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I am pleased to be able to say this right off the bat: Alexander Timofeevsky is one of my small household’s best friends. That happened thanks to another great friend of ours, the poet and playwright Viktor Korkia. My wife Oksana Mysina staged a couple of Vitya’s plays (Quixote and Sancho, and Ariston), and Vitya invited his friend Alexander to one of them. Sasha, as we have known him ever since, hung around for an after-party – it was Oksana’s birthday – and he almost immediately began doing one of the things he is famous for: spouting off impromptu poems.
Sasha is something like the Improviser in Pushkin’s “The Egyptian Nights,” he unloads pithy, funny, and/or meaningful short poems on the spot. He may declare he is ready to improvise something, or someone may egg him on – “Come on, Sasha! Give us a poem!” – and he will respond. People know this about him, so there is always at least one person hanging around with pencil and paper at the ready. There are hundreds of Timofeevsky poems out there that continue to exist beyond the moment of their generation thanks entirely to prepared fans. Sasha himself, though he’s happy to date and autograph scraps of paper in order to authenticate them, makes no effort to preserve these impromptu pearls. We have six such scraps of paper lodged in between the pages of Timofeevsky’s books. One of them Oksana jotted down immediately after Timofeevsky unloaded a quatrain on her over the telephone:
On a Whitsunday week
We once shared a popover
Since then you’ve gone batty:
You now love another!
These things are fine around here. Here’s another Sasha wrote on Dec. 4, 2011:
Oksana, dear Oksana,
I’m Cyrano, you’re Roxanna!
Cupid’s arrow took me down,
I don’t even see that you’re with John!
Timofeevsky’s reputation as a wit runs long and deep. For many years when he was unable to publish his serious poetry he made a living writing humorous poems and songs for popular Soviet cartoons. His biggest “claim to fame” (and please note that that is in quotation marks) is a song that virtually every single Russian knows. Literally, every single Russian. Because this is a ditty that has turned into Russia’s birthday song. We in the U.S. sing “Happy Birthday” (Russians do too on occasion), but the song everybody knows in Russian starts with the words,
So what if pedestrians run plopping through puddles?
And water swarms over the road like a sea?
And nobody knows why, in this wacky weather,
I am as happy as I can possibly be?
But, okay, we’ve had our fun. And, as you might imagine, the whole fame thing associated with the birthday song is rather like a fish bone gone sideways in Timofeevsky’s throat. The fact of the matter is that this man, born in Moscow in 1933, is one of the finest poets of his age. It just took a very long time for others to make that distinction. What happened is that some of Timofeevsky’s poetry appeared in the infamous samizdat miscellany Sintaksis in 1959/60. From there on, Timofeevsky was one of those awful Soviet beasts – the unpublished and unpublishable poet. For the next 30+ years, he wrote “for the desk drawer,” as the Soviet-era saying goes. He would write a poem and file it in his desk, perhaps showing it to a few friends, but rarely more than that. It was not until 1992 that Timofeevsky, then 59 years old, published his first slim collection called To Wintering Birds. His first relatively large collection, Song for the Mournful of Soul, was published in 1998, while his second, bearing the honest and wry title of The Too-Late Shooter, came out in 2003, timed to coincide with his 70th birthday.
These and many other collections that have appeared since are modest in volume, and rich in quality. Arguably, Timofeevsky’s most prodigious achievement to date is his long narrative poem, Tramcar No. 37. It is a sweeping, subtle, fragmentary, yet fully coherent, look at the Russia we live in today as it emerged from the Russia of yesterday. The tramcar number is a clear reference to the fateful year in Soviet history of 1937, one of the bloodiest in all of Russia’s many such years. I quoted a tiny excerpt from the poem in another blog last year, but I see no reason not to repeat that here. These two poetic phrases are, for me, the perfect picture of the Russia I now live in:
Russia was pilfered by aliens.
In five minutes they beamed her up,
Squashed her down, and stuck her in a trunk.
Meanwhile, as you and I were busy dreaming,
Somebody replaced her with a counterfeit.
Just for fun, I pulled out, almost at random, a poem published in the collection Answer of a Roman Friend (2011). It is called “Es War einmal ein Konig” and it is dated as having been written between the years of 1990 and 2010.
Once upon a time there lived a king.
A royal jester,
A minister and a guard
All once lived here too.
They did so pointlessly and senselessly
Just one time only.
I, too, lived here, though not for long,
Faster than an eye can blink.
Es war einmal ein Konig
Es war einmal and I…
German captures well
The instantaneousness of being –
Not much, not half of it,
Just one brief flash in time.
You’d like it to last longer?
You must be crazy, then!
Today while thinking about Sasha we have offered up a few photos of the home in which he lives near the Arbat. The address is 3/5 Bolshoi Lyovshinsky Lane. If you’re interested in reading a little more about him, you can go to a blog I wrote for The Moscow Times about one of his poetry recitals in 2014.