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University of Toronto · Academic Electronic Journal in Slavic Studies

Toronto Slavic Quarterly

Catherine Ciepiela, Christine Dunbar, Susanne Fusso, Katherine Tiernan O’Connor, Sarah Pratt, Stephanie Sandler, G.S. Smith, Michael Wachtel, Boris Wolfson

Encounters with Alexei Tsvetkov:
Three Poems with Commentaries and an Interview

Contact: Michael Wachtel, Princeton University, wachtel@princeton.edu

 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, Tsvetkov’s 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 “new” figure. His later poetry has elicited extravagant praise and indignant condemnation from Russian critics and fellow poets. Tsvetkov’s 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 “mess up” 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 sentences’ logic because there are no punctuation marks to set them straight. Tsvetkov’s 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 Tsvetkov’s themes, tones, thought, and aesthetics in such predecessors as Pasternak, Khlebnikov, Mandel’shtam, and Zabolotskii. In Tsvetkov’s 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 poems’ 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.


Tsvetkov’s 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, “bylo tret’e sentiabria” (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, “kennedi kennedi king i prochie zhertvy.”   Death, specifically Shakespeare’s death, is the topic of “dvadtsat’ tret’e aprelia gostei snariadil i leg,” and God quite clearly plays a part in “dialog khrista i greshnoi dushi,” to mention the other two poems we consider.


Our choice of poems by no means exhausts the topics and techniques of Tsvetkov’s poetry: we have not included a love poem (for example, see “pomnish’ oni nas uchili na cheloveka,” 2006, http://aptsvet.livejournal.com/2006/01/22/). Some of his most remarkable poems treat the subject of childhood and especially adolescence (“ia zhil plashmia ia stol’ko let bolel,” 2008, http://aptsvet.livejournal.com/188083.html). Our goal is to introduce Tsvetkov’s 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 more generally.


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. Tsvetkov’s 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 Tsvetkov’s poems might be approached, in the hope that readers’ 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 Tsvetkov’s 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 p’es 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 molvit’. St. Petersburg: Pushkinskii fond, 2001.

Bestiarii. Ekaterinburg: Evdokiia, 2004. [children’s verse, written in 1970s]

Shekspir otdykhaet. St. Petersburg: Pushkinskii fond, 2006.

Atlanticheskii dnevnik. Moscow: Novoe izdatel’stvo, 2007. [interviews, programs from Radio Liberty]

Edem i drugoe. Moscow: OGI, 2007.

Imena liubvi. Moscow: Novoe izdatel’stvo, 2007.

Rovnyi veter. Moscow: Novoe izdatel’stvo, 2008.



Essays, interviews:

“Leaving Prague: A Notebook,” Poetry, vol. 191, no. 5 (February, 2008), pp. 425-433.

“Ob’iasnenie v liubvi: Sergeiu Gandlevskomu,” Vozdukh, no. 3 (2006), pp. 5-11.

“Ob’iasnenie v liubvi: Vladimiru Gandel’smanu,” Vozdukh, no. 1 (2008), pp. 5-11.

“Sud’ba barabanshchika: Primechaniia k postmodernizmu,” Inostrannaia literatura, no. 9 (1997). http://magazines.russ.ru/inostran/1997/9/svetcov.html.

“‘V proze mnogo slov, a zhizn’ korotka” [interview], Kriticheskaia massa, nos. 3-4 (2005). http://magazines.russ.ru/km/2005/3/tc7.html.

Gavrilova, Yuka, "Aleksei Tsvetkov: ‘Ulamok i dosi vpevnenii, shcho vin -- imperiia,’"             [interview] Knizhnik Review, 9-10 (139-140), 2007, 12-13.


On Tsvetkov:

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.”O poezii Alekseia Tsvetkova,” Novyi zhurnal, no. 167 (1987), pp. 206-14.

Kulakov, Vladislav. Postfaktum: kniga o stikhakh. Moscow: NLO, 2007, pp. 11-18.

Pann, Lilia. “Na kamennom vetru,” Novyi mir, no. 3 (1996). http://magazines.russ.ru/novyi_mi/1996/3/pann.html.

__________. “Vozvrashchenie Alekseia Tsvetkova” [review of Shekspir otdykhaet], Novyi mir, no. 8 (2006). http://magazines.russ.ru/novyi_mi/2006/8/pa15.html.

“Rech’ Dmitriia Kuz’mina pri vruchenii Alekseiu Tsvetkovu Premii Andreia Belogo,” http://magazines.russ.ru/project/bely/2007/ku.html.

Skvortsov, A. E. Igra v sovremennoi russkoi poezii. Kazan’: Izdatel’stvo Kazan’skogo universiteta, 2005, pp. 273-307.

__________. “Nado ne gordit’sia, a znat’,” Voprosy literatury, no. 3 (May - June, 2007), pp. 239-251.

Smith, G. S. “Aleksej Cvetkov’s Lost Paradise,” SEEJ, vol. 30, no. 4 (1986), pp. 541-552; revised and translated as “Poteriannyi rai Alekseia Tsvetkova,” in Dzheral’d Smit, Vzgliad izvne. Stat’i o russkoi poezii i poetike. Moscow: Iazyki slavianskoi kul’tury, 2002, pp. 389-400.

Varkan, Ekaterina. “Naznachit’ novogo Voloshina,” Oktiabr’, no. 12 (2007), pp. 155-56.

Zorin, Andrei. “Izgnannik bukvaria,” NLO, no. 19 (1996), pp. 250-260.





kennedy kennedy king

Sound file: kennedy.mp3 



        кеннеди кеннеди кинг и прочие жертвы
        и с моста в пролом талахачи а смерти нет
        билли джо макалистер о ком бобби джентри
        пела пока не канула в интернет
5      в год когда я ждал на бульваре гири
        в теремке термитном скорых даров судьбы
        антиподы-прадеды с лязгом зубы в супы
        упустили и рты утереть забыли
        аж до орденских плашек висла слюна
10    в год когда я дернул к иным пределам
        к синему заливу и пылким девам
        запевай струна

        от рассвета по трайборо вброд до бронкса
        до заката на дилерской тачке в тендерлойн
15    грыжа держит азимут авось доберемся
        в путь по солнечной в обратный по теневой
        поздних зорь резеда в парнике партийном
        муровали в гранит эти челюсти и тела
        зимовать потому что смерти нет в противном
20    случае надо признать что жизнь была
        к руслу миссури нимфы на фавнов падки
        лето прольет елей
        мост над синим проломом по радио панки
        the kkk took my baby away

