Twenty-first Century Russian Poetry


Alexander Stessin


Translated by the author


She says, "It's bad, I know, but for him it's worse,"
talking about her husband while they wait
for the attending oncologist. She rehearses
her complaints. And the nurse, grumbling at fate,
brings him a pillow, a drink, a magazine.
He's in his eighties. A kidney cancer patient.
Thin as a rail, but his wife is thinner.
The dark, the camps, they are both survivors
of Treblinka or Dachau.
                                       Doubtful, they look
at the medical student - one of ours, or not?
Yes, I say, I'm Jewish. And then they start up
about those goyim ("the other doctors")...Next spring
they will have been married for sixty years exactly.
She points at her husband and proudly tells me,"Back then
he looked just like you... except he was better-looking".
The loyal husband retreats, always letting her speak.

She's saying now, "We fasted on Yom Kippur
even when we were there, we would stash away our bread,
always fasted... But not this year, just don't have the strength..."
She says, "When it's his time to go, it'll be my time, too."

He's always freezing; always remembering by heart:
"Mortals see only the hinderparts of the Lord," -
rolls up in his blanket and says, as he's falling asleep -
"Next year in Jerusalem. Everyone will be saved."



The last phone sex industry worker
in the middle of nowhere possibly in Ohio 
caters to the needs of her only remaining client -
not for money, for old time's sake, during afterhours.
In the age of online sex chats and triple X websites
the two of them find themselves on the outskirts of life.
The fervor's not what it used to be though it seems
the voice ages somewhat slower than does the body.
And the body they've never seen: for all these years
their passion's been blind, their closeness has kept a long distance.
One could say they're purists, still managing to stay true
to the rules of a dying genre. At eight PM
she takes the call, begins with a "what's your name, baby?",
lights up a cig, hears his familiar voice,
and responds with tenderness: "Nice to meet you, Ricardo..."


One day before the projected end of the world
(as predicted by the Mayan calendar)
in the pedestrian stream of pre-Christmas Manhattan
you turn your head to the sound of Russian speech.
A middle-aged woman is talking into her cell phone
in that official, iron-clad tone of voice.
This is the tone you hear in crowded consulates
where the visa-seekers form an impatient line,
come to a boil, fan themselves with the filled out forms, 
while behind the glass shield two female employees
chuckle, discussing some gossip, pay no attention
to the ticking clock, then finally turning their gaze
to those waiting, proceed to answer with some annoyance:
"Processing requires eight to ten business days ".
It is all routine, and as she presses her cell phone
between shoulder and cheek, she repeats machine-like:
"Yes, I know you were told to come back tomorrow.
But tomorrow's the end of the world. Please, come on Monday".


Across the Bering strait
all winters come
in crossing light
with particles of powder
too stark to see
and little in the way
of localizing any higher power.

Through the blank language
of the Moscow snow
with quicklime-speckled 
faces in the clear,
each day,
like a mass transit passenger,
starts in the front
progressing to the rear.

So goes the tune 
that someone else records
among brick college buildings
and impasses,
contrived designs,
unevenly lit words,
white nights,
black mountains,
everything that passes.