RTÉ, Binghamton, Bergelson, and the TLS

On Saturday, November 4, RTÉ Radio 1’s The Book Show, presented by Sinead Gleeson, broadcast a stellar episode on the Russian Revolution, which featured some readings from 1917 and my Babel translations, as well as from Teffi’s Subtly Worded. It was especially thrilling to hear one of my favorite American authors, George Saunders, discuss Babel’s influence on his work. The other guests were Maria Alyokhina of Pussy Riot, comedian and writer Viv Groskop, and Maria Stillmark of Trinity College Dublin.

Yesterday I gave a talk and taught a class at Binghamton University on the 1917 anthology, exactly one hundred years to the day (November 7, according to the Gregorian calendar) after the Bolshevik takeover. Many thanks to Sidney Dement for the invitation and for all the kindness he showed me during my stay! It was a bittersweet experience — probably the last of my 1917-related events.


While at Binghamton, I received an exceedingly generous review of the book from Max Cairnduff, who runs the indispensable literary blog Pechorin’s Journal. A comradely salute, Max!

I should also note that a major work by one of the authors I included in 1917, David Bergelson, has just been translated from Yiddish into English. Judgment (1926-29) is a gripping expressionistic novel set in a shtetl on the Ukrainian-Polish border during the Russian Civil War; Harriet Murav and Sasha Senderovich’s rendition is very effective indeed. I was asked to review it for In geveb, a terrific journal of Yiddish studies, by its equally terrific Editor-in-Chief, Madeleine Cohen.

And, of course, general interest in Russian literature won’t wane after the anniversary year closes. Some Russian names are here to stay. Case in point: this week’s TLS carries my longish piece on Joseph Brodsky and Vladimir Nabokov.


Dartmouth and Leonid Kannegiesser (1896-1918)

On October 27 I’ll be giving a talk at Dartmouth College, as part of their exciting 1917 Centennial Series: The Year that Shook the Arts.

One of the poems I plan to present appears in the latest issue of Cardinal Points, in an electrifying translation by James Manteith. Its author is Leonid Kannegiesser (or Kannegisser). James provides a succinct sketch of the poet’s tragically short life:

Leonid Kannegiesser (1896-1918) was a poet and military cadet, and an active participant in the literary and political bohemia of Silver Age St. Petersburg. An advocate of socialist democracy and an admirer of Alexander Kerensky, the head of the Provisional Government, he sided with anti-Bolsheviks after the October Revolution and carried out the revenge killing of the local head of the state security police, Moisei Uritsky (1873-1918), an act that helped unleash the Red Terror and Civil War. A decade after Kannegiesser’s execution, émigré writer Mark Aldanov published a collection of the poet’s surviving body of work (Paris, 1928).


The poem, titled “On Review,” manifests Kannegiesser’s naive, unshakable patriotism and faith in Kerensky’s leadership.

In sunlight, with bayonets gleaming —
foot-soldiers. Beyond, in the deep —
Don Cossacks. In front of the legions —
Kerensky upon a white steed.

His weary eyelids are lifted.
He’s making a speech. No one stirs.
O voice! To remember for ages:
Russia. Liberty. War.

Then hearts become fire and iron,
the spirit — an oak green with life,
and the Marseillaise eagle comes flying,
ascending from silvery pipes.

To battle! — we’ll beat back the devils,
and through the dark pall of the sky,
Archangels will gaze down,
jealous to see us rejoice as we die.

And if, staggering, aching,
I fall upon you, mother earth,
to lie in a field, forsaken,
with a bullet hole near my heart,

on the verge of the blessed gateway,
in my jubilant dying dream,
I’ll recall it — Russia, Liberty,
Kerensky upon a white steed.

June 27, 1917, Pavlovsk


На солнце, сверкая штыками —
Пехота. За ней, в глубине, —
Донцы-казаки. Пред полками —
Керенский на белом коне.

