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These poems are not translated from the Russian. Instead, they are an attempt to translate into English episodes from everyday life felt and thought out mostly in Russian. For the epigraph to each poem, I chose a few different ways to render a Russian common phrase or expression into English — meanings that reverberate with dissonance or paradox; the poem revolves around these qualities.
The assumption that I am making is that the idioms learned in our childhood and adolescence remain with us even if we grow and age in a place that does not, on the whole, use that language. We think in Russian and use the cultural lenses that are built into the language even as we are surrounded by (for example) American English. Most of that language, however, lies to us routinely. Proverbs from the Old Country are like categorical maxims, and scream at us angrily amidst a pleasant and relativist Western world. Tenderness in Russian reflects an attitude towards love that seems to be from several centuries ago, and this very attitude pops up at most peculiar moments with a claim to a higher truth. Russian is so very CERTAIN of itself. Are those words, then, still my arms and legs, or just the limbs of a puppet? Can rrrolling rrrs be permanently rolled off the tongue, and out of sight, since they don’t reflect these magnificent motel chains nested among those magnificent mountain chains?
Yet the one thing that one can be sure of, absolutely sure of, with Russian, is how specific it is with regard to contradiction, irony, and the absurd. These qualities, I think, are important to our experience as immigrants in a home that is not one. In a sense, these qualities of Russian are home to me.
Родной [rod NOY]: native; my own; darling; kindred soul (Russian)
Each word uttered in you is a chord.
Родной, you аre helplessly plural,
these vocal cords do not just belong to my throat.
On the other end of the globe,
the sounds they utter could have caught
the multiple human sun.
That’s the difference between a native language
and the set of expressions that immigrants grab.
Whatprice. Couldjuice. Sincerely, your evil twin.
The otherling is brought home in a large plastic bag,
stirring a bit;
we train it to use the litter box,
even if it remains a lynx.
But I’m not unfaithful, either.
It’s been fifteen years.
I run from stilettoed lipstick,
avoid the Moscow Metro, ornate like the plague,
many-eyed with irritation and fatigue.
You can tell when I am drunk mostly
when I buy too many books.
But these strung beads, tightly woven voices,
bulging crowds — foreigners and natives in Moscow ‘89 ,
pickles in a behemoth jar
that they paid my mother with instead of a salary in ‘91,
even those who told me they feel betrayed
by what my parents did
those fifteen years ago
are loud within.
So hug me inside with your woe-voices,
hug me tightly with vice, родной.
The other part of you —
“darling,” “kindred” —
sounds false, so allow me to reject that.
Deeper than kindred,
you are my stomach,
filled with a mute serenade.
Dressing a Memory
Моя радость [mo YAH RAH dost]: sweetheart; literally, “my joy” (Russian)
I can’t picture you, sometime lover.
You fold into memory with such skill and grace
that I suspect it is what takes place
between grownups. Well, these are child words:
моя радость, a lantern on some other life,
I still feel your sudden warmth.
I still hear the sigh of language
from the tiny seed that you planted.
I want you in ridiculous Russian,
I want you, dressed only in that little expression,
which you made so sparklingly literal,
and which is just soundsplash to you.
Moh; yah; rah: these are grunts or wailings —
like the sounds of what your desire was.
We are even: we made for each other
that language; without translation.
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.