No. 1


OBERIU: Russian Absurdism, 1926-1941 

Translated from the Russian by Ilya Bernstein, 
 Eugene Ostashevsky and Matvei Yankelevich 

                             Aleksandr Vvedensky
                             Daniil Kharms
                             Nikolai Zabolotsky
                             Nikolai Oleinikov

Founded in 1926, OBERIU, an acronym standing for Union of Real Art, 
proved to be Leningrad’s last avant-garde group. After its forced
disbanding in 1931, its members took their literary activities
underground. Almost all of them died in the purges of the late 30s and
early 40s. Zabolotsky, who had become estranged from the group,
survived his arrest.

Aleksandr Vvedensky

THE GRAY NOTEBOOK (selections)

Above the dark good sea
the boundless air rushed here and there,
it flew like a blue falcon,
silently swallowing night’s poison.
And the air thought: everything passes,
rotted fruit hangs by a string.
Like a dream, the star arises,
the bee immortal sings.
Why shouldn’t man, like death or stone,
watch the sand without a word.
The flower longs with its petals
and thought descends upon the flower.
(And the air swept up the sea
as if the sea of metal be).
This hour the flower understands
the forest, sky and diamond.
The flower is a jerk, a leafy grove,
we watch it on our right,
as long as we are still alive
we’ll snip it with a knife.
(And the air swept up the sea
as if the sea of metal be).
The flower’s wiser than the man,
it asks to be given a name.
We named the flower andrei
he is our peer in matters of the mind.
The bugs and birds around the flower
moaned aloud like forest cups,
a river ran around him
sticking out its stinger,
and the ants and the butterflies
ring like bells above the flower,
pleasantly the swallows cry,
tenderly flying over the fields.
And the air swept up the sea
as if the sea of metal be.


I’d gladly drink another shot of water
to the health of this bird in the air,
who flies like a fanatic
circling over bushes of excitement like a lunatic,
her eyes’ magnetic shine
takes in rays of the highest level.
She hovers, this bird candle,
above a drop of water, over river, over mountain,
often adopting the look of a psalm,
possessing the image of a hollow thing,
she does not snag the hill’s wing,
an earthly man pines for her.
She is a goddess divine.
She is God’s paper, sweet and kind,
to her life’s crowded desert
is not all so pleasant.
You, little bird, are suicide,
or you are renunciation.


I would very much like to touch a heavenly body
that has perspired overnight like a maiden,
and I’d like so very much to see all
of night’s figure as it is inexplicable,
this night, a dying-out-er,
this croaking daughter,
like heavenly sand it is palpable,
now wilting away into Tuesday,
I’d lift a particle of this night like a petal,
but I feel just the same.


Kukharsky, have you been breathing ether?


I touch a stone. But the hardness of the stone
does not convince me anymore.
Let the sun shine in like a palm tree in the sky
but that light doesn’t do anything for me.
Every single thing has color,
every single thing has length,
every single thing has length,
has width, and comet’s depth,
every single thing now fades
and everything remains the same.


Why are we sitting here like little children,
wouldn’t it be better to sit down and sing something,
a song, for instance.


Let’s sing the surface of a song.

          The Song of the Notebook

          Sea, oh sea, you’re the homeland of waves,
          the waves are sea-children.
          The sea is their mother
          and their sister’s the notebook
          it’s been that way now for many a century.
          And they lived very well.
          And prayed often.
          The sea to God
          and the children to God.
          And after they resettled in the sky.
          From where they sprayed rain,
          and on that rainy spot a house grew.
          The house lived well.
          It taught the doors and windows to play
          shore, immortality, dream and notebook.
          Once upon a time.


