I have always felt a certain ache reading this poem, but oddly had never found a copy of the original Russian until now – and somehow the original wrings an even greater emotional toll from the reader. I notice also that the English translation simply, generically, cites “concentration camp” while the original specifies “Майданек” (Majdanek). Perhaps the generic reference holds more power for those who don’t recognize the name of the camp, but for me at least, the naming leveled a certain kind of realism-gut-punch.

Olga Berggolts
Not waking, in my dreams, my dreams,
I saw you–you were alive.
You had endured all and come to me,
crossing the last frontier.

You were earth already, ashes, you
were my glory, my punishment.
But, in spite of life,
of death,
you rose from your thousand

You passed through war hell, concentration camp,
through furnace, drunk with the flames,
through your own death you entered Leningrad,
came out of love for me.

You found my house, but I live now
not in our house, in another;
and a new husband shares my waking hours . . .
O how could you not have known?!

Like the master of the house, proudly you crossed
the threshold, stood there lovingly.
And I murmured: “God will rise again,”
and made the sign of the cross
over you–the unbeliever’s cross, the cross
of despair, as black as pitch,
the cross that was made over each house
that winter, that winter in which

you died.
O my friend, forgive me
as I sigh. How long have I not known
where waking ends and the dream begins . . .


-Ольга Берггольц
Не наяву, но во сне, во сне
я увидала тебя: ты жив.
Ты вынес все и пришел ко мне,
пересек последние рубежи.

Ты был землею уже, золой,
славой и казнью моею был.
Но, смерти назло
и жизни назло,
ты встал из тысяч
своих могил.

Ты шел сквозь битвы, Майданек, ад,
сквозь печи, пьяные от огня,
сквозь смерть свою ты шел в Ленинград,
дошел, потому что любил меня.

Ты дом нашел мой, а я живу
не в нашем доме теперь, в другом,
и новый муж у меня — наяву…
О, как ты не догадался о нем?!

Хозяином переступил порог,
гордым и радостным встал, любя.
А я бормочу: «Да воскреснет бог»,
а я закрещиваю тебя
крестом неверующих, крестом
отчаянья, где не видать ни зги,
которым закрещен был каждый дом
в ту зиму, в ту зиму, как ты погиб…

О друг,— прости мне невольный стон:
давно не знаю, где явь, где сон ..

he took her


Sex – A Five-Minute Briefing
Nina Iskrenko
He took her through a fire hydrant
And through her mouth an herbarium began to fall
An aquarium of innards shimmered and banked
He threw up with both legs
It snowed and snowed the whole weekend in Iran
He took her
from one end of the train to the other

He ate her organics while the gas fumes
choked his bronchial tubes exhausted from his chase
the way he ate away at her tissues swilled from her loins
and copper seethed in his throat
It snowed and snowed all month from the fog
He lit a smoke
took a break

Later he took her through a plate of glass
through a system of lenses and a condenser
like a bobber began to shake with a gorged tremor
when he took out his paddle his drill
It snowed and snowed
and snowed

Then he even crawled away and yelled SIC HER
began to observe how the others proceeded with her too
Then he remembered a close-up shot from the film Nostalgia
and he took her again through a hyphen this time
It snowed and snowed from the screwdriver to the fine
Drink to the brotherhood! Like a drunken slave
Wrapped for a night in wolf’s clothing.
He rummaged among the fixtures
It snowed and snowed
He took her in a coffin
And like a simple art investigator
he pressed her bone marrow to her stomach
overcoming the sensation of pathos and intestinal smog
he took her without roses
and almost without pride not posing at full height
through anabiosis and converter

And having hunched over her out of violence out of tenderness and abuse
he pulled out her soul having taken her the best he
across the Urals Then he closed the gate
trembled until morning in the cold and sweat
prick open the door
but no he never picked grandaddy’s lock
It snowed and snowed from Easter to May Day

A wet snow fell the barge-haulers groaned
And it was unbearably genitalia genius
his Adam’s apple
dropping to his shin
like a pelican with the Pirquet reaction
that doesn’t fit the law of a draftman’s tools
It snowed and snowed he pulled out of the nose dive

A wet snow fell the sky it grew dark
the wind picked up the pond hawked
smoke in the stove pipe untwirled
whistling the opera Don Phallus
It snowed and snowed he came out of the water
Dry like Shchors
And then he took her once more.


