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Europe

I’m riding the bus

with a group of athletes

from some provincial town

they’re going to a competition in Milan;

our bus has stopped at the border,

and waits to go through customs.

what country are we entering? one of them asks me;

Poland, I say.

so that’s what, the EU? he asks.

no, I say. Poland’s not in the EU yet.

what other countries are we going through?

Germany, I say, Austria

he nods

Portugal, I lie; he nods again;

I could have said Greece, Syria, Ireland—he’d have

nodded.

oh, mighty athlete,

our bus will travel through Iceland,

we’ll see sheep, deer,

muskoxen;

we’ll see camels;

we’ll see the early ice—

hills of not quite solid,

not yet formed

(they call it

‘uncrystallised’)

but very real, early ice;

we’ll see the Alps—they’ll be

to both sides of us—

there’ll be some nice places to cool off;

we’ll see the ruins of Thebes, and the remains

of mad Alexandria—

but we won’t look at any of this;

instead we’ll watch movies

on our disc players;

we’ve been watching movies the whole way from Moscow,

one was an American film in which it gradually became clear

that using the shampoo Head and Shoulders was the only way

to save yourself from the alien invaders

(at the end, it turns out the film has actually been

an epic shampoo commercial)[1],

and just now we watched an old Soviet film

about World War II,

the action takes place around here somewhere—

I am ground, over, over, come in, this is ground, over, the communications officer says,

she is a pretty young officer,

but no one answers, they’re dead (they’re gone),

they’ve been killed,

though not before communicating the movement of the Nazi troops,

and their impending attack

from the northwest,

I cried over this ‘I am ground, over, over, come in, this is ground,’

I’d had a lot to drink on the road from Moscow to Minsk,

but I would have cried even if I hadn’t had a single drop

between Moscow and Minsk;

I remembered the poet Lvovsky, who said he cried when he watched Amélie,

why did people love this Amélie

so much?

is it that they’re so hungry

for some ordinary magic?

it’s silly to explain that people liked it

just because they were hungry for magic

but there’s no time, and no chance,

to explain why they really liked it;

there’s a very popular, very stupid new word—positivity

(it’s an idiotic word—and very popular);

politicians like to use it, and television personalities,

you’ll hear dishwashers in restaurants using it, and policemen,

though often you’ll hear them using its opposite,

they’ll say, ‘Negativity—there’s a lot of negativity around,’

meaning that there’s not quite enough positivity,

and positivity is really what they need.

I also need positivity, because positivity, it seems to me,

is something like goodness,

but if I were to cry at Amélie, I’d cry because

goodness,

if it exists,

exists only in some forms

that are impossible for me to reach,

that are suspicious, skittish, awkward,

unreachable,

goodness exists if it exists

in some mangled new form,

in awful places,

in cold hellish places,

in wandering, dreaming, unstable

places

it exists, if it exists,

in diseased idiots,

plagued outcasts,

foolish ideas,

other people’s annoying children,

blind invisible people—

in the form of tiny children

with big ears,

lumps,

unreachable, impossible, but absolutely specific,

visible but ultra-refined

forms

(and maybe this is exactly what Lvovsky was crying about—

if this is what I was crying about,

I wouldn’t be crying about it

for the first time)

and so these forms

that have nothing to do with everyday life,

that have nothing to do with decorative forms,

that have nothing to do with one another,

or with the non-existent retro-music

that plays in the background while Amélie

performs her good deeds in Paris

(which also, incidentally, doesn’t exist—

even if people have seen it,

and not just individual people but couples,

and not just once but two or three or four

times)—

a drunken Nazi is captured by the army, and he keeps saying something, begging

them not to kill him, because, he says, he’s not a Nazi, at least

not a member of the SS, he’s a communist, a worker from Leipzig,

he says;

the snow has stopped falling;

a Nazi is a Nazi

if one of my men was wounded during a reconnaissance misssion

I don’t think I’d carry him back,

though I don’t know;

how much longer are we going to stand here?

