Olzhas Suleimenov: Asian Bonfires




In conjunction with Cambridge University Press and the National Bureau of Translations (Kazakhstan) The High Window‘s translation stream this autumn will be devoted to Poetry from Kazakhstan. By way of a preview here are some poems by Olzhas Suleimenov, considered by some to be the greatest living Kazakh poet.

Olzhas Suleimenov was born in 1936 and is a poet, literary scholar, politician and anti-nuclear activist. He has been an editor in film and publishing, secretary of the Writers’ Union of Kazakhstan and chairman of the Kazakh SSR State Committee on Cinematography. He also served as the ambassador of the Republic of Kazakhstan to Rome and to UNESCO. Suleimenov’s most influential work, AZi-Ya, appeared in 1975 and since then he has published numerous other important titles. He has been awarded the Lenin Komsomol Prize (Kazakh SSR), the State Prize of the Kazakh SSR, the USSR Komsomol Prize, and a number of other state and international prizes, orders and medals.
Olzhas Suleimenov: Three Poems translated by Belinda Cooke


We remember that
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxwhich equalises all,
there are many examples in history,
one night Shamans came to us
from noble motives and meaningful exchange.
They lit a fire and taught us
to preserve and
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxrespect fire,
to treat certain illnesses with fire.
They taught us how to approach the horse,
and base their beliefs on the Sun,
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxand read the stars —
They have brought you:
your dance and song,
your honoring of the spring,
how to plough, grow and bake,
carpets and planes, and
prospecting for diamonds.
Then the Samoyeds massacred them,
Yet even then as they burnt on the fire
they continued to teach you.
The shamans drew the light out of your blindness,
they found you Beethovens for your deafness,
They smelted Homer out of the darkness,
still not knowing what lay ahead of them.
From ore they mined
in carats,
Talmuds and Qurans,
panning for nuggets revealing mountains
from the midst of their deep learning.
But in your eyes
xxxxxxxxxxxxit was just flowing honey,
For you it was opium dens —
diamond words, golden names,
platinum hopes, that tall paid for the smoke.
You hung out on your warm bunks
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxwith your pipes in your mouths,
down and out, off your face,
till it starts again,
thief, Asian, slave,
dog among other dogs.
when you were told
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxto pay,
pool, tangi, and mana
were all in short supply,
so you burned
xxxxxxxxxxxxThe Shamans on fires
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxto pay for the smoke.
They who had
 xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxinvented the fires
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxfor warmth.
Is it about suffering?
No. It’s about efforts of the great.
My strange world
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxwe are born into it as prospectors.
O Asia, you have wasted without end…
xxxxxxxxxxxAgain the fires have been lit
for smoke.


August nights,
walk away, but remember —
there are no blacker nights.
Apple tree bough over my head,
night fragrant, like tea.

Open your mouth,
and invisibly
a stream will run in your throat,
flowing through the green city,
at this hour.
The apple tree bough,
is slightly raised like a veil,
in the black sky there is a fire.
Screwing up my brow, I try to recall
the name of this star.
Mars. It’s probably Mars.
A horse responds in the barn,
my raven-coloured Zholbars
softly tinkles his iron bridle.
Weariness from the dusty road —
Coolness. Sleep.
Starry sky like a cone,
a pierced helmet,
as if the brightest star
had flared up and hung over his face —
Mars, it’s probably Mars.
Overripe, transparent fruit,
drags and weighs down
the bough —
bends it
breaks it.
August nights,
walk away, but remember —
there are no brighter nights.
Still so much
I don’t understand.
Night fragrant, like tea.
An old carpet thrown down,
fescue on the thick grass,
darkness behind the trunks of
apricot trees
like a crow –
I lay my head against the saddle …
and the saddle smells
of sweat and dust …
and the straight stems toss and turn
beneath me.


The hour when it is warm
without heat.
and lamps are bent beneath the weight,
like a weak denial of the darkness
light truly serves the Asiatic night.
I go to the glow of cigarettes,
where lamps are smashed by eligible young men,
where in May the frost is on my back,
where life is not worth a penny,
unless you are pushy.

Here it smells sweetly of ancient theft,
thrown on the saddle with the cry of a girl.
Pride in one’s roots, is a soul on the margins,
with a low, wild Slobodian cry.

It’s dark. White movements are visible,
the bench is busy, she is
practising witchcraft on him –
the woman is blowing into the man’s collar,
tearing his shirt off his back.
My own kin, stretch out your palms,
touch the acacia, take your time silently,
now walk towards me.
Your face
floats in the shadows
like a ball of lightning.

The moon has risen.
In the silence the water murmurs.
The dog is sleeping. The watchman with the halberd sleeps.
In the outskirts under the apple tree there is a shovel.
And the vegetable stall is closed forever.


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