Sergey Stratanovsky in the TLS

This Friday’s issue of the Times Literary Supplement (9 September 2016) carries my review of Sergey Stratanovsky’s Muddy River: Selected Poems, translated by J. Kates (Manchester: Carcanet, 2016).  Stratanovsky, who was born in Leningrad in 1944, is one of Russia’s most admired poets, and this is the first collection of his verse to appear in English.  The TLS site offers only a brief preview of the piece for non-subscribers; I’d like to share a larger excerpt, which includes a few of Kates’s translations.  (You’ll find the Russian originals below the second divider.)


There is a hint of formal irony in the title of this carefully chosen selection of poems. Muddy River refers, both literally and figuratively, to the Stygian waters of Soviet and post-Soviet Russia, but the poems in which Sergey Stratanovsky depicts this landscape exhibit the clarity of a classical fragment:

On the muddy river
some kind of cruddy boat
Stains of some kind of slime,
condoms floating
Under the bridges to the bay
past warehouses, hospitals, garages
And the half-rotted head
of an Orpheus-busker
Who sang off key in the metro

These lines from 2003 cover largely the same waterfront as 1969’s “The Obvodny Canal”, named after the bypass waterway that once served as St Petersburg’s southern city limit:

Look, over there are the mute and sullen souls
Of Cannery and Bakery.
And there is an industrial sky
In the canal.
[…]
And it seems: I am absolutely not I.
Among the factories, warehouses
hospitals and gaunt faces
I have become silence and the rubbish of living.

In his brief introduction, translator J. Kates quotes Stratanovsky’s claim that “At one time or another different themes were uppermost” in his work. Muddy River certainly gives readers a sense of this thematic undulation, but its pattern is not so easy to chart. On the whole, the poet — who dates the beginning of his career to 1968 — has been remarkably consistent in his concerns and devices. The pointed social critique of the 1990s and 2000s has its antecedents in such poems as 1971’s “Sociological Tract in Verse on the Phenomenon of Alcoholism”, and the penchant for classical, Biblical, and historical allusions appears just as early — for example, in “Herostratos and Herostratos” (1970-71) and “Fantasia and Psalm 1” (1972). Often enough, these disparate tributaries converge in fluid lines of striking power, as in this poem written at the height of the First Chechen War:

The dogs of Grozny
abandoned and evil,
Among the ruins of Grozny
with their teeth tear at the dead,
Yesterday’s kings
of courtyards and discos.

The lyric’s drift is as plain as its sediments are rich. The first line’s scavenging dogs are both the actual canines running wild through the Chechen capital’s streets and the proverbial dogs of war that this pointless conflict has let slip. Stratanovsky’s epithetic phrases and anachronistic diction — which weds “discos” with ancient “ruins” and “kings” — lend a Homeric touch to this modern horror; we are reminded of Hector’s threat to throw Patroclus’s body to the dogs, echoed in Achilles’s threat to do the same with Hector’s. The poet also inscribes the Chechen War into Russia’s long history of tyranny and bloodlust: the “dogs of Grozny” call to mind the oprichniki of Ivan the Terrible (“Grozny” in Russian), who were said to ride with dogs’ heads on their saddles — a symbol of their loyalty and ferociousness. Here, as in much of Stratanovsky’s work, the simplicity of the poem’s surface invites the reader to plumb its depths.

[…]


На реке непрозрачной
катер невзрачный какой-то
Пятна слизи какой-то,
презервативы, плывущие
Под мостами к заливу,
мимо складов, больниц, гаражей
И Орфея-бомжа,
что в проходе к метро пел пронзительно,
Голова полусгнившая

2003

Обводный канал

А там — Главрыбы и Главхлеба
Немые, пасмурные души
А там промышленное небо
Стоит в канале
И боль все медленней и глуше
А ведь вначале
Была такая боль…
Дым заводской живет в канале
Чуть брезжит, чуть брезжит осенний день
И буквы вывески Главсоль
Шагают по воде
И мнится: я — совсем не я
Среди заводов и больниц
Продмагазинов, скудных лиц
Я стал молчанием и сором бытия

1969

Рядом с Чечней

Собаки Грозного,
бесхозные и злые,
Меж грозненских руин
зубами рвут погибших,
Вчерашних королей
дворов и дискотек

1995

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