poetry in translation

Verses from a Taverna in Uranopol

Igor Pomerantsev

Translated from Russian by Sally Laird

 

No.

To sit on a verandah with a view

of ultramarine

drink brandy made from local vineyard pulp

breathe in

the smell of roasting calf – infection –

and write of all this too?

Olives?

Okay.

But from a London shop

Italian, Turkish, Cypriot, whatever

but London anyway, a shop of broken English

where even Russians are compatriots

and the shopkeeper, asking

'How's life?'

can guess the answer.

If I'm asked, what's the story about: it's

about how the story climbs,

how it clambers up ridges, mountains:

in Chapter one, through beechwoods

then higher, in Chapter two

through spruce and silver fir

and – out of breath by now –

still higher, to Chapter three

where broadleaf and conifer mix:

to juniper, wind-thrown pine

and thickets of grey dwarf willow

till at the very top –

the epilogue now –

patches of moss and lichen on the summit –

our tale stops short: face to face

with Gorynych, the Russian dragon –

'Ugh, stench of your Russian bones!'

 

Warmth, first

even ardour:

the very same books on the shelves

same view from the window

same failings

(leaving one's wife to

pick up the telephone)

and the wives themselves

commutable

parts of the equation –

and even the girls on the horizon

are from the same countries.

And then comes fear:

we're identical.

Then warmth again,

even ardour.

 

Between Larissa and Katerini

one feels ashamed

to cover the mouth

with palm

recalling the city of yawns

the pub on Shirland Road, where

you toss between

ales: dark ale, light ale, dark.

 

Wherever you look:

men in white

are rolling black balls

across a green lawn.

Order. Logic. Mystery.

Runs. Throws. Gestures.

Some secret alliance. A plot.

Must be a hospital garden.

What kind of hospital?

Ah, come on, what kind...

 

Hide behind a fir tree

stubbly cheek to bark

out of pounce

as the devil's scuttles past

But no! The gluey resin's

stuck my finger past...

Scrunch goes the knife

and the deed is done.

But who'll wed me now

with my ring-finger gone?

Grieve not

fair youth

we'll find you a bride:

teeth on the stove and

titties on the hook

snot across the hedgerow

and a muscly rump

a comely cunt

a comely, soapy cunt.

 

Maybe this what people mean

when they talk of maturity

being like autumn:

when the windows within you

turn brittle

and the wind starts to whistle

from somewhere inside you

and people can see right through you, but you

feel uneasy

even in the mirror

catching yourself

and from deep in your throat, a dog

strains at the leash

what else could they mean but this?

 

I'll hide her safe

in the vineyard

later forget

where it was I left her

but come grape-treading time

I'll go back and grope

among the vineleaves, burst

upon a breast.

 

One wall: a common seascape

the other: a pack of 'Ararat' –

cigarette vignette –

together: the Peloponnese.

And him in the middle. Sitting.

Listening to the match he taped

last week on

Radio Moscow.

Several time rewinding

back to 'Go-o-oal!'

Look at his face:

he's happy.

The tale he tells:

'I helped myself morally.'

Schizophrenia migrantium?

 


With suntanned girls it's simpler

to reach an understanding

why should they want more sunning?

And simpler to part:

once the tan wears off

they themselves, ashamed

slip off.

 

Is it I who refuse to be an Aegean poet?

To answer to 'Konstantinos' or 'Odysseus'?

With fig-sticky fingers to smear

a sun-tan on passing Inges?

But who'll keep company with next-door Linda?

Dragging her father home

(why ever did he leave Belfast?)

With the air

that even ultramarine turns grey

with the cobwebs you whisk from your face as if

coming down from the attic

or leaving the lumber room?

With the pub where men from the council flats

Speak a language you'll never master?

 

Talking of the pub

I noticed a gentleman there the other day

Holding a page of type-script.

'Verse?' I asked him.

'Yes. A list of clients,' he replied.

 

Goodbye Linda

 

Linda's family's moved on.

They used to live opposite.

My wife

not wanting

to witness the Irish nightmare of their life

gave Linda's mother curtains.

Linda's father

used to walk a tightrope down the street

with whisky in his pocket

and a ginger quiff –

a Beatnik

from a Soviet cartoon.

Linda was twelve then

trailed round after her sister

the prostitute.

I'd glance anxiously

at my son. How much

did he understand?

I felt a bit afraid.

But now Linda's family's moved on

I can't say I'm glad.

 

The school

is having a disco

And my son's grown up at last.

We went to the corner barber's

-Sutherland Avenue and Harrow Road –

and had the Italian

cut his hair a la Elvis.

Outside

He burst into tears.

Blurted out in clumsy Russian

- I wa-a-a-nta stay a

  k-i-i-i-id.

I understood then

the sixties fad

for cute little forelocks, fringes

- done not to copy the West

but out of terror.

Don't shout at me, Sir,

I am only a kid,

Sir, please don't

Please don't arrest me, Sir.

 

Remembering father

In the old days, fathers

used to look like grandfathers.

Nowadays they look rather more

like elder brothers.

Which is why children, nowadays

so often call dads by name

instead of 'dad'.

Ethnically, all those

papa-grandpapas

were Jews

whereas the modern-day Dad-brother's

American.

This observation would remain

somewhat abstract if it weren't for

a raucous cry

'Igor! C'm'ere!'

That's the whole point.

Power. Forfeited.

Maybe they haven't taken it

but we've certainly

gone and lost it.

 

I showed my wife

A new poem. It went

'A woman I hardly knew

Seduced me and left me

With a bloody knee.

How the hell did it get like that?

Grazed on the carpet?

Well, but I couldn't exactly

Take her off to the bedroom!'

My wife said 'What if my parents...?'

My wife was appalled.

 

Why did you go away?

Why did mama

take you?

Just to annoy me?

Just so she could

love you all by herself?

But I found the gum you

stuck under the table. Pig.

I've been chewing it

ever since. Thank you.

 

Don't you worry

he says

down the foreign telephone

Just get a paper napkin from the kitchen

roll up your sleeve

and give a firm swipe

to the aquarium wall

the fish are used to it.

Why does it always begin with

'Don't you worry'?

What's he so worried about?

When he left on holiday, I asked

Who are you most scared of, kids or grownups?

Kids, he said, of course.

 

I watched

How at dusk

They hid in the cellar

A box of apples

A box of grapes

A sack of potatoes

The greengrocer and the greengroceress

In the hills of Verona.

 

 

Sally Ann Laird, British editor and translator who specialised in Russian literature, born  2 May 1956;  died 15 July 2010

 

 

 

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