Two Russian Poems from Berlin

translated by Ainsley Morse
A photograph of an elderly woman holding a pamphlet confronting a police officer
Photo by Sergey Nikolaev

“Pale blue and a flag inside, can’t see which one . . .”

Pale blue and a flag inside, can’t see which one.
Living people, two, chase a ball. A live one
In a cook’s apron stretched across his belly,
Holds a white cigarette by the café’s back door.

A woman, glasses perched upon her living nose.
Living dogs are straining at the leash.
Airy summer shirts, light jackets,
As expected of the living, billow in the wind.
Nothing gives away the place where all this is going down.

Here no one lies facedown in water, no one
Inexplicably refuses, in
Violation of all the rules of decency,
To get up, revive, rejoin the world of the living.

Even the ball, look, it doesn’t lie, it bounces.

May 24, 2022


“While we slept, we bombed Kharkiv . . .”

While we slept, we bombed Kharkiv

Afterward, a little later, the kettle with its whistle
And the old house’s tree trunks trunking full of sun
And throwing wide the summer shutters
Sweet kisses tears and oh the dawn, the dawn

And Kharkiv breathed its last in blackest smoke

While we ate, we bombed Lviv
And after entered
The wrinkled water, elders first
In the smoke of barbecues
Clanged dragonflies

Afterward we sang in chorus of how the banks
Were blanketed with hundreds of shot-down dead

And so it went, waddling like a duck,
A morning in July.

July 9, 2022

Translations from the Russian

Sergey Nikolaev is a Russian photojournalist. From 2013 to 2022 he worked as a freelance photographer for Russian and foreign media (Fontanka, Delovoy Peterburg, Belsat, TASS, Associated Press, Nur Photo). He is now in Armenia and shoots photo and video reports from Yerevan.

Maria Stepanova has long played a central role in post-Soviet culture as a leading poet of her generation and essayist. Her many awards include the Andrei Bely Prize and the Joseph Brodsky Fellowship. Her novel In Memory of Memory (2017) was recognized with the Big Book Prize and the NOS Literary Prize, among others. Originally from Moscow, she currently resides in Berlin.

Ainsley Morse teaches in the Russian department at Dartmouth College and is a translator of Russian, Ukrainian, and former Yugoslav literatures. Her research focuses on the literature and culture of the postwar Soviet period, particularly unofficial or “underground” poetry, as well as contemporary russophone poetry, East European avant-gardes, and children’s literature.