“Who Says I’ve Lost Her?”: Andrey Klyonov’s “Berlin Is Burning”

Portrait of Andrey Klyenov (1950)
by Telesforas Kulakauskas

It started a decade ago, maybe earlier. Taking walks around my neighborhood I’d notice two or three ownerless Russian books lying face up on a strip of grass, sometimes an entire cardboard box of them under a tree. The children and grandchildren of the older generation of Russian immigrants, who are steadily passing away, are hard-pressed to find better resting places for their parents’ and grandparents’ collections. The émigré library, founded in 1997, is struggling to survive, and even local thrift shops are no longer accepting Russian titles as donations. I don’t blame the shops — there aren’t any takers, so the books eventually end up in the recycling bin anyway.

With all those sad facts in mind, I always stop to sort through the discards on the side of the road, hoping to rescue something special before a sprinkler reduces it to mulch. One time I even pulled a volume from a box under active aquatic assault; its neighbors, entirely soaked through, had managed to shield it. The book is a collection of poems by Andrey Klyonov, titled Revelation and published in New York in 1984.

Klyonov was born in Minsk, Belarus, in 1920, to a Jewish family; his real name was Aron Kupershtok. He published his first poem at the age of 15, and his first collection, My Friends, five years later, in 1940. Like so many talented poets of his generation, he studied at Moscow’s Gorky Literary Institute — and, like so many of them, volunteered for the front soon after the Soviet Union was invaded. Some of these poets survived, but many others perished; the finest monument to their legacy in English is Maria Bloshteyn’s extraordinary anthology Russia Is Burning: Poems of the Great Patriotic War.

Klyonov entered the army as a private and rose to the rank of senior lieutenant. While fighting near his native Minsk, he learned that his family had been murdered in the city’s ghetto. The poem below, written in Germany in 1945, is one of dozens in which Klyonov mourns his parents and other victims of the Shoah. This unhealing wound, at once personal and world-historical, is at the center of two full cycles in Revelation, “Jewish Requiem” and “The Book of War,” but it haunts the entire collection. Nowhere is the pain more evident than in “Berlin Is Burning,” which calls to mind Anna Semyonovna’s letter to her son in Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate.

Returning from the war, Klyonov found a place in Moscow’s literary establishment as a poet and translator, but he couldn’t reconcile himself to the regime’s antisemitism. He won the right to immigrate to Israel in 1973 and officially reclaimed his family’s name — Kupershtok. In 1979, he resettled in New York, where he continued to write until his death in 2004.

The flyleaf of my rescued copy of Revelation bears an inscription by the poet, from 1984: “To […], with sincere respect, kind wishes, and a request, if possible, to help me distribute a few copies of this book.” Decades later, in a roundabout way, the recipient honored Klyonov’s request.

Berlin Is Burning

Berlin is burning …
And I dream of home …
White fluff, grey ashes whirl about me …
“Open up, mama …”
I’ve been gone so long.
It’s on a hill, our home,
beyond a bridge …
Who says it’s burnt?
No, no,
it’s fine, it’s fine —
same as I left it …

“Mama, don’t cry.
Calm down, mama, calm down …”
Who says I’ve lost her?
She’s alive, alive …
Behind the house,
cranberries grow,
the Neman flows
against the sky — and I
am still that boy with clear brown eyes …
And you are still the same …
Berlin — who gives a damn?
There’s no Berlin!

Down in a hollow, underneath a bush,
a warbler sleeps.
I bring her crumbs …
“Mama, come sit, please come.
No, I won’t leave you —
I’m back for good, I’m home …”
Outside the window,
flames grow wider, wilder —
a deepening dawn.

Hooves clatter, echo
on the concrete slabs …
I want so badly to go home —
there is no home.
I want to see you —
but they’ve killed you.

