In the bowl resting in your palm, sprinkled in your chicken soup in between the carrot slices like pepper flakes, a fairy dust. Under my breath I repeat it over and over again. “What’s that?,” you say, “You keep talking under your breath. I can’t hear you when you do that.” “Do what?” I mouth. Below your tongue is where you begin to feel it. It is cold at first (a brainfreeze.) Then hot (a forehead sweat.) I count to ten (dizzy, dizzy.) You spin in circles. On the radio, bumbling beats on the boombox. In the garden, a backyard blues. A firecracker shoots sparks in your soup, pepper flakes like glitter paint. Then later it’s a twinkling toe ring that’s twisted in your palm which you slide onto my ring finger. I shake my head and slide it back onto yours because you are mine.
How now, brown cow, how red the heavens streak at dawn how shrill and warbled the rooster’s morning cackle how the whole Earth now seems to vociferate in anticipation of another morning broken.
How greener the pastures on each side from the last how sweet a whiff of sunshine through the trees how soft the fleece how fat the sow how each day seems to slip through the slats until the crickets peep and it’s moonlight on the meadow.
How black the night, how grave the vow, how can you blame me, I mean really how— can you possibly blame me, how one dark evening fate stole through the slits while I slept still— some old evil spirit, here to turn a good thing bad.
I found Prigov accidentally. A video clip with that appealing VHS quality, in which he recited an alliterative poem at a level of Russian beyond my own. I toyed with the idea of translating him, and in the process began to appreciate his printed poetry, his art exhibitions, his enormous character. He told absurd jokes about the atrocities of Russian and American history without ever growing sentimental or ideological, a pitfall even for the best of the Russian poets. He follows in the Russian tradition of absurdism, if the absurd can be called traditional.
Although his topics are often political, it would be a disservice to call Prigov simply a dissident—his writing is usually too arcane to be clearly read as criticism. He brings the mysticism of Soviet hero worship to the fore and makes us confront it, bends it into something closer to real forms of power. His poetry is the pure absurdist admission that life is at best a place where we dance around meaningtly encounter it. The politics of his work will never touch my pulse as closely as they might for those who knew Soviet power, but his broad sense of the absurd and of the mystical or essential nature of power is still familiar. At least I hope it is.
Prigov was born in 1940, just before the Great Patriotic War, and died in 2007. His work was not officially printed in the Soviet Union until 1986, although it was circulated abroad and in Samizdat. This particular cycle of poems dates to 1985, one of the 36,000 that he claimed to have written before the millenium.
The translation came easily. His language is simple and straightforward. Many of the dialogues are riffs on famous phrases by the authors with whom he speaks, and I’ve done my best to render them into simple English that would slander neither Pushkin nor Prigov. Naturally, I hope that the chaos and mystery remains.
NOTICE: This book was born from a love for Dialogues, Poems, and—naturally, naturally—for happiness.
There is no happiness in life But there is peace and will There is no will in life But there are certain inevitabilities Nothing in life is inevitable Save severity and humility There is no humility in life Save to be thankful and to rejoice And to be thankful And to be thankful And to rejoice, and to rejoice, rejoice And to be thankful, to be thankful, thankful And to rejoice.
Dostoevsky: What is happiness? Prigov: What is happiness? Dostoevsky: To take a child! Prigov: To take a child! Dostoevsky: An infant! Prigov: An infant! Dostoevsky: To take a drop of his blood! Prigov: A drop of blood! Dostoevsky: A drop of blood! Prigov: A droplet! Dostoevsky: What is a drop of blood? Prigov: What’s a drop of blood? Dostoevsky: What are you saying—blood? Prigov: What am I saying—blood? Dostoevsky: Really—blood? Prigov: Blood! Dostoevsky: What does blood mean to you? Prigov: What does blood mean? Dostoevsky: It doesn’t mean anything! Prigov: It doesn’t mean anything! Dostoevsky: That’s all, then!
There’s some flowers, and a trough There’s a rocking chair. There’s something buried. Something Probably a corpse— This is how the porch looks.