секс-пятиминутка (конструктор для детей преклонного возраста)
-Нина Искренко
Он взял ее через пожарный кран
И через рот посыпался гербарий
Аквариум нутра мерцал и падал в крен
Его рвало обеими ногами
Мело-мело весь уик-энд в Иране

Он взял ее
на весь вагон
Он ел ее органику и нефть
забила бронхи узкие от гона
Он мякоть лопал и хлестал из лона
и в горле у него горела медь
Мело-мело весь месяц из тумана
Он закурил
решив передохнуть

Потом он взял ее через стекло
через систему линз и конденсатор
как поплавок зашелся дрожью сытой
свое гребло
когда он вынимал свое сверло

Потом отполз и хрипло крикнул ФАС
И стал смотреть что делают другие
Потом он вспомнил кадр из “Ностальгии”
и снова взял ее уже через дефис
Мело-мело с отвертки на карниз
на брудершафт Как пьяного раба
завертывают на ночь в вольчью шкуру
Он долго ковырялся с арматурой
Он взял ее в гробу

И как простой искусствоиспытатель
он прижимал к желудку костный мозг
превозмогая пафос и кишечный смог
он взял ее уже почти без роз
почти без гордости без позы в полный рост
через анабиоз

и выпрямитель

И скрючившись от мерзости от нежности и мата
он вынул душу взяв ее как мог
через Урал Потом закрыл ворота
и трясся до утра от холода и пота
не попадая в дедовский замок
Мело-мело От пасхи до салюта
Шел мокрый снег Стонали бурлаки
И был невыносимо генитален гениален

переходящий в
как пеликан с реакцией Пирке
не уместившийся в футляры готовален
Мело-мело Он вышел из пике

Шел мокрый снег Колдобило Смеркалось
Поднялся ветер Харкнули пруды
В печной трубе раскручивался дым
насвистывая оперу Дон Фаллос
Мело-мело Он вышел из воды
сухим Как Щорс
И взял ее еще раз



Bella Dizhur
Awakened by insomnia,
I do not leave my bed.
I wait:
kindhearted sleep will envelop
This unwanted idleness.
I lie and listen to the street.
There the night is empty and still.
Someone else’s misfortune
Engulfs me suddenly.
Warming itself
in the humming entry way
Beside the radiators;
It no longer hopes
To change its own life.
But I am still full of bravado;
I have no trust in grief;
I do not raise a cry;
I squeeze my heart in my fist.


Разбуженная бессонницей,
Не расстаюсь с постелью.
сон добросердный склонится
Над вынужденным бездельем.
Лежу и улицу слушаю.
В ней ночью пусто и тихо…
Но вот на меня обрушилось
Чье-то чужое лихо.
В гудящем подъезде греется
У батарей отопительных…
Оно уже не надеется
Влиять на свою действительность.
А я еще хорохорюсь.
Не доверяю горю.
Крика не подымаю.
Сердце в кулак сжимаю.

more dead than graves


Natalya Gorbanyevskaya
In my own twentieth century
where there are more dead than graves
to put them in, my miserable
forever unshared love

among those Goya images
is nervous, faint, absurd,
as, after the screaming of jets,
the trump of Jericho.


В моем родном двадцатом веке,
где мертвых больше, чем гробов,
моя несчастная, навеки
неразделенная любовь

средь этих гойевских картинок
смешна, тревожна и слаба,
как после свиста реактивных
иерихонская труба.

mounds of human heads


Osip Mandelstam
Mounds of human heads are wandering in the distance.
I dwindle among them. Nobody sees me. But in books
much loved, and in children’s games I shall rise
from the dead to say the sun is shining.


Уходят вдаль людских голов бугры:
Я уменьшаюсь там — меня уж не заметят,
Но в книгах ласковых и в играх детворы
Воскресну я сказать, как солнце светит…

Photo by Jake Givens on Unsplash

life may turn out better


A happy birthday wish to my dear friend T. May life turn out better.

Aleksandr Blok

It’s dark, despite the moon above.
For many, life may turn out better, –
Inside my soul, the spring of love
Will not replace the stormy weather.
The night’s spread out in the street,
And to my spirit’s muted stare,
That’s soaked in poison, hot and sweet,
It answers with a deathly glare.
I try to keep my passions down,
Out in the cold and dawning mist,
I wander, lost among the crowd,
Engrossed, with thoughts of only this:
It’s dark, despite the moon above.
For many, life may turn out better, –
Inside my soul, the spring of love
Will not replace the stormy weather.