1945


Берлин горит

Берлин горит …
Мне снится отчий дом …
Кружится белый пух и серый пепел…
— Открой мне, мама … —
Я давно там не был.
Стоит наш дом
На горке, за мостом …
Кто говорит, что он сгорел?
Он цел!
Он цел, он цел,
Знакомый, тот же самый …

— Не надо, мама.
Успокойся, мама … —
Кто говорит, что я осиротел?
Жива! Жива!
За домом у калин
Струится Неман вровень с небесами.
Я тот же мальчик с чистыми глазами,
И ты все та …
К чему же тут Берлин?
Берлина нет!

В ложбинке за кустом
Ночует славка,
Я принес ей крошек …
— Сядь рядом, мама.
Я тебя не брошу,
Я навсегда вернулся в отчий дом … —
Пожар в окне все шире,
Как рассвет.

На гулких плитках
Цокают копыта …
Мне хочется домой,
А дома нет.
Мне хочется к тебе —
А ты убита.

1945

Raising the Torch of Compassion: Emma Lazarus in Irina Mashinski’s Translation

In the summer of 2019 the poets Alicia Ostriker, Mihaela Moscaliuc, and Tess O’Dwyer initiated an admirable, timely project, calling on poets working in over forty languages, ranging from Ancient Greek to Isthmus Zapotec and Esperanto, to produce translations of Emma Lazarus’s sonnet “The New Colossus.” The project is now shining bright at the website of the American Jewish Historical Society. Each version is prefaced by a brief note relating the poet’s own experience of immigration and laying bare the fact that the ideals embodied in the Statue of Liberty remain beacons in the distance — the journey continues. The awe-inspiring Russian translation is the work of my dear friend Irina Mashinski, and I can’t resist reproducing it in full, along with her note:


Irina Mashinski by Anna Golitsyna

We emigrated in the fall of 1991, right after the coup and two months before the dissolution of the USSR We rode to the airport in a taxi at night, through the brightly illuminated Moscow that was awakening after seventy Soviet years. The first frost made the city seem even brighter. Then, we were airborne. The planet that had been mine from birth, unreachable until now, lay below. The dawn was approaching — twice slower than usual. My five-year-old daughter Sasha was sleeping in my lap, her head on the scratchy sleeve of my winter coat. In the evening, we landed at JFK.

Не дерзкий грек, не воин-покоритель
всех, что охватит взор, земель и вод —
с похищенною молнией встает
она — гонимых покровитель,

отвергнутых, всех тех, что гонит ветер
нужды и распри, рабства гнойный гнет —
к закатной гавани у западных ворот,
и лик ее открыт, а пламень светел.

«Отдайте мне усталых, обделенных,
ненужных, нищих духом — всех приму
бездомных, безъязыких, унесенных

и выброшенных к свету моему.
У двух земель, мостом соединенных,
я состраданья факел подниму».


Irina has also written a model translator’s note — a true miniature masterclass in poetic translation:


I chose to keep the structure of the Italian sonnet, though I did take a few liberties to emphasize ideas of particular relevance in today’s context. The language and the tone are contemporary; I tried to avoid anything that would sound too loud/metallic or too heightened. She, the colossus, is deliberately softer, less mighty and stern; the stress is deliberately more on them, the refugees, than it is on her. I chose to alternate masculine and feminine rhymes to make the poem sound more natural and gender-neutral for the Russian ear. The rhymes are rather simple, not elaborate, though the deep feminine enclosing rhyme of the first and second stanzas — the one that establishes the tone and the thematic opposition between a conqueror (покоритель) and a patron and protector (покровитель) — sounds looser, more contemporary, more free-spirited than the rhymes of the original’s era, both in the English and Russian traditions. 