There’s some air, and a little water There’s a brother. There’s a sister. And there the earth is folded over. Probably something buried Probably a corpse
There’s a field, and a forest There’s the edge of heaven There’s a village, let’s just say, forgettable And a little closer the earth Is bursting out Where the corpse, probably, tried to climb.
There is no truth in life But there is understanding and reason There is no reason in life But there is logic and sobriety There is no sobriety in life But there is choice There is no choice in life Save to forgive and to rejoice And to rejoice, rejoice, rejoice And rejoice, and rejoice And rejoice And to forgive And to rejoice
In life, there is no love But there is tenderness and friendship There is no friendship in life But there is lust and desire There is no desire in life Save to dissipate and to rejoice And to dissipate, and dissipate And to dissipate, and dissipate And dissipate And to weep! To weep, to weep! And weep again! And weep and weep! And to rejoice and rejoice and rejoice! And to dissipate!
There’s the kitchen, and the bathtub Which kitchen? And which bathtub? Just a kitchen. Just a bathtub And what smells so strange, underneath the bathtub? Probably a corpse, growing stale.
There’s a man, right fucking there, and his fucking grandmother There’s power, right fucking there, and fucking glory That’s all there fucking is I don’t see a fucking thing Except— A corpse, probably
Stalin: There is no happiness in life! Prigov: But Dostoevsky said…. Stalin: What did Dostoevsky say? Prigov: Something about an infant’s blood. Stalin: And what is Dostoevsky?
Prigov: What is Dostoevsky? Stalin: He is ten letters! Prigov: Ten letters! Stalin: And what happens if we take one away? Prigov: What then? Stalin: Then he’s Ostoevsky! Prigov: Ostoevsky! Stalin: And what if we take another three? Prigov: What then? Stalin: Then he’s Oevsky! Prigov: Oevsky! Stalin: And what if we take another three? Prigov: What then? Stalin: Then he’s Sky! Prigov: Sky! Stalin: And another two? Prigov: Another two! Stalin: Then he’s Y! Prigov: Y! Stalin: And another? Prigov: Another? Stalin: There is nothing! Prigov: There is nothing! Stalin: There is nothing! Prigov: There is nothing! Stalin: And no droplets of blood.
There is no glory in life But there are connections and acquaintances There are no connections in life But there is thirst and freedom There is no freedom in life Except to choose purely How purely! Lord! How pure! How pure! And pure! And pure! Lord! How pure! How pure! Lord! How pure how pure! How pure it is to choose
There is no childhood in life But there is school and youth There is no youth in life But there is maturity and age There is no age in life But there is eternity and bliss Eternal bliss! And eternity, eternity and eternity And bliss, and eternity Eternity, eternity! And bliss!
A town—no larger than a shed Dim and quiet as the dead Pale and wretched By snow—tormented All in chaos As Buddha crouches Snow begins to lay Like a cat watching its prey Attentively
Here is the stage, the curtainous layers Here is the play, and here are the players Aristocrats— How lovely! Here’s Uncle Vanya, Ranevskaya and Lopakhin And the stink of something A corpse, probably (Boris Godunov’s)
There is Pushkin, there’s Dostoevsky There’s Gorky, and there’s Mayakovsky There is Caesar, and there’s Chapaev And there’s Prigov—what’s he digging for? A corpse probably ours. Collectively.
Pushkin: There is no happiness in life! Prigov: Well, what is there? Pushkin: There is peace and will! Prigov: What about the infant? Pushkin: What infant? Prigov: Just an infant! Pushkin: He has his own will! Prigov: And what about the drop of blood? Pushkin: Whose blood? Prigov: His blood! Pushkin: It has its own will! Prigov: And what about the dagger? Pushkin: It has its own will! Prigov: Then what am I to do? Pushkin: You have your own will! Prigov: And if I don’t want it?! I don’t, I don’t! Pushkin: Then there is peace! Prigov: And if I have no peace?! Pushkin: Then that is your will!
The wind a silvered sheet That twists and hides us That flies along the street And lands beside us And bumps into me And grows embarrassed I look at her And at the street And life, like a Buddha Of extraordinary age.
