Featured Poem

The Woodcock

First published in Issue 16 of Long Poem Magazine as a collaboration with Modern Poetry in Translation.

Orest Aleksandrovich Tikhomirov came from German stock,
when he became a Russian I don’t know, but it saved
him and his family; as for our other neighbours, the Springfeldts,
the men were shot, the children and women deported to Karaganda,
they were Krauts after all and possibly accomplices of
Hitler, i.e. one of their own, while our Russian Ivan
loves order and discipline just like them,
but with a Slavonic accent. Anyway, Orest
Aleksandrovich was a special sort of pedant,
the German long since winnowed from his line,
except the stubborn streak, the wiriness, the targets...
targets entirely of this earth, but just you try
defining them, they’d fly apart
like the clay plates he got even me
to like shooting at, when I was growing up.
In short, Orest Aleksandrovich was as Russky
as they come, being an ex-German, and a hunter to boot,
which, let me tell you, is nothing to sniff at,
not like perforating papers and clipping them in files—
it’s an art, tracing a target across the sky
and pressing the trigger neither too soon nor too late
but exactly when you need to.

                          On the Tikhomirov table
by the samovar would always be sitting something
greyish and fluffy, same size as the samovar,
now and then emitting entirely benevolent sounds,
or slitting its eyes and tuning out, that was when
they let their favourite pointer sit on a chair,
not on the table though, down boy! that would have been too much.
The decanter of course, always two-thirds empty,
like Soma or somebody, rainbow belly glistening,
though to get talking—and the man of the house was not just a hunter,
but head of the local society and with more than one diploma—
there was no need for it, since Orest Aleksandrovich
could get going without a nip, purely on the smell.
Paradise apples ripened in their garden, the goldblush and the cherry,
at the back were golden dill and undulating tobacco plants,
a slanting ivy-clad summerhouse—here everything, you would think,
was going its own sweet way, just as it should.

Orest Aleksandrovich did not plough and neither did he sow, so to speak,
and where he might have served or worked I don’t know, as what he was listed
I can’t imagine, but somewhere he was, that’s for sure,
but any kind of job, labour as obligation, he held in contempt,
even though he was astonishingly handy, and whatever he did
he did skilfully and fast, but he still never liked it,
because like a born performer—not for nothing when his famous
brother-in-law used to come for the summer with his entire family
to relax in the bosom of nature, he was the sweet-voiced singer in that duet
from the Red Army Choir—with him he was sort of off-handedly respectful,
as if he were the top performer and the other just in the chorus.
The fact that the tenor always brought along his cook
changed nothing—after all, someone had to pluck the game.
And a man’s business was shotguns and tackle, and on these matters
he knew no equal.

                           Orest Aleksandrovich hadn’t read Fedorov,
Nikolai Fedorovich that is, but anyway without the aid of philosophy,
barefoot you might say, I mean in philosophy, he knew in advance
that one way or another the pinnacle of creation will exterminate
everything that flies or hops, and will realise himself
on the strength of the theory of evolution and social progress
and simply through doing things, Darwin and Marx
would agree on that, I think, and the problem of survival
comes down in essence to just one thing: who keeps the score
and issues licences to cull, and thus in the office
where he did work after all, as I understand it now,
in return for his pittance, there hung not the holy visages of the two falcons
but a sketch of a duck on the wing and a map of hunting zones.

Phrr! then cra-a-a-ck!—the hunters have reached the marsh.
Get out the shotgun, give it a pull-through,
break the double barrels, take a really close look
as if through binoculars to check the lustrous steel, back into its sleeve,
pack tight the ammo pouch, the boots with spreading tops
pull up to the buttocks, into the knapsack go
salt and matches, a candle stub, alcohol in a vial
for rubbing down and warming-up, on goes the all-weather
cape, and away: the goat securely tethered,
off to Kirzhach, where the game’s less timid than elsewhere,
but maybe to Murom, though, don’t forget whistle and compass
and in case of accidents the first-aid kit with its bandage,
and good hunting! Get there in good time! Your genuine woodcock
is no fool, and the season doesn’t fit into the season.

Dusk or dawn alike, the door slams, the pistons snort,
the headlights flash on, and the jeep rattles off into the dark,
windows of light slowly rummage round the walls of my room,
where I’m asleep, and then go dark...

                                     It’s strange, I never did
like hunting, but anglers and hunters
I adored, those know-how no-nonsense revellers,
big talkers, braggarts even, and magnanimous tyrants
on the domestic front. Once I went out with a gun,
a winter day, on skis, lay in wait for a fox by the hayrick,
but the vixen is cunning, and I, daredevil marksman,
lost my patience and fired at a bird in the birch grove,
an ill-starred woodpecker. He lay there on the spotless snow,
a red stain, his plucked head turned up,
his body motionless, I wish I could forget this,
one wing unfurled like a fan, his red feathers,
and a look of astonishment in the eye fixed on me: what for?

Since then I’ve never picked up a shotgun
or even an airgun, except maybe at the fairground, and even then more
to test my hand and eye, but not out of daring
and young-man’s showing-off, because a living target
postulates first and foremost a murderer,
and any hunter, if you ask me, is a murderer and not a marksman.

