Mary Jane White translating Marina Tsvetaeva



There are rhymes in this world:
Uncouple them — and it falls apart.
Homer, you were blind as a bat.
Night — over your craggy head.

Night — your rhapsodic cloak,
Night — over your eyes — a curtain.
Would any sighted person separate
Helen from Achilles?

Helen. Achilles.
Name a more consonant sound.
Yes, against chaos
The world is built

On consonances, that, if uncoupled,
Take revenge (built on consent!)
Upon the infidelity of women
Take revenge — by burning Troy!

Rhapsodist, you were blind as a bat:
Scattered treasure, as if it were junk.
There are rhymes — in that world
That were chosen. That will collapse

This one — if you uncouple them. What needs
Holding in rhyme? Helen, growing older!
. . . Achaea’s finest man!
The sweetest woman of Sparta!

Alone in the rustle of a myrtle
Forest, in a cithara’s dream:
“Helen. Achilles:
A broken pair.”

30 June 1924


It’s no given, that strong with strong
Come to be joined in this world.
Here’s how Siegfried and Brunhilda missed each other,
And settled the matter of their marriage with a sword.

United in mutual hatred
— Like buffaloes! — rock face — to rock face.
He rose from the marriage bed, unrecognized,
And unidentified — she slept.

Apart — even in the marriage bed —
Apart — even balled into a fist —
Apart — even in the language of double-entendre —
Late and apart — that’s our marriage!

There’s an older instance:
The Amazon taken down like a lion —
Here’s how they missed each other: the son of Thetis
And a daughter of Ares: Achilles

And Penthesilea.
O remember — how from below
She gazed up! an unhorsed rider’s
Gaze! not from Olympus, — out the muck
She gazed up — imperious nevertheless!

And, because of that, afterwards, his one
Desire was: to take her to wife out of darkness.
It’s no given, that equal — will meet with equal . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Here’s how we — come to miss each other.

3 July 1924


In a world, where everyone
Is stunted and in a lather,
I know — one
Equal to me.

In a world, where we
Want for so much,
I know — one
Strong as me.

In a world, where everything —
Is ivy and mold,
I know: one
You — equal in essence

To me.

3 July 1924


There’s an island. Wrested from the Nereids
By an underground heave.
Virgin ground. Which no one
Has yet mapped or opened up.

Fringed with ferns and hidden
In sea-foam. — The way? Some passage?
I just know: it’s still unclaimed
Anywhere, except in your

Columbian eyes. Two palms:
Clarity! — That vanishes. — At the stroke
Of a condor . . .
(In the sleeping-car
— That’s enough — about islands!)

An hour’s, maybe — a week’s
Sailing (if I can manage it — a year!)
I just know: it’s still unclaimed
Anywhere, except in the latitudes

Of the future . . .

5 July 1924


Sealed, like the mouth of an oracle —
Your mouth, augers for many.
Woman, what have you concealed from the guards
Between your tongue and the roof of your mouth?

Looking into the ages, not with your eyes
But with their sockets, like brimming cauldrons!
Woman, what sort of pit have you dug
And roofed over with turf?

No idol with even a hundred heathen
Temples — could be more imperious.
Woman, what have you pulled out of the fire
Of languor and one-night stands?

Woman, you spread yourself in secret, like a shawl,
In a shawl, like a secret, you linger.
Set apart — like a single surviving
Spruce on a misted summit.

It seems I question you as a dead
Soul, who has sipped at the root . . .
Woman, what do you have beneath your shawl?
— The future!

8 November 1924

* * *

All by herself — Helen gazes over the rooftops
Of Troy! In her stunned pupils
Four provinces lie drained of blood
And hope for a hundred centuries.

All by herself — Helen acknowledges
The nuptial slaughter: her nakedness
Stripped four Arabys of all sultriness
And five oceans of their pearls.

All by herself, Helen — waits to unclasp
Her hands! — but marvels at the swarm
Of heirs to the throne left homeless
And their forefathers, rushing into battle.

All by herself, Helen — can’t depend on the appeal
Of her lips! — but marvels at the ditch
Piled with heirs to the throne:
At the end of a hundred familial lines.

But no, it’s not Helen! Not that twice-taken
Predator, that pestilential drought.
What a treasure house lies squandered
By you, who look us in the eye — the way

Not even Helen at this splendid banquet
Dare look her slaves in the eye:
Much less the gods. — “A land left unmanned
By a foreign woman! Still grovels — at her feet!”

11 November 1924

* * *

I sang like arrows and eels,
Racing underfoot
With the sound of riven satin.
— I sang! — and a wholly padded wall
Could not restrain me
Nor could the world.
Because I tore one
Gift from the gods: flight!

I sang like arrows.
The body?
Was not my concern!

8 November 1924

* * *

A blizzard sweeps the floors.
All explosion and rