Four Contemporary Russian Poets: Grigori Dashevsky, Leonid Schwab, Semyon Khanin, and Oleg Yuriev

Grigori Dashevsky

Cheryomushki

Evenings are somehow bland in Cheryomushki.
But the eyes of some girls next door,
Even if teary once the evening sets in,
Much too faraway, clear,
Are staring past the incredible us.

Let’s move in on one of them.
Easy now, slowly.
Good.
Can’t see now what you saw before.
We are going to call you — baby
And you’ll answer — daddy.

(1995)

Skate Rink

Here you are, old man and my flame,
Get some warmth and warm up my brain
Through my ears burning with shame,
You’re stinging, leading me on:
The truth does not matter
When the Moscow frost is so strong.

Now a pair, now a threesome,
Our shadow weightlessly searches
Wild-sugary rink,
Like the weathered hand of an officer
Stroking, honey-bunch, under the surface
Your, my honey-bunch, slender wrist.

(1994)

The Rug

“Play dead.” “But aren’t you sick
Of doing the corpse and the bride” —
“No, I mean — you’ve been dead a while
Try it, lie on the rug, be still.

There’s no cross, wild grass, still I
With flowers your grave adorn.
I hear a rustle — your ghost, perchance:
And I’m whispering back, I mourn” —

“I’d rather be a burdock, a thorn,
They caress and scratch your calves
From down here your face is new —
Neck ‘n’ nostrils and the waving bangs.”

(1996)

“Moscow – Riga”

Of the Moon we are followers,
both a girl and a boy, alike.
Sing a song, girl, to honor Her,
        let a boy sing beside you:

we are bad at remembering
from our class in astronomy
your rotation velocity
        or your orbit, or phases,

but you make yourself obvious
by the ebbs and the flowing tides
of the blood and the Baltic Sea,
        or eclipsing our reason,

on the train with the passengers'
pale faces you navigate
past the huts and the signal lamps
        outside of the window --

keep on sending reliably
blue-grey salt to the sandy dunes
the red one through the arteries
        restlessness to the maniac

(1995)

Quarantine
More courageous than Sylvester Stallone
or at least his picture above the pillow
is the one who stares in the nurses' pupils
   with no pleas nor fears,

but we scan those eyes for a diagnosis,
and we can't believe that under the covers
of that starchy robe there is almost nothing,
   at best--some undies.

Daily naptime, boys, oh that is your torture,
daily naptime sees you biting your blankets,
during naptime watchfully we examine
   the bars on the window.

(1996)

(Untitled)

Twins are as of yet inside the Frau,
They are laughing, worrying in the darkness:
Now we’re not a fishie or a birdie;
Not much time is left for us. What’s next?
What if China looms beyond peritoneum?
What if we are girls? They aren’t allowed in China.

(1996)

Leonid Schwab

***

I’m made out of cheese my head is that of an old man
At the sound of a whistle life begins from the middle
At the top of the valley I stand with a deer a cricket or a brother
In a worldly sense our name is Alyosha

The hurricane rises as a first line of border defense
Mushrooms grow out of paper I stand watch
Holding a cinnamon bun like a splinter grenade
So as not to alarm the relations

I don’t care for cheap shots
The flutter of minor events brings about a) a young sovereign
b) the harvest of infinite summer
Love begins with a spoonful of compote

Crying is hard for me Alyosha but to live is incredibly easy
The bride comes out to wash off the dust of the road
Panoramic pavilions tangentially float to the house
And like a demon I am deaf and blind like a demon

(2004)

***

Krishna does not cry.
In the garden bears chase the Englishman’s daughter.
The storm ripens; the girl takes cover behind a stone.
Petunias blossom behind the fence.
The smaller the planet, the more everlasting the lightning.

At dawn the Englishman and pals try to get back into the house;
The girl sleeps in the grass; the rain stopped.
In place of bears we see cotton pickers.

(2000-2003)

***

I left for Mongolia to believe in a merry dream,
I accompanied a paramilitary crew,
The helicopter skid grazed me near the ear,
I was left with a permanent purple scar.

The teenagers patched a felt ball with twine,
The shepherds drank, passing the narrow cup.
I remained fully conscious ready for a command,
A stone dummy stood at the turn.

The dust would settle by nighttime; I washed my mouth;
I freed myself from the shoulder straps;
I read my heartbeats as passwords,
Was preoccupied and proud of it.

Wrapping myself in a threadbare blanket as I was taught,
I would almost hear the footsteps of the merriest dream.
But my older brother would come and he would not sing
He would begin to cough and then, like the moon, disappear.

I shouted after him, searched the air with a disobedient hand,
At night, guided by fire I scanned the perimeter
And my comrades, mortally tired after the march,
Threatened to get rid of me once and for all.

