michigan. I didnât have any university diploma; I had studied
many years, but never received a diploma. I had studied chemistry, history,
journalism, and Carl told me I could be accepted for graduate studies on this
basis; they turned it into credits.
Q: And then, did you think
when you did your doctorate that youâd spend the rest of your life as a
professor of Russian literature?
A: I didnât quite understand
all that it would entail. But, of course, I was not averse to the idea. And, in
fact, when I taught for a few years at Dickinson College [in Carlisle,
Pennsylvania], I liked the job itself, even though there were many stupid
students, but those that were not really made it worthwhile.
Q: How did you move from
being an American university teacher to being a journalist for Radio Liberty?
A: Well, I was clearly given
to understand that I wouldnât get tenure. I had moved to the DC area, and I
came to Voice of America, where I had friends. They interviewed me and hired me
on the spot. A few years later I moved to âRadio Libertyâ in Munich (and later,
Prague), and I stayed with them for 17 years.
Q: And that was when you
stopped writing poetry.
A: Not quite. I stopped
somewhere on the move from Carlisle to DC, because I had thought of a big prose
project, which was never finished, but which was partly published.
Q: This is the novel about
A: Yes. But this was an
extremely hard task; it had to be pursued full-time, because for years I read
nothing except literature on the subject, studied Latin, classical authors. But
nobody was paying me, so I had to abandon it. And at that time I decided . . .
I didnât decide anything, but there was no purpose in writing poetry anymore.
Q: Well, thatâs an enormous
question, and weâre all dying to ask you why.
A: In the February issue of Poetry magazine, thereâs my essay on
living in Prague, where I try to synthesize my thoughts [on this subject], but
there are many answers. The fact is that I just stopped without regrets and
started after 17 years.
Q: Without regrets. You
didnât feel this hole in your life?
A: Why would I regret
it? If I had regretted it, I would
have sat down and written something.
Q: You felt you could have
written at any time?
A: Why not? Itâs not like I was sitting and nothing
came to me. This has never happened to me. If I sit down, I write something.
Q: During that time, did you
read what other people were writing?
Were you following what was going on?
A: No. Insofar as I read
anything, most of my reading — unless it was non-fiction — was
either prose or the poets that I really like. These do not necessarily include
Q: Does it include any living
A: Among the Russians, yes.
Q: Can you list any of the
A: I would say that my gods
are probably Mandelâshtam and Auden and Bolesław Leśmian, but all in the original. Also, Wallace Stevens,
which I kind of see that Iâm not imitating in my English poetry, but itâs
somehow akin to it.
Q: When did you first write a
poem in English?
A: About three years ago.
Q: Nothing before. . .?
A: Nothing. Never attempted
it. There was this unfortunate translation that I put at the end of . . .
Q: Of Edem.
A: And that was it. It was
odd because actually I lived for many, many years outside of the English
language, although most of my reading has always been in English. . . I wrote
my first English poem in Prague.
Q: And what was the impulse
to write in English?
A: I donât know. I was bored
at work, but at work the situation was such that you couldnât just sit and
concentrate on something, especially since we were forbidden by that time to
smoke. So we had a smoking atrium where weâd step out for a few minutes, and by
the end of the day, I thought Iâd written a decent poem, and it was published.
Q: Is there much of a Russian
environment around you today, or is it mostly the blog?
A: The blog, but the blog is
a crowd of people. I now know many people personally whom I met through that
blog. If I go to Moscow, for instance, those are the people I see there.
Because, my generation, generally, unfortunately, died out or is silent. The
only really active person I know is Gandelâsman. Also Gandlevsky, but he writes
a poem a year, so itâs kind of difficult to say that. So, Gandelâsman is the
only person that I could look up to, but otherwise itâs a desert. So most of my
friends are ten, twenty, thirty years younger than I am.
Q: Could I ask another
question that connects to what was said about the visual element? I think you
replied to the very early question about the actual process of writing that
youâre now composing on screen, are you?
A: Yes, In the olden times, I
used to do it in pencil on cards, like Nabokov. Then you put it on the
typewriter, of course, and see what you actually wrote.
