Q&A with Lara Vapnyar: Divide Me by Zero (Tin House Books, 2019)

Punctured Lines is thrilled to present a Q&A with Lara Vapnyar, Russian-American writer and author of six works, including her latest novel, Divide Me by Zero. This is also personally meaningful, as I have been reading and writing on Russian-American fiction, very much including her work, for several years. Many thanks to Masha Rumer, whose Q&A we featured previously, for helping facilitate this exchange. Lara answered our questions by email.

Punctured Lines: Divide Me by Zero is your sixth book. In an interview with Svetlana Satchkova forThe Rumpus, you’ve called it your most intimate and biographical. Has your writing process changed during your work on this novel?

Lara Vapnyar: There is a scene in a Nancy Meyers’ film Something Gotta Give, where the main character played by Diane Keaton is working on play, typing and sobbing, typing and sobbing… That’s how it went for me, except that I had long periods of just sobbing, and longer periods of paralyzing self-doubt – Is this even a novel? What if this is just a self-indulgent mess?

PL: English, the language of your stories and novels, is your second language, acquired later in life. In her essay for the New Yorker, “To Speak is to Blunder,” Yiyun Li, a writer whose first language is Chinese, talked about how “language is capable of sinking a mind.” “One’s thoughts are slavishly bound to language,” she wrote, and went on to talk about the difficulties she has articulating her feelings. “It is hard to feel in an adopted language, yet it is impossible in my native language,” Li says. In your essay, “The Writer as Tour Guide” in an anthology of contemporary Jewish exile literature, The Writer Uprooted, you said, “By the time I approached writing, I had been reading in English a lot, and whenever I thought about creating something of my own, I caught myself putting my images into words of the English language. I felt most comfortable when writing in English, even though I had to struggle with grammar and vocabulary […] I would even say that I wrote in American, which for me was the language of immigrants.” What opportunities has English provided you with that wouldn’t have existed in Russian?  Alternatively, do you ever find English limiting?  Do you negotiate the space between Russian and English when you write?

LV: English is my first “writing” language. Even though I only started to learn English as an adult, my first attempts to write fiction were in English (I’ve never written anything in Russian), so it feels completely natural. The only situation, when I feel frustrated, is when I have to translate speech from Russian into English. For example, I remember a specific joke my mother made in Russian, and I want to translate it and give it to my character, but it’s just not that funny in English!

PL: The relationship between mother and daughter that you describe in this novel is very touching yet clearly a very demanding one. The cultural conflict is not obviously stated, but it seems to define Katya’s judgment of her ability to mother her children. In Soviet households it was common for grandparents to participate fully in the everyday duties of raising children—and Katya herself grew up in a household presided over by her grandparents. Do you feel that life in the United States has affected Katya’s and her mother’s expectations of each other?

LV: In Soviet households it was common for grandparents to participate fully in the everyday duties of raising children –Absolutely! Katya would’ve probably felt less conflicted, if she was raising her children while relying so much on her mother’s help in Russia.

PL: Unlike works by many other Russian-American writers, male or female, your work directly engages with ideas of gender and feminism. Your novel Memoirs of a Muse charts the transformation of its female protagonist from subservient muse to her writer boyfriend to an independent woman engaged in artistic production; and while Dostoevsky is a key fictional figure in this work, the focus is on his lover, Apollinaria Suslova, herself a writer. Ružena in “Slicing Sautéed Spinach” in your short story collection Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love is a doctoral student in Women’s Studies. Your essay “Hillary’s Underpants: The Sad Tale of ‘Clintonsha,’ or She-Clinton” in Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary directly calls out traditional Russian gender assumptions. How do you relate to feminist ideas and navigate the gap between the different gender expectations in American vs. Russian cultures? Do you see any shift of Russian gender norms in the diaspora?

