World Service / Radio Lyrics
©By Igor Pomerantsev
©Translated from the Russian by Frank Williams
World Service Copyright by Igor Pomerantsev
I sigh…and my voice, somber
As the harp's soft call,
Dies quiet in the air.
The pale blue air, which bears me lovingly in its velvet embrace, is more kin to me than the earth, which sooner or later must become my executioner, as it is of every living thing.
From the posthumous publications of S. Utochkin, early Russian aviator
Gwynplaine came to the editorial without warning,
HR rep and secretary in tow.
It announced four slots to be axed in October.
Gwynplaine wouldn’t have come at all, if it could.
But Company rules say: notice has to be given.
I immediately thought of the soldier boy, bullied almost to death.
It was our radio broke the story.
They amputated his legs, then his genitals, then what was left of the legs.
That’s kind of what they’re doing to us.
Last year they amputated four.
Liked it. Now they’ll hack us again.
It seems I may be in the line of fire as well.
The company opened its own club:
Fitness, Finnish sauna, steam bath and pool.
Now even the water’s in our hands!
The equipment is the best there is, but I’m not up for that.
I steam with a Turkmen in the sauna. On Sunday I told him,
people come here in the morning depressed.
It made him so happy! It meant he wasn’t the only one.
His face lit up. In his joy, he bored on and on
about how his last wife found a letter from the wife before
and gave him hell! That’s the East for you.
I was talking to A in the jacuzzi.
I used to think she was Iranian: a statuette, a work of art!
Actually she’s Armenian. Ah well! Never believe stereotypes.
Told her we have a unique relationship:
Like, we’re not close,
but we see each other half naked more often than we do dressed.
She didn’t know what to say and floated off
with her perky pool hairdo,
which I refer to privately as the “Pharaoh’s daughter”.
I went to the sauna again. Steamed with an Iranian.
He’s a poet. A francophile. Turning over the sand glass,
the francophile said: “Our countries will be great yet!”
I looked away.
They arrested three of our stringers in Turkmenistan.
Came for them early one morning.
Brought them unwashed before a council of elders,
who went for them: “You’re selling your motherland”.
Our people had scarcely opened their mouths before: “So you dare cheek your elders…”,
and off into preventive custody.
Fifteen days later one of them called and, choking back fear,
told what had happened. Then the fun began.
Gwynplaine was shitting its knickers in fright:
“No. Keep it off the air for now. We need to get advice.”
“Our Embassy in Ashkhabad.”
Wankers. We’ve sunk to this. Journalists taking advice from tossers!
Our radio always reached a hand, ok,
maybe not a hand, a finger, a little finger at least, to people in jail.
How come we ended up with Gwynplaine?!
Just one like that, and we’d all lost our balls.
This is what I was thinking.
It’s weird, but the kind of information
influences the way it’s disseminated.
The stringers are behind bars –
And the news about them is, too. In solitary.
But in the end it breaks out
mixed up with gobbets of fear!
Took a week’s vacation.
Flew home to London.
Went drinking with my son.
Quarreled with my wife.
Pushed my mother
in her wheelchair
in Holland Park.
In the night before I came back
I dreamt poetry.
My colleague M’s programs are full of gays:
Directors, artists, poets. All of them foreign.
I do the voice-overs in Russian.
That’s how you can acquire a reputation, incidentally.
I got an e-mail recently:
“I don’t like gays, but I think your programs are great!”
What am I supposed to do, deny it?
During a quarter century on air
I have become a shadow of my own voice.
It is arrogant, self regarding, preening,
and I am its wretched, feeble shadow.
Today was Queen Elizabeth II’s eightieth birthday.
I recalled her pursed lips, acid smile, semi-frozen voice.
No, she doesn’t rule, doesn’t lord, she works. Good job.
For which she gets respect, she’s valued, whatever, but not love.
Love her for – I don’t know what…for nothing, anything.
There was a time I often took the bus from Oxford Street to Victoria Station.
This bus skirts the high brick wall of Buckingham Palace.
If you go upstairs and stand rather than sit,
when it’s fine you may catch sight of something by the palace hothouse.
One time I think I glimpsed the famous royal headscarf,
and at that moment my heart skipped a beat.
In our building there are no cleaning women. Only men.
This is how I figured it out.
A middle-aged cleaner in a green overall
was reading a magazine in the lift. In English. The Economist.
Another cleaner got in and asked to swap.
In exchange, he offered The International Herald Tribune and The Independent.
I studied them closely for the first time:
They were Central European dissidents
with faded eyes and shy lips.
I thought I recognized them. Twenty years or so ago
I saw their pictures in London in Index on Censorship.
Even then they were washing windows and clearing drains,
but were poets, too. Our poems were printed side by side.
I recalled a line by one of them, Milan, in the lift:
“Washing windows is just washing windows.
No metaphor, this.”
It happened! I was in the studio reading culture news.
Suddenly the microphone opened, and began to suck me in.
I tried to carry on as usual and read to the end.
Resisted with my voice until I went completely hoarse.
It might have sucked me up and spat me out into airless space.
There are precedents.
At Solomon Islands Radio in the Coral Sea
a newsreader went to the studio and never returned.
Read himself out: became news himself.
Afterwards I re-read my news. Perhaps it was to do with them?
There was one suspicious story: about a Finnish band, Lordi.
They come on stage in scary masks,
twanging saws and playing the devil, literally.
Actually, it’s not fair,
me referring to Gwynplaine as “it”.
Not fair on Gwynplaine.
That’s the name of the unhappy hero of Hugo’s novel
L’Homme Qui Rit.
They disfigured him when he was a child.
But in his soul he was good.
The worst is when we’re in the lift alone.
My pulse goes wild,
and I get out, simply fly out
at the first available floor.
The thinker and librarian N.F. Fyodorov
considered that the resurrection of the dead
was mankind’s sole task.
For this they called him a fantasist, utopian, eccentric.
How it happened that I became a Fyodorovite,
I do not know.
I have released thousands of voices into the cosmos.
This means that, according to the laws of physics,
these voices will live forever.
Who would have thought it: Some drudge
with a hemorrhoidal complexion and a
goes to the office every day,
records somebody and then…
yes, then grants them immortality!
Mother was scolding me:
“I can hear it, you know, I can:
You’ve caught a cold.”
It would seem
thousands of kilometers come between us,
but I’m beside her.
In her room.
And she hears nothing,
except my cold.
And what of the fate of the world?
Maybe I’m no prince,
but I do have a mother.
And always will:
I recorded her
on a cassette.
What were they (my colleagues) so excited about:
“it’s unbelievable” (11 September 2001),
“it’s unimaginable”, “can’t get your head around it”!
Why can’t you? Maybe you’ve got a head that can?
And what about when the Hutu were exterminating the Tutsis,
and Serb butchers were raping Muslim women
in those special camps for strategic military reasons?