(1996)

***

And so the sisters overcome their bashfulness,
Come down for tea, wipe off their sweat, drink cola,
The guest picks up the squeezbox off the cabinet,
And settles in to sing the barcarolla.

And then the dinner, like the surf, comes over them,
The phosphorescence on the window pane is dim,
The sisters take the guest to be the husband
And change their clothes right in front of him.

Semyon Khanin

***

do not think he is homeless
he simply lost his keys
and for the past four months he’s been sleeping
in front of a furniture store

you might think he’s uncomfortable
all doubled up like that
in fact he’s an acrobat
and finds this posture handy for dozing

what makes you think he’s dead
so what if he isn’t breathing
what else do you expect from a yoga master
who can hold their breath for years at a time,
almost forever, to be exact

***

he has no remorse, that’s what he asked to relate
to you and the whole gang
to the dark geniuses and her
who was, and her who has been,
and her, with whom–as well
These are his exact words: time has not come
to strike me off the black lists
I have no remorse, there’s a burning trail behind me
I don’t feel sorry and I promise to only get worse
I will go bad
like food
or even worse–like literature
those were his words

***

I couldn’t recognize her
and just to verify
that it’s really her
I came up closer
a different handbag, hairdo redone
eye color altered
still it was her
this baffled me
I simply did not know what to do
but pulling myself together
I came closer still
got a hold of her hand and petted it
taking out a can of pepper spray
she sprayed my face
all covered with sickly fizzing tears
blinded, sobbing, squirming
all of a sudden I entered her
came out the other side
turned to look back–
no, it wasn’t her after all

***

I tell you, the moment you get a feel for
a new approach in the art of love
you’ll be run over by the time mobile
that delivers last year’s snow

so stop waiting, drag your sorry existence
here before it’s too late
donate your artificial hearts
to the centers of modern art

***

you turn on the water--and there goes the phone
while drowning you answer
maybe there is a 411
                  that infested your pipes through the foam
turn the tap all the way, let the water run faster

what am I--your neighbor? or what? or perhaps
"Information"?
are you pulling my leg, what's your problem? answer the
question
how did you get my number? what gave me away?
was it my lathered pronunciation?
or my singular bare-skinned drawl?
or this brimming bathtub, where I am sprawled?

oh, I know, it was by the way the tiles are fogging
by the way that a nearby cable
            runs invisible under the flooring
or by way of the receiver giving out this unequivocal
coughing

so immersed by this chit-chat with water
I didn't notice the waves move the stopper
and the water slither away
so what should we play today
the invincible plunger?
or sinking in the drain?

Oleg Yuriev

***

In order to muffle the silent air
from seven-thirty and up till ten,
God came up with sewing machines
which stitch the vine to the clustered grapes.

But even if one comes in disrepair,
all of them need a mechanic then–
the needles keep finding the winding twines,
the grappling clusters cascade and escape.

The yarn might get torn once every fifteen years
(sometime in September, or during the last days of August
that are drenched with grape smoke and silvered rain)

The candle is still, the light leaks through the loom.

The crowding clouds come into bloom.

This is His silence. And beyond it–a thunder is faint.
This is Him who is speaking, to be perfectly honest.

Something cracks in the bushes: the mechanic must be here.

(IX, 2005)

Ballad

The extinguished gardens gathered their fleet.
And it sailed off to the land of the sleep,
        and I saw the departure.
So I raked up my garden and tightened the sack,
But before suffocating, it trembled and spoke
        With a red speckled gesture.

"When you motioned and waved and lisped like a mime,
When you gave and embraced, the hand wasn't mine--
        It was your hand.
Ask your heart, it will silently give you a hint
What the vagabond winds
Lug away in a red-speckled current."

(1982)

Bios

Grigori Dashevsky, Leonid Schwab, Semyon Khanin, and Oleg Yuriev

Grigori Dashevsky was born in Russia in 1964. He has published four books of poetry and a number of critical articles and translations from English and French. He was short-listed for the Andrei Bely prize. He is considered by many to be the youngest “classic” in Russian poetry. Appropriately, his poetry often utilizes rhythms found in Ancient Greek and Roman poetry. As the poet Elena Fanaylova writes, “Dashevsky’s poetry approaches something biologically real, something that is mainly located outside of literature’s administration. It approaches an impact. An experience. It recreates its power, evoking gratitude from those who still haven’t lost the skill of poetic reading.”

