Poetry by Ilya Kutik

David and Orpheus

On his simple harp he sings praise to Him,
Who created us. His voice trembles from uncertainty
in himself, but not in Him, the Only, the Formidable – no escape.

Over his Apollonian lyre, having left behind the gloom
of Hades, he runs his fingers, not knowing amongst this scenery
which god to sing his song for in the present forest landscape:

of that oak? of that there pine? of that river? which to?
Again – the problems of Paris? He’ll play for any o’ youse
easily, even in the rain. But for which one ought he?

David, now, sits under a tree. From soul rupture
after the Anointing – life is like the branches
his ancestors have hung their harps on ever since captivity.

~

Harp, you are like the cheekbone
of cubism, you are like an icon-
precipice falling down,
and alongside – a saint and his mount.

Lyre, your sides
are incurved so like lips,
that Pan says to Apollo: “I
knew not of such a tulip.”

The Wasp in the Hour

Wasp, o glass-polisheress,
what manner of goad drove you
under the puppet cupola of the Hour
to immure yourself, buzzing?

You sting like phosphorus stone,
but all the while its
deaf cuckooing amen
pummels pell-mell the nocturnal dial.

And in the cuckoo’s beak, in the very cleft,
you shiver like the contour zero
between the two hands
blindly scything away the circle, when

right on time, mindful of the end,
they enter the final quarter,
to warm the Hour’s cold seed
in minute embraces.

But suddenly concerning yourself with future
motion, tell me, won’t you with your
buzzing rewinding bring
into movement all their latin?

Not the latin, in which the shields tolled
at the skirmish when Flaccus
threw his to the ground, and its pitiful,
brassy feartiness –

but that unearthly latin,
resembling, if a shield,
then one all pocked with light
and stitched with a seam of seconds.

2.

What name do you give a thread
that with ease and condescension
insinuates itself past all the girders
of a classical ceiling?

Oh, how Danae groaned
when that double thread slipped
between her maidenly legs
and a knot caught in her lap!

And how was she supposed to know
whose seed had left this mark,
but at the moment of conception
she suddenly seemed to hear – like

the wasp, in the Hour’s tortuous confinement,
running round and round, contorting herself
pitiably on the axis of impatience,
until she unwinds entirely –

the buzzing of Cronides’ spindle,
its golden-housed thread
striving to exact revenge a hundredfold
on the father for his offspring’s injuries.

And the dial is no more, nor yet
its remotest boundaries,
and the hands stick out of the yarn
that has been woven, like knitting needles.

3.

Ah! tout est bu! Bathylle, as-tu fini de rire?
************************Paul Verlaine

The wasp’s stripy socks,
donned for a mad football kick,
will not boot the warmed ball
of leaden seed in the crotch.

This sphere will answer every kick with a tock,
since the past for the future
is shackled by craving, hung-over
by the charmed chalice of zero.

We are poured the selfsame glasses,
we drink from wide-open zeros.
Bathyllus, the Gauls are drawing nearer,
but just you keep the wet stuff flowing.

We aren’t versed in latin,
but disdaining power and evil,
like the golden tsars of the ciphers,
we rule at a round table.

And the dial is no longer above us,
we ourselves are our own celestial spheres,
but should we drink – up to our lips
shall float the drowned wasp.

Cats’ July

*******************For N. L. Trauberg

Bearers of the name ‘cat’, you, who
abandoned yourselves to the comforts of sleep,
inhale, without stirring a whisker,
rusty summer from atop your warmed ledge.
Mousy dreams scamper as mounds under your fur, l
ike muscles on an athlete.

July – the month of the pilgrim’s caresses
of the Egyptian pussycat, her caterwauling and huffs,
and claws on red cushions, and wax
melted in the much-loving lap,
and the noisy ides of cattish March…
Did you see it, sleepyheads?

But mind you don’t give any of it away,
not by look or word, not even to an honest dream.
What do you care for Don Juanish repute,
indecorous passions, old-age pension’s coin
from the sun – rays stroking skin, or
all the pusses of Egypt?

