Three Poems by Mikhail Zenkevich (1886-1973)
Translated from the Russian by Alex Cigale
To A. Akhmatova
The shrieks of steel hooks on suspended tackles,
the sides of beef sliding mechanically by.
Beneath the pale drool trickle of seeping blood,
the blue and black of innards and viscera.
It’s very simple. Being human our control
on this soaked and slippery surface consists
in being able to dismember these disgustingly
hacked pieces with knives into crimson parts.
I think that we also in that Golden Hour
are being weighed like meat on sacred scales,
the pans just as rusted and masses heavy,
stray dogs greedily licking bloody chops.
Flung by the veined arms of muscled butchers
on a metal slab with a slight ping and clang,
their decisive air of exceeding fair measure,
the spray nozzles glistening white with fat.
May God forgive me; might in midday heat,
as carcasses emit, like souls, a dense steam,
there, just as here above the quieted market,
the air sparkle with swarms of glutinous flies?
Petersburg in summer terrifies me. Might
it be that all the ghosts here are lonesome,
on the flights of stairs awaits a white knight,
and when a bell is rung it’s Raskolnikov?
Acrid smoke and knocking together of bricks
beset me there as I trudge beside myself;
boulevard where the abandoned children
play in the sand, water splashing nearby.
For weak flesh everything is forbidden:
the glittering foliage glares like green fire,
around their exposed knees, under the hems
of the girls’ dresses, something knit flashes white.
All’s gone to seed; no more can I sniff out
what’s going on. For real or a mirage?
I climb to my empty apartment, the dust
and one of them for company, to caress.
And after, my white corpse, bare and frozen
upon the sheets, and spasms of greedy need.
And as I toss into the Roundwater Canal
the bloody rubber, its clear blue flow…
Pig Sticking Time
All day my ears ring with piercing (like screech
of nails or chalk on board or drawn along glass,)
high-pitched and fat shrieks of the swine being
slaughtered by butcher Borov for Easter’s feast.
Caught with a rope from behind, pink ears grabbed,
they are tugged from their pen, their jaws held shut,
clenched tight, smothered on the ground till squeals
grow silent and over their hearts stilled are his arms.
And after, on open fires fed with straw, the bristles
scraped along with fleas, the burned layer scalped,
water splashed on with pails, pig fat scooped out,
arms in to the elbows twist, making a mess.
Jowls on the no-longer tensed jaws are rinsed
and flensed and the bag of the stomach pulled out.
The old women carefully in their tubs and basins
wash as though underwear the stinking knot of guts.
And when in the kitchens brick ovens fire up
April’s dark, wind-dispersed smoke blocks the stars.
As though sniffing a bitch, dogs from all the yards
race as a pack; there will be gnawing till the light.
Mikhail Zenkevich (1886-1973): Who Needs A Sixth Acmeist?
One would think that, having produced both of the most widely recognized “greatest” poets of the Russian Silver Age, Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova, Acmeism might have more “legs”. 2011 marks the centennial of the self-identified “Guild of Poets,” its manifesto, less a secession than a corrective intended to direct Symbolism away from its ethereal, spiritual focus toward more earthly concerns. Mikhail Zenkevich along with Vladimir Narbut, the group’s fifth and sixth members (not just those whose work followed the principles but who identified themselves as part of the Guild established by Nikolay Gumilev and Sergey Gorodetsky; hence Akhmatova’s famous remark: “there were only six; a seventh there shall never be,”) have been referred to as the “leftist” or “radical” Acmeists, and I can think of no one who carried out further than Zenkevich the Acmeist program of concreteness of reference in his attention to the minutiae of the physical world. In response to the positive reviews of his first book, Wild Purpur, (Dikaya Porphyra, 1912,) Zenkevich characterized his work as an attempt to incorporate the thematics of history and science into the medium of poetry, Similarly, Narbut, in his last book scheduled for release prior to his arrest and execution in 1938 (Spiral, 1936) also proclaimed the cause of a “scientific poetry.”
Rejected as “vulgar” by the pre-revolutionary mainstream, by the end of the 1920s Zenkevich was condemned for his “cynicism” and banned from publishing his own poetry (the last 30 years of his personal work consisted mainly of Socialist hymns to labor, science and the military.) Herein lies the beyond-the-mirror, invisible part of the great tragedy of that silenced generation, not just those who were killed but the “silent majority,” those who found ways to accommodate. Zenkevich represents a whole class of survivors, the “living dead” as writers. Nadezhda Mandelshtam, in her great memoir Hope Against Hope, wrote that Zenkevich, his early zeal for revolutionary ideals crushed by the Socialist reality (Mayakovsky’s suicide note “love boat foundering upon life,”) “was one of the first to sink into a hypnotic trance or lethargy…. wander[ing] about the ruins of his Rome, trying to persuade himself and others that it was essential to surrender not only one’s body, but one’s mind as well.”