Q: This is what I was getting
to — you have to see what
A: Yes, but with the computer
itâs much easier. You just remove the versions you donât like; they donât crowd
Q: So youâre seeing and not
hearing? Or are you hearing as well? Whatâs the relationship?
A: I do hear, I hear in my mind. . . I think that Iâm quite alone in
that respect, because sound has completely disappeared from Russian poetry.
People donât pay attention to it and they donât see it. Except for people like
Gandlevsky and Gandelâsman. Itâs no difference whether itâs on screen or on
Q: That doesnât make a
substantial difference, but what I was getting at is this: youâve said before
you seem to see something in a stanza, youâve got a kind of visual image,
youâre conceptualizing in terms of stanzas.
A: No, no, no. Not really. I
do not think that broadly. Just a few words that stick together that seem
natural together. And then they find other words that go after them or before
them. Itâs like a jigsaw.
Q: You see, I think one of
the greatest difficulties and one of the most exciting things that weâve found
in analyzing what you write is why one thing comes after another. But this to
you is an unconscious process?
A: No, this is the only thing
that I care about. You have to have correct words following each other in the
correct order. Thatâs the whole secret. Otherwise itâs prose. When an idea
comes before words, then itâs called prose. And most contemporary American
poetry (I could talk about neo-formalism, which I think largely a failure, but
this does not predominate) — most contemporary American poetry is weak
prose, and itâs done intentionally. I donât see why. It is not a requirement of
the language. We know that great poetry was written in this language. When I
write in English, I do not try to import Russian poetics into English, but I
try to go against the current of weak prose. I try to stay as metaphorical and
— to the extent that itâs possible for me because I am not a native
speaker — as tied to the word as I am in Russian.
Q: Can you say a little bit
more about your deliberate practice of messing up words? It seems mainly to happen around syntax
or phrasing, but as you said, itâs a signature. I wonder if you could say more
about where that comes from and what effect it has.
A: Itâs one of the ways to
overcome, to defeat the dullness that comes from using the same words. Some
poets have a thousand or two thousand words and they put them in different
orders. Akhmatova is one of these — she never even thought that you could
write differently. As it was given to her, so she lived for decades, and she
never came up with anything new. Itâs like a childrenâs toy; you never try to
open it and see whatâs inside. For me it was natural to overcome the dullness.
I do not see why one word is worse than another. If I see a hackneyed word in a
particular place, I want to replace it with something else. And if itâs a curse
word, if itâs mat — so much the
better, if you are skillful enough to do it. Some of the younger poets now
overdo this. It becomes ridiculous; they put as many of those words into a poem
as possible. They are trying to shock you. You can shock me by your inability,
and thatâs what they do. But every word has its place, and once you realize
that your choice is not two thousand words but twenty [thousand], say, the job
is much more fun.
Q: Could you say a little bit
about the presence of music in your work and also in how you compose? Itâs
clearly so central in one of the poems that we worked on (the dialogue) and also in your essays.
A: Well, that basically is
one of my interests. I would rather listen to music than read poetry, so
naturally it seeps through into my poems. Itâs not only music, in smaller
degrees itâs sciences, philosophy, or stuff like that. You cannot write about
what you are not interested in; you do write most of all about what you are
interested in. And the same basic questions that I deal with — God, death
and love — are dealt with in many of those disciplines. So basically itâs
an extension of the words issue: if you use strange words, then why not use
mathematical symbols or musical symbols or philosophical terminology? Fine with me, if you can do it. The
only thing that amazes me is: how come more people donât do it?
Q: So how strange do you like
your music? What is your level of
A: I would say that my
favorite composers are from the second Viennese school. But I hate the more
extreme music, stuff like Cage. . . I used to be like everybody; in my youth I
preferred Baroque. Then I discovered twentieth-century music that I like very
much. And now I am quite tolerant of the Romantics.
Q: Could I follow that with a
question about the relationship between the Charpentier music and your dialogue poem? Were you conceiving of it
musically? Obviously you were following the genre. . .