25    погляди меня в гугле господи всех вселенных
        если я записан в какой-нибудь их народ
        очарованный житель в рощах твоих целебных
        дегустатор нимф и редких рифм нимрод
        сквозь гикори и гинкго слепящий свет одинаков
        сквозь хитон рентгеном костей любой сантиметр
        я вернулся открыть вам тайну двух океанов
        горизонт безлюден как был и смерти нет
        кто затеплил свет перед светом навек в ответе
        не уйти в полутьму астролябий и ветхих книг
35   под окном паркинг-лот на асфальте играют дети
        кеннеди кеннеди кинг




Translation: (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 Tsvetkov’s 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 internet
5      in the year when i was waiting on geary boulevard
        in the termite hovel for instant gifts of fate
        antipode-forefathers dropped their teeth into soups with a clank
        and forgot to wipe their mouths
        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 passionate maidens
        sing o string

        from sunrise on the triboro fording over to the bronx
        to sunset on a dealer’s wheels to the tenderloin
15    hernia holds to the azimuth maybe we’ll get there
        setting out on the sunny side and back on the shady side
        reseda at late dusk in the party hothouse
        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 universes
        if i’m counted among one or another of their peoples
        an enchanted resident in thy healing groves
        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



Explanatory Notes:


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 “those other victims,” 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 Gentry’s 1967 hit song “Ode to Billie Joe” (still popular in the 1970s): the song’s narrative, recounted as dialogue, concerns Billie Joe MacAllister, an obscure individual, who has committed suicide by jumping off Mississippi’s Tallahatchie Bridge; the narrator’s 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 “kanut’ v Letu” (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 ‘clank’ 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 (“ia dernul k inym predelam”) may be read as a variation on several lines of Osip Mandel’shtam’s 1931 poem (“I was only childishly connected to the sovereign world” (“S mirom derzhavnym ia byl lish’ rebiacheski sviazan”): “I 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!” (“Ia ubezhal k nereidam na Chernoe more, / I ot krasavits togdashnikh, -- ot tekh evropeianok nezhnykh -- / Skol’ko ia prinial smushchen’ia, nadsady i goria!”). These lines are also connected to Tsvetkov’s poem by the theme of “nymphs,” as well as by the way Mandel’shtam’s poem articulates the poet’s 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 dealer’s wheels: According to Tsvetkov, this refers to a drug dealer’s car.

tenderloin: 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, “you don’t say ‘heart’ when you can avoid it.”


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. “Nymphs are prostitutes, fauns are truck-drivers.”  Readers familiar with Russian poetry may hear an echo of Pushkin’s 1821 poem “To Yur’ev”: “With an involuntary flame in her cheeks / A young nymph secretly, / Not understanding herself / Sometimes glances at a faun” (“S nevol’nym plamenem lanit / Ukradkoi nimfa molodaia, / Sama sebia ne ponimaia / Na favna inogda gliadit”).


l. 22 cbgb: Short for “Country, Bluegrass, and Blues.”  A famous music club at 315 Bowery in New York City that operated from 1973 to 2006, primarily known as a center for punk rock.


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 “enchanted resident” (ocharovannyi zhitel’) echoes the title of Leskov’s novella The Enchanted Wanderer (Ocharovannyi strannik, 1873).


l. 28 nimrod: “A mighty hunter before the Lord” (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 “svet” means both “light” and “world,” allowing for the alternate translation “whoever lit the light is forever responsible to the light.”


l. 35 parking: in Russian, as in English, the word contains the name “king”


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 “hickory, dickory, dock.”


Formal Commentary:


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 dol’nik (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 dol’nik. Dol’nik first appeared in Russian poetry with frequency in Symbolist poetry, but the Symbolists favored lines with three or four ictuses. Longer dol’nik lines (and “free dol’nik,” with varying numbers of ictuses per line) became common only recently, in particular in the work of Joseph Brodsky. Most of the lines in Tsvetkov’s 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 interpretation below).


Tsvetkov’s dol’nik 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 утере́ть забы́ли. These same two rhythmic tendencies are also typical of Joseph Brodsky’s dol’nik 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 “d” and “b” in до бро́нкса/доберёмся, here as it were “compensating” 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 “n” and “r” in наро́д/нимро́д. As in most modern Russian poetry, Tsvetkov’s masculine rhymes are more exact than his feminines, but there are nonetheless some striking inexact masculines, e.g. тендерло́йн/тенево́й, 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 народ/нимрод).


Part and parcel of this virtuoso rhyming technique is the avoidance of grammatical rhyme, which occurs only once (слюна́/струна́ 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. “в теремке́ терми́тном” or “к ру́слу миссу́ри.” The latter example leads to a final observation concerning the sound texture of the entire poem. To an enormous extent, the poem’s lexicon is marked by non-Russian proper nouns. This is surely to be explained by the theme: Tsvetkov revisits a Russian émigré’s 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.




“Kennedy kennedy king” 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 “by reputation,” that is, as the site of the three horrific assassinations that marked the 1960s, the decade that preceded his arrival. Despite the poem’s initial enumeration of deaths — both historical and fictional/pop-lyrical (i.e., Billie Joe MacAllister’s suicide in Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 hit “Ode to Billie Joe”) — it also contains an affirmation of immortality. The phrase “there is no death/smerti net” appears together with these references to famous deaths, both literal-historical (the assassinations) and metaphorical, namely, Bobbie Gentry’s “disappearance” into the Internet (her eventual fading from public view but yet her “afterlife” 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 “new life” that the poet feels has been bestowed on him as a result of emigration. Although writing with obvious irony about his hopes for “instant gifts of fate/skorye dary sud’by” while living in San Francisco in a “termite hovel/termitnyi teremok,” 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 émigrés are evoked by the reference to “passionate maidens/pylkie devy” (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 — “sing o string/zapevai struna” — 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 poet’s mind with being young and being in America. If stanza one reflected on Tsvetkov’s exuberant albeit naïve 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 “lifestyle” 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 dealer’s 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 poet’s inner compass is still on course, as it were: “the hernia holds to the azimuth maybe we’ll get there/gryzha derzhit azimut avos’ doberemsia.” The life and vitality of the poet’s émigré youth in New York and San Francisco is again contrasted (as it was in the opening stanza) with the old age and lifelessness of Moscow’s party leadership. The decrepit medal-wearing “antipode-forefathers/antipody-pradedy” of stanza one, who were first seen slurping their soup through clacking false teeth, have “progressed” here. Now they are the dead remains (the “jaws and bodies/cheliusti i tela”) of the Soviet leadership forever “immured in granite/murovali v granit.” This variant on the immortality-theme (hence the repetition in l. 19 of the “there is no death/smerti net” refrain) creates a contrast between the quality of immortality granted the “victims” of stanza one and the implied victimizers of stanza two. The dusk-to-dawn cycle of the poet’s nocturnal diversions in America are also being contrasted with the “late dusk/pozdnie zori,” associated with the “reseda in the party greenhouse/rezeda v parnike partiinom.” 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 “zaria” can mean either) of the poet’s “nightlife.”


