“He’s dead,” they said. “Got drunk and wound up at the wrong end of a knife.
They found him down by the garage—you know, down where the dumpsters are.”
Two dumpsters. I remember them. And the gazebo splashed with light
where we would sometimes play “I spy” or, later, far less innocent games.
The bushes that conceal the gap in the fence. The café’s sharp aromas.
All these years I’d meant to stop, but couldn’t bring myself to do it.
Not once. Instead, I’d run my finger along the bus window, spiteful
at this alien place where corner bakeshops had been transfigured into dive bars.
If only I could be sure you’d made it to the other side, where letters
never arrive, and staked your claim so we’d have no more chance encounters,
then you could shout just like you did back then, out of the Argus-eyed
darkness right up to the fifth floor: “Hey, I don’t love you! How about you?”
Aquarius writes to Libra: “Come up for a visit.
I may not cheer you up, but you won’t be bored.
If you want to, we can head over to Dresden,
and maybe even Potsdam—never mind the cold.”
Libra writes back to Aquarius: “Let’s run down
to Crimea! At night down there, it’s forty-nine—
sixty-three at noon. My friends have roses blooming
even in December, if you can believe it!”
Aquarius writes to Libra: “No, I can’t come. Sorry.
I’m not floating here carefree, but sunken in the depths.
All my savings would get me only partway there.
No matter how you slice it, you should visit me.”
Libra writes back to Aquarius: “Well, my passport’s
expired, and getting a new one would be a real hassle.
Anyway, dragging myself to Berlin in the winter…
Well, that’s just not going to happen, okay? Forget it.”
Aquarius writes to Libra: “For fifteen years, at least,
I haven’t seen my so-called motherland. And, you know,
were it not for the proverbial skeleton in the closet,
I would have come and knocked on your door long ago.”
Libra writes back to Aquarius: “Up in that country,
which has kept you fed just like your own dear mother,
how long did it take you to stop flinching, I wonder,
hearing ‘schneller’ and ‘Ausweis’ each and every day?”
Aquarius writes to Libra: “How could I forget?
The slightest little thing, and you punch me in the gut.”
Libra writes, “That’s better than below the belt.
Didn’t you used to choke back all this stuff? So, choke it.”
Life is not a treat
for Pioneer Cub Pete:
he gets punched every day
by Pioneer Sergei.
— Soviet children’s rhyme
With a flash of his silver-capped teeth,
blinding whoever chances to pass,
Peter, an overgrown Young Pioneer,
tramps to the garden with sloshing cans.
A peculiar glitch in the family saga,
this tender and harmless halfwit
grew to love his strolls to the garden
for the lilacs blooming in the gully.
Peter now sees that less and less
clean water flows to the local well.
He’s already learned how, for us,
terrible words like “never” prevail.
He’s got the clinic just three steps from home,
and on his stoop lives a black dog, Pirate.
He’s got his mama and the doorlady, Toma,
not to mention Sergei, his older brother.
And when the details can be worked out,
his brother comes home once in a while
to see the family. And Peter tucks
his ailing head down into his shoulders.
He sits and waits for his usual beating—
or else for the candy he’s been promised—
all the while folding the fringe
of the fancy tablecloth into stubby braids.
He scowls guiltily at his family
because yet again he’s let them down
by hiding Sergei’s cap under the sofa—
so that he wouldn’t leave this time.
He’d rather die than take even one
of his favorite giblet pies from the plate;
he sits there in his bright rooster shirt,
withdrawn into his own dark cloud.
A moment of calm does not fool Peter:
he senses at the back of his skull that soon
all of it will fly, flash, slam, and shatter!
Yet, somehow, he’ll turn out just fine.
These three poems by Irina Yevsa—a poet from Kharkiv who writes in Russian—first appeared in the Moscow literary journal Novy Mir in May of 2012, nearly two years before the conflict in eastern Ukraine began. Nevertheless, they shed light in their own slantwise way on some of the legacies, tensions, and dysfunction that lie behind what is happening there right now. The first poem depicts the post-Soviet landscape as a decaying, toxic, and “alien place,” while the second takes on the inevitable question of emigration to the West. Finally, the last poem transports us into the Soviet past, where a mentally disabled boy realizes that cycles of abuse are almost always inescapable.
When I asked Yevsa if she had any insight to share with me on these poems, she wrote, “They’re about the way that the past has a habit of catching up with us. No matter how much life changes around us, the past makes amendments to all the new things that come our way. Evidently, we remember too much to be happy. Could this be a peculiarity of those who were born in Soviet times? No, I don’t think so.”
Like many Russian-language poets, Yevsa only rarely writes in free verse, and I’ve striven in my translations to reproduce the form of her poems (both meter and ghosts of rhyme) while doing my best to keep up a natural English idiom. After all, as the poet Derek Walcott once said, “If music goes out of language, then you are in bad trouble.”