Exquisite Corpse - Issue 4
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by Sergey Gandlevsky, translated from the Russian by Philip Metres

--In Memory of My Mother


Speak. But what do you want to say? Perhaps
How the barge moved along the city river, trailing sunset,
How for two-thirds of June until the solstice
Summer stretched on its tiptoes to the light,
How breath of linden blew through sultry squares
And how thunder rolled from all directions that July?
You once believed that speech needs an underlying cause
And a grave occasion. But that's a lie.


Listen: the grocery store reeks of watermelon rot,
An empty crate clatters at a back door around the corner.
From the suburbs, a breeze carries the echo of a handcar
And buries the asphalt in archive leaves.
Drop the Rubik's Cube to the ground-it's not worth the trouble.
When all plans fail, eat grapes in the rain,
Sit in the silent yard. Just look with your own eyes.
This is what you'll recall among the crags and crevices of hell.


So get going. Yet a naked branch-the upas
Of school texts-stubbornly touches the window
Just as it did long ago, at night, especially during rain,
Feeling the pane that mama washed.
Though I remember very little from school
I can still see each grain of sand pouring through
The narrow glass neck, an unforgettable rustle.
A primitive instrument, but what a throat for sorrow!


Strike spitefully on the floor your ever-wobbly tripod,
Haggard charlatan, not hiding your crookedness,
So that clear specter of water streams out, smells of ozone
Under the leaking roof of the housing office.
The chair jolts you with static electricity, so
Speak again, sans schools and manifestoes, as if tortured,
If this hopeless time and god-forsaken place instill in you-
Persona non grata-such love.


The widower, forty-seven year old Aizenstadt
Now roams the kitchen, can't cop his usual downer.
Is there reason to smile at this, my friend? I think not.
Even if his funeral-black boxers hang down to his knees.
In this world, where one needs liquor to be happy,
Behind empty crates the guys who've seen better days
Raise a toast to Sergey Esenin or Andy Chenier,
Squander their latest pay on drink by tradition.


After death I'll go to the outskirts of the city I love,
Lift my snout to sky, throw back my antlers-
Taken by sadness, I'll trumpet into autumn space
What human words could not express.
How the barge sailed into the wake of sunsetting day,
How iron time on my left wrist sung like a starling,
How the secret door was unlocked with a regular key.
Speak. There's nothing else you can do with this affliction.


In the original, Gandlevsky refers to June 22nd. Professor Nyusya Milman has suggested that the date also marks the Soviet Union's entrance into the Second World War.

The "upas" to which Gandlevsky refers is in Alexander Pushkin's poem, "The Upas," about a mythical poison tree used by a lord to poison his enemies; however, this came at the expense of his servant's life. This poem was typically part of the grade-school syllabus and part of the Soviet ideological system.

"The pane that mama washed" is a phrase often used by Russian spelling books.

The "charlatan" is clearly a mocking self-portrait; this section borrows from Pushkin's "To the Poet."

"Where one needs liquor to be happy" alludes to Prince Vladimir's rationale for choosing Christianity (over Islam, in this case) as the state religion for ancient Rus', because Christianity did not prohibit alcohol.

Sergey Esenin was an early twentieth century Russian poet, loved for his folk style. Andre Chenier, the greatest French poet of the 18th century, widely translated by Pushkin, was executed during the Terror.

"Everything will come to pass. Even annoyance..."

Everything will come to pass. Even annoyance
At the muddle of a hurried and fervent life
Grows old. There will be a house
Under a pine-covered hill on some river,
Oka or Zhizdra. A wedge of cranes heading south.
A crush of snow falling in Brownian motion.
And the delight of what surrounds me now
Is three times stronger on the eve of a separation.
A May midnight. Sedge, a stretch of river.
A branch touched by chance cools the forehead
With jasmine-and the taste of black tears
Forgotten. Everything will come to pass,
But excuses won't bring comfort. The time comes
When a question, dozing till now, arises:
The hour of leaving forever has struck, but where
Am I going? A strange music strokes my hair.
My deceitful craft, now turned habit,
Suffocates like an asthma attack.
And then, without knocking, you enter
The five-walled hut of my final night's stay.
Hello. I remember you. Like a master puppeteer
Your gentle will led me away
From the limits of local bustle to the edges
Of silence. But now it's time for freedom.
I loved you. Through your graceful will
The gibberish of my barbarian life
Found the simplicity of a park
On notebook pages, dimly illumined.
Under the staccato downpour a bench shines.
In wet green poplars, birds softly twitter.
Why are you crying, my cheerful muse,
Long-legged girl in a coarse shirt!
Don't grasp my heart in your palm. I'm sorry
For the long ache of a short friendship.
A shell holds the ocean under lock and key,
But space can't be confined in a skull.



"Oka or Zhizhdra" are two rivers in the Russian steppe.
"Five walls" refers to the izba-the small, old Russian dwelling, heated by a huge oven in the center.

A loud ticking, everywhere. The rhythmic march..."

                    To My Wife

A loud ticking, everywhere. The rhythmic march
Of matches jostling in a pocket. I lie on the bed,
Fully dressed. Relax, it's nothing. But the feeling of terror
Is more ancient and more durable than you, my soul.
On the chair, an ashtray gleams with cigarette butts.
Against winter twilight, two keys glimmer.
This is death: you're really in it now, idiot.
Pedestal, cycle, pebble-the rhymer's torture.
A naked woman now rises from the bed
And slowly slips over her head a roomy
Gown, then aimlessly walks around
The bare dwelling, full of a bad memory
Or one worse than that. Before the great parting
Custom demands that you sit a few moments,
And she sits down, not breathing a sound.
Fathers, Teachers, look-hell exists.
She walks to the door in transparent dark,
At the threshold casts a glance at the wretched bed,
Then traces a strange dream on the dusty desk
As she leaves-words you can't quite read.



The poem may actually take place in a hospital room, though it remains purposely unclear; Gandlevsky writes more directly about his brain surgery in his memoir, Trepanation of the Skull.

"Struck down with this illness..."

Struck down with this illness,
The sullen sons of Russia
From doctor to construction super
Walk around like rogues.
A monstrous chick in a booth
Gives a bottle to the Super.
Restraining the pandemonium
Of his arm, he drinks, writhes,
And over the gypsy camp of Soviet power
Now soars up with ease, and flies.
He gazes like a sad demon
And craves African passion.
It's true, teetotalers exist
But as a rule they're not worth a shit.

. Though the name is wild,
Just hearing it soothes me.
All us creatures great and small
Lap up different wines.
It promises to a great nation
Delightful freedom.
And I, a pensive poet,
For ten whole years
From loneliness and spite
Searched for salvation
In wine, diligently, until
Vampires in fish scales
And imps riding on swine
Began to visit me.

Farewell, docent of friendship
And saboteur of love!
I thank you for the help,
For the obscenities and tricks.
I chased and caught you,
Fought you, landed in a clinic,
And finally was cured of you.
Lead another couple to the altar,
Ms. Swaggers-in-a-glass-jacket
(All honor and place to the youth).
The last time I kiss
Your hand, bashful bride,
I'll shed a tear, toss you in the air.
Be more gentle with her, Mr. Super.

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