A: No, I simply know
Charpentier very well, so that is always in the back of my mind. And I decided
that it would be interesting to make a poem in the form of a dialogue, as they
used to do.
Q: Speaking about music: in
âkennedy kennedy kingâ thereâs not just one, but two references to American
popular music. Is this something that you associate with your first impressions
of being here or do you still have an ear for popular music?
A: No, not at all. I am
horrified by it. That was my youth, and thatâs how the poem is written.
Q: Thereâs a political
dimension to some of your poetry. Are you hesitant to put these poems —
or certain other types — on the blog?
A: I put everything I write
on the blog. But, the political ones, well, when Iâm pushed, it could involve
politics as much as anything else. But in my poems on the killing of children
in the Caucasus or on the murder of Politkovskaya — that simply touched
me. But thatâs a rare thing for me, because usually I do not have a topic
before the poem, only in very general terms.
Q: Well, it produces very
powerful poetry, so I . . .
A: Yes, but some people hate
Q: For what reason? They hate
the politics of what youâre saying?
A: They hate the politics.
They hate the politics, but itâs obvious to them that the poems are bad because
they express hatred.
Q: Do these considerations
that youâve just been talking about affect what you submit for publication in
Russian journals? Do you send them blocks of poems and let the editors choose?
A: Not necessarily. I just
send them what they should publish. If they remove a poem or two, I do not have
any grudge, of course. There are always situations, and they inform me in
advance. But the Politkovskaya poem was published in Znamia. Of course, people in the Kremlin are not aware — they
donât read Znamia. And if they did, I
donât know whether they would do anything about it. They pretend they were not
the ones who killed her.
Q: Iâm very interested to
know how editorial boards, and specifically poetry editors, in Russia go about
presenting you, an author, a person of your status now, with their decisions
about what to publish and what not to.
A: Well, itâs not like they
are not responsible. Thereâs no committee, thereâs no official censorship now.
Q: No, I know. That makes it
even more interesting. Thereâs nothing to hide behind.
A: They are aware of the
simple truth that if they do something to me, Iâll simply stop sending poems to
them, and I believe they would prefer that I did.
Q: Ah, so itâs their loss.
A: I could easily live
without those publications anyway, because I have the blog. I donât earn any
money with it, so it doesnât matter to me.
Q: Has this situation changed
radically since you came back to poetry?
This is the new situation for publishing poetry, is it, in Russia?
A: Well, with the
advancements of the internet, yes, surely. A whole generation of contemporary
poets who are pretty good grew up. There was a total hiatus during perestroika. I do not remember anybody
except for, you know, dinosaurs still writing their stuff. But the new
generation emerged in the internet. Thereâs a site called stikhi.ru, which
still exists, and itâs a sea of the most idiotic nonsense, but some people
emerged from that, and they are now established and well-known poets.
Q: Is there anything in
American politics and culture that could inspire âentriesâ?
A: I wrote a poem about
[Hurricane] Katrina and Dubya which was published in Fulcrum.
Q: Could you say something
about your decision not to use punctuation and capitalization? How did that come about? Iâm
particularly interested in what it feels like to you to have made a decision
that all of your poetry then follows. It feels to me like thatâs unusual for a
poet to do.
A: You know, the decision was
taken more than thirty years ago. I cannot imagine how I would write poems now
with all the punctuation. I cannot give you all the considerations I had in
mind because Iâve forgotten most of them, although I am aware of some of the
effects it produces. At that time Bakhyt Kenzheev sent me a few of his poems
that were written like that. (He doesnât do that anymore.) And I looked at it and tried to do it,
and I liked it. I realized that you could do things with the meaning that way.
First of all, you equalize all the words — you can insert proper names
without them standing out. And then, naturally, if you have proper names
written that way, then you remove the graphical devices altogether. And Iâve
done this ever since. If you asked me [to comment] in detail, it would be my
present thinking, which, of course, grew up together with my writing. What I
thought at that time I never wrote down.
Q: Does it trouble you at all
that in certain cases it introduces ambiguities that you donât necessarily approve
of? For example, in intonation.