LV: I was brought up in the Soviet Union, where accepted gender roles differed greatly from what we see in the US and contemporary Russia. Soviet Union was both a feminist and a deeply patriarchal society, where men had all the power, but women did all the work, but still longed for a man in the family like this prized object. My mother, a strong independent woman who made her career and brought me up all on her own, kept telling me that ANY husband is better than no husband.

I think there is a shift of gender norms [in the diaspora] toward the ideal situation, where men and women in the family are equal partners who depend on each other for support and understanding.

PL: As a writer one of whose major topics is immigration, do you find yourself working against Russian cultural stereotypes?

LV: Probably… But in this novel, I feel like I’m working with a Russian cultural stereotype – that you absolutely need true romantic love, that you can’t live without it – against a more pragmatic American view that romantic love is far from being the most important thing in life, and chasing after love is selfish and childish.

PL: Who are some of the writers that inspire you? Do you find yourself connecting with other diaspora writers?

LV: There are so many writers I deeply admire within the diaspora and beyond. But for this novel, the most influential was Elena Ferrante. She taught me how to turn yourself inside out for the sake of larger truth.

Rus­sophone Science Fic­tion and Uto­pias in the Mar­gins, an essay by Sanna Tuorma in Aleksanteri Insight

This article published in December just before the holidays, seems worth highlighting. The topic is dear to me: I’ve been an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy literature, and I am particularly fond of contemporary feminist science fiction. But first, I want to highlight the books that Tuorma mentions in her essay.

Tuorma begins with a review of a scholarly volume, The Post-Soviet Politics of Utopia (I.B. Tauris, Sept. 19, 2019), edited by Mikhail Suslov and Per-Arne Bodin. As always with scholarly publications, this book is insanely expensive. Amazon, however, does have a decent preview of it that includes the introduction and gives us a good sense of the various threads of inquiry in this book.

Summarizing the volume’s findings, Tuorma writes, “Current Russian scientific and fantasy literature, both utopian and dystopic, seems to lack the radical and transformative power seminal to science fiction.” She suggests, following the advice of a Finnish-language publication Voima “to abandon dystopias, the predominant mode of global cultural production, and to envision ecological and economic utopias instead.”

She offers one recent anthology of Russian-language feminist and LGBT science fiction that comes from outside of the imperial center. This book, Совсем другие, is available in full from Academia.edu–in the Russian language. An English translation of its opening story, “Element 174,” penned by Kyrgyz activist and academic Syinat Sultanalieva, recently appeared in The Calvert Journal, translated by Lesya Myata and Samuel Goff.

I was born this way: a shameless lesbian. Ever since it became clear that I would have to be physically present on the planet of Omay, it had been my personal goal to sleep with as many of their famously gorgeous women as possible. There were rumours that they were all lesbians. I think my brothers would have understood, had they known about my plans — after all, it wasn’t exactly easy to get hold of women on Earth. There weren’t many left, and those that remained had mostly already been distributed amongst the domains. Those who grew up in ours were either too young or already related to me. I might be a lesbian, but I’m not so craven as to seduce them. I had to get by as best I could, making rare visits to the worse-for-wear residents of the Wild Zone or engaging in self-care. Luckily my father had some antique pictures and videos of sordid delights from before the Exodus, so I could indulge my fantasies at will.

https://www.calvertjournal.com/features/show/9831/being-lgbtq-element-174-syinat-sultanalieva-shtab

I’m incredibly grateful to Tuorma for pointing out what looks to be a very exciting read.

Looking over the articles that comprise the scholarly volume, I do find it unfortunate that the names of whom I think first in the list of post-Soviet science fiction and fantasy authors had not been taken up for consideration. My personal anthology of writers in this genre begins with the names of Max Frei, Lena Eltang, Linor Goralik, Elena Pervushina–that’s off the top of my head…

Upcoming Book: Good Citizens Need Not Fear by Maria Reva

I came across Maria Reva’s short story “Unsound” in a copy of McSweeney’s, catching up on my reading over the holidays. It’s a striking piece of fiction that’s set in a fictional orphanage in the Soviet Union, where infants are rated according to a disability scale and judged accordingly. Notwithstanding, the orphan who emerges as a protagonist of the story, Zaya, has a lot going for her–a certain resilience of the spirit that makes her narrative particularly endearing.

