Sergey Sergeyevich Prokofiev

p
o
e
m
s

I’m walking up

Bolshaya Dmitrovka,

what is now Pushkinskaya—

walking up from the station

at Okhotny Ryad—

and I find myself stopping

in front of the Operetta Theater,

stopping and whistling the first few bars

of the “Classical Symphony”

(“Tram-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta . . .”),

the Visions fugitives, the Sarcasms,

the entrance of Tybalt.

On I go, whistling.

Then suddenly—there he is,

Sergey Sergeyevich Prokofiev.

His back, his walking stick, his head—

that big, famous head.

He’s standing at the crosswalk,

standing, standing.

I too am standing.

He’s waiting for the cars to stop.

I too am waiting.

They stop. He doesn’t cross.

So I don’t cross.

Another stream of cars.

They stop. He doesn’t cross.

So I don’t cross.

I think, should I go over, ask:

“Sergey Sergeyevich, what’s the matter,

do you need help?”

After the third stream,

he finally crosses.

And then I see his leg is dragging

along the ground behind him.

I hadn’t known.

He’s walking slowly—slowly hurrying.

I glance back and realize. This hurts.

And then I see his pallid face.

He crosses, stops, catches his breath—

then heads for home.

High-browed, straight-backed, exact.

I walk up, say hello.

He lifts his hat.

A smile shadows his swollen lips.

All this was soon after his meeting with Zhdanov.

That’s when his leg began to drag.

He fixes me with his eyes:

“Can you make any sense . . .

of this . . .

any of this? . . .”

“No,” I answer helplessly, with sympathy.

“Neither can I,” he says quietly, helplessly—

glad, perhaps,

to have crossed paths

with a little sympathy?

He disappears into a doorway.

How seldom we know

that we are meeting

someone for the last time.

My heart skipped a beat.

Then cried out.

Then grew quiet.

How used we have become

to strangled cries!

To souls shrinking in the long chill.

I don’t know how much time has passed.

It doesn’t matter.

Prokofiev’s staccato—

this Morse code of our century—

still beats inside me.

Sharp, harsh, ironic.

A step, a sigh, a cry, a moan.

 

. . . It’s March 1953,

the afternoon of the 5th.

The luminary of all sciences,

the inspirer of all victories

has expired.

Moscow’s orphans have gathered

in a great hall:

What happens now, without him?

Scary to think: how—without him?

Half-looks, half-words,

a whisper turns into a fluttering of lips

that eavesdrop on other lips.

The end of the world.

Irakly Andronikov,[*] all in black,

walks in on tiptoe,

crouching delicately, musically

on compass legs,

a finger pressed to his lips.

It isn’t clear whether he’s coming closer

or moving farther off.

He stares at me, slyly, sullenly,

and beckons me with a quick nod of his head.

So I get up, I go.

Andronikov is right there,

beside me, his stubborn glare

drilling right into me.

We’re walking up Trubnikovsky, delirious,

looking around, like two conspirators.

A minute passes, and in the quietest whisper,

he slips the news into my ear:

“Sergey Sergeyevich . . .

Prokofiev . . .”

He looks around: “Died today . . .”

He said it—and felt frightened to death.

Not a word more.

Sullen, dour,

bereft of thought, we walk on . . .

Where to?

Back to the hall:

“I told you,

but, please, don’t

go telling anyone else . . .”

It’s half-dark.

We are heading

into

unknown dark . . .

 

Translated from the Russian by Boris Dralyuk.

[*] Sergey Sergeyevich Prokofiev (1891–1953), one of the great composers of the twentieth century, was originally favored by the Soviet regime but, in 1948, became one of the primary targets of an official campaign against “formalism” and “obscurantism” in music. This campaign was led by Andrey Zhdanov (1896–1948), whom Stalin had appointed to direct the Soviet Union’s cultural policy in 1946. The “Zhdanov Doctrine” affected all the arts, from literature to ballet; among its other prominent victims were Anna Akhmatova, Mikhail Zoshchenko, and Dmitry Shostakovich. By an ironic twist of fate, Prokofiev and Stalin passed away on the same day: March 5, 1953.

[*] Irakly Andronikov (1908–1990) was a Russian literary scholar and television personality famed for his wit.

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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