Poor Icarus

Turning away from Auden’s Icarus, if only for a moment.

What follows is my approximate prose rendering, line by line, of a poem written in Russian in 1984 or a little earlier. Its  author, Dmitry Shagin, is a major figure in the recent history of Russian arts and letters. The image in the third stanza played a pivotal role in the cultural movement Shagin co-founded in the 1980s. His original Russian sounds natural and simple yet at times idiosyncratic. The title roughly corresponds to Poor Little Icarus.

Everyone’s fattening up, worry-free, heartily,
They are having a good time, both humans and birds.
Only a minor splash from afar
Jack the plowman has heard.

The god-bearer couldn’t care less for poor Icarus’s howl –
He’s busy doing important work.
The sun is showering the earth with afternoon heat;
A boat is sailing to bring home some dough.

And little Icarus, poor fellow,
By all the bros forgotten,
Has but a pair of white legs sticking
Out of the cold green water.

For more on Shagin and the Mit’ki movement, one could turn to The Mitki and the Art of Postmodern Protest in Russia by Alexandar Mihailovic, and to The Soviet Icarus by Maria Tsantsanoglou (also accessible via academia.edu). I would recommend two excellent undergrad theses for an introduction into the Mit’ki, both incredibly well researched and freely available from the respective universities: by Casey Drosehn at Williams College (2007), and by Elias Hetko at Wesleyan University (2011).

It’s more or less obvious that Shagin’s little poem was a riff on Auden’s. Prof. Mihailovic believes that the author, a painter who also wrote pseudo-naive poetry,  probably mistook Auden for a young and/or unknown poet. I find such ignorance unlikely considering Shagin’s artistic background: both his parents (Natalia Zhilina and Vladimir Shagin) were non-conformist painters and Leningrad/St. Petersburg natives. This particular Auden poem appeared in Russian translations in at least two anthologies, in 1977 and 1984; the reader could not remain completely ignorant of its authors’ status in Anglo-American letters. I can imagine Shagin, a painter by heritage and training, having fun playing with a Russian version of an English poem set in a fine arts museum. I bet he was an irreverent young man – unlike Joseph Brodsky, who nearly idolized Auden.

Shagin further Russified the translation of Auden’s poem: “Jack the plowman” is a muzhichok, literally a little peasant of the Russian type. The term is a slightly condescending diminutive, unlike Auden’s neutral ploughman. The “G/god-bearer” is a disparaging reference to the late Slavophile view of the Russians as a (the?) God-bearing people. In Soviet ideology, the working class replaced the Russian nation as the locus of absolute goodness.

In addition, Shagin turned Auden’s expensive delicate ship into korablyushka, using one of those diminutive suffixes that would soon become the hallmark of Mit’ki-speak. The vessel became a so-so shiplet, vaguely contemptible, which I tried to render by downgrading it to “boat.”

As for poor little Icarus, Shagin would resuscitate him in a sequel poem by the warmth of his brotherly affection: the fallen man, it appears, is not so much drowned as stuck headlong in a cesspool of muck, as heroes are wont to be.

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