The poems below are the work of Alexander Tinyakov (1886-1934), a Russian poète maudit who ended his days as a professional beggar on the streets of Leningrad. They are, to my mind, every bit as vibrant and prickly as they were when they first appeared a century ago. Tinyakov was a difficult man: a combative alcoholic, resentful of his fellow poets’ success and perfectly willing to compromise his own principles (that is, if he had any to begin with) for a good meal. And yet, his verse remains compelling – not in spite of his flawed character, but precisely because of it; he is completely and electrifyingly honest about his baseness, his desperation, his animalistic drive to survive at any cost. For a number of reasons – many of them quite legitimate – Tinyakov’s fellow poets began to lose patience with their colleague in the 1910s, and most broke all ties with him in the 1920s. In the third poem below, “Joie de vivre,” Tinyakov predicts the death of Nikolay Gumilyov (1886-1921), one of the era’s major poets. Gumilyov would be arrested by the Soviet secret police (Cheka) on August 3, 1921, for alleged participation in a monarchist conspiracy, and executed on August 24. The poem appeared after Gumilyov’s death, and was interpreted as a celebration of his demise. This may have been the final straw. For the rest of his life, Tinyakov was a pariah.
How blessed to be a gob of spit
racing down a dirty gutter –
I can hug a stubbed-out cig,
find a piece of fluff to cuddle.
Say they spat me out in fury,
in a moment of despair –
skies are clear, I’ve got no worries,
breezes fill me with good cheer.
I may hunger for the freedom
of the river’s blue expanse,
but for now I’ve got the pleasure
of this dirty gutter dance.
Bitter cold – the puddles slumber
under frosted panes.
An old rook, all stiff and lumbering,
flaps a heavy wing.
He lingered here despite the chill –
it’s almost blizzard time.
Now he can’t escape the pull
of warmer southern climes.
He scrapes his beak with icy foot:
Must he really fly?
While fallen leaves circle about,
rustling their goodbye.
Joie de vivre
Lovely new coffins are headed my way,
full of the finest young men.
Pleasure to see them, simply a joy –
pretty as birches in spring!
You’ve kicked the bucket, you pitiful dogs.
Me? Well, I’m doing just fine!
They’ve sealed you tight under big heavy lids.
I can look up at the sky!
Say every coffin holds some kind of genius,
say that one there’s Gumilyov. . .
But I, who am hated and spat on by everyone,
am fit as a fiddle, you know!
Sure, soon enough I’ll be one of them – carrion,
nothing but worm-eaten filth.
For now, I’m still here and rejoice at the sight of them –
people that I have outlived.
July 28, 1921
A Prayer for Food
Fate, I beg you, I implore you,
give me food that’s good and sweet –
promise me a single morsel,
I’ll commit the vilest deed.
I would curl up like a ram’s horn
and go crawling on my knees.
I’d blaspheme the Lord in heaven
and defile even my tears.
I’d befoul the purest soul,
trim the wings of lofty thought.
I would burgle, I would steal –
lick my enemy’s bare feet.
I’d go down to hell, plod barefoot
through the Russian frost and mud –
for a piece of bread and horseflesh,
for a pound of rotten cod.
Put a yoke around my neck,
just as long as I can eat.
Life is sweet for well-fed lackeys –
honor’s bitter without meat.
—Alexander Tinyakov translated by Boris Dralyuk
Boris Dralyuk is an award-winning translator and the Executive Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. He holds a PhD in Slavic Languages and Literatures from UCLA, where he taught Russian literature for a number of years. He is a co-editor of the Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, and has translated Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry and Odessa Stories, both of which are published by Pushkin Press.