Fedor Svarovsky
by Peter Golub & Alex Cigale


Peter Golub and Alex Cigale on Fedor Svarovsky


Peter Golub: “Fyodor Svarovsky [is] a classic Russian author…. In the title poem [of his first book,] “Everyone Wants to Be a Robot” Svarovsky includes medicine, physics, childhood, immigrants, nationalists, love, cyborgs, and of course robots. Like Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, the book is a kind of chronicle pieced together from accounts of robots in the service of humanity, robots homesick and lovesick, robots hovering in the firmament like a swarm of angels, nostalgic immigrant robots, middle class robots who come home from work to fix an expedient meal of sulfuric acid and lithium, robots given to romantic irony or sublime revelation. These robots inhabit a range of possible worlds, some of which are disturbingly close to our own – disfigured by war and nature. No matter where the poems take us, however, the tone is candid, poignant, and comical….

[The poems are] studies of individual consciousness in the electronic world. Two popular intertexts for books and films about robots, from S.S. Wilson’s Short Circuit to Spielberg’s AI, are Pinocchio and Descarte’s edict cognito ergo sum. The crucial two intertexts for Svarovsky’s robots are Sisyphus and Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein…. However, Svarovsky writes not from a post-modern compulsion or an a priori formal principle. Strange as it may sound, he is working within the Russian tradition of psychological realism, which had its origins in Romantic writers such as Alexander Pushkin and Nikolai Gogol, and reached its apotheosis in Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky. For these writers, realism meant both the normal and normative world of social reality, and the strange and enigmatic inner world of the individual mind….

Svarovsky refers to his own work as “new epic,” which, according to Svarovsky and other likeminded poets, is a literature of the “aftermath,” a response to the nothing that arose from the ashes of the Soviet Phoenix. Because of the very late nature of Russian literature, the 19th century Russian Romantics began writing in a literary desert, and many 21st century young Russian writers find themselves in a similar place. In the newest Russian literature, there are few references to Soviet literature, positive or negative, and many writers have returned to the pre-revolutionary canon. Svarovsky has done this to the extent that his transgeneric fragmentary texts recall the open form and social concerns of Russia’s Romantics. We believe these poems are the product of an exciting and innovative period in Russian literature, and represent a harkening back to ideas prevalent in 19th century Russian Romanticism. These poems are hard to place anywhere in the contemporary literary field; however, despite of (or perhaps due to) their distinction, we believe they are worth reading, and it is our desire is to introduce them to English readers.”


Alex Cigale: I read Fedor Svarovsky’s work in the context of a larger ongoing and unconscious literary process that has parallels if not equivalences in the revival of narrative in contemporary American poetry, and particularly in what has been called the “New Sincerism”. The thematics of science fiction is but one of the more apt genre contents that have been invested with this seeking to regain humanity through reasserting the values of an earlier humanism. In addition to the seminal texts and contemporary cinematic touchstones Peter has pointed to above, an entire body of work exemplifies what I perceive to be a largely unconscious post-modernist attempt to reanimate spirit through the fallen world of that absolutely spiritually inert material that is the body of the machine (and which can be taken to stand in for all human bodies). Among these popular culture touchstones: in contemporary genre fiction, Issac Asimov’s I, Robot series, the robot Salo in Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan, also the earlier classics closer to Svarovsky’s own context, Karl Capek’s R.U.R. and the novels of the early Soviet science fiction writer Aleksandr Belyaev, such as Amphibian Man and The Head of Professor Doyle, and films almost too numerous to mention, such as the robots and androids of Star Wars, Blade Runner, Alien, Space Odyssey 2000, Terminator, Silent Running, etc.

The unabashedly emotional content of “New Sincerism” may be read to have emerged as a reaction against post-modernist irony and detachment, as a sort of reanimation of the human spirit, and the epic element of this harks back to the earlier reaction of the Romantics to modernity, but also to the oldest layers of literature, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, that also negotiated the very same boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead, human and animal, the realms of the physical and the spiritual, bringing into focus the ethnographic and linguistically original view of animality as spirit. The machine imbued with human spirit is but the logical endpoint of this alchemical struggle to transmute the base material, with the aide of the philosopher’s stone, into the fully alive, spirit-infused, Humanity. Furthermore, the epic nature of narrative connects with other related impulses behind all sagas, such as the Homeric texts, in which the eternal journey of what Joseph Campbell had called the “Hero with a Thousand Faces” stands in for the attempts of all humanity and every human being, in the words of Wordsworth, “to strive … and not to yield”.

