A Letter from Zürau

Marina Eskina

Dreams about mice bode despair. The horde buries
the cat, then envelops the horse from head to hoof,
and the rider gallops astride mice. This carries
on many times a night — I've had enough.

By dawn, I'm done. What drives me mad is their bustle,
rustle, ruffle, rumple, overshoot, undershoot,
rattle of little bodies, the fuss, the tussle —
on the table are droppings, my shoes are well chewed.

In the morning there are three dots on the page
where yesterday I put a period or a question mark.
As if again the family were around at that age
when I was a boy, sent to sleep in the dark,

in the dark about exculpations, letters, piques.
What a shame. It's scary in dreams. A slice
of light beneath the closed door. This voice that speaks
to me is Josephine — the queen of mice.

Get some cats — that would probably do the deed.
Signing deeds, sentencing — as a judge I'm poor.
Then in reproach to me the cats will breed,
countlessly, until I can't take it anymore.

translated from the Russian by Ian Singleton

Read the original in Russian

Read translator’s note

Marina Eskina is a poet and translator. Her two books of poetry in Russian are Край земли and Колючий свет. Her works regularly appear in literary journals in Russia, the United States, and Israel. Her book of children's verse in English is coming out this summer. She emigrated from Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg), Russia and currently lives in Boston, USA.

Ian Singleton is a working writer. His stories, essays, poems, and translations have appeared in Fiddleblack, Ploughshares, Toucan, and Knock, as well as other journals. He won a Hopwood Award from the University of Michigan in 2004. He is a graduate of the MFA program at Emerson College. He works in the San Francisco Bay Area where he lives with his wife.

"PS – In Zürau Kafka wrote many letters to friends in Prague, and there he wrote the famous Zürau Aphorisms."

The above postscript is a translation from Marina Eskina's original poem. This poem takes inspiration from those aphorisms, from Franz Kafka's letters to Felice Bauer, and from his fictional works. As a deep admirer of Kafka's work, from which I myself have taken inspiration, I was interested in the poem. Particular difficulties include finding rhymes that still fit close to the original meaning, translating expressions such as "сниться к чему-то" and "не станет житья от кого-то". At first, such expressions appeared simple to translate. The difficulty lay in matching them to the overall feel of the poem. For example, the word "бессилие" would usually have an English translation of "weakness" (the word is literally "without power"). After discussing this word with the author, I learned that Eskina took it from the Russian translation of the Letters to Felice. I found the word in the Russian translation, located that same letter in Kafka's original German text and discovered that Kafka used the German word "Ohnmacht", almost literally the same kind of compound word as "бессилие". Kafka uses the word with reservation to describe a feeling that is crippling for him, what we would likely call crippling depression these days. But because of the medical sense of that word, I chose "despair" as a still contemporary word with a history of crippling those who speak of it when describing their conditions. This detective work was, of course, incredibly invigorating. I believe I learned more about the poem (and about the author) in the process.