The Mid-Century

The mid-century was passing, dragging
Along with it – among outdated
And decomposed calendar pages – a secret
Over which some future generations
Of overachievers will keep racking their brains
For a while. The mid-century was passing,
And somewhere there, in a postwar year,
I was sitting in a multicolored satin dress
On a sun-heated boulder by the fence
Of an old industrial plant, my grubby palms,
Joined like a boat, cradling a shiny green
Rose chafer beetle. Everything that is secret
Tickles. O emerald-winged sacred bug,
Enigma of childhood.
The mid-century.
The tiny lane with a mysterious name,
Written as Great Deer Street in the address.
Where have you moved from Great Deer Street
And where is your green secret now?
The mid-century.
Expectations, waiting.
Pelmeni.
Sweet excitement.
Our kids will live under Communism…
If only America would give us peace…
My grandpa’s clinky WWII medals
In a round fruit-drops tin the odor
Of the New Year fir tree, of snow
And tangerines, the adults’ late return
From the theater, the neighbors’ cat
Cleopatra, allegedly imported from Egypt,
And the whole world folded like the palms
Of a child, wherein are hidden our
Early wishes, childish secrets, and the mid-century.

 

Translated from the Russian by Philip Nikolayev

*

An outstanding Russian poet, the late Olga Chugai’s work is lyric and innovative. A master of poetic forms, she was an early adopter of free verse among poets of the Soviet period, using traditional verse and various hybrid rhythmic patterns and achieving a distinct voice. Despite completing an advanced course of study in history at Moscow State University, she was denied graduation because she rejected editorial changes to her final thesis (she was asked to include irrelevant quotes from the works of Lenin and Marx). In the 1990s she received a degree in Advanced Literary Studies from the Literary Institute of the USSR Writers’ Union. Her collections included Sudba gliny (The Life of Clay, 1982) and her selected poems, Svetlye storony t’my (The Bright Sides of Darkness, 1995). She edited an important two-volume anthology of Russian poets of her generation, Grazhdane nochi (Citizens of Night, 1990-2), and also translated poetry from several languages. Chugai founded and was the leader of the First Book Laboratory at the Writer’s Union in 1977-90, an organization that facilitated the publication of first books by many subsequently acclaimed new poets, including Ivan Zhdanov, Nina Gabrielyan, Arkady Shtypel, Faina Grimberg, and Arvo Mets. For these reasons Chugai was nicknamed “supplier of genius.” Philip Nikolayev has the exclusive right to translate her poems into English; his translations are published with the approval of the Olga Chugai estate.

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