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Heracles, Tycho, Leo and Thomas
Sat majestically in the house.
Above them an ancestral lamp
Shone, shedding light upon the table.
This lamp was luxurious and ancient.
It had the form of a cast-iron woman.
The woman hung down from chains,
Oil was poured in the small of her back
To keep the wick aflame,
To ward off darkness.


Around them the decorous
Room shone, prepared for the feast.
By the walls—a well-provisioned chest,
There—the image of an idol
From expensive alabaster.
In the pot flowered a large aster.
And chairs on legs without rottenness
Stood around the walls monotonous.


This room was populated with
Four feasting guests.
Sometimes they leapt up,
Grabbed the shanks of their glasses,
And piercingly cried, Vivat!
A lamp shone at two hundred watts.
Heracles was a forest soldier,
He had a grouse of a rifle,
On that grouse there was a large trigger.
Applying pressure on it with your finger,
You would slay animals in quantity.


Heracles spoke like himself,
Depicting a forceful figure:
“I adore women since childhood.
They represent a sumptuous keyboard
From which you can extract eloquent chords.”
The muzzles of animals slain in combat
Stared down from the walls.
The clock ticked on.

Unable to contain his active mind,
The pensive Thomas uttered:
“Yes, great is the significance of women,
I do not doubt it
And yet the thought of time is greater. Yes!
Let us sing the ditty about time which we always sing.”
Ditty about Time

Silent, the stream from goblet A
Flows into goblet B.
A maid makes lace.
Stars dance on the chimney.

Andromeda and Equuleus
Swung to face the north,
Packs of astral flames
Rose above the earth.

Year by year, day by day,
We burn up with astral flame,
Children of constellations, cry,
Extend our arms to Andromeda

And leave forever having seen
How soundlessly
The stream from goblet A
Flows into goblet B.


And then the glasses rang again
And everybody cried, Vivat! unanimously
And in response to their din
The clock produced five shouts glamorously.
As if it were a small cathedral
That firmly hangs down from a nail,
From long ago the clock cried out
Directing stars in their sail.
O bottomless chest of time,
O handiwork of hell, O clock!
And, perfectly understanding all this,
Said Thomas, aiding thought in its birth:
“I do propose we extirpate the clock!”
Then he gave his mustaches a twirl
And looked at everyone in pensive calmness.
The woman shone with her cast-iron pelvis.


Had they looked out of the window
They would have witnessed the great spot
Of the evening luminary.
There vegetables grew like flutes,
Flowers swayed higher than shoulders,
And through each grass-blade, like through the stomach lining,
The light could flow.
A city of meaty plants traversed
The stream of water.
And the long naked leaves
Applauded with their bodies,
And the lower sinews bathed
In the chemical water.


After he stared through the window with disgust,
Said Thomas: “Nor cranberry, nor loganberry,
Nor beetle, mill or birdie,
Nor the large buttock of woman
Rejoice me. By your leave:
The clock ticks on, and I will leave.”


Then the silent Leo rises,
Savagely picks up the rifle,
Inserts two bullets in the barrel,
Pours the fatal powder
And at the center of the clockface
Shoots with all his power.
They stand there like gods in smoke
And whisper terribly, Vivat!
As the legs of the iron woman
Burn over them at two hundred watts.
And all the vegetables press
Against the glue-like glass
And stare astounded upon
The grave of human reason.


—Nikolai Zabolotsky

(translated from the Russian by Eugene Ostashevsky)

Nikolai Zabolotsky was a member of Leningrad’s last avant-garde group, OBERIU, from 1926 to 1931. He spent 1938–1944 in labor camps and died an adherent of classical poetics in 1958.

Originally published in the Summer 2003 issue of Boston Review

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