The 1920s marked the end-of-an-era for the entire late avant-garde that emerged post-WW I out of the wreckage of Futurism. Boris Pasternak gradually ceased to write poetry; the so-called Imaginist movement (inspired in part by Pound’s Imagism, among its founders the widely popular lyrical poet Sergey Esenin, another suicide) disappeared. The Imaginist poet and author of the gorgeously lyrical “lost” 1928 novel Cynics, Anatoly Mariengof, stopped writing (until his 1960s memoirs) entirely. Zenkevich, having learned to love Big Brother, managed to transform himself and salvage something of a poetic practice, becoming the foremost translator of Modern American and English poetry into Russian, nearly single-handedly making the Modernist oeuvre (from Whitman, through the Imagists, and Wallace Stevens) available in his homeland.
What piqued my initial interest in these poems was Zenkevich’s nearly obsessive attention to the slaughterhouse. The naturalism and barbarism of this work is a specimen of anti-art that undermines the common perception that has excluded Acmeism from the ranks of the avant-garde, a status accorded mainly to the Futurists. Zenkevich’s iconography seems to me to prefigure one of the documentary subjects of Dziga Vertov’s Kino-Pravda and I would not be surprised to discover that Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906) was at least in part an inspiration for both. (The influence of the new medium of film on Zenkevich and the Imaginist Mariengof, and certainly on the Futurist Mayakovsky, has been remarked upon in scholarly work.) The difference of course is that for the Acmeist Zenkevich, the metaphysical dimension, the killing floor as the locus and symbol of the conversion of corrupted flesh into spirit, is ever at the forefront.
My initial rhetorical question (Who Needs A Sixth Acmeist?) really consists of three separate ones: the utility of poetry, the value of Acmeism, and more narrowly the utility of the categories of major and minor poet. I will directly address only the last here, hoping the rest might be deduced from this example. It would seem to me that a major poet’s body of work either contains a major poem, sufficient in scale and ambition, or whose body of work is “of a whole” and whose record of “service to literature” (essays, translations, editing, organizing) significant (a minor poet, on the other hand is canonical but only on the latter count). From the beginning, I have been guided by empirical evidence contradicting Frost’s observation that poetry is what is lost in translation: on the contrary, Image may be transcribed quite effectively.
The untranslatable, on the other hand, is inexhaustible because contingent: at best one may offer cases to describe a category, never fixed conclusions. As Akhmatova reported, Mandelstam based his Acmeist manifesto on her poems, not the other way around; theory must always follow practice, not prescribe it. While “the best” work might be represented, “a poetry-in-translation” perspective of a given literature, even on the part of a specialist, must be understood to be woefully incomplete. These translations of a minor poet are intended as “the proof in the pudding” and so I ask you to please return now to re-read them. My impression is that exactly 100 years later, these feel absolutely contemporary and, like the day they were written, they possess a timeless quality.
In closing, I would like to offer a final note about the place of Petersburg in the Russian literary imagination. From the time of Peter, this city established on the bones of one hundred thousand serfs and Swedish prisoners, their crushed bodies planted in the bog like a foundational sacrifice, haunted by Pushkin’s Bronze horseman, inhabited by Gogol’s pathetic, demented clerks, Dostoevsky’s downtrodden students and prostitutes, Bulgakov’s host of Satan, Petersburg has been simultaneously Russia’s window on the West and the image if not of doom then of its moral darkness. I believe that Zenkevich’s best work, his one true subject, mortified flesh, reflects perfectly this city’s great contradiction: spectral, phantasmagorical, conflicted modernity. ♦
Alex Cigale’s poems have appeared in Colorado Review, Green Mountains Review, St. Petersburg Review, Tar River Poetry, and 32 Poems, and online in Drunken Boat and McSweeney’s. His translations from the Russian can be found in Brooklyn Rail InTranslation, Cardinal Points, Literary Imagination, Modern Poetry in Translation, and PEN America. A monthly column of translations of Russian Silver Age poets and an anthology of Silver Age miniature poems are online at Danse Macabre and OffCourse, respectively. (The latter contains five translations of Mikhail Zenkevich‘s war-time poems.) Alex was born in Chernovtsy, Ukraine and lives in New York City.
Banner image courtesy Flickr Creative Commons.