The main theme is two-fold: compassion and light. The torch/light/fire appears in stanzas 1, 2, 4. The word “земли” (lands) appears in the first and last stanzas: in the first, it relates to a conquest; in the last, to the shore/the island(s)/the harbor. The poem bridges them, and the bridge (“connecting/uniting the two lands/islands”) in the last stanza bears an additional meaning: connecting the Old and the New Worlds. “Соединенных” (connected, united) is the same word as the one we use for the USA: united in compassion. The syntax of the lines in the sestet, especially the enjambment of the sentence in lines 11-12, resembles waves; it sustains the constant movement, the consistency of the tradition (of acceptance) — and also marks the endpoints of the journey. Yet another liberty I took is “нищих духом” in line 10While the first word of­­­ the phrase means “poor” (as in the original), the full phrase has a ­­­­­­­­­­biblical origin – “the poor in spirit” of Matthew 5:3, who are “blessed,” and who have a claim to “the kingdom of heaven.” For a Russian reader, the word “безъязыких” (tongue/language-less), added to line 11, alludes to “Without Language” (1895), a well-known novella by the Ukrainian-Russian writer Vladimir Korolenko, which chronicles the struggles of a Ukrainian peasant in Manhattan. 

The verbs in the translation are given in the future or, in the concluding line, future/present continuous tense. The last line literally means: I am/will be raising the torch of compassion.

“Bargain Circus” in THE HOPKINS REVIEW

The Winter 2021 issue of The Hopkins Review features my ode to another relic of LA’s past, Bargain Circus on La Brea Blvd., where my mother, grandmother, and I did much of our shopping when we first immigrated to the city. The poem was promoted by Valery Skorov’s song “Garbage,” which I translated last July. My great thanks to the journal’s editor, the wonderful poet David Yezzi, for responding so warmly to the submission.

One look at the Circus’s façade suggests what an odd place it was — odd and carnivalesque. Writing for the Los Angeles Times in 1997, Danny Feingold captured the scene:

The eclectic selection of goods and guilt-inducing low prices draw a melange of Orthodox Jews, Russians, Armenians and Westside connoisseurs. And the wallet-friendly policy seems to inspire a relaxed, congenial atmosphere. “Where are you going to find eggs for $1.09?” says Anya, an 88-year-old regular who comes by bus from Santa Monica and recites her movie credits while stocking up on cottage cheese.

Where indeed… The big tent folded in 1999, ceding way to a cookie-cutter 99 Cents Only store, but the memories persist.

“How I Saw the Sky”: On Maxim Osipov and Ivan Elagin

It seems hard to believe but, in just a few days, Alex Fleming, Nicolas Pasternak Slater, and I will be turning in our manuscript of Kilometer 101, a collection of stories and essays by Maxim Osipov. Working on this volume — a followup to Rock, Paper, Scissors, and Other Stories — has been an engrossing pleasure, as well as a means of intellectual and sensory escape during various phases of lockdown. Maxim’s cool yet sympathetic observations of human nature, his pointillistic, instantly evocative descriptions of both rural and urban landscapes drew me in as I translated my share of the pieces and read through Alex’s and Nicolas’s versions; now the work is behind us, but Maxim’s prose won’t let me go.

You can read one of the longer pieces from the collection, “The Children of Dzhankoy,” at Hazlitt, whose wonderful editor, Jordan Ginsberg, was kind enough not only to publish it but to commission a beautifully fitting illustration by Elena Cabitza (see above). We have been lucky with our editors. The equally wonderful and perceptive Emily Nemens, outgoing editor of the Paris Review, included the first essay I translated for the book, “Sventa,” in the spring issue of the magazine — her last, unfortunately.

In “Sventa,” Maxim revisits a town in Lithuania where he and his family spent many summers when he was a boy. Though only a few pages long, the essay, like all of Maxim’s work, is full of twists and turns — some subtle, others quite sudden. Early on, Maxim quotes a line by the émigré poet Ivan Elagin, whose work I’ve shared here before. The poem he draws on suits the essay’s subject perfectly, but it is another of Elagin’s poems that came back to me recently — a poem about the value of poetry and, by extension, of any literary work that captures the seemingly ineffable nuances of an individual’s experience of the world. And that is exactly what Maxim accomplishes in his prose.

Perhaps there will, someday, appear a note —
or a whole article — in which someone
sets down a thorough, accurate account
of every little thing I’ve ever done:

the services I rendered, gifts I gave;
where I excelled, or didn’t rate at all;
what ailment finally put me in my grave;
which priest presided at my funeral.

