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Translation of Boris Slutsky's "Key"

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Rebecca Gould
City University of New York

I had a room with a private entrance.
I was a bachelor and lived alone.
My friends entered at every whim.

My comrades lived with aunts
and with wives resembling aunts,
with women, fat, too thin,
tired, bored, like rain.

Getting older every year,
birthing children, daughters, sons,
monuments to insufficiency,
statues of failed lives,
of long waiting lines.

My comrades loved their wives.

They asked me many times:

"Why don't you marry, you playboy?
what do you know of domestic bliss?

" My comrades didn't love their wives.
Girls with supple hands pleased them,
with eyes
in which, when you find yourself reflected,
You fall,
you fall,
like a rock.
However, I was careful.
I asked no stupid questions.
I simply provided the key to the lock.
They asked me -- I gave
.

Commentary on the Translation

Boris Slutsky (1919-1986) was one of the more silent poets of the Soviet Era. Unlike the Mandelstam/ Akhmatova/ Tsvetaeva generation which preceded his, Slutsky's generation saw the Soviet regime as a given. Slutsky made no attempt to publish verse that would criticize the regime. His most profound poetic work was written "for the drawer" and only published posthumously.

In "Key," he speaks of what people do to stave off mental disintegration. Slutsky speaks from the position of an outsider, merely complicit in acts of marital infidelity. The drabness of Soviet-style communal apartments, subsistence wages, workplace politics and 10-hour lines for food provides the context for this poem, which seeks to be about everything that Soviet life was not.

Slutsky draws attention to the difficulty of creating a meaningful personal relationship in such a draining political atmosphere as the Soviet Union in the 1970s. Instead of friends, he has "comrades." Instead of wives, there are aunts and women who are "statues of failed lives / of long waiting lines." The only space in which life can be lived on its own terms is in the narrator's dingy bedroom with "girls with supple hands."

The narrator is, as he says, cautious. He tells us from the start that he lives alone and never asks any questions of the "comrades" who demanded his keys from him. Yet, when the language of the poem enacts the very same disintegration of which the characters are terrified, he switches to the second person mode of narration: "You fall / you fall / like a rock." Though in context these lines refer to his "comrades'" obsession with "girls," they could just as easily apply to the terror he is keeping at bay by committing his thoughts to poetry.

"Key" teaches us that mental breakdown is fostered by an existence dead to emotion. The average Soviet citizen at that time, particularly the women, spent their lives waiting in lines. The older they got, the more they resembled rain. The men in this society have a release from the degradation of their personal lives. They find life outside their family, and allow themselves to fall for a few minutes into that void that gives their lives meaning.

Yet ultimately this poem argues that the men are no more satisfied than women. The men labor under the illusion that marriage is happiness as much as the women, who perhaps see no other way of living. The "comrades" ridicule the narrator for missing out on "domestic bliss." As a poet, however, Slutsky is better able to see where such "domestic bliss" leads: to little girls and failed lives.

Works Cited

Slutsky, Boris. "Klyuch," Sobranie Sochinenie. Y. Boldireva (ed.). Moskva: Khudozhestvennaya Literatura, 1991. Vol. 1 (158).

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