I am overjoyed that Arkadii Dragomoshchenko’s selected poems, Endarkenment, is now officially forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press. Edited by Eugene Ostashevsky, I hope and trust that this, sadly, posthumous collection will open the eyes of a new and broader English-speaking audience to Arkadii’s extraordinary work.
I have made only a very modest contribution to the new collection, but it is one that is dear to me. My translation of “Everything is in decline” («Все приходило в упадок») has a history that is entwined with my memories of Arkadii.
I first met Arkadii in the summer of 2000 in St Petersburg. There, Arkadii took me on as his volunteer assistant tutor in the class he was contributing to the St Petersburg Summer Literary Seminar. This gave me access to all the seminar’s wonderful events and brilliant talks, by the likes of Misha Iampolski, without having to pay a cent––no doubt to the mild annoyance of the organizer, Misha Iossel (who, luckily for me, had the grace to let it go as one of Arkadii’s eccentricities).
My tasks as a tutor included talking about literature, drinking beer, and wandering the streets of St Petersburg––stopping especially in haunts such as the café and arts center Borei. At the same time, I tried, with mixed success, to advance my own project of writing about Arkadii’s work, a project that has, years later, finally come to some kind of fruition with the publication of A Common Strangeness. (I was also that summer undertaking a very much more conventional––but equally eye-opening for me––schooling in the Russian language and literary classics with my own tutor, the inspirational teacher Volodia Shatsev.)
A further task that Arkadii charged me with that summer was translating one of his poems for a bilingual reading that he was to give as part of the seminar. This was the untitled poem that begins “Everything was in decline” and that for many years was his “calling card” piece on the Russian poetry website Vavilon (a kind of Russian equivalent of the Electronic Poetry Center). In taking on this task, I again felt like an imposter, especially since Genya Turovskaya, a wonderful poet and one of Arkadii’s brilliant translators, was present.
I dutifully did my best, but felt at the reading doubly inadequate. Not only was I reading in front of translators and poets like Turovskaya and Sasha Skidan (who were both, I was sure, thinking that Arkadii could do much better than this odd student from the end of the earth) but I also faced the uncomprehending looks of rows of American students, who, it increasingly dawned on me, were utterly confused either by Arkadii’s strange and wonderful lines or by my strange and outlandish New Zealand accent, or, most likely, by both.
On nearly my last day in St Petersburg, later in the summer and well after the seminar was over, I went for a final stroll with Arkadii and his wife, Zina. It was only then that they asked me how old I was. I told them I was 22, and they burst out laughing.
When Zhenia Ostashevsky wrote to me at the end of 2011 to say that he had worked out that the English translation of the poem “Everything was in decline” that he had in his possession was by me and that he wanted to include it in Endarkenment, I was delighted. But I was also worried about how my translation, completed thirteen years before, would stand up. This worry was confirmed but also overcome when Zhenia wrote to me with a list of queries and corrections, which then prompted me to engage with the translation again and, thanks to his help, improve it.
There were many challenging moments in revising the translation. One was to try again to convey the resonances of “bones” (and so death) and “dice” (and so chance) in translating the line “filosofskie pory kostei.” I went in the end for “the philosophical times of a die,” hoping that some readers would catch a similar, though less eloquent, pun.
The poem concludes with a gesture whose ironies of authorship and arcs of continuation are similarly doubled in translation:
you sign for me dragomoshchenko;
the boredom is excessive;
the thread endless, like dust.
Dreams a continuation on a magnetic arc,
like the wind roaring in a bottomless ring.
With Arkadii’s passing, the poem’s themes of time, memory, chance, and death resonate in new ways for me and become again a task for translation. As Arkadii wrote elsewhere, “when the translation seems finished, it means one thing: translate again and again.”