Saturday Poem

Philosophy is Useless

to Bakhtytzhan Kanapianov

Philosophy is useless. How much nicer it is
to brew some tea, to make it strong, to sip it
with apricot preserves, while going through
your chest of treasures: a collection of
clay dragons from Samarkand, with their tails
chipped off and then repaired with good old glue.
If you get bored with that, there is also a collection
of toy lions. One of them, made of grey metal,
is most amusing, with its fierce head
and mangy mane; originally it embellished
the handle of an ancient sword, then someone
ingeniously used it as a model for the corkscrew
that I, unfortunately, cannot put to use because
the thing was given to me as a farewell memento.

I have no reason not to cherish all these objects:
for over a quarter of a century they’ve been forming
a tight circle around me, and were it not for them
so much would be forgotten. Here is a tarnished
tea-glass holder, a reminder of trains that used to be,
and of a teaspoon that would tinkle against thin glass
in a compartment, on a railroad stretch between
Saratov and Orenburg; here is a silver-plated
cigarette case with the Soviet Kremlin indented
on the lid, with a most touching elastic band inside,
as if from an undergarment. Inside, it houses
a handful of small change in various denominations –
five-, fifteen-, twenty-kopeck coins and, above all,
the two-kopeck coins that now no longer can
convey all of their former magic meaning:
a night in February, a frozen-through phone booth,
in the receiver a barely audible voice of her
who is at the other end of Moscow, and your heart
is pounding, not for the reason of too much caffeine
or alcohol, but because of too much happiness.

And here we have a tiny copper icon, so badly worn
that you can hardly see St. Nicholas on it. These days
you find them by the dozen in antiques shop, to the delight
of tourists, but in earlier days they were a rarity
used as a gift that stood for love. Another saint:
a hologram icon encased in colored glass,
identical to the copper prototype; I asked
Bishop Vitaly to inspect it, so as to be sure
it was not sacrilegious. The Right and Reverend
laughed and blessed the icon, saying it was all right.

Here is a wooden gent. Some thirteen years ago
my buddy Pete gave it to me. It is a folksy figurine,
about a foot in height: sad-looking Pushkin seated
on a bench, wearing a top hat, with a wooden cane in hand;
regrettably, the tips of his high boots are broken off,
and there are some cracks on him, but that’s alright.

Here is my father’s “Victory” watch, with a metal bracelet:
I never wear it, for the fear of losing. Here’s a bust of Lenin
in cast iron, weighs a ton; the angry eyes with a Mongol slant.
Once at a railroad station in Leningrad, at a souvenir stand
I overheard a man who, seeing all those countless busts,
was trying to convince his friend that pretty soon
they would become a rare item. As I recall, I merely
smirked in disbelief.

Quite recently I read in Toporov that the main purpose
of any object is to objectify, that is, to exist not only
for practical use, but also to relate to man the way the latter
relates to God. The author further states, as he develops an idea
found in Heidegger, that the way Our Lord, being the master
of being, calls his sheep by names, so does man – the philosopher,
the poor moribund master of the world – call things by their names.

My treasures, go ahead, objectify; for me it is too early
to leave you for the world where phantoms rule,
where shades of objects stand for objects. As for you,
when I am dead and gone, I guess you will turn into
some hollow shells. So let us be like Gogol’s Plyushkin,
that wretched product of a troubled mind: how he adored you,
objects, and how tenderly he carried in his patched-up soul
a list of things that others believed to be long dead and gone.

by Bakhyt Kenzjejev
from Sochinitel zvezd
publisher: Poesjkinski fond, St Petersburg, 2001
© Translation: 2011, Steven Seymour