Jamie Olson

Five Poems by Timur Kibirov translated by Jamie Olson 

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Jamie Olson
   Jamie Olson

When translating Timur Kibirov's poetry, timing is everything. And when I say 'timing', I have in mind the same sort of timing that makes or breaks a comedian. After all, Kibirov is funny. In his poem "Dog," for instance, he draws a spiritual analogy between canines and humans, and the former comes off looking pretty good: a dog feels "steadfast love for his master" and manages to "comprehend God's work" just about as well as we do. Yet no sooner does Kibirov set up the metaphysical framework of the poem than he brings us suddenly back down to the corporeal, describing a moment when his own "dear, departed Tom" ignored his commands and raced off towards "a bitch in heat." The male dog's lustiness, writes the poet, "reminded me … vividly of myself." So much for the spiritual.

But when I say 'timing', I also mean the rhythm of the poetic line. Translators of poetry often argue about the feasibility or advisability of recreating the form of the original poem in a new language; I come down firmly on the side of the formalists. A poem is not a poem without its metric skeleton. Robin Robertson argues that translators must be advocates for modern poetry, which he says is a cause best served "not through slavish mechanical transcriptions into English … but through English versions that are … viable as poems in their own right."1  To meet this admirable criterion, translators must keep the poem's music intact.

Music, as it happens, lies at the foundation of the poems by Kibirov that I have translated here. After all, they appeared in a book called Greek and Roman Catholic Songs and Nursery Rhymes, which came out in 2009, and many of them depend on forms more akin to worship songs than to traditional literary verse. The poems seem to invite the reader to take part in prayer-like incantation, and they beg to be read aloud. For example, the repeated 'O' sounds in "Ballad," with its regularly alternating anapests and iambs, involve the reader in a chant whose function is to resurrect the poet's "glorious King." As we read through the poem, at least on the first pass, we feel the sincerity of Kibirov's faith. Therefore, a translation of "Ballad" into English must recreate the same songlike sonic patterns if it is to achieve anything like its original effect. The English reader should be given every chance to take part in this song, this prayer.

At the same time, Kibirov undermines the invoking power of his forms even as he capitalizes on it. In "Ballad," the poet's hope and longing for God's return shifts to doubt and irony by the final lines, even though the form of each stanza remains unchanged. After the long, godless history described in the poem, and especially after the speaker's confession of heresy ("I betrayed my king"), the concluding exclamation — repeated for the third time — comes to feel more like a question: "He'll come back, He will! He promised He would. / And He'd never leave me here alone!" Or would he? By this point, the poet has completely and intentionally undermined the earnestness of his chosen form. In some poems, however, Kibirov reverses the usual contrast between form and tone. For example, he peppers "Text-Message Conversation" with smiley faces, and each of them arrives at precisely the proper moment to underscore the disjunction between the weighty theological content of the dialogue and its frivolous digital medium. (Notice, however, that Kibirov's smiley faces are not symbols, but words, as though to emphasize the linguistic makeup of the lyrical text and defamiliarize the emotion.)

It is not only in these recent "Catholic" poems that Kibirov at once extols and ironizes the sacred. Tonal ambivalence, not to mention intertextuality, has long been central to his poetics. Back when Marxism-Leninism was king, Kibirov wrote a series of poems called "When Lenin Was Young" that strike a tone of absurdly exaggerated scientific wonder not heard since Tristram Shandy:

I often think how unimaginable
it is — and yet it really happened!

                … it all depended
on one (and only one!) spermatazoon's
successful penetration of Maria
Alexandrovna's genitalia. How strange!2

Yet a semblance of sincerity remains, if only in the quoted excerpts of a memoir by Lenin's sister. But even in dismantling the cult of Lenin, the poem seems to acknowledge that the leader's birth marked a shift in history that led to undeniable achievements. In fact, the poem's irony depends upon its disingenuous representation of Soviet mythology: some might see great progress in "the lunar module," "the nuclear-powered ship," and the White Sea Canal, but Kibirov sees violence.

While the poems in "When Lenin Was Young" come down on the skeptical end of the spectrum, Kibirov's adaptation of A. E. Housman's A Shropshire Lad skews more toward faithfulness.3 The poems in that volume represent an earnest attempt to recreate Housman's work in Russian while still putting a Kibirovan spin on the material. But one cannot call them translations, exactly: Kibirov certainly does carry the poems from one language into another, but he also transforms the setting and era — Victorian England becomes post-Soviet Russia. For example, Housman's poem commemorating the anniversary of Victoria's coronation ("… 'tis fifty years to-night / That God has saved the Queen") turns into Kibirov's paean to Pushkin:

A stream of quotations flows through the ether,

Because two hundred years ago
Our everything was born!

("Эфир струит поток цитат, / … /Поскольку двести лет назад / Родилось наше всё!")

The language and historical context may have changed, but the tone of veneration stays the same, just as it does in the text of his "Catholic" poems. Still, one cannot miss Kibirov's idiosyncratic, ironic stamp: Pushkin's birthday messages do not burn towards heaven like Victoria's, but "buzz" through the "crap" (мутота) of the Russian media in broadcasts on NTV, ORT, and Radio Chanson. Kibirov is a believer with a sense of humor, one who never makes the mistake of taking his beliefs too seriously.


1 Poetry (Apr. 2007): p. 19.
2 "When Lenin Was Young," tr. Paul Graves and Carol Ueland, Third Wave: The New Russian Poetry, eds. Kent Johnson and Stephen M. Ashby (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1992), p. 225.
3 На полях 'A Shropshire Lad' (Москва: Время, 2007).

© Copyright  Jamie Olson
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