Mikhail Arkadyevich Svetlov

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 A waning crescent melting in the sky—

this is the profile of Svetlov, the poet.

The tips of his forehead and chin

reach for each other,

between them nests the clever smile

of a man from the city

once known as Yekaterinoslav.

Stooping, Svetlov

carries his leanness with an air of dignity.

“I live among shadows.

They surround me—

the friends of my youth.

Everyone else has gone . . .

What’s death?”

he asked.

Then answered:

“Just joining the majority.”

He said all this while sitting at a table

in a noisy cocktail lounge,

which he called the boiler room.

A born melancholic,

he took it upon himself

to amuse people,

and he gained fame as a joker—

as the Nasreddin Hodja

of our poetry.

He raised his cocktail to his lips,

lit a cigarette,

and asked another question:

“Another name for half a liter?”

Then answered:

“One big drop.”

Svetlov had not been a drinker,

but he became one.

He found it hard to believe

the turn his life had taken,

this sharp-witted mourner.

 

“All of a sudden, back in ’28

they summoned me—up there”

(a gesture with his index finger)

“and this is how they put it:

‘We know you—

“Grenada,” “Merry-making”—

so please get to know us,

help us flush out

these Trotskyists.’

‘But I’m a Trotskyist myself,’

I blurted out.

‘We know, that’s why

you’re the man to find them.’

(A pause—a whistling descent

from a high promontory into an abyss.)

‘Call round tomorrow, same time—

we await your answer.’

And so I went home from the Lubyanka.

It was agony, it was torture . . . I didn’t

know what to do with myself.

Went to bed—couldn’t sleep,

sat down—couldn’t sit,

got up—couldn’t stand . . .

What could I do?

I made it through the night

with difficulty.

Then, early in the morning,

came a ring at the door.

A fellow from back home,

a friend of my youth.

And not alone—but with a bottle.

Not just a bottle—

but with plenty food besides.

We drank—and I felt better.

We had another—I felt good.

One more—and I was flying high.

Then lunch—and life was swell,

couldn’t have been better, in this fine land of ours.

On legs of jelly

I went off to the Lubyanka.

‘What’s this, Svetlov?

Can’t even stand on your own two feet!

We don’t need drunkards.

Get out of here!’

They sent me packing—

what a present!

I started off for home—

my soul was singing,

and had no wish

to play around with rhymes . . .

‘The unresolvable can be resolved

so unexpectedly,

so accidentally

by such a simple method.

Moisture with degrees of proof,

genuine, unfalsified proof . . .’”

Svetlov stalled forever

on this simple, reliable,

tried-and-true method

of answering the irrelevant

and tactless questions

posed by life . . .

 

Svetlov sipped from his glass,

lit up again—

with relish, his head in the clouds.

His silence lasted

a long time.

When he came to, he said:

“Our talk today’s

been much too dismal . . .

My fault.

Let’s take a break from all this wit.

Let’s walk through Moscow,

around the Boulevard Ring.

We’ll go to the Neskuchny Garden—

and let’s not think about

who may be waiting around the corner,

even

if they well and truly are.”

 

Translated from the Russian by Boris Dralyuk.

Lev Ozerov was a poet and literary critic of Jewish-Ukrainian origin. His book Portraits Without Frames (published posthumously in 1996) constitutes a mini-encyclopedia of Soviet life.

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