While Svarovsky’s content may be eminently readable, in the “accessible” sense of the word, and therefore like all science fiction devalued in the context of the literary priorities determined by academic “seriousness,” in closing I would point to the very elements of craft that the modernist Ezra Pound pointed to as necessary to not simply legitimize but enliven both lyric and epic poetry in the age of changing standards vis-a-vis tradition: phanopoeia, melopoeia, and logopoeia. (Just so, for reasons discussed above, Svarosky’s project seems to me to fall squarely within Eliot’s program announced in his “Tradition and the Individual Talent”.) I strongly believe that Svarovsky’s verse possesses, and that we as practicing English language poets ourselves are able to communicate in our English versions, the traditional elements of prosody – image, music, idea – in light of which genre work such as Svarovsky’s may be read as a “serious poetry”.

[P.S. Our book project, When I Was Saving the World: the Selected Poems of Fedor Svarovsky, has been accepted for publication by a new translation press, Coeur Publishing, its first book to be released at the 2014 AWP conference in Seattle, Marc Vincenz’s “recovery” project Our goal is a Fall 2014 release at the Brooklyn Book Fair or, at the latest, at the 2015 AWP conference in Minneapolis the following February, to be coordinated with the press’s second book, Selected Poetry of Osip Mandelstam in Philip Nikolayev’s translation. It is of course our hope that the present publication will help to build an interest in and a readership for the forthcoming book.]

Read Fedor Svarovsky's poems translated by Peter Golub and Alex Cigale HERE.

Fedor Svarovsky was born in 1971 and emigrated to Denmark at the age of 19, where he received refugee status and lived for six years. In 1997, he returned to Moscow where he continues to work as a journalist. Author of three books, his poems have appeared in such leading journals as Novyii Mir and Vozdukh/Air. The following selection appeared first in Ural and TextOnly. English translations of Svarovsky’s poems by Peter Golub are in Jacket Magazine, Diagram, Two Lines (online,) Absinthe (blog, March 6, 2013) and by Stephanie Sandler in World Literature Today. In 2011, Svarovsky participated in PEN’s New Voices reading series at the National Arts Club in NYC, through CEC ArtsLink. Svarovsky’s Selected Poems in English: How I was Saving the World, in the translation of Alex Cigale and Peter Golub, with an introduction by Stephanie Sandler, is forthcoming in 2015 from Coeur Publishing.

Alex Cigale’s poems have appeared in Colorado, Green Mountains, North American, Tampa, and The Literary Reviews, and online in Asymptote, Drunken Boat, McSweeney’s. His translations from the Russian can be found in Ancora Imparo, Cimarron Review, Literary Imagination, Modern Poetry in Translation, PEN America, Brooklyn Rail InTranslation, The Manhattan, St. Ann’s, and Washington Square Reviews. He is one of the editors of Asymptote, The Madhatters’ Review, The St. Petersburg Review, Third Wednesday, and Verse Junkies. Until recently, he was Assistant Professor at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Alex’s other translations of Svarovsky’s poems are available in the Science Fiction Poetry Association’s online journal Eye of the Telescope and are forthcoming in their print journal, Star Line 37.2. The originals of the poems here were first published in Text Only 25.

Peter Golub is a Moscow-born poet and translator. He has published original work and translations in various journals, including ARC Poetry, Cimarron Review, Words Without Borders, and World Literature Today. In 2008 he edited an anthology of contemporary Russian poetry, which was published by Jacket Magazine. In 2007 a bilingual edition of his poems, My Imagined Funeral, was published by Argo-Risk Press in Moscow. He is currently a translation consultant for the St. Petersburg Review, and is the recipient of a PEN Translation Grant for a collection of flash fiction by Linor Goralik and a BILTC Fellowship for Anatomical Theater, the poems of Andrei Sen-Senkov (Zephyr Press).


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MadHat, Issue 15, Winter 2013-2014