Он поднял усталые веки,
Он речь говорит. Тишина.
О, голос! Запомнить навеки:
Россия. Свобода. Война.

Сердца из огня и железа,
А дух — зеленеющий дуб,
И песня-орёл, Марсельеза,
Летит из серебряных труб.

На битву! — и бесы отпрянут,
И сквозь потемневшую твердь
Архангелы с завистью глянут
На нашу весёлую смерть.

И если, шатаясь от боли,
К тебе припаду я, о, мать,
И буду в покинутом поле
С простреленной грудью лежать —

Тогда у блаженного входа
В предсмертном и радостном сне,
Я вспомню — Россия, Свобода,
Керенский на белом коне.

27 июня 1917, Павловск

2017 Compass Translation Award

My tireless co-editor, Irina Mashinski, has been updating the Cardinal Points website. It now features a call for submissions for this year’s Compass Translation Award, which is dedicated to the poetry of Maria Stepanova. (In June of this year I posted Cynthia Haven’s excellent interview with Stepanova, which appeared in LARB.) The Compass Award’s Director, Alexander Veytsman, writes:

Maria Stepanova is one of the most prominent and politically engaged Russian poets of our time. With more than a dozen poetry volumes to her name, she is also an accomplished journalist and a defender of the freedom of the press. Stepanova is the founder of Colta.ru, an online publication that is often likened to The New York Review of Books. She is the recipient of several Russian and international literary awards.

In 2017, Compass Award enters its seventh year, with prior competitions dedicated to Nikolay Gumilev, Marina Tsvetaeva, Maria Petrovykh, Arseny Tarkovsky, Boris Slutsky, and Bella Akhmadulina.

This year is the first time that we have honored a living poet. Unlike past Compass poets, Stepanova will have a chance to read the award winners’ translations of her work.

To learn more about the competition and to submit your entry, please visit the site.

The Revolutionary spiked review

October is upon us! Late last month, Tim Black, editor of the estimable spiked review, sent me a number of astonishingly penetrating questions about the 1917 anthology and writers’ responses to the revolution. The interview has just appeared online, in an issue dedicated to all things revolutionary, which also features Susan Weissman’s always stimulating thoughts on Victor Serge.

And I was also happy to see Andrew Stuttaford end his excellent, though decidedly right-of-center, survey of revolutionary books in last weekend’s The Wall Street Journal with two paragraphs about 1917:

Finally, 1917: Stories and Poems From the Russian Revolution (Pushkin Press, 236 pages, $14.95) is an anthology of literary responses to Bunin’s “damn year.” Neatly chosen by Boris Dralyuk, with room for the familiar (such as Boris Pasternak) and those known less well (the sardonic Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya, who wrote as Teffi), the volume is reasonably well balanced between the October revolution’s supporters and those appalled by it. Vladimir Mayakovsky catches the millenarian mood (“We’ll cleanse all the cities . . . with a flood even greater than Noah’s”) while in “The Twelve” Alexander Blok opts for a warmer purge: “We’ll . . . set the world on fire . . . give us Your blessing, Lord!”
History made fools of the cheerleaders of revolution, but the words of those who opposed it still haunt. Anna Akhmatova resolves to stay with her “nation, suicidal” and does so, her great chronicling of Stalinist terror still to come. Marina Tsvetaeva writes of the wine flowing down “every gutter” and a “Tsar’s statue—razed, black night in its place.” Zinaida Gippius mourns the death of long longed-for liberty: “The Bride appeared. And then the soldiers / drove bayonets through both her eyes . . . The royal axe and noose were cleaner / than these apes’ bloodied hands . . . Can’t live like this! Can’t live like this!” Both Gippius and Tsvetaeva went into exile. Tsvetaeva later returned to her homeland. She hanged herself in 1941.