This someone will be sure to add citations —
a proper scholar with a well-stocked shelf.
But how I saw the sky… That they won’t tell you.
I couldn’t even tell you that myself.

Who can transmit the temperature I sense
inside my body as I write these lines?
Nobody gives a damn about my hands —
nobody cares about my lips, my eyes.

And this is why I struggle to impart
to all my verse, with all the strength I have,
my very breath, the beating of my heart —
so that it breathes and lives on my behalf.


Наверное, появится заметка,
А может быть, и целая статья,
В которой обстоятельно и метко
Определят, чем занимался я.

Какие человечеству услуги
Я оказал. В чем был велик, в чем мал.
Какие в гроб свели меня недуги,
Какой меня священник отпевал.

Цитаты к биографии привяжут,
Научно проследят за пядью пядь.
А как я видел небо — не расскажут,
Я сам не мог об этом рассказать.

Кто передаст температуру тела,
Которую я чувствую сейчас?
Ведь никому нет никакого дела
До рук моих, до губ моих, до глаз.

Я в каждое мое стихотворенье
Укладывал, по мере сил своих,
Мое дыханье и сердцебиенье,
Чтоб за меня дышал и жил мой стих.

The Secret Is Out: Ukrainian Literature and the EBRD Prize

This morning brought welcome news — my translation of Andrey Kurkov’s Grey Bees has been longlisted for the 2021 EBRD Literature Prize! It shares that honor with nine excellent titles, two of which also hail from Ukraine: Oksana Zabuzhko’s collection of stories Your Ad Could Go Here, translated by Nina Murray, Marta Horban, Marco Carynnyk, Halyna Hryn, and Askold Melnyczuk, and Andriy Lyubka’s novel Carbide, translated by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stockhouse Wheeler. Your heard right: three out of ten — a great moment for Ukrainian literature, which Kate Tsurkan called “one of the best-kept secrets of the English translation market” in her enthusiastic LARB review of Lyubka’s Carbide and Oleg Sentsov’s Life Went on Anyway: Stories (translated from the Russian by Uilleam Blacker). It’s hard not to wax enthusiastic about Life Went on Anyway and Carbide, a novel I recommended in another unmissable roundup, The Calvert Journal’s “100 Books to Read from Eastern Europe and Central Asia”:

A wild and wily novel with pain in its heart, Andriy Lyubka’s Carbide tackles the subject of Ukraine’s place in Europe sideways, or rather, from underground. Here, the national dream of integration into the EU, which soared during 2014’s Maidan Revolution and was stymied by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and incursion into Donbas, fuels one man’s harebrained scheme to sneak the entire population of Ukraine into Western Europe by means of a tunnel. With its epic conceit, keen sense of human folly, and its blend of comedy and tragedy, Carbide digs back to the very roots of Ukrainian literature, calling to mind Ivan Kotlyarevsky’s mock-heroic retelling of Virgil’s Aeneid, the Eneyida (1798), which mourned and slyly immortalised the nation’s vanquished Cossack past. Ukraine’s Zaporozhian Cossacks never recovered their autonomy after being disbanded by the Russians, but we can still hope that the European aspirations of modern Ukrainians produce better results in life than they do in Lyubka’s lively novel, which is now available in Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler’s equally vivid translation.

In the past year LARB has tried to bring the well-kept secret of Ukrainian literature out into the open, publishing not only Tsurkan’s piece on Lyubka and Sentsov, but also Olena Jennings’s review of Zabuzhko’s Your Ad Could Go Here, Uilleam Blacker’s review-essay on “Quiet Spiders of the Hidden Soul”: Mykola (Nik) Bazhan’s Early Experimental Poetry, Bohdan Tokarsky’s tribute to the empowering poetry of Vasyl Stus, and Sasha Dovzhyk’s celebration of the bold feminist vision of Lesya Ukrainka on the author’s 150th birthday. EBRD’s expert panel of judges — Toby Lichtig, Anna Aslanyan, Julian Evans, and Kirsty Lang — have taken that mission much farther down the road, and for this I and all fans of Ukrainian literature owe them a debt of gratitude!

