"At the Turn" and other poems

by Sergey Lebedev

Translated from the Russian by Dmytro Kyyan

Even though I am a novelist, poetry is a very important resource for me. I write about the shadows of the Soviet past, and travel through the Post-Soviet territories searching for some clues, hints, or remains. It is a rather surreal world. Memories vanish, witnesses disappear and traces dissolve. And you, like a detective or inspector of the night dreams, peers into these shaky, fluid, silent shapes with the hope of unraveling their origin. This world is also absurdist. A former monastery is now a prison. A former church – a storehouse or zoo, and a former estate of the local philanthrope – a psychiatric hospital, as if some sinister magician changed all of the objects and designations while people were sleeping. This world consists of missing persons, never-received letters, undiscovered mass graves, and silent archives.
Here, poetry comes to the scene. First, poetry is the best, most sensitive probe, the way to obtain prophecies oriented toward the past. Second, poetry as a perfect condensator of senses, tones and spirits helps to catch, to articulate the very air of the specific place, the air where the times are mixed and the voices of living are echoing with the voices of the dead. In this sense, poetry becomes the sort of mediumistic practice, the short-living bridge over the Styx.
 

At the Turn

They could arrest the garden gnomes,
exterminate swallows and spiders,
roll a granite pavement in asphalt,
take out to the East
the porcelain figurines from a chest of drawers
that peeped through the window,
replace the human souls
with an overcoat cloth,
shake like a chest, the dictionary,
shoot a dozen verbs and nouns, but – 
an old oak will remember,
an old oak that grows near the turn to
Sachsenhausen.
 

Sonata of Sokal

“I believed that music higher than Bach
didn’t exist," said a sullen organist,
whose broken shoulders reminded of
the church two slopes outline. “But at the seventh assault, 
having despaired to kick out the Germans, your commander
called on a brigade of front-breakers,
"katyushas," "Stalin's organs";
two hundred and ten machines. And then, I became deaf forever –
it seemed that not from the top to the bottom, but from the bottom – up,
from the coal inside
of the earth, struck the ashen lightnings barrel;
the colonnade of insanity; the dead
were ascending to the sky in the crushed shells of the crypts.

And all that survived here is the point of a miss and undershoot, – 
so he said and rolled away
on a wheelchair, having pushed only once
the wheels downward, in the direction of the Bug,
past a false jaw of ten houses of
a town square; and his stumps
were stretching to the foot pedals,
not finding support.
 

Sonata of Drogobych

In a town where women light a cigarette from matches,
and men lick their fingers after pastries,
the streets smell of shaken rugs – 
sour trash of the day before yesterday quarrels,
covered with ripped off buttons of chatter.

The joint capsules of chestnuts lie white on the sidewalk
like a velvet white lining, as if in the tongs in a torture room;
the wind of the suburbs is winnowing a cemetery dodder,
syrop of apiaries, tar from a pitch tar mill;
at the bazaar near the town hall, a calf chews the rope.

In the fall, in the neighborhood courtyards, pumpkins grow – 
the spasms of creation, abscesses of form;
the biceps, torsos, heads, heels, calves, thighs;
in the distant courtyard of Goliath of pumpkins
the foursome roll them up onto the cart;
from abundance, the earth bursts,
like dark lymph, the oil oozes.

Oh, the harvest of October, oh, the delectation for the weak!
Apple wine – into the rain barrels!
Making jam – a feast of salamanders!
Who will see the shattered with heels
joints of chestnuts, will hear how
the Bronitsky forest grows graves in a womb of the thicket;
now, David will not stand up for his people.
 

Sonata of Gnadenburg

The German angle is more acute than ours, so was saying
a long haul trucker who had just returned from Rostov,
out of the beginning of the winter – into the hot fall over the Terek
where he lives in an old German house
built by the colonists one hundred and eleven years ago.

The German angle is more acute than ours – that’s right, more acute;
houses turned scruffy by the gazes for a century,
surrounded by the kitchen gardens, firewood piles, linen,
junk that tends to sprawl around the plane
constrained by a fence and yard,
recognized only by the roof slopes
folded like prayer palms,
the movement upward – against the movement broadwise.

Here, he was saying, a cooper lived; for winemakers,
he used to make barrels – those were the barrels!
And his neighbor was a butcher, a butcher's cellar is there,
with the hooks for hams, sausages,
this house was seized by the NKVD, 
here, we had a district center, it’s not what it’s like today...

A long haul trucker had a drink after driving – and why not to drink
if up to the mountains, the combines are dusting in the fields,
pouring the hot, evil grain for alcohol;
at the checkpoints, multiplying like amoebae,
by division of the concrete blocks overgrowing with the ivy
of barbed wire, a gunner checks faces
with the seventh xerox copy of a search paper,
and it seems that the smeared pictures of bearded men
are the likes of a poorly copied someone.

Past the German brick fences
that for a century haven’t deviated from the straight line,
the similar bearded men are walking,
Assalam alaikum, alaikum, aikum, – 
the muddy waters of the Terek subdue the sounds,
swallow consonants, subdue part
of a phrase with the sand pouring from the bank;
today is the great holiday of Kurban Bayram.

Here, he was saying, right to this very point came their tanks,
And then, probably, some lieutenant went crazy,
– it was a heat wave, scorching heat,
the fish was dying in the Terek, the stench was everywhere, – 
when he saw those German houses in binoculars,
and all empty – the Germans had been expelled earlier,
decided that was a mirage, that he had hallucinations from drinking…  

He was also saying that the vine had been chopped down,
the one that the Germans planted, but the roof shingles –
the roof shingles still serve, even if sometimes, the joints
chip off, and the well is still good,
good, good, he was repeating, rattling with the chain,
having scooped the water so that we were convinced personally,
over the school soccer field, a black and white ball would bounce up,
he looked how at the highest point
the ball would freeze, and would incessantly whisper, sobbing,
thinking that no one hears:
grandpa Johann .. grandpa Johann ...
...everyone just fucking disappeared, whores...
abandoned us... filthy krauts...

