Literature Will Be Tested (Poems)
Kirill Medvedev was born in 1975. His first book of poems, Vsyo Ploho (“Everything Is Bad”), appeared in 2000, followed by another, Vtorzhenie (“Incursion”). The form of the poems (free verse) and their subject matter (everyday life) were less reminiscent of formal or even avant-garde Russian poetry than of Charles Bukowski, whom Medvedev had translated. Medvedev’s poems immediately polarized the Russian poetry world. In the wake of the books’ violent reception, Medvedev turned to a thorough reading of the post-Leninist Marxist tradition, which had flourished outside Russia throughout the 20th century even as it was suppressed inside the USSR. In 2003, he announced on his website that he would no longer publish his work or otherwise participate in literary life, all of which, in the era of the new Russian prosperity, was thoroughly, profoundly corrupt. “I find this all very depressing,” wrote Medvedev. “I don’t want to have even a tangential relationship to a system that has so cheapened the Word. I think it’s impossible right now to participate in literary life, to publish even in publications that I find sympathetic, to take advantage of those persons or institutions that are open to me, to develop the literary and poetic community that until now has interested me. . . . This is not a heroic pose or publicity stunt. It is not an attempt to improve my publishing prospects. This is a specific, necessary limit that I’m putting on myself. I am convinced that my texts are nothing more or less than the contemporary poetic mainstream, and that if the mainstream, represented by me, adopts such a half-underground and, as far as possible, independent position, then maybe there will be more honest, uncompromising, and genuinely contemporary art in my country.”
In 2005, the publishing house NLO took Medvedev’s refusal of copyright at face value and put out a collection of his works without his knowledge.
Medvedev has recently self-published two short books, one of poetry, the other of his essays. He has kept up his odd but striking political activity, consisting of one-man protests and political and art-actions. Taken as a whole, Medvedev’s poetry, essays, and public actions have kept alive the idea of resistance, in art and in politics, during a time when oil wealth has reconciled much of the population to outright political tyranny.
His work appears here in English for the first time. As always, he has declined to give his permission for the publication.
Literature Will Be Tested
Literature will be tested.
Those who were placed in golden chairs so they could write
will be asked about those who sewed their clothing.
Their books will be studied not according to their elevated
but by the words that slipped through, and allowed us to see
those who sewed their clothing.
That’s what will be read with interest,
because that’s where you’ll find the qualities of the great classics.
Entire literatures consisting of subtle turns of phrase
will be tested to prove
that where there was oppression,
there were also rebellions.
By the prayers of earthly creatures to heavenly beings
it will be shown that the earthly creatures trampled one another.
Their rarefied verbal music will testify
that many did not have enough to eat.
In Praise of Evolution
The owner of a factory—his underworld nickname was Toothache—sat in a café wondering how he was going to break the union. For a while this was the most important thing in his life. He was developing some ideas about it when all of a sudden a group of comrades walked past the café bearing a red flag. The factory owner decided that the revolution had come and he began to repent, and shed tears, and share his profits with the workers. But it turned out the parade was just part of a slow evolution, and there was still plenty of time to exploit, crush, and kill.
Love, Freedom, Honesty, Solidarity, Democracy,
I am satisfied—I see, dance, laugh, sing,
As the hugging and loving bed-fellow sleeps at my side through the night,
and withdraws at the peep of the day with stealthy tread.
Leaving me baskets cover’d with white towels swelling the house with their plenty,
Shall I postpone my acceptation and realization and scream at my eyes,
That they turn from gazing after and down the road,
And forthwith cipher and show me to a cent,
Exactly the value of one and exactly the value of two, and which is ahead?
Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
A kiosk, an ice cream
fly by in a light fog,
and a man who once tried to pick me up on the street
walks by with his wife.
This was in the underground passageway next to Kitai-Gorod,
he kept at it a long time, he thought I was yielding,
but I was just waiting for a friend,
who was also gay, as it happens.
My views on life back then were strange.