(Photograph of Grey Bees by the one and only Jennifer Croft.)

“Uncredited” in the NYRB

The March 25 issue of The New Review of Books carries my poem “Uncredited” — and for this I send my deepest thank to the brilliant poet and editor Jana Prikryl, who responded so warmly to my submission. I’m an inveterate fan of mid-20th-century gumshoes and of the jazz that often accompanied their adventures. My poem was inspired by a scene in Peter Gunn, in which the titular PI’s girlfriend, nightclub singer Edie Hart, played by Lola Albright, puts her hushed, quavering signature on an American standard, before introducing her beau to the great Shorty Rogers.

I deviated from the facts of Albright’s life, hoping that this version of her would bring to mind the many actresses who shot across the small screens of the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. I think of Linda Lawson, as well as of my dear old neighbor Nola Thorp. The NYRB’s paywall creates an interesting effect — a fadeout of the final lines — which, in this case, couldn’t be more appropriate.

“Nothing’s Going Right”: Vladimir Vysotsky’s “My Gypsy Romance”

Last week it was my honor to exert a corrupting influence on the minds of Russian-learners at Dartmouth. The brilliant scholar and inspired translator Ainsley Morse, whom I am proud to call a friend, asked me to “visit” her class (over Zoom, of course) and discuss my versions of the Odessan criminal songs I’ve been posting on this blog — “Surka,” “A Joint Sprang Up on Deribasovskaya Street,” “The Girl from Nagasaki.” The whole session was a blast from beginning to end, but, as I should have expected, it was the great Soviet-era “bard” Vladimir Vysotsky who stole the show. His renditions of “Surka” and “Nagasaki” were so perfectly in tune with the spirit of the compositions, so full of palpable delight and what the Russians call “nadryv,” that I didn’t really need to explain a thing; I could just sit back and watch the attendants melt. A hard act to follow.

Nadryv frequently lands on lists of “untranslatable” Russian words. On one such list, by Daria Aminova, it’s defined as “an uncontrollable emotional outburst, when a person releases intimate, deeply hidden feelings”; Aminova rightly adds — citing Dostoyevsky, many of whose characters seem to be on the verge of nadryv at all times — that it “often expresse[s] imaginary, excessively exaggerated and distorted feelings.” In Russian culture, one of the most reliable outlets for nadryv is the so-called “Gypsy romance” — a type of ballad composed by and for Romani musical ensembles and soloists, and performed at bars, restaurants, and other places where people find themselves restless round midnight. A couple of years ago I shared a performance by Alyosha Dimitrievich (1913-1986) that demonstrates the power of this sort of music at its most euphoric. But the flip side of the Gypsy romance is profound, inconsolable melancholy, which sinks so deep that it triggers a geyser of growling anguish. That’s the feeling one finds, and succumbs to, in perhaps the greatest example of the genre, based on the Russian poet Apollon Grigoryev’s (1822-1864) “Gypsy Hungarian Dance.” A recording by the Greek-born, Odessan-raised operatic baritone Yuri Morfessi (1882-1949) will give you a sense of the song’s captivating rhythm and emotional aura: 

In 1968 Vladimir Vysotsky wrote his own Gypsy romance — a fever dream of despair that fed on the rhythms and imagery of the genre, as well as on the poems of Alexander Blok (1880-1921) and Sergey Yesenin (1895-1925), neither of whom was a stranger to the taverns where these romances governed the mood. The exact meaning of the imagery, for which a number of scholars have offered possible explanations, seems less important to me than the vaguely ominous atmosphere it establishes. What Vysotsky did was to tap into the tradition as only he could, drawing out an anthem for his own disaffected generation. Below is my favorite recording of the song, followed by my translation and the original:

My Gypsy Romance

Yellow fires in my dream —
all night long I mutter:
“Hold on, brother, bide your time —
morning’s always better.”
Morning comes, but nothing’s right,
ain’t no life of clover:
smoking on an empty gut
or boozing, still hungover.

