Poetry is a fundamental part of Russian culture. Russian students learn the works of Pushkin, Lermontov, and Mandelstam by heart the way that we memorize SAT vocabulary in the U.S. I first encountered this poetry at Princeton, where I am studying Russian. I’ve read Pushkin, whose brilliant rhymes and evocative imagery have established him as the father of Russian poetry. I also appreciate the female poets of the twentieth century, such as Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva. These women voice their desires and their suffering, ultimately speaking for the silenced masses of their generation. Lately I have discovered Elena Isaeva, a contemporary Russian poet and playwright, whose poems I have translated here. She has been translated into various European languages, but has never been published in English. I read her work for the first time recently, and I was struck by her ability to marry Pushkin’s beautiful imagery with Akhmatova’s heavy emotion.
Isaeva’s world may seem vaguely foreign to American readers. We perceive the “Russianness” of the birch trees, the jam making, and the spring frost. And yet, when she evokes all the love, despair, pride, and humility of her existence, we jump back and recognize ourselves. She introduces a beautiful setting while also identifying feelings that already live inside each of us.
I had never thought of translating poetry before I discovered Isaeva. I thought it would be audacious, maybe even obnoxious, to translate from a language that I had only known for a few years. But I felt a continual urge to spend time with these poems, to reread them, nestle close to them, memorize them, and understand all their meaning. Quite honestly, the urge to translate is not unlike sexual desire. The translator longs to become entwined with the text, to hold all of its beauty, if only for a moment. Well, not all sex is good, and even if it is, it only lasts for a moment. Translations can never do justice to the original, and even a good translation is fleeting, for linguistic conventions change constantly. Nevertheless, I felt that it was necessary to try. I hope that, as you read Isaeva’s poems, you feel the same excitement that I experienced when I encountered them in Russian.
We were sorting apricots—
Making jam for winter,
And we spent this Sunday
Both leisurely and productively.
Seeking a little fresh air by the window,
I removed the yellow foam from the bubbling jam,
And suddenly realized
Why all this had to be so.
I knew, I was certain, that this jam
Would hear its fair share of quarrels,
And philosophical proofs.
It will easily be eaten over talk
Of the exiled and the slain.
And Mama will surely tell us:
“Poets need to eat, too!”
We’ll eat the jam, perhaps failing to notice
How brilliantly it gleams, like amber.
“Look around, for God’s sake!
Terrible things are happening in Russia…”
My friend will pick up an apricot
And stick it neatly in her mouth:
“You know, he doesn’t appreciate me at all.
He’s a bastard,” she will quietly conclude.
Strange and awful things are happening in the motherland…
But how cozy we are, in this little house!
There is happiness in a full cup:
Sipping from it, I nearly swallow up all my sorrows.
And I will smuggle these tightly-sealed jars
Into the hospital,
Where my cherished and beloved friends
Will not be healing, but rather, rotting.
And one of them, exhausted,
As if sharing a simple revelation,
Will tell me: “Good jam.”
And I’ll say, “I made it myself.”
The church is crowded—it’s been crowded lately.
The candles are crackling, jumping gleefully around me.
Oh, God, the path to you is long and grueling
For a simple woman like me.
I long to see you, to discover you reborn,
To feel my soul’s pain melt away, like the frost in spring.
Forgiveness—the most wonderful word!—
Hovers above our poor sinners’ heads.
Forgive me for not lying down on the dusty road
Next to your feet, for rejecting your grace.
I couldn’t go a day living like Rachel,
Watching Leah jealously
As she bears your sons,
Roasts meat on the stove,
And pleases you at night…
Even though, in her arms, you cry about me.
My fate is better by far—it’s different.
I have a husband and a son. I have the starry, quiet evening.
And as I watch the stars, unblinking,
I burn them with my gaze.
As if to save my soul from languishing in the desert,
My baby giggles at a shiny compact mirror.
Forgive me…perhaps, out of pride,
Between the two of us, I chose myself.
What a lovely, quiet day.
The sunshine has made us lazy,
Here, there, and everywhere.
A child digs in a sandbox,
And, in the distance, a dog barks.
My soul feels lighter today,
As if expecting a miracle.
And how momentous, that on this swaying, humming tree,
Resin trickles from a branch down the trunk,
That these strawberries on the table
Glisten with wetness,
And that in this shimmering, sweltering world of ours,
The past is reduced to ashes.
And everything I’ve lived through,
Doesn’t seem to matter anymore.
A woman—such a happy woman!—
Tells me, with frightening omniscience,
That this birch, that man over there,
And God in heaven, are all one.
I stand here and listen, blinking,
But I can’t wrap my head around it.
You are mine! No God, no birch tree, can compare to you.
You breathe life into life itself.
But the woman repeats, in the name of Mary,
That I have not yet affirmed my faith,
And that when the truth finally stands before me,
That God lives in everything—in man, in birds, in stones,
Then everything will become perfectly clear to me,
Including who to love. That will become blessedly, blissfully clear.
…But, renouncing this divine perfection,
I choose a lesser bliss,
Not pitying my soul in the least:
I watch you walk away, along the avenue.