Was that something you could get your head around?
Did they think there exists in this world an insurance company
(USA), a superinsurance supercompany?
But as it happens there are no guarantees. None.
But where was your “will to live”, “survival instinct”,
when the Tutsi tribe was vanishing before your eyes,
the nearly one million strong Tutsi?
The senior editor gave orders to include blether in the program.
“To provide balance”, as the Anglo Saxons say.
He doesn’t know whose benefit I’m slaving away for here.
“Call Zh – give him a whirl”.
I know this caper:
“Russia for the Russians!
Save the Russians from genocide!”
Why, oh why should I
put this cap o’ bells into the cosmos?
Does he deserve immortality?
Fyodorov, what am I to do? You are silent?
Not bothered either way? Get bothered, man, get bothered!
There are bizarre languages –
they sound ugly,
but their songs are beautiful.
Like Portugese for example.
Etched through with sibilants,
but you don’t hear them in song.
Or Greek. A dragon breathed it out.
It reeks of sulfur.
Yet the songs are as pure as pure.
Today I dug out
an Andalusian cante jonde –
Like it’s not a person
but emery paper singing.
It hurts! It smarts! More! More!
Swam again with A.
No, she must have
something to do with the Iranians.
Worked there as a secretary,
before transferring to the Tajiks.
I asked tactfully who was better:
Iranians or Tajiks.
She answered tactfully:
“They’re all nice. But the Tajiks
don’t have a complex about national greatness.”
A has incredible shoulder blades.
Like a partisans’ landing strip:
Takes a real ace to put down there.
I met her in the lift.
She was dressed.
A swallowtail with a grasshopper on its nose.
The swallowtail is her. The grasshopper her glasses.
I was about to speak when Gwynplaine walked in.
Without saying a word we both got out at the next floor.
She pretended she had something to do there.
What? There’s only IT on this floor.
Could Gwynplaine really provoke the same emotions in A?
Gwynplaine issued an order,
in an hour-long program there must be no less than eight
reports or analytical pieces.
Written in bright and breezy English but
with an iron bit. Who does she think we are?
Journalism 101 college students?
Russian radio for Russians!
I have, in a steel cabinet, my archive.
Part of it is a sizeable radio graveyard.
It grows richer with every passing year.
The people are dead, but their voices are fresh, juicy.
I slip them into repeats.
They need the exercise.
I let them out – they won’t be caught.
Here, boy, here!
In the studio, the Tajik documentary maker was almost in tears.
He was describing how he filmed young Iranians in Dubai.
They’d come for Navruz (New Year).
They danced to pop music and were happy.
But if he showed the footage on television,
they’d find the lads and put the boot in.
cleaned the Tajik on the computer.
Hitting the sweet spot.
Mouse, keyboard, mouse.
Called to mind I.P.’s old poem:
“They called old Gutenberg
every kind of name,
They have slender fingers, manicured nails.
And he? Stumps…
They said that
printing plebs were treading
on the heels of the aristocratic culture
I understood what they meant
as I learnt
computer-based digital editing.
Can it really be that
Squirrel Nutkin’s tail,
will never tremble in my fingers again?”
Here’s something else
he wrote last century:
“As soon as I begin reading verse aloud
I catch myself using a radio voice.
But that’s all that’s left.
Just like those
who worked as nightwatchmen
They turned into nightwatchmen and loaders.
And I thought: I can break it.
Poems can just be poems.
But the voice!”
Yes, or worked as cleaners.
Should leave today’s papers for them
accidentally on purpose.
When Gerald Durrell died
(“The Overloaded Ark”, “A Zoo In My Luggage”),
they told me to write the obituary.
I mixed the voices of birds,
seal pups, dolphins,
wolves, elephants, monkeys
and put this wail out into the air!
Who had a better right
to sing Durrell’s requiem?
Listen to this letter Katy sent her neighbors.
The letter’s addressed to Jane, with copies to all the neighbors, including me.
Listen, just listen to this cry of an English soul:
On Saturday your new friend cut down the tree in the garden. I was out of London that weekend,
And on Monday instead of a tree I saw a pile of ash.
Your friend told me the tree was rotten.
Maybe it was, but it was standing, and even had blossom in spring!
I understand that under the contract the garden, i.e. the ground, belongs to you.
But there is nothing in the contract about air. You have disfigured the garden.
You’ve deprived the birds of a place to roost, and they don’t have many opportunities for that in our area.
Lastly, and most important: Peeping toms can look into our windows from the houses opposite.
We no longer have any privacy. All thanks to you.
Yours truly, Katy.”
A minute ago
you were a computer worm,
a white mouse with red eyes,
but go into the studio,
put on headphones,
tap the microphone,
and you are transformed
into a demon soaring over the earth,
with news as fresh as the dew!
Can’t get my head around it!
Gwynplaine said at the editorial
it doesn’t want to hear on air
Russian commentaries by our own staffers.
I wrote it a personal letter
in breezy, cordial English.
“Thank you for your serious and thorough analysis
of Russian programs. Your perceptive understanding
of today’s technical problems
fill me with optimism. At the same time
I am troubled by your remark about
“Russian commentaries”. One of our commentators
- Mister P. – is a citizen of the United States.
In other words, he is an American journalist
writing in Russian. How is one to understand
the term “Russian commentary”
in relation to him?
Is one to interpret “Russian” in this context
as a synonym for ethnicity or language?
Is there a problem with this “ethnicity” or “language”?
the word “Russian” by “Jewish”.
Tell me: Are we against “Jewish commentaries”?
Have you tried that?
I would be much obliged
if you could dispel my doubts.”
And you thought I daren’t speak out?
Wrong. I’m no Akaky Akakyevich!
First they got rid of the Poles
and other Hungarians…
then it got as far as the Bulgarians.
Meaning they’d got something figured out
about contemporary history.
Only our lot will fight to the last.
Who do we have now instead of the Poles?
Maybe not a small, but also a proud people.
And instead of the Bulgarians?
(Forgive me, Lord).
Need to create a new demographical category.
The Russians are the Chinese of Europe.
The Palestinians the Jews of the Arab world.
And they all stem from Vilkovo –
the Venice of Ukraine.
A prince really does have to be young.
So he can be loved.
I mean, it’s not on:
“A prince of middle age”
“a prince of sad demeanor”?
But our prince is not young.
Albeit, he is true.
His whole life, he has loved only one woman.
Though they can’t forgive him that, either:
Too human a weakness
That’s why he looks sad.
But how else could
a person look
after waiting so long in line?
Maybe first, maybe for the throne,
but still in line?
that love has more life in it than we think.
The author is writing a book about a woman
suffering from Alzheimer’s.
She’s a writer, too.
She created a world,
peopled it with hundreds of characters.
And now she has become one herself.
“My three-year-old girl…”.
in the twilight of consciousness.
He fell in love with youth,
when she went by on a bicycle
past his window.