The stanza concludes by filling in the map of the America being spanned in the poem and by replaying in another key the poem’s opening line. Now the American heartland (“the bed of the missouri/ruslo missuri”) comes into view, briefly displacing the bi-coastal cities but tonally aligned with them in terms of the kind of scene it evokes. The “nymphs crazy for fauns/nimfy na favnov padki” is, according to Tsvetkov himself, a humorous and ironically “lyrical” 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 stanza’s 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 poem’s opening line. Enjoying live music (“unction/elei” – the word has unmistakable religious connotations) at CGBG in summer blends with hearing a Ramones song (with the refrain “the kkk took my baby away”) on the radio of a taxicab carrying the poet and a friend over the Triborough Bridge (referred to in the stanza’s 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 “blue chasm /sinii prolom” spanned by this bridge echoes the “chasm/prolom” spanned by the Tallahatchie Bridge at the beginning of the poem further dramatizes the way in which the poet’s 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 poem’s opening line between kennedy kennedy king and the “other victims/prochie zhertvy” of the 1960s whose deaths were, directly or indirectly, connected to racism. Curiously, the Tallahatchie Bridge, which Bobbie Gentry’s song virtually put on the map in 1967 as the site of the fictional Billie Joe’s 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, Till’s 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 Tallahatchie’s “history.”  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 song’s mysterious allusions have certainly contributed to endless speculations: What were Billie Joe and the song’s female first-person narrator throwing off the bridge? Did the narrator feel responsible in some way for Billy Joe’s 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 “closure.” 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 poem’s 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 poet’s “place” 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 poet’s 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 Tsvetkov’s point of view in the present of the poem’s 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 “lord of all the universes/gospod’ vsekh vselennykh” serves to minimize either the necessity or the desirability of affixing any particular national or cultural label to the poet. Moreover, the poet’s self-description as an “enchanted resident in thy healing groves/ocharovannyi zhitel’ v roshchakh tvoikh tselebnykh” further attests to his resistance to narrow definitions of nationality and citizenship, although his amusing claim that the Lord should “google [him]” 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 Gentry’s “disappearance” into the Internet and thus further highlights the poet’s irony in regard to his own “status” in an alternate medium. The immortality-theme, however, also reasserts itself despite the humorous juxtaposition of high and low, of Tsvetkov’s “god” and googling. It is also obvious that in the last stanza the poet is presenting himself as a poet rather than as the “wild” (and newly emigrated) young man of the first two stanzas. The fact that Tsvetkov’s self-reference as an “enchanted resident” (of all the lord’s universes) recalls Nikolai Leskov’s “enchanted wanderer” also serves to reinforce the idea that his “wanderings” (both across oceans and bi-coastally) reflect his own mixed “citizenship.”  His further self-characterization as a “connoisseur of nymphs and a nimrod of rare rhymes/degustator nimf i redkikh rifm nimrod” advertises his poetic skills but in terms that humorously echo the self-indulgent pastimes alluded to earlier. He’s still “on the prowl,” as it were, but now as a “hunter/nimrod of rare rhymes.”  Moreover, his claim to connoisseurship in regard to nymphs is ironic in view of his earlier use of this poetic cliché 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 “secret of the two oceans” that the poet claims, in mock-seer fashion, he “has returned to reveal.” Although the allusion here to the title of Grigorii Adamov’s science-fiction novel serves to make light of the poet’s claims to visionary status, the actual secret that then unfolds is not treated ironically: “the horizon is uninhabited as before and there is no death/gorizont bezliuden kak byl i smerti net.”  Thus the historical specificity of the poem’s 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 “lord of all the universes” now appears as the creator-God of Genesis, who first “lit the light/svet,” 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 “the semi-darkness of astrolabes and ancient books/ne uiti v polut’mu astroliabii i vetkhikh knig.” 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 “there is no death” 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 “after-life” made possible by the Internet, the inscription (and seeming neutralization) of horrific events in children’s 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 “imitations” of a spiritual absolute that may not exist but is hard to forget.





april twenty third


Sound file: shakespeare.mp3 



        двадцать третье апреля гостей снарядил и лег
        сутки в скользкой листве как дождевая водица
        просыхают под ветром солнечный мотылек
        вслед последнему свету за рваной рекой садится
5      джонсон отчалил в лондон дочь учи не учи
        месит сено с куини но время вперед прямое
        жестко стелет полночь космические лучи
        на скиптроносный остров в серебряном море
        речью венчал безъязыких и жестом но ныне нет
10    платных страстей суфлера тем кто тут обитает
        под караулом с младенчества верных планет
        он лежит в чем прожил с утра шекспир отдыхает
        на лучшей из двух кроватей за гранью мер
        в доме который воздвиг для него лорд-мэр

15    стынет взор кому заказан возврат дневной
        через стрэтфорд пролягут века куда не дожил
        пусть и прежде больше барыш стакан в пивной
        тот кто может все уже никому не должен
        но платил исправно брал повторный сосуд
20    точным золотом слова с помоста покрыта трата
        он чеканил им речь которую пронесут
        от разливов миссури до самых трясин евфрата
        перед ликом лизбет и северный варвар джеймс
        он им пел как вол чтобы семь суббот в неделе
25    изваял им любое имя и каждый жест
        в этом полураю в своем другом эдеме
        чтобы жить по средствам всем на тысячи лет
        даже если умолк суфлер и автора нет

        но покуда ночь и в городе ни огня
30    за щеколду бережно нежно должно быть джудит
        силуэт украдкой и опрометь вдоль окна
        в комнату где не одна но и двух не будет
        где без снов поперек постели спит властелин
        полумира и больше певец на смертном ложе
35    составитель планеты которую населил
        племенами зла и добра и нами тоже
        перед самым уходом сверху ему видны
        агинкур и верона богемское море и реки
        всех народов в которых доля его вины
40    ибо с верхним светом ума и даром речи
        весь повергнутый в ужас но не подобревший мир
        в тишине где не было бога и мертв шекспир





        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 sun moth
        following the last light sets over the torn-up river
5      jonson’s 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 scepter’d isle in the silver sea
        he crowned the tongueless with speech and gesture but these days there’s no
10    prompter of hired passions for those who dwell here
        guarded by planets faithful since childhood
        he lies in what he’s 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 day’s return is forbidden
        centuries will make their road through stratford to where he didn’t 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 it’s night and there’s 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 she’s 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 he populatedM
        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


Explanatory Notes:


l. 1 april twenty third: The day on which, according to tradition, William Shakespeare was born in 1564 and also died, in 1616.

