Everyone knows that the Lit Institute trains writers,
but everyone also knows that the only ones who become writers
are those who got thrown out
of the Lit Institute.
Or, at the very least, were outsiders there;
But there is
one particular writer there,
a kind of anti-hero,
a small man of middling talent
but insatiable will to power.
He is dictatorial when he needs to be,
and groveling when that is more appropriate.
He is, when necessary, a patriot
(and how many little insects are dining out
on their newfound patriotism!).
I left the Lit Institute a long time ago
but I keep up with the rumors.
This particular person never did me any harm,
one time during an oral exam he said
something to the effect of:
“How is it that you write for the magazine
but say such ridiculous things during this exam?”
And he was right!!
Not long ago it became clear
that this man was about to become the president
of the Lit Institute, and finally the faculty and students
got together and made sure
this didn’t happen.
The publishing house of the Lit Institute put out his book of stories,
but that wasn’t the thing—
the thing isn’t what he tells about himself
but what he is.
Sergei Petrovich Tolkachev,
a short man, forty years old,
a fully formed, if, of course, second-rate literary type,
sitting at a college, preparing second-rate writers,
I sometimes recall the Lit Institute, this separate world,
it’s no worse and no better than other worlds,
and those who run the place,
and those unhappy ones who leave it only when they’re dead,
and those honest and brilliant ones, who get kicked out,
and those honest and weak ones,
I see them all together in one place
as if on a separate creased page
of my life.
I’m standing here turning the pages
of a book by a young Petersburg poet,
with a funny kind of aggravation,
with some slight irony.
I watch the things
this city makes,
no one is as close to the source of poetry,
to the world’s ice,
attached to it through some special,
if seriously polluted,
I didn’t think I could still take pleasure
in the cold harmony
of the world,
from the only possible right combination of words—
standing here, turning over these sweet conservative verses,
which you need to read
over tea, with milk,
in a bathrobe (!) (?),
and imagine yourself
in a hungry city,
a cold city during the war,
with the books of your favorite poets,
wondering which of them to throw
in the stove for heat,
and which to exchange
for some bad herring and a loaf of bread.
and then to find yourself in a hungry
city, in a cold building,
and imagine yourself sitting
with tea, and milk,
in a bathrobe,
turning the pages of your favorite book,
and taking pleasure
from the cold hopeless harmony,
from the gentle melodious word-picture,
from the only possible right combination of words.
in short, everything’s all right with this book,
and “Denis Sheremetyev,”
is, of course, the only possible right name
for its author.
so everything’s all right, but—
no, no, no, everything’s all right.
but still, maybe,
no, nothing’s missing.
maybe the problem is that
I’m turning the pages of this book
in a store that got blown up a few days ago
and still smells like dried fish,
and everywhere, on the tables, on the shelves,
you can see the edges of burned books?
no, that’s not it.
art, as we know, is higher
than all that.
actually, I don’t believe that,
but for now, so that this poem
I believe it.
and this book’s a little burnt too, actually,
but it’s okay, see, it survived.
so everything’s all right.
although, maybe the fact that
everything’s all right is the problem? no, that’s not a problem.
or maybe it’s that when everything’s all right,
that just doesn’t sit well with me?
no, it sits well.
(then what the hell?)
I’ve seen crumbling ridges,
and sea ports, and terrible towns.
but an asshole like you
that’s something new.
a man who hires a prostitute
gives her more than he pays,
and she gives him more
than he pays her.
then where does the surplus go,
why are they both cheated?
it doesn’t go anywhere, actually, it just disappears,
it melts into their mutual kindness,
in their feast of kindness and self-sacrifice,
and that’s why in the morning there’s frustration—
she wants someone who won’t
and he wants someone who would
and each of them needs some pressure—
egoism or cruelty,
their own or someone else’s, it doesn’t matter,
but so that one of them would get it,
so that one of them would be satisfied.
this is called: “I need love”
the kind that causes pain,
that causes music
and the one who’s going to sell her tomorrow,
that is, in essence, the pimp, the seller,
he knows her better than anyone, and loves her selflessly.
a pretty girl hands out cigarettes near the metro,
but smiles at me for free—
and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.
and only me, I’m the only one who thinks
everything’s bought and paid for,
I’m the only sad asshole who thinks that,
even if not everything’s bought and paid for yet,
not everything’s stamped out,
even if you can still win some kind of prize,
it’s still going to turn out
to be a boot full of someone else’s bad wine.
oh, I know why I have so many bones to pick with you
you’re naive, and so pure,
and I wanted to take your sins upon my head
(if only you’d had some).
I saw in a dream, that in a giant barn-like cathedral,
where the bodies of birds hung upside down
where mice run rampant and bags of grain stand against the walls,
the dead congregate, because their fate is—
what a lot of lying, confusing, pretentious,
Look out the window,
fry some vegetables,
play with your kid,
anything at all,
just so that you can never say about yourself
what Bukowski has one of his characters say:
I was gifted, am gifted. Sometimes I looked at my hands and realized that I could have been a great pianist. But what have my hands done? Scratched my balls, written checks, tied shoes, pushed toilet levers, etc. I have wasted my hands.
And my mind.