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Nina Iskrenko

Tr. Olga Livshin

Hymn to Polystylistics

            is when a medieval knight
            clad in shorts
            storms the liquor department of store #13
            on Decembrist Street
            and swears in a courtly tone
            as he drops Quantum Mechanics by Landau and Lifshitz
            onto the marble floor

            is when one part of a dress
            made of fine silk
            is attached to the other two parts
            made of Play-Doh
            while the other parts are completely absent
            or trailing somewhere behind
            as clocks strike and wheeze
            and the country boys watch

            is when all the girls are as beautiful
            as the letters of the Armenian alphabet
            invented by Mesrop Mashtots
            and a cut-up apple is no bigger than the other
            and the notes in children’s sheet music are doing headstands
            as though it’s easier to breathe in heaven
            and something is buzzing and buzzing
            right over your ear

            is celestial aerobics
            observed through the back door
            of a torn backpack
            it is the law
            of cosmic inconsistency
            and simply the desire to strut your stuff
            marked with an enigmatic X

            is when I want to sing
            and you want to have sex with me
            and we both want to live

            It’s so amazing how everything fits together
            if you think about it
            It’s so amazing how it’s all planned out
            if it actually works out
            If it ain’t got that swing
            then it’s just not your thing
            If it’s not a ring
            don’t twist it on your fing-
Nothing on earth is unearthly or invented
There isn’t a pedestrian as ruddy as a splinter
Many people sleep in worn jackets and less than
            a thousand cards presage war
Only love
a curious old dame
runs around in knee-highs and even good old F. Dostoevsky
couldn’t hold back and had a glass of good Georgian wine
to the health of Tolstoy a Kazakh toddler
riding his squeaky bike

In Leningrad             and Samara            it’s 17—19 degrees
In Babylon                        it’s midnight
All is quiet                                     on the Western front

Translated in collaboration with Andrew Janco

To Beat or Not to Beat

The egg is so round on the outside
The egg is so round on the inside

The egg is so wintry on the outside
The egg is so summery on the inside

The egg is so basic on the outside
and it has such a chicken inside

Its three inclining verticals
are like three skewed linings in an old lady’s purse
and like three nymphets at the San Michele fountain
like bowling pins    here today
and tomorrow
here again

            You there You  Hey
            Go away
            I told you When you’re not at home don’t stay
            Don’t come rolling out of the egg that’s not yours

The egg is like a sarcophagus or a piggy bank
As gorgeous as a total tank
The egg is so checkered like a squirrel
and inside it there is such a cosmic instinct

The egg is so smart on the outside
The egg is so tender on the inside

The egg is so beaten on the outside
and made of spongy polyurethane inside

The egg’s profile is so somber
the egg stays up thinking till 7 in the morning

The egg is so          it coughs when it’s still sleepy
it wanders in the dark and grumbles at the mama hen

The egg is so co-op when you touch it
it’s always rustling and counting

The egg has saved its comrades many times
The egg grew manly   shot our foes
and woke us when the morning rose

And I got sick of it so much that I just hated
the egg   and then I thought it
and I ate it
And now again I cannot see
if I am on the outside or on the inside
For real      in prime time   in a streetlamp
or in the subway
near the Kursky Railroad Station


ANTIGONE you crazy little twitch
What does that braided head of yours conceal
Has someone hit you with a concrete wall
You’d be lucky to end up a kitchen wench

Why can’t you just let go of this carcass
Thunder and lightning Have a look outside
Today’s a holiday  Everyone’s wearing white
And Mr. Caesar’s well-groomed speech drones on
His clever toadies stand behind as one

The crows circle ‘round and ‘round his enemy
You know quite well he won’t be buried today
HE WON’T BE BURIED Do you hear Antigone
By Gods it stinks  Won’t someone close the windows

Or maybe you are just an idiot lil’ girl
What kind of dumbass walks across a trampoline
A kamikaze Tiny cotton ball
Inside the throat of a triumphant trombone

Antigone  Just think about your Uncle
My dear you see he’s scum with saskwatch paws
Antigone d’you hear me he’s got claws
Goddamit he’s got kids  You numbskull

Oh have some pity for the good old fool
Consider what his followers will think
Führers Soviet Premiers and Cardinals
Antigone  Remember he’s got tanks

You’re nothing but a drunken mixed-blood child
Romantic heroine-cum-Zoya the Partisan[1]
But don’t you know your spleen will split
When they begin their mousy rustling

They’ll crush your head Your lips will kiss your ears
When they unlock their mighty vaults
You know Antigone they get high off it
They won’t come down There’ll always be more bodies

Or maybe you don’t know the horoscope
The gods bestow their gifts upon the Epigones
The Huns the horse stealers and the squealers
Or are you blind from lack of sleep

Come on wake up   Your brother was a jerk
And your fiancé’s neither fish nor foul
And whether they’re from Thebes or from the Gulag
Crapoleans are always just Crapoleans

Hey girl maybe you’re a squealer yourself
Beria’s[2] rosy-cheeked young friend
A biological or perhaps hormonal trap
Who gets a pretty penny for her work

Or maybe you’re addicted Need your fix
Or something’s off in you as Freud would think
Is there some key inside your stupid head
That’s sticking Do you want a cigarette

