The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2013

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APR 2013 Issue

from God May Be Around (1931)

A crowd drags about. There are cows, otherwise known as bulls, walking.

What are they gonna do here?

Otherwise known as BULLS
They will slaughter, they will slaughter.

Whom? you? whom? us?

Cows, in times of cholera don’t drink the kvass
and everything will be marvelous.

Cows, otherwise known as bulls, quietly depart.
Appears the tsar. The tsar appears. It grows dark in the eyes.

Now, priceless crowd,
gather round.
Here by this pillory
a theater of law shall be.
The executioner will execute,
there is neither Greek nor Jew.
Everyone come contemplate,
attend and don’t scintillate.
Come muffle the condemned’s moaning
with shouting, with howling, with guffawing.
Bonjour executioner,
walk I tell you in a whisper.
There are all sorts of people:
laborer people, idler people,
eating people, dark blue people,
dapple feeble purple people,
stooped people, grouped people
and people parallelepiped like a steeple.
Yet all of us poor folk once alone
weep knowing that we have no soul.
It’s damaging to self-esteem
to think that you are just steam.
That you die and oops there isn’t any you.
Behold my tears.

Mine also.

Behold our tears.

Ours also.

A horrible weeping took place on the square. Everybody suddenly felt very afraid.

Enter Ef and the Maiden.

What dummy likes to go to executions
may make a heady contribution.

Look strumpet at the scaffold
but don’t tread on my tail, okay?
Beginning now will occur.

The crowd like London-town roared .
It seized Ef by the hands-and-feet,
and dragging him onto the scaffold
it finished off his vital organ
and knocked him with a vein and feather
and added just a spot of tin
and then with an ax of rope
it chopped off his top.
He passed away.

He’s in a bad way.
Tell me what’s his name.
Here is my palace. I should like to go in
and have a drink with my friends by the fire.

His last name is Fomine.

Ah what horror. This is for the last time.

The executioner exits running.

Here is the execution scene from God May Be Around, a play-poem Vvedensky composed in 1931. Up to this scene, its protagonist is named Ef—the name of the letter F but also the first syllable of the word for “ether,” which Vvedensky used to high on in the late 20s. Losing his head to an “ax of rope,” Ef for the rest of the piece appears under the name of Fomine. 

I am adding a few notes to help read the translation.

Kvass is a traditional drink made from bread.

The Tsar speaks in a nonmetrical rhymed verse associated with Russian jesters and carnival hawkers.

The Greek nor Jew line parodies the Apostle Paul in Galatians 3.28 and elsewhere.

The lines about all sorts of people parody an old folk poetic formula, where the rhyming second line contrasts two kinds of people. In the 1920s the formula reappears in Soviet propaganda. For example, Mayakovsky’s visit to New York in 1925 left him with the firm conviction that “there are different kinds of Americans: some of them are proletarian, and some of them are bourgeois.”

Theater of law. The first large-scale show trials took place in 1928 (the Shakhty case) and 1930 (the Industrial Party case). Note that the poem conflates the “theater of law” (more literally, “the spectacle of a law trial”) with the execution: any deliberative step is skipped over. Speaking to friends after his release in 1933, Vvedensky again calls the court of law “bad theater. Strange,” he continues, “why does a human being in danger of death have to take part in a show. Apparently he not only has to, but wants to, otherwise the trial wouldn’t work out.” He and Druskin then discuss absurd examples of non-cooperative defendants (Lipavsky, Conversations, see my translation of this section in Little Star, 2 (2011): 167).

What dummy likes to go to executions paraphrases the proverb “The pitcher that often goes to the well is broken at last,” which exists in many European languages.


Alexander Vvedensky, translated by Eugene Ostashevsky

Eugene Ostashevsky is the editor and main translator of Alexander Vvedensky’s An Invitation for Me to Think, as well as of OBERIU: An Anthology of Russian Absurdism. He is also the author of Enter Morris, Pursued by Ironies and other fine works of literature.

Alexander Vvedensky (1904-1941) was the cofounder, with Daniil Kharms, of OBERIU, an avant-garde group briefly active in 1920s Leningrad, USSR. Successful in his day job as children’s writer but unable to disseminate his “real” poetry under the Soviet regime, Vvedensky died in incarceration. He was first published in Russia in the 1990s. His linguistic experiments and directness in confronting existential issues are responsible for the tremendous influence he wields over Russian experimental writing and art today. Vvedensky’s first selection of poetry in English, An Invitation for Me to Think,  translated by Eugene Ostashevsky and Matvei Yankelevich, has just been released by NYRB Poets.   


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2013

All Issues