of Boris Slutsky's "Key"
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.
comrades lived with aunts
and with wives resembling aunts,
with women, fat, too thin,
tired, bored, like rain.
older every year,
birthing children, daughters, sons,
monuments to insufficiency,
statues of failed lives,
of long waiting lines.
comrades loved their wives.
asked me many times:
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,
in which, when you find yourself reflected,
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.
on the Translation
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.
"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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
Boris. "Klyuch," Sobranie Sochinenie. Y. Boldireva (ed.).
Moskva: Khudozhestvennaya Literatura, 1991. Vol. 1 (158).
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