Stalin: There is no happiness in life! Prigov: Pushkin already said that! Stalin: And what else did Pushkin say? Prigov: There, there is peace and will! Stalin: Will? Prigov: Will! Stalin: And just what is this Pushkin? Prigov: What? Stalin: He is seven letters! Prigov: Seven letters! Stalin: And what if we take one away? Prigov: What then? Stalin: Then he’s Ushkin! Prigov: Then he’s Ushkin! Stalin: And what if we take another? Prigov: What then? Stalin: Then he’s Shkin! Prigov: Then he’s Shkin! Stalin: And if we take another? Prigov: Another? Stalin: Then he’s Hkin! Prigov: Then he’s Hkin! Stalin: And if we take another? Prigov: Another? Stalin: Then he’s Kin! Prigov: Kin! Stalin: And another? Prigov: Another? Stalin: Then he’s In! Prigov: In! Stalin: Another! Prigov: Another! Stalin: He’s N! Prigov: N! Stalin: And another letter? Prigov: Another letter? Stalin: There is nothing! Prigov: There is nothing! Stalin: There is nothing! Prigov: There is nothing! Stalin: And no will!
There is no life in the world But there is something like it There’s nothing like that in the world But there is something else There is nothing else in the world But there is something like that Like that! Like that! O! Lord! Yes! Like that like that like that like that! God! Like that!
There is ownership, and economics There is efficiency, and Reaganomics There is the Dollar, and the Ruble And there, buried, is some sort of corpse Ownerless
Three is glorious valor, and revelry And a garden that is shining There are grinding tanks, there, cloak and dagger But something is buried here— A corpse, probably
This city is Moscow—the capital This is London, and this—Sevastopol This is the South, and the North And this is a corpse Still unburied
In Life—There is no death Only rape and murder! There is no murder in life But there is parting and oblivion There is no oblivion in life But there is metapsychosis and memory Memory! Memory! Me-ee-mmory! Mee-mmm-oory! Memmmmory! And murder, and memory-memory Memory! Eternal Me-eeee-mmmory! Of HIM! AMEN!
There is shit, there is phlegm There is crap, there is vomit There is a thick nest of filth But there is still a sliver of light!—
A corpse, probably Here is a coffin, and a corpse Here is corpse, and a coffin Well, then what’s at the funeral? They’re burying everything else.
Stalin: There is no happiness in life! Prigov: No happiness! Stalin: What is there, then? Prigov: What is there? Stalin: There is Stalin! Prigov: There is Stalin! Stalin: And what is Stalin? Prigov: What is he? Stalin: Stalin is our glory in battle! Prigov: Glory in battle! Stalin: Stalin is our fleeting youth! Prigov: Fleeting youth! Stalin: Going to war with a song, he is victorious! Prigov: Victorious! Stalin: The people are for Stalin! Prigov: For Stalin! Stalin: And what else is Stalin? Prigov: What else? Stalin: He is Three Great Principles! Prigov: Three Great Principles! Stalin: And what else is Stalin? Prigov: What else? Stalin: He is Five Great Thoughts! Prigov: Five Great Thoughts! Stalin: He is Six Great Letters! Prigov: And what if we take one away? Stalin: What then? Prigov: Then he’s Talin! Talin: Talin! Prigov: And if we take away another? Talin: Another? Prigov: Then he’s Alin! Alin: Alin! Prigov: And if we take away another? Alin: Another? Prigov: Then he’s Lin! Lin: Lin! Prigov: And another? Lin: Another? Prigov: Then he’s In! In: In! Prigov: And another? In: Another? Prigov: Then he’s N! N: N! Prigov: And another!
There is nothing in life And that which there isn’t is already gone There’s none in the world And that which there is is already gone But there is still a little bit left Which means there’s something There is a little still in life Where means there’s something Good Lord! There’s something there There is, there is, there is! It’s there! God! It’s there! It is! It is! Lord, there’s something there! There is! It’s there, Lord! Lord, it’s there!
