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

2 thoughts on “Genrikh Sapgir’s Sonnets: A Performance from ALTA

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