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The Joyous Science, Part 1
The True Story of the Famous Bruce, Composed in Verse from the Accounts of Several Eyewitnesses

for Irina Povolotskaya


A new mood I’ll need to tell your tale,
and nine Muses are too few;
besides, they’re chasing butterflies.
Behold stupendous Bruce!

No saint or king, no knight or thief,
how’d you reach our books?
Explain your claim to such renown. 
You’re one whom Death forsook!

I’m scared to let a loose word slip,
and scareder still to rhyme 
your story. I’d pay for each mistake
with my poor neck. But Time—   

Go back! Hitch up three hot-blooded   
centuries till we meet
in Peter’s city, down where the River
Neva murmurs. Let’s greet 

that roost’s new ruler: Peter the Great—
not First, Second, or Third—
whose right hand holds the orb, whose left
wields the scepter. He’s our lord

crowned and handsome as a statue.
He threatens Turks and Swedes
with a wagging finger; he shakes Russia
from her slow, sweet sleep.

And Bruce is Peter’s humble aid
in matters of the weather.
The stars tell him the battle’s end,   
he guides Peter’s warfare:

where troops should go, where to unloose 
the salvos. He can stun
the sun’s slow run; he can wrap mists
around his foe’s vision.

In July he’ll call up torrid snows,
or let a tempest crash
the shoreline; he’ll rain his fire down
till ships smolder to ashes.

In short, all Peter’s victories
were given to him gratis;
With Bruce forever at his side
Russia held the advantage.     

What time was left between the wars,
found Bruce cracking the books;
he’d track an apple’s downward fall,
he marked how cast dies shook.

He reasoned that the soul and flesh—
or so he thought with bated
breath—might cease their strife; he charted
the stars constellated.

He even measured time’s slow tick,
how clockfaces never cease.
Eternity’s his minute plaything.  
And yet he hated feasts.

Once, during one drunken romp
(belly-dancers, hellish heat)
the Tsar cried out to Bruce: “Water!
I could outdrink our fleet!”

And so the waves rushed through cracks
in floors and corridors.
“The Neva’s burst its granite banks!”
the hordes (now deluged) roared.

“It’s the Flood!” some drunk repeated.
Stairwells were waterfalls. 
Ladies hiked their skirts and hopped—
their shame was virginal!—

upon the tables. So Bruce at last
rolled up his dry sleeves. 
He pulled the cork from the floorboard. 
The seas at last receded.

In contrast, Peter’s performance bored.
He’d douse or scald his churls.
He’d play with water, shake with mirth… 
But then turn mean and surly.

His crown had slid upon his head;
his court won’t cease to blandish.
They whispered in his regal ear—
Bruce’s powers are devilish!     

And so the Tsar exclaimed, “Get out
of my new capital!
Go back to the old one!” His threat
was not rhetorical.

In ninety minutes Bruce arrived
(he’d fled unscathed) in Moscow.
None who chased could catch the man—
but here is what they followed: 

a car he’d made, Aeolian,
with steel and copper gears,
with blades and clamps and springs agleam—
he’d had it for a year.

It sat some time in Palace Square,
through rain, hail, parades.
“What’s this whatsit do?” some folks
inquired, “take up space?” 

And now they had their answer: science!
Bruce learned it all abroad.
And was it real, you’re asking? Who knows!
The answer’s known to God.

Some say his genius is innate,
but God gaveth his talent.
Of standard stock—not prince or slave—
Bruce testsNature’s elements.

Man smelts inside the crucible,
he gauges what’s perceived;
he makes painstaking measurements—
yes! but doubt while you believe. 

Meanwhile Bruce’s fiery mount
floats through Moscow’s skies,
his Aeolian car blocks out the light—
it loops before our eyes

then circles down, its motor’s hum
decresendoes to its ending—
it sails into a quietude 
that always was impending.

Behold Sukharev Square and Tower.
The tower’s a goblet toppled
on an open palm. The common folk
walk by wide-eyed and ogle.