Now he sits her on a stool,
cleans her teeth.
But the ray of love cannot penetrate
through the dense layer.
He keeps on writing,
so she will stay in literature,
if only as a character,
but able to speak,
on an open page.
At the pool I told A
that she leads a busy poetic life
in my verse. She looked embarrassed.
Then I had a long swim, composing something,
turning it over. A true egotist!
To smooth the awkwardness somehow
I said I’d written to Gwynplaine
about its remarks on “Russian commentaries”.
A asked: “Did you send it?”
“Not yet”, I confessed.
They hushed it up.
But it happened.
In the Turkmen desk.
Two directors in a row
had borrowed money from their staff.
And just imagine –
didn’t pay it back.
Anyone who opened his mouth
got it in the neck.
And just imagine –
nobody complained to the Yanks.
A cultural thing.
A Turkmen thing.
And the Yanks?
Looked the other way.
Not quite a blind eye,
They did spot something.
Quietly fired the directors.
Yeee-haah for Turkmens!
Yeee-haah for Yanks!
“The great Russian people”.
“the timid Russian people”,
“the pathetic Russian people”,
“the servile Russian people”.
Just try saying that on air!
Alright. Try saying it under your breath:
Alright. That makes you feel really big!
Just two more newscasts
and they’ll have heard the last of me…
It seemed this person
was speaking in my father’s voice.
Father died so long ago
I don’t remember his voice.
I don’t even know whether his accent was South Russian,
or slightly Volga or Altay Cossack.
He was like tumbleweed.
How does it speak?
Lisp? Croak? Round his o’s?
But I did record mother. I’d got wise by then.
Everyone, recorded everyone.
Only missed father.
I’ll whisper them in your ear –
closer, closer still –
my radio secrets.
I know how to give voice to age, to dying
(though not death! The experience of death is not broadcastable!).
I also know how love howls
(I interviewed a dingo in the zoo).
Listen to the spices, herbs,
condiments I use in my radio kitchen.
Can you hear? Those are recordings of a man
made forty years apart.
Isn’t it obvious now
how to convey ageing?
An old man is lying in the heat in the garden,
Beset by insects.
They are scavengers.
Who else should see a dying man down under the earth?
Add flamenco heel clicks to the buzz
and you get a dance on a coffin.
Because it’s –
all about love and death.
But don’t tell anyone!
I recorded a Chechen reporter’s
memories of childhood.
He grew up in a village in the Vedeno Gorge.
Every summer a pioneer camp, “Friendship”,
opened up near the village.
The village lads
put on white shirts, black trousers,
tied on red neckerchiefs,
and when the campers were coming up from the river,
mingled with them.
In the morning a call would echo from the camp:
It was the echo of a fairytale existence.
And at the end of the day the village lads
tied and re-tied their neckerchiefs
and infiltrated the camp disco.
It was there they spoke Russian for the first time.
Later I found a dispatch from this reporter on our website,
a story broadcast in May 2000:
“… rocket and bomb strikes on identified targets
in the Vedeno Gorge. During the past 24 hours
more than 30 militants…
special clearing operations…
blew up on mines…”
Here’s a headline:
THE MORGUES ARE BURSTING,
followed by the classic
was the first to report the massacre in…”
He (Garcia Lorca) used to say
that most of all he liked
a solo voice,
tormented by love.
the Andalucian cante jondo.
Is there something about cante jonde
in Russian poetry?
It seems there is.
“And with an iron chisel
Dipped in darkest stain,
Upon my heart indelibly
You're printed and engraved”. (Pasternak)
And it (the heart) burst into song.
In hoarse Spanish.
The artist V.P. said live on air,
that Europe should have a Jewish state
with its capital in Czernowitz.
There are sacred stones there –
the tombs of Jews.
I replied (live)
that this idea would be congenial
to the current President of Iran
and to Palestinian liberals.
The artist V.P. said
that a Jewish state
with its capital in Czernowitz
did not by any means exclude
the existence of the state of Israel.
I was at a loss for a reply.
I wonder, had V.P. read
the early poetry of I.P.
(My little town, the flue ash as fine as Feinstein)?
To be honest, I was taken with V.’s idea.
That would be something
to discuss live.
In the post box with my name
I found Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs.
The black spot?
The secretary hadn’t seen who brought it and when.
There is a concept in psychiatry:
The neurosis of fear.
In life, too.
Lordi, the Satanist rock group,
has won the Eurovision!
I’m a real clever clogs!
I did a piece on them a month ago!
I was almost sucked into the microphone.
So, it means I didn’t risk my life for nothing!
I asked B. the paleontologist
whether he loves dinosaurs.
“Yes,” he said,
“Especially the predators.
They were caring animals.
They looked after their young.
They were happily eating each other,
until they turned into birds,
and in this way showed
that creatures which crawl can fly”.
In conclusion academician B
said he was confident
that mankind’s end will be
much grislier than the dinosaurs’,
but it’s too soon to say.
It set me thinking and I forgot to ask,
and what could be “grislier”
than extinction, vanishing,
departing the body?
Aren’t you a Russian?
What did the CIA ever do to you?
Have you forgotten the other acronyms?
CheKa, GPU, NKVD, MGB, KGB,
What harm did the CIA do you?
Or are you a fool?
I got an e-mail
from a band called “Batyushkov”.
Want lyrics for their songs.
What made them think I’m a poet?
How did they sniff me out? Checked Yandex:
Yes, there is a band called that.
I should thank them and decline politely.
Found a colleague’s voice in the archive.
The recording is from forty years back.
The voice is rich, fearless.
Not a voice, but “a whole life ahead”.
I asked the secretary for his number,
made a transatlantic call, said who I was,
told him I was doing a program about vocal material,
how it crumples, frays, decays.
Asked could he answer some questions.
Something rasped in the receiver.
“Speak louder”, I yelled.
“Wha-a-at? What qu-est-ions?”
“About the voice! How it crumples, breaks,
gives up the ghost.”
“Gives up – the ghost?”
It sounded like water was boiling, bubbling in the receiver.
Then it broke off.
Then a silence.
I usually edit stutterers –
so as not to torment the listeners.
I turn them into Ciceros.
Their friends phone them afterwards and ask
which voice therapist they’d been to.
But there was one stutterer I didn’t touch.
The program was called “Fear”.
A clever listener will understand:
“They terrorized the poor guy when he was little…”
No, Akakyevich, you’re great. Simply great.
From a report on the Labour Party Conference, 1991:
“There are 72 ties on every 100 male delegates.
The complexion of delegates has changed radically:
They not so spotty –
either because nutritional standards have risen during the Thatcher years
or because Party members are choosing different delegates.
When the wife of the Party leader kissed her man on the cheek,
‘Drop this European nonsense!’
She dropped it. But they lost the next election again, I recall.
“Why, oh, why”,
she was shaking me,
“Did my daughter swear at me?