Effeminate like Laura’s song Like laurel leaves, like Northern Lights But rushing, like the stream along The bank, or like Aurora’s light Her rays descending in a throng That rake up winter with their hands You see—around here, winter’s long So, so long. A winter. And winter, winter is so long A long winter With such frost enfrosted And such a winter, and such frost A long and frosty winter. A landscape.
Prigov: What is happiness? Prigov: And what is happiness? Prigov: And what is unhappiness? Prigov: What is unhappiness? Prigov: And what is the distinction? Prigov: It is that when there is happiness, there is no unhappiness. Prigov: And what is the similarity? Prigov: It is that when there is unhappiness, there is still happiness. Prigov: And what else is there? Prigov: There is all the rest! Prigov: And how does all that resemble all this? Prigov: Because it is all essentially happy or unhappy! Prigov: And how does it differ? Prigov: In that all the rest flows out of this! Prigov: And where does it flow to? Prigov: To ME! Prigov: How’s that? Prigov: Here it comes now!
When I first came to high school I couldn’t say the word. It was somewhere inside me, but something scaled, pointed down towards my stomach, so that when I tried to pull it upward it lurched against the grain and scraped my esophagus. When I finally coughed it out, it was pallid. It flopped weakly on the floor in a pool of blood and bile. My throat ached for days after. The next time it came out clean, still sickly but able to crawl around the room and touch the other boys, shocked when they passively succumbed to its pressure. It looked at me and bared its teeth, more bone than face, and I saw now that it had learned its strength. My throat was raw but recovered in hours. Mine was still different than the other boys’: theirs were upright, standing so I smelled chest. Theirs bear-hugged and fist-bumped and did so without affection. I continued to spew it until it stood strong, capable of confrontation. Even when its fitness peaked I would still taste blood in its wake.
like nylon on nylon a sound I have always felt deeper than the ear—shalom he said first meeting me shalom before I started shalom when I was finished shalom when hot oil anointed my forehead reverberated
the next day an uninhibited music but still scratching internally this lousy phallus never taught me to catch a football but I still learned to fear emasculation
there are too many people to blame in a day I like to compromise and blame myself I move through streets with the tepid entropy of cannabis burnt in the dense summer air surrounding the brittle branch posture held rigid by urge
quickly dispersed as we collapse into briar those tangles always stiffen and the eyes gloss over in defense cover is blown by the thin line of tear salt on the glasses
the covenant was made to burden the breaker the manna was bug shit and we still thanked god he called me weak and I thanked him on the way out
Sometimes walk outside Sometimes walk outside on streets where you live Sometimes live Sometimes walk on broken glass Sometimes walk outside on streets where you live Sometimes die on streets Sometimes walk on broken glass Sometimes die on broken glass on streets where you live Sometimes die on streets Sometimes die outside on streets where you live Sometimes die on broken glass on streets where you live Sometimes die outside Sometimes die outside on streets where you live Sometimes live on streets where people die Sometimes die outside Sometimes live on broken glass Sometimes live on streets where people die Sometimes live inside but die on streets Sometimes live on broken glass Sometimes walk on broken glass on streets where you live Sometimes live inside but die on streets Sometimes live Sometimes walk on broken glass on streets where you live Sometimes walk outside.
The first time I heard Apollinaire, my sister was reciting “Les Colchiques” from memory at the dinner table. When she finished I leaned forward and asked her, Who wrote that? Later that night, I found Guillaume Apollinaire’s calligrammes, his war poetry, and his life story scattered throughout various websites. Born in 1880 in Rome, Apollinaire was raised trilingual, which later allowed him to gain popularity in the Parisian circle of artists forming at the time. He fought in World War I, and was severely injured. He died shortly thereafter in 1918. “Les Colchiques” was published in his 1913 book Alcools.
Most of Apollinaire’s poetry, infused with linguistic, formal, and visual distortions, does not lend itself generously to the process of translation. In fact, I was first drawn to the task of translating this poem after reading renditions from other artists. No one sought to preserve the poem’s beauty, but rather attempted literal translations of the French. The difficulties of translation are magnified within Apollinaire’s work because he uses language as a form. In “Les Colchiques,” for example, he inverts sentences to confuse the images of eyes with the images of flowers in a way that leaves the reader unsure whether the flowers are blooming in the subject’s eyes or in the meadow.
