Five Poems from It’s No Good

The following poems are from It’s No Good: Poems/Essays/Actions, out now from n+1 and Ugly Duckling. If you’re in New York, join us at 7 PM tonight, Thursday, January 3, at McNally Jackson, for a reading from It’s No Good and one more new n+1 book, The Trouble Is the Banks: Letters to Wall Street.

the summer before last
I got lost in berlin
this was in
I found myself
in an absolutely empty square
and all around was forest
and the square was empty
I saw a guy
riding his bike
and ran over to him
and asked in english
how to get to the center of town;
he was really happy to see me
because he turned out to be a russian immigrant
he got off his bike
and started giving me directions
to the center
in russian
in great detail;
the whole time he was describing
how to get to the center
his really unpleasant little kid
who was sitting on a metal rack
attached to the back of the bike
was behaving terribly
he moaned squealed growled
and cried,
he pulled my sleeve
and threw back his head
and rolled his eyes
(in russia, I thought to myself they call kids like this
shilo v zhope, an awl in your ass);
the boy was obviously bored
because he couldn’t understand
what we were saying,
and kept keening out something in german
(the same phrase over and over)
later on I figured out
what he kept saying
I think
he kept saying,
warum spricht ihr nicht Deutsch?
that is,
“why don’t you speak german?”
I was very moved
by this scene
with the russian immigrant.
I thought: “poor immigrant
he has no one to speak russian with—
and his son’s a german!”
I think
this scene
struck me more than any other,
even more than the wild rabbits
I later saw in the center
of berlin
(even though I love
it struck me more
than the german girl, anna hennig,
who wrote about me in
the berliner spiegel
and even more than wonderful berlin itself,
that gigantic incessant construction site.

—Trans. Keith Gessen

all the film critics in Moscow
who attend press
are familiar with the group of people
they refer to as
these are strange-looking unkempt
fifty or sixty years old
who go to every new movie;
they somehow find out about
these free press screenings
sometimes they get press passes
from some marginal
and they’re snobs;
I was standing next to the Museum of Film
and they were standing near me and discussing the program of the Moscow
Film Festival
and at some point one
of them tried
to involve me
in their conversation
but I, thankfully,
quickly stepped off to the side;
that was when I saw them
for the first time:
all of them
have nicknames that the film critics
gave them behind their backs
one of them is Hippo;
recently, on the way to the Illusion movie theater,
a film critic told me, “Hippo
lost it the other day”;
They say Hippo
moonlights as a nude model at the Surikov Art Institute;
the day in question he was very worked up
at the theater
he jumped from his seat, ran
to the cashier, screaming
“Shame on you! Where are the heads?
What’s wrong with you!
This is a disgrace!”
(it was later explained to me
that he was referring to the projection being a little off
which made the top part of the shots get cut off)
then at some point in the middle of the movie
(as a film critic who had been sitting next to him
told me later)
he fell asleep and began to snore very loudly
(I understand why this happened
it happens to me
too, from time to time,
the more engaging a movie is, the
more I want to sleep—the reaction
of a weak, over-refined psyche
to the triumph of art),
and so he fell asleep and started snoring loudly.
There’s also one they call Masturbator;
there’s a man
they call Toad,
though I don’t know
anything about him;
there’s Hitler, of course,
who teaches at the Moscow State Institute of Culture
(the most interesting thing about these guys is
that they come from various levels of society
from the real, as they say, dregs
to the more or less socially adapted—the professors, for example—
but all of them look exactly the same and, most importantly, smell the same)

Masturbator always had with him
a beautiful but old alligator-skin briefcase
that he would pull pens from to write things down
during the films.
a cashier
said something disparaging to him
about his briefcase;
he tried to protest,
but she
shut him down,
and after that
he started
going downhill—
he lost weight,
stopped coming as often to movies and press screenings
and would even appear
without his beautiful briefcase;
a critic recently told me
that Masturbator had died.

