Poetry by Elena Shvarts


It was scary
on the way back:
It was wheezing, whistling,
Grunting, coughing.
Eurydice: Don’t look around, don’t dare,
………….The place is wild.
Orpheus: In this hissing I don’t recognize
………….The voice of my Eurydice.
Eurydice: Before I leave the dark, beware,
………….I am worse than a dragon.
………….I can only become my former self
………….When I see an azure sky.
………….I’ll become my former self when I breathe
………….First, painfully–it looks it’s near,
………….It seems I can hear
………….The sea and the breeze.
The voice was short, wild,
The beard rustled in the wind.
Orpheus: I’m so scared, what if I lead to the stars
………….Someone else, not you, Eurydice…
He looked back, tortured by doubt—
A snake, wide as a tree trunk,
Hurried behind with pleading eyes,
And scared, he jumped aside.
Dear thin arms with a dear scar
Stretched from a vile ugly belly—
To him—he timidly touched her fingernails.
—No, your heart did not recognize me,
No, you do not love me—
The snake hissed with a smile.
No, no! I don’t need that—she waned
Like smoke in the gloom of hell.


*          *          *

Heart, heart, I’ve got to listen to you,
But can’t even have a glimpse at you,
A little punching bag,
Beaten up from the inside.
What is beating in you, pecking—
A kind of an astral chicken
That will painfully break the egg shell and say:
………….—I’m not death, I’m your double?
………….What should I do in my trouble?
I am scared of my own heart,
I washed it not with my blood
But with the water of days; hence my anger.
I scorn you, heart, not because
You are dark, you’re a stranger,
But because you are smart,
Cunning and desolate.


A Crown

(A stylite standing on his head)

………….You are a tsar—live alone.
…………………….Alexander Pushkin

I am a king—fallen, deprived
Of water and fire,
But you can’t tear off from my head
My ancient hackly crown.
This fiery rim,
A seal, a golden obolus
Shines above—
So that the Spirit
Finds me in the abyss,
Breathing in the ring
Blowing the dust off the crown—
This tiny islet of air
Is all my kingdom.
This is my pillar—
But not with a bare foot—
Raising my brow
Into it I grow.



Elena Shvarts

Elena Andreyevna Shvarts (1948-2010), a legendary Russian poet, until 1989 was published in samizdat (self-publishing) and abroad (New York, Paris, Ann Arbor). Born in Leningrad, where she lived her entire life, Shvarts attended the University of Tartu, where her first poems were published in the university newspaper in 1973. After that, however, she did not publish for another decade in her own country; her work began to appear in émigré journals in 1978, and she published two collections of poetry (Tantsuyushchii David and Stikhi) and a novel in verse (Trudy i dni Lavinii) abroad before a collection (Storony sveta) was allowed to be published in the Soviet Union. Birdsong escaping from a cage is a metaphor running though her work. Shvarts was awarded many prizes: in 1979, the Andrey Bely prize; in 1999, the Northern Palmira (Severnaya Palmira); in 2003, the Triumph, and others. In 2002–2008, a four-volume edition of her work was published in Saint Petersburg.

Ian Probstein

Ian Probstein is assistant professor of English at Touro College, New York, a bilingual English-Russian poet, and a translator of poetry.

He has published eight books of poetry in Russian, one in English, and more than a dozen books of translation; compiled and/or edited more than 20 books and anthologies of poetry in translation; in all, has around 300 publications in several languages (translated poetry from English, Spanish, Italian, and Polish into Russian and from Russian into English). He compiled, edited, and contributed translations to a bilingual English-Russian edition of the Complete Poems and Selected Cantos of Ezra Pound (St. Petersburg: Vladimir Dahl, 2003). Mr. Probstein is the editor, one of the major translators, and the author of introduction and commentary for the Russian edition of Collected Poems of T.S. Eliot, published in Moscow (AST, 2013). Recently he published Spiritual Soil, a book of essays on Russian Poetry (Moscow: Agraph, 2014), and Gordian Knot, a book of poetry (Milan: 2014).

Copyright (c) Elena Shvarts, 1982-1998. English translation copyright (c) Ian Probstein, 2015.