Cries, confusion: spooked drays rear
and neigh. Their driver glowers.
The bells soon sound. No need to choose—
Bruce settles in the tower,  

just like a starling set to nest.
A week goes by, then two,
a third is slowly eking out—
until at last we’re through.
It’s hard to tell what he did up there,
to delineate his deeds;
There aren’t enough archives or books
to record all he achieved.

He sorted vials and set out loupes,
then shelved a thousand tomes.
He moved mountains of maps, designs—
there was no room in his room.

Of course no one else understood
these sheets. Bruce was unique.
He transcribed the stars’ cryptic codes.
He had expert technique.

Translating heavens’ alphabet,
he traces out new signs.
His tireless right hand exhausts
the inkwell with his lines.

It’s for the common good—
not senseless fame—he writes
these names of stars, these obscure runes
in the tongue of Muscovites.
He mutters newfound words, then checks
them all against the heavens;
the starry light, its bounds and depths—
nothing’s hidden from him.

And now he draws a perfect map
of Petersburg to Moscow,
as seen in-flight, both day and night,
each hillock and each furrow,

each meadow, copse, and rivulet,
even the coast laid out
in endless, winding, unbroken lines,
the water’s whereabouts

through narrow straits, the Bering Sea
that bounds us from the thrust of
America, as if to say,
look here: all this is Russia! 
And Russia’s like a reared-up bear
with matted fur. She’s hungry.
Her skin hangs loose, her muzzle turns
to roar: don’t touch me!
Bruce marks its heart with a small dot
then folds it all away.
He draws a grid on a fresh sheet 
and begins to survey

the elements of all the world
in columns and long rows.
He orders them, what follows what,
till it’s clear where each thing goes:

fire and water, the earth and air,
basics that hold it all,
the crystals rare, the plainest grass,
the common minerals.

He then decides he would be bored
to live without a wife,
but since no mortal maidens rank
he builds one real as life;

stringing flowers of varied hues,
our new Pygmalion
gives her dahlia hair, violet eyes,
and lips rosarium;

her teeth are lilies-of-the-valley, 
white as that flower’s cups;
she has poppies for cheeks; the rest
of her he builds from phlox.

Her flesh he binds with gladiolus,
then calls her, as custom
states, Flora Archimboldovna.
One thing alone was missing:

a soul, alas! But barring that,
nothing about her was wrong.
She’s comely, prudent, clever, tidy.
(There’s more to say anon.)

At night a single window glows
in all the pierceless dark
of Moscow. This little golden light
is not a candle’s wick

burning late upon a table—
it’s a small sun locked
in one of Bruce’s pear-shaped bottles.
How could folks not talk?

How could rumors not ripple outward?
Lackwits live in Moscow—
merchants, sentries, thieves, and servants—
and none knows ass from elbow. 

The moon now finishes her fullness.
She takes the loss in stride,
waning now, now come to crescent.
Rumors, though, spread wide

and swell, fattened by all the people
who prattle about Bruce,
certain that his presence will bring
ill-profit, even loose

the coins from two-bit traders’ pockets.   
The market vendors raise a din.
But hear this: Man, do what you will,
be free, but just don’t sin! 
Take this massive merchant, a mountain
who looms above his wares;
he spends his days finding new ways
to short the weight or pare

the cut he gives the unsuspecting.
But look! A massive crab
is scuttling from a corner! It’s keen
to cleave the sweetest slab

of merchant. Its yellow maw, its claws
so cruel, size up the vendor—
till our poor fellow, pale with fear,
can taste his own hereafter.   

He can neither move nor cry, 
his sweat cascades like hail.
He’s pale, too weak to shriek, until 
he caterwauls and wails

like bloody murder. And then the crowds
converge around the bloke.
They find no crab; they blink their eyes.
It all went up in smoke.

Then laughing, tears astream, they hoot,
“The jest should have been crueler!”
Then a second wail, a second booth—
they all rush quickly over.

That trader’s eyes now bulge to tell
of monsters in his tent,
of all the rubles lost when all
his Persian cloths were rent.

The crowd looked on, two-score strong,
before they burst in gales
of laughter. His carpets were whole,
untouched, and prepped for sale.