There’s green damask in the taverns,
napkins gleaming white:
it’s paradise for fools and beggars —
but I’m a bird caged tight…
Priests smoke incense in the church,
barely any light —
no, it isn’t right, this stench,
it just isn’t right!

I race up the hill, don’t stop —
otherwise, god knows…
But an alder grows on top
and cherry trees below.
Give me ivy on the rise,
that would be a sight…
Give me something, something else —
but nothing’s going right!

By the river lies a field —
light or dark — no god!
I see bluets at my feet,
and a long, long road.
That road leads into a brake
full of wicked hags.
At the end — a chopping block
and a sharpened axe…

Somewhere all the horses trot
in rhythm, like a chorus.
But on this road, nothing is right,
and at the end — it’s worse.
Not the churches, not the taverns —
nothing’s sacred, fellas!
I tell ya, nothing’s right, my brothers…
It’s all wrong, I tell ya!

1968


Моя цыганская

В сон мне — желтые огни,
И хриплю во сне я:
— Повремени, повремени,-
Утро мудренее!
Но и утром всё не так,
Нет того веселья:
Или куришь натощак,
Или пьешь с похмелья.

В кабаках — зеленый штоф,
Белые салфетки.
Рай для нищих и шутов,
Мне ж — как птице в клетке!
В церкви смрад и полумрак,
Дьяки курят ладан.
Нет! И в церкви все не так,
Все не так, как надо.

Я — на гору впопыхах,
Чтоб чего не вышло.
А на горе стоит ольха,
А под горою вишня.
Хоть бы склон увить плющом,
Мне б и то отрада,
Хоть бы что-нибудь еще…
Все не так, как надо!

Я тогда по полю, вдоль реки.
Света — тьма, нет бога!
А в чистом поле васильки,
Дальняя дорога.
Вдоль дороги — лес густой
С Бабами-Ягами,
А в конце дороги той —
Плаха с топорами.

Где-то кони пляшут в такт,
Нехотя и плавно.
Вдоль дороги все не так,
А в конце — подавно.
И ни церковь, ни кабак —
Ничего не свято!
Нет, ребята, все не так,
Все не так, ребята!

1968 г.

“Without Touching the Ground”: Julia Nemirovskaya’s Free Explorations

Photograph of Julia Nemirovskaya by Lizka Vaintrob.

Today is my mother’s birthday, and, serendipitously, this morning’s mail brought us both a gift: five poems by Julia Nemirovskaya, with my translations, just published by Caesura. In my introductory note, I try to account for the enlivening power of Julia’s poems and conclude that they “work their refreshing magic by awakening our impulse not only to see but to sympathize with the world around us, to feel the subtle energies coursing through it — an impulse that too often retreats and withers after childhood ends”: “In Julia’s imaginative oasis, discarded objects and the subjects of myth all speak for themselves, humbly voicing their pains, pleasures, and desires. Their voices are haunting because we recognize them — we’ve all heard them, before we ceased to listen.”

Today I am especially moved by “Eves,” in which Julia speaks in the pained, yearning voice of the Biblical mother’s descendants:

Eves

Underneath us the stones seem to weep.
We’re a burden to all, even snow.
Oh to run without touching the ground with our feet,
our selves never touching a soul.

Black specks from above and slim lines from the side:
we’ll be small – we won’t clog the Lord’s eyes.
And then He will say to us: Daughters, oh why
did I oust you from Paradise?