Just think  Who could you ever be

Your suitors gave up long ago on their wars
And all your buddies have become little whores
Or maybe they rose up the social ladder
Some went to the Peloponnese Some to a megapolis
And some did other things  And that’s just the beginning

Antigone   In the world of antinomies
In the world of camel meat and AIDS
On a talk show of public dysentery
“In the World of Great Books” animals and doubts

Who are you   The Anti-Dove of Anti-Peace
or a ghost of a dissident past
seen through the lenses of Sophocles   and the war in Afghanistan
in the dark  in despair  in vain
in charge
in the mall on Red Square by the fountain
victorious or dead

Antigone   Who are you  Antigone


At first I dreamed of having it with Kolya
And then            Well with another one
Then it was in the afternoon
right on the bus               Although Although
it was as cramped as in a pot

And then             there was a faceless man
on some strange minefield without name
And after the Putsch[3].........again with Kolya

And every time     without result!

Translated in collaboration with Andrew Janco



it is the problem of choice
(sometimes Hamlet’s  sometimes Buridan’s)
it’s the hidden spring for the range of possibilities
from the classic wish that the magic stick failed to fulfill
to the quantum prohibition

it is a link in the chain of binary oppositions
a try-out jump a nugget of tension a trigger
it is just another attempt to exemplify and keep in ecological balance
the edges of antinomies that despise each other indefinitely
            passions and willpower
            a bat and an ordinary hoax
            pure souls that perished in the struggle for ideals and
            ideals that perished in the struggle for power etc.

it is the non-exchangeable five kopeck coin of Odessa slang
half-affirmation half-spitting out words
a jazzy tune
that pushes down the pathos of lofty longings
and high velocities
It is the fall from heaven
            prevented at the last moment

it is an element of symmetry
            a root of harmony
            an emblem of existence

Or something completely different


She kissed him on the pillow by his head
And he kissed her back
on the edge of the duvet
So she kissed him back on the pillowcase
and then he kissed her on the last working lightbulb of the chandelier
She got up, stretched, and kissed him on the back of the chair
and he bent down and kissed her on the armrest
so then she managed to kiss him on the snooze button of the alarm clock
He immediately got back at her by kissing her
on the door of the fridge
And so! Is this what you’ll do to me? Well!
She kissed him on the tablecloth without delay
Then he noticed that the tablecloth was already at the dry cleaner’s so he kissed her in a matter-of-fact way on the keyhole
She kissed him on the umbrella right away
The umbrella opened and flew away
and he couldn’t help but kiss her on the soapdish
which foamed up and swam away into the Mediterranean
but she did not become overwhelmed,
and kissed him on the traffic light
The red lit up and without crossing the street
he kissed her on a jar of marmalade
Now he was completely smeared in marmelade and she started kissing him left and right and on the display window of the Yeliseyevsky gourmet food store and on their Mac
Meanwhile he willingly put in one floppy disk
then the other
not forgetting to kiss her on each enormous pencil prop used by the Kokhinorovsky Architects’ Choir
and on each violin bow of the State Symphony Orchestra, Gennady Rozhdestvensky conducting
on each hair of each bow
performing the upper A Sharp Flat with Three Dots
and its soul-wrenching fermato
that fades
            into the tremolo
                        of the litavers

She kissed him on the liter of beer and the white coral in the ceramic mug on the windowsill and said My God!!!
What are we doing! We should be planting cucumbers and setting the table And the guests are coming and look at this mess it hasn’t even been V-A-C-U-U-M-E-D yet!
He said All right all right
jumped onto the vacuum cleaner, seated her in front of him
pulled on the reins and pushed the LAUNCH button
                                                            off they went
across blue-green snow
wearing raincoats embroidered with the small font of the Russian news and trimmed with three-carat celery and dill
and for thirty-two and a half minutes more
they glazed over with wind redolent with steppe herbs and copper
torpedoing under the skin of distorted space
and ceaselessly kissing each other on the polished cupolas of the Holy Trinity Cathedral

Translated by with the help of Justine Gill and Andrew Janco


[1] Zoya Kosmodemianskaya was a Soviet partisan in World War II. She is famous in Russia for her heroism. Only 18, she was captured by the Nazis and tortured, but did not give away any information. She was hanged.

[2] Lavrenty Beria was a Soviet politician. He served as the deputy head of the NKVD (the Soviet secret police) under Stalin from 1938 to 1945 and is considered to be a central figure in Stalinist terror.

[3] The term “Putsch” refers to a 1991 coup in which a junta of old-time Party members took over Gorbachev’s government in an attempt to revert the Russian social order back to conservative communist principles.

Translator Olga Livshin was born in Odessa in 1978 and came to the United States with her family in 1993. Her poetry in English and Russian has been featured in bilingual journals such as Reflect/ Kuaduseshcht. She is a two-time winner of the Robert Fitzgerald Translation Prize, and her translations from Russian appear in Contemporary Russian Poetry: An Anthology (Dalkey Archive Press, 2008) and other publications, and have been staged by Caffeine Theatre in Chicago. She teaches Russian at University of Alaska, Anchorage.

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