I’m her mother!”
I was recording a woman
who’d lost her alcoholic daughter.
I was supposed to be doing the asking,
but the questions were tearing her apart.
By swearing at her mother was she breaking a taboo?,
as the psychologists would have it.
Was she lighting red lamps?
In short, the interview was a failure.
My name isn’t in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours list again!
I know I won’t make a knighthood: I’m not a racing driver or a tycoon.
But why not a Victoria Cross?
Especially since they’re made from the bronze of
melted down cannons,
in the victorious Crimean War.
I understand: They give it for acts of outstanding heroism
under enemy fire,
but is not encountering Gwyplaine in the lift
an act of heroism? There is a witness, too – A,
who I meet regularly on the air and in the water.
Or there’s the Distinguished Flying Cross
for people serving in the Royal Air Force.
Am I not an “air force”?
Maybe somebody whispered to Her Majesty
that I said something not wholly respectful about her?
Or what I said about the prince offended her?
But he really does wait in line.
Waits and waits.
In extremis, there’s the Order of the Thistle.
Haven’t I done enough to deserve it?
What am I to do? Enter a conspiracy with the Prince of Orange,
land in England, give Her Majesty the boot,
beat the French etc., etc. If they push me.
But why push me?
Yes, I was a fraud.
Remember the interview
about the alcoholic and her mother?
Well, there was no interview.
There was a phone call with the mother.
And we talked about my sister
Well, she’s alive.
All the rest is true, though.
PS. As for me, I’m teetotal. Almost.
In the course of the day you sniff so much ether
even bordeaux makes your stomach turn.
In the studio you ask your interviewee
to say a few words
You always hear the same:
“One, two, three, four, five,
once I caught a fish alive…”
How long can you go on catching a fish?
An angler would have landed it by now!
Now this is
first class verse –
with an authentic conversational intonation –
“rum tum, tiddly pom”.
The author is Miller, Fyodor Bogdanovich,
Sometimes they say
Now that’s rap.
Dyr byl schyil.
Eenie, meenie, minie, moe!
In a phone interview
The Scottish doctor said
That his clinic was ready to transplant
A womb with an embryo
Into the abdomen of a man.
I’m thinking. Working it out.
Stephanie is pregnant, big bellied, enceinte.
And Stephen? Well, Stephen is enceint.
Only a few days more carrying it.
Delivered on Christmas Eve.
What did he deliver? Deliver where to?
And the person who was “delivered”
Will recall in later life:
“When my father was pregnant with me…
When my dad was up the spout”…
And prenatal memory will tell him how his father
Would pull up his undershirt and proudly bare
his swollen belly with its purple veins,
and his mother would put her ear to the swelling
and ooh and ah and cluck.
It’s no coincidence there’s a folk saying:
“Get tangled with a woman, become a woman.”
“How shall I introduce you on air?” I asked the doctor.
“I am a Knight of the Thistle”.
(That’s not a joke.
The motto of this ancient and honourable Order is
Nemo me impune lacessit –
Touch me at your peril.)
I will definitely put the knight on air:
If anyone deserves immortality, he does.
I am a sucker.
Broadcast the story of an old defector, D.
Got out in 1959 and asked for asylum in the USA.
The CIA didn’t believe him (it was freezing hard!)
and blocked his path to a decent career.
So far so good. But. In the same program D said
that some recently declassified CIA file gives the name
of the agent who debriefed him and even quotes from the memorandum:
That D is a suspicious type, who
associates with beatniks and homosexuals and so on.
The day before broadcast I glanced at the file:
It was, indeed, the work of a CIA fuckwit
from the second wave of Russian emigration.
After it had aired D told me, in passing,
that it wasn’t from the official CIA webpages, but a hackers’ site.
What does that mean? That this agent fellow
could sue me. If he’s still alive, of course.
I am a sucker.
“round the world”,
the words themselves have wings.
In 1670 Francesco Lana,
devotee of progress,
expressed his readiness, for a solid fee,
to design a flying machine,
from which it would be possible to drop bombs and other ordnance.
That was what poverty drove the Jesuit to.
And not him alone.
It’s the poor who vote for
rightists, leftists and religious radicals.
And get poorer as a result.
And lose what little rights they have.
today’s aeronauts are
millionaires and billionaires.
They like to crack the tough nuts.
Flying a balloon is harder
than driving a car or a plane.
That is the essence of progress:
Things get simpler, easier.
An aeronaut is the enemy of progress.
Long live the aeronaut!
(In August 1998 I cheered for Steve Fosset.
But did he know, when cracking a tough nut,
that the LU, which blows from India,
induces a lethargic sleep in the unwary
and fogs the memory?
That certain Australian winds
bring on insomnia and nightmares?
Alas, he did not, and so his flight ended
with him downing in the Coral Sea.)
A’s soul is slender.
You can see when she floats:
By the line of her shoulders,
by the movement of her hands,
by the angle formed
between her chin and neck.
But this is going beyond a
To put photos of broadcasters on the radio’s site.
It’s all in my voice!
That’s what attracts them, like a candle, like a floodlight.
What’s the attraction in
fuzz on half of a head,
a scrawny neck,
a squint and
sticky out ears?
What am I to do?
What didn’t go into the program about Venice?
The canals’ underarms,
their rotten teeth,
their gastritis and colitis,
crumbly mustard papers,
Haven’t asked yet
how they arrest people here.
The streets are poky, the squares cheapskate.
A city without cars.
No room to maneuver a black maria
disguised as a meat delivery van.
Maybe they take you away in a gondola
to the accompaniment of a canzona?
A good way to go:
Sa-a-a-nta Lucia, Santa Lu-u-u-cia.
I’m sick to death of the classics
with their “nourishing landscapes” of poetry!
I’ve got them coming out of my ears.
The soundlessness of space is preferable,
with voices, like manes,
drifting through it.
Oh to do an interview with blood.
To hear her voice.
“To move soundlessly” is an oxymoron.
Everything that moves makes a sound.
The voice of blood… Is it a rustle? A whisper?
A sonorous transfusion?
Or a faint groan,
that reminds one of fading vowels?
This will take painstaking work
with phonographs and cardiographs.
“Tell me, please, Mrs Blood,
do you think you are the carrier
of a person’s rhythmic memory?”
I want to hear your voice,
“Do I love him?
I find so many things in him to irritate me:
His smells, the way he sings,
the way he can’t say his r’s.
I don’t even believe in him
as a composer”.
That was Alma,
future wife of Mahler,
a hostage of eternity,
my brother in the cosmos.
I don’t know what he thought in this regard,
but I will never forgive her!
“Do children answer for their fathers?”
“What do I have to answer for?
For the fact that at the end of the 19th century he joined the Party,
that is, he was one of the founders of the party
which wrecked our country?
Is he responsible for that?
He joined with pure ideals.
