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Empire

“We have been nought, we shall be all!”
—The Internationale

“The Empire is a country for fools”
— Joseph Brodsky, Post aetatem nostram

That’s the Empire’s last few days.
It’s been a while since it was splendid.
Then rules and customs got amended.
Who had been nothing got his way.

That’s the empire’s days of dreams
that will become its days of yore soon,
that like the ancient three-toed horses
will not be seen again it seems.

Who had been wise became a dolt—
the older, the more striking changes.
His thoughts are gamboling like there is
another life upon his molt.

Like there is time to break and make,
to build what’s built on blood and bones,
as if they could prevail on Chronos
to let them have another take,

to find a fastness that’s as tight
as to protect from what they call for.
They will be first to smell the sulfur—
and there will be no place to hide.

There will be neither time, nor space—
when what they’ve brewed engulfs them, crushing.
What has been burning ends with ashes.
That’s the empire’s last few days.

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Michael Vanyukov is a Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Psychiatry, and Human Genetics at the University of Pittsburgh. He immigrated to the United States 30 years ago as a refugee from the Soviet Union.


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22 Responses

  1. Cynthia Erlandson

    That’s quite moving, Michael (and pretty depressing, too, because it’s expressed so well, and applies close to home, I think….) Some of your rhymes are very interesting; I especially like “call for / sulfur”. And I like the way the final line echoes the first, as if to call to mind that these things keep happening throughout history.

    Reply
    • Michael Vanyukov

      Dear Cynthia, thank you for your kindness and for liking the nonstandard rhyming. I am used to them but always in doubt about how they are perceived by others. It is indeed intended to feel close to home. History, whether known or not, is a failed teacher.

      Reply
      • Julian D. Woodruff

        It was your rhymes, Prof. Vanyukof, that caught my attention, too. The rhyming is loose but, it would seem, pointedly though inconsistently so, as if to suggest the slow and scattered slippage that might manifest itself in a society in the early days of its decay.

  2. Stephen M. Dickey

    This is quite a striking poem, and on a topic that I have rarely seen addressed, “late empire” as such. I also like the slant rhymes a lot. For me, the third stanza is unbeatable with the rhyme of dolt/molt.
    If I can digress on rhyme a little, despite the mastery of dolt/molt I’m finding myself increasingly bored or frustrated with (perfect) rhyme, and have noticed I don’t really miss it when I read (probably why I liked your slant rhymes so much). But when I write, rhyme is there like another fix of versificational heroin.
    Nice work.

    Reply
    • Michael Vanyukov

      Dear Stephen, thank you, I am so happy that you approve of my rhyming. As I’ve mentioned before, this is my heritage from Russian poetry, where the perfect rhymes, when used exclusively, may be boring indeed – primitive even. Mind you, I don’t generalize that to all Russian poetry, let alone English, but, nonetheless, everything equal, I prefer the slant ones as more lively.

      Reply
  3. Roy Eugene Peterson

    From your quotes at the beginning, it seems reference is made to the Russian Empire that then became the Soviet Union and eventually dissolved; however, at another level it seems your conceptual imagery corresponds to all the empires that were built and then crashed. You are adept in your word choice and use excellent imagery. For what it is worth, when I was the Commander, Portal Monitoring at the formerly secret Soviet missile production factory in Votkinsk, I had a discussion with the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs Deputy in our compound cafeteria. He was part of the Soviet delegation meeting with the American delegation to add a protocol for technical monitoring to the INF treaty. I was agreed to by the Soviet and American sides as the moderator. This led to additional items being added to the treaty as a final compromise. During our free time conversations, the Deputy was complaining about the cost of maintaining the satellite nations, as they were termed by the US at the time. I told him, “Why not cut them loose to fend for themselves? Why spend all your Russian resources on them?” Did my words become part of the reason for the breakup? We will never know. My own colleagues were dumfounded at my suggestion, but it made sense to me and perhaps to the Soviets at least as a tiny push in that direction. This is detailed in my book, “The Velvethammer,” along with my Portal Monitoring autobiography.

    Reply
    • Michael Vanyukov

      Dear Roy, thank you. That “other level” is correct. In my view, the Russian Empire has never truly have been splendid – while much of the text is applicable to it as well, empires do differ in details. I am fascinated by your career and will make sure to get “The Velvethammer.” Of course your prescience was well justified, in contrast to the State Dept.’s habitual unawareness and desire to maintain status quo. At the time, I hoped the whole thing would break apart, including Russia proper. I’ve also read your review of Shalamov on Amazon – superb.

      Reply
  4. Dick Lackman

    Excellent stirring poem. Like the others who commented, I cannot help but think it applies to us. Democracy is still a fragile experiment and its Achilles’ heel is that in ordrer to function, it requiers integrity which I believe we have lost among those governing.

    Reply
    • Michael Vanyukov

      Dick, thank you so much. You are right. We are living in an imperial and somehow still surviving utopia. I am afraid indeed that its rot is inherent in the very features that have allowed that.

      Reply
  5. Brian A. Yapko

    Michael, I think this poem about the sunset of an unspecified empire is superb. You have offered epigraphs which suggest that it concerns the sunset of the Soviet Union but the text of your work suggests to me that your aim is higher and you are describing a cyclic destruction which may refer to many if not all empires in human history.

    Your use of slant-rhymes works well with this subject matter. I especially like your “call for” rhyme with “sulfur.” You confidently eschew perfectly rhymed iambic pentameter and I applaud your decision. This is not the time or place for a perfect symmetry which, in this context, might almost seem effete. You keep the poem structured… but not too structured. In other words, it has slightly jagged edges which mirror an even more jagged reality.

