Conversation with dead mother about poetry and other poems

Transitions №7

Author: Oksana Vasyakina

Translated by Anna Halberstadt


Taste of wet tobacco
On the inner lip

A thin hair on
The sleeve of the jacket

Thirteen years left till the moment
When I’ll be able to say – I outlived you by a day exactly

Pungent smell of a towel
Reminds me of your words
But more often – thin foam on the sponge
For washing the dishes

Adrienne Rich used to talk about Sexton’s suicide –
The only way of self-destruction available to a woman is suicide
I am looking at the “Darina” gas stove and thinking of Sylvia Plath’s
Sturdy long legs opened unattractively
On sticky tile floors

No one will write of the liquid shit that leaked from Marina Tsvetayeva’s intestines
And of her mad slate-grey head
Gorgon’s head surrounded by the lace of her hair
I am obsessed with the image of her saggy cheeks

Her eyelids are loose
Her bird’s beak sunken down
She stares like a face from Marlene Dumas’ paintings

Ann with her dark curls, wrapped in her mother’s fur coat, holding a glass of vodka
With ice crystals jingling inside

Olga Berggolts, Leningrad’s drunk Madonna
They used to say that she had chosen the slowest and most cruel
Variety of suicide – alcohol

Yelena Schwartz, embracing a bottle, sleeps on a green couch upholstered in velour
Next to her, her blind dog
She reeks of dogmeat and carrion
Schwartz is asleep

Her black bangs shivering
Girly hips in tight jeans
The dog whines in its sleep

Torn veins of Anna Gorenko (Karpa)
Raisin and almond crumbs
She is dreaming of a reserved city

Stones in the pockets of Alchuk’s coat and her body that absorbed Spree’s water is bloated.
On her palms – gloves of damp leather
In her diary she described her dream –
A house on fire and no one hears her scream

Poets and artists sitting at a table
She wrote down – my Russian is a gold cage

Before going to sleep I am standing and smoking next to the entrance
September night is bright like oil
Yellow light of the tobacco stand beating against poplar trunks
Blue stains of the ambulance lights in the courtyard next to us
I am crushing a cigarette butt between my fingers

And rustle of tissue paper blends with the rustling of yellow maple trees

Mornings in autumn are quiet

Pigeons’ eyes wide open, as usual
Chickadees and sparrows are quiet
You can’t hear the scream of the hoarse crow

But, it seems, I can hear this light
Seeping through the greenery at seven a.m.
And see a fragment of radiant skies

A numb morning swallows my breath

I want to find words
Heavy like asteroid crumbs
I want the words to scratch the sky
My gum was bleeding from the thought of writing a poem – alone

Death is not dirtier than poetry

Prose teaches me patience

In my memories you are walking along a narrow beige corridor
Your shoulders are lifted and tense
Strands of curled hair are bouncing upwards

What is this corridor
A TB clinic?
Oncology department in Volgograd?
Or a transfer from the coat check and the canteen at your factory?
Your dark lips are tight
You get irritated
And bend down to pick up a hair that fell from the grey sleeve of your pullover.
And you utter with disgust – how shameful

In the meantime, I am trying to find words
While watching the rust-colored eyes of a fellow traveler
His body is supported by hinges
He looks at his companion’s lips in an ingratiating manner and offers him some dark beer

I keep collecting words on the way
Looking at a worn velour mouse from the transfer hallway
A five-year-old girl presses it to her mother’s cheek
The woman tolerates it patiently
Her skin is so young, as if she were nineteen
But her lips look tired

A sneaker print on broken granite

I am collecting words like you collected hair and garbage
From the floors
You used to press your finger to linoleum and throw crumbs glued to it
Into your pocket

Poetry is not cleaner than the sleeve
Of your factory quilted jacket

Bile of your spittle is in it


Men’s poetry is full of arrogance and condescension. In the morning I read a review
of one poet on another poet’s book, in the end of which the first poet says that the first one
has adopted a meta-position.

This second poet has in mind that all of us should remember that we are – just primates.
Like the gorilla Coco, who was taught to communicate in the language of gestures. All of us–
Aren’t we hanging out in communication gaps?

How would they know what Coco had felt? I cried, when she died.

I often think of Coco. Her story, of course, is quite lovely and sad. But scientists criticize the experiment, because there is not a single article written about it, and therefore no proof that
Coco indeed was the way we see in videos on YouTube.