David Samoylov’s “The Bandit Woman” on the WLT Blog

This morning the wonderful World Literature Today Blog posted my translation of a poem by David Samoylov. (Many thanks to WLT’s tireless Editor-in-Chief, the poet Daniel Simon!) Since the poem appears to be behind a (very affordable!) paywall, I’ll repost the material here, along with the original Russian and a handful of links. You can also find a Ukrainian translation at Olena Bilozerska’s blog.


David Samoylov in the Red Army in the 1940s.

In June 1944, David Samoylov (1920-1990), an important Russian-language poet who was then a soldier in the Red Army, was sent to Ukraine to help suppress the nationalist insurgents fighting against both Nazi and Soviet occupation. The poem below, written in 1946, is, on the surface, a loyal Soviet soldier’s account of eliminating a hostile element — in this case, a woman who has ambushed and killed one of his comrades. Still, the reader cannot but admire the dignity of this “bandit,” a follower of Stepan Bandera (1909-1959) and Taras Bulba-Borovets (1908-1981). Writing in the 1980s, Samoylov recalled this period in his life: “It seemed self-evident that anyone who didn’t fight on the side of the Red Army, whatever their reasons may have been, was our enemy, abetting the fascists. That was also my point of view. Yet my poem ‘Bandit Woman,’ which was written after the war, shows that my feelings were always truer and more honest than my thoughts.” The poem reflects, in bold terms, the complexity of Russian-Ukrainian relations then and now, as well as a commitment to understanding — or trying to understand — the other side of any conflict.

The Bandit Woman

I led a bandit out, to shoot her.
She didn’t beg, she didn’t plead —
Just glared at me with pride and anger.
Her pain was bad. She clenched her teeth.

And then she said: “Now listen, fella,
You’re gonna shoot me anyway.
Before you lay me down forever,
Just let me look at my Ukraine.

Across Ukraine our horses gallop
Under the banner of Bandera.
Across Ukraine we’re stashing weapons,
Searching for a faith to honor.

Green moonshine boils in whitewashed huts
Around Berezne, in the woods —
We grin and press our sawed-off guns
Against the Russkies’ drunken heads.

Time for the Pechenegs to raid!
High time that Russian women sobbed!
There’ll be no more Ukrainian bread
For the damned Russkies and the Swabs!

Don’t want them gorging on our lard,
Drinking our vodka, getting merry!
Your scribes, however hard they try,
Cannot co-opt our nation’s story!

Bulba’s men ride across the fields,
Their bridles jangling loud, like coins!
Let Commies realize their ideals
The way they want to back at home…

It’s them that came up with the kolkhoz
Where any bum can eat for free.
For us Ukrainians, what’s the difference —
Gestapo or NKVD?”

And then I said: “Come on, you fiend,
It’s time you got what you deserved.
Wasn’t it you who killed my friend,
Who knifed him dead without a word?

The world is full of scum like you.
There aren’t enough like him around.
No sense in waiting for tribunals —
You’ll soon be rotting in the ground.”

And on we went. The land was brutal.
A bird was crying in the trees.
I led a bandit out, to shoot her.
She didn’t beg, she didn’t plead.



Я вел расстреливать бандитку.
Она пощады не просила.
Смотрела гордо и сердито.
Платок от боли закусила.

Потом сказала: «Слушай, хлопец,
Я все равно от пули сгину.
Дай перед тем, как будешь хлопать,
Дай поглядеть на Украину.

На Украине кони скачут
Под стягом с именем Бандеры.
На Украине ружья прячут,
На Украине ищут веры.

Кипит зеленая горилка
В белёных хатах под Березно,
И пьяным москалям с ухмылкой
В затылки тычутся обрезы.

Пора пограбить печенегам!
Пора поплакать русским бабам!
Довольно украинским хлебом
Кормиться москалям и швабам!

Им не жиреть на нашем сале
И нашей водкой не обпиться!
Еще не начисто вписали
Хохлов в Россию летописцы!

Пускай уздечкой, как монистом,
Позвякает бульбаш по полю!
Нехай як хочут коммунисты
В своей Руси будуют волю…

Придуманы колхозы ими
Для ротозея и растяпы.
Нам все равно на Украине,
НКВД или гестапо».

И я сказал: «Пошли, гадюка,
Получишь то, что заслужила.
Не ты ль вчера ножом без звука
Дружка навеки уложила.

Таких, как ты, полно по свету,
Таких, как он, на свете мало.
Так помирать тебе в кювете,
Не ожидая трибунала».

Мы шли. А поле было дико.
В дубраве птица голосила.
Я вел расстреливать бандитку.
Она пощады не просила.


Cardinal Points, vol. 7


The latest volume of Cardinal Points is now available for sale. I’m very proud of the range of selections, which you can sample on Amazon. Below is the full table of contents, including this year’s winning entries in the annual Compass Translation Award, which was dedicated to Bella Akhmadulina (1937-2010). I want to thank my heroic co-editor, Irina Mashinski, as well as Brown University’s Department of Slavic Studies.


Yuri Felsen, “A Miracle” (trans. from the Russian by Bryan Karetnyk)
Viktor Ivaniv, “Daydream Insurrection” (trans. from the Russian by Ainsley Morse)
Valery Zalotukha, “My Father, the Miner” (trans. from the Russian by Raisa Shapiro)

Special Focus: The Prose of Elena Shvarts

Thomas Epstein, “A Few Words on Elena Shvarts”
Elena Shvarts, “From Face of the Visible World” (trans. from the Russian by Thomas Epstein)
Elena Shvarts, “An Odd One” (trans. from the Russian by Thomas Epstein)
Elena Shvarts, “Concerto for Literary Assistant” (trans. from the Russian by Thomas Epstein)


Marina Tsvetaeva, “The Wires” (trans. from the Russian by Angela Livingstone)
Leonid Kannegiesser, “From a Review of Anna Akhmatova’s Rosary” and “On Review” (trans. from Russian by James Manteith)
Eduard Bagritsky, “February” (trans. from the Russian by Roman Turovsky)
Sergey Yesenin, “Low-set house with the pale blue shutters” and “Returning to My Birthplace” (trans. from the Russian by Max Thompson)
Bertolt Brecht, “Memory of Marie A.” (trans. from the German by Zachary Murphy King)
Arseny Tarkovsky, “It was my mother taught me walking” (trans. from the Russian by Zachary Murphy King)
Volha Hapeyeva, Three Poems (trans. from the Belarusian by Volha Hapeyeva with Forrest Gander)
Dzvinia Orlowsky, “Kalendar” and “Ivan the Fly Eater”
Tatiana Shcherbina, “Russia and Europe” and “Jerusalem” (trans. from the Russian by J. Kates)

The Art of Translation

Peter France, “Evgeny Baratynsky’s ‘Feasts’ (1820)”
Antony Wood, “Reading the Meter: Translating Two Lyric Poems by Pushkin”
Yefim Somin, “Mikhail Lermontov’s French Epigram”
Donald Rayfield, “Four Poems by Uvaysiy”
Ainsley Morse, “Sterligov in the Blockade”

Alexander Veytsman, Compass Competition Director

Bella Akhmadulina, in translation by Paul Hopper, Glen Worthey, Sasha Palmer, and Peter Oram

Eduard Bagritsky and The Odessa Review

The Odessa Review has been as generous to me as Benya Krik was to the guests at his sister’s wedding! This past July the journal’s multitalented Senior Editor, Katya Michaels, invited me to talk about Babel, Odessa, and my approach to translation. I babbled and babbled, then Katya picked through the wreckage and assembled a proper interview.

In it I mention the poet Eduard Bagritsky (1895-1934), who is as close to Odessa’s heart as Babel himself. And the two were great friends. Here is how Babel described Bagritsky: “He’s just like his poems… He loves the sea, a sailor’s salty speech, and a fisherman’s boat on the horizon.”