this is all very interesting
I have a lot to say about all this
I really empathize
with these cinephiles
I think these are the ancient specters of art,
these are the doomed spirits walking among us,
for me, they represent everything
about art and its surroundings:
the fanaticism,
the snobbery,
the silly
obsession, the baseless
sense of some sort of philanthropy,
I believe
that these are
the fevered specters of art
that speak in declarations
art isn’t this, isn’t that
art isn’t this or that or that
art is a fistfight in the orchestra pit
art is God knows what at this point
art is not, in any case, Verlaine and Rimbaud
in a bar in Belgium
most likely, art is a wife who does not share or partake in
your interests, it’s your young son
an insensitive idiot, cretin
(I remember
when one of my friends was a teen
he wrote
on the wall of his room)
this, this is basically how I imagine it happens:
art is noise, howling, barking
weeping swearing in the foyer;
it’s perfectly possible that art is God knows what
I think that art is a fight in the orchestra pit
those schizocinephiles sometimes remind me
of the insane stamp collectors
I used to buy stamps from when I  was a kid
they are also something like
elderly soccer fanatics
overall, I consider them a wonderful, nostalgic, dying type,
the carriers of a disappearing character
the schizocinephiles—
who sense before everyone else
the falling of souls
and a drop in the temperature.

—Trans. Bela Shayevich

From the cycle “Pornocracy”

The French film Anatomy of Hell
was released in Russian as Pornocracy;
it’s not a bad film:
the protagonist is a gay porn star
“with a cock to his knees,”
37 centimeters long—
in his off hours
he starts seeing a woman
who pays him for sex,
and when it’s over he starts going crazy—
it was directed by a female director, a feminist;
I asked the Russian distributor:
“why’d you change the title?”
he said: “what do you mean why?”
I said:
“what, Pornocracy sells better
than Hell?”
he said: “a lot better.
are you surprised?”
I wasn’t surprised.

I thought, out of habit,
in this way sort of grumbling to myself,
knowing already that this grumbling
is the best medicine
for various financial problems
moral complexes
and other forms of spiritual discomfort.
but everything passes—
complexes, traumas, pain,
love, sadism—
all of it passes


I saw it every day on the way to school.
I know that’s not the best way
to start a poem,
but there’s nothing I can do about my memories,
I can’t take the rubber cock out of my mind and replace it
with, say, a New Year’s tree.
I saw big rubber cocks every day on the way to school—
you could do anything back then—
it was 1991—
and sometimes best friends
buddy-buddy, as the Americans say,
even gave them to each other
as presents
by coincidence,
and it wasn’t even a joke
it was natural
a downpayment on eternity
a symbol of one’s success and prowess
eternal prowess,
the authorities
couldn’t get a grip
on the situation,
they didn’t know what to do
about the rubber cocks,
the fairly large rubber cocks,
they hadn’t learned to concentrate them in one place,
these cocks were everywhere,
they weren’t even manufactured here,
they were imported from America,
which didn’t know their true value,
no one knew their value,
in fact no one knew the value of anything,
we all lived like poets—and a poetic fate smelling of resin
(the Russian resina means rubber, that is, synthetic resin,
but there is also in English rOsin, hard resin, kanifol in Russian, but in English like a rose
it’s a coincidence–rubber rose amber resin rosin)
so this smelly sticky mixture
connected us through the centuries
everything spoken seen and lived
and you can hear the buzz of every murdered nerve ending
every glass of wine from eight years ago
could end up making you vomit
for a very long time—
the imagination is active,
as if a play is on the stage,
and the wine is poured,
your mind is working,
your cigarettes are burning,
your mind is relaxing,
your eyes are narrowing,
the tension is rising
the authorities are rats
but how many more times
will we say about our homeland
our innocent and gentle
if sometimes cruel but in the end beloved homeland:


I wrote a haiku:
early in the morning
I buy a condom
from the kiosk. 

This really happened—
a Turkish worker was standing
next to me
while the cashier was digging for change.
he was looking at me.
they gave me a condom with a naked woman on it,
thinking, probably, that I was up early and needed to fuck
whereas actually I needed to get a urine sample
from my baby boy.
the doctor suggested
putting a condom on his penis,
securing it in place with a shoelace
tied around his waist,
then waiting.
while the cashier was looking for change
I told this story in my mind, silently, to the Turk,
without stuttering a single time,
and he listened patiently to me, even though he didn’t understand,
and when I got to the words “then waiting,”
he even laughed.

but really I should have said:
for the first six months
a child is terribly lonely,
in his entire life
he’ll never be as lonely.

there’s nothing to be done about this
and it’s hard to believe
but it’s not something you should try to find out for certain
even if such a thing were possible.

—Translated by Keith Gessen

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