Пусть светит месяц – ночь темна.
Пусть жизнь приносит людям счастье,-
В моей душе любви весна
Не сменит бурного ненастья.
Ночь распростерлась надо мной
И отвечает мертвым взглядом
На тусклый взор души больной,
Облитой острым, сладким ядом.
И тщетно, страсти затая,
В холодной мгле передрассветной
Среди толпы блуждаю я
С одной лишь думою заветной:
Пусть светит месяц – ночь темна.
Пусть жизнь приносит людям счастье,-
В моей душе любви весна
Не сменит бурного ненастья.

casual lover’s shoulder


Natalya Gorbanyevskaya

And there is nothing at all – neither fear,
nor a stiffening before the executioner.
I lay my head upon the hollowed block,
as on a casual lover’s shoulder.

Roll, curly head, over the planed boards,
mind you don’t get a splinter in your parted lips–
the boards bruise your temples, the trumpets
sound solemnly in your ears;

the polished copper dazzles you,
the horses’ manes toss–
O, what a day to die on!

Another day dawns sunless,

and in the semi-dark – either
through sleepiness, some ancient madness,
or new apocrypha – my lover’s shoulder
still smells to me of pine shavings.

И вовсе нету ничего – ни страху,
ни цепененья перед палачом,
роняю голову на вымытую плаху,
как на случайного любовника плечо.

Катись, кудрявая, по скобленым доскам,
не занози разинутые губы,
а доски ударяют по вискам,
гудят в ушах торжественные трубы,

слепит глаза начищенная медь,
и гривы лошадиные взлетают,
в такое утро только умереть!
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
В другое утро еле рассветает,

и в сумраке, спросонья или что,
иль старый бред, или апокриф новый,
но все мне пахнет стружкою сосновой
случайного любовника плечо.

Oh, those Russians


Viktor Sosnora/Виктор Александрович Соснора

There it all was: the gaslamp, drugstore,
street, a kiss,

a fountain, imposture, Mniszech,
Evgeny and the Neva night,

a madman and revolvers,
a genius and the jealousy of hands,

friends with double eyes,
wit of our will-o-the-wisp,

Salieri with the wrong goblet,
take everything to heart: tomorrow, love…

how light it is to love the dead!
how late it is to love the living!

Photo (c) 2006 OiMax used under Creative Commons license.


My beast, my age


The Age

Osip Mandelstam

My age, my beast, is there anyone
Who can peer into your eyes
And with his own blood fuse
Two centuries’ worth of vertebrae?
Blood, the builder, gushes
From the throat of earthly things,
And the parasite just trembles
On the threshold of new days.

While the creature still has life,
The spine must be delivered,
While with the unseen backbone
A wave distracts itself.
Again they’ve brought the peak of life
Like a sacrificial lamb,
Like a child’s supple cartilage—
The age of infant earth.

To free the age from its confinement,
To instigate a brand new world,
The discordant, tangled days
Must be linked, as with a flute.
It’s the age that rocks the swells
With humanity’s despair,
And in the undergrowth a serpent breathes
The golden measure of the age.

Still the shoots will swell
And the green buds sprout
But your spinal cord is crushed,
My fantastic, wretched age!
And in lunatic beatitude
You look back, cruel and weak,
Like a beast that once was agile,
At the tracks left by your feet.

The creating blood gushes
From the throat of earthly things,
The lukewarm cartilage of oceans
Splashes like a seething fish ashore.
And from the bird net spread on high
From the humid azure stones,
Streams a flood of helpless apathy
On your fatal wound.

The challenge, the pain, the cruelty, the lie of translation…

Her ex-husband is dead


Very often I cite the work of Bella Akhmadulina but rarely that of her ex-husband, the much better-known Yevgeny Yevtushenko. A giant of 20th century Soviet/Russian poetry, Yevtushenko died in, of all places, Tulsa, Oklahoma, this past weekend. His passing made me think back to university in the mid-to-late 90s. One professor had spent time with Yevtushenko, telling of what a magnificent and shameless flirt he had been. No surprises there. I marvel at times thinking of poets filling concert halls and stadiums, holding rapt the attention of a massive audience. Can you imagine a modern audience in America trying to get tickets to such an event?

Oh what a sobering,
what a talking-to from conscience afterwards:
the short moment of frankness at the party
and the enemy crept up.
But to have learnt nothing is terrible,
and peering earnest eyes are terrible
detecting secret thoughts is terrible
in simple words and immature disturbance.
This diligent suspicion has no merit.
The blinded judges are no public servants.
It would be far more terrible to mistake
a friend than to mistake an enemy.

Or this lovely one (which I’ve just read aloud and recorded).

And let us not forget the masterpiece for which he may be best remembered, Babii Yar.