Apollinaire so masters his ambiguous language that by the end of the poem, the reader is not convinced they have read a love poem. Rather, they are left in Apollinaire’s poisonous meadow, grazing with the cows and unsure what the metaphor was to begin with. Where Apollinaire does allow for solid ground is in the sonic beauty of his poem, how the words compliment one another and create cyclical waves of tones and rhymes. It is precisely that aspect of his poetry that gave me the confidence to stray from a literal translation and try to find a similar, albeit inferior, language in English.
Le pré est vénéneux mais joli en automne Les vaches y paissant Lentement s’empoisonnent Le colchique couleur de cerne et de lilas Y fleurit tes yeux sont comme cette fleur-la Violâtres comme leur cerne et comme cet automne Et ma vie pour tes yeux lentement s’empoisonne.
Les enfants de l’école viennent avec fracas Vêtus de hoquetons et jouant de l’harmonica Ils cueillent les colchiques qui sont comme des mères Filles de leurs filles et sont couleur de tes paupières Qui battent comme les fleurs battent au vent dement
Le gardien du troupeau chante tout doucement Tandis que lentes et meuglant les vaches abandonnent Pour toujours ce grand pré mal fleuri par l’automne.
The meadow holds its poison in the autumn The grazing cows there slowly dying The crocus shaded lilac color flowers where your eyes are tired Violet like their shadows and this autumn And for your eyes I feed my life this poison.
Schoolchildren in the meadow making noise dressed in uniforms and playing flutes They gather crocuses—their mothers daughters of their daughters and the color of your eyelids shivering like flowers in the delirious wind
The cowherd sings gently While the lowing cows slowly abandon forever this meadow fed poisonously by autumn.
There is loneliness in subdivided headings and columns but there is also a space with frozen margaritas and hands rubbing your back. Many love languages later you decide what’s best on the yellow quilt. Many love languages later, it’s the little things that get you, the lights being put up in your apartment or an offering of soup. When the little things are given they are gone and so are the little parts of you. There is so much time left and elapsed that it holds to your pinky toes that you suddenly become very aware of in damp boots. Kissing is pretty gross but so is asking to be loved. Especially when you try speaking to the lakes that come rushing by minutes apart on the highway out the passenger window. Socked feet in the sunny spot on the dashboard we keep throttling a dead chicken with these questions.
These days night dreams get scarier and scarier and you have to walk around for a bit in the apartment to remind interlocking limbs where things are and that she is dead now. She died in your mother’s arms in the house you grew up in. Not the house in the neighborhood that they once dubbed, “Jew Town,” but the one that still technically you belong to. Her legs crumpled on the gravel—it is our fault. She loved to sleep and sleep she did in my mother’s arms because that’s what you do when you are ready to go. “We didn’t want to ruin your Friday night” because that’s all I live for here in the tundras of Ohio, another beer in the same bar. Childhood ends with the death of your childhood pet, and I am a fresh three week-ed adult.
Resistant to change and the weather my mother decided that grass wasn’t fit for Southern California and though this was met with applause by the neighbors the short limbs on her daughter’s long terriered body would no longer find support in the lawn holes burned by her piss. I memorized the view of a second story window in my teen years believing in the foreverness of moments and the witch’s house next door—no one in or out except family and loud children on Sundays to use the pool. Immortalizing the gnarled tree in the front yard splitting into two still self-sustaining lives. I painted and I sang songs out the window collecting the parts of myself to give to others thinking they were important, thinking I was bigger than my twin sized bed.
They chopped the limbs off last year when the witch died and the corner property was finally up for sale. We walked by dusk purple in bare feet, I never put her on a leash especially when there was nowhere to go. She acknowledged her freedom by taking her time with each tree and turning around occasionally to see that my body was still there. We raced for the last stretch of block around the corner to the peeling grey back gate every time, even when she shouldn’t have been running.