On the way back, between the hills
destroyed by erosion,
that looked like the senile breasts,
I asked to stop the car,
having put my ear to the ground, I heard
a dream of the dead vine.

***

Remember making the gooseberry preserves at the dacha,
the gooseberry preserves?

The wasps.
The August starfalls.
The copper pan.
The scarlet hieroglyph of an electric stove spiral.

Crushing sugar in a five-liter jar.
Listening to the grandma's lamentations:
– Wet, they sold the wet sugar,
they leave, bastards, a bucket in the back room overnight,
the sugar absorbs, becomes heavier,
they will strangle themselves, bastards, for a kilogram!

Licking the fingers pricked with the gooseberry thorns.

The wasps are climbing the curtains.
The wasps are crawling over the table.
The wasps are crawling into the jar where they collect the foam,
tasty, sugary foam.

Stuffiness.
Stuffiness.
Stuffiness.
The air is stale. The wallpapers peel off.
The hard sweetness ripens in the pan,
releasing the bubbles.

Outside, where the stars
strike matches against the heavens,
the branches are curved with tomorrow's ripeness of fruits.

The dying mayflies are flying from the top to the bottom,
like flakes of light, precipitating
at the thickening of darkness.

Grandma’s formidable shadow
Is warping the house from inside.

In the neighbor's house, a lightbulb is blinking.

Slide a board in the fence – the bottom nail, 
you took it out himself, to crawl for strawberries.
Step on someone else's land and along the wall
sneak closer to an open window.
You do know, you know what's there.

Uncle Misha, a neighbor – an alcoholic, stands with a knife,
in his third day of a drinking bout, he stands with a canning knife,
protects the buffet from his father – the deceased.
The father was a supply agent in Kolyma,
he sold his soul for canned meat.
And uncle Misha protects
his snack from the hungry dead man.

Yell out the window, hoot like an owl, howl like a dog –
Uncle Misha will flare up, will throw up a knife,
he is alone, without his wife,
the strawberry beds are overgrown with the weeds,
he is alone,
he drinks
while the wife is in the hospital,
while not being covered with her large body
from the ghosts of the August night.

Back, quickly, quickly!
The preserves are already made, and the grandma on the porch
Is peering into the darkness.

Sleep.
Sleep.
Sleep.

 

The New Decembrists

Dear, tonight, I'm not going to get seated in a sleigh ride
and I will not go to the barracks. Lieutenant N. isn’t waiting there
He will not put faithful soldiers on guard duty at the rifle arsenal.
We will not go then to the apartment of sympathetic M,
will not drink a punch, will not give the pep talks,
and will not scatter the gun powder over a wine spilled
tablecloth, on the red patches over a white smooth surface.
Next morning, none of us will go to the square,
we will not knock the locks from the wood depots, to use the wood
for putting up the barricades that save from the buckshot.
We will not put soldiers in a square and will not wait for
the arrival of the guards crew, the command, the assault,
the crowds that filled the side streets,
the artillery salvos and retreat on the Neva ice.
We will not call on Constantine to be a tsar. 

And Nicholas, waiting for us to begin,
will suddenly feel emptiness instead of the opposing side.
Unable to act first, he is our hostage.
The eternal second, he needs a foe,
only the enemy will endow him with the strength and a face,
only the nasty pressure will mold a figure from him.

Exhausted by the continuous fears of revolt,
he, however, needs these fears,
suggesting who he should be,
needs the circumstances, pushing under the elbow,
advising to take a pen or take out a saber.
These fears are painful, but they
don’t exceed his ordinary abilities,
suitable for adjusting to the events.

Let him see an empty square this morning!
Vacuum of events, a magnificent revolt –
an absolute absence of revolt.
Only our volleys could assure him,
that he was really an emperor, only a whole day
of a continuing rebellion would give him
that significance. And let him now
stand facing a historical emptiness,
facing the break in the dynasty; prepared to answer
and not having received a question.
Amen. Amen.


Footnotes

  1. “At the Turn”:
    Sachsenhausen is a Nazi concentration camp near Berlin; about 100,000 people died in it.
     

  2. “Sonata of Sokal”:
    Sokal is a town in Western Ukraine located on the Bug River. In 1944, during the storming of the town by the Soviet troops, it passed from hand to hand more than 10 times and was almost completely destroyed.
     

  3. “Sonata of Drogobych”:
    Drohobych (Drohobycz) is a town in Western Ukraine. During World War II, about 10,000 Jews who lived in Drogobych were shot by the Germans in the Bronitsky (Bronica) Forest.
     

  4. “Sonata of Gnadenburg”: 
    Gnadenburg (City of Grace), now the village of Vinogradnoye, the Republic of North Ossetia – Alanya – a settlement of German colonists founded in the Caucasus in 1880. In August 1941, the entire German population of the colony, in accordance with the order for the deportation of Russian Germans, was evicted to Kazakhstan, and the settlement was renamed. In 1942, the advancing German troops came to the area of the village.
     

  5. “The New Decembrists” – Nicholas, Paragraph Two:
    Nicholas I (Nikolay I Pavlovich), a younger brother of Alexander I, the Emperor of Russia, who took the throne after the refusal of the second-eldest brother Constantine Pavlovich. During the armed Decembrists Revolt, the refusal to take the oath to Nicholas and the demand to restore Constantine's rights were used as a way to legitimize the revolt.

Caitlyn Garcia