Last year Julia was asked to share her thoughts on the status of women in the arts and sciences, both in Russia and in the West. I wish I had time to translate the entire interview for this post, but I’ll satisfy myself with this wise and touching observation:

I think the main thing is that every girl should have confidence in herself, confidence that she can choose her own path. You probably know what the “glass ceiling” is — invisible obstacles. In their first years of life, little boys are expected to be funny, curious, adventurous, while little girls are expected to be obedient, sweet, helpful. We all like to be liked and try to meet the expectations of adults, even if these expectations go against our nature. This early experience, imbibed with mother’s milk, should be different. Adults should like boys and girls for who they are: nothing should be imposed on them — let them explore the world freely.

This commitment to free exploration uplifts each line of Julia’s verse. In my piece at Caesura, I mention some other poets who managed to keep their childlike curiosity alive, including Walter de la Mare, who, in his lecture on Rupert Brooke, describes the inner worlds of children with great warmth and understanding: “Children are in a sense butterflies. […] They are not bound in by their groping senses. Facts to them are the liveliest of chameleons. Between their dream and their reality looms no impassable abyss.”

I offer these translations to Julia, to my mother, who never imposed anything on me, and to my wonderful Jenny, who lets no impassable abyss or invisible obstacle stand in her way.


Евы

Эти камни как будто бы плачут под нами,
Всем мы в тягость, и даже снегу.
Вот бы тихо бежать, не касаясь ногами
Земли, а собой – человеков.

Сверху будем мы просто как чёрные точки,
Божьи очи не засоряя,
И как черточки сбоку, и скажет Он: дочки
Зачем я вас выгнал из рая?

“Where Kindness Can Still Be Found”: On Andrey Kurkov and Boris Khersonsky

This week’s issue of the TLS (5 February) carries Uilleam Blacker’s beautifully written review of Andrey Kurkov’s Grey Bees, which homes in on precisely what makes the book so appealing to me personally. Blacker calls the protagonist, Sergey Sergeyich, “at once a war-weary adventurer and a fairy-tale innocent, a cross between Odysseus and a Slavic holy fool”:

As he overcomes various obstacles, from traumatized Ukrainian veterans to Russian mercenaries and propaganda television crews, his naive gaze allows Kurkov to get to the heart of a country bewildered by crisis and war, but where kindness can still be found.

Blacker is himself a skilled translator (see his elegant rendition of Oleg Sentsov’s Life Went on Anyway), as well as one of the keenest, most erudite Anglophone scholars of Ukrainian writing today, so it brings me great joy to know that he approves of both the book and my translation. His verdict also matches those of other readers, like the Amazon reviewer who (to my own delight!) judged the book to be “delightful,” calling it a “story of a piece of true gold and his bees, thoroughly recommended for its charm and naivety in recounting occupation.”

The promise of kindness that Blacker discerned in Andrey’s pages brought to mind a cautionary poem by another Russophone Ukrainian author, the contemporary Odessan poet Boris Khersonsky, a handful of whose syntactically intricate and psychologically subtle verses I’ve recently translated for a forthcoming collection (my great thanks to Ilya Kaminsky for the invitation!). In this poem from 2015, written at the height of the conflict that also lies at the heart of Kurkov’s novel, Khersonsky envisions with chilling clarity the cruel aftershocks of military victory. A victory without kindness can be every bit as dehumanizing as war itself.

When victory is ours — the postwar executions start.
The hasty meetings, the tribunals passing sentence.
We need to thin the ranks of all these prisoners of war.
Why should we feed the generals we’ve vanquished?

They’ve got as much blood on their hands as all the rest.
We have the orders that they gave their men.
The urge to murder is a form of sexual lust.
You just can’t stop — you want to, but you can’t.

And so it’s up the ladder, hands behind their backs,
with pastors — priests, if they should happen to be Catholics —
bags on their heads, nooses around their necks.
Die, scum. In seven decades, you’ll get YouTube clicks.

Five minutes — and a man is a dead body.
Another five — the coffin is nailed shut.
War criminals deserve no hint of pity.
A strong rope is enough, or a sure shot.

The executioner — his skill — is our great hope.
Prison’s expensive — killing simply costs less.
The only justice is the bullet and the rope.
The postwar era knows no other justice.

