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Translator's Note: Stanzas

BY SASHA DUGDALE

 

Gandlevskii is a Moscow poet. His landscapes are those of the Russian capital. In this poem, written on the eve of Perestroika, the polluted river loops its way around the city under wide skies and burning sunsets. The yards between the blocks are full of dereliction and rottenness, and the wind carries the sounds of handcars from the railway track. Men squat in the yards and toast each other, widowers grope for the tranquilizers. It is a decaying vision, and yet one beloved of the poet.

There are a few details which may perhaps escape a non-Russian reader. June 22 is the anniversary of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. There is a reference to the Rubik's Cube, which enjoyed the same obsessive popularity in the Soviet Union as it did in the West in the eighties. "The Upas Tree" is a poem by Pushkin which every Russian schoolchild learns by rote. The poem describes the infamous poison tree, alone in the desert, to which a tyrant ruler sends his servant to gather poison for arrowheads. In Gandlevskii's poem, the upas tree stretches its branches to feel its way into the world of the poet. In stanza V the drunks in the yard toast Sergei Esenin and Andrei Chenier, romantic poets who both suffered untimely deaths: Chenier under the guillotine blade in 1794; Esenin, disillusioned with the Bolshevik revolution, hanged himself in 1925.

Gandlevskii's poem takes the shape of a series of stanzas: that is to say, each "stanza" or verse is a complete poetic thought, there is no enjambment of sound or meaning between the separate parts. Stanzas in Russian literary tradition are usually a lyrical meditative form. Pushkin wrote several famous "stanza" poems, and the one that comes to mind here is "Brozhu li ya vdol' ulits shumnykh" (When I am wandering the noisy streets), in which the poet meditates on mortality and the omnipresence of death. There is little consolation in Pushkin's lyrics—only the hope that children will play around his grave and the indifferent beauty of nature will decorate it. But Gandlevskii's last stanza is a twentieth-century scream of horror, resounding through the wilderness. All that is left for him to do, as a poet, is to speak, and give voice to the love and the despair he feels.—SD

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This poem originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2009

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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