Nothing really had gone wrong,
and so the rabble mused:
“What’s this? A wonder? A world awry?”
At that, as if on cue,

Bruce appeared above them, smirking.
The crowd craned its neck
to see the balcony atop
Sukharev Tower, the deck

that held our hero and Grand Master.
The people were his pawns,
the city his chessboard. He looms,
smooths his moustache, yawns.

The merchants’ tricks were known, their luck
run out, the tables turned;
the thieves wouldn’t thieve, nor sentries glare:
the lot of them all burned

with rage against this Bruce unbeaten.
“Our lives have gone to the dogs!” 
the claimants tell the Tsar. He hears,
and leaves—uncloaked, unshod—

such was his haste. He gave the call:
“Away! We’ll hie us thither.”
His generals beside him strut,
his soldiers’ visors glimmer

and number in the hundred, men
who tug their hundred cannon,
together forged from one church bell
by old Ivan Motorin.  
But Bruce could soon deduce how far
the Tsar still had to journey.
His magic mirror showed but dark—
and so he worked serenely. 

Here are his deeds both great and small,
the record now is permanent.
O’er Russia’s earth our Bruce shines bright, 
a comet in the firmament.

There’s no relief from summer’s heat
when sunlight roasts that corner
of earth where Moscow’s spun her web—
that city’s like a spider.   

So Bruce melts coal in a crucible,
grinds water to a powder,
mixes it all—this splatters his room—
and heats it in a brazier.

A cloud now swells, full grey and huge,
from out his boiled-down mix;
he heads outside to cast his blend
wherever it will drift.

The snow is falling when he’s back,
the cold won’t soon abate.
A blizzard blankets all, and ice
is thick enough to skate.  

But soon the kids no longer sled,
they’ve had their fill of snowballs.
The sentries warm themselves with thoughts
of imminent reprisal:

“By God, we’ll make you dance, dear Bruce—
you’ll spill your guts easy.”
By night the snow melts; its absence
fills with censure and hearsay.

But Bruce has locked his shutters tight,
concocting his next feat;
the moon’s a penny peering in
that envies a gold piece. 

His sun still fills its pear-shaped bottle,
each tome sleeps on its shelf;
his flower-girl can sleep so calm—
a shame she’s soulless herself. 

Meanwhile Bruce appeals to God
to give Moscow his mercy;
he hotly cries, “Lord, will you grant
your pardon and your safety?”

Suddenly someone responds—
dream-like, but this is true—
a voice like one that Bruce has known
but foreign, somehow, too:

“O Man! Your steady disposition,
quick spirit, and daring mind
are pleasing to God who deems you just,
a righteous son of mankind.

Much on earth is known to you,
and heaven’s likewise revealed;
the harmony of the visible world  
is clear from head to heel.

But man can scarcely scrounge a truth
from out the world unseen—
the masses yearn to glimpse those forms,
but they all look in vain.

You’re chosen, though, to know firsthand,
to see and be amazed;
what follows, Bruce, defies all words.”
Behold, this is the way:

U /  U /  U /  U /
U /  U /  U /
U /  U /  U /  U /
U /  U /  U /

U /  U /  U /  U /
U /  U /  U /
U /  U /  U /  U /
U /  U /  U /

The soul in flight can’t be described
in meager, earthly words.
Bruce saw a vast abyss replete
with fiery stars and chords,

with choirs and organs praising God,
the moon’s dark side aglow,
the earth receded to a dot,
the sun a golden mote.

The clustered constellations pass
like fireflies in meadows,  
like necklaced coins ’round gypsy girls,
or distant towns aglow.

So too did all the worlds flash by.
Then light illumed that maw
of black, from lamp not hot or cold 
or seen, but full of awe

we cannot fathom. Bodies, shadows—
they’ve no place in this abyss.
Yet he who’s glimpsed it once could live
in utmost happiness!     

“Earthly words are helpless, paltry,
to show the true renown
of treasures from the Mount—but when
the Day of Judgment dawns,

deafening, dazzling, it will bring
a language newly born
from alloy forged of fearsome verbs
and adverbs great and stern;

Good and evil will level the scale
with weights of equal measure.            
In the beginning was the Word;
the end will be a Number.”