    As for the argument, your poem describes the reversal which at some point occurs when those who created the empire and hold a power that they earned through merit inevitably get knocked off their pedestals by those who have not built the empire but who nonetheless wrest power from them. This is the age-old battle between the haves and the have-nots which has driven many a revolution in the past (the French and Bolshevik immediately come to mind.) But I’m guessing that the reason you wrote this poem at this particular time is as a dire warning to the United States in the year 2024. We are watching in real time as the toxic purveyors and disgruntled beneficiaries of DEI (“didn’t earn it”) and other bankrupt ideologies push out and punish those who have built and created, thereby replacing true achievement with mediocrity and/or sheer incompetence fueled by the deepest resentment and sense of entitlement. We’re in a very dangerous place right now, from government to airlines to media to academia to art. America is perilously close to being that lost empire you lament.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Brian, I agree — Michael’s poem could be read as a comment on the eventual collapse of all empires, but in its tone it seems much more about us (whether understood as the United States or the West as a whole).

      Reply
    • Michael Vanyukov

      Dear Brian, although some of the imperial past and decline were shared by Russia/USSR, it’s not really been splendid in my view. I don’t think it’s changed much since Ivan IV, brief rays of light notwithstanding. You are completely right about the “dire warning,” with The Internationale’s nothings and nobodys taking over decision making at all levels that matter and in all areas. Lamentable – thank you for sharing that.

      Reply
  6. Paul A. Freeman

    Empires come, empires go – as you note, Michael. You’ve given us a lot to think about as imperial shifts resonate around the world.

    Thanks for the read.

    Reply
    • Michael Vanyukov

      Dear Paul, true, sad as it is. The problem is that, unlike the past, the entire world has become that empire I keep lamenting. Which may not be wise of me.

      Reply
  7. Margaret Coats

    Michael, the first line repeated as the last implies that empires, by nature, look toward the last few days you see here. You say practically nothing of the splendid times under bygone rules and customs, so quickly ignored by the “nothing who got his way.” Most intriguing to me is stanza 4, with the allusion to Chronos. It suggests continual passage of time with continual building and rebuilding–but it ends with a “take,” another camera picture that can only record an instant without making a difference. Imperially gloomy!

    Reply
    • Michael Vanyukov

      Dear Margaret, your analysis, as usual, captures the details that I hoped would make the mood-creating overtones. My hope is always to load the words with additional meanings, apart from the direct ones. Poetry, especially in English, is a wonderful tool for playing on discerning souls, transmitting emotions with no distortion.

      Reply
  8. Michael Vanyukov

    Dear Margaret, your analysis, as usual, captures the details that I hoped would make the mood-creating overtones. My hope is always to load the words with additional meanings, apart from the direct ones. Poetry, especially in English, is a wonderful tool for playing on discerning souls, transmitting emotions with no distortion.

    Reply
  9. Michael Vanyukov

    Dear reviewers, I can’t tell you how happy I am with your reaction. I only regret that I did not include the Russian original of Brodsky’s poem, which anybody would be able to translate literally with Google Translate or something. “Империя – страна для дураков”. I am not advertising Brodsky the Nobelist – I don’t care about the names, only the poems – but that poem, “Post Aetatem Nostram,” is good indeed and worth reading. Regrettably, I have not found its English translation online. Nor would I attempt to make it more widely known – then my epigraph reference to it would unequivocally make it certain that I did not mean the Soviet Union. What I did mean is what everybody thankfully(!) guessed, a generic Empire, which the Soviet Union, a social embodiment of evil, a black hole, never truly was while bearing all ugly imperial features. That dysmorphic creature merely died, as should any totalitarian state (yimach shemo, יִמַּח שְׁמוֹ; let its name be erased). Not that its posterity is any better. That place is irredeemable – or so I think.

    I did indeed refer to a generic Empire, which the US is much closer to, regrettably, suffering from just about every cause of destruction that has befallen historical empires. I hardly ever write anything really “historical” – even when referring to history. Then, nobody probably does, except for historians.

    Reply
  10. Adam Sedia

    This is a marvelously crafted poem. The use of off-rhyme emphasizes the natural, conversational tone, but at the same time gives a slight hint of the jadedness of late empire, when formal structures are coming apart.

    Your poem also has a wonderful elusive quality that requires a couple readings to digest fully. The depth of expression is wonderful without veering into abstruseness.

    Having read your earlier comments, I can only imagine the unique perspective you have of leaving one declining empire, only to find yourself in another. I would love to read more of your thoughts on this.

    Reply
  11. Michael Vanyukov

    Dear Adam, don’t get me started—you risk to drown :). First, I am truly flattered. Then, if you happen to read other stuff of mine (I’ve been lucky to place some here, and there will be more), you’ll find that jadedness over and over—that’s my Russian poetry heritage. As to the empires, you are right, regrettably. I’ve been trying to express the heartache of seeing the exponentially growing spread of totalitarian ideology and methods in this country, the last pillar of freedom. I’ve been observing that for almost 35 years of my life here, from my academic perch, amazed how the same societal stratum that was substantially, if not openly, against the state power, here is its staunch supporter. That is especially revolting and unexpected in the older generation (that’s the gamboling reference). I often apply those 35 years to the same period in Russia—from 1917 to 1952. It had become unrecognizable long before that period ended, and even long before the war. Even though the changes are not so horrible here, constrained by history, rules and customs, they are still obvious to those who have seen their endpoint in a different frame. Thank you again.

    Reply

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