Dimitri Psurtsev [translated by Philip Metres]

Translator’s Note:

Part of the tradition of poets holding fast to the work of the spirit while the powerful continue to steal the future, Psurtsev’s poetry situates itself at the nexus between the elemental and the eternal, the earthly with the human dream. In this selection, the poet offers a prophetic and primal vision of a life, seen as if from a far distance.

A brief word about the translation. Characteristic of Psurtsev’s poetry is the employment of archaic and Biblical diction and Russian folklore, often situating scenes of ordinary life as part of a continuous and perhaps timeless past. If his earlier work actively eschewed rhyme (but not meter, the heart of Russian poetry remaining syllabotonic), as a protest against the mechanistic expectations of rhyme in Russian poetry, he gradually recuperated rhyme in his later poems. Translating Psurtsev has meant grappling with how his poetry is read and feels in Russian—situating itself inside the tradition and yet resisting its lulling normativity. Silent rhymes in Russian poetry speak loudly against the backdrop of an almost entirely rhymed poetic corpus. (Until quite recently, free verse was in fact an exotic species mostly unseen in Russia.) However, in the American poetry context, rhyme functions almost inversely, except among the redoubtable formalists, who continue to carry the banner.

Thus, how to create the effect of Psurtsev’s poems, to a certain extent, is a question of form—to show both his unusual hybrid approach and his return to rhyme in later poems.? Working with lineation, stanza, and shape, as well as finding ways of combining his blend of high poetic language, archaisms, and conversational speech, I have tried to bring his poetry’s fascinating freshness, his shimmering simplicity, into American English. Or, to put it another way, my goal, in conversation with Dima, is to aim in English for that impossible possibility, where, in Psurtsev’s own words, “all words became flesh.”

Philip Metres


Dilute the dark with a drop of light
And behold, the night’s no longer
Blackest black. Triumphant summer’s
Lantern swaying on a pole’s height
Will not forget how we danced together.

And though our life was declaimed
By a poet no greater than a poet,
And later we will be condemned,
Though the cold will warm our bones
And the world will forget our death—

We lived as if clothed in flame
No eye could glimpse, as if we were words
From a book that no longer exists,
But in which all words became flesh.


Вот, тьму разбавь немного светом,
И аспидною ночь не будет.
Фонарь победоносный лета,
На пляшущем шесте воздетый,
Про наши пляски не забудет.

Пусть наша жизнь была воспета
Не большим, чем поэт, поэтом
И кто-то нас потом осудит,
Пусть кости холодом согреты
И мир про нашу смерть забудет, –

Мы жили пламенем одеты
Незримым, словно были словом
Из книжки, уж которой нету,
Но слово снова стало новым.



[“A ship hovers in the middle”]

“A ship hovers in the middle
Of heaven’s depths, amidst
Shreds of brisk-swirling mists
Driven by wind through invisible
Sails, its huge pile of rigging,
Through the plexus of stories
And dreams, how beautiful it seems—
When the pillow’s pulled over
A sensitive ear—this crescent moon...”

But why complicate everything?
Why the overly ornate image?
When bread is broken, it’s fragrant.
A baby’s head also has a scent.
There are bees around the garden
And leaves flicker out the window.
There’s a moon in the sky at night.
Why look for comparisons?

“Outside the window, a ship floats still.
A bee hovers over the round leaven.
The baby breathes the sweetness of milk.
The bread, once broken, smells of heaven.”


«Корабль, повисший посередь
Пучины неба, средь чреды
Скороклубящихся туманов,
Стремимых ветром сквозь его
Незримых парусов, снастей
Огромный ворох, сквозь сплетенье
Историй, снов, как он красив,
Когда надвинута подушка
На ухо чуткое, сей месяц...»

Но для чего всё усложнять,
К чему витиеватый образ,
Когда разломлен пахнет хлеб,
И пахнет голова ребёнка,
И есть в саду движенье пчёл,
И за окном мельканье листьев,
И месяц в небе по ночам?
Зачем подыскивать сравненья?

