New Series No. 20 - 2002
Prison, zona, the camps, Taldái-Kustanái, and the low road,
Let sparks fly up as my soul squeals into a bend.
May my heart be smelted in patience’s slow-burning furnace,
Snatch me and raise me – heave ho! – but gently, on high.
Let the low road batter me, dislocate me,
And catch up my free-floating angst in a long prison train
To Vologda. Howls lie thin on our mouths like tin-plate.
Shoot to kill if we try to escape, abuse us, and then release us:
These are a masochist’s joys, the feathery whine
Of branches of birch in a steam-bath, coming down on your thigh.
What I see is the sapping of wills; but when pain’s nearly stifling
Your wrist turns into a perch for a gold-finch, a cross-bill,
A kingfisher, even. If you fly, you don’t have to sing.
See the one bird, silently moving her interlaced beak-halves
Or the second, giving his tinselly, gurgling laugh,
The other’s a humble bird, won’t cry out if you snare him:
He’ll sing on and on, quite true, not jibbing at all,
A ballad of life in jail to excite and delight you.
As we ride the low road, the convict road to the zona,
The rails move closer, apart. They flank us, encircle like swordsmen
In a Roman legion: a stale old optical trick.
The light burns into our eyes like flares on the front line
And shadows fall on the windows like masking tape
To hold in the glass if it goes. So bring out the cards!
Let’s get back the sum that we lost playing stoss with the century,
We were just one point to the bad, or a player was short.
Let’s finish the round, and hey, for Vologda say I!
The pleated strata of air,
The fir-branches crimped like wheel tracks,
And October standing by
Saffron and bald, like a Buddhist;
A fancy foreign car
From nowhere, no-man’s land,
Has stamped its designer soles
Over the slant stripes of grass.
How short the lease,
How quickly the russet speeds by,
If this crumbling tentative track
Will be whited out come All Saints.
Soon winter will hobble close,
Putting out its dreary dust-sheets.
So burn while you can, October,
Like puerperal fever, melting the brain.
Translated by Catriona Kelly
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