I think of breast cancer. When I undress in the bathroom, I look at my body in the mirror:
White with large heavy breasts, smallish, a bit flabby, stomach,
stretch marks on my hips shimmer.

My body matures, but under my collar-bones, still hasn’t faded a youthful tattoo from the times of my infatuation with esoterica– a transparent open lotus flower with a brown core.
I think of breast cancer, still not awake yet, I knead my breasts around the nipples and expect that somewhere inside the fibrous tissue there must be deadly lumps. I think of my grandmother’s brown eyes. How they glowed with anxiety when she talked to me.
Of meta-position.
Of Monique Wittig’s “Trojan Horse”, she assumed that universalization of minority groups’ experience is necessary for them to become a part of the literary canon.
Of meta-position. I don’t feel like a gorilla Coco, nor do I feel like a female bonobo. During derealization hours I watch myself from the outside; here she sits at the entrance to the balcony and watches children screaming at the playground.

I think of light. I am tired of eternal juxtaposition of light and darkness. More often I think that when the light is turned on, darkness does not disappear.
It’s here, like transparent dust.

How prose is different from poetry.
During a morning anxiety attack I feel nothing, other than shortness of breath and I recall – one need to take some Velaxen or Eltoprazine

About dirty laundry –
I am so tired from the uselessness of laundering, after two days socks already smell, and corduroy pants stretch out around the knees. Still, no one invented a way to look neat without constant laundering.
I look at a pile of underwear in a turquoise Ikea box
I know how it smells:
It smells like sebum and dust
And sheets feel wet to touch

I recall dreams:
The same theme –
I can never catch a cab to get to the airport
and finally escape form my childhood town.

About writing –
I used to feel that every poem, written by me, was supposed to somehow cancel the previous stuff.
It felt that text after text I was creating events.
They, like flashes of strobe lights, would light a dark room, and every new strobe would not recall the previous one, because it existed in a separate moment, and on its own.

But now I feel like comparing writing with undergrowth.

Writing is a dim tangle of bushes in twilight


And tobacco smoke hangs over my head for a while like a heavy dust cloud
I see – wind stirring weeds still alive and their surface reflecting October light

I see grey dreams
Dreams in blind alleys of destroyed high-rise buildings
And here in the light of oblivion I can heal tears with the effort of words A velvet lapel
of a jacket fuses as soon as it hears the first syllable of the Word which I cannot recall
upon awakening
I remember only the look and tension of ligaments
And further –
the fabric grows back
Healing wounds is something I know how to do in suffocating hopeless dreams
I am capable of burning the pain away just by looking

In the morning I hear time breathing
It is heavier than an anti-dactyl
Even though the line “quiet days roll like heavy barrels” suits me, so that
I could feel the taste of tobacco
And hear the humming of a lawnmower in a school yard

I recall entrances to apartments
where I had lived
their dark corridors smell of whipped dust, of a medicine cabinet and cats’ pee
On Sunday, after having a beer, I take a cab
The car does not take me to Timiriazevskyi Park –
But to Zatulinka, to the Yuzhny alley, to Kuzminki
I look at the lights of black frozen Moscow, and I don’t recognize the world that had touched my cheek so intimately a mere year ago; I recall the entrances and close my eyes
It’s possible it is not about memory’s ability to distort the present moment

But in fact, that 75 milligrams of venlafaxine in the morning combined with lager
grants me a feeling of timelessness; I sleep for a long time

and when I open my eyes
I roll a wooden barrel from a sloping hill
I watch it slowly rolling down with hollow screech
Sisyphus’s labor seems to me pitiful now
What’s the big deal, you lifting a stone to the top of a mountain daily
Your muscles are hot from trying hard, and in the end, you are capable
of understanding, even if for a moment, that
you can cope with the weight. But when every morning you watch from the same mountain
how time rotates an empty wooden body
you understand that the labor of your words is futile
They cannot heal wounds and your time has stretched out, like a dead spinner

Last winter I looked a dolphin in the eye
He lay on a pebble beach and its sturdy corpse shone like a wet tire Revived flies
were swarming in the rose-like eye sockets
And its sharp, closely set teeth looked so helpless between its vinyl lips
Its white flank turned rusty from dying and the burning Sun
It looked like smoked saury on shop counters in Moscow winter
I was confused
Was its tight torso bloated with gases, or was it so tight when it was alive
I was too scared to touch its shiny back
And now I regret it –
Then it seemed that my touch could have blown this body to pieces
But now I think differently
Nothing could have blown up the rotten whale

