Alexander Timofeevsky Guest House, Chania, Crete

Where mountains upon mountains
Snake and queue,
Twisting by turns –
Then suddenly, an unexpected caller,
The sea enters our view.

Thus begins one of three poems written by Russian poet Alexander Timofeevsky during a two-week sojourn on Crete, in Greece. The complete poem, in my approximate translation, follows at the end. This post will be one of the most personal I have ever made in this space, and it could be no other way. My wife Oksana was a close friend of Alexander’s, thanks to which I shared many a wonderful minute and hour with the poet myself. In October of 2017, we offered a house we owned in Old Town Chania to Alexander, his wife Natalya Dyakova, and a few of their family members. I bring this and other disclosures out of the sphere of the personal into the shared world of history, for Alexander died a month ago. Virtually every Russian knows Alexander because, writing for the popular Russian “Cheburashka” cartoon of 1971, he penned the humorous “Song of Gena the Crocodile.” It is now the go-to happy birthday song for Russians. But, like many great Russian writers before him, Alexander wrote scripts and songs for animated films in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s primarily because his serious poetry could not be published. Alexander was, at best, ambivalent about his fame as the author of the “Song of Gena the Crocodile.” Fortunately, after Perestroika began in the mid-1980s, new opportunities began to arise for the poet. By the early 1990s he had entered a period of full renaissance. His work was published in periodicals and numerous books, he frequently performed his works at readings all over Moscow and other Russian cities, he was a guest on radio and TV shows about literature, poetry and culture. He was a master of many genres – ranging from epic poetry to culinary shorts; improvisational quatrains to philosophical poetry; lyrical to social commentary.
Alexander was born November 13, 1933; he died January 7, 2022. He was 88 years old.
The poem I offer here was surely written during and/or after a trip around Crete. It describes many surprises that the island offers any visitor, but its imagery is of a kind that few of us have ever considered.
On October 19, 2017, I received (in part) the following letter from Alexander’s wife Natalya:
We are in paradise! Yesterday we were not able to see everything from the road, this morning we are stunned with happiness. What an incredible feeling after Moscow to be in a medieval Venetian city… I continue writing in the evening, we spent the whole day at the sea. It seems October is the best time of year: the sun no longer bakes you, but the water is still warm. Tomorrow we will get up early and go to some beautiful beach again. They are predicting sun and warmth until Sunday…

A second email arrived from Natalya on October 23, surely confirming my belief that the poem is Alexander’s impression of a road trip across the island:
We are enjoying… Crete. The market [on Minos Street] is luxurious; the vegetables, fruits, olives, cheeses are unforgettable. Yesterday we went to Elafonisi – the best place on earth. The road through the mountains stunned us…
Surely, that stunning trip is what Alexander describes in this poem.
The house where Alexander and Natalya lived while in Chania in is located at Ikarou St. 26, at the far eastern end of Old Town, right near Minos Street and what is called the gate at the Sabbionara bastion. The house is a two-piece structure squeezed into a relatively awkward niche between houses on all sides, with its own private courtyard, so it is difficult to photograph. A year later, another Russian poet, Viktor Korkiya, spent a month in this house with his wife Lyudmila Nekrasova, a filmmaker. But I’ll have to find a way to tell that story separately.
Here is the full translation of Alexander Timofeevsky’s untitled poem, the longest of three he wrote about Crete.

Where mountains upon mountains
Snake and queue,
Twisting by turns –
Then suddenly, an unexpected caller,
The sea enters our view.

No such shades of blue
Exist in any artist’s palette.
It is endless.
In a gentle arc
It merges with the horizon…
But what is this?
Tiny notches rise on the skyline,
As if the devil has chewed its perimeter.

A healthy chunk has fallen
From the dome of the sky.
Emptiness, and in the hole
A second sky is unseen.
Half a mountain is gone,
It apparently has a womb.
It’s so strange to see.
Yellow-colored houses
Shaped like a half-letter T
Stand astride the road
As if a mower
Had mowed them.

Twist by turn,
Maybe up maybe down.
A plane tree with two trunks fused
And bent ever-so-slightly
Like an elephant’s legs
But where is its head and belly?

All has its end,
A five hundred year old lighthouse
Is split into two.
The hands are cut off the goddess of love
And Beethoven’s march breaks off undone,
As if the Germans in 1939
Had entered Poland
And, with mouths agape, had gone numb.
And the highway, racing into the void,
Arrives there just as we do.

But a second sun rises
And dawn spreads through all the world’s corners,
Thus do beginnings occur…


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