translation by Philip Metres and Dimitri Psurtsev

Under the heart of grass, dew is heavy

Under the heart of grass, dew is heavy.
Along the path, a barefoot child carries
an open basket of strawberries.
And through a window I watch him—
as if he’s hauling a basket of dawn.

How I wish a path would run my way,
how I wish I held a basket that swayed.
Then I wouldn’t long for a far-off realm,
I wouldn’t envy what someone else had.
And I would never—really—come back home.

1933

Once Upon a Time

All Russia was starving,
freezing, barely living.
Gramophones, quilts, hats,
tables—whatever we had
we traded for salt and grain
in the year 1919.

My older brother killed,
my father gone blind–
everything we owned we sold.
We lived, once upon a time,
as if in a grave, drank no tea
and made bread from weeds.

My mother was forty
but stooped over and gray.
She dressed her slender frame
in rags that fit a beggar.
At night in bed, I’d wonder:
is Mama still breathing?

Guests were rare
in that benighted year.
Compassionate neighbors
like birds behind bars
on branches, in their cells,
lived in their own hells.

One day a neighbor gave us
a gift of rotten potatoes.
She said: even the beggars
once lived like tsars.
This is God’s retribution
for Rasputin’s sin.

It was evening, and calling us close,
Mother served the potatoes.
The muse, in rose-colored clothes,
whose shape I had not known,
now came to me, hoping
to keep me from sleep.

I composed my first poem
as if in a delirium:
Only my mother could bake
a potato made of cake–
this is all it took
to be inspired
that benighted year.

1977


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Arseny Tarkovsky lived from 1907 until 1989, and spent most of his life as a translator of Turkmen, Georgian, Armenian, Arabic, and other Asian poets, only publishing his own poems after Stalin’s death (beginning in 1962). Of a younger generation than Akhmatova, Mandelstam, and Tsvetaeva, he both absorbed the Silver Age tradition and hearkened back to the simple and primordial music of Pushkin. He was wounded in World War II, lost a leg to gangrene, and wrote some of the most powerful poems about the Second World War. Later, his son Andrei became an internationally celebrated filmmaker; in a number of his great films, Andrei features his father’s poems, demonstrating the aesthetic continuation of the Russian tradition from poetry to film.


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Philip Metres is the author and translator of a number of books and chapbooks, including Sand Opera (2015), A Concordance of Leaves (2013), abu ghraib arias (2011), and To See the Earth (2008). His work has garnered two NEA fellowships, the Watson Fellowship, five Ohio Arts Council Grants, the Beatrice Hawley Award, two Arab American Book Awards, the Creative Workforce Fellowship, the Cleveland Arts Prize and the PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant. He is professor of English at John Carroll University in Cleveland. http://www.philipmetres.com


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Dimitri Psurtsev (b. 1960) is a Russian poet and translator of British and American prose-writers and poets (including Dylan Thomas, James Aldridge, AS Byatt, L.F. Baum, John Steinbeck, H.L. Hix, Dana Gioia). His two books of poetry, Ex Roma Tertia and Tengiz Notebook were published in 2001.  Dimitri teaches translation at Moscow State Linguistic University and lives with his wife Natalia and daughter Anna outside Moscow.
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