This voice at once both known and not,
this guide and skillful herald,
leads Bruce through heaven’s triple tiers
describing both what’s veiled

and visible, expounding all 
flawlessly for our hero:
“The present and the past are linked—
they’re one with all that follows.

Compare the moment you go blind
with when you regain sight:
the difference is the time between
a thunderclap and quiet.

And here’s the reckoning book that holds
all time and all events.
It inventories wars, revolts,
and plagues to the last second.”

Bruce asks, “What is to be my fate?”    
The voice gives this reply:
“This home of souls intangible
you’ve seen, and now pass by, 

will soon give way to sleep just as
from sleep you once were taken,
but you’ll return with ample gifts:
you’re the one God’s chosen.

Skillets in hell or lilies in heaven,
you need not dwell on either.
The earth now calls. You needn’t fear
Death’s crooked needles,

for you can wear out earthly bodies—
nine of them, or more.
Now take the following gifts divine:
a phial of dew, a sliver

of heaven, and this skin that fills
to hold life-giving ether.
Remember though: whatever’s flawless
here in heaven ceaseless

will be—alas!—quite changeable
on earth. To wit: it withers. 
Man’s a monkey to God; he cannot
grasp more than he reaches.”

The path back home is like the one
above: the sun and stars,
the moon and earth flash past, a train
en route that bears the Tsar,

the Moscow rooftops. See the churches,
the Kremlin’s parapets
and bulwarks; there’s Sukharev Square,
its tower like a goblet

upturned upon an open palm. 
The sunrise lifts its single
crown, sending gold rays sweeping.
The ever-burning candle’s

snuffed inside its pear-shaped bottle.
See: Bruce’s waking soul
rejoins his sleeping body. He bolts
upright, wakes with a jolt—

and so his lengthy, rainbow’d dream
recedes into gray tones.
It flashes past his baffled gaze
like whirlwinds whipped and blown. 

At least his three heavenly gifts
remained in his possession:
the skin still taut, the phial still whole,
the fragment of empyrean—

faceted, flashing—so blessed
in that timeless cathedral.
On earth they can’t be broken, so Bruce—
seeing something useful—

now blows the ether into his wife
(Good Flora’s deep in slumber.)
Her heart now beats; her eyes flash love.
This love is Bruce’s answer:


Meanwhile the train of the Tsar arrives,
its colored flags aflapping;
the beards come too, in many hues—
black and red moustaches. 

But look! There’s Bruce! He’s bringing salt
and bread right out to Peter!
And this after the Tsar’s decree:
a reward to Bruce’s captor!

It seems the prey to hunter flees.
The sentries are rejoicing:
“We haven’t moved a muscle yet,
but this sheep we’ll soon be wolfing!”

They fall on him and wrench him down;
they drag him to the station.
But look! There’s Bruce, with bread and salt,
as if nothing had happened.

And so they wrench him down once more:
“We won’t fall for your tricks!”
“I thank you humbly,” he replies,
but knows he isn’t licked.

Again our Bruce brings bread and salt,
the third to leave the crowd.
O Goddess Ancient, O Fury Horrid,
you’ve sparked the Tsar to shout

and froth: “Are they witless to a man?
Those idiotic sentries!
Rot in hell! I’ll soon find better
men than them, and plenty.”

Peter the Great has lost all faith
in his moustaches and beards;
this treachery, he thinks, deserves
his own attention. He hears

and queries the Bruces one by one.
They’re like three peas in a pod.
“Dammit, I’m mad!” the Tsar cries out,
their exasperated god.

He strides toward them, spiteful Neptune,
his trident poised to fly—                                
“Which Bruce in three’s the real one?”
“I!” “I!” “I!”

“Is that some kind of curse word now?”
his petty generals whine.
“Let’s cut it from the alphabet!
The dictionary’s fine

without it!” They suggest shooting
this pesky, Bruce-ish trio                                 
but Peter the Great thinks better:
“Let all three Bruces go.”

But first he’ll smash three sets of teeth
with his imperial fist,
as if he’d caught three soldiers sleeping
while standing at their post.  

