Writers' Corner

Alex Cigale

2015 Translation Projects

Translator’s Statement

Mikhail Eremin has lived in St. Petersburg since before WW II, writing and publishing very sparsely for over a half-century in a peculiar kind of highly respected anonymity, his work having the reputation of being one of the most hermetically “difficult” in all of Russian poetry. His response: “But poets are meaning-makers.” He was awarded the prestigious Andrei Bely Prize for poetry in 1998, and this fall [2014] a residency at the American Academy in Rome by the Joseph Brodsky Memorial Fellowship Fund. His oeuvre, consisting entirely of eight-line “free verse,” has been issued by Pushkinskiy Fond in five volumes (so far) each one modestly titled Poems. When asked why octaves, he responded: “They structure themselves precisely so.” Regarding the free verse label: “In fact, these are absolutely iambs, [the stress] shifting between the second and fourth paeion.” That is, there is a strong patterning of duration and sound, as for each poem as a whole so for each line (there is even rhyme). Regarding his early influences: “Pasternak and the Oberiu” [the so-called Russian Absurdists]. His work seems to me to exhibit a clear and logical development, exploring progressively greater possibilities of syntactic and lexical complexity, each poem marked by cross-referential and pluropotentially modifying digression, often contained parenthetically within anchoring observations or commentary. The work incorporates an ever-expanding linguistic register, ranging from scientific “jargon” to archaic, specialized, slang diction, with an admixture of neologism.

Primary among Eremin’s recurrent thematic touchstones – the Bible, classic mythology, art, architecture, Russian folklore – is the natural world. It is where the spirit inheres; he is a metaphysical poet. As the Russian Absurdist Alexander Vvednsky once remarked: “In this, the main thing is God.” It seems to me that the crux of Eremin’s ongoing conversation with the world offers us a panentheistic conception of nature as the locus of divine immanence in creation. The critic Ilya Kukulin has written that Eremin’s poems give “metaphorical expression to the transformation of the soul.” In this respect, he connects Eremin to Osip Mandelstam, another practitioner of the eight-line verse, finding therein a common source in Mandelstam’s writings on Dante’s “search for the spiritual foundations of the world.” Kukulin concludes that these external transformations have an invisible counterpart in the internal “soul work, the discovery of one’s own ‘I’ – for the apprehension of all these treasures. Each time, this apprehension may only be partial [provisional] and so it requires a choice…. Eremin’s art offers one possibility for how such poetry may endure in the post-modern era.... Even with all its philosophic qualities, it remains a personal [private] and faith-filled [trusting] lyric.”

"Sample Translations" by Mikhail Eremin

[translated from the Russian]

To search out in the autumn’s autograph
The plump-sided seeds of pre-wisdom,
The original form of expansiveness,
The all-Russian holiness and vagueness
And the cranely spiciness of swamps
Where the mud had left its traces,
Where the leaves like wild onions’ dresses
Hide their tears in their pleats.

1957

* * *

No, not to bemoan the passage of good old times
Russian as minced meat pies stuffed with the offal
Of heretics – but, let us say, to try on guises for size
(Pulling on a pelvic girdle, as though a mask,
And elegantly wrenching one’s vertebrae –
Shaped like the elephant trunk of a gas mask,
Transformed into some anonymous Beelzebub.) while
Discussing the self-sufficiency of the placebo effect.

1992

Original in Russian

About Mikhail Eremin

Mikhail Eremin, (born 1936, in Ordzhonikidze, now Vladikavkaz) participated in one of the first unofficial post-war poetry groups, the so-called “philological school” of the late 50s. His books, Poems (1-5), are from Pushkinskiy Fond. Joseph Brodsky had written the following: “Eremin is an unreconstructed minimalist. Poetry in essence consists precisely in the concentration of language: a small quantity of lines surrounded by a mass of empty space. Eremin elevates this concentration to a principle: as though it is not simply language but poetry itself that crystallizes into verse…. Most remarkable is that all of it has been written for one self, out of one’s own conception of the mother tongue. Eremin’s poetry may rightfully be called Futurist, in the sense that to this type of poetry the future belongs.”

Alexander Cigale

Alex Cigale’s own English language poems have appeared widely, in such periodicals as the Colorado Review, Green Mountains Review, North American Review, Tampa Review, and The Literary Review, and his translations from the Russian can be found in Cimarron Review, Literary Imagination, Modern Poetry in Translation, New England Review, PEN America, and elsewhere. He is on the editorial boards of COEUR journal, MadHat Annual, St. Petersburg Review, Third Wednesday, and Verse Junkies. From 2011 until 2013, he was Assistant Professor at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. He was born in Chernovtsy, Ukraine, and lived in St. Petersburg, Russia, near Tel Aviv, Israel, in and near Rome, Italy before immigrating with his family to the United States, in 1975.  His Mikhail Eremin, Poems, New and Selected, is forthcoming from University of Iowa Press.

Photo by Dana Golin