Judging by quality of Reva’s previous publications and the reception this particular story has received–it was listed in a major magazine award that McSweetney recently won–this book has a very big future ahead of it. The pub date is March 10, 2020, and it’s already available on pre-order.

A bureaucratic glitch omits an entire building, along with its residents, from municipal records. So begins Reva’s ingeniously intertwined narratives, nine stories that span the chaotic years leading up to and immediately following the fall of the Soviet Union. But even as the benighted denizens of 1933 Ivansk Street weather the official neglect of the increasingly powerless authorities, they devise ingenious ways to survive.

https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/609447/good-citizens-need-not-fear-by-maria-reva/

A bonus: Reva’s story “Novostroika” was published in the Atlantic. This looks to be a section from the upcoming novel.

Publisher: Doubleday

Pub date: March 10, 2020

A Reading Recommendation: Nino Haratischvili's The Eighth Life

This reading recommendation comes to us via Jennifer Eremeeva’s Twitter feed. (Thank you the amazing Russian literary twitter!) Nino Haratischvili was born in Georgia in 1983 (according to Wikipedia), and lives and writes in German. She has been publishing fiction and drama since approx. 2001, and her novel The Eighth Life (for Brilka) was recently translated to English by Charlotte Collins and published by Scribe–Australia and UK based publisher.

Brief description from the publisher: “At the start of the twentieth century, on the edge of the Russian Empire, a family prospers. It owes its success to a delicious chocolate recipe, passed down the generations with great solemnity and caution. A caution which is justified: this is a recipe for ecstasy that carries a very bitter aftertaste …”

Note: In German, Nino’s last name is spelled “Haratischwili,” but in the English publication, it’s “v” instead of “w”: Haratischvili.

Publisher: Scribe

Pub date: October 1, 2019

English PEN Translates Awards 2019

Punctured Lines congratulates Lisa Hayden, whose profile we featured on the blog previously, for being among the winners of the English PEN Translates award for her translation ofThree Apples Fell from the Sky by Narine Abgaryan from Armenia (the novel is written in Russian). The translation is forthcoming from Oneworld in May 2020.

“‘English PEN has long argued for the broadest possible internationalism in our publishing world, not as a niche interest or a luxury, but as a cultural necessity,’ Daniel Hahn, Chair of the PEN Translates Selection Panel, said. ‘With each round, this our fifteenth, PEN Translates receives an ever-greater number of more competitive, more promising, more diverse submissions, from terrific publishers of all sizes who, even in a risk-averse business, continue to look out at the world with ambition.'”

The complete list of the winners, including for translations from Georgia and Bulgaria, is here: http://georgiatoday.ge/news/18853/One-of-20-PEN-Translates-Awards-Goes-to-a-Title-Translated-from-Georgian

Central Asian feminists are carving out their space in gender studies, by Aizada Arystanbek

Part of Open Democracy’s “new series on activism, academia and equality in Central Asia,” this piece is by Aizada Arystanbek, “a Central Asian graduate student of gender studies in Europe” (links to the other pieces in the series are included). As she writes, “along with the thrill of being able to study what I am passionate about comes a certain violence of erasure, as I am left constantly searching for my identity in feminist academia.

As I think about Russia’s colonisation of Central Asia and the process of Russification my mother had to undergo in her school in Tselinograd (the former name of the current capital of Kazakhstan), I feel deeply for Latina, black and indigenous women who write about their ancestors being colonised, their land being stolen, and them being perceived as backward simply because they lacked culture in the western conception of the word.

But I am always caught in between these various identities and almost never am I seen for my own very distinguishable one, a Central Asian woman. I have to stitch together my identity in academia by myself, learning little-by-little from other feminist scholars of colour, hoping that I understand their experiences correctly and that their words will represent my struggle accurately when I use them in my essays.”

