translated by Philip Nikolayev
Novikov was not only the finest Russian poet of his generation: in Russia, where the standards of poetry are soberingly high, he now holds a well-earned place in the literary canon. He was born and lived most of his life in Moscow, but also spent some years in England in the early 1990s. Toward the end of his life he moved to Israel with his wife, Yuliana Novikova, herself a remarkable poet. He died in Be’er Sheva.
Poetry was what Novikov lived for. He had an uncommon gift for a particularly piercing sort of lyric intonation that was originally unique to him—his very signature—but has since significantly enriched the Russian poetic tradition. Novikov’s influence on poets of his own and the following generations will eventually be a subject of critical study. But the recognition his poetry received in his lifetime of only 37 years was limited. He saw four collections of his verse appear in print, the second of which, Okno v yanvare (A Window in January, 1995), included an enthusiastic afterword by Joseph Brodsky. However, the Russian literary establishment of the 1990s more or less ignored Novikov, few critics mentioned him at all, and he won no major literary prizes or distinctions. In the last years of his life he withdrew from the literary scene, became reclusive, and severed almost all his friendships. His early death drew renewed attention to him, and his posthumous fame resulted from his sheer popularity with readers. A volume of his selected verse, titled Viza (The Visa), appeared in 2007, and a complete edition of his literary writings is currently in preparation.
It was my fortune to have been a close friend to Novikov, from our teens and until the end. I am grateful to his literary estate for the exclusive permission to translate his work into English. I can only hope that some of the brilliance of the originals will shine through in my translations. – PN
Let the hedge start turning green,
let the swing begin to swing,
at times blissfully whimpering,
when pushed too hard, in a rhythm.
On a simple seat of wood,
on ropes of the usual kind,
falling with toes pointed upward,
you rise in another world.
Then, toes pointed by instinct forward,
you swing right back into this.
One – love soars into the stars, and
two – it crashes to the earth.
This too will pass, but first it will pierce
right to the marrow of the spine.
Between the first forgive me and the last
this will not take a lot of time.
After us, unforgiving, they too will play this,
to forget us, to feed the urge,
while mistaking the tune you and I came up with
for a march, for a funeral dirge.
The high-pitched howling of a nighttime train
makes me succumb to violent emotion
and scream, “Shut up, hysteric woman!” –
before begging it to go on again.
No one among us Russians and almost Russians
can fail to feel a sudden jab of pain,
not one of us can take it like a man
and not wonder for whom the night train howls.
Here is my pain: a simple railway station.
The salient facts are written on its face.
What does the name say as it rushes on?
That names have zero influence on fate.
Under the tsars of old, the name was different,
changed by the Bolsheviks in Soviet days.
A lot of them came through here, wielding clout,
who now have turned to nobodies, no-names.
The railway station stands, and in the nights
its face glows under streetlamps bright and real.
The traveler can confirm with his own eyes
even a name is nothing, no big deal.
Till joyful morning or until joyous morn,
both forms being acceptable in language,
sleep well, my native kennel: this human
canine forgives you today his every grudge.
I’ll try and look for the fault in my own
eye, lick at causes of discontent as such,
turn feral howling into a hymnal psalm,
as only fully behooves this son of a bitch.
A child up and follows the blind men,
the Heavenly City to find,
to wander for years in the grime and
to carry the sticks for the blind,
whose blindness is bogus: whenever
a hamlet they spy on their way,
they call out to young Alexei
to hand them their sticks, for to enter;
while time toward Jerusalem flees
is seven league boots made of bast,
relentless, unstoppably fast,
like a man who suddenly sees.
Please give us, God, almighty boss,
many a sprightly sweet return,
and in fields of the Moscow region
grant us a solid granite cross.
Should granite prove impossible,
a plain one, however you define it.
If not, no cross will do as well:
God willing, no one will defile it.
Know, I am an embodied ghost,
a squared notepaper block.
Passing through me you may get lost,
beware of getting stuck.
Here, many souls now wail and strain
from my eternal flame
who also thought this was BS
and likewise strove to pass.
Know that I’m no soul murderer,
but master harvester,
suffering’s distillation vat,
this way and that.
PHILIP NIKOLAYEV is a poet, and coeditor-in-chief of Fulcrum: an annual of poetry and aesthetics.