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 “he” or “I.”  In our discussion, Tsvetkov indicated that he considers the pronoun to be “he.”


l. 5 jonson’s off back to london: The poet and playwright Ben Jonson (1572-1637), a close friend of Shakespeare. One version of Shakespeare’s 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: Shakespeare’s younger daughter Judith (1585-1662) married Thomas Quiney on 10 February 1616. There was an immediate scandal because of Quiney’s 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 therefore Quiney.


l. 8 the scepter’d 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 (“This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle, / [. . .] This precious stone set in the silver sea”). Tsvetkov notes that few Russian readers are familiar with Shakespeare’s history plays, so that this allusion would be far more obscure in Russian.


l. 12 shakespeare takes a rest: The phrase “shakespeare takes a rest” 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 “Shakespeare can’t compete.”  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 “second-best bed” 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 “za gran’iu mer” 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, “chekanit’,” can be used to mean “minting” or “coining,” but Tsvetkov maintains that the association for him was with the expression for marching in goose step, “chekanit’ shag.” 


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 “the northern barbarian” 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 man’s 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 “u nego sem’ piatnits na nedele,” “he has seven Fridays a week,” meaning “he keeps changing his mind.”


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 Winter’s Tale reads: “Bohemia. A desert Country near the sea.”


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 Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, some readers have seen this as a reference to the pronouncement in that same Prologue that “God is dead.”


Formal commentary:


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. Tsvetkov’s argument rests on firm ground; the overwhelming majority of Russian sonnets are indeed written in either iambic pentameter or iambic hexameter. (Shakespeare’s 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 Shakespeare’s death, it is hard to ignore a rhyme scheme that completely conforms to a Shakespearean sonnet (whether or not this was the poet’s intention).


The poem’s meter is dol’nik 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 “kennedy kennedy king”: an “anapestic” opening and a cadence of w-s-w-w-s-w-s (w=weak, s=strong), e.g. “госте́й снаряди́л и лёг.”


True to form, Tsvetkov displays particular inventiveness in his rhymes: до́жил/до́лжен, дже́ймс/же́ст, неде́ле/эде́ме.




The poem “april twenty third” stands out as particularly important, in that it contains the phrase that serves as the title of an entire collection of Tsvetkov’s verse: “Shakespeare takes a rest” (“shekspir otdykhaet”). 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 “he” or “I.” The latter reading would allow for the possibility that we hear Shakespeare’s interior monologue as he lies dying, just as we hear his reported speech in line 5 (“that daughter just try teaching her/doch’ uchi ne uchi”). 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 (“he lies in what he’s lived in/on lezhit v chem prozhil s utra”). In the remainder of the poem, third-person pronouns coexist with snippets of reported speech (such as “touching the latch gingerly tenderly it must be judith/za shchekoldu berezhno nezhno dolzhno byt’ dzhudit”). 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 “these days there’s no prompter/nyne net […] suflera” indicate that he has died, or does the description of his daughter Judith’s arrival in the third stanza suggest that life has not yet left him (“where two shall not be/i dvukh ne budet”)?  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 one’s time at the end of the day by turning life into text is to attempt to leave a lasting trace of one’s being.[ii]  The gesture toward the diary form, understood in this way, lends dramatic irony to Shakespeare’s final act of linguistic creation.


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 narrator’s perspective moves rapidly between the quotidian and the cosmic. After Shakespeare’s recollection in the first stanza of his daughter’s affair with the despised Quiney, the narrator’s vision expands to embrace all England, and extends into a future “where he didn’t survive/kuda ne dozhil.  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 “the means to live/zhit’ po sredstvam” 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 Shakespeare’s 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 “the death of the author,” which Tsvetkov evokes with the phrase “there is no author” 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 “half the world/polumir” that speaks the English language, but beyond that as well, since the “speech” that Shakespeare “stamped out” for his countrymen (chekanil im rech’) is being made comprehensible to a Russian reader who may know no English but can read this poem. In a world “where there was no god/gde ne bylo boga” 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 Shakespeare’s 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 writer’s 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 Shakespeare’s masterpieces to the man from Stratford.[iv]


Yet just as the diarist’s attempt to keep death at bay is displaced by an (almost) omniscient third-person voice for whom, in the poem’s last line, Shakespeare really is dead,[v] the poem’s vision of an author’s status is a somber one. The poet who “sings like an ox/pel kak vol” for the powers that be is described starkly as a “prompter of hired passions/platnykh strastei suflera,” and the poem’s depiction of the (pernicious) interdependence of aesthetic and economic energies further underlines the socially-constructed, unglamorously historicized nature of the performance that assured Shakespeare’s 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 “dialogue between christ and a sinful soul,” and like the entity who “lit the light” at the end of “kennedy kennedy king,” bears some blame for this state of the world. The poem brings two of Tsvetkov’s 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 literature’s 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




        диалог христа и грешной души


                                                     mementote peccatores


        что душа человека стоишь у врат рая
        знать тебя тело отправило умирая
        сладок плод праведной жизни в канун кончины
        только злодею для восторга нет причины
5      век твой никак не тайна всё учтено в смете
        рассказывай душа как ты жила на свете
        точно ли ты из тех кому спасенья ищем
        жарко ли молилась подавала ли нищим
        почитала ли родных храмы и престолы
10    достойно ли блюла заповеди христовы
        вижу чело твоё омрачается гневом
        отринь хоть в судный час гордыню перед небом
        милостив отец мой к падшим кто смирен духом
        обратись внутрь очами пронзи сердце слухом
15    ответь господу твоему зачем грешила

        поступала и жила как сама решила
        если твой закон зуб за зуб око за око
        значит зря старались ренессанс и барокко
        как могла пересекла вброд юдоль икоты
20    спросить напоследок господи или кто ты
        ты ли это просил милости а не жертвы
        так не суди меня по скрижалям из жести
        этот рай могу принять в дар но не в награду
        или кричи приказ ангельскому отряду
25    низвергнуть меня вместе со свиньями в бездну
        пропиши тьму кромешную где я исчезну
        поскольку не верю в реальность нашей встречи
        всё равно я не сущность а фигура речи
        скулить peccavi и всё такое
30    предоставь прислуге меня оставь в покое

        кто ты душа чтобы роптать отца ругая
        он автор всего добра а ты персть нагая
        смертным за их вину отнимут глаз и руку
        а отец сына послал на крестную муку
35    за все чужие вины что будут и были
        за жизни какие вам не дороже пыли
        всё мирозданье с тех пор в струпьях этой крови
        и не бог вам а вы выбираете роли
        кто погряз в гордыне и прощенье отринул
40    тот меня на кресте в палестине покинул
        правда из мира пропадает понемногу
        теперь здесь не зуб за зуб а за ноготь ногу
        достойно ли грешить и искать вины выше
        оглянитесь вокруг не бог вам враг но вы же
45    кайся душа пока тело не труп под крышкой