I remember asking him,
why he joined the movement.
He said he wanted to live in a country without jails
I dug in the radio graveyard again.
Listened to Gazdanov’s cough,
They were recorded in the Paris studio.
The soundproofing was crap,
but nobody was interested in sound quality
in the era of jamming.
It seemed to me that
I was using an acoustic periscope
to eavesdrop on life
in the other world.
I was pulling the voices of colleagues
from that world to this.
I let them out for fifteen and a half minutes
and then put them back.
Radio helps you make your peace with death.
You can switch it on or off.
It’s right by,
and nothing to be scared of.
I was going up to read the news in studio 5
and found myself nose-to-nose with Gwynplaine in the lift.
I felt nauseous.
Got out –
and again nose-to-nose- A.
I felt a spasm in my throat.
I read the news on autopilot.
Remembered lines by
a person who once worked for Voronezh radio:
“It is only by the voice that we can tell,
what was scrabbling, struggling there…”
I think I understood.
I dreamt a cartoon film.
World War 2.
An apartment. A radio.
Waves roll in: long, middle, short.
A boy sits day and night by the radio.
His eyes reflect the dial’s diffuse light.
Sometimes he strokes the plywood back,
but mostly he likes to look into its green eye.
What does he see?
Crowds of Russians, French, Chechens
greet the Wehrmacht with flowers and cheers.
Between the lamps, spindles, cores
President Roosevelt dances his wheelchair
to the sound of the Benny Goodman band.
Stalin sings a Georgian melody
accompanied by a choir of zeks.
In Terezin children are held starving in the darkness,
and to ward off fear, they make theatre:
Wrap up in sheets and stand on benches to
represent a chorus of paid weepers.
Goering tests a flexible throttle for strength,
trying it around his neck.
Goebbels paces near the coils of the transformer:
“Our soldiers do battle like the ancient Greeks at Thermopylae”.
Beria stretches a tentacle to pull girls who sing jazz
against the loudspeaker, so we can’t hear the scream.
Churchill sidles past the earth clamp to a cognac cellar.
Hitler makes ready to fly to South America.
But a minute before takeoff
the boy reaches into the maw of the radio
and crushes the Fuhrer’s plane with his finger.
Stop! That’s against the rules!
The boy stares into the green eye,
but sees only dust, the shadow of the parts, the contours of the chassis.
The fate of the world?
I’m on air in five minutes.
”Listen up everybody!
Here is the news and this is the Master of the Universe reading it!”
Lost my headphones.
Went round all the studios.
Can’t have sprouted wings, surely?
I suspected long ago
that they’re alive.
Last few months
never took them off.
Even slept in them.
Maybe that’s why?
“Do you remember how they arrested your father?”
“A man came in some kind of grey raincoat.
There were several of them, but I only remember him.
He reassured my mother. She asked:
‘Maybe I should pack some warm things?’
He replied: ‘Come on, he’ll be back soon’.
He never came back”
“Do you remember how they arrested your father?”
“I was six.
It was my last year in the
They rang the bell early morning. I got up as well.
The yard sweeper and neighbors were standing in the doorway,
someone else, too. The sweeper shifted from one foot to the other.
I wanted to go to kindergarten, but it was too early.
Mother graciously opened the cupboards and dresser for our guests.
The guests were tapping the walls.
They cut open the armchairs. Asked where the books were.
I brought them my dog-eared children’s books.
They laughed: ‘No savings books?’.
Next day when I went out into the yard,
the others asked: ‘Where’s your daddy?’.
‘Away on business’. ‘Don’t lie. They arrested him’.
I was sent to Coventry. They wouldn’t even let me use the swings.
I saw him six months later on a visit.
My daddy used to be very handsome.
Now he was bald, without a beard.
I wouldn’t let him hug me.”
“Do you remember how they arrested your father?”
“I didn’t see it. They took him at the airport.
I didn’t feel anything special.
I was an unemotional child.
But later I often remembered
the car taking my father to the airport.
It was in the car I saw him for the last time a free man.”
The classic landscape:
Mountains, desert, sea.
But there is also an acoustic landscape:
Chiming clocks, sound of foliage, seagulls calling, lovemaking.
This is the genre I need to work in:
Acoustic lyrics of landscape.
Who gives a stuff for mankind!?
Think I can’t do rhyme?
Here’s my famous translation
From the London “Saudi Gazette”:
“The world was quiet as a mouse.
The superpowers peacefully sleeping.
That moment they woke the house,
And Kuwait’s walls fell tumbling.”
Hot stuff, eh?
Believe me, it’s no worse than the original.
There’s no other voice like it in the world.
As a young man he got lucky:
Broke his nose in the ring.
People with a nose like that
prefer a pipe to a cigarette,
an open collar to a tie,
short, broken sentences to flowing speech.
Had Russian been his native language,
his heroes would have sung labor camp songs,
and instead of “hello”
would have said “wotcha”.
He lost consciousness on air.
But its not how you’d say in an obituary.
He fell in the ring.
Surely not k.o.’d? No.
Heroes don’t surrender as easily as that!
Let’s say I die
and somebody says:
“May he find peace in heaven!”
Well, they’re too late!
I’ve been there the last quarter century.
Tunneled through it with my voice,
like mould in cheese.
And I tell you straight:
It suits me.
From the diary of a Belgrade dramatist:
“Serbia is not as close to Russia as it may seem.
In Serbia the pull towards western cultures,
democracy, liberty is much stronger by tradition.
The daily excavation of mass graves with the remains
of people who had the wrong surname,
who said the wrong prayers,
observed the wrong customs
and wanted to lead the wrong way of life is
yet another stain on our conscience.
I live in a land of executioners, in a land of killers,
who have changed into civilian clothes
and carry on as if nothing had happened.”
In studio conditions
with the aid of the latest
sound recording equipment
I performed an analysis of love.
It has now been experimentally proven
that music is an ingredient of love!
It is the audio face of love.
circled round and about the issue.
Let us go to Chopin Street, -
I have mused upon it through the years…
Observe: verbena wafts
From the ladies walking by…)
That’s sort of “round”.
“And the garden, the evening and encounter,
A troubled tenderness in the blood,
And the blaze in the heart and its ebbing –
All this music of love”.
That’s definitely “about”.
The couple who took part in the experiment
as though I had not made a discovery of world importance.
A year later I will invite them back to the studio.
If their love will give – to you know who – its soul
(and to who else if not Him?),
then the music will fall silent.
No, it was no accident I listened hard in the lift
to A’s silence.
Her silence was ringing!
In the refugee camp
there were only five victims of rape.
Our brother’s golden rule –
obtain first hand information.
But I couldn’t go up to those refugee women and ask:
“Anybody here been raped?”
I approached, said who I was. Switched on the recorder.
“Maybe somebody could sing a love song?”
The women were shy.
One called over her seven-year-old daughter.