I’m in Belarus;

from the ride through Belarus I am left with the following impressions:

snow was falling, it had started falling pretty suddenly,

and you got the sense that nature was surprised,

the fields and the forests hadn’t had time to stand there, beautifully, all through autumn,

and grow red and brown and lose their foliage,

and were surprised,

you could sense this surprise

in them;

October 7, 1941

(exactly sixty-one years ago),

there was a sudden snowfall here

the Germans hadn’t thought the snow would come so early,

they were caught off guard, and this in the end spelled their doom

I imagine them wandering around here, proud, brave, but a little bewildered,

looking at the snow and saying

Scheisse

(and I want to say to them, this isn’t scheisse, this isn’t shit,

it’s sneg, snow,

s-n-o-w,

white, beautiful),

though sometimes scheisse is more beautiful

than ‘snow’

(and this seems indeed

to have been one such time),

but that wasn’t here

and it wasn’t

now,

here and now it was different,

this wasn’t in Belarus,

this was something I learned in school,

though it wasn’t something I was supposed to have learned, I think,

right here and now a part of the young Belarussian intelligentsia

with the help of their bald fuhrer Lukashenko

is bringing Belarus back to approximately the 6th century

and inventing a language

that from here on out the entire nation

is supposed to speak,

the principal goal being to invent words that don’t exist

in Russian, or Polish, or Ukrainian

(instead of pants, nagavitsi, ‘leg-ons’),

and in theory I’d love to be part of such a process,

to create a language from scratch that, a few years hence,

my entire small nation will speak,

I think I’d really enjoy that[2];

immigration—everyone’s worried about immigration

the Arabs and the Turks (Arabs in Paris and Marseilles, Russians and Turks in Germany)

versus that old fart Le Pen,

a lot of people these days

find themselves voting for fascists or

quasi-fascists;

it’s said that in Germany this year

a quasi-fascist almost won the election;

for every white German that’s born

three or four Arabs or Turks are born,

and it seems that the gentle German burghers

find this very disturbing;

the wonderful middle class consumers of various countries and nations

some part of the active Catholics and Orthodox

and writers and poets, not unlike me,

find this disturbing;

because they want to be read in a hundred years,

and they think that someone might stamp on (or devour)

their wonderful, shining,

their creepy

rotten

their maddening, genius (!)

language,

their rotten

gentle

dying culture,

the cocksucker mafia that runs America

is gradually conquering the entire world,

the Arabs and Turks

the Chinese, the blacks,

the Arabs,

Turks, Chinese,

the Chinese who are taking the world block by block

(the process begins with just a few Chinese on your block,

and then in a few years all the signs on your block are in Chinese,

and then it’s a Chinese block)

the great migration of peoples

is simultaneously

the great mating

of peoples,

and a great pulling-down

that’s what it is

a gigantic rupture

a secret crash

a terrible temptation

tempting us somewhere

but we won’t give in,

although we’re not just not

giving in,

we are ourselves turning into

a great temptation,

like two parted legs

and what’s between them is the perineum—

we’ve become a kind of dirty fork in the road,

we have two hands, two legs,

two heads,

the twins are our sign,

we’re being forced to choose—

some strange result—

some kind of election,

some kind of awful majestic spectacle,

some kind of revolting temptation,

some kind of joke;

fascism: ten years ago fascism was something that students enjoyed playing at,

fascism is of course possessed of a powerful aesthetic charge,

and so at the universities there were all sorts of manifestations:

there was a joker named Kuryokhin[3]

a true jester, who happened also to be a talented

musician, a composer who often played his own music;

he played it very well and in the end he played himself out,

and died of cancer at the age of 42;

there were others before him and others after him;

let me try to formulate that again:

‘played himself,’ ‘played out,’ ‘joker’;

‘shining,’ ‘revelation,’ ‘romanticism,’

‘cancer’;

but this wasn’t a game,

this was a revelation,

everything else was a game,

everything else was a kind of cynical and tragic clowning,

just a series of larger and smaller jokes

(and for many of us

these kinds of revelations

as a result of these lesser or smaller jokes

are inevitable);

a friend of mine once dated

a German and one time

I asked her

how much of the archetypal

image of the German fascist

arouses a masochistic response in a

Slavic girl;

there was a retrospective of Leni Riefenstahl films

in Leningrad some time ago,

and there was some kind of scandal,

many residents were (understandably) against this retrospective;