Central Asia, once part of the Soviet Union and now comprising independent nations, is not particularly well known in the West. In the U.S., academic study of the region has traditionally come out of Slavic departments, where it has only recently begun to garner more attention, although not necessarily about issues of gender and feminism. This series looks to be an important and much-needed step in this direction.

https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/odr/central-asian-feminists-are-carving-out-their-space-gender-studies/

Emily Couch on The Ethnic Avant-Garde and Diversity in Russia Studies

By Emily Couch

In 2015, Steven S. Lee published the monograph The Ethnic Avant-Garde: Minority Cultures & World Revolution. It may seem strange to write about a book four years after its publication, but the continued lack of racial and ethnic diversity in Russia studies makes Lee’s work more relevant than ever. Today we should consider The Ethnic Avant-Garde as not only a valuable source of information and analysis on a much neglected topic, but also as a springboard for reconsidering the field’s methodologies, as well as dominant political discourses on the region and its Soviet past. 

WHAT IS THE BOOK ABOUT?

Lee defines the “Ethnic Avant-Garde” as referring to the diverse artists and writers who engaged with the Soviet Union from beyond its borders, but his central contention is that the phrase defines a  “largely unrealized utopian aspiration […] the dream of advancing simultaneously ethnic particularism, political radicalism, and artistic experimentation, debunking the notion that particularism yields provincialism.”  The Ethnic Avant-Garde, he adds, “foregrounds a distinct way of seeing – a ‘transnational optic’ that, for the contemporary reader, makes it possible to discern unexpected connections among radical artists and writers from many different countries.” The book does not idealize the Soviet system or its minority policy, but rather argues that foregrounding the Ethnic Avant-Garde facilitates a “minority and Soviet-centered remapping of global modernism” and “provides for new scholarly and creative communities in the present day.”

Chapter 1 analyzes the cultural exchange between Vladimir Mayakovsky and Langston Hughes by looking at the way in which the latter translated and adapted the poetry of the former. Chapter 2 considers Sergei Tretyakov’s play Roar, China and its reception in the United States. Chapter 3 looks at Hughes’ famous dismissal of the planned Soviet movie about African American struggles, and Chapter 4 addresses the complex attitude of American Jews towards socialist internationalism.  Overall, the book covers the inter-war period from 1918 to 1939.

REVIEW OF THE BOOK 

The strongest suit of The Ethnic Avant-Garde is the multitude of significant, but little known, examples of cultural interaction between Western ethnic minorities and the Soviet Union. Perhaps the most emblematic of these is Lee’s analysis of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s “Black & White” (1925) – a poem in which Willie, a black sweeper at an American cigar company in Havana, slowly gains awareness of racial inequity – and its subsequent translation into English by Langston Hughes in the 1930s. Through analysis of word choice, form, and rhythm, Lee reveals the cultural collaboration that took place between these seemingly disparate authors (even though Mayakovsky was no longer alive by the time of Hughes’ translation), and highlights the way in which Hughes not only translated Russian into English, but also represented Afro-Cuban culture in a way that was comprehensible to an American audience.  Another strength of The Ethnic Avant-Garde is that its content – the book covers multiple ethnicities, including African American, Asian, Afro-Cuban, and Jewish – reflects Lee’s mission to “delineate an avant-garde grouping that cuts across racial, ethnic, and national boundaries.”

This ambitious motivation is, in part, responsible for the book’s shortcomings.  The concept of the Avant-Garde is inherently abstract (think of Kazimir Malevich’s paintings), so it is not surprising that Lee’s writing style is heavily theoretical – his use of Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International (1919 – 1920) as a visual metaphor for the Ethnic Avant-Garde is a prime example of this tendency.  The plethora of abstract concepts with which Lee grapples frequently leads to dense and obtuse paragraphs that would make little sense to a reader who was not well-versed in the theoretical underpinnings of modernism. Terms such as “Freudian melancholia” and “Now-Time,” for example, receive little explanation. This trend carries through to the final chapter which, instead of bringing the book’s narrative to a close, offers yet more theorization – this time, focusing on how Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel (2010) negotiates the “eternal idea” of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and its reality.  While the discussion of Yamashita’s work is rigorous, it does feel like something of a non sequitur in a book that primarily discusses the Soviet Union.