“Liri, sing, sing for the man”.
How old is she now?
Must be almost a girl…
I remember going into the studio
with him for the first time.
Until then he had been a myth,
a hero of the night
for a whole country.
He wore an imposing bow tie,
held a thundering stop watch,
out of every pocket.
The funniest was that in his review of events
he mixed up West and East Germany.
In the corridor I corrected him shyly.
He flushed crimson.
Thanked me a thousand times
and hurried back into the studio.
It was then I realized
the most important thing isn’t thoughts or ideas,
but voice, timbre, breathing,
and freedom of the epiglottis, too.
You wouldn’t read about it:
An ecologist accused of treason!
Does this mean that the cleanliness of the land and the ocean floor,
the life of whales, porpoises, dolphins, elephants, monkeys
run counter to the interests of the state?
And what kind of a state is this
if defending the earth is harmful to it?
Maybe it’s to establish a juridical term
“Traitor to Earth”?,
and “Hero of Earth”, too, while we’re at it.
This ecologist should be made a
Hero of Earth!
The local police
delivered my headphones to the radio.
It seems they jumped out of the window.
The autopsy revealed no signs of violence.
They found the owner (me) from the auricle and lobe prints.
Means our ears are one of a kind as well.
I’d always suspected that
but now it’s confirmed by the law enforcement agencies.
I rack my brains about where to bury them.
I went up in the lift with G.L.
He’s reckoned to be a genius as far as radio goes.
See if I care. Don’t give a shit.
It seems he wanted to talk to me, first time ever.
“Yosip Akakich, I woke at six this morning, couldn’t sleep,
turned on the radio, tuned to us,
heard you reading the news,
and I kept thinking of these verses:
“The exiles demon, spirit of despair,
Used to come in the blue of night,
Flew above earth’s sinful climes,
With his wingtips he drew
Where the nightmares should boom, where to bar the,
While in his weary brain rose, dark and bare,
Remembrances of happier times…”.
I was speechless. As he left, G.L. gave me some chewing gum.
Do I really have bad breath?
Solved the web site photo problem.
Didn’t shave for a month.
Put on shades and a baseball cap for my picture.
What a face…
After the photo I felt disgusted as I shaved.
But on the site, it’s the spitting image of the invisible man!
What a morning!
A the philosopher died in Moscow.
Z the artist died in Paris.
It seems I’m the only one to have kept their voices.
The dimwits from current affairs
I can’t pretend it wasn’t a moment of triumph.
Meanwhile, my graveyard expands systematically.
Time to transect it with avenues, catalogue it, number it.
You can’t rely exclusively on memory in this kind of thing.
Time to think about who I can bequeath it to.
Certainly not the department!
There has to be personal responsibility.
And not simply a bequest, I have to leave detailed instructions:
How often they should be exercised, at what time, how long each should get.
You mustn’t be overgenerous with exercise.
In the stratosphere a voice with oxygen starvation
can burst, deflate. As the philosopher A used to say (about the properties of thought),
“once it’s flown, you’ll never catch it”.
These are my favorite lines.
I recorded them in the field.
“I lived my span
Not like a man.
Wherever I may go,
All I do is on show.
Like a fish on the sand,
In sorrow I stand.
Never will my soul behold
‘Sus Christ the Lord!”
In the lift with A again.
I listen and listen.
which is silent.
Before, it used to resound.
In Turkmenistan there are no more people.
Either it was an accident on the pipeline, or sabotage.
Somebody opened all the valves in the night,
and by morning they’d all suffocated.
Who did it? One of ours?
At the request of the UN Security Council
America sent a team of astronauts.
They landed in Challenger.
worked in spacesuits.
They patched it back up, drilled it, plugged it.
That was some sight:
Nearly as good as the moon landing.
Now they’ll plug the Turkmen desk as well.
Perhaps they leave us alone?
After all, there’s a saving of half a million euros already!
How I pampered those crickets and cicadas
that I recorded on a Greek island!
Quoted them all over the place.
What did I hear in them?
Any human voice is a thousand times more dramatic.
I’ve been listening to them again.
No, a cricket is every bit as good.
I never allowed myself to cry on air.
Or burst into sobs. Why?
Aren’t tears as natural as laughter?
Yet you laughed your head off.
Though never once wept. What does it mean?
What sort of a culture is it that does not allow you to weep out loud?
Is it really shameful? But why?
I must do it! I have to!
LYRICS FOR THE “BATYUSHKOV” BAND
Light kickstarts the brain
Killing the illusions.
On the walls – star stains.
On the ceiling – little wheels.
The wallpaper grows plants,
On the ceiling – me and a shadow.
You’re not in the shot.
I am the town of Mytishi,
With its railroad sleepers,
You’re just another creeper
Along the banks of life.
In the list of diagnoses
Retro and schizo pyschoses.
Wallpaper smells of roses
Throat a mass of bruises.
Analysis of men they diagnose
With acute paranoia shows
A heap of causes,
Reasons by the cartload.
I am the town of Mytischi,
With its railroad sleepers,
You’re just another creeper
Along the banks of life.
You can rave about the past,
But it’s too rosy by far.
As kids, we knew nothing
About brownshirts or reds.
Re-evaluate our steps
Straight or crooked turning
Like water in the stupa
Or on the backburner.
I am the town of Mytischi,
With its railroad sleepers,
You’re just another creeper
Along the banks of life.
Your insides rot.
We slumber in a cot
Rocked to the sound of time.
As for those female delusions
Revealed in a mania for butterflies,
Wings are a sign of trouble
In the diagnosis of any couple.
I am the town of Mytischi,
With its railroad sleepers,
You’re just another creeper
Along the banks of life.
Getta hold of your entrails,
Roll’em up, twist ‘em round.
Fetch a blade, a saw.
Catch that smell, frigging grand.
Let him have it, give him one,
Kick his head in, on the ground.
Smasah a window into his mind –
Catch that smell, frigging grand.
Is this his heart? Slashed
With a blade that’s real sharp.
Autopsy time is here
Again. That stink is really fine.
The anatomy theatre
Kinda wraps up the game.
Formaldehyde. Chloride. Hydrate.
Spirit. Myrrh. Ambre.
The sicko is real aggressive, wild.
Recognises people. Says: “You’re family.
I hate you. I saw in a dream,
That I hate you”. The sicko is me.
You can write the letter “i” for hours.
Dress and undress. Oral automatic.
Darkening of the mind at dusk time –
Is selfishness in a kinda diagnostic way .
Dressing is a dance. Same clothes
Say “no”, say “maybe”, but usually say “yes”.
Undressing is also choreography, but not often,
Usually a reprise, a mise-en-scene, a pop diva.
Oral automatic means “supper”
Pieces of bread followed by tea.
Sure, your theory was tentative, shamefaced,
So be bold, since bread is no chance find.