The man buys an ice cream for his wife and himself,
in different flavors—
I would look at things a little differently now—
for example here’s how I’d look at things from the point of view
from the point of view of death:
“In the splash of sun,
the two of them lay like the blind—
nothing would have distinguished them from the blind.
Or from others—
and nothing would have distinguished them from us—
or from the young.
that’s what it’s like,
and so our days would pass.
Each of us
would have sex on a daily basis.”
I spoke to the girl at the vegetable stand—
without any problems—
without any remarks—
without any remarks or rudeness
from one side or the other.
Without any arguments about what weighed what
or who didn’t give the other enough
Without any sexual subtext.
but without any sexual subtext,
it couldn’t be otherwise.
Professors or bikers?—no,
the guys who work as janitors at the nearby hospital,
and I like little college graduates with loose tongues.
We talked about this and that,
that’s all, and it couldn’t have been otherwise.
But if I had been someone else, and
she had been someone else,
and someone walking by had seen
this thick warm charge
passing through us—
then we’d both have been swept from our places by this
and ripped from our roots,
and from our universes,
and at that point, as we spun and circled in passages of light,
in an ecstasy of light and happiness,
already living in a cooling world,
I’d have said to her:
“Pretty girl who sells vegetables at a little stand
near the metro,
you should know
you’ve aged about eight years in the year I’ve been noticing,
and you are made up like a middle-aged hooker,
and what’s more you are leaning slightly forward,
so that, with the way your shirt falls, I can see your breasts,
and I swear to you, those are not the breasts of a twenty-year-old girl.
Or however old you were last year, my sweet;
and here’s what I think:
They say that Italian prostitutes used to use semen
as an anti-aging cream,
they would rub it on their breasts and faces.
And maybe, I think, if I were to rub
onto your dolled-up, caked-over face, your former teenage model face,
all the semen I’ve rubbed over it in my fantasies,
then maybe—maybe that would help.”
But it didn’t happen, it couldn’t have happened,
because we all live in our illusions, like sheep,
and none of us can really help one another with anything.
A fair-haired boy asks me for ten rubles in an underground passageway
and smiles at me when I give him the ten rubles,
we walk in separate directions.
About twenty minutes later I stand drinking tea at a little table
not far from there,
and looking over I see him.
He’s from Riga,
his former lover—either a well-known musician,
or something or other,
was supposed to take him to Paris,
but somehow along the way they lost each other,
now here he is
a little prostitute.
(And at that moment I caught myself
looking at him from that point of view—
as I’d look at a queer or a pair of shoes—
not for myself, obviously,
but for someone else
and this was something that connected me
to the wrong people,
just the wrong people.)
And after all the boy turned out
to be pleasant-looking
instead of beautiful.
What did he want from me?
just ten rubles for tea
(he bought tea with the ten rubles
that he took from me),
to talk for five minutes, ten minutes.
I kept trying to duck away into a bookstore
(we were drinking tea next to a bookstore)
but he wouldn’t let me go,
he was trying to tell me something.
you were trying to tell me something just now—
I want to whisper something in your ear,
no, closer, a little closer, all right:
Poor little boy;
I don’t feel sorry for you at all.
I’d feel sorry for you
if you were
I’d feel sorry for you
if you were some kind of toad,
a little piglet, or a ragged chicken.
But I don’t feel sorry for you because you are a rock
with moss growing on you, lying for a million years
under a pale northern sun, and, in the winter,
under a cold northern wind.
A guy in his nicest clothes
standing next to the entrance to the metro.
Two girls walk by.
They must have laughed.
He kept yelling after them:
Girls, what’s wrong? What is it? Girls? Girls?
Then loudly, to himself now:
An insecure fop, standing next to the metro;
there was more life in this scene, of course,
than in a pile of battered books;
it was a collision of elementary particles,
a rubbing-together of fragments;
I too am an elementary particle:
my ambition exceeds
the limits of my self—
my awesome ambition,
which already exists, as if separately,
like a soul;
does this contradict
the desires of people who just want to hang out
with their tiny ambitions?