WHY IS IT SIGNIFICANT?

Let’s turn to methodologies. Russia studies, like every field of area studies, is an umbrella term that houses multiple disciplines – namely, international relations, political and social science, history, literature, art, and language.  Yet, while Russia studies is a broad church, there is a strange lack of interdisciplinary dialogue, particularly when it comes to the international relations and political science strands.  For scholars of literature and art, it is natural to draw on the research in these fields in order to understand the backdrop of, and worldview encoded in, the work. However, there is little in the way of reciprocal influence due to the unfortunate tendency among IR and political science scholars to see their disciplines as detached from the “softer” realm of cultural studies. The Ethnic Avant-Garde embodies the fruitful results of this kind of interdisciplinarity work.  Lee himself is an Associate Professor of English Literature at Berkeley, but he uses the techniques of literary analysis in order to draw wider conclusions about the social and political nature of the relationship between the Soviet Union and ethnic minorities abroad.  

Interdisciplinary methodologies, in turn, prompt a rethinking of Western political discourse on the Soviet Union. Understanding the cultural ties and, indeed, the cultural attraction that it exerted for Western ethnic minorities invites a critical reassessment of the traditionally antagonistic Cold War rhetoric. The dominant U.S. rhetoric of the Cold War period posited the Soviet Union as the antithesis to American ideals of democracy and capitalism.  Encoded in this rhetoric, however, was the pervasive inequity in racial relations, especially regarding the African American community. Thus, anti-Soviet discourses erased the experiences of those ethnic/racial groups who were not included within these “patriotic” ideals. Granted, The Ethnic Avant-Garde does not technically cover the Cold War (i.e. post-World War II) period.  However, its final chapter does suggest that the People’s Republic of China – founded in 1949 – offered a beacon of hope for Western ethnic minorities. The nuancing called for by Lee’s work, in turn, spotlights the ever growing need for greater diversity among the practitioners and scholars who study the region.

THE PERSONAL IS POLITICAL 

The iconic slogan of the 1960s and 70s women’s movement has been repeated to the point of banality over the last six decades, but this does not mean that it is any less relevant today. Academic book reviews rarely mention the author’s personal biography, but in this discussion of racial and ethnic diversity in Russia studies it is salient to point out that Lee himself – as he writes in the Acknowledgements – is the child of Korean immigrants to the United States.  He is among the few ethnically East Asian scholars in Russia studies (other examples being Notre Dame’s Emily Wang and UPenn’s Brian Kim). Lee’s personal background makes The Ethnic Avant-Garde political: beyond its specific content, the very fact that a seminal contribution to the field has been made by a person of color is, in itself, worthy of celebration. Most significantly, however, is that The Ethnic Avant-Garde points to the way diversity in the profession can facilitate a dramatic reinterpretation of the Soviet Union’s place in the global cultural space by foregrounding the inter-ethnic and inter-racial connections that the present Eurocentric scholarship has overlooked.

Emily Couch is a Staff Intern at the Kennan Institute.  She recently completed a double Master’s degree in Russian & East European Studies at University College London and the Higher School of Economics (Moscow). She has just returned from a year living in Russia where, in addition to her degree, she interned with the independent Russian pollster, The Levada Center.  Earlier this year, she defended her thesis entitled The Inter-regional Diffusion of Russian Protest Repertoires in a Trans-National Context, 2008 – Present.  Her articles have been published by news outlets including The Moscow Times and The Calvert Journal.
Twitter: @EmilyCouchUK

Looking Back on Our First Event: Participatory Reading in Post-Soviet Literatures, in Pictures

On November 25th, Punctured Lines hosted our first literary event in San Francisco. Thanks to a conference that brought to San Francisco scholars, translators, and writers in Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, we were able to gather a star list of participants. A few of the readers have appeared in Punctured Lines, and we certainly hope to feature more of their work. Following the scheduled portion of the event, we hosted an open mic that turned out to be a great crowd-pleaser. Below are the pictures we captured that night and brief descriptions of everyone’s contributions.

