Poems by Polina Barskova

From Mad Vatslav’s Diary

I was a coal-miner, water
Poured over my gray hair, my eyelashes.
My sister, alive and laughing,
Shepherded such glorious cows!

I was a soldier, and afraid of living
I did my best to die–but did not manage to stumble
Upon any bad luck. The tsar’s own daughter
Visited my cabin and gave me a magic rope.

I was a slave. My master’s wife
Adored us, the dark, forbidden Slavs.
The green sunrise was the strangest.
In sorrow I danced, swaying, trembling, on wooden porches.

Evening in Tsarskoe Selo


Akhmatova and Nedobrovo
Stroll in the evening park,
Which begs for a footnote:
(e.g.: “A park. September.”). He thinks
Of gossip, news from the front,
And his new article, while she
Worries by the horizon’s bent line,
The park bench growing into the ill oak,
And an unfinished line in a poem.
He says: “Tomorrow I will go
To the Stray Dog. You?” And as
He waits for her to answer, Anna
Watches her glass-like shadow, and says:
“This has been an unnecessary day.”
He worries: Will she? Won’t she?
And she knows she won’t.
The pieces of heavy sky
Fill with mist. Nedobrovo takes off
His scratchy awkward scarf.
He wants to know! She–doesn’t want.
Already she half-whispers the ending
Of that comic unresolved verse,
And then, Lord–she laughs,
As the night licks at their boots.

Summer Physiological Essay: Wanderers

Was noticed by me–
A madman who destroys Berkeley’s snails;
On his head, a black towel,
In his hands, an enormous trident.
He looks for snails in the gardens, by the fences.
He catches them at each gate, jumps on their bodies.
On the earth, their remains: shells, liquid pieces.

–You asked that I write about our life–I write about our life.
Strangely it often becomes so…elementary…
In our village where small animals live slowly
And humans jump on them.
Our village is covered with unbearably green ropes.
And with a superior stare
My two-year-old daughter
Observes her country through heat

And moisture. She rides in her baby carriage
Under the tedious leadership of her grandmother.
And they need no one. As if they were alone on earth.
Two beautiful animals, woven into the landscape
Of each other. They stand quietly over a snail
Which survived the holocaust of the neighbor’s foot.

Here they are still, over a sign
Like a hieroglyph that arrived to them.
Nona bends down. Frosya with
A lively little leg beats her other lively leg, hanging
Over the pebbles in the driveway.
What do they see there, tell me, what do they hear?
And, where do they walk together
Each morning ahead of all those who drive and cry and
breathe and
Manufacture all earth’s news.

During the Fire of Moscow

I will try to live on earth without you.

I will try to live on earth without you.

I will become any object,
I don’t care what–

I will be this speeding train.
This smoke
Or a beautiful gay man laughing in the front seat.

The human body is without defense.

It’s a piece of firewood.
Ocean water hits it.
Lenin puts it on his official shoulder.

And therefore, in order not to suffer, a human spirit
Inside the water and inside the wood and inside
….the shoulder of a great dictator.

But I will not be water. I will not be a fire.

I will be an eyelash.
A sponge washing the hairs of your neck;
Or a verb, an adjective
I will become. Such a word

Slightly lights your forehead.
What happened? Nothing.
Something visited? Nothing.

What was there you cannot whisper.
No smoke without fire, they whisper.
I will be a handful of smoke
Over this, lost, Moscow.

I will console any man,
I will sleep with any man,
Beneath the army’s traveling horse carriages.

A Still Life

Saturday morning. Schubert. Frosya torments the slipper.
Blue hydrangeas. (Remember, as in Sapunov?)
I lie on the floor between dolls, small hats, t-shirts.
I stare at you, and close my eyes.
Music for performance over water? Over waters?
The German rhythm stops
….like a member of nationalsocialist party in a frightened mouth.
You sit by the computer, covered with light snow–
….covered with your own porcelain beauty.
And waters of Schubert like thousands of tiny mice boil
In your mouth. I’ve been looking at you
For three years, like a maniac
At the corpse’s cameo
Waiting–the policemen will arrive–they’ll begin to yell,
Beat me with a shoe, and I will lay quietly on the floor.
Know nothing. Hear nothing. Nothing.
The blue hydrangeas, a fistful of fireworks
….as if some celestial mole labors in the sky.
.– Mishenka, is it too bright?
………………..– It is not too bright.
Bubbles of Schubert. Tears rolling into my mouth.

Motherhood and Childhood

Another reflection from Prague, by the grave of Nabokov’s mother

Not far from where Dr. Kafka lives in the earth
Where I expected souvenirs and tourists
Is an empty space, a bench, trees.
I will sit down; sit, then walk.
Walk to the left to the right straight.
A tired cross, a bored little cat, a hole in the earth.
Sergeant so-and-so, Averchenko–and here,
Mother of the one we both love,
One who moistened thoughts, veiled with smoke
The boring truth about days (that they rot).
Here, on the far end of Prague, alone, poor girl, his mother.
And the gravestone over her is a confused dirty rock.
And a homeless cat sits on it, scratching its white belly.
And not far, with a magisterial noise Prague moos.
She lives here in Prague’s soil, under wet pines, his mother
Who washed him in the basin with a cup of water, and sang.
In the darkness her body was leaving, trembling, in flight.
And he a lump of flesh in her hands–
A lump of flesh, her heat, a home.
But for years her scent, and years later, her scent.
And her clarity, and doubt, and her whispers–
Like every love, in the end, she bored him.
Nothing there.
She was dying alone–he could not visit;
At the table in his reading glasses, he sat.
The cat darkly dug into the smallness of a caught bird.
The bird’s cooling eye stuck straight.
And he was told: In Prague, Mama died.
He lies naked on something white,
She laughs above
She covers him
With her pearl, her body her
Star, her body her snow, her body
On top of the word “strange,”
On top of the word “fright.”


Polina Barskova

Polina Barskova is known as one of the best Russian poets of her generation. She has won a number of awards for her poetry.

Katie Farris and Ilya Kaminsky

Katie Farris is the author of Boysgirls (Marick Press) and teaches at San Diego State University.


Ilya Kaminsky is the author of Dancing In Odessa (Tupelo Press) and editor of The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry (HarperCollins).

Copyright (c) Polina Barskova, 2011. English translation copyright (c) Katie Farris and Ilya Kaminsky, 2011.