A Soviet Artist’s Reply to Just Criticism

The deed is done.
The KGB agent on trash duty
should find nothing
but pencil shavings
& cigarette butts.
Let’s hope he won’t
think to wonder how
the point of a pencil
could break so many times,
or why the butts are so often
crushed nearly flat,
some of them snapped
in half, as if pounded
repeatedly against
the ashtray. But if he does,
perhaps he’ll remember
how much the Great
Helmsman loves a march.
And of course Dmitri
Dmitrievich worries
about fire. He’s a nervous man;
there’s no part of his face
that doesn’t twitch.
He always dips a finger
in the ashes, taking
their temperature, before
he dumps them in
with all those curls
of wood, those commas,
those little zygotes.
Now Shostakovich has emptied
everything into a bag,
tied it up, & carried it
out to the landing.
With the completed draft
of his Fifth Symphony
stacked neatly on the desk,
he slumps at the table
in what can only be
a posture of triumph.
His hands shake
with exhaustion as he pours
vodka for what must be
a silent toast to the glorious
Soviet people. The empty
trashcan beckons
like a dry well.
__________

Written in response to the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s Shostakovich centennial concert, conducted by Vassily Sinaisky. (For another response to the concert, see here.) “A Soviet Artist’s Reply to Just Criticism” was Shostakovich’s public description of his Fifth Symphony, composed in 1937 at the height of the Great Terror — see here.

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4 Comments


  1. Oh, I thought this might have been in response to the murder of Russian reporter Anna Politkovskaja! It fits in a curious way – maybe times haven’t changed. Great poem, Dave.

    Reply

  2. “…all those curls
    of wood, those commas,
    those little zygotes.”

    No stray evidence left. Nice take, Dave.

    Reply

  3. “The deed is done”….great line and for me the opening of a wonderful description of the creative process. Some things have to be created…no matter what!

    My son’s piano teacher had him start with Shostakovich’s easier pieces for children.

    Reply

  4. Thanks for the comments.

    Oh, I thought this might have been in response to the murder of Russian reporter Anna Politkovskaja!

    No, that was serendipity of a most unfortunate kind. Courageous woman. And of course if it’s difficult for an artist to maintain his/her integrity under a Stalinist regime, it’s quite impossible for a journalist.

    My son’s piano teacher had him start with Shostakovich’s easier pieces for children.

    Ah, poor Bartok!

    Reply

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