Shelley Fairthweather-Vega opened with an excerpt from her recently published translation of Talasbek Asemkulov’s novel A Life at Noonavailable for purchase here. A story about a musician growing up in Soviet Kazakhastan and learning his art form from his father.

Yelena Furman read the opening from her short story “Naming,” recently published in Narrative Magazine, and available in full online (free, with free registration required).

Wayne Goodman read a few brief excerpts from his historical novel Borimir: Serving the Tsars that re-imagines gay romance in Imperial Russia. There’s lots of awkward flirting! This book is available for purchase on Amazon.

Maggie Levantovskaya read from her essay about a trip to Auschwitz concentration camp “To Conjure Up the Dead,” published in Michigan Quarterly Review. The bizarreness of Holocaust tourism with the post-Soviet twist. An excerpt from this essay appears online.

Dmitri Manin wore the T-shirt with Genrikh Sapgir’s poem on the back, and read to us his translations from Sapgir’s “Poems on Shirts” book. We have published three of these translations in an earlier post.

Masha Rumer shared an essay about exposing an unsuspecting date to the delights of pickled herring-and-boiled beet salad, aka “Seledka pod shuboj.” He lived long enough to propose. We’re hoping to read the follow up on this story in her upcoming book, Parenting with an Accent: An Immigrant’s Guide to Multicultural Parenting. More about Masha and her book in the Q&A she gave Punctured Lines.

Sasha Vasilyuk followed with an excerpt from her novel-in-progress about a Soviet prisoner of war. We will be following the development of this project closely.

Mary Jane White delighted us with her translations from Marina Tsvetaeva — her delivery of the “Ode to the Rich” landed particularly well with our audience. Mary Jane’s book of her own poetry and translations from Tsvetaeva Starry Sky to Starry Sky is available online. We will be following up with news of her upcoming book of translations from Tsvetaeva’s Berlin and Prague years, Poems of an Emigrant: After Russia, Poem of the Hill, Poem of the End, and New Year’s.

I read the opening of “Rubicon,” a short story from my collection Like Water and Other Stories.

Josie von Zitzewitz followed up on the thread of discussion about the lack of visibility of contemporary Russian literature in the United States, and introduced a project that she’s developing with Marian Schwartz and Hilah Cohen, soliciting work from young Russophone writers to create a feature publication in an American magazine (possibly more than one).

Joining us for the open mic portion of the show, we had Maxim Matusevich, a writer and a historian of USSR intersections with African countries. He delivered an excerpt from his hilarious short story about cultural encounters between American students going to study abroad in St. Petersburg.

Christopher Fort closed the evening with a poem that he read in both Uzbek and English, bringing our attention to a particular rhyming pattern of Turkic languages. We have previously linked to Christopher’s interview about translating Abdulhamid Sulaymon o’g’li Cho’lpon novel Night and Day. This novel is now available for purchase online.



Overdue Praise for Karolina Pavlova's Work

Karolina Pavolva was born in 1807 in Yaroslavl, Russian Empire, and published her novel A Double Life in 1848. This year, 171 years after the original publication, Columbia University Press gave this book a new life by releasing Barbara Heldt’s translation in their stellar Russian Library series.

