Sevastopol Stories

***

The wretched people rush about,
the heavens burn, as does the earth….
Freedom alone can’t be the end:
freedom can only be a means

for something greater than itself.
There might not be a name for it,
or else a name that I don’t know.
But surely such a thing exists!

In life, the smoke of the Fatherland
is unbelievably bitter
(it’s only sweet in literature),
and nothing can be seen in it:

not Rome, Crimea, not people’s faces.
And only the sea’s indifferent
to how long this must still go on,
to whose it is, to whom it belongs….

***

No war takes place all
that far away:
a stray bullet flies—
and cuts me down.
And the shadow on the wall
grows too thin:
no war happens that isn’t somehow Russian.
No land is all that far away—beyond fields
lie more fields, not
an eye for an eye.

***

It’s a good thing Papa’s dead,
that Mama, too, is in her grave:
he, the Odessa-Kiev screw-up,
she, the chick from Borislav.
They sleep amid the thundering din—
as only lovers seem to sleep:
they can’t see the house in ruins,
the orchard’s burned-out cherry trees,
they don’t care who’s answerable….
Two homelands square off, face to face,
and nothing’s better in this world
than slipping away
*****to an early grave.

***

1.

The neighbor whistled like a hooligan,
and I hadn’t yet turned six….
All that happened in Lugansk.
And now that place doesn’t exist.

2.

Today, like yesterday, I whisper,
“Shots are firing, bullets whistle…”
and thanks to that, the heat’s still worse:
as if it’s not July, but hell.
But somehow I’m here standing, still:
and life feels like a cosmic joke.
“But how am I alive in hell?”
“Think: kindergarten,
***********Lugansk.
**********************You know.”

***

That’s it. Sevastopol in July,
and, sailing away, my grown-up son,
but I joke, say it’s all a lie:
a person’s never really alone.

Sevastopol in July, which means
it’s not someone else’s, deserted:
somewhere there beyond the trees
a young and beautiful Tolstoy lurks.

It only seems the town, the eighth
wonder, has been emptied—a young
and beautiful Vladimir takes
Chersonesus, commands the water.

And “Silistria” is again in port,
and Nakhimov is still so young.
Alive.
********** *So pour me out some wine
of what was water just this morning.

***

All thanks to the fanatic prince
for accepting the one true faith,
for drowning idols in the Lethe—
whom God helped, none could hinder—
for stopping up the mouths of the people
with water drunk from the Dniepro,
for the little that’s still ours to keep:
to put our trust in the chosen Lord

***

What a terrible country this is:
what she once was, she’ll always be.
Perhaps I dreamed her up? So, then,
open my eyes: I’m washing her dirty
laundry for all to see, still mooning
over her chasms, her far-flung charms….
The Inspector’s coming all too soon!
We can’t say that we weren’t warned….

***

In memory of my mother

How old would you have been today?—
surely it can’t have been that long!—
a fallen leaf suggested to me
in this hot summer of Our Lord.

You should still have some good years left,
instead of these nineteen now gone!
Well, how goes it there, with God?
Tell me: does He exist or not?

A joke. Don’t be afraid, no need….
At night I pray for the Motherland,
just as I learned in kindergarten,
for Kiev’s Old Rus, notwithstanding.

Even if, as with the prodigal
son, the path goes nowhere: if He
exists, I’ll pray all the same.
If there’s no God, I’ll tell Him, “Be!”

***

In winter no one believed in the thaw,
and then no one believed in frost:
believing that way’s not easy now,
that Christ was born on Christmas morn.

What seemed so right when I was small:
I can’t say that’s wholly gone….
They say that there’s a “Christmas” village,
or maybe it’s a tiny town.

They’re likely singing carols now,
and I join in with all the rest….
I recall that miracle—
the first bright star that lit the east.

I recall the time-worn Bible,
still recall the whitewashed stove,
recall beloved Grandma Evdoka,
the sweet Ukrainian she spoke.

Where did that go: six-year-old me,
Ukraine, and Christ?” “Squeeze your eyes
shut tight, no mercy—
******          *tighter, tighter—
********************* *until it hurts,
*********************** *****until you cry.”

*The three short stories of Sevastopol Stories, published by Lev Tolstoy in 1855, grew out of Tolstoy’s experience of the Siege of Sevastopol (1854–1855) during the Crimean War. In February of 2014, Russia forcibly seized the Crimean peninsula from independent Ukraine, initiating hostilities there and in eastern Ukraine that are ongoing.

 

Translated from the Russian by Katherine E. Young

*

Inna Kabysh is the author of eight collections of poetry. Her first collection, Lichnye trudnosti, was awarded the 1996 Pushkin Prize of the Alfred Toepfer Fund (Hamburg, Germany); she has also won the 2005 Anton Delwig Prize; the 2014 Moskovsky schet Prize; the 2016 Anna Akhmatova Prize; and the 2016 Deti Ra Prize. Individual poems have appeared in English translation in Tupelo Quarterly, Trafika Europe, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Subtropics, and many others. A digital chapbook for the iPad, Two Poems, appeared in 2014, while Blue Birds and Red Horses appeared in 2018. Several of Kabysh’s poems have been made into short films by Russian and American directors; many have been set to music.

Katherine E. Young is the author of Day of the Border Guards, 2014 Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize finalist, and two chapbooks. She is the translator of Farewell, Aylis by Azerbaijani political prisoner Akram Aylisli, named one of 2018’s “Eleven Groundbreaking Works” by Words Without Borders, as well as Blue Birds and Red Horses and Two Poems, both by Inna Kabysh. Her translations of Russian-language authors have appeared in Asymptote, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The White Review, The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, and 100 Poems about Moscow: An Anthology, winner of the 2017 Books of Russia award in Poetry; several of her translations have been made into short films. Young was named a 2015 Hawthornden fellow (Scotland) and a 2017 National Endowment for the Arts translation fellow. From 2016–2018 she served as the inaugural poet laureate for Arlington, VA.

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