Whereas I want—revolution,
to erase the face of everything,
to overthrow the universe—
a petit bourgeois revolution—
whereas I have a gold medal for cowardice,
they have extreme sports;
they have Chinese massage, whereas I have
drugs, and a strict regime (a holy despotism).
among the icy choices of this consumer paradise,
among the objects covered in frost, white, and colorful,
we find to our surprise that we have nothing in common, except love,
and where they have love,
I also have love.
I love the two girls
who walked by,
I love the boy
who said “Cunt.”
BUT WHAT SORT OF LOVE IS THIS?
THAT’S AN INTERESTING QUESTION,
BECAUSE I SEEM UNABLE TO EXPERIENCE
NORMAL HUMAN LOVE—
THE LOVE OF A MAN FOR A WOMAN, FOR EXAMPLE,
I CAN ONLY UNDERSTAND SEX, SEXUAL ATTRACTION,
AND LOVE FOR ALL MANKIND—
an innocent, self-negating love,
and so I ask someone far away, and also self-negating,
but he doesn’t answer—as if he’s mute or gone,
and that’s how I learn I’ve lost my mind.
The person who was me will never be with me now.
(Meanwhile BEHIND me a line is already forming,
of those whom no one ever loved,
no one ever investigated, no one questioned and no one killed)
Teachers who talk too much and young waitresses who don’t yet know what they’re doing,
sleepy, gentle nurses,
all the others,
wherever you are,
I won’t list all of you:
How are you?
That’s all right.
I want to talk to you.
Do you sense it happening?
Don’t you think
things aren’t so bad?
Doesn’t it seem
that time is growing shorter
almost palpably shorter—
that it’s being pressed together,
that it’s acting strange,
as if it no longer has room for words,
as if it’s rejecting or dissolving them,
as if the word
that you are now pronouncing
will later already not sound like anything—everything will be
and will land into some kind of emptiness, like landing in soup,
so much so that you’ll forget its very meaning;
this might happen soon—
you will forget not only the meaning of what I wrote above,
but even the sound it made.
What do you think about all this?
Have you even thought about it once?
Has this feeling ever entered you
like a knife into butter?
will you please tell me about it?
Because it’s never entered me that way,
to be honest,
though I’ve thought about it a lot.
That’s how it is with me—
the louder I talk,
the more silent I am within myself,
the more I think.
And when I stop entirely,
then just a few short words
(politics, religion, death)
and I can’t think of anything else.
For a long time I wanted
for no one to know about me,
and then I wanted
for everyone to know about my anonymity.
And for everyone to understand this as
Now I have love.
Now I spend a lot of time at home,
even though home is the street,
and my language is the language of the street,
and my friends
are the people who sell used books on the corner.
Just now I cut myself in the kitchen
and I yelled: Love!
I love my girl
I love my love
I love it so much, as if I’m young but already famous
who’s removing from his body, like a splinter, as if from the fire
ANOTHER’S BODY, ANOTHER’S HEAD, ANOTHER’S TONGUE,
and presents this to his organs—to his heart,
to his genitals, to his lips,
and calls this by the words, “I have,” “I give,”
“to conjoin,” “to fuck,” “to screw,”
“Lyuba” or “love.”
Teachers who talk too much and young waitresses who don’t yet know
what they’re doing,
sleepy, gentle nurses,
come to me,
while my lover is at work,
come to me,
while my love is at work
COME COME TO ME
BEFORE AN INEFFABLE FORCE
TEARS US FROM OUR WORLDS
AND WON’T PUT US BACK AGAIN.
BEFORE WE’VE BEEN PUSHED INTO THE GUTTERS
OF PATHS NO ONE EVER USES.
And while we still represent words—
which means, we haven’t yet been torn into commas,
that is to say, we’re still just commas ourselves,
and it’s only words that separate us.
Translated by Keith Gessen
Translated by Keith Gessen