«Плывёт корабль за окном.
Пчела висит над круглым хлебом.
Ребёнок пахнет молоком,
И хлеб разломлен пахнет небом».




What can we do if time around us
compresses, and our story doesn’t end
the way that we would have wanted,
the way its lullabies sung in our blood?
That’s what my friend had said, walking the edge
of invisible darkness, unaware
he admonished me to say it again,
at least a decade since his demise.
Still, the winter keeps weaving its linens
and stars gaze down upon us with their eyes.
But something has changed forever. We hear
only the splintered fragments of ringing
and not the fullness of bells. Well, okay,
there’s no deceiving primordial laws.
Even if we’re raised up on judgment day,
our happiness on earth will never rise.

Что делать, если время вокруг нас
Сжимается, и вряд ли наш рассказ
Закончен будет так, как нам хотелось,
Как в нашу кровь вбаюкалось и впелось…
Так говорил мой друг, идя по краю
Незримой тьмы и, сам того не зная,
Наказывал мне это вновь сказать,
Когда уж десять лет с его кончины.
Всё так же ткёт зима свои холстины,
И так же звёзд на нас глядят глаза.
Но что-то изменилось неуклонно,
И нам слышны – как бы осколки звона,
Не целый звон. Что ж, так тому и быть,
Извечного закона не обманем,
И даже если в судный день восстанем,
Земного счастья нам не воскресить.



[I drink dusty water and eat transparent bread]

I drink dusty water and eat transparent bread
Under a sky whose melancholy blazing blue
Fills the lifted brims of the steppe-saucer
That fell from God’s table on its back
And by some miracle did not break.

The shells have been lifted from everything.
Only the last shroud, whose seal
Shall not be broken, remains before me,
Impenetrable to my eye,
Impenetrable to my body.

More and more, things repeat. To see
In what’s happening what has happened already;
More and more, life’s violent mystery
Appears as a modest flower
Growing in the garden of gardens.

And only when I pass through my own shroud
Will I find myself beyond all shrouds,
That place where all will be known.
Stronger than fear or love, curiosity
Squeezes my heart, without mercy.


Пью воду пыльную и ем прозрачный хлеб
Под небом, чья голубизна тоской и зноем
Наполнена до вздёрнутых краев
Степного блюдца, навзничь павшего с стола
Богов и не разбившегося чудом.

Все оболочки сняты, и покров
Последний лишь, с вещей не совлечённый,
Остался предо мною, он незрим,
И взгляду моему не проницаем,
Не проницаем телу моему.

Все чаще повторенья - узнаванье
Того, что было, в том, что есть; и чаще
Неистовая тайна здешней жизни
Мне кротким представляется цветком,
Растущим где-то там, в саду великом.

И только через собственный покров
Пройдя, я попаду за все покровы,
И только там смогу я все узнать.
Безжалостно сжимает любопытство
Мне сердце - больше страха и любви.



[How dirty and spongy, as if an oil]

How dirty and spongy, as if an oil
Of Lent anoints this Lenten snow—

Along the roadside, it splays
Like an invalid of winter grace.*

Dear Zabolotsky, may you be gloried—
No villain, but a falcon for the good.

God forbid that I’d survive and endure
What you endured... How does shame not devour

The eyes of those who throw in the breast
Of snow cigarette butts, wrappers, and waste?

Or those who raise cheap high-rises
Above empty fields in the murdered country.

With what potion can I douse it all
To resurrect life’s deceitless miracle?

Every person must answer, each alone,
For their transgressions. But together we face

A longer sentence in hell for what we’ve done—
A rabble, not a people, craving the air of prison.

26-28 Feb 2015
(27 Feb, Boris Nemtsov was killed)

* * *

Как грязен, ноздреват и будто постным
Помазан маслом снег великопостный,

Он по обочинам дорог лежит,
Как благодати зимней инвалид…

Будь славен, Николай свет Алексеич,
Ты добр сокол был, а не злодеич!

Не дай мне Бог и пережить и вынесть,
Что вынес ты… Как стыд глаза не выест

Всем тем, кто в лоно снега набросал
Окурки, фантики и прочий нал.