Leonid Schwab, a Russian-language poet, was born in Bobruysk, Belarus in 1961. Since 1990, he has lived in Israel. Schwab’s poems have been published in a number of prominent Russian-language literary journals, both in print and online. In 2004, Leonid Schwab was included in the shortlist of the prestigious Andrei Bely Prize. In 2005, he published a book of poems called Poverit’ v botaniku (To Believe In Botany). In 2008, together with Fedor Svarovskiy and Arseniy Rovinskiy, Leonid Schwab published a compilation of poems under the title Vse Srazu (All At Once). The book was very well received by literary critics and regarded as a manifestation of a new poetic trend, the “New Epic,” which the authors define as “narrative texts with metaphysical content.” As one critic wrote of Schwab’s poetry, “his poems move in the rhythm of Pushkin’s fragments. However, the plot doesn’t form, instead thickening as a small cloud, changing as the air changes after the military curfew has been announced.” Schwab’s poetry does not yield to the habitual tricks of experienced readers. His distinct, deliberately impersonal style introduces the reader to fascinating and unfamiliar contexts, where all conventions of language and art appear fractured and yet not altogether abandoned.

Semyon Khanin, a Russian-language poet, was born in Riga, Latvia in 1970. His original works have been published in Latvia, Russia, Czech Republic, Germany, and Ukraine. He is the author of two collections of poetry, Just Now (2003) and Missed Details (2008). His poetry has been translated into Latvian, English, Czech, German, Italian, Swedish, Estonian, and Ukranian. He is a participant in the literary project “Orbita” (www.orbita.lv), and editor of the almanac with the same name. As the poet Yuliya Idlis writes, in Khanin’s poetry “we see the process of an endless stratification of the lyric subject, the divison and the fragmentation of the “I” into tiny and often not quite anthropomorphic particles. At the same time, there’s a constant search for wholeness, unending pursuit of the proofs of the subject’s existence, a torturous struggle for self-identification.”

Oleg Yuriev, a writer of poetry, prose, and drama, was born in Leningrad in 1959 and has been living in Frankfurt, Germany since 1991. During the Soviet era, he participated in Leningrad’s unofficial cultural life (the “Kamera Khranenia” group). Since the late 1980s, his original works have been published and staged in Russia. Yuriev’s plays and prose have been translated into English, German, Polish, Czech, Ukrainian, and French, and performed in Russia, Germany, France, Switzerland, Poland, Czech Republic, Belarus, and Ukraine. Yuriev has had multiple publications in Russian, Russian diaspora, and German magazines. His poems have been translated into English, German, Italian, and French.

Publications include Two Short Plays (1990); the poetry collections Stikhi v Nebesnom Nabore (Verses in Heavenly Font, 1989), Izbrannye stikhi i khory (Collected Poems and Quires, 2004), and Frankfurtskii vystrel vechernii (The Frankfurt Evening Shot, 2007); the prose collections Progulki pri poloj lune (Walks Under the Hollow Moon, 1993), Frankfurtskii byk (The Frankfurt Bull, 1996); and the novels Poluostrov Zhydiatin (Zhydiatin Peninsula, 2000) and Novyi Golem, ili Vojna starikov i detej (New Golem, or the War Between Old Men and Children, 2004). He has seven books of prose in German translation, the last four published by Suhrkamp.

The signature tension in his poems is often derived from putting parts of the natural world–flora, fauna, changes of season, meteorological conditions–into positions of conflict, causing the texts to resemble a battlefield. This tension is mirrored by the intricate phonetic combat within the texts. The density and the dizzying succession of alliterations and consonances ultimately confer to Yuriev’s poems a lightness that the translations featured here attempt to preserve.

Sasha Spektor, Daniil Cherkassky, and Anton Tenser

Sasha Spektor immigrated to Chicago in 1989. He has a PhD in Slavic literature from Harvard University and teaches Russian literature at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He writes in Russian and English.

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Daniil Cherkassky was born in Kiev, Ukraine and grew up in Chicago. He plays an accordion and frequently performs in the U.S. with Psoy Korolenko. Daniil is the author of a socialist realist blog at gramonist.livejournal.com.

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Anton Tenser was born in Novosibirsk, Russia in 1976. Until his immigration to the U.S. in 1989, he lived in Kiev, Ukraine. He has a BA in biology from Northwestern University and a PhD in linguistics from Manchester University in the UK. Anton is the author of The Grammar of Lithuanian Roma as well as articles on Romani language and ethnography. His Russian-language poems have been published in the online journals TextOnly and Reflect.

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All three translators are members of The Chicago Translation Workshop, the goal and practice of which is to revive the tradition of rhythmic and rhymed translation of Russian contemporary poetry into English. They can be reached at xrenovo@gmail.com.

Copyright (c) Grigori Dashevsky, 1994-1996.
Copyright (c) Leonid Schwab, 1996-2004.
Copyright (c) Semyon Khanin, 2003-2009.
Copyright (c) Oleg Yuriev, 1982-2005.

English translations copyright (c) Sasha Spektor, Daniil Cherkassky,
and Anton Tenser, 2011.