Once upon a time I walked poisoned down a road,
and time walked in step by my side.
Baby birds sang variously in the bushes,
and the grass lay low in many places.
Like a battlefield in the distance rose the mighty sea.
It goes without saying that it was hard to breathe.
I thought about why only verbs are
subjugated to the hour, minute, and year,
while house, forest and sky, like Mongols of some kind,
have suddenly been released from time.
I thought about it and I understood. We all know it,
that action becomes an insomniac China,
that actions are dead, they stretch out like dead men,
and now we decorate them with garlands.
Their mobility is a lie, their density a swindle,
and a dead fog devours them.
Things are like children that sleep in their cradles.
Like stars that move in the sky just a little.
Like drowsy flowers that soundlessly grow.
Things are like music, they stand still.
I stopped. Here I thought,
my mind could not grasp the onslaught of new tribulations.
And I saw a house, like winter, diving.
And I saw a swallow signifying a garden
where the shadows of trees like branches make sound,
where the branches of trees are like shadows of the mind.
I heard music’s monotonous gait,
I tried to catch the boat of words.
I tested the word in cold and in fire,
but the hours drew in tighter and tighter.
And the poison reigning inside me
wielded power like an empty dream.
Once upon a time.

Before every word I put the question: what does it mean, and
over every word I place the mark of its tense. Where is my dear
soul Masha, and where are her banal hands, and her eyes and
other parts? Where does she wander murdered or alive? I
haven’t the strength. Who? I. What? haven’t the strength. I’m
alone as a candle. I’m seven minutes past five alone 8 minutes
past five, as nine minutes past five a candle 10 minutes past five.
A moment as if never. And four o’clock also. The window, also.
But everything is the same.

It gets dark, it gets light, not a dream to be had,
where’s the sea, where’s the word, where’s shadow, where’s the
                                                                                    writing pad,
one hundred and fifty-five is nearly at hand.


Before you stands a road. And behind you lies the same path.
You stood, you stopped for a quick flash, and you, and we all,
saw the road before you. But just then we all went and turned
onto our backs, I mean backward, and we saw you, road, and
we surveyed you, path, and we all, all as one, declared it was
right. This was a feeling—this was a blue organ of the senses.
Now let’s take a minute ago, or estimate a minute ahead.
Whether you spin around or look over your shoulder, we can’t
see these minutes. One of them, the one that has passed, we
remember. The other, a point in the future, we imagine. A tree
lying flat, a tree hanging, a tree flying. I cannot pinpoint it. We
cannot cross it out, nor can we touch it. I do not put my trust in
memory, nor in imagination. Time is the only thing that does
not exist without us. It devours everything that exists outside
us. Here falls the night of the mind. Time ascends above us like
a star. Let’s throw back our thought-made heads, that is, our
minds. Look, it becomes visible. It ascends above us like a zero.
It turns everything into null. (Our last hope is Christ has Risen.)
Christ has Risen is our last hope.


Translated by Matvei Yankelevich

Daniil Kharms



The white ewe walked
the white ewe wandered
cried out in the fields above the river
called for its lambs and minor birds
waved its white hand
lay prostrate before me
invited me into the grass
and in the grass waving its hand
the white ewe walked
the white ewe wandered.


Do you know the white ewe
do you believe the white ewe
stands in its crowns by the stove
the same identical as you
As if I were friends with you
as if it were bright crowns I held
you are above us and then I
and then a house on three pillars
and higher yet the white ewe
walks the white ewe.


The white ewe walks
and after her the capricorn
with a big face among the saints
with a purse hirsute like the earth
stands in the pasture like a house
the earth below, thunder above
we to the side, earth all around
and God above among the saints
and higher yet the white ewe
walks the white ewe.

22 May 1929

Translated by Eugene Ostashevsky


Ripping the stream of memory,
You look around and your face is pride-stricken.
Your name is — Kazimir.
The sun of your salvation wanes and you look at it.
Beauty has supposedly torn apart your earth’s mountains,
No area can frame your figure.
Give me those eyes of yours! I’ll throw open a window in my head!
Man, why have you stricken your face with pride?
Your life is only a fly and your desire is succulent food.
No glow comes from the sun of your salvation.
Thunder will lay low the helmet of your head.
Pe — is the inkpot of your words.
Trr — is your desire.
Agalthon — is your skinny memory.
Hey, Kazimir! Where’s your desk?
Looks as if it’s not here, and your desire is — Trr.
Hey, Kazimir! Where’s your friend?
She is also gone, and your memory’s inkpot is — Pe.
Eight years have crackled away in those ears of yours.
Fifty minutes have beat away in that heart of yours.
Ten times has the river flowed before you.
The inkpot of your desire Trr and Pe has ended.
“Imagine that!” you say, and your memory is — Agalthon.
There you stand, pushing apart smoke with your hands
The pride-stricken expression on that face of yours wanes,
And your memory and your desire Trr disappear.