Silence is the gold of your deserts,
fertile in sand and the labour of water-pumps,
whose speech is a gurgling in the midday shade,
while yours is a rumbling when you catch
a substanceless sunbeam off Venus’ compact mirror
in your slumber.

Tomcats, pray tell, who of you recalls
the martial songs of luxurious Rome?
It’s not to their tune that you now break into dance,
whirling a sweet wrapper round the room;
they have been supplanted by the drowse of Buddha
and blind Chinaman’s buff.

But if a rainstorm should stew you in your window,
lazybones, gorged on sleep and dreams
in which the mollycoddled cat reminisces
about rich fish and sweet meat,
your golden fur shall shine out as the swords
of iron Mars.

And into your dream will break the struggle of galleys,
letting fly shining grappling claws into each other’s sides,
and up will flare a green haze in the whites of your eyes,
the fire of implacable zeal and valorous
fleet-footedness. Antonys of jealousy, sleep,
doze…doze…

In Memory of Anton and Allen

(March-April 1997)

Yоu were silly like us…
*******************W. H. Auden [1]

1
It happened in March, at the very end.
I was driving to Wisconsin,
in a panic lest I be blown away like sand,
like one of the Sephardim
in the desert – my windscreen wipers had jammed.
I pulled off the highway at a filling station, till I felt less panicky.
A snowy stone without a head, like Nike,
covered the side windows with her letter K
wings as she lay on the roof. The folds of her tunic
snagged my wipers, made them stick.
Like James Bond
with a statue on the roof, [2] I hit the road and a wall of snow.
Not a crown of roses, but a ribbon-
figure of 8 in the headlights grimaced with shadow.
I understood that something had ended and an ellipsis was begun.
When I drove into Madison that night the snowstorm
had stopped, in a coat I was even too warm.
I switched off the headlights and got out, not knowing he was dead – Anton.

He died that very night. Suddenly – as it stopped snowing.
He died not knowing
I was on my way. In my absence they interred the cat
in the frozen Wisconsin earth in his best blue coat.
He was – I repeat! – a Persian Blue cat,
brought with me from Sweden to the USA.
He died, and I don’t know what happened to him after that,
where his soul was fitted to stay.

2
Ten days later Ginsberg died as well – Allen.
From these two demises I was utterly downfallen.
I restored myself gradually. I am not Tallinn. [3]
I held firm, like we were taught by Kun. [4]
Anton was youthful, but not entirely a Yurkun. [5]
Allen was a Kuzmin, [6] but on a piano he couldn’t pick out a tune.

Before Allen declared to himself: It’s my time to go,
we met once upon a time in the (late) republic of Geo… [7]
He didn’t like pork, preferred persimmon,
sang me blues and Blake, quoted – ravingly – The Raven;
he knew that – whatever gets howled in concert halls –
a poet is Homer, and not of the common chorus.

No, for all that, not all of us, surely, will pass away…
You, Anton and Allen, began with the letter A,
like the ladder of a house-painter,
who – forgetting their wallpaper –
said “Instanter, make them blue!”
and painted the both of you.

In the New York subway, like epaulette stripes,
in the stray blue car [8] you travel side by side:
not phantoms, only sleeping dormice.
Although one of you was wrapped in lianas by orangutans,
and the other was dispersed somewhere over the cloudy Ganges,
you have both now lived up to karma, nirvana, paradise.

The Persian was grey and the Jew was gay, [9]
The Buddha’s wheel is harsher than the British yardarm:
there, when you hang, you won’t die, but chances are
you’ll be left dangling, fluttering aloft,
until you become a flower, or a moth,
the Jew will become a Persian and the cat a Jew.

3
But still, albeit
there’s no mandala
or pontoon in Buddha,
only Charon’s fleet? –

Then where’s your skiff
moored, Allen?
What’s the wheat
crop like there, Joseph? [10]

What icon
must you supplicate,
horses, dogs, cats,
to become akin

to human beings?
Will spit fly in the Vatican
when I touch upon
a candle for Anton?