But those clay plates still float across the sky
slowly, O so slowly, and I keep them in my sights,
eye down to backsight calculate the trajectory
squeeze the trigger and then the bang
wakes me up. It’s the jeep. Orest Aleksandrovich
back from the hunt. I hear him haul out his knapsack,
it makes a hollow plop, down and feathers after all, as for the carcass,
no need to tell the skivvy Grusha what to do. Get your boots off, that’s what matters,
douse yourself with a bucket of water, stretch out the full length of the bed,
head flung back, the pointy Adam’s apple the only thing
sticking up from the shapeless heap of body...

While he’s asleep... who knows where he is now,
but by the way the pointer flicks his ears
with the odd bark, Go get him! you might well think
they’re together out hunting still, see him present, take aim,
fused with the shotgun, squeezing the trigger
but then he takes to the air and mounts
over the champing bog over reed hide and mere,
he’ll tell this story in amazement later, meanwhile close by
Phrr! Khrrr! someone’s slit open an eiderdown in the sky
and a duck with a human face the maddened woodcock
he just shot down, Orest! Orest!
flies slap bang into him pecks at its back and sobs in his ear
time for the Furies? Orest! and again, Orest! Orest
Aleksandrovich opens his eyes, his wife is shaking his
shoulder, You’re snoring, dearest. Get washed, dinner’s ready,
and Orest Aleksandrovich... but don’t make me describe
the that-was-a-good-hunt festivities and the yarns at table
for we could only smell the smell, the conversations
rhubarb-rhubarb could be imagined, check Perov’s canvas
‘Out Hunting’ or something of the sort...

The samovar’s back on the table, cat close by, pooch on chair,
and there’s the sweat-beaded decanter, now completely emptied,
and the portrait of Alexander, Orest’s father, in its frame on the wall,
fumed oak crafted by the grandfather before World War I,
board fitted to board flush and snug.
And Orest Aleksandrovich with his wife and two sons,
with his domestics and people who’d dropped in
all sitting breaking sweat in the lamplight,
all talking at once, not listening to each other, their voices raised,
while Orest Aleksandrovich stares unremittingly into the far distance,
his eyes slightly protruding, the colour of kitchen soap, gazing
without blinking at some distant object, an unattainable point,
mechanically twirling his moustache, and his moustache, how could I forget,
is a special theme, he knew how to wear it with style,
like an object of family pride, he never let anyone else wax and
trim it, though sometimes off and on
he shaved it off and went around glum and boring like everyone else,
anyway, there he is moustachio’ed and looking somewhere beyond the bounds,
and gradually everything grows silent and the light fades.

Director! Cameraman, I say! Artist! I yell, quick as
you can record this group portrait so it won’t be forgotten.
But my words sink within me, and I gradually
fall silent too and say nothing like everyone else...

Still and all, they’re so sorely missed, those local Germans,
think I, remembering the Altai, the Kustanai steppe,
the violet-coloured ravines in dew, and multi-layered haze,
sunsets filling half the sky, the whistle of gophers out in the steppe,
and the darkness falling to earth like a stone,
the honey-coloured Ukrainian adobes, and poorer now
the White Russian huts, the fleabag Kazakh yurts,
the grey Russian log shanties, and the bivouacs the Ingush
make of reeds, all those migrant and exiled people
I’ve met one way or another, then suddenly, in the middle of all this
houses like oases—solid, cared-for, picket-fenced,
with not just pumpkin and beet, but flowers too, the houses
of Germans with their cared-for vegetable plots
and paths intact despite everything.

I remember the square on Bolshaia Gruzinskaia Street by the embassy,
with the people in their hundreds queuing for one-way visas,
trampled flat and lifeless when they’d gone
back to their ancestors’ unfathomable motherland, which was where? what?
ethnos-thanatos? the call of the mother tongue? the birthplace?
the memory of scents, faces and years? or the terrifying dreams
and the happier ones that are more terrifying, when you wake up
bathed in tears, you don’t know where you are, and you can’t get back to sleep?

I’ve met them in Germany too, eternal pilgrims
in search of an unknown Grail, men of few words, loth
to reveal themselves, and only by their repressed gestures
could one tell what it was they were going to ask, but their pride, their pride—
that was something you couldn’t learn or unlearn, unmöglich! nein!

And here am I once more back at the house where I was born,
and opposite is the Tikhomirov house, but wait, wait,
what a mansion is growing up and out, taking the old one
into itself, home-made, wooden, two stories,
smelling still of shavings and sawdust, covered in trusses,
its roof still unfinished but standing up there nonetheless,
and at the old gate with its overhang is Aleksandr Orestovich,
my childhood friend, waving, Come inside, neighbour,
it’s been so long... I knocked it up myself. Well then, shall we
go shooting in Kirzhach? with a laugh. Aquiline nose, moustache
like a fine brush, pointy Adam’s apple, eye like the devil’s
far-seeing, retentive, cutting through everything. Fine, say I,
even to Kirzhach, God willing, and to Murom too, Sasha.
We’ll definitely go out there again. Why ever not?

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About the translation:
Oleg Chukhontsev
G.S. Smith
Original language:

About the author

Original poet

Oleg Chukhontsev

Oleg Chukhontsev made his print debut aged 20 in 1958, but soon after fell out of favour with the Soviet literary establishmen...

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G.S. Smith

G.S. Smith is Professor Emeritus of Russian in the University of Oxford. His book-length translations of Russian poetry includ...

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