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Feature: Back From the USSR
Olga Livshin

Mom Is Scared

It scares me that you’re with a woman.
I’m scared that you’ll lose your job,
since, back in Russia, you would.
Also because you are young.

And, actually, because you’re not that young
anymore and should know better. I’m scared
that I can’t help you, even my name’s spelled
strangely in this alphabet.

Life continues, though. That calm boy:
I’m scared that he is not Russian.
Me, be less nervous? You’re kidding.
You are my baby; I worry.

Scared, for piano and orchestra,
performed heavily, heavenly, Beethovenly,
and, when I can’t bear it, scared deaf.
A zero-altitude flight over the keyboard.

How glorious that he’s a Yank!
Say they don’t cheat as much.
Say you’ll clean when his mother visits.
Say you guys won’t live like piglets.

I am so happy today, happy for you.
When Danny entered our lives,
we just knew. He waltzed in so musically,
and he hasn’t ruined things, yet.

I know that you are with a woman.
I’m scared that you haven’t left him.
It’s so hard not to know what to tell you.
Surely he must be jealous.

Don’t tell me fairy-tales.
And if he thinks it is beautiful
that you and she are together,
then his love lacks fear,

and I’m afraid that’s not love.
Listen to this pretty piece.

You say you all love each other,
then mention she wants to leave.

Why do you get so attached
when it bruises and scrapes you,
and I feel it all here?
And I don’t need your language to know.

“Scared” is not what I am, honey.
“Scarred” is more like it. And, you say, sacred,
for some reason, to you.

 


Three poems by Nina Iskrenko
Translated from the Russian by Olga Livshin and Andrew Janco

He fluttered on the phone until three in the morning
then his student account ran dry and the lanky girl
long in a perpendicular dress
like the line for beer     the night before        or right after
felt his head with particular hands
and swinging back and forth she stretched for the blooming cactus outside the window
He also didn’t know how to do it
and got so worried so discombobulated
just so (and not any old way)
But he asked anyway       Who are you
She silently stretched out the palm of her hand
There it said        Family by fate line
Pages rustled so he had no time
to skip any
The whole time he tried to remember what sort of face that first girl had had
whom he’d met early that morning
and worried he just might

 

Untitled
Translated by Olga Livshin and Andrew Janco

A herd of wild lesbians
frolicked in the gum trees
Refrigerator-sized rain
fell from the crimson skies

A demon cursed the fridge
then shut the door politely
and falling on the lesbians
bit off a pound of rain

The rain that had gone wild
hit overdosing girls
The demon grounded himself
Heaven refrained to say

That the fat lady’d already sang

The lesbian suffragists
became good girls and snobs
‘tween their legs nothing but teeth
between those only more teeth
and then you know, there’s IT
um, I forgot what it’s called
well, it’s one or the other

oh but we head toward the declining sun
or else we sit and wait until it comes here

Something in the air was gleaming
Something chirped and flew away
the broads took their inoculations
Grandpa killed the magic fish

The unholy came out from the storm
A bullet flew from the rifle
An ear jumped off a banana
He-Mom walked over to She-Dad

and took a little bite
And said Not good
Oh not good at all and very shameful

Yes, shame on us all
that we live in
such an immoral society

Tuesday, December 22

 

Artes Liberales (free arts; Latin)
A multi-storey poem
Translated by Olga Livshin with Katherine O'Connor

Prologue

There are so many apartment buildings
All of them neat symmetrical like match boxes
with carefully thought-out casualness scattered on
bumpy roughly textured blueprint
The View from the Front The View from Above The View from the Left
A little yellow stripe     A blue one Two green ones
People live densely and parallel to each other like matches
Match hands hung on the thin shoelace of the railing
Prints of match fingers on the elevator button
Match feet over your head
Match necks under your feet
Sure when you soar over this giant
concrete-ceramic molecule on a low-altitude flight
of the chief architect you can’t see every match clearly
But if you walk at dusk not thinking about much
you can see the moon tear through a cloud right over the roof
and cover all those ledges and their triangular slopes
with a furry shining stain
those ledges weren’t there before it seems
but now they’re as black and mysterious
as real ones Real chimneys
Actually you can still find certain Santas
going down chimneys like these