The publisher calls the book “an unsung classic,” and I’m so pleased to see that this book is receiving the attention it deserves. In November, Talia Zax wrote a wonderful review of it for The Atlantic:

The slim mixed-genre novel . . . follows the 18-year-old Cecily von Lindenborn as her mother attempts to find her a husband. Cecily’s days, written in prose, are filled with the pleasures of a rotely feminine aristocratic life: romance, balls, and new dresses. But at night, her dreams are narrated in poetry, sensual verses with an intense pull toward the natural world. Pavlova constructed a strikingly prescient psychological vision: a mind responding to extreme social pressure by slowly and completely separating itself into parts, but giving few external indications of change.

https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2019/11/karolina-pavlova-double-life-translated-barbara-heldt-review/601342/

Pavlova had a long and underappreciated career in Russia as a poet, and I’m very pleased to share a recent translation of her poem “Moscow” by Katherine E. Young. (Scroll down to the third entry.)

Genrikh Sapgir's Sonnets: A Performance from ALTA

On November 9th, 2019, Olga Livshin, Dmitri Manin, and I hosted an off-off-site at ALTA (American Literary Translators Conference) in Rochester, NY. Olga Livshin introduced A LIFE REPLACED, her hybrid collection combining own and translated poems; and I introduced LIKE WATER AND OTHER STORIES, my English-language collection of fiction. Both books deal with issues around parent and children relationships, immigration, and processing the complex inheritance that we brought to the US from the Soviet Union.

To open the evening, we staged a brief performance of Dmitri Manin’s translations from the work of Genrikh Sapgir. A Soviet Jewish poet, Sapgir combines a whimsical imagination with the sharp eye for telling details. Watching this video a few weeks after the performance, I’m surprised to see how effectively Sapgir’s images and Dmitri Manin’s words helped us to recreate a certain spirit of the late Soviet Union, a kind of festive carnivalesque environment in the face of increasing challenges of everyday life and crumbling social structures. Obviously, none of us are trained actors, but we all reveled in the performative aspect of Sapgir’s work.

These poems come from Sapgir’s book “Sonnets on Shirts” that was first published outside of the Soviet Union, in Paris in 1978. Dmitri Manin is working on translating the complete manuscript, and we’re publishing these sonnets in English with his permission.

Thanks to Shelley Fairweather-Vega for recording the performance, and to our lovely and supportive audience! The sonnets below are reproduced in the order in which they appear in the video.

Sonnet of Things Gone Missing

To Ian Satunovsky

At times there is — no beef or ham or cheese
Now hats are gone from store shelves everywhere
But I have known calamities to spare
No place to live. No health. No relatives

No happiness no moral sense no peace
For one’s own labor no respect nor care
No warm and comfy place to take a piss
No prospects for a harvest come next year

But there are FISH-BASED MEATBALLS in a can
And goals — both hazy and utopian
Betrayal cosmos vodka boredom missiles

There’s forest, steppe, construction and ballet
And even people — somewhere far away
And God’s my witness! — though God’s also missing

Something — Nothing

A metaphysical sonnet

A sphere swings. Towards the sphere
A sphere swings. Where they meet, they all
Collapse: one — a pair, one — a pair, one — a pair
We watch from a spherical mirror hall

Everything’s a reflection. A ball or a troll
A thing or a cloudю It swells like a nightmare
Then without a crash… a ball disappears a ball disappears a ball disappears
Gobbled up by a ball

Streaking and splitting they fold and go —
In the third — in the tenth — all the host to the faux
Infinity: one after the next the next the next the next the next the next the next the next the next the next etc.*

Stop it! Enough! I can’t stand this ordeal!
A ball on a thread in an infinite reel —
A universal game on a childish pretext

*The line stretches to a misconceived infinity. 

Chart of Life

Three wise old men bent over to review
A chart of life in their benevolent wisdom
“He’ll be a poet… under socialism…”
“A wretched fate, indeed” said Lao Tzu

So I was born here not without a reason…
Wartime… cat scavenging the yard for cukes…
Oppression by the bastards and the crooks…
The tedium was stifling like a prison!

And suddenly — a trip to Singapore
On this sweet break from the routine and chore
I saw a mural in a Buddhist temple

On which among pagodas and bamboo
Three wise old men bent over to review
A chart of life and smiled around the table