Иль тем, кто размножает башни быта
Над нивою пустой в стране убитой.

Какой водой обрызгать это б можно,
Чтоб чудо жизни воскресить неложно?

Отдельно всякий человек ответит
За прегрешенья. Вместе же нам светит

Пребольший срок в аду за то, что мы —
Сброд, не народ, что мил нам дух тюрьмы.

26–28 февраля 2015 года
(27 февраля был убит Борис Немцов)

* These two lines, in Russian, are deliberately in the style of Nikolai Zabolotsky (1903–1958), a brilliant Russian poet who was an avangardist before he was sent to Gulag in 1938; after his release in 1944, he prefered to write in a classical syllabotonic manner.



Winter Theme
For Marina Dmitrievna Litvinova

Across the wintry dark country
Safely clothed in snow, I walked.
In the strange wind, the crooked trees
Swayed and swayed at the top,
And a hidden inevitability
Took me in its vast captivity.

How light looms in the darkness,
He will not learn who does not know
Of meekness. He spins in the abyss.
While I plodded across this dark country
Filled to the brim with snow,
A landscape both barren and heavenly,
And it grew meek, this traveler’s soul.

The whole place seems gray
When suddenly, slowly, the gloom
Suffusing it begins to show through,
Becoming a species of blue.
And a thought dims in me—
Here’s how light looms in darkness

Meekly. Meekly. Meekly
The light looms, grows in the snow,
The sweeping snow gives wings
To trees with their crow dreams.
Without confessing it to myself
I invite the swirling inevitability—
This landscape, severe and heavenly,
Will not remain in the gloaming.
I know, I know, I get it now—
How light looms in the darkness.

Зимняя тема


Я брел зимней местностью тёмной,
Закутанной снегом надёжно,
Деревьев корявые кроны
Качал незнакомый мне ветер,
Таящаяся неизбежность
Ловила в раздольный свой плен.

Как копится свет в темноте,
Тому не узнать, кто смиренья
Лишён и бежит в пустоте.
Я ж брёл этой местностью тёмной,
Засыпанной снегом до края,
Пейзаж был и скудным и дивным,
И путник стал сердцем смирен.

Окрестность мне кажется серой,
Как вдруг медленно начинает
Сквозить, становяся чуть сизым,
Её заполняющий сумрак,
И я понимаю смиренно -
То копится свет в темноте.

Cмиренно, смиренно, смиренно
Свет копится, копится в снеге,
Деревья с вороньми снами
Поземка подкрыливает.
Клубящуюся неизбежность
Зову, в том себе не признавшись.
Пейзаж этот строгий и дивный
Впотьмах оставаться не будет,
Я знаю, я знаю, я понял,
Как копится свет в темноте.



Dimitri Psurtsev is a poet and translator who has written five books of poetry (Ex Roma Tertia, Tengiz Notebook, Between, Tired Happiness, and Murka and Other Poems) alongside numerous translations of classics from English world literature. His poems in English translation have appeared in The Dodge, Ergon, Guernica, Image, Journal, The Offing, Presence, and World Literature Today. He teaches at Moscow State Linguistic University and lives with his wife Natalia outside Moscow.

Philip Metres is the author of ten books, including Shrapnel Maps (Copper Canyon, 2020), The Sound of Listening: Poetry as Refuge and Resistance (University of Michigan, 2018), Pictures at an Exhibition (University of Akron, 2016), Sand Opera (Alice James, 2015), and I Burned at the Feast: Selected Poems of Arseny Tarkovsky (Cleveland State, 2015). His work—poetry, translation, essays, fiction, criticism, and scholarship—has garnered fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Lannan Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ohio Arts Council, the Watson Foundation. He is the recipient of the Adrienne Rich Award, three Arab American Book Awards, the Lyric Poetry Prize, and the Cleveland Arts Prize. Metres has been called “one of the essential poets of our time,” whose work is “beautiful, powerful, magnetically original.” He is professor of English and director of the Peace, Justice, and Human Rights program at John Carroll University. He lives with his family in Cleveland, Ohio. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram