“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.

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

  1. A beautiful translation of the Elagin poem, Boris! One of the things that struck about the poem itself, especially in the last stanza was how it echoed with Baratynsky’s Мой дар убог и голос мой негромок, where he says of his “existence” or “being” (бытие): Его найдет далекий мой потомок / В моих стихах… It is this being, this breath, the beating of the poet’s heart, that the future distant reader finds in the verse – and in good translations!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Rawley, that’s so kind of you! And the echo of Baratynsky seems obvious now — a living pulse, preserved by that immortal poem and amplified by Elagin’s… It’s our duty as translators to keep all those great hearts beating!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s also notable that Baratynsky sets up this transfer of his being into the poem on the basis that: на земли мое / Кому-нибудь любезно бытие. In modern Russian this “любезнo” is a little strange because today the word is understood as “kind, kind-hearted”, but in fact in Baratynsky’s day, as Dahl’s dictionary confirms, “любезный” meant “любимый, милый, возлюбленный”. So it goes back to love. For Baratynsky, it’s the love we experience on earth, given by another, the “друг в поколенье”, that makes our being, our existence, enduring in the poem, and allows it to be found by the “читатель в потомстве”. For Elagin, this love is broader than the love of another person, but it is an intimate connection all the same: connection with life, with the sky, the connection of the senses, hands. lips, eyes, to the earth and to others. Thank you so much for introducing this poem to me. I need to read more of his work, and of course, of Osipov’s work, too!

    Liked by 1 person

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