Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Bagel


О бублик, созданный руками хлебопека!
Ты сделан для еды, но назначение твое высоко!
Ты с виду прост, но тайное твое строение
Сложней часов, великолепнее растения.
Тебя пошляк дрожащею рукой разламывает. Он спешит.
Ему не терпится. Его кольцо твое страшит,
И дырка знаменитая
Его томит, как тайна нераскрытая.
А мы глядим на бублик и его простейшую фигуру,
Его старинную тысячелетнюю архитектуру
Мы силимся понять. Мы вспоминаем: что же, что же,
На что это, в конце концов, похоже,
Что значат эти искривления, окружность эта, эти пятна?
Вотще! Значенье бублика нам непонятно.
Nikolai Oleinikov, 1932

The Bagel
for Kate a few days after her birthday*

O Bagel, loving breadmaker's creation!
Though you are meant as food, how lofty is your station!
Though simple you may seem, your structure's mystery
Is finer than a watch, more splendid than a tree.
The humdrum crumbles you with trembling hands.  He rushes.
He cannot wait.  He fears your ring.  It crushes
Him, and the famous hole
With unsolved mystery weighs down his soul.
But we behold the bagel and we strive to make conjectures
About its simple shape, its thousand-year-old architecture.
What is it, what, we struggle to recall,
What's so familiar about it all?
This curvature, these spots, this roundness -- what is their intention?
In vain!  The bagel is beyond our comprehension.

Nikolai Oleinikov was an editor of magazines for children and one of the lesser-known members of the Oberiu group of early Soviet poets.  He was born in 1898 and killed in (guess...) 1937, and his short oeuvre was largely unpublished until perestroika.  And for good reason: its studied naiveté is a vehicle for parody and mockery, the greatest enemy of ideologues everywhere.  For those with JSTOR access, here is a pretty lucid discussion of Oleinikov and his work in English (though with unglossed poems.)

As far as I can tell, his collection, Пучина страстей (The Abyss of Passions), has never been published in English; only a few poems have been translated and published in magazines and on the Internet. "The Bagel" is now one of them.

For what it's worth, Wikipedia in its multilingual wisdom informs me that a bublik is not the same as a bagel, but I'm guessing there are no places outside of maaaybe Brooklyn where you might get confused.

*I think birthdays should have a 15% error margin.


  1. The thing is, you can't crumble a bagel, it's too chewy; whereas you can and do crumble a bublik (which I, a mere Manhattanite, have long been familiar with, though not by name). I admit the problem's a tough one: do you confuse those who don't know what a bublik is, or those who do?

  2. Superbly done! Of course the classic bublik isn't dunked in boiling water before baking like the NYC bagel, but they are still like brothers to one another, and quite interchangeable in poetry. The legendary Russian fox "Купите бублики" does reemerge as "Beigelach"

  3. "You can't crumble a bagel": I suppose you're right. My alternate version of that line was "the humdrum man breaks you in half with..." which is also more faithful to the original but I got attached to the consonance.

    Thanks, MOCKBA! The Wiki article actually says that both are boiled before baking.

  4. OK I stand corrected then. Life to learn. I vividly remember that Muscovite bubliki of the bygone days didn't have the chewy crust or stretchy dough of bagels, but rather soft crust and a bit crumbly, lightly sweetened dough. And I was explained that the difference is mostly to the boiling. So now I'm lost ... were those bubliki of the USSR mere impostors? Or perhaps they were treated by boiling water after all, but just barely?

  5. An update: my Dad says that in the old days, there was one bagelry in Moscow which still baked the old-fashioned chewy-crust, unsweetened-dough shtettl-style bubliki (they were sold at the Zoo and at a nearby boulangerie @ Krasnaya Presnya). Then, he says, those soft-crusted sweet "Ukrainian" bubliki impostors took over the city.