from KGB Poems

Igor Pomerantsev

Alright, so they didn't twist my arms,
but they burnt Mark's door,
took Grisha out into a forest near Kiev
and fucked him over.
They kept calling Olga a whore,
and to prove their point
locked her up in an STD clinic with the prostitutes.
It was only with Geli they went too far
in the remand prison.
They refused treatment, refused treatment,
refused treatment, refused treatment,
until he died.

During nights so foggy
you want to cut it with a knife,
barrack blocks loom out of the brown light.
From their fetid dormitories
comes a clanking and rattling,
bringing dreams of Kalashnikovs to some.
Hospitals loom,
where putty-faced patients and their putty-faced relatives
sit waiting in admissions.
A prison looms;
its team won
the regional judo contest.
Things loom
which you didn't see during the day.

Organizing a wedding during a time of plague
was completely stupid.
But I couldn't say no to my bride's parents.
They invited their friends to the restaurant
and drank our health.
There was a man with a camera, too – a wedding photographer.
But away at the back of the room I noticed
another photographer – uninvited.
I wonder, are the pictures still in the KGB archive?
And the audio tapes of my assignations?
Would I want to hear the sounds of the love we made
thirty years ago? I'm not certain.

After midnight you come outside and immediately spot
two clots of night, in each of which
in the dim half-light
three men, not counting the driver, lurk silent.
You kick off from the asphalt floor of the city,
and the black clots, submarines of the night, glide after you,
not switching on their headlights. Your heart slowly tears loose
from the body, and slips in the opposite direction,
pretending to be a sea urchin or oyster.
And the more sinister this night-time voyage,
the sweeter will be the memory of it, but nevertheless
don't button up your raincoat, come and overnight with us if only one last time.

What was the most unpleasant?
Them picking me up on the beach in my trunks.
The first day I kept running from the interrogation to the toilet
every thirty minutes.
My interrogator asked brightly:
"You got the clap or something?"

translated from the Russian by Frank Williams

Read the original in Russian

Read translator’s note

Igor Pomerantsev is a Russian poet, essayist and broadcaster. He grew up in the city of Chernovtsy (Ukraine). In 1978 his writing and dissident activities led to KGB pressure to emigrate. Settling in London, he worked first for the BBC, then Radio Liberty. Since 1989 his writing has appeared regularly in leading Russian literary magazines. His two most recent book-length cycles of poems – World Service (Radio Lyrics) and KGB Poems – were published in Moscow by Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie. KGB Poems was published in Ukrainian translation by Grani-T, Kiev. Igor Pomerantsev lives in Prague.

Frank Williams worked in international broadcasting for the BBC and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty for over thirty years. During that time he collaborated closely with Igor Pomerantsev as producer of his radio programs and translator of his prose and poetry. Among other contemporary Russian authors he has translated Zinovy Zinik. Vladimir Voinovich, Yevgeny Popov and Leonid Borodin. He, too, lives in Prague.

The poems published here are a selection from Igor Pomerantsev's KGB Poems, a book-length cycle that was published in Russia a couple of years ago. Igor came to the attention of the Soviet security police in Kiev in the second half of the 1970's for his opinions, for his writing and for keeping and distributing literature deemed anti-Soviet. Following arrest and interrogation, the KGB forced him into exile. In 1978 he left the Soviet Union for Western Europe.

KGB Poems underwent a lengthy maturation process. The cycle was written in two main phases. A first group was written soon after the events described in the poems. These form a narrative thread through the cycle, a poetic testament to the dissident movement in Ukraine and written at a time when it was far from obvious that in little over a decade the USSR would disintegrate. Later came a second group, more lyrical, more reflective, in which the experience of arrest has been absorbed and filtered through a more mature sensibility. The two groups are shown in different typefaces, the earlier group in a regular face and the second in italics.

The selection published here represents a fragment of KGB Poems. The cycle features many characters – the lyrical hero, his family, his girlfriend, his fellow dissidents, his interrogators. Many of them are real, identifiable people, though such references are recognizable now only to those of us who followed the news about Soviet dissidents at the time. So Igor and I decided to include in our short selection those poems which did not need any explanations about who was who or what was what.

It feels like the events described belong to another age. Thanks to social networks and blogs, contemporary dissidents have a far superior set of tools at their disposal. The isolation and loneliness of dissent is a thing of the past. But in the final analysis, it still comes down to an individual against a system, a poet pitting his wits against the secret police. Igor's experience is more than thirty years in the past, but the situation will still be familiar to readers in many parts of the world today.

Translating Igor is a challenge and a delight. It is a challenge to find an equivalent voice, to capture the taut, dry, ironical tone. It is a delight to track the leaps of his imagination, the precision of his language, the paradoxes of his images. We sometimes have heated discussions as to whether I used the right word in a translation, whether it conveys just what he meant. This is the thing about Igor. He always means exactly what he says, no more, no less. My task as translator is to catch the music and follow wherever it leads.

You can find more of Igor's poetry and prose here.