Floor 1

Wait       said the fat man       Someone’s climbing from behind
He waited for an enormous apathetic little girl
about six years of age to climb onto the fat man’s shoulders
and throw over her other foot in a baby blue sock         The fat man grabbed
this gastronomically weighty foot with his even
weightier hand and fidgeted a little
making the pyramid appear a bit more stable
His face broke into an even wider smile because
the little girl put her hands on his head as if on
a desk After this paying no attention to the rest of the children
making noise running around and scampering back and forth between his feet
he said
         What can I do for you
The conversation turned out to be short because it wasn’t quite clear what the visitor wanted Saying goodbye he looked again at the stretched-out cheeks and the baby blue socks
and said:
All right then          I’ll drop by later
Say in five years
The answer was         Yeah do that

2

In the neighboring apartment they didn’t open the door for him because
the daughter had gone to lunch back in five minutes
the medicine and soup are in the fridge and as for me I don’t get up
because there is a draft from the doors and the toilet is broken
he didn’t listen to the bit about the son-in-law he wrote something down
in a notebook and went up one flight

3

Two doorbells didn’t work but the third door flew open
almost right away
In the doorway he saw a messy-haired young creature
in a man’s shirt and jeans barefoot
In her hands a thick rope
in her face something was twitching
Looking straight in front of her with unseeing eyes
loudly and fiercely the young woman said
                                                C sharp
He swallowed hard and took a step back
In the depths of the apartment someone started strumming piano keys weakly and unsurely
and then he heard a child’s heartrending howl an octave lower The door slammed
Then it opened again and
a blue plastic cube rolled out onto the landing
plus a toy car missing a wheel

4

He stood for a little while next to the scratchy wall
looking absent-mindedly at the grimy gas meters then moved to the next door
Behind it there was some rustling
Things were being moved dropped picked up again
steps weren’t coming any closer or moving away
the person was blowing his nose and humming hoarsely

He rang
From the pause that followed he guessed that he was being watched through the peep-
hole       He wanted to leave but the door opened
A spongy-faced workman reeking of booze was looking at him
cheerfully and suspiciously       The brightly lit hallway was filled with tools some kind of white sawdust cigarette butts and some other unimaginable things
After hearing the question the guy nodded and grinned broader
Now his face looked even more drunken and rubbery       You could tell that he didn’t understand
It had to be repeated
Instead of an answer the resident of the apartment let out a stinking breath
raised a smeared finger and passionately
unintelligibly pronounced
                                                Artes liberales
Now the workman wasn’t making himself clear
With visible pleasure the workman acted out the same once again       then added        It’s Latin
The workman winked and showed him a whopping piece of mammoth tusk
that must have weighed five kilos
Look at this           They asked me to make a handle for the knife
And it is two million years old
The sucker is crumbling

5

Opening the elevator door
                                make sure that the elevator is in front of you
Crossing the street          look to your left
If you see a light on during daytime hours

He was tired and decided to go get a breath of fresh air
There was only one bench around
A cat and somebody else was sitting on it
And another someone floated over the road
floated by splitting from his listless body
floated after separation         after self-denunciation
not touching within        his mouth cooling
the short ugly arms of his daytime lateness
the ponderous eyelids of his train travel expenses
the empty train platforms that hoped for meetings
and the next morning’s meetings nailed very firmly
to the concrete driveway        to the pole above the gutter
A white sheet of paper        For Sale For Exchange Not Needed Don’t Want It
nothing He didn’t want to buy or exchange anything then he thought about it
and tore off a little stub with a phone number on it put it in his pocket looked at his watch and
went into the entrance

Floor 6

A boring little man
wearing boring square-shaped glasses
with a boring voice asked him not to bother
I iron my pants myself        he declared
But I wasn’t going to iron your pants
The stranger objected        I was just
But then the phone rang and the little man limping
dashed for the phone forgetting his cane at the door
It’s boring
he said into the phone with a big smile spreading across his face
It’s boring even to mention it
And he started laughing again