But look! The Bruces aren’t Bruces now,
they’re generals, disheveled.
They stand there stern and rub their jaws,
quite thoroughly bedeviled.

“Bruce’ll be sorry once he’s caught!”
they say, nursing new grudges.
Though puzzled by these tricks, they swear,
“He’ll soon be in our clutches!

They spew abuse and damn dear Bruce.
They break their small batons.
But Peter growls, “Bring him to me!”
then “Forward troops! March on!”

A clatter of hooves, the drummer’s boom—   
they wake up all Third Rome.
The windows light, folks hide their smirks,
and gawk from in their homes.

But Bruce enjoys his Flora’s love
atop his tower tranquil.
They’ve coffee, cocoa, tea, and snuff,
the latter so delightful.

The Square below is packed with viewers,
they’re crowded like sardines.
“Welcome your guests!” they shout to Bruce.
There is a new decree:

the Tsar has granted Bruce a medal
with ribbon red and gold.
“Take your money, stock your pantry!             
The prize befits the bold.                                

Your other option ain’t so pretty:
this cannon blasts your belfry.”
Indeed its powder had been tamped,
its shot was sitting snugly, 

the narrow barrel simply needed
the skritch of a sulphur match…
then boom! This blast would prove a boon
in any lengthy clash.

But true to form our Bruce has found
a way to make this conflict
comic. He’s quick to glean the means
of halting pyrotechnics.

He recommands the cannons and blasts
a thunderous cannonade;
the sky explodes with bright confetti
in great, shredded sprays,

with cookies spiced and apples golden,
the chocolates fall like rain!
The bounty lands in hands outstretched. 
The Tower still remains.
The crowd is thrilled, the soldiers not.
The former cheers, “Hooray!”
while cannoneers collect their pop-guns;
they’re calling it a day.

The generals assemble then
to lodge complaints with Peter:
“He mocked us all! We live in shame!”
The Tsar, ahorse, just mutters:

“I’ll go myself.” And now he looms
like Falconet’s grim statue,
the one inscribed: Petri Primo –
Catharina Secu[ ]da.

(His foot knocked the n right off
the thunderstone’s inscription.)
“Now then!” he says and soon appears
at Sukharev Tower’s bastion.

“Why scorn to serve your lord, dear Bruce?
You spurn being rewarded?
And why do you spit on laws from on high?
They too you’ve disregarded!

Come out of there to open air
or I’ll have to open fire.
I’ve heard complaints enough to blast
your precious home and spire.”

“My Tsar!” Bruce calls, “you’re great, no doubt,
but here you’ve missed the viper!
Rip out its stinger, add a tongue.
Now that’s the way to conquer.”

To which Bruce adds: “Come, join my table!
He’s gallant, keen to host.
Dear Flora offers meat and mead.
They sit, they feast, they toast!

“God grant you health!” they each propose.
And thus what reigns ’twixt Peter
and Bruce is neither peace nor war,
though closer to the former.

In parting Bruce presents a gift—
the shard of sky, that jewel—
to Peter. Let him keep this so Rus’ 
renews: not mild, nor cruel,

but wise enough to prize in Man
his essence, not his fashions.
May gold and porphyry adorn
this land reborn from ashes.

Bruce stands, slips out, and stows the phial
of hallowed brine inside
his magic aero. He boards with Flora.
They lift and climb the skies.

And you: why don’t you wait awhile?
Take off your coat, and stay.
In time your Bruce will reappear.
He’s still alive today!

Dear Reader: cast your carefree gaze
once more upon this story.
Don’t tarry. Know the Lord is God,
and His is all the glory.

Remember too this ballad meter
that issued from my pen;
these iambs, rhymes, and substitutions
were not in vain. Amen. 


1995 – 1999

Introduction. Complaint regarding the untimely truancy of the known Muses. The main character’s name is announced. An attempt to determine the nature of his excellence. The narrator admits full cognizance of the danger that may threaten him in the course of the tale. An appeal to Time.


A bold approach to the subject at hand. Peter the Great’s portrait in full parade dress. His secret thoughts.







