Three Poems

Arseny Tarkovsky

The Cricket

To tell the truth, I'm kin
          to the house cricket.
I sing a secret song
          above the oven's ash.
For me, one brings
          the water to a fierce boil,
For me, another
          prepares a hearth of gold.

A traveler will recall
          my voice in a distant land,
Even if he's traded
          me for the heat cicada.
I don't know who planed
          my poor violin,
but I know that I'm rich
          as a cicada in songs.

How many Russian consonants
          in my midnight language,
How many sayings
          I place in the bast box
So a child can rummage
          In this box of bast,
In the old oven violin
          with its sole brass string.

You can't really hear me,
          my voice like a clock
Behind a wall, but take heed
          and I'll lead you.
I'll rouse the whole house:
          I'm the night watchman.  Arise!
Your people across the river
          will trumpet their reply.


Valya's Willow

Before the war Valya walked along the creek,
Where a willow grew for who knows who.

Though why it lay on the creek, no one knew
Valya owned that willow.

Killed in action, Valya came back
Under his willow, in his military cloak.

Valya's willow,
Valya's willow,
Like a white boat floating on the creek.


My sight, which was my power...

My sight, which was my power, now blurs
Two invisible diamond spears;
My hearing subsides, full of ancient thunder
And the breathing of the house of my father.
The knots of tough muscles slacken
Like grey oxen, lax in the ploughed field;
The wings behind my shoulders yield
No light when evening darkens.

I am a candle. I burned at the feast.
Gather my wax when morning arrives
So that this page will prompt you
How to be proud, and how to weep,
How to give away the last third
Of happiness, and to die with ease—
And beneath a temporary roof
To burn posthumously, like a word.


translated from the Russian by Philip Metres and Dimitri Psurtsev

Read the original in Russian

Read translator’s note

Arseny Tarkovsky (1907–1989) is one of the great Russian poets of the twentieth century. He survived the entire Soviet era—suffering a leg amputation during World War II—by his work as a translator of poetry. His renown grew with the publication of his first book in the 1950s, and again in the 1970s, when his son the filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky used readings of his father's poems in his films The Mirror and Stalker.

Philip Metres is the author and translator of a number of books and chapbooks, including Compleat Catalogue of Comedic Novelties (2014), A Concordance of Leaves (2013), abu ghraib arias (2011), and To See the Earth (2008). His work has garnered two NEA fellowships, the Watson Fellowship, five Ohio Arts Council Grants, the Beatrice Hawley Award, the Arab American Book Award, and the Cleveland Arts Prize. In 2014 he received a Creative Workforce Fellowship, thanks to the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture, residents of Cuyahoga County, and Cuyahoga Arts & Culture. He is a professor of English at John Carroll University in Cleveland. Click here for his website. 

Dimitri Psurtsev is a Russian poet and translator of British and American authors. He teaches at Moscow State Linguistic University. His two books of poetry, Ex Roma Tertia and Tengiz Notepad, were published in 2001.

Even if the Russian literary tradition does delve deep into the darkness and misery and mystery of human existence, the music of Russian poetry is so undeniable, so playful, so often ecstatic, and has persisted for so long, it suggests the secret pleasures of a people who have so long been written off as the stern patrons of unhappiness ("every unhappy family," etc. etc.). It is, indeed, what makes translating Russian poetry most difficult, and why readers of Russian poetry in translation—say, Akhmatova or Mandelstam—mainly receive a picture of a grim and absurd reality but not much of a sense of what it sounds like when a pure music collides with the grim or the absurd.

Arseny Tarkovsky's work emerges from a visionary sensibility—like Akhmatova and Mandelstam—that became his way of forging a life and a Russian art outside of Soviet realism. But it's the music of his poems that guaranteed his reputation, as much as the vision. Consider, for example, how "Valya's Willow" relies on the musical play in Russian between "Iva" (willow) and "Ivan." Perhaps one might translate this poem as "Will's Willow," which suggests the shared destiny of soldier and the tree of mourning—except that "Will" is such a distinctly English name it might confuse readers. Hence our choice of "Valya." "Valya," Dimitri Psurtsev reminded me after he saw my translation, is also the name of Tarkovsky's older brother, who died during the Russian Civil War.

          —Philip Metres