        да читала у этих со львом или книжкой
        что был де распят и воскрес на третьи сутки
        только зачем ты теперь из жертвы да в судьи
        подписывать ордер стигматными руками
50    быть без греха чтобы в грешников бросать камни
        если бог то мог прощать без креста задаром
        не под силу быть врачом будь хоть санитаром
        и если эти книжки так необходимы
        ты сказал там не судите да не судимы
55    нынче в конце дней на их стремительном склоне
        я позволю себе поймать тебя на слове
        пусть в аду на кресте с двумя другими вместе
        прибьют меня во искупленье божьей мести
        навеки с надписью чтобы буквы видны
60    суд отменяется ни на ком нет вины


        dialogue between christ and a sinful soul

                                                            mementote peccatores

        so now human soul you stand at heaven’s 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 to rejoice
5      the life you led’s no secret it’s 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 christ’s commandments in a worthy way
        i see your brow darkening with wrath
        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 you sin

        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 angelic detachment
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 stuff
30    leave that to your servants leave me in peace

        who do you think you are soul to complain cursing the father
        he’s the author of everything good and you’re 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 it’s not god who chooses the part you play it’s you
        whoever is mired in pride and has rejected forgiveness
40    has forsaken me on the cross in palestine
        truth is disappearing from the world bit by bit
        now it’s 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 it’s 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 book guys
        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 stigmata hands
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 you’re not up to being a doctor at least be an orderly
        and if these books of yours are so essential
        you’re the one who said judge not that ye be not judged
55    today at the end of my days on their precipitous slope
        i’ll 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 god’s vengeance
        forever with an inscription in letters plain to see
60    the court is adjourned and nobody is guilty


Explanatory Notes:


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


Part I


CHRISTUS: Mementote 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 mei.

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 cogitares.

Ah cor durum, ah cor ingratum, cor saxeum, haeccine reddis Deo, creatori tuo?


Part II


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 valde.

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.


Dialogue between Christ and sinners


Part I

Christ: 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?

But you, grown fat and without provocation, have deserted God, your creator, your savior, and your father.



O hard heart!  O ungrateful heart!  O heart of stone, is this how you repay God, your creator? 

Who will give water to my head and a fountain of tears to my eyes that I might weep and say, “I have sinned, lord, but pity me.”

Alas for the dullness of my heart!  Alas for the destructive blindness of my mind!

I 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.

O hard heart!  O ungrateful heart!  O heart of stone, is this how you repay God, your creator?


Part II

I 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.

I 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.

Spare me, Lord!  Spare me, Jesus most gentle, and do not despise me in my lowness.

Tears have become my drink and ashes my sustenance.

Pity, Lord! Pity a penitent! Pity, Lord! Pity!

Change, gentle God!  Change a little, lest you be angry with me any more. No. No. I will sin no more against you. No. No. No more.

Spare me, Lord!  Spare me, Jesus most gentle, and do not despise me in my lowness.


(English translation courtesy of Andrew Feldherr, Classics Department, Princeton University)


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: “For 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.”[viii]


l. 9 temples and thrones: See Colossians 1:16: “For 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.”  Colossians 1:15-20 is known as the “Christ hymn.”


l. 10 christ’s commandments: Christ’s commandments incorporate the commandments of the God of Israel. When asked by a young man, “Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” Jesus responds, “If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments,” referring to the commandments handed down by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. Pressed by the young man to specify which ones, Jesus says, “Thou 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 thyself” (Matthew 19:16-19). When the young man continues to press him, Jesus adds his own commandment: “If 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 me” (Matthew 19:21; see also Mark 10:17-22). In the gospel of John, Jesus says, “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). In John 13, Jesus offers what he calls a “new commandment”: “That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.”


l. 14 let your hearing pierce your heart: In the Russian the use of the word “slukh” (“hearing”) as the subject of “pierce your heart” 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: “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.”


l. 17 a tooth for a tooth an eye for an eye: A reference to the “lex talionis,” 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: “And 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 again” (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: “Ye 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 also” (Matthew 5:38-39; see also Luke 6:29-30). In the context of Tsvetkov’s dialogue, the sinner is reproaching Jesus for seemingly abandoning “grace” for the “law.”


l. 19 vale of hiccups: An ironic twist on the expression “vale of tears,” 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 “When you cry for a long time you start hiccuping.” Tsvetkov had used the same phrase in a much earlier poem, “sud’ba byla smetana.”


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, “They 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 repentance” (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, “and 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 sea” (Mark 5:1-16). The version of this story found in Luke 8:32-36 serves as the epigraph to Dostoevsky’s 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: “I have sinned, Lord.”  Repeated by the sinners in Part 2 of Charpentier’s oratorio (see commentary to Epigraph).


l. 46 those lion and book guys: Tradition assigns symbols to each of the four Evangelists, based on the “four beasts” mentioned in Revelation 4:7  (“And 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 eagle”). The lion is traditionally the symbol for Mark. Often the Evangelists are portrayed in dual guise, both as the “beast” with which they are associated and as humans in the act of writing or holding a book.


l. 52 if you’re not up to being a doctor at least be an orderly: An ironic reference to the fact that much of Jesus’s activity in the Gospels relates to healing and even to bringing the dead back to life (thus the epithet “Christ the great physician”). 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 19:18).


l. 59 with an inscription in letters plain to see: A reference to the mocking inscription above Jesus’s head during the Crucifixion, “the King of the Jews” (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, “sud,” is the same word as “judgment” in the Last Judgment, “Strashnyi sud,” literally “the terrible judgment.” The emphasis in the poem is on Christ’s role as judge (see note to l. 6).


Formal Commentary:


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 Brodsky’s 1967 poem “K stikham” (with an epigraph from Kantemir). See Sochineniia Iosifa Brodskogo, Sankt-Peterburg, 1998, vol. 2, p. 191. It is conceivable that Tsvetkov’s interest in syllabic verse also reflects his readings of the Polish poet Bolesław Leśmian (1878?–1937), 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 Tsvetkov’s 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, Tsvetkov’s 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. о́ко/баро́кко, ико́ты/кто́ ты).


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 “interrupts” each of Christ’s 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 soul’s speeches end in complete couplets.




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:


Well, it’s probably in the biographical details simply. I was for years a Roman Catholic…. If I have to specify, I’m definitely a Christian atheist, in a more narrow sense a Catholic atheist. There’s no point in being an Orthodox atheist, I never was an Orthodox, and besides, it doesn’t have any theory, any doctrine worth disproving.


Oxymoronic as the terms “Christian atheist” and “Catholic atheist” might seem, they nonetheless encapsulate the issues that form the intellectual structure of Tsvetkov’s poem “dialogue between christ and a sinful soul”: 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.

