Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Blok = blues-rock - Anselm Hollo's "The Twelve" - what the hell come on baby

In January 1918, Alexander Blok banged out “The Twelve,” a twelve-canto idiosyncratic response to the revolution.  I have read four versions recently: from the 1970 Stallworthy and France collection, from the new 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution, translated by Boris Dralyuk and Robert Chandler, a stiff, formal version by George Reavey found in Willis Barnstone’s Modern European Poetry anthology (1966), and a wild blues-rock version by Finnish-American beat poet Anselm Hollo (The Twelve & Other Poems, 1971).

A Revolution has hit.  In the first canto, a woman sees a banner with a political slogan and regrets the waste of good cloth.  Meanwhile, twelve revolutionaries wreak havoc.  One of them has a girlfriend who is a prostitute, probably.  He murders her for, you know, fraternization.  He feels bad, but there is revolutionary work to do.  The twelve soldiers are joined by a dog and are led by – this is the famous, mystifying, last line – Jesus Christ.

The most accurate version is – how would I possibly know?  They are all entirely different in places, but the great difference can be seen at the end of Canto XI:

Forward, advance,
    The Working People!  (Reavey)

Forward, and forward again
the working men!  (Stallworthy and France)

I’ll expand the next one:

Their measured tread
rings in your ears.

Soon –
their mortal foe will wake.

And the blizzard dusts their eyes,
day and night,
without halt…

Onward, onward,
working folk!  (Dralyuk and Chandler)

got to keep movin got to keep movin
blues fallin down like hail
& the days & the nights
keep on worrying me

for a hellhound on my trail yes
on my trail  (Hollo)

So for some stab at literalness, I guess one of the first three, but for awesomeness, obviously the Hollo.  He has to rearrange the action in the cantos a bit, but the Robert Johnson lyrics – that is all “Hellhound on My Trail” (1937) with two words from Blok (“& nights”) added – are a good fit.

Hollo’s number one trick – not his only trick – is to turn the cantos into songs, to convert Blok into the blues rock of his, Hollo’s, time, ready for Mick Jagger, or in this case Mose Allison:

I am Vanya I’m the man
I’m the man I’m the seventh son

I can talk ‘n I can sing
I sure know how to do that thing

Katya Katya Katyenka  (Canto IV)

In the Canto V, the point of view switches to the jealous, crazed, revolutionary Petya – there’s the disciple’s name:

what the hell come on baby
shake out of that groove
you been playing around baby
you been playing around a lot
been playing around with them lootenants baby

but you never been playing with a plain joe like me  (Canto V)

And in the next Canto, poor Katya is dead.  The lieutenant gets away, I guess.  I have no doubt that part of the inspiration for this version was Hollo’s realization that “The Twelve” is a kind of murder ballad, an all too common classic American form.

I suppose someone unfamiliar with the idiom would find Hollo’s translation pointless, but I found it loud, crackly, and energetic.  Thrilling, but I’m glad it’s not the only one I read.


  1. Now this is fantastic, really and truly. I mean the Robert Johnson bit, obviously.

    I can't wait for John Lee Hooker's version of "Eugene Onegin" to find a publisher.

    Boom boom boom boom
    My uncle fell right down
    Right offa his feet
    Made us all respect him
    A-haw haw haw haw
    Hmmm hmmm hmmm hmmm
    Took it right to heart
    Done taught us right good
    But when he lay right down
    When he talk that talk
    We was bored bored bored
    He never walked that walk
    A-haw haw haw haw...

  2. "Oh he shot that poor boy so bad"

    I suppose the translator needs to be steeped in the idiom, so the opportunity for this kind of thing may have passed.

  3. "Canto" is too fancy and Italianate a term for a poem rooted in the chastushka and, perhaps, the urban romans (a bastardized variety of the art song). As Mandelshtam noted, Blok was a conservative when it came to poetic form: he preferred pre-existing forms - for The Twelve, the chastushka.

    been playing around with them lootenants baby
    but you never been playing with a plain joe like me

    Yeah but the original text suggests that she might have been doing just that:

    You used to wear gray thigh-highs.
    You used to gobble Mignon chocolate.
    You used to hang out with cadets -
    Now what, hanging out with enlisted men?

    All of which sounds like a catchy ditty. And then an invitation to action: "Hey, come on and sin: Take the load off your soul."

    There's not much of the plaintive bluesy intonation in The Twelve, although you can hear it in "Canto" 7, when the killer starts wailing about the "scarlet birthmark" Katya had by her left shoulder.

  4. It's such a good solution to some of the problems of the poem. Yes, the music, some kind of music, is already there. Hollo is the only translator I saw who made it audible, even if he had change the musical mode.