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Feature: Back From the USSR
Vladimir Gandelsman

Untitled
Translated from the Russian by Olga Livshin and Andrew Janco

A bird builds up to a whole
then suddenly full she flies
her wings drafting figures
precisely on the sky

the clouds’ mute light-lumps
the upwardly moving heat
a body of close clarity
passes over me

in the tender trust-full air
from its egg-blue workshop
feathers were molded into a bird
and pull my gaze upward.

 

St. Joseph
Translated from the Russian by Olga Livshin and Andrew Janco

He tries, but can never
picture his own parents making love;
much less, begetting him.
(Even the word choice is hypocritical.)

Before, he had no such strange thoughts,
or, more accurately, made no such attempts.
Before, this did not apply to his mother and father.
And now that they are dead, he can’t imagine it at all.
Your innermost angel has wings
only when
your imagination is wingless.

He looks at his wife
and suddenly realizes that if
it is they who created the child,
then it is they who will answer
for his impending death.

And at that moment an angel approaches him,
and stands very close, so that saintliness does not flee,
and utters:
“Not you.”

 

Excerpts from Nabokov
Translated from the Russian by Olga Livshin and Peter Thomas

In some (I might have said, “some droopy-bottomed,”
if I recalled her even from the front),
in some old moscow, killing time, a poet
flips through my little book—which stings his fingers
and reads its verdict to him with each phrase:
“You don’t want anyone to know about me!
My own, distinctive voice shall go unheard.”
And even he, poor thing, is not quite up to sinking
more deeply into reading, so he shuts
the book and hides it in a drawer—out of sight.

For years he’d sculpt a sneaky, wily image,
displaying his indifference to the gift
of verse. But then at moments of intemperance
his pride reared up. So then he gave up drink.
The mask of willful suffering stayed in place.
Ideas of modesty, the thought of family life, —
the well-bred reader can appreciate
what’s within reach. So say: “My gift is humble,”—
and one day, maybe, you shall be extolled.
Too true: the poet’s calculation turned out
spot on, and he’s esteemed in some old moscow.

But what is to be done with this phrase, with
my tilting phrase, the blessed whirr of rhythm,
with this oh-so-Möbian ribbon of a sentence
that you can’t break away from it, it’s got no end
in sight, because it has no end in sight —
it flashes through his wretched head day in,
day out, and right behind it yet another.
Enough, he says. Someday, these lines will seem
forgotten by him; then he’ll own them all.

My reader will be quiet, yes, soothed by
the poet’s humble gift. I too will hold
my tongue. My handsome work speaks for itself.
Some final touches to this petty thief’s
portrait: it’s bedtime; he takes off his mask,
and winks at the reflection in the mirror,
a finger to his lips: “Shhh! I pulled it off.”
And then he has a dream in untold moscow:
just he—yes, only he in all the world—
is the owner of my little book. He must
conceal it, move it, hide it once again.

Somehow, though, it falls open and reveals
the page on which this fragment ends just so:
“The only sin,” he reads, “is avarice;
and here it is, so sweet; and here you are.”

 

Untitled
Translated from the Russian by Olga Livshin and Andrew Janco

A child is sleeping, one hand under
her cheek, the other
hugging a doll. She is not dreaming of guilt;
she is profoundly right.

Like a deep layer of snow
asleep in an empty yard:
no factories nearby, no
dark figures knee-deep in mud.

The snow in the empty yard
is like the child asleep:
consisting, radiantly,
of nothing but itself.

 

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Vladimir GandelsmanVladimir Gandelsman was born in Leningrad in 1948 and has been living in New York and St. Petersburg since 1991. He is the author of thirteen poetry collections, a verse novel and a collection of essays, and has received several prestigious awards in Russia. In English translation, his work has appeared in Crossing Centuries: The New Russian Poetry (Talisman House, 2000) and Modern Poetry in Translation, among others. He has also translated authors ranging from Shakespeare to Wallace Stevens, and Louise Glück to Dr. Seuss into Russian.

 

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