Bread and tea, dress-undress,
Writing out the same letter over and over
Could bring you closer to understanding
The letter “I”, its interior and furnishings.
There is also the concept of misaction.
You tell someone “go left”, and he goes right.
This “i” person has it from birth.
Everything comes out upside down and back to front, or crooked.
Mis-speech – is answers that miss the mark.
Ask questions: it’s your lawful right.
You asked ““i” is you?” I answer: “i” is a name”.
You asked: “To the left?”. “Yes” I reply. “To the right.”
Made up my mind what happened to the headphones.
In a program about abroad I was interviewing an astronaut.
We were talking about the Universe as the ultimate abroad.
After the interview I invited him to the snack bar
and over coffee explained the essence of the matter.
For starters, I did a quick resume of N.F. Fyodorov’s ideas,
then explained my mission at the radio.
He was floating, but then interrupted:
Astronauts have an astral dimension.
In short, I asked him, on his next flight,
would he drop my headphones overboard. He agreed.
So - may they find peace in heaven!
Remember, I was being driven nuts
by talk about the CIA?
Well, he’s not a dickhead at all
but an honest to goodness Russian.
You could say, bred in the bone:
His grandfather was in the NKVD, and his father in the KGB,
And in his student days he was grassing up the right people
to the right people.
And there was me, like an idiot, losing my rag.
It seemed to me personally that the food was more refined at the Queen’s:
For hors d’oeuvre smoked salmon with crab, then fillet of beef,
duck pate and artichokes baked in pastry.
But the prime minister had his revenge with the drinks:
The queen served a dry Alsatian white, 1983 vintage
(a little florid for my taste),
a rare bordeaux, Chateau Beychevelle, 1970 vintage
(297 pounds sterling a bottle according to the price list)
and to finish, a 1955 port.
But in Downing Street it was a 1945 port and the cognac was from 1913.
I wasn’t there, didn’t drink the cognac, it didn’t trickle through the moustache,
fall into the mouth.
But the thought of a pre-war –“We weren’t fighting Germany by then” – cognac
makes the head spin. Though I’m teetotal. Almost.
Listened to recordings of my mother’s voice.
Made my blood run cold.
Just then she phoned
with her truth about life.
Who needs that stuff about truth!
A whining voice,
And this is my mother?!
No my mother’s on cassette.
Should record her again.
Seen enough decadence for my lifetime.
In May 1989 I was invited to the Bulgarian Embassy in London.
A reception to mark the day of Slavic culture.
They served a red Sakar merlot, 1982 vintage,
with banitsa (a cheese pitta bread) and strawberries.
The walls were hung with pictures on subjects from antiquity:
Winged chariots, a Thracian couple in togas.
Obvious who had hung there before.
The guests included Foreign Office types,
the pillars of the Bulgarian emigration, the owner of a communist bookshop,
a dissident actor from Eco-Glasnost,
King Simeon II’s press secretary,
the Avar poet Raasul Gamzatov with his daughter.
Excited chatter, moist plash of red wine,
brunette members of a folk group.
A little Bulgarian Titanic sailing boldly into the future.
The press attaché picked out a blues on the piano.
No, a radio reporter lacks the means to convey the charm
of this diplomatic decadence.
The only hope is in the archive recording
of the now dead Avar poet.
I was so in love with the movies when I was young!
Twit. How can a picture bear comparison with the word?
The word has a long, long life, a heap of relatives, dozens of doubles.
And all this hums, buzzes, rustles, twitters.
Get your finger out! Start acoustic family albums!
Record the little ones, oldies, daughters and sons in law!
Switch on this kind of album and it holds a resounding family chorus.
This is how we sang three hundred years ago… and like this a century later…
Yes, just like my voice, the spitting image! Your great-great-great-gradfather?! No!
That is truly spiritual music.
“Pray Let your life be a battle with darkness!
Let it be a candle of truth!
Pray louder! Life is a single prayer,
Which is to be heard!”
In the first hours they do not wish to believe,
that something irreversible has happened to them.
Then they are seized by fear. Then a short phase of calm.
The hostage convinces himself that he will soon be freed.
Over time he resolves that he must “sit it out”, “wait it out”.
The lack of physical sensations sharpens the activity of the mind.
He begins to hallucinate. To which can be added the John Wayne syndrome:
Why am I not a cowboy? Why am I so passive?
For the first few days after being set free a hostage
doesn’t feel badly about his captors:
His state of joy, euphoria blots out negative emotions.
A course of rehab takes two to three weeks:
Counseling, free phone calls, catching up on news
From the outside world that happened during his captivity.
The most important, though, is to get him used to the idea that he is free
to choose for himself: his menu, the time of his appointment with the psychiatrist etc.
Cases of a full recovery are almost unknown.
He talked about childhood in the
Vedeno Gorge lyrically and manfully.
More precisely, his accent was manly,
the voice was almost indifferent,
but the words were lyrical:
But the tremble in his hands didn’t get into the program,
nor the sweat on his upper lip.
You needed a camera for that.
No, I had good reason to love movies when I was young!
I remember the day the war started, dawn, 16 January, 1991.
Barry phoned from work at five in the morning:
“Sorry, but the war’s begun. We need the first report by noon.”
My son burst whooping into the bedroom at seven:
He was crestfallen that he was too late and
hopped off to school.
All day, while I was recording London politicians and analysts,
enemy pop songs with the refrain “For the Motherland, for Saddam”,
local Iraqis running sweet shops
(they called themselves “Babylonians”, just in case),
I tried not to think that next door to my son’s school
were an American college and a synagogue.
Meanwhile our people were striking at the enemy,
and he was getting the hell out of Kuwait.
Why do I keep on saying goodbye and goodbye?
Does anybody hear me?
It’s a madhouse, not a studio!
“All the best!”, “We’re coming to the end of the programme”, “Till next time”.
Which next time?
What am I being so pushy for?
You can all go to….
And if A is listening?
Then till next time.
In the swimming pool.
It’s beyond belief:
The wife of the Australian Prime Minister
didn’t curtsey when she met our Queen.
And the Prime Minister, against all the rules of protocol,
had the temerity to make physical contact the royal person:
He put his arm round, well, touched her waist.
I was editing together the pauses between the strikes of a bell
(the ceremony of the Feast of the Shroud).
Several pauses in a row.
Something like a lump in the throat.
A snowy plain opened up.
I thought of Japanese verse.
They have a different way for crickets to chirrup,
rivers to roar, autumn to rustle, winter to be silent.
I should go to Japan with a recorder.
And what if I really did find there a closed cosmos
With an unheard of sound?
How does the God of Sounds look?
He can’t look.
He can only sound.
I beg you, give me a sign!
You’re silent again?
For some reason I remembered Liri’s voice,
The girl from the refugee camp.
(Delete ‘for some reason”: cliché.)
Today I’m exercising Barry.
I only have a smidgin of him.
