A poem by Polina Barskova, translated from Russian by Valzhyna Mort
I don’t know where these words will find you, brother.
It’s possible that you are no longer,
it’s possible that you have never been.
The last thing I held onto
in my life
was the thought that far beyond the sea
my brother, away from me,
is keeping busy
but now I wonder
whether it was a lie.
Now I’ve reached this sea,
the sea burns me.
The city too burns me.
Here, they say, some people
met him, heard of his plans
to stay around longer.
What I would have told him,
what we would have done together,
nothing would have made our meeting
I would have told him that I’ve accomplished it all:
the yawning squeamishness of the monarch,
the lust of a yawning little woman,
I saw my words
scratched on walls
of whorehouses where boys and girls
burred them out
grimacing, itching and pissing.
He would have made up a face:
is that all that life has squeezed out of you?
Is that what I bothered with you for
saw you as but an ugly runt?
Either orange or blue, as if bloated,
Is that what I left you alone for
dooming you to yourself?
I, wordless brother, – you, brother of many words?
Wait, I would have replied,
I’ve known the thrill of power
when you spread out your verse
like an eager woman
this way and that
like a narrow street in Alfama
and retreating later, blank like a newborn,
into the roaring night.
I had expectations, not for the sake
of pleasure but mercy.
I thought you’d learn mercy,
learn its ways among words.
Mercy, sweeter than shame, mercy fidgety like love,
mercy that reaffirms us in the conversation of equals,
mercy that, like alkali, washes rotten memory,
mercy that allows us to caress and walk the dead
along the walls burnt by iodine waves.
Then I realized
that my dead brother
has lost interest,
his shadow no longer shines,
his eyes wonder,
he seems in a rush
or has remembered something he lost,
something like a good bye.
Polina Barskova was born in Leningrad and is the author of ten books of poetry in Russian. Her books in English translation are This Lamentable City (Tupelo Press), The Zoo in Winter: Selected Poems (Melville House), and Relocations (Zephyr Press). As a professor of Russian literature at Hampshire College, Barskova began a collective archival project that resulted in the anthology Written in the Dark: Five Poets in the Siege of Leningrad (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2016).
Valzhyna Mort is the author of two poetry collections, Factory of Tears and Collected Body (Copper Canyon Press). She is a recipient of the Lannan foundation fellowship, the Amy Clampitt fellowship, the Bess Hokins prize from Poetry and the Gulf Coast Journal Prize in translation. Born in Minsk, Belarus, she teaches at Cornell University and writes in English and Belarusian. Her new book, Music for the Dead and Resurrected, is coming out in 2020 from FSG.Polina Barskova, translated from Russian by Valzhyna Mort.