Rituals persist in the life of a household dog, hours at a time outside spread on her belly with her snout poking out through the crack in the fence and the concrete. My father, the most emotionally insulated or stunted member of the family shed a tear the morning after when he turned on the kitchen lights and made coffee without her. In her old age she never wanted to be touched. In a way I believe that it was because she didn’t want us to feel the bones coming through. Very far away, I settle into my bed knowing she left us at home. I think about how my home will probably be the next corner lot to go after the witch’s house.
I told a fortune teller my problems at the bar the next night. Choosing to write on an intricate questionnaire form in capital letters rather than checking off boxes for what I thought was wrong with me: LOVE HURTS. She thought I was probably referring to the numbskull boy to my left and the current running between our fingers, but that couldn’t have been farther from the truth. I had been talking about the kind of love that starts on your sixth birthday and dies after your twenty-first. She made me pull out a card from her tarot deck and laughed as she read the word “success” out loud. Almost scoffing she told me, “Y’know maybe I’m reading it wrong” and sipped her third mixed drink. She asked me how old I was and I told her three weeks since my childhood dog died. Then she adjusted her wig pulling it higher over her scalp and giggled a little scratching words onto a faded prescription pad. I walked away and read it to myself. She just wrote: “Chill the fuck out,” and she’s probably right.
I have this dream, mom, where I’m your Uber driver, after your legs are too weak for the subway, I don’t know you, of course, but you are beautiful, in the way middle- aged, fashion-conscious women can be, as you walk deliberately from the doorstep of your apartment I barely notice the way you favor your right leg, not knowing how long it’s taken you to walk unaided. I call, Elizabeth? out the window, you nod, smiling as you climb into the backseat.
We make small talk; I’m surprised—you’re every inch Upper East Side in your black woolen shawl and your Marc Jacobs bag but friendlier, you thank me for the Poland Springs bottle I’ve left in the backseat but decline my offer of a mint. We chat all the way to your acupuncture appointment and, because you’ve won me over, I idle outside, a half-hour maybe. You don’t seem surprised that I’ve waited when you return, but smaller somehow, there’s the limp again, I’m certain, and an extra wrinkle or two, have I imagined them? I drive you to the apothecary, your therapist, a Reiki practitioner—you shrinking all the while, aging, your eyes sinking, your walk to and from each building becoming more obviously laborious. You ask about my family and we share a smile through the rearview mirror over my beautiful baby niece, Anita. On the way out from the Homeopath’s office you stagger, barely catch yourself, I rush to take your purse and your arm, guide you to my car and tuck you in. Now our chatter dances around cancer, as I drive you to your appointment with the famous Doctor Nicholas and, by silent agreement, accompany you inside.
When we emerge I’m livid, as I tuck you into the back- seat, I want to beg you to go to a real oncologist, that man is clearly a quack, peddling false-hope, hippie Chemo and sure it makes your hair fall out, all over the backseat, but with one look at his tasteful waiting room, the quiet music, his dead smile and syrupy drawl, I wanted to rush you over to Sloan Kettering or even Bellevue, anywhere else. But of course I’m just your Uber driver, so I put on the CD of Healing Tibetan Chanting the doctor sold you and we head to the Aromatherapist’s, the Chiropractor’s, the Wig- maker’s, the Kombucha Shop, the Toxin Masseur, the NAET Practitioner, the Cancer Coach, the Hot Stone Masseur, the Cupping Masseur, the Foot Masseur, the Dietitian, the Juice Bar, the Kimchi Shop, the Spiritual Healer, the Acupressurist, the Astrologist, the Yogi—you aging all the while, shriveling everywhere but your midsection, which begins ballooning, and there are no smiles from either of us and where’s your Marc Jacobs bag? Where’s your wig now? Your black shawl is gone, replaced by something paper- thin, polka-dotted, split down the back, and you’re wearing just fuzzy gray socks with those sticky, grip- dots on the bottom and you’re not sitting but stretched out, seatbeltless, across the backseat like a shitty cot, so I drive slowly with my hazards on until we pull up to the Hospice on Eastchester and Bassett and I have to carry you, your lightness terrifies me, as we pass through the automatic doors you loll up to me and whisper, Where are we?