Tsvetkov’s poem emerges from a distinctly Western Christian source, the motet “Dialogus inter Christum et peccatores” (“Dialogue between Christ and sinners”) 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 maître de musique at the principal Jesuit church in Paris, L’Église 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, “I use my head in anything I do,” and then adding by way of contrast with Russian Orthodoxy, “If there’s a theory in Orthodoxy, it’s that you shouldn’t [use your head].”  Developing a similar line of comparison in a scholarly vein, denoting practitioners of the Eastern Christian tradition as “Greeks” and those of the Western Christian tradition as “Latins,” Timothy Ware writes in his study The Orthodox Church:


From 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 worship…. 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. …These 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 “soul” in the “dialogue between christ and a sinful soul” relate to peculiarities of the Western Christian tradition: its “juridical ideas,” 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 Charpentier’s and Tsvetkov’s 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, “mementote peccatores” – “remember, sinners”), 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 “Graveyard Poets” 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 “dialogues” or “conversations” 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 last three.[xii]


Tsvetkov uses the first words of Charpentier’s motet, Christ’s admonition “mementote peccatores,” as the epigraph of his poem and follows Charpentier’s dialogic form while altering it slightly to suit his own purposes. Tsvetkov’s dialogue comprises four 15-line utterances alternating between Christ and “the soul,” while Charpentier’s motet has a prose text and features Christ only in the opening, followed by two segments in which “the sinners” respond. Charpentier’s sinners express profound contrition, attributing their sins to the “destructive blindness” of their minds, while – and this is a major difference – Tsvetkov’s 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 soul’s life is all accounted for (vse uchteno v smete) but nonetheless poses the question, “were you really one of those for whom we seek salvation/tochno li ty iz tekh komu spasen’ia ishchem,” and then proceeds with an inquisitorial list of particulars with the ring of a catechism: “did you pray… did you give… did you respect… did you keep…” 


жарко ли молилась подавала ли нищим

почитала ли родных храмы и престолы

достойно ли блюла заповеди христовы


did you pray ardent prayers give alms to the poor

did you respect the temples and thrones of your kinsmen

did you keep christ’s commandments in a worthy way


When Christ states, “my father is merciful to the fallen and the meek in spirit/milostiv otets moi k padshim kto smiren dukhom,” 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, “turn your gaze inward and let your hearing pierce your heart/obratis’ vnutr’ ochami pronzi serdtse slukhom,” 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, “answer to your lord why did you sin/otvet’ gospodu tvoemu zachem greshila.”


In the next stanza in the soul’s first response — one could even say rebuttal — to Christ’s assertions, the soul argues in the manner of a syllogistic proof: “if 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 staralis’ renessans i barokko,” 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 Christ’s 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, “was it you who asked for mercy and not sacrifice/ty li eto prosil milosti a ne zhertvy,” making reference to Christ’s words in Matthew 9:13, and concludes, “so judge me not by the tablets of tin/tak ne sudi menia po skrizhaliam iz zhesti,” 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 priniat’ 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 Dostoevsky’s 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 Karamazov’s “poem,” “The Grand Inquisitor” from The Brothers Karamazov, which involves Jesuits, issues of faith, free will, and salvation, and the murkiness of reality. In Ivan’s 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 Tsvetkov’s soul seeks, but does not find.  But more than this, in both “The Grand Inquisitor” and Tsvetkov’s “dialogue,” Christ’s very identity and existence are questioned. For all that Tsvetkov’s soul debates Christ using specific passages in the Bible to substantiate his charges, he nonetheless addresses Christ with the words “o lord or whoever you are/gospodi ili kto ty” and asserts, “i do not believe in the reality of our meeting/ne veriu v real’nost’ nashei vstrechi.”  The age and possible madness of the Grand Inquisitor and the instability of Ivan Karamazov’s personality create a similar hallucinatory effect in “The Grand Inquisitor”; 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 Tsvetkov’s Christ who, following the soul’s 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 “the author of everything good/avtor vsego dobra.”  But then, referring to the soul’s earlier remark that the law of “tooth for tooth” 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 “to 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.”  He whines further that “the entire created world bears the scabs of this blood/vse mirozdan’e s tekh por v strup’iakh etoi krovi.”  So much for “the author of everything good.”  Worse yet, it is possible that this sacrifice has been in vain, because the soul, unlike her predecessors in Charpentier’s piece, has yet to make a move toward confession. As the third stanza closes, Christ again issues an imperative: “repent soul before your body’s a corpse under a lid/kaisia dusha poka telo ne trup pod kryshkoi.”


None of this proves compelling for the soul, who turns the tables, arguing in the final stanza that Christ could forgive “just like that/zadarom” 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 “with stigmata hands/stigmatnymi rukami” 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 – “mementote peccatores” – the soul now reminds Christ, “you’re the one who said judge not that ye be not judged/ ty skazal tam ne sudite da ne sudimy.”   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 “to atone for God’s vengeance/vo iskuplen’e bozh’ei mesti.”


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:


…с надписью чтобы буквы видны

суд отменяется ни на ком нет вины


…with an inscription in letters well visible

the court is adjourned and nobody is guilty



Instead of an inscription of identity, “The King of the Jews” 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: “court is adjourned and nobody is guilty,” or more literally, “the court is adjourned and there is no guilt on anyone at all.”  As some readers see it, this is an affirmation of atheism: Christ is defeated and “the soul wins.”  This understanding was confirmed by Tsvetkov himself, who said during our discussion, “Of course the soul wins, because it’s the winning argument.”  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 “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross”), and yet the life of the church and world history represented in the resurrection show that the world’s judgment of Jesus was really the foolishness of the wise.[xiii]   


Another way of understanding the conclusion — albeit in contrast to Tsvetkov’s 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 soul’s 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 God’s vengeance, the sins of humanity, or even the soul’s own sins. But the reversal in the line of argument, the undercutting of the poem’s initial apparent meaning, brings the poem again into the orbit of “The Grand Inquisitor.”  When the would-be atheist Ivan Karamazov finishes telling the story, his saintly brother Alyosha likewise reverses the direction of the narrative:


“But all that is absurd!” suddenly exclaimed Alyosha, who had hitherto listened perplexed and agitated but in profound silence. “Your 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 ‘freedom’? 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 exposing!”[xvi]


This is the shifting ground of belief and non-belief, reality and chimera, and interweaving Christian traditions, that provides the context for Tsvetkov’s “dialogue between christ and a sinful soul.”  What readers make of it is up to them – and no one is guilty.





Interview with Aleksei Tsvetkov from 19 June 2008 (Princeton University)


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 it’s a meter, sometimes it’s 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 I’ll die much faster than I’ve 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 I’m usually exhausted by that time.


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 don’t see the images. Would it be accurate to describe your writing as words on paper and hearing?