When you read the poem aloud, we can hear whether itâs a question or not,
whereas when you write it this way, often itâs not clear.
A: Very rarely, yes, it does.
The only thing that gives me trouble, probably, is when itâs a question. But
you cannot introduce just one question mark, so people have to work it out.
Q: But surely you have a
sense of stanzas, because all these poems have very clearly marked stanzas.
A: Not necessarily. Sometimes
I break that. But mostly, yes, most of the poems are in stanzas. What I do is
to hypertrophize the classical form and insert totally new content into it. To
an extent itâs meta-poetry, in the sense that I try to put together all that
was done in Russian poetry. Therefore, I have so many quotations, for instance,
or hidden quotations or distorted quotations. And the stanza form goes
naturally with it. It would be difficult to do it in free verse. I do write
free verse, but very seldom.
Q: The thing that stands out
is that you write not just in stanzas, but in big stanzas. I donât know what
percentage of Russian poetry is still written in quatrains, probably in the 70
percentiles, and you hardly ever do.
A: I do, sometimes. A
quatrain is too short a thing. It cuts the idea too short when you have to
develop it. I donât know why. Itâs the same thing as the classical meters that
sometimes irritate me. Thatâs why I invented, whatever, resurrected the
syllabic form. Quatrains irritate me if I donât see them as natural. I usually
use them when I write short lines. Then to underline the laconicity I employ
Q: It has traditionally been
claimed that Russians have a great understanding of poetry. What do you think
A: No, I wouldnât say that,
because itâs fads, like everywhere. We were speaking about Brodsky. An
interesting thing happened to him. First of all, of course, he was Nobel
Laureate, and he was even published in the Soviet Union, which was a unique
case; even before perestroika he was
recognized in the press as an existent poet. After that, there was great
enthusiasm, and everybody was trying to write like Brodsky. But then, with
growing nativism, there was a reaction. They started perceiving him as somebody
imposed on their taste from the West. And so now itâs an accepted thing to
speak negatively about Brodsky.
Q: When you say âeverybody,â
could you give some examples? âEverybody was trying to write like Brodsky.â
A: Basically, what I have in
mind is the constant dialogue in livejournal.com and in literary circles. When
I tried in the Russian context to speak of Brodsky objectively — and I
think heâs a major poet, but there are some things one might dislike — I
understood that I was in the wrong chorus. I had to shut up eventually, because
people were taking me for somebody else, for an ally in a struggle that I was
Q: You havenât shut up about
A: Well, I consider her
worthless, and I have been saying that all my life.
Q: Are there any female poets
in the twentieth century, Russian poets, who you have any particular . . .
A: Thereâs none who is my
favorite. Of course, I have a different opinion of Tsvetaeva than of Akhmatova,
but sheâs not my cup of tea. In my view, she is too hysterical, undisciplined,
and she is simply not the kind of poet who appeals to me.
Q: Any recent woman poets?
A: Yes, if youâve ever heard
of Linor Goralik, I like her. I cannot say that I admire her, but she is very
interesting. And Evgeniia Lavut. I wouldnât say that they are first-rank names.
It would be hard for me to give a first-rank name that emerged recently except
maybe Boris Khersonsky.
Q: In our earlier discussion
you mentioned Limonov. You were obviously friendly with him at one point.
A: At one point. I mean, we
havenât seen each other for decades and decades. But we were friendly at one
point, and I am still a great admirer of his poetry — the books that were
published, quite obviously.
Q: Could you expand on
that? Some things happen like that
in life. You know somebody and you move on and they move on. Have you got a
sense of your own development as a poet?
You said several times, âIâve thought this for thirty years,â or, âIâve
said this for forty years.â Do you
think youâve been consistent throughout your whole creative career? Or has it changed somehow?
A: Of course Iâve changed
many opinions. Not necessarily on the positive side. I used to be a great
admirer of Pasternak, but not any more. But in some cases, from the beginning
itâs obvious to me and nobody ever proved to me otherwise, and I donât see how
it could be proved. I still hold those opinions. I mean, Nazism is bad.
