Selected poems

Transitions №2

Author: Tania Skarynkina

Translated by Jim Dingley

A seagull flew against the wind

There’s a girl
It’s your brother in the tipper truck
he cut across the road to the orphanage
the woman with me is a work colleague
she’s expecting
it’s pitch black after work
and then there’s the town cemetery opposite
there’s not been a burial here for thirty years
Alla wasdug in deep down by the entrance right here
inside a wrought iron railing opposite the court house
when I was still living in Smorgon every year on the ninth of March
                                                                                                    – her birthday –
I brought her toffees

she couldn’t attend year five any more
teachers used to come and visit her
filling the dying child’s brain
                           with knowledge of life here on earth
they would have done better to teach her
how to die properly
they would have given the girl something of real value

in her last year she fell in love with her school uniform
long dress, narrow pleats but no apron
in the April of her final spring Alla could no longer get up
she reclined in the double bed of her parents one floor above us
and became an ideal model of childhood
not the spoiled brat of the previous year of her illness
she was given
a tape recorder
a huge walking doll
an Alsatian puppy
not to mention boxes of sweets
even little brandy-filled bottles made of chocolate packed in straw
adorned with bright-coloured foil
now she behaved better than an adult
clearly feeling the end coming nearer
now reconciled
needing no help from outside

from the military housing there came once to play
a senior class girl all alone
she had heard the grown-ups whispering on the bench ’neath the rowan
that the coffin for Alla had long since been bought
at Alla’s gran’s it’s kept ready – in a shed on Zarechnaya Street
we chased this girl from the yard nearly beat her to pulp
yelled after her
called her names
but Alla died all the same towards the middle of May

a guard of honour her classmates formed round her coffin
in the flat one floor up
me, my mum and my dad, we alllived on the first floor
the ones who had done their turn guarding
came down the stairs to our place
the flat was all warm and cosy
not like the flat up above us
where there were crowds holding wreaths
old ladies who sobbed and keeners who keened
pouring oil on the furnace of howling
like a prayer group in church
with us they drank tea they played even laughed
the grown-ups allowed it
it was thought that hysteria would grip them
maybe it did
I don’t know
these things I do not understand

on the way to the graveyard we had fits of the giggles
we chokedwith them as we led the cortège
strewing flowers under the wheels of the lorry bearing Alla dressed for school
on a white sheet
with her golden head
on a lace pillow

and only that night the blow struck me – something terrible’s happened
when the cats who hang out in the yard wailed under the windows
and in my mind I could hear them say
like Alla was crying
I thought
my heart would break
but it didn’t
thirty years have gone by
and it hasn’t

Fuji in December

With misty gaze
I behold Fuji
in December

my best friend
is with me by the open door
blood stains on his sleeves

in his sleep he suffered for his verses
his feathers are all ruffled
his glasses broken

we stand in awe of Fuji
in December
like true poets

poets who have
blood-stained dressing gowns
faces unshaven

Fuji has an inner glow
we are slovenly dressed
our feathers bedraggled

we stand alone
on the threshold of a paper house
at the foot of Mount Fuji

with our bare feet
we stamp the ground
to warm ourselves in December

a storm approaches
our gaze is growing darker
cats dig themselves deeper into shelter.

Eddy, Eddy!

My oldest uncle on my mother’s side
died suddenly
on the first of May
International Workers’ Day
he was buried
at the funeral repast
my neighbour to the right
“when we were fishing
he kind of stumbled then he’s lying
the cigarette fell on to his vest
the blue cloth smouldering on his sunken chest
I thought at first he’s drunk
the sun was coming up
everything around us on the bank
                                                  was glinting with the light
his buttons
his badge on his old railway worker’s jacket
the spoon lure
the bicycles too
cherry blossom petals like snow along the pond’sedge
I say to him
‘Eddy, Eddy, what’s up?’
he murmurs back at me
‘take the cigarette away
take it away
it’s hot’”.

Reading Anna Karenina in 1991

After giving birth
I almost choked to death
it’s terrible to reminisce

there was no time to breathe
and anyway I had almost stopped breathing
haggard from lack of sleep

the birches swayed
with their snake-like fronds
saying “sleep”

Anna Karenina
right there inside the page
laid out her needles and her threads

adorned new dresses
with old lace
stressing each word stated

“I have to drive the iron hardness from me
I have to tuck my legs away beneath me
Sad yearning weighs me down

I keep up with fashion”.

Angel sat

He sat, his gloves folded
neat and tidy
finger to finger and listened
to his mobile phone

everyone there understood
that he was from the ranks of angels
we put on a show,
we acted crazy, anything

to draw his attention
the angel sat,
drinking his black coffee
without raising an eyebrow

and suddenly it seemed
from the depths of his face
to the surface a golden gleam
came shining through.

We uneasily try to survive

We uneasily try to survive
with help from books or from films
looking from the sidelines of life is simply banal
and only rarely alluring
as it was a short time ago
in a film from Great Britain
when the main hero comes out to his sister
with all the anguish of which he is capable:
“My hands are not marked with love’s stains”
          – and his eyes filled with tears of much suffering –
“When I think,” – she had said just a moment before –
                                                  “where your hands may have been,
There’s no way I can eat the breakfast you’ve made
now that I know that you’re queer.”

in reply he looked her straight in the eyes
in his voice bitter sadness and all the kindness
he could muster in this situation:
“Here are my hands,” and he straightened
the tablecloth’s creases
with an Irish bus conductor’s work-worn paws
“Here, look at my hands
in all the seventy years of my life no love has yet stained them
and they
have never known any hugs
so eat up and don’t be afraid
just enjoy it.”

My friends are knocking on the door

My friends are knocking on the door
and off we run to see a film
with a card that gets us in for free

because we go to dancing class
where army officers have a club
passing through foyer with its rows of red-lipped actors
and the cashier behind the little window

My friends are knocking at the door
and we stay inside the flat
we pretend we’reeating dishes from
“The Book of Tasty, Healthy Food”
loudly chomping, belching too
as if we couldn’t talk at all

My friends are knocking at the door
and out we run into the yard
we play shops and tag
where ‘it’ is a ‘rotten egg’
hide-and-seek, mums and daughters
and all kinds of other games
and special games we play in winter

My friends are knocking at the door
they’re more important than the grown ups
more beautiful than the parents
a hundred times more important than books
than prophetic fantasies of the future
dreamt up in loneliness.