The practical and efficient qualities that Bruce displays in war.











Bruce’s peace-time accomplishments and great discoveries: the law of universal gravity, the theory of probability. Philosophical musings. Astronomical observations.





Bruce scorns the elite’s unfettered pleasures. An unusual event during the profligate revelry. To wit: an imaginary flood.










The consequences are inauspicious: a quarrel with Peter.









Forced to flee. The journey from Petersburg to Moscow. A description of Bruce’s flying apparatus.







Admiration for Bruce’s unusual capabilities. An attempt to demonstrate their source in divine providence. A treatise in defense of Faith.









A soft landing on Sukharev Square in Moscow, the locus of subsequent action.

The people greet Bruce.



Choosing a future place of residence.






The beginning of a complete list of Bruce’s diverse activities.


The first order of the day: creating order from chaos.



Translating the astronomical calendar.












Drawing a complete geographical map of Russia.









A detailed description of the Russian lands.




Compilation of the first periodic table of the chemical elements, subsequently lost.







Creation of his bride’s body, in the manner of Pygmalion, using various garden blooms and wildflowers. She is given the Latin name Flora. Regret that a human soul cannot be instilled in her.











Bruce’s evening vigils, illuminated by means of electricity, make Moscow suspicious. The composition of Moscow’s population.







Rumors circulate that Bruce has enacted a secret ban on crime, both petty and heinous.








A sequence of events at the market confirms the rumors.


With his own “sleight of hand,” Bruce thrice confounds the market vendors’ shifty stratagems. The sticky-fingered stall-keepers’ animal terror. Unending din, the shouts and wails of the terrorized. The good-natured crowd’s carefree laughter.






















Bruce’s amusement at these occurrences.





Bruce’s mockery makes a certain segment of the population indignant. The offended subjects kowtow to their Tsar. Peter leaves for Moscow immediately to investigate the situation with Bruce. A description of the imperial train.








Bruce is informed of the enemy’s impending invasion. The continuation of the complete list of Bruce’s diverse activities.









Chemical experiments. Snow falling in the heat of summer. The children’s exultation. The ire of the authorities.










Ever more rumors abound. Resumption of the evening vigils. The sleeping Flora.







Bruce’s entreaties and prayers for the country’s prosperity. An invisible guardian angel appears. Bruce is chosen. An invitation to a journey.












Bruce’s soul leaves his body.



A precise description of his unseen flight into the empyrean realm.


A meticulous description of all that flashed before his internal gaze during his rapid flight through the universe. Arrival at the destination.
















Sublime mysteries are revealed to Bruce. A prophecy regarding the end of the world.





Bruce, attended by his guardian angel, sojourns in the three heavens of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.








The book of fate. A prophecy about the future. Bruce is granted provisional immortality, for the span of nine earthly lives. Other gifts are bestowed: liquid, solid, and gas. A reminder of the frailty of earthly things and of the poverty of Man’s capabilities in comparison to God’s will.















Bruce alights back on Earth as swiftly as he left it. Morning.











Bruce awakens as though nothing had happened. The significant  differences between dream and reality. The heavenly gifts become plain, earthly things.









Bruce uses one of the gifts to animate Flora. Love.






Peter’s ceremonial entry into Moscow. The astonishing events attending it. Illusory Bruces come out three times to meet Peter. Caustic words. Wrath.
















Peter personally conducts a physical interrogation of the illusory Bruces.











Unable to beat anything out of the Bruces, the Tsar is further incensed. He senses a deception and commands them to make themselves scarce.






The Bruces turn out to be nothing more than the Tsar’s generals.


At Peter’s command, the enraged generals march out against Bruce.








The unfazed Bruce, awaiting his uninvited guests, takes his ease in sensible diversions. The generals vainly strive to entice him from his tower.













Bruce turns the well-laid siege of the Sukharev Tower into yet another amusement. Fireworks. The Tsar’s generals return to Peter empty-handed, railing against the offender. The sovereign attempts a full frontal assault himself.















Bruce remains uncowed by Peter’s threats and accusations. The former’s sound advice to the latter.