May 17, 1935

Translated by Ilya Bernstein

Nikolai Zabolotsky


Death comes to the man,
Says, “Hey boss,
You look like an invalid
Bitten by insects.
Leave your living, come with me,
My coffin is peaceful.
I shroud in white linen
Everyone, young and old.
Don’t grieve you’re headed for the pit,
And that’s the end of your learning.
The field will plow itself,
The rye will ripen unreaped.
The sun will be hot at noon,
Cooler towards evening.
Whereas you will sleep
The sleep of the experienced,
Beneath a square bronze cross
In a clean coffin.”
“Hands off, Death,”
Replies the peasant.
“Have mercy on me,
Respect my old age.
Grant me a small reprieve,
Let me go. Should you do me that favor,
I’ll give you my only daughter
In reward for your labor.”
Death does not weep does not laugh,
She takes the maiden in her arms
And hurries like a tongue of flame
Over the bending grass
Along the garden path.
In the field there’s a mound,
In the mound the maiden moans:
“It’s hard lying in the coffin,
Both of my arms have turned black,
My hair became as dust,
Feather grass sprouts from my breasts.
It’s hard lying in the grave,
My thin lips have rotted,
My eye sockets are empty,
I have no boyfriend.”
Death flies over the mound,
Laughs hysterically and weeps,
Shoots at it from a rifle,
And says, stooping down:
“OK, baby, enough chatter,
The grave’s no place for yadda-yadda!
A world exists above the world,
Get out of the coffin!
Hark, the wind blows in the field,
Night descends again.
Caravans of sleepy stars
Swiftly wheeled over us.
Your underground fast is done,
Give it a go and rise!”
The maiden moves her arm,
First slowly, as if in a dream,
Then knocks the board out, jumps out,
And—splat!—bursts along the seams.
And the poor girl streams, streams
In cascades of small intestines.
Where her camisole once was,
Now there’s only powder.
Worms peek out shyly
From all the orifices of the body
As, resembling naked infants,
They suck down the pinkish liquid.
She used to be a maiden, now she’s slop.
Laughter, don’t laugh, stop!
The loam will crack when the sun will rise,
Right away will the maiden rise.
From her shinbone
A tree will grow,
The tree will rustle,
Sing songs about the maiden,
Sing songs about the maiden,
Ring out with its sweet voice:
“Lulla, lulla, lullaby,
Lullaby my baby girl!
The wind blew into the dale,
The crescent in the sky went pale,
Peasants sleep in their huts,
Each has many many cats.
And every pretty kitty-cat
Has a red gate,
They wear blue fur coats,
They walk in gold boots,
They walk in gold boots,
Very, very expensive boots…”


Translated by Eugene Ostashevsky

Nikolai Oleinikov


Miss, I saw you yesterday
First in clothing, then without.
The sensation was, no doubt,
Greater than I can convey.
Above the cardiovascular system
Branching out like a bush,
Swifter than a flock of sparrows
My emotions made a whoosh.
No, I swear, this is not
Hatred, poisonous to blood.
It is love, unhappy love,
I’ll take it with me to my grave.
I also harbor other feelings,
That psychologists call “desire.”
Lisa! You’re my favorite artist!
Let me cleave to you and expire!

Translated by Eugene Ostashevsky


The sight of a notebook is pleasant,
There a powerful zero is present,
And another, but smaller and crippled,
Like a lemon lies nearby, rippled.
My dear, my dear zeros,
I loved you and I loved you still.
Be quick, melancholics! Hurry, depressives!
Rub a zero and all will be well.
These circles and wonderfully curative,
Each one worth a doctor or nurse:
With them, the patient thinks positive,
Without them, he cries for a hearse—or worse!
When I go, do not crown my tombstone
With an expensive, impractical wreath.
Rather lay with your trembling fingers
A zero upon the heath.


Translated by Eugene Ostashevsky



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