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.
Translated by Keith Gessen