An invitation to a farewell supper. Bruce bestows the second gift on Peter.











Departure. Bruce keeps the third gift for himself, as a pledge against his provisional immortality. Hope for Bruce’s return. Exhortation to the gracious reader of this tale. Finish.














Synopsis of
“The Joyous Science”
for the Brooklyn Rail

Maxim Amelin’s “The Joyous Science” chronicles the real and imagined exploits of Jacob Bruce (1669 – 1735), an astronomer, alchemist, and military strategist to Peter the Great. The poem is a mock epic, a biographical adventure, and a series of comedic set pieces that demonstrate how Amelin—in the words of the 2013 committee for the Solzhenitsyn Prize—has “expand[ed] the limits and possibilities” of Russian verse.

The descendant of a Scottish clan, Jacob Bruce is credited with establishing Russia’s first observatory, writing its first geometry textbook, and publishing its first astronomical calendar. A key ally in Peter the Great’s efforts to modernize Russia, Bruce is the Russian equivalent of Benjamin Franklin, were Franklin also rumored to have mastered the dark arts. According to some, Bruce could turn young men old and old men young. He is supposed to have frozen a lake in summer and attached human heads to iron birds. (The birds, it’s said, flew out from his home in Sukharev Tower at night.) In “The Joyous Science,” Maxim Amelin relishes in these fanciful tales, but also takes their existence as a manifestation of the Enlightenment’s search for knowledge. Leavened with humor and packed with wild deeds, the poem celebrates innovation when innovation still seemed surreal.

As for the form: Maxim Amelin composed “The Joyous Science” in a six-beat line inspired by Vasily Trediakovsky (1703 – 1768), but neither Trediakovsky’s “Russian hexameter” nor Amelin’s own “syllabic dolnik” were terribly feasible in English. So we took a cue from Amelin’s glosses—they were inspired by Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”—and set the poem in ballad meter. This seems fitting for a poem about a folk hero who hovers at the edge of historical fact.



Maxim Amelin

Poet, critic, editor, and translator, Maxim Amelin is among the last generation of Russian poets to grow up in the Soviet Union. The recipient of numerous national awards, including the Moscow Reckoning Award, the Anti-Booker, the Novyi Mir Prize, and the Bunin Prize, his work has been translated into over a dozen languages. In 2013 Amelin won the prestigious Solzhenitsyn Prize for his contributions to Russian poetry. The author of three books of poetry, including Cold Odes (1996), Dubia (1999), and The Horse of the Gorgon (2003), as well as a collection of prose and poems, Bent Speech (2011), he is also an accomplished translator of Pindar, Catullus, Homer, and other ancient and contemporary poets. He currently lives in Moscow. He is a member of the Russian PEN-Club and editor-in-chief at OGI, a leading publisher of contemporary literature.

Derek Mong

Derek Mong is the author of two poetry collections from Saturnalia Books, Other Romes (2011) and The Identity Thief (forthcoming, 2018). He blogs at Kenyon Review Online, reviews new poetry for the Gettysburg Review, and will soon become the Byron K. Trippet Assistant Professor of English at Wabash College. A former Axton Fellow at the University of Louisville and Halls Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin, he has a Ph.D. from Stanford University. His poetry, criticism, and translations have appeared in the Missouri Review, Poetry Daily, Two Lines, Pleiades, Crazyhorse, the Southern Review, and many other publications. He can be reached at

Anne O. Fisher

Anne O. Fisher has translated two novels and a travelogue by the Soviet writing duo Ilf and Petrov. Her translations of Andrey Platonov and Margarita Meklina have appeared in Cabinet Magazine and in the 2015 Norton anthology Flash Fiction International, while her translations of Ksenia Buksha are forthcoming in Cardinal Points and the St. Petersburg Review. With her husband, Derek Mong, she has co-translated the poetry of Maxim Amelin; their work has appeared in Asymptote, Two Lines, and elsewhere. In 2014 they published the first English-language interview with Amelin in Jacket2. Fisher is a recipient of translation grants from the NEH and NEA and lives in Portland, Oregon with her family.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2016

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