I measure time with writing: six months of prose six months of blindness Menstrual cycle
flows like a flat sinusoid
Heti wrote that a woman knows better than anyone how time works

You can’t challenge this
And on the third day of bleeding, I see scarlet specks on light underwear

I move ahead
And I see creases lining around tense lips
Every day they grow deeper and strands of hair grow transparent I tell myself they are lines of death put in the scalp

The surgeons cut open my gums and lathed my jawbone. And in the spaces, they
shoved some crushed bull’s bones
I am thinking now: did I turn into a bull even a bit? They grind their teeth

And I imagine that a man cuts up and moves the course of a river in such a way But I remember
movement of tectonic plates exists
It’s impossible to stop it, only to foresee
And then a wave will swallow coastal villages

Earth will split and a mountain will step slowly
And his dark heart will show
They’re cutting me up in order to prolong the life of my body
They prescribed strong drops to me to preserve my teeth
But on a macro photograph I saw a white polished trace on yellow enamel. I grind my teeth
and every night puts more weight on them

I could measure time with every lost tooth
or crumbling teeth
but they have a way to move teeth, they use thin sharp needles They use them to sew
my gums
to prolong me

Morning light is winding through the empty leaves of a birch Smoke stretches over the playground
I live here

In this difficult day
Sunset seems like just a green explosion above the horizon And salt of a heavy dream
crackles between fingers
I hide my sigh in the dusty pillow
There is nothing that could awaken me And overthrow the time of sorrow
Time is heavier than sorrow


One needs to choose: to doze off or write a poem

At night janitors misbehave – they throw firecrackers into garbage cans To me their pranks
seem stupid
But they live in another time I even feel a bit envious of them having fun
They hear just the explosion

And they rejoice: silence can be destroyed and it immediately slams shut I lie
and shudder from claps
But anxiety will not subside for a while

Sometimes I hear the sound of a page being turned
I listen to it and think someplace in silence
a book is floating in zero gravity
no one reads it
it exists for no particular reason, by itself And, in the wind, pages move

recently I opened Sebald’s Austerlitz

The proofreader was daydreaming
pages are arranged in a strange order: : 98, 105, 106, 103, 104 ,101, 102
And finally: 99
In this jumble Sebald discusses time, he says – there are places on earth, that do not follow the
logic of the river There is no source and no flowing into – time branches out and
developes lacunas of repetition and escape
When I go out into the courtyard for a smoke, I think that this is
this kind of place
It still has plenty of space
For my cigarette ashes
And my slow thoughts

What do I think about when I smoke my first cigarette:
I like smoking on an empty stomach
This is the time when it seems that the day is just about to open up
On the ultramarine snow the police car looks ominous to me its headlights
cutting through the morning twilight

I think of Lidia Ginzburg during the siege winter her mother dies of starvation Ginzburg
laid the dead body on her desk
I often stare at Ginzburg’s portrait in profile
One can see how time had eaten her face

She sits in a soft armchair, her desk with the stationary in the background in the light of
a dark lampshade

Every morning cigarette I dedicate to my mother
And recall how she enjoyed smoking in the morning and she drank her instant coffee with milk
to chase her Winston
These brown fatty lumps on her cup border
And the pungent smell of Nescafe granules
Then she was a lump on the gurney at the morgue in a black tight package
This is what lies on my desk
Body of my dead mother
That’s why I write down a poem in a small fragile iphone
Going back to Ginzburg I think of her aged face
So heavy it drank the time
And also of one of her essays where she talks about herself
Says that her indifference mechanism worked just fine

I still want to write poems
It often seems to me that to write poetry means to find a way to enter any time period
of all possibilities But I understand this is a mistake
I walk the same road over and over
Towards the empty well and I stare into the darkness of its belly
Feeling the mossy smell of a grave

Before I get up from the bed
I cling to you trying to feel your sleep
Your body here,
I recognize that we are just animals
Your soft belly moves in the rhythm of your breath
And your head is unresponsive like snowbound marches with grey sky in the background I move away and cover your back with my palm
And I inhale the warmth accumulated under the blanket

Then I smoke
I see how the melting snow flows down from the street cleaners’ orange quilted jackets They
exchange some words loudly and they leave to clean the roof
They smell of bread, fuel, oil and perspiration
The night gets extinguished and the day comes
It comes out of half-dream
This is how slowly and silently a poem appears
It comes out of its slumber and it quietly trembles like a restless book