Q: I meant not so much your
opinions about people and other poets but your sense of your own poetics.
A: I think itâs not for me to
judge — although I have claimed that I could write a negative review of
myself. I do not try to control, I am aware, I am more concentrated now.
Q: Than you were?
A: Than I was in my youth. I
basically know, in very general terms, what I have to say. I do not just sing
mindlessly. But otherwise itâs not my job to lay down manifestos.
Q: Do you think you did sing
mindlessly before? I donât.
A: From my present point of
view, probably. Well, there was a method in what I did then, of course. But I
was much less reflective about it.
Q: When you talked about the
themes in your work, you said love, death and God. Could you say a bit about
that last theme and where you see that in your work, where you see your
contribution in relation to others?
Of those three topics, thatâs the one that can often be the most
freighted, the most complicated.
A: Well, itâs probably in the
biographical details simply. I was for years a Roman Catholic, and those are
the worst atheists. So, that is just how it transpired. If I have to specify,
Iâm definitely a Christian atheist, in a more narrow sense a Catholic atheist.
Thereâs no point in being an Orthodox atheist. I never was Orthodox, and
besides, it doesnât have any theory, any doctrine worth disproving.
Q: When did you become a
Roman Catholic? Does it have to do
A: No, no, no. When I came to
this country, almost in the first year.
Q: What was the motivation
A: I have no idea. Itâs
probably that when you live in the Soviet Union, you kind of reject their
doctrine and atheism together with all that.
Q: And why Catholic rather
than Orthodox or . . .
A: I donât see why anybody
would become Orthodox. Itâs a different mindset. I use my head in anything I
do. If thereâs a theory in Orthodoxy, itâs that you shouldnât [use your head].
I couldnât just worship, I had to understand why. Orthodoxy discourages that.
Q: In Catholicism, you have
the Jesuits; thereâs a really strong Catholic intellectual tradition.
A: Exactly, thatâs why it
appealed to me.
Q: And why not Judaism, which
also has a very strong intellectual tradition?
A: I was so cut off from
that, I simply didnât identify with those people. In Russia, unless you
belonged to some underground Jewish intellectual community, there was no way to
know anything about Judaism.
Q: But you knew something
about Roman Catholicism in Russia?
A: Yes, sure, because they
are so prominent and you know all the scholars. And some of them you could even
read there. If not in the original, you could read about mystic philosophy.
Q: And were you a Roman
Catholic for many years then?
A: Yes. I donât know how
many. I donât know when I ceased to be one. Not long ago. Maybe seven years.
Q: How does that relate to
when you started writing poetry again?
A: It doesnât relate in any
way. The topic emerged, you know, itâs not in the early poems. It emerged
somewhere in the middle. In the middle of the first book, I guess.
Q: Is there a possibility
that you had Roman Catholicism instead of writing poetry? And then when that faded, you went back
to writing poetry?
A: No, I stopped writing
poetry before I stopped being Catholic, I think. I do not see any connection.
The poetry was not undertaken again in order to give a tool to my atheism.
Q: Still staying with the
theme, but taking it in a slightly different direction: one of the things that
we noticed when we looked at poems from Shekspir
otdykhaet and other publications is the sheer variety and richness of
genres in which the same topics recur. Thereâs a kind of generic map of death
that you can take from five or six poems. Theyâre all very distinct, but very
vividly generic. What do you think of genre? What does that word mean to you? Does it mean anything?
A: Well, it does mean a lot
to me, and I believe that thatâs one of my bones to pick with [recent] literary
theory, that it tries to destroy genre and get rid of it. But it doesnât have
to be so strict, you can play with it. It doesnât have to be the same forms
that were given to us by classical antiquity or the middle ages.
Q: Is it still a genre if you
play with it?
A: It is because it contains
references. Just as in the case of the sonnet we were discussing — you
can distort it as long as it is still recognizable as a sonnet. You cannot
define [my] genres, unless I really name them, though they do not all
correspond to âodeâ or something like that. But I donât believe it could be
classified more. What is elegy, basically? Elegy is a very wide category; you could write all your
poetry in that genre.
Q: It seems to me that besides
love, death, and God, there is another huge theme, which is childhood and
specifically your own, which youâve been celebrating for forty years,
A: But thatâs biography.
Q: Yes, it is. Do you still
think of that as an inexhaustible topic?
How you grew up in Soviet Russia?
A: I do not really think of
it. I told you, when I write, I do not really think. But this somehow comes
naturally. And I believe that poetry devoid of biography, of meat, is
worthless. This is something that I might have learned from Pasternak, whom I
donât like very much, but, of course, you can learn even from those.
Q: Weâve spoken a bit about
twentieth-century poets, but we havenât really said much about
nineteenth-century poets. I know for some poets growing up in the Soviet Union,
having to go through that shkolânaia
programma [syllabus] produced a sense that Pushkin was somehow associated
with the Soviet Union. Iâm wondering if you feel a particular closeness to
certain nineteenth-century poets.
A: Mostly, probably
Boratynsky. Although I love Pushkin very much. Of course, I had this rejection
of Pushkin. I passed through it like everybody, but soon after school I started
reading him seriously. But then I started reading Boratynsky. If I had to
classify myself, I see myself as coming from that largely metaphysical
tradition that goes from Boratynsky (and from Derzhavin, of course, earlier) to
Zabolotsky, Vvedensky and then Brodsky too.
Q: Do you read Pushkin now?
A: Very few things, a poem
now and then, and, of course, I know now that itâs about fifteen poems that I
like; the rest I donât even look at. I reread Evgenii Onegin [Eugene
Onegin] recently, but thatâs about it. There are things, like Tsygany [The Gyspies], that I would
never even look at.
Q: Boratynsky is so hard to
read because of his syntax. It reminds me of some of our struggles with yours.
A: Many things happened to
syntax after him, with Zabolotsky and Vvedensky. But actually, they mostly
attacked the word, and I think syntax is more my area. Thatâs why some people
are very hostile to me. Kushner seems to believe Iâm illiterate, because I
canât build a sentence properly.
Q: In your essay on
Gandelâsman, you talk very interestingly about Khlebnikov and his significance
for you. Could you elaborate on that?
A: I think I elaborated well
enough in the article, that Khlebnikov showed — which I donât see ever
having happened to such an extent in English literature — Khlebnikov
showed that you have to go further than the word. And there were people who
understood that, and the best poets grew out of that tradition. And the
tradition that didnât accept that gave us Akhmatova, Kushner. But without
Khlebnikov we would never have had Mandelâshtam, weâd never have had
Zabolotsky, weâd never have had Tsvetaeva. Although I cannot read him. He
doesnât impress me. But I know what he did.
Q: What about Mayakovsky? Do
you consider him a major poet?
A: NoâŠ He is a major poet, but he wrote so much
nonsense that [one overlooks] all of the good things. I still remember many of
his lines, but they drone. He was a person without a compass.
Q: Can I ask a little bit
about translation, partly because youâve been engaged in it so intensely
lately? If you could say a little
bit about what youâve learned from this project of translating Hamlet: what got you started, what you
discovered that you didnât expect to discover, and if you would ever consider
translating something else into Russian.
A: Well, I have certain
borders which I will not overstep. For instance, if poetry is consistently
rhymed, it entails such losses in translation that I wouldnât undertake it. But
Shakespeare is one thing that, whatever your principle, you have to translate.
First of all, itâs enough to give to the native audience an inkling of whatâs
important in such a great writer. And in the case of my Hamlet translation, itâs to amend the sins of my predecessors,
mostly Pasternak, of course. To show that itâs actually a much better,
consistent play than people think. I am thinking of maybe translating Lear at some point. Macbeth has now been translated anyway by Gandelâsman, and I think
both plays will be published under the same cover. But Macbeth is such an uneven play, I suspect that Gandelâsman improved
it. It has just horrible passages. Obviously they were not written by
Shakespeare. And this is a practice unacceptable in Russia. I remember that I
did a translation for Inostrannaia
literatura [the journal Foreign
Literature], and they rejected it because the style of the original was
sloppy. I translated it that way, because otherwise you put your foot into the
mouth of the author. Chkhartishvili [aka B. Akunin] was the supervisor, and he
is a very well-educated person who knows English pretty well. He understood
what I meant, but he said, âOur readers wonât accept that.â
Q: When was that?
A: About ten years ago.
Q: Iâm curious about what you
find most odious about the Pasternak translation of Hamlet and the point earlier when you said you liked Pasternak as a
A: I still like some poems
Q: Did you always dislike the
A: Well, how could I, you
know, if I still remember pieces of it?
Of course I read it before in the much more faithful translation by
Lozinsky, but then there was this movie by Kozintsev, which I tried to watch
recently — itâs impossible. So the Pasternak translation was canonical at
that time. It was when I started reading Hamlet
in English that I understood what nonsense Pasternakâs version was. What I find
the most odious is that he doesnât understand the difference between himself,
who he is, and who Shakespeare is. He thinks heâs a great poet. Stalin himself
called him, and I donât know whether Elizabeth ever called Shakespeare. And
this is disgusting.
Q: But whether or not
Pasternak was a great poet wouldnât make a difference as a translator. He
should be translating Shakespeareâs voice and not Pasternakâs. I mean, that is
the point, is it not? Even if you
loved Pasternak, the objection could still stand.
A: Yes, sure, thatâs totally
independent of my personal like or dislike of Pasternak.
Q: What do you think of
Lozinskyâs translation of Hamlet?
A: Lozinskyâs translation is
much more faithful. Still, for me, itâs not scholarly enough. He didnât have
any idea of Shakespeare scholarship. But he was trying to be, to do it
equilinearly and faithfully, but sometimes he does violence.
Q: Is your translation meant
for the stage, for performance?
A: I think so.
Q: And you donât think your Hamlet reads like Tsvetkov?
A: No. If I know anything
about my poetry — it is very recognizable. I have a trademark. Nobody
would ever plagiarize my poems because they would be discovered immediately.
Q: Would you translate Auden
A: Stevens I have translated,
and it will be even published in a collection in the United States. And Auden,
a poem or two, but no, heâs too difficult. He is not too difficult for
Gandelâsman, but I have yet to sit down and compareâŠ
Q: What do you think is the
best poem youâve ever written?
A: I have no idea.
Q: Which do you like best?
A: I tend to forget those
poems that Iâve written in the past. And they were all written in the past.
Q: And you never go back to
Q: Is there some particular
kind of poem or form that youâve never tried but that you have in your head:
this is something I still want to do?
A: If I knew, I would have
done it. I always sit down with the intention to write something different.
Unfortunately, it comes more often like what Iâve written before. But thereâs
still time to try.
[i] See, for
instance, Elizabeth Clarke, "Diaries", in A Companion to English Renaissance Literature and Culture, ed.
Michael Hattaway (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000): 609-614; William Matthews, British Diaries: An
Annotated Bibliography of British Diaries Written Between 1442 and 1942
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1950).
Paperno, âWhat Can Be Done with Diaries?â Russian
Review 63 (October 2004): 562-3.
[iii] See his
essay âSudâba barabanshchika,â Inostrannaia
literatura, no. 9 (1997): 229-238.
Gililov, Igra ob Uilâiame Shekspire, ili
taina velikogo feniksa (Moscow: Artist, rezhisser, teatr, 1997), translated as The Shakespeare Game: The Mystery of the Great Phoenix (New York:
Algora, 2003). Gililov suggests that Roger Manners, Earl of Rutland, authored
most of Shakespeareâs works.
discusses broader aesthetic and metaphysical (even quasi-religious)
implications of third-person accounts in his essay âAnnaâ (in Edem i drugoe [Moscow: OGI, 2007]:
195-202), as he contrasts Flaubertâs use of âindirect free discourseâ with
Tolstoyâs narrative mode in Anna
[vi] In another
context Tsvetkov notes that Shakespeare âalways remained simply a businessmanâ
Tsvetkovâs longstanding mistrust of language, see Andrei Zorin, âIzgnannik
bukvaria,â Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie 19
biblical quotations are taken from the King James version.
[ix] See C. Jane Gosine and Erik Oland, âDocere,
delectare, movere: Marc-Antoine Charpentier and Jesuit spirituality,â Early Music, November 2004, pp. 511-39, muse.jhu.edu/journals/early_music/v032/32.4gosine01.pdf; and H. Wiley Hitchcock, âThe Latin Oratorios of Marc-Antoine
Charpentier,â The Musical Quarterly, vol. 41, no. 1 (Jan. 1955), pp.
[x] Timothy Ware, The
Orthodox Church. London and NY: Penguin, 1963, p. 56. The concept of
deification, also termed theosis, obozhenie, or obozhestvlenie, incorporates the theology of the icon and the
transfiguration in the linking of spiritual and material existence. While not
denying the importance of hell or individual struggles for salvation, the
notion of deification emphasizes collective experience and positive aspects of
the last judgment. Following the work of St. Maximus the Confessor and other
early theologians, Ware explains as follows: âMan is not saved from his body but in it; not saved from the
material world but with it. Because
man is microcosm and mediator of the creation, his own salvation involves also
the reconciliation and transfiguration of the whole animate and inanimate
creation around himâŠ. In the ânew
earthâ of the Age to come there is surely a place not only for man but for the
animals: in and through man, they too will share in immortality, and so will
rocks, trees and plants, fire and water.â
Father Kallistos Ware, The
Orthodox Way. St. Vladimirâs Seminar Press, 1986, p. 183. See also Jaroslav
Pelikan, The Spirit of Eastern Christendom
(1600-1700). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974, pp 8-12; Vladimir
Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the
Eastern Church. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimirâs Seminar Press, 1976, pp. 26,
196-216; and for an interesting perspective on the way the concept of
deification leads to environmentalist concerns, see Tamara Grdzelidze, âCreation and ecology: how does the Orthodox
church respond to ecological problems?,â The
Ecumenical Review, July 2002, http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2065/is_3_54/ai_92136466/print?tag=artBody;col1.
[xi] See Louis L. Martz, The Poetry of Meditation. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959,
pp. 4-13; Gosine and Oland, op. cit.; Hitchcock, op. cit.
Tiutchev, Boratynsky, Zabolotsky and the meditative tradition, see Sarah Pratt,
Russian Metaphysical Romanticism.
Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1984, pp. 5-10; and Sarah Pratt, Nikolai Zabolotsky: Enigma and Cultural Paradigm.
Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2000, pp. 23-29Âž186-189, 207-214.
reading courtesy of Rev. John C. Hall of First Church of Christ Congregational,
[xiv] With its
suggestion of the abolition of guilt, and hence abolition of death, the
inscription resonates with the threefold assertion âi smerti net,â in Tsvetkovâs poem âkennedi kennedi king,â which in
turn recalls the threefold chant âKhristos
voskrese iz smertnykh, smertiiu smertâ poprav, i sushchim vo grobekh zhivot darovav
(âChrist is risen from the dead, trampling on death by death, and on those
in the graves bestowing lifeâ), repeated time and time again during the Easter
season in Orthodox churches.
[xv] Here again one senses an echo of The Brothers Karamazov, in this case, of Father Zosimaâs statement,
âWe are all responsible,â which both universalizes guilt and, at the same time,
points to the possibility of universal communion and deification. See Gary L.
Browning: âZosima taught his secret of renewal—and active, humble,
forgiving love; acknowledgment and confession of oneâs own guilt before
everyone, all, and everything; forgiveness; and the divine kinship of all
creation.â Gary L. Browning,
âZosimaâs âSecret of Renewalâ in The
Brothers Karamazov,â Slavic and East
European Journal, Vol. 33, No. 4 (Winter, 1989), http://www.jstor.org/stable/308283.
Christine Dunbar, Susanne Fusso, Katherine Tiernan OâConnor, Sarah Pratt, Stephanie Sandler, G.S. Smith, Michael Wachtel,
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