Below is one of Bagritsky’s earliest poems, in the “futurist” manner (boy, is it ever mannered!), published under a female pseudonym — Nina Voskresenskaya — in an Odessan anthology titled Automobile in the Clouds (Avto v oblakakh, 1915). In it, the young poet marvels at the strange aspect of Odessa’s beloved pedestrian walkway, Deribasovskaya Street (Rue Déribas), after sundown.

Deribasovskaya at Night


Across the dirty sky, words etched with rays
of greenish light: “Chocolate and Cocoa.”
And cars, like cats with trampled tails,
wail frantically: “Meow! Meow!”

Black trees, like scraggly brooms,
have swept the rouged stars from the sky,
and red-haired, loud-mouthed trams
creep over cobble-skulls — done for the night.

Dolphins of granite, looking like fat pugs,
drink from a grimy fountain’s spout,
while Pushkin’s statue reaches for a smoke
and asks a lantern: “Have you got a light?”

Decadent clouds go floating overhead,
and women’s lips all smell like cheap cigars.
The crescent moon — an orange sausage link —
dangles above the roadway’s parted hair.

A seven-story house, arms full of signs,
smokes coal like dandies smoke cigars,
and a red-nosed lantern in a schoolboy’s cap
winks at a sign — he’s doing great so far!

Atop the lakes of oily asphalt, ruddy stars
worship the night in a black mass…
O pimps, rejoice, raise chimneys from the rooftops —
Rue Déribas has found its poetess!


Дерибасовская ночью


На грязном небе выбиты лучами
Зеленые буквы: «Шоколад и какао»,
И автомобили, как коты с придавленными хвостами,
Неистово визжат: «Ах, мяу! мяу!»

Черные деревья растрепанными метлами
Вымели с неба нарумяненные звезды,
И краснорыжие трамваи, погромыхивая мордами,
По черепам булыжников ползут на роздых.

Гранитные дельфины — разжиревшие мопсы —
У грязного фонтана захотели пить,
И памятник Пушкина1, всунувши в рот папиросу,
Просит у фонаря: «Позвольте закурить!»

Дегенеративные тучи проносятся низко,
От женских губ несет копеечными сигарами,
И месяц повис, как оранжевая сосиска,
Над мостовой, расчесавшей пробор тротуарами.

Семиэтажный дом с вывесками в охапке,
Курит уголь, как денди сигару,
И красноносый фонарь в гимназической шапке
Подмигивает вывеске — он сегодня в ударе.

На черных озерах маслянистого асфальта
Рыжие звезды служат ночи мессу…
Радуйтесь, сутенеры, трубы дома подымайте —
И у Дерибасовской есть поэтесса!


Poets Café with Lois P. Jones, and Cardinal Points

It’s always a pleasure to speak to the poet and radio host Lois P. Jones, on or off the air. She is the perfect interlocutor — warm, curios, enthusiastic, and remarkably sensitive to language. A couple of months ago we sat down at the KPFK studio to discuss 1917 and The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, touching on some of my favorite poets, including Anna Prismanova, Arseny Tarkovsky, and Irina Mashinski.

I was born too late to meet Prismanova or Tarkovsky, but I am lucky enough to count Irina Mashinski among my teachers and friends. This month, she and I are putting the finishing touches on volume 7 of Cardinal Points, the annual journal of Slavic literature in translation that she cofounded with her late husband, the brilliant Oleg Woolf, and Robert Chandler. Cardinal Points is now sponsored by Brown University’s Department of Slavic Studies, and our new volume is due out in October.