Those of you who would like to hear Andrey and myself discuss war, kindness, and everything else to be found in Grey Bees can sign up for an event sponsored by the Ukrainian Institute London, to be held on February 24.


После победы — эпоха казней послевоенных.
Скоротечные заседания и решения трибуналов.
Необходимо уменьшить поголовье военнопленных.
Не кормить же в тюрьме побежденных вражеских генералов!

Тем более, что у каждого руки в крови по локоть.
И сохранились приказы, что они отдавали солдатам.
Ибо страсть к убийству — та же сексуальная похоть.
Начнешь и не остановишься, и хотелось бы — да куда там!

И теперь вверх по лесенкам, руки связаны за спиною,
в сопровождении пасторов, или ксендзов — если католик,
и — мешок на голову, петлю на шею, умирай со своею виною,
через семьдесят лет в ютубе выложат ролик.

Пять минут и живой человек теперь уже мертвое тело.
Еще пять минут и гроб уже заколочен.
Жалеть военных преступников — это последнее дело.
Была бы веревка прочна или выстрел точен.

Все дело теперь в палаче и его сноровке.
Лишение жизни дешевле, чем лишенье свободы.
И вся справедливость мира в пуле или веревке.
А другой справедливости нет в послевоенные годы.

“The Bureau of Street Lighting” in THE RAINTOWN REVIEW

I remember, but only vaguely, the first time I saw the squat brick building of the Bureau of Street Lighting, fronted by its motley curving colonnade of lampposts. It caught my eye through a car’s passenger side window — or maybe through the tinted window of a bus — as I was making my way up Santa Monica Boulevard. What I remember distinctly is the impression the words made: the elegant block letters on the midcentury sign, spelling out a promise at once radiantly positive and shadily Kafkaesque. “Bureau” and “Lighting” didn’t seem to belong to the same realm of ideas. Nor could I pass over the uncanny suitability of the cross street, Virgil Avenue: yet another bold promise of guidance, another meeting point of the enlightened and the infernal.

It was only years later that I got my hands on a copy of Eddy S. Feldman’s The Art of Street Lighting in Los Angeles (1972), obviously the fruit of obsessive devotion. I read it cover to cover. Feldman’s enthusiasm, his narrow focus, and the book’s scarcity sparked conspiratorial feelings, the way the works of poets sometimes do, though this was prose of the driest sort; it was as if I was being initiated into a club for two, the mysteries of which would be lost without its members. That, of course, isn’t actually true. LA’s streetlights have been the subjects of two popular installations, Chris Burden’s Urban Light (2008) and, a decade and a half earlier, Sheila Klein’s Vermonica (1993), which has — luckily, coincidentally — just been restored. You can see some lovely shots of Vermonica on the artist’s site.

Shortly after I finished Feldman’s book, I posed a question — to the Bureau, but really to myself — and the answer took the form of a little poem, which has just appeared in the latest issue of The Raintown Review, edited, as I’ve only recently found out, by another Angeleno, the poet Quincy R. Lehr. (I think I even recognize the van in the cover photo from my walks to work.)

The Bureau of Street Lighting

“A Bureau of Street Lighting was created within the Department of Public Works in 1925, which established criteria for all street lighting and determines locations of the lighting units.”
— Eddy S. Feldman, The Art of Street Lighting in Los Angeles (1972)

What would we be without the light you lend us?
Hard to imagine what we were back when…
A desert pueblo, sleepy haciendas
with smoke-stained lanterns blinking out by ten.

Yes, I suppose I’ll thank you for the darkness
your light supports: the luring night-bound streets,
the anonymity of motels and apartments,
all the small trade that’s done without receipts.

Yes, for the city limit, for your tactless,
incessant focus on just who we are.
You will not let the zodiac distract us —
you make our private misery the star.

The issue is full of great poems — far better than this one — by Maryann Corbett, William Virgil Davis, Ernest Holbert, Charlotte Innes, and many others. It’s a small journal with a great history, and with a bright future well worth supporting!