I sometimes feel like a Leningrad

to which they’ve brought a Leni Riefenstahl retrospective;

at those moments I understand

why Leningrad

exhausted by drug addiction

major depression

poor health, war,

even its great pre-war poetry

and then cannibalism during the Blockade—

at these moments I understand why Leningrad would need

Leni Riefenstahl;

at all other moments

I do NOT understand

why someone would think

that was a good idea;

right now I know

why I need to remember all this

(and I can’t remember how much time has passed—

I think it’s been seven years,

but it could be two or three)

in any case,

this was all long ago and really

there’s no reason to remember it all,

seven years have passed

who’s to blame

who’s to blame that

Leni Riefenstahl remained alive

while thousands starved to death in Leningrad;

it’s not clear why we need to

think about this now;

tell us about something else,

tell us about the friendship of peoples

tell us about historical reconciliation

and/or cultural exchange,

tell us also

that everyone is alive, and everything’s

all right;

God protects all,

though we knew that already,

that’s our starting point, our assumption,

but you can still tell us about it,

you’ll tell us about it,

and we’ll tell those who

need to know;

we’ll tell everyone

who knows this already without us

(without you)

and we’ll especially tell it to

those for whom it will be

(as everything else is)

just unnecessary

noise, a trap, garbage,

crap,

some kind of sick truism,

which doesn’t require any proof

or any commitment

or any other

thought,

we’ll pass it on to the rabbit,

the lambs, the goats;

the monkeys, the moles,

we’ll tell it to the

crazy cuttlefish,

we’ll tell it to every asshole

we meet,

and we’ll tell it to

Adrian Frankovsky,

the translator of Sterne and Proust who died during the Blockade,

and he’ll approve of our choices,

he’ll approve of us,

he’ll say:

THIS ISN’T MORAL TERROR

THIS IS AESTHETIC TERROR

(although, why can’t we say it to him already?

why, if we’re certain that people will hear us

forty or fifty years from now,

can’t we be certain

that they’ll hear us

FIFTY YEARS AGO?)

I say ‘I’

but also ‘we,’ ‘ours,’

I don’t just speak for myself

but for those

who, like me, can’t stand tourism but who, like me,

though not very often,

do get to leave the country

(I can’t speak for those

who don’t know how and can’t leave,

I would never try to speak for those

who don’t have the chance to travel),

and so, we believe that

travel is exhausting and

inefficient,

we’re tired of looking around,

we’re sick of it

(and I’ll add from myself

that sometimes a trip to the bathroom

can teach you more than traveling through

every country in—

ah, it doesn’t matter),

moving, always moving,

we can’t sit here forever,

we can’t keep doing this,

we need to move, move,

movement—

this is impossible,

this paralysis,

we need to move,

I close my eyes and see movement, I see large camels, I see

my distant relatives,

I see how my relatives or specially trained nurses

take mortally ill patients through Europe

on wheelchairs;

these are tourists,

most or all of them are tourists,

I see that all tourists

are like these sick people,

I think of what one can do in such situations,

one should anticipate them

the real

the impossible

the never-happened

journey, and not look at real ruins

with lizards crawling on them

not drag one’s already

dying body (one’s weak, ill-formed, or alternately well-formed and slightly foreign body)

through these pleasant evening cities

where everything is frightening,

where everything is good

where everyone drinks,

where so much is drunk,

everything that’s not tied down is drunk,

then everything gets aired out,

and then everything ceases to exist—

people will cease to exist—

and a rupture will come

and some as yet nonexistent people

(like a person vomiting into a sink)

will lean over us, like over a dead crazy cuttlefish (again)

like over boiling cups,

like over crazed vegetables,

and then—

(like over crazed cucumbers)

and so—

just as we, right now, out of stupidity, strangeness, satisfied inertia

want not to be forgotten

(we’d like to leave

tails behind us), we want

to leave something

just as we (when we’re gone) will want them to leave US

us

alone, leave US

be, so that the unknown (also, in their way, in our way, nonexistent)

people

or not people

concentrations or shadows

some kind of oozing forms

leaving footprints leading toward a fog

wouldn’t lean so unceremoniously

over our sinks,

over our raw experimental graves

as over our thin wings

and our transparent light heads

trying to understand

how and what

and when (and what)

happened,

at what point and what exactly,

made us go crazy

and why (why?)

our mechanisms

worked so strongly, but sometimes wrongly,

worked, but sometimes in the wrong way,

why they worked, sometimes, more strongly than necessary but in the wrong direction,

or somehow wrongly in some other way,

and why people thought so,

and where it went from there,

and what cloud appeared just then,

over a group of unsuspecting monkeys

(and who was paying for this?)

why they wore

small crosses

on their chests

why they sometimes

burned each other’s

fingernails

and what they did

and why they entertained themselves as they could

and what, in general, they were thinking

(and why were they defeated)

and what this laughter was;

‘where are you going?’

asks the elderly customs agent.

‘Rome, I’m doing a reading’

‘you’re an actor?’

‘a poet’;

it’s late at night.

it’s grown dark

and strange

it’s

fairly cold, and late,

I’m eating a sandwich,

we’ll finally leave soon,

Brest, the Polish border,

and before me

are Polish waitresses

in roadside cafes

who rustle their teeth and tongues

as if nothing had ever happened

(that’s just the thing—they rustle them as if nothing had ever happened),

then Germany,

Italian girls,

sweet girls,

dark and light,

the most beautiful in the world,

who hug and kiss you at the slightest

provocation

(and forget about you in half an hour)

suggesting that you stay a few more days

in Rome,

Europe after the flood,

part brown and part blond and straw-like, like a field of wheat that’s been

hoed in straight, geometric lines,

international roadsigns—

and forests standing deep in water

in the south of Germany

 

 

[1] Evolution (2001), sci-fi comedy starring David Duchovny and Julianne

Moore.

 

[2] In the original publication at Vavilon.ru, this passage had the following footnote appended to it: ‘From the editors: Most readers probably don’t know the contemporary Belarussian situation very well, and we therefore believe it important to point out that the depiction of the situation in the poem does not accord with reality. Views on the linguistic and cultural side of the matter differ, and the ones expressed by Kirill Medvedev in this text are quite common, though a good argument could be made for the other side. However the political aspect of the case as presented by Medvedev is simply incorrect: those forces and tendencies in Belarussian society that have been trying to create a new national language are not only not supported by Lukashenko, they are his active opponents. Since we believed this fact changed matters significantly, we asked the author to correct the text; Kirill Medvedev, however, answered that this deviation from the truth solved certain artistic questions that he was addressing in this composition. We will probably be devoting a future article to this question, as well further delineating the author’s viewpoint and that of the editorial staff.’ http://www.vavilon.ru/diary/030301.html

 

[3] Sergei Kuryokhin (1954-1996). An avant-garde composer, actor, and rock and jazz pianist from Leningrad. He was also known for his public pranks, or ‘mystifications,’ most famously when in May 1991 he went on television to give a long pseudo-scientific demonstration of the fact that Vladimir Lenin was a mushroom. In 1994, not long before his death, he joined Limonov and Dugin’s National Bolshevik Party, which at the time was considered fascist by most political observers.


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

Born in Moscow, in 1975, has recently emerged as one of the most exciting, unpredictable voices on the Russian literary scene. Widely published and acclaimed as a poet, he is also is an activist for labour and a member of the Russian Socialist movement Vpered [Forward]. He contributes essays regularly to Chto Delat’, and other opposition magazines. His small press, The Free Marxist Publishing House [SMI], has recently released his translations of Pasolini, Eagleton, and Goddard, as well as numerous books at the intersection of literature, art and politics, including a collection of his own essays. It's No Good, a collection of his poems and essays, is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in June 2015. As always, it is published without the author's permission. 'Europe' was composed in October 2002, on the road to and from a poetry festival in Rome. It would be Medvedev’s last published poem before he left the literary world.

Keith Gessen was born in Moscow in 1975 and emigrated to the United States with his family in 1981. He is a founder of the literary magazine n+1 and the author of All the Sad Young Literary Men. From Russian he has translated Ludmilla Petrushevskaya and Svetlana Alexievich, and has written about Russian politics and culture for the New Yorker, the London Review of Books, and n+1.

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