BBC Radio 4: The Cultural Front

The latest episode of the excellent BBC Radio 4 program(me) The Cultural Front, “Reality and Reconstruction,” focuses on “the meeting of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen at Craiglockhart hospital in Edinburgh”; Pablo Picasso’s “collaboration with The Ballet Russe and the creation of his biggest ever piece of work — The Parade Curtain”; sculptor Francis Derwent Wood’s tin masks, which were meant to make patients who had suffered facial injuries “look as close as possible to how [they] had been before [they were] wounded”; and the art that arose from the Russian Revolution. I speak to host Francine Stock about the poetry of 1917 at 6:55.

On a related note, this week LARB presented an excerpt from historian Yuri Slezkine’s monumental new book The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution, alongside a review of the volume by Max Holleran.

Four by Alexander Tinyakov (1886-1934)

The final issue of the wonderful and always surprising online journal Numéro Cinq features four poems by the terrible and downright shocking Alexander Tinyakov (1886-1934) in my translation. It’s somehow appropriate that Tinyakov, who was perpetually late to the party — releasing his first book of Symbolist verse in 1912, two years after the “crisis of Russian Symbolism” — should make it into Numéro Cinq by the skin of his gritted teeth.

I want to express my gratitude to Melissa Considine Beck, one of the literary blogosphere’s most distinguished citizens, for soliciting this selection, and to Douglas Glover, the journal’s founding editor, for cheerfully accepting poems he rightly calls “blackly cynical and exuberantly negative.”

You’ll find the Russian texts below the fold.


Любо мне, плевку-плевочку,
По канавке грязной мчаться,
То к окурку, то к пушинке
Скользким боком прижиматься.

Пусть с печалью или с гневом
Человеком был я плюнут,
Небо ясно, ветры свежи,
Ветры радость в меня вдунут.

В голубом речном просторе
С волей жажду я обняться,
А пока мне любо — быстро
По канавке грязной мчаться.

Март 1907

Поздний грач

Подморозило — и лужи
Спят под матовым стеклом.
Тяжело и неуклюже
Старый грач взмахнул крылом.

Дожил здесь он до морозов,
Дотянул почти до вьюг
И теперь почуял позыв
Улететь на светлый юг.

Клюв озябшей лапкой чистя,
Он гадает о пути,
А пред ним влекутся листья
И шуршат: «Прощай! Лети!»

Декабрь 1909

Радость жизни

Едут навстречу мне гробики полные,
В каждом — мертвец молодой,
Сердцу от этого весело, радостно,
Словно берёзке весной!

Вы околели, собаки несчастные, —
Я же дышу и хожу.
Крышки над вами забиты тяжёлые, —
Я же на небо гляжу!

Может, — в тех гробиках гении разные,
Может, — поэт Гумилёв…
Я же, презренный и всеми оплёванный,
Жив и здоров!

Скоро, конечно, и я тоже сделаюсь
Падалью, полной червей,
Но пока жив, — я ликую над трупами
Раньше умерших людей.

28 июля 1921

Моление о пищи

Ухо во всю жизнь может не слышать звуков тимпана, лютни
и флейты; зрение обойдется и без созерцания садов; обоняние
легко лишается запаха розы и базилика; а если нет мягкой, полной
подушки, все же хорошо можно заснуть, положивши в изголовье
камень; если не найдется для сна подруги, можешь обнять руками
себя самого – но вот бессовестное чрево, изогнутое кишками,
не выдерживает и не может ни с чем примириться.

Пищи сладкой, пищи вкусной
Даруй мне, судьба моя, —
И любой поступок гнусный
Совершу за пищу я.

Я свернусь бараньим рогом
И на брюхе поползу,
Насмеюсь, как хам, над Богом,
Оскверню свою слезу.

В сердце чистое нагажу,
Крылья мыслям остригу,
Совершу грабёж и кражу,
Пятки вылижу врагу.

За кусок конины с хлебом
Иль за фунт гнилой трески
Я, — порвав все связи с небом, —
В ад полезу, в батраки.

Дайте мне ярмо на шею,
Но дозвольте мне поесть.
Сладко сытому лакею
И горька без пищи честь.

Ноябрь 1921