What shall come to pass
if you go to Saint Nicholas?
What sayeth Saint Blaise,
shepherd of all passions

which go on four legs? [11] –
that the point of privilege
is that it’s not for the many?
that only a piebald pony

foaming from victory
is worth the fee?
That in the Third Rome [12]
being blue – being homo –

is a great sin?
If so, does it mean there isn’t
a countenance you saints
can countenance me placin’

this candle in front
of without afront?
Then, at no risk,
we’ll go to Francis –

the saintly vicar
who loved all critters
and the gay, blue yonder –
there, above us.

His “Lord saves!”
above their graves
will call: “We’ll ope’
the gates to you both!”

____________________________

1. Kutik pays homage to the obituary poems of Auden for W. B. Yeats and Joseph Brodsky for T. S. Eliot.
2. In GoldenEye.
3. The medieval city of Tallinn has been preserved virtually undamaged and is listed by UNESCO.
4. Nikolai Kun, author of the popular book Legends and Myths of Ancient Greece. Also, one of the largest breeds of cat: Maine Coon.
5. Yury Yurkun (1895-1938), bisexual artist and writer, the boyfriend of Mikhail Kuzmin from 1913 until Kuzmin’s death in 1936. (The original Russian iurok, “nimble,” may refer to Yurkun’s bisexuality; my translation “youthful” could apply to the age difference between him and Kuzmin, as he was 17 when he and the 40-year-old Kuzmin met.)
6. Mikhail Kuzmin (1872-1936), turn-of-the-century gay writer, poet, composer, and pianist. He wrote Wings, Russia’s first gay novel.
7. Kutik and Ginsberg met in Georgia, when it was still part of the Soviet Union.
8. Probably a reference to the song “Goluboi vagon” (“Blue Carriage”) from the Soviet cartoon Cheburashka.
9. The Russian pun is closer: goluboi means both “blue” and “gay.”
10. Brodsky, who died the year before Ginsberg.
11. Saint Blaise (d. 316) was said to hold services for animals, whom he blessed and healed.
12. Moscow (and by synecdoche, Russia) has been known as the Third Rome since a declaration by the Pskovian monk Filofei in 1522, following the fall in 1453 of Byzantium, inheritor of the Roman Empire.

Bios

Ilya Kutik

Ilya Kutik is a founder, theorist, and practitioner of Russian metarealism, a postmodernist poetic movement that seeks to incorporate the miscellaneous fragments of past civilisations and cultures into new works. Kutik has published seven books of poetry in Russian: Ode Upon Visiting the Belosaraisk Spit, Which Is on the Sea of Azov (Alef, 1995; written 1980-82); Pentathlon of Senses (Moskovskii Rabochii, 1990); Swedish Poets: Translations and Variations (Mir Kul’tury, 1992); Odysseus’s Bow (Sovetskii Pisatel’, 1993); The Death of Tragedy (in two volumes): Persian Epistles and Civil Wars (Kommentarii, 2003); and Epos (Russkii Gulliver, 2011). Kutik’s poetry is widely anthologised, and has been translated into nineteen languages. Besides his own poetry, Kutik has published translations from Swedish, English, and Polish, and literary criticism on Russian and European poetry from the eighteenth century to the present. He holds a PhD from Stockholm University and is Associate Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Northwestern University.

Georgina Barker

Georgina Barker has translated poetry by Elena Shvarts (Legenda, 2021; Dryad Press, 2021), Polina Barskova (Cardinal Points, 6, 2016; Classical Receptions Journal, 9, 2017), and Dmitry Kuzmin (InTranslation, June, 2019), and prose by Margarita Meklina (InTranslation, June, 2019). Barker’s translations also featured in the historical verbatim play Princess Dashkova, the Woman Who Shook the World, which she produced at St. Cecilia’s Hall in Edinburgh (2018). Barker holds a PhD in Russian Literature from the University of Edinburgh, and is currently a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at UCL. Her research explores Russian receptions of classical antiquity, and currently focuses on the intersections of the ancient world with Russian attitudes toward sexuality. She can be reached at [email protected]

Copyright (c) Ilya Kutik, 1990, 2003. English translation copyright (c) Georgina Barker, 2020.