6 poems from 2017 Poet Award winner Maxim Amelin

Poet Maxim Amelin.

Poet Maxim Amelin.

Anton Novoderezhkin/TASS
English translators of the poet present some of their works, explaining what is interesting and special about Maxim Amelin, who won the 2017 Poet Award.

An “archaist-innovator”: that’s how poet Tatyana Bek defined the Russian poet Maxim Amelin upon reading his first book of poems, Cold Odes (1996), a collection inspired by 18th-century neo-classical polymaths such as Lomonosov, Trediakovsky, and others who, in attempting to codify Russian prosody, laid the foundation of Russian poetry.

In its intricate formal rigor, Amelin’s work echoes his deep knowledge of classical Greek and Latin poetry. (He has translated Catullus, Pindar, and Homer.) Yet another influence is the Russian philosophical heritage, specifically, the teachings of the 19th-century thinker Nikolay Fyodorov, who believed that science could help mankind overcome death and resurrect the departed.

All of these influences are visible in the six poems offered below in English translation. You’ll encounter Amelin’s wit and irony, his bawdy humor, his pride in his craft, his anger at human cruelty, and his indignation at all that’s false, petty, or easy. We hope that our renderings have captured some of his delightful wordplay and his gorgeous, layered sonic palette.

Poet, translator, essayist, critic, and editor, Amelin was born in Kursk in 1970, making him part of the last generation of Russians to grow up in the USSR. His talent has long been recognized as unique among contemporary Russian poets. Small wonder, then, that Amelin has won numerous accolades for his poetry, from the Antibooker (1998) and the Moscow Reckoning (2004) to the Bunin Prize (2013), the Alexander Solzhenitsyn Prize (2013), and, most recently, the 2017 Poet Award.

Some comments from contemporary commentators help to illuminate Amelin’s place in today’s literary map of Russia:

“Whenever I read Maxim Amelin’s poetry, I am kind of proud of myself,” prominent Russian novelist Zakhar Prilepin says. “I think to myself, there, now, I’m accomplishing something, I’m not just messing around.”

“Contemporary poetry can easily be categorized into three, maybe four poetic manners. Maxim Amelin is a poet whose voice you recognize immediately, because his manner is the fifth, and he is the only one who has it,” notes Maya Kucherskaya, writer and professor of literature.

The academic Dmitry Bak believes that Amelin’s work stands out among the “unfettered avant-gardism of Russian poetry, [since] his voice rings out, urging us to throw modernity off the ship of eternity.”

'Cyclopean Language Consists of Consonants'

Cyclopean language consists of consonants:palatals, labials, sniveling sibilants,and glottals. It will never be confusedfor the sonorous lilts of the ancients.In those it’s meet to praise silvern streamsand lover’s hair woven with starlit evenings,or to sing sadness and mourning,the fierce battles of earth and heaven,cups with bitter drafts. But this tongue,just like a lone eye lodged in a forehead,is fit for spitting curses at the ages,blaring your fate to the cosmos like a trumpet. In all the lowland dialects it is unequalled,voiceless; in it people keep quiet.And you, my garrulous dol’nik, shut up too!The cyclops’s speech is stern and sacred. 1992 – 1994

Anne O. Fisher’s translation of Ksenia Buksha’s avant-garde novel The Freedom Factory is forthcoming with Phoneme Media in 2017. Fisher has also translated works by Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov, Andrey Platonov, Margarita Meklina, and Nilufar Sharipova. With co-translator Derek Mong, Fisher won an NEA Translation Grant to support work on contemporary Russian poet Maxim Amelin’s verse.

Derek Mong is the author of two poetry collections from Saturnalia Books, Other Romes (2011) and The Identity Thief (forthcoming, 2018), and a chapbook of Latin adaptions, The Scrivener’s Quill (Two Sylvias Press, 2017). The Byron K. Trippet Assistant Professor of English at Wabash College, he holds degrees from Stanford, the University of Michigan, and Denison University.