He’s talking about his days in
The Royal Air Force
in the middle of last century,
and how Elvis burst upon
the dreary English music scene.
He took the squadron by the ears.
They soared rather than flew to the sound of Elvis.
Barry had a beautiful death: Drawing a bow string.
The arrow flew – and he flew after.
“How’s things, Prince?
Still in line? What’s on offer?
Wheelchair with a view of Holland Park?
Tombstone in Czernowitz?
N.F. Fyodorov’s casket lid?
Space walk without a space suit?
Hi there, hacker.
Bumped into G.L. in the toilet.
He was standing three urinals up from me.
“Akakych”, he croaked. “Akakych, you listening to me?”
“Last Friday’s programme, at the very end –
There’s this incredible silence. Where d’you get it?”
I gave him a sickly grin, but told the truth:
“From Japanese poetry”.
Maybe G.L. really is a genius.
In early autumn
I always repeat my programme about cigars.
I imagine people listening to it in the early evening
at the dacha, in the garden.
Somebody’s got a bonfire going,
and my voice mingles with the smoke, dogs barking, children squealing.
Dogs especially like me.
Not me so much, as the wisps of jazz
the last cigar.
“The least interruption in the work of the Radio would put
the whole country into a spiritual funk,
a temporary loss of consciousness”,
Writes the Fyodorovite Velemir Khlebnikov.
“Radio is becoming the spiritual sun of the country, a great enchanter and wizard”.
And this is exactly about me:
“He, the artist, had the whole country spellbound: gave it
the sea’s song and the wind’s whistle.
Every village and every hovel will be visited by the whistling of the gods
And the whole sweet bliss of sound…
And they have learned how to transmit the sense of taste.”
This is about me, too:
“People will drink water, but it will seem to them they have wine.”
Well, what do we have today?
An Alsatian Gewurztraminer, 1983?
A bordeaux from Chateau Beychevelle, 1970?
Cognac from 1913, “when we hadn’t even been to war with Germany”?
What, Yosip Megahertzovich?
Already upon us.
Gwynplaine is overthrown!
We have a new Intendant!
He has made A his secretary!
Downsizing is off the agenda!
In the lift I shook hands with the new boss.
He asked my name. I told him.
“Ah, the Russian commentator…”
Milan was vacuuming the studio.
He winked at me.
“The sun, before commencing its daily journey, brought news: the day the sun’s rays fall on the statue of Ramses II is declared a holiday. The rays fall on the face of the Pharaoh twice a year: in February and October.”
You have been listening to a summary of international news.
Can this be the k.o.?
Summoned to personnel,
Or – in civilized language –
To the “Department of Human Resources”.
Aren’t I a resource? Not half!
They said my slot was being eliminated.
Without explanation. The HR officer smiled,
Like John Wayne at the end of the movie.
The good news, as he put it, is that
the company will pay medical insurance for the rest of my life.
Which means I can go right on living and living. Up to me.
They also promised to pay two months severance.
Get the maximum I can!
From the New Year I can get stuck in with the Batyushkov band
and become chairman of the N.F. Fyodorov Society.
Farewell, work song!
You have come to an end.
My faithful listener,
until we meet in space,
but don’t hurry yourself.
Igor Pomerantsev: Profile
It is hard to pin Pomerantsev down. “Outsider” is simply too glib. But how to characterize a writer who slips with a chuckle past all the easy categories?
He was born in the Soviet Union, but does not belong to any Soviet, pre-Soviet or post-Soviet literary tradition, group or clan. He grew up in what had been called Chernowitz, a town on the far Eastern frontier of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and briefly part of the Kingdom of Romania, a town historically inhabited mostly by Romanians, Moldovans and Jews.
By the time Pomerantsev came there with his family it was Chernovtsy, a city of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, on the Romanian border of the USSR, dominated by Ukrainians and Russians. The Jews had mostly been slaughtered by the Nazis and the Romanians had fled, or been deported to Siberia by the Soviets. After the somersaults of geo-politics, this was a city filled with ghosts, their whispers echoing off the walls in literally dozens of different languages. Is this the source of his passion for the acoustics of language?
For a profession that uses words, it’s surprising how few writers are alive to the potential of sound. Pomerantsev has worked in radio for three decades. Radio is about fragments. Fragments of narrative, fragments of thought and emotion, fragments of lives that used, in the old days, to be cut together from pieces of tape and passed over a magnetic head to produce something larger than a single experience or a single life.
Today it’s all digital. The handicraft of painstakingly splicing together voices, removing unwanted breaths and grammatical errors, has gone. The principle, though, remains the same, and in the hands of a radio master, voices put on weight, thoughts gain density. They collide and spark. Even incoherent sound begins to acquire meaning when placed in the context of a voice.
The radio master is a law unto himself. Visual media are so hideously complex, it takes a whole crew to perform the simplest task. But with radio, one person, on his own, can create worlds. Sitting under his headphones, Pomerantsev orchestrates his characters. The temptation is always to manipulate the voices under one’s control. Cut a pause here, snip a word or half a sentence there, and they will say whatever you want. How to trim and remain true to the original? Radio suits the solitary, the hermit, who has no need of camp-followers and acolytes as he listens in to the sounds to catch the deeper meaning.
FM is so prosaic. A voice dies within a few kilometers. Short wave broadcasting, on the other hand, has poetry. It is truly one of the black arts. A voice transmitted from a field in the middle of England bounces round the globe and can be heard with startling clarity in Australia. From the warm semi-darkness of a studio, with the help of a simple microphone, the broadcaster launches his voice and the voices he has assembled into… no, not into a void. They go whizzing out and up, bouncing off the ionosphere back to earth, back up again and down again, round and round. Does the signal eventually wear itself out, collapse exhausted? Or does it break free, as Khlebnikov imagined, out into the unimaginable?
Even at the end of the Soviet era Vladimir Putin and his colleagues lacked the sophistication to see that characters in fiction express their own views, that they cannot be ascribed to the author. As late as the 80’s, some writers barely survived the consequences. It would be no less criminal to associate Pomerantsev with his lyrical protagonist. He is pure artifice, though a constant presence. Some of us have watched our friend develop over the years in different genres, prose pieces, radio drama and now poetry, sometimes named, sometimes nameless, but always piecing together the fragments, making something of the scraps. What will be the next stage in his development? After the experiments of youth, the synthesis of maturity, what will he give us in mellow old age?
Translating Pomerantsev is a joy. The main task is to let his words sing off the page with same intensity as the original. The rest is simply a matter of trust. Pomerantsev always means exactly what he says, no more and no less. Surrendering to the logic of the written word, and following faithfully wherever it leads, leaves the translator free to find the intonations and cadences equivalent to the original. Pomerantsev’s writing is clear and spare. There are no grace notes or trills to distract. Any false note on the translator’s part can be detected instantly and is his responsibility alone. There are none in the Russian.