7

Tanya         Tanya
The flopping of bare feet on a concrete floor
someone is hitting a padded door with the edge of her palm
then with fists         Tanya         Tanya open up
and then some unintelligible scream
that made him sick
He thought that somebody must have turned up the volume on the TV all the way up but right then a woman rolled off the stairs and onto him        Crumpled shaking her face smeared with tears and a little blood Bastard bastard
Help me Crying Sobbing      The draft      The bastard      The iron
He threw an iron at me Call       The police
Some Tanya ran outside from somewhere and took the sniffling the draft and the flopping of bare feet on the concrete floor somewhere
The window at the landing was very low under his feet
covered with a widely spaced grill
He groped for a bus ticket in his pocket       rolled it into a little ball and threw it outside through the grill watching it fall onto the next windowsill onto the next windowsill

8

The next morning he decided to start a new life
But when you want to start a new life
something from your old life always prevents you from doing this
Usually it’s bad weather or the lack of money
sometimes your bike gets stolen
or they make you work on a special newsletter for some holiday
And sometimes something completely ridiculous for instance
your replacement’s wife is going to give birth to her third daughter
and it has to be this Thursday
Now something of this sort happened
In the evening going up to Building #3 behind the store
he noticed that there were twice as many kids and old ladies at the entrance
Something told him       Don’t go
He took out a cigarette his matches and lit up       And he guessed right
In about five minutes two guys in their prime
swiftly and confidently carried outside
something covered with newspapers on a stretcher and loaded it into a plain-colored police van
that he somehow saw only now

9

Got stuck in the elevator between the fifth and sixth
sat there for two hours didn’t get anything done
thought of taking a nap but he couldn’t it was too narrow there and it stank like urine Reminisced a lot but none of it mattered much
Decided he’d go hiking when he came out
if it wasn’t too dark
Then he dozed off anyway someone stubborn was saying over and over again a fragment of a phrase heavy and unwieldy like a
hammer with a short handle
He should mourn the last       three       landings

10

He woke up in the morning and didn’t get up he moved aside a heavy curtain sunshine streamed onto his hands onto the blanket it felt warm gentle sweet he didn’t want to look at his watch didn’t want to do anything his little window flung open and he heard the distant wail of funeral trumpets somebody was saying goodbye to       Somebody was saying goodbye painfully heavily and heart-wrenchingly through the blue air through the sunshine on his hands on the blanket
he started crying and remembered

All day yesterday he went around managing to sharpen only three knives and one pair of rusty scissors

The doorbell rang
He put on sweatpants
and went to open up

 

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Olga LivshinOlga Livshin was born in Odessa in 1978 and came to the United States with her family when she was 14. Her poetry, plays and translations have appeared in Contemporary Russian Poetry: An Anthology (Dalkey Archive Press, 2008), were featured at Icosahedron Gallery (New York) and were staged by Caffeine Theater (Chicago) and Out North Contemporary Art House (Anchorage, Alaska). In 2010, her work was translated into Persian and included in the Persian Anthology of World Poetry (ed. Mohsen Emadi). She received her Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures from Northwestern University and teaches in the Russian program at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

 

Nina IskrenkoNina Iskrenko (1951-1995) was one of the key Russian poets who subverted the austere and formulaic conventions of official Soviet poetry in the late 1980s and 1990s. She was also one of the first late Soviet authors to treat sexuality and the women's condition with great intensity and candor. Iskrenko's work anticipated a number of strong trends in post-Soviet poetry. She was a central figure in Moscow’s Club Poetry, which included nearly a hundred poets from the Metarealist and Conceptualist movements and other groups.

 

Andrew Janco is a Ph.D. Candidate in history at the University of Chicago. He collaborated with Olga Livshin on the translation of a series of poems from the Russian for Contemporary Russian Poetry: An Anthology (Dalkey Archive Press, 2008) and Sedition: Everyday Resistance in the Soviet Union under Khrushchev and Brezhnev (Yale University Press, 2011).

 

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