“Life Backtracks into Death”: Boris Poplavsky’s “Magic Lantern”

On Friday, while presenting on five Russian Angeleno poets, I mentioned that, in his first years as an émigré in Constantinople, Vernon Duke founded a Poets’ Guild with Boris Poplavsky (1903-1935), a Moscow-born poet who is now widely recognized as one of the major talents of the First Wave of Russian emigration. Before his death from an overdose at the age of 32 exactly 86 years ago (accident, murder, or suicide? an open question), Poplavsky managed to publish a few chapters from his novel Apollon Bezobrazov and a single collection of poems, Flags (1931). Both his prose and his verse reflect the influence of European literary movements, from the Symbolism of Rimbaud to the Surrealism of Breton. Reviewing John Kopper’s translation of Apollon Bezobrazov, which was published in 2015, Bryan Karetnyk writes: “Boris Poplavsky was the enfant terrible of the Montparnassians, the set of young Russian émigré writers exiled in Paris in the interwar years. […] Chronicling the riotous adventures, affairs and amusements of a throng of penurious Russians, led by the titular Bezobrazov, Poplavsky’s novel exquisitely captures the zeitgeist of les années folles.” Karetnyk’s translation of the poet’s second novel, Homeward from Heaven, will be published by Columbia University Press in June 2022.

Poplavsky’s poems were no less apt to épater le bourgeois. They even repelled the aesthete Nabokov, whose 1931 review of Flags has been translated by Anastasia Tolstoy and included in Think, Write, Speak (2021): “Rarely, very rarely, does poetry waft through the poems of Poplavsky. […] To be frank, Poplavsky is a bad poet, his poetry an unbearable blend of Severyanin, Vertinsky, and Pasternak (the latter at his worst), on top of which it is seasoned with a kind of awful parochialism, as though the man were permanently living in the same little Estonian town where the book was printed, and printed very badly.” But as he looked back on the shattered world of Russian Paris two decades later, Nabokov changed his tune. In Speak, Memory he writes: “I met many other émigré Russian authors. I did not meet Poplavski who died young, a far violin among near balalaikas. His plangent tonalities I shall never forget, nor shall I ever forgive myself the ill-tempered review in which I attacked him for trivial faults in his unfledged verse.”

One of my favorite poems in Flags adds a surreal touch to a typical émigré scene — a smoke-filled room of the kind Pericles Stavrov describes in his “Café.” Here is my translation:

Magic Lantern

An evil smoker lets loose rings of days
that dangle powerlessly from the ceiling.
A soldier passing through? Digger of graves?
Or just a wastrel, drunken and freewheeling?

His thoughtless art entraps my lazy mind
and I light up — but in the thickening air
he disappears. All that he leaves behind
is just the pipe glowing above his chair.

A country of tobacco floats untethered
beneath an unassuming lampshade’s sun.
From time to time I’m endlessly lighthearted,
but then at times I simply come undone.

How nice to build a solid ground of haze —
a conquest that can bring no fame, no wealth.
Spring floats off into summer, floats and fades…
Incautiously, life backtracks into death.

Волшебный фонарь

Колечки дней пускает злой курильщик,
Свисает дым бессильно с потолка:
Он может быть кутила иль могильщик
Или солдат заезжего полка.

Искусство безрассудное пленяет
Мой ленный ум, и я давай курить,
Но вдруг он в воздухе густом линяет.
И ан на кресле трубка лишь горит.

Плывет, плывет табачная страна
Под солнцем небольшого абажура.
Я счастлив без конца по временам,
По временам кряхтя себя пожурю.

Приятно строить дымовую твердь.
Бесславное завоеванье это.
Весна плывет, весна сползает в лето.
Жизнь пятится неосторожно в смерть.


12 thoughts on ““Life Backtracks into Death”: Boris Poplavsky’s “Magic Lantern”

  1. Wonderful evocation of a shattered intelligentsia “making do” in cafes. May we never have to do so. The fleeing Germans a bit later seemed to roost more easily.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Perfectly put, John, as usual! These Russians — the lucky ones among them — were often forced to flee several times… From Russia to Berlin to Paris to the US, for example, or from Russia to Shanghai to the US…


  2. What a wonderful poem – thank you Boris. And a new Russian author for me. Very glad Bryan is focusing his talents on the novel (he’s doing a grand job on bringing these emigre authors into English) – I shall look forward to exploring Poplavsky’s work. Ironically, I just picked up a copy of the Nabokov collection so I shall that particular review with a pinch of salt! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I think I learned about Poplavsky from Leonid Livak’s How It Was Done In Paris: Russian Emigre Literature & French Modernism, which I recommend to all and sundry. It’s nice to see a sample of his verse, which (I agree with VVN) is pleasingly plangent. It was good of Nabokov to apologize for his earlier haughty dismissal (as he later regretted his youthful homophobic remarks), but I have to say, much as I admire his novels, I find myself ever less interested in what he has to say about other writers, which when it is not an outright lie (“James Joyce has not influenced me in any manner whatsoever”) consists largely of the aristocratic assumption that his personal opinions are the word of God and anyone who disagrees with him is an illiterate fool.

    Also, кряхтеть is one of my favorite Russian verbs (possibly because I find myself doing it more and more as I age).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. LH, as usual, I wholly endorse your message! Livak’s work on émigré literature is priceless, and I also recommend his The Jewish Persona in the European Imagination: A Case of Russian Literature. And VN’s strong opinions often clash with my own. You describe his attitude perfectly.


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