Polina Barskova

This Lamentable City

“Words flicker — strange, elegant — a Russian evanescence. Heat lightning pulses between her lines.”

— Dana Jennings, The New York Times


To A.K.

Are you still frightened, my clueless devochka?
Take a morsel of the Lord’s bread (and a spoonful of wine, no?),
Imagine how we will reside in Paradise, in the skies,
And how we (finally) will see every thing —
Our currency, all we have lost or stolen on Earth
Will glitter below: like the minute droppings of an iron bird.
And the proud angels, those tall sexless bitches,
Will again blend into their ruthlessness the sweetest honey,
Which they will pour down your throat, your exquisite throat.
And you are now mute and cautious, now small and tranquil,
Now you will forget what you desired. Now,
Who you were. Now, this lamentable city
Where we have lived together.
Are you still frightened, girl? Already
I am a bitter stranger.

— Polina Barskova, translated by Ilya Kaminsky, Kathryn Farris and Rachel Galvin


Additional translations from InTranslation at Brooklyn Rail:


From Mad Vatslav’s Diary

I was a coal-miner, water
Poured over my gray hair, my eyelashes.
My sister, alive and laughing,
Shepherded such glorious cows!

I was a soldier, and afraid of living
I did my best to die–but did not manage to stumble
Upon any bad luck. The tsar’s own daughter
Visited my cabin and gave me a magic rope.

I was a slave. My master’s wife
Adored us, the dark, forbidden Slavs.
The green sunrise was the strangest.
In sorrow I danced, swaying, trembling, on wooden porches.

— Polina Barskova, Translated by Katie Farris and Ilya Kaminsky

Evening in Tsarskoe Selo


Akhmatova and Nedobrovo
Stroll in the evening park,
Which begs for a footnote:
(e.g.: “A park. September.”). He thinks
Of gossip, news from the front,
And his new article, while she
Worries by the horizon’s bent line,
The park bench growing into the ill oak,
And an unfinished line in a poem.
He says: “Tomorrow I will go
To the Stray Dog. You?” And as
He waits for her to answer, Anna
Watches her glass-like shadow, and says:
“This has been an unnecessary day.”
He worries: Will she? Won’t she?
And she knows she won’t.
The pieces of heavy sky
Fill with mist. Nedobrovo takes off
His scratchy awkward scarf.
He wants to know! She–doesn’t want.
Already she half-whispers the ending
Of that comic unresolved verse,
And then, Lord–she laughs,
As the night licks at their boots.

— Polina Barskova, Translated by Katie Farris and Ilya Kaminsky


During the Fire of Moscow

I will try to live on earth without you.

I will try to live on earth without you.

I will become any object,
I don’t care what–

I will be this speeding train.
This smoke
Or a beautiful gay man laughing in the front seat.

The human body is without defense.

It’s a piece of firewood.
Ocean water hits it.
Lenin puts it on his official shoulder.

And therefore, in order not to suffer, a human spirit
Inside the water and inside the wood and inside the shoulder of a great dictator.

But I will not be water. I will not be a fire.

I will be an eyelash.
A sponge washing the hairs of your neck;
Or a verb, an adjective
I will become. Such a word

Slightly lights your forehead.
What happened? Nothing.
Something visited? Nothing.

What was there you cannot whisper.
No smoke without fire, they whisper.
I will be a handful of smoke
Over this, lost, Moscow.

I will console any man,
I will sleep with any man,
Beneath the army’s traveling horse carriages.

— Polina Barskova, translated by Katie Farris and Ilya Kaminsky

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© Copyright Katie Farris