Anzhelina Polonskaya: Russian Poetry in Translation

Translated from the Russian by ANDREW WACHTEL

Translator’s note:

Recreating the poetry of Anzhelina Polonskaya in English is tricky because her favorite poetic trope is ellipsis, which is easier to achieve in Russian. Russian, as an inflected language (like Latin), can place words in pretty much any order within a sentence, and the poet can use case endings to indicate the relationship of nouns to each other and adjectives to nouns. When something is left out of a sentence, the empty space can be filled in by the reader. Thus, a Russian poem, at least grammatically speaking, looks like a Lego construction, from which many blocks can be removed without destroying the structure. By contrast, English translations in our (almost) non-inflected language are more like houses of cards – and when you try to remove pieces of the grammatical structure the whole thing tends to fall down.

As a result, the method I have developed to translate Polonskaya’s poetry over the past twenty years is to, as it were, reconstruct the poem in my mind as I read it, adding back in the missing pieces to allow myself to fully understand how she developed the whole, then writing a translation of this version, which is rather more discursive than the original, and then carefully removing as much of the scaffolding as possible while still keeping my house of cards standing.

As for the content, the three poems presented here are representative of Polonskaya’s recent work, which (sometimes) finds a very few glimmers of hope amidst a generally bleak landscape which is both personal and political. Perhaps most typical of this mood is the last quatrain of the short lyric “Rose of Ash,” which balances the menace of an undefined oppressive state against a faint lyric voice that can potentially oppose it:

The convoy never sleeps! – enveloped by silence
the night before the execution.
But a song wafts from somewhere far away,
the festivities continue.

Andrew Wachtel
Almaty, Kazakhstan


Без тебя я не вижу дома
ни на одной из карт.
«Не хочу быть ни с кем
ни в одной из комнат»,
ни в свете ламп.
В теле моём не осталось тайны –
чья-то чужая жизнь
молча стоит и стоит у края
в теле моём.
Ночью короткой и длинной ночью
я не хочу ни с кем
кроме тебя
говорить о мёртвых,
с памятью – говорить.


Without you I don’t see home,
not on any map.
“I don’t want to be with anyone,
not in any room,”
under the lamplight.
Not a single secret left in my body,
someone else’s life
stands silently, stands at the edge,
inside me.
In the short night or the long
I want to speak only
to you
about the dead,
to speak with memory.


Не помню лета. Дождь
Не помню лета, 
Дождь. Мне дела нет до горя
и кто кому заламывает горло.
И нет снотворного – бежать,
и где найти приют.
Не выжжено – так проштемпелевано.
В последний раз прошу: прости.
Я злая дочь и загнанная в угол.
Цементных капель на цементный стих
о той, которую не любят.
Мой нежный друг,
ты спрашиваешь: как я здесь 
переживаю Русь и веру.
Я не отвечу, но не потому. Я не умею 
больше по-немецки.
Мы замурованы стеной дождей.
И даже хорошо, что солнце в спину.
Когда бы луч его был чуть смелей
Оно бы наши лица озарило.


I Don’t Remember Summer. Rain

I don’t remember summer.
Rain. I don’t care about
Russian woes,
or who’s twisting whose throat.
And there’s no sleeping draught – no escape,
nor any refuge.
Not so much burned as canceled.

For the last time I beg, forgive me.
I’m a terrible daughter, at wit’s end.
Concrete tears in a concrete verse
about someone who isn’t loved.

My dearest friend,
you ask, how can I
stand Russia and faith?
I don’t answer but not because. I just
can’t speak German anymore.

We’re hemmed in by a wall of rain.
Just as well the sun’s behind us.
Were its rays stronger
it would light up our faces.


Роза пепла

Корабль ушёл из сердца моего,
утерян компас. 
Где было чисто, чисто и легко –
никто не вспомнит. 
Взошедшая из траурных миров
к печали светлой,
никто не оборвёт твоих шипов – 
ты, роза пепла. 
Конвой бессонный! – тишина в ответ
в ночь перед казнью. 
И где-то вьётся песня вдалеке,
все длится праздник.


Rose of Ash

The ship has left my heart,
the compass is lost.
No one can recall where
purity, purity and lightness lived.
O rose of ash,
you enter from worlds of mourning,
into bright sadness,
and no one can rip out your thorns.
The convoy never sleeps! – enveloped by silence
the night before the execution.
But a song wafts from somewhere far away,
the festivities continue.


Anzhelina Polonskaya was born in Malakhovka, a small town near Moscow. Since 1998, she has been a member of the Moscow Union of Writers and in 2003, Polonskaya became a member of the Russian PEN-centre. In 2004 an English version of her book, entitled A Voice, appeared in the acclaimed “Writings from an Unbound Europe” series at Northwestern University Press.  This book was shortlisted for the 2005 Corneliu M Popescu Prize for European Poetry in Translation. Since 2006 Polonskaya has had the opportunity to participate in a number of prestigious writing residencies, including those of the Cove Park Scottish Arts Council, the Hawthornden International Retreat for Writers, the MacDowell Colony, the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center, and the Villa Sträuli in Zurich. Polonskaya has published translations in many of the world’s leading poetry journals, including The American Poetry Review, AGNI, Ploughshares and the Kenyon Review. In October 2011 the “Oratorio-Requiem” Kursk, the libretto of which consists of ten of Polonskaya’s poems, had its acclaimed debut at the Melbourne Arts Festival. In 2013 the bilingual edition Paul Klee’s Boat was published by Zephyr Press and shortlisted for the 2014 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. Zephyr Press published a second collection of Polonskaya’s work entitled To the Ashes in 2019. Her work has also been translated into German, Dutch, Slovenian, Latvian, and Spanish. In 2016 she received the International Words on Borders’ Freedom Prize, and in 2019 her work was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Andrew Wachtel is the rector of Narxoz University in Almaty. Between 2010 and 2018, he served as president of the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Before coming to Central Asia, he was dean of The Graduate School and director of the Roberta Buffett Center for International and Comparative Studies at Northwestern University. A fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, his interests range from Russian literature and culture to East European and Balkan culture, history and politics to contemporary Central Asia. His most recent published books are The Balkans in World History (also published in Albanian, Italian, and Turkish with a Greek edition to appear in 2020) and Russian Literature (with Ilya Vinitsky). He translates from Russian, Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian, and Slovene, and his book of translations of the Russian poet Anzhelina Polonskaya, Paul Klee’s Boat was short-listed for the 2014 PEN Poetry Translation Prize.


Anzhelina Polonskaya: Russian Poetry in Translation

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