A: Yes, it’s about hearing, of course, the sound in my mind, but it’s 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; it’s 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 you’ve finally discovered the themes and things you wanted to write about and that you’re 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:


“but really all he gave us from above

was love and death and much more death than love” 


So that’s how it turned out in the end… 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 “death” 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 didn’t pay any attention to it. Then we’d 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 don’t, 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. There’s 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 “revolutionaries,” 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 Brodsky’s poems, that his vocabulary kind of dries up towards the end. He didn’t 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 wasn’t 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 “kennedy kennedy king” recalls the idea that émigrés coming to the United States have some sort of fantastical visions of what they’ll find. When you first came to the United States, what most conformed to your expectations and what most deviated?  What came as a surprise?


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 didn’t 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 “kennedy kennedy king,” — I say “tried,” because I didn’t do anything on purpose, it wrote itself — is the way it’s 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 wasn’t 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 San Francisco?


A: A year and a half.


Q: And then you went to Michigan?


A: Yes.


Q: Why did you go to Michigan?


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 didn’t 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 you’d spend the rest of your life as a professor of Russian literature?


A: I didn’t 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 wouldn’t 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 “Radio Liberty” 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 classical times?


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 didn’t decide anything, but there was no purpose in writing poetry anymore.


Q: Well, that’s an enormous question, and we’re all dying to ask you why.


A: In the February issue of Poetry magazine, there’s 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 didn’t 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?  It’s 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 living ones.


Q: Does it include any living ones?


A: Among the Russians, yes. Vladimir Gandel’sman.


Q: Can you list any of the non-living ones?


A: I would say that my gods are probably Mandel’shtam and Auden and Bolesław Leśmian, but all in the original. Also, Wallace Stevens, which I kind of see that I’m not imitating in my English poetry, but it’s 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 don’t know. I was bored at work, but at work the situation was such that you couldn’t just sit and concentrate on something, especially since we were forbidden by that time to smoke. So we had a smoking atrium where we’d step out for a few minutes, and by the end of the day, I thought I’d 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 Gandel’sman. Also Gandlevsky, but he writes a poem a year, so it’s kind of difficult to say that. So, Gandel’sman is the only person that I could look up to, but otherwise it’s 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 you’re 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 you’ve written.


A: Yes, but with the computer it’s much easier. You just remove the versions you don’t like; they don’t crowd the paper.


Q: So you’re seeing and not hearing? Or are you hearing as well? What’s the relationship?


A: I do hear, I hear in my mind. . . I think that I’m quite alone in that respect, because sound has completely disappeared from Russian poetry. People don’t pay attention to it and they don’t see it. Except for people like Gandlevsky and Gandel’sman. It’s no difference whether it’s on screen or on paper.


Q: That doesn’t make a substantial difference, but what I was getting at is this: you’ve said before you seem to see something in a stanza, you’ve got a kind of visual image, you’re 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. It’s like a jigsaw.


Q: You see, I think one of the greatest difficulties and one of the most exciting things that we’ve 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. That’s the whole secret. Otherwise it’s prose. When an idea comes before words, then it’s 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 it’s done intentionally. I don’t 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 it’s 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, it’s a signature. I wonder if you could say more about where that comes from and what effect it has.


A: It’s 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. It’s like a children’s toy; you never try to open it and see what’s 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 it’s a curse word, if it’s 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 that’s 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? It’s 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. It’s not only music, in smaller degrees it’s 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 it’s 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 don’t do it?


Q: So how strange do you like your music?  What is your level of tolerance?


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 “kennedy kennedy king” there’s 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 that’s how the poem is written.


Q: There’s 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 I’m 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 that’s 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 it.


Q: For what reason? They hate the politics of what you’re saying?


A: They hate the politics. They hate the politics, but it’s obvious to them that the poems are bad because they express hatred.


Q: Do these considerations that you’ve 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 don’t read Znamia. And if they did, I don’t know whether they would do anything about it. They pretend they were not the ones who killed her.


Q: I’m 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, it’s not like they are not responsible. There’s no committee, there’s no official censorship now.


Q: No, I know. That makes it even more interesting. There’s nothing to hide behind.


A: They are aware of the simple truth that if they do something to me, I’ll simply stop sending poems to them, and I believe they would prefer that I did.


Q: Ah, so it’s their loss.


A: I could easily live without those publications anyway, because I have the blog. I don’t earn any money with it, so it doesn’t 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. There’s a site called stikhi.ru, which still exists, and it’s 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 “entries”?


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? I’m 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 that’s 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 I’ve 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 doesn’t 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 I’ve 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 don’t necessarily approve of?  For example, in intonation. When you read the poem aloud, we can hear whether it’s a question or not, whereas when you write it this way, often it’s not clear.


A: Very rarely, yes, it does. The only thing that gives me trouble, probably, is when it’s 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 it’s 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 don’t 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 don’t know why. It’s the same thing as the classical meters that sometimes irritate me. That’s why I invented, whatever, resurrected the syllabic form. Quatrains irritate me if I don’t see them as natural. I usually use them when I write short lines. Then to underline the laconicity I employ them.


Q: It has traditionally been claimed that Russians have a great understanding of poetry. What do you think of that?


A: No, I wouldn’t say that, because it’s 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 it’s an accepted thing to speak negatively about Brodsky.


Q: When you say “everybody,” could you give some examples? “Everybody was trying to write like Brodsky.”


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 he’s 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 not conducting.


Q: You haven’t shut up about Akhmatova, though!


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: There’s none who is my favorite. Of course, I have a different opinion of Tsvetaeva than of Akhmatova, but she’s 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 you’ve ever heard of Linor Goralik, I like her. I cannot say that I admire her, but she is very interesting. And Evgeniia Lavut. I wouldn’t 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 haven’t 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, “I’ve thought this for thirty years,” or, “I’ve said this for forty years.”  Do you think you’ve been consistent throughout your whole creative career?  Or has it changed somehow?


A: Of course I’ve 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 it’s obvious to me and nobody ever proved to me otherwise, and I don’t 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 it’s 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 it’s not my job to lay down manifestos.


Q: Do you think you did sing mindlessly before?  I don’t.


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, that’s the one that can often be the most freighted, the most complicated.


A: Well, it’s 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, I’m definitely a Christian atheist, in a more narrow sense a Catholic atheist. There’s no point in being an Orthodox atheist. I never was Orthodox, and besides, it doesn’t have any theory, any doctrine worth disproving.


Q: When did you become a Roman Catholic?  Does it have to do with Ukraine?


A: No, no, no. When I came to this country, almost in the first year.


Q: What was the motivation for that?


A: I have no idea. It’s 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 don’t see why anybody would become Orthodox. It’s a different mindset. I use my head in anything I do. If there’s a theory in Orthodoxy, it’s that you shouldn’t [use your head]. I couldn’t just worship, I had to understand why. Orthodoxy discourages that.


Q: In Catholicism, you have the Jesuits; there’s a really strong Catholic intellectual tradition.


A: Exactly, that’s 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 didn’t 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 don’t know how many. I don’t 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 doesn’t relate in any way. The topic emerged, you know, it’s 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. There’s a kind of generic map of death that you can take from five or six poems. They’re 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 that’s one of my bones to pick with [recent] literary theory, that it tries to destroy genre and get rid of it. But it doesn’t have to be so strict, you can play with it. It doesn’t 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 “ode” or something like that. But I don’t 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 you’ve been celebrating for forty years, inexhaustibly.


A: But that’s 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 don’t like very much, but, of course, you can learn even from those.


Q: We’ve spoken a bit about twentieth-century poets, but we haven’t really said much about nineteenth-century poets. I know for some poets growing up in the Soviet Union, having to go through that shkol’naia programma [syllabus] produced a sense that Pushkin was somehow associated with the Soviet Union. I’m 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 it’s about fifteen poems that I like; the rest I don’t even look at. I reread Evgenii Onegin [Eugene Onegin] recently, but that’s 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. That’s why some people are very hostile to me. Kushner seems to believe I’m illiterate, because I can’t build a sentence properly.


Q: In your essay on Gandel’sman, 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 don’t 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 didn’t accept that gave us Akhmatova, Kushner. But without Khlebnikov we would never have had Mandel’shtam, we’d never have had Zabolotsky, we’d never have had Tsvetaeva. Although I cannot read him. He doesn’t impress me. But I know what he did.


Q: What about Mayakovsky? Do you consider him a major poet? 


A: No… 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 you’ve been engaged in it so intensely lately?  If you could say a little bit about what you’ve learned from this project of translating Hamlet: what got you started, what you discovered that you didn’t 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 wouldn’t undertake it. But Shakespeare is one thing that, whatever your principle, you have to translate. First of all, it’s enough to give to the native audience an inkling of what’s important in such a great writer. And in the case of my Hamlet translation, it’s to amend the sins of my predecessors, mostly Pasternak, of course. To show that it’s 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 Gandel’sman, and I think both plays will be published under the same cover. But Macbeth is such an uneven play, I suspect that Gandel’sman 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, “Our readers won’t accept that.”


Q: When was that?


A: About ten years ago.


Q: I’m 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 poet.


A: I still like some poems very much.


Q: Did you always dislike the Hamlet translation?


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 — it’s impossible. So the Pasternak translation was canonical at that time. It was when I started reading Hamlet in English that I understood what nonsense Pasternak’s version was. What I find the most odious is that he doesn’t understand the difference between himself, who he is, and who Shakespeare is. He thinks he’s a great poet. Stalin himself called him, and I don’t know whether Elizabeth ever called Shakespeare. And this is disgusting.


Q: But whether or not Pasternak was a great poet wouldn’t make a difference as a translator. He should be translating Shakespeare’s voice and not Pasternak’s. I mean, that is the point, is it not?  Even if you loved Pasternak, the objection could still stand.


A: Yes, sure, that’s totally independent of my personal like or dislike of Pasternak.


Q: What do you think of Lozinsky’s translation of Hamlet?


A: Lozinsky’s translation is much more faithful. Still, for me, it’s not scholarly enough. He didn’t 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 don’t 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 or Stevens?


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, he’s too difficult. He is not too difficult for Gandel’sman, but I have yet to sit down and compare…


Q: What do you think is the best poem you’ve ever written?


A: I have no idea.


Q: Which do you like best?


A: I tend to forget those poems that I’ve written in the past. And they were all written in the past.


Q: And you never go back to them?


A: No.


Q: Is there some particular kind of poem or form that you’ve 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 I’ve written before. But there’s 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).

[ii] Irina Paperno, “What Can Be Done with Diaries?” Russian Review 63 (October 2004): 562-3.

[iii] See his essay “Sud’ba barabanshchika,” Inostrannaia literatura, no. 9 (1997): 229-238.

[iv] I.M. Gililov, Igra ob Uil’iame 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 Shakespeare’s works.

[v] Tsvetkov discusses broader aesthetic and metaphysical (even quasi-religious) implications of third-person accounts in his essay “Anna” (in Edem i drugoe [Moscow: OGI, 2007]: 195-202), as he contrasts Flaubert’s use of “indirect free discourse” with Tolstoy’s narrative mode in Anna Karenina.

[vi] In another context Tsvetkov notes that Shakespeare “always remained simply a businessman” (“Anna,” 201).

[vii] On Tsvetkov’s longstanding mistrust of language, see Andrei Zorin, “Izgnannik bukvaria,” Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie 19 (1996): 250-260.

[viii] All biblical quotations are taken from the King James version.

[ix] See C. Jane Gosine and Erik Oland, “Docere, delectare, movere: Marc-Antoine Charpentier and Jesuit spirituality,” Early Music, November 2004, pp. 511-39, muse.jhu.edu/journals/early_music/v032/32.4gosine01.pdf; and H. Wiley Hitchcock, “The Latin Oratorios of Marc-Antoine Charpentier,” The Musical Quarterly, vol. 41, no. 1 (Jan. 1955), pp. 41-65.

[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: “Man 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 him….  In the ‘new earth’ 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.”  Father Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way. St. Vladimir’s 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. Vladimir’s 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, “Creation and ecology: how does the Orthodox church respond to ecological problems?,” 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.

[xii] On 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. 23-29¸186-189, 207-214.

[xiii] This reading courtesy of Rev. John C. Hall of First Church of Christ Congregational, Middletown, CT.

[xiv] With its suggestion of the abolition of guilt, and hence abolition of death, the inscription resonates with the threefold assertion “i smerti net,” in Tsvetkov’s poem “kennedi kennedi king,” which in turn recalls the threefold chant “Khristos voskrese iz smertnykh, smertiiu smert’ poprav, i sushchim vo grobekh zhivot darovav (“Christ is risen from the dead, trampling on death by death, and on those in the graves bestowing life”), 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 Zosima’s statement, “We are all responsible,” which both universalizes guilt and, at the same time, points to the possibility of universal communion and deification. See Gary L. Browning: “Zosima taught his secret of renewal—and active, humble, forgiving love; acknowledgment and confession of one’s own guilt before everyone, all, and everything; forgiveness; and the divine kinship of all creation.”  Gary L. Browning, “Zosima’s ‘Secret of Renewal’ in The Brothers Karamazov,” Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 33, No. 4 (Winter, 1989), http://www.jstor.org/stable/308283.

[xvi] Feodor Dostoevsky, "The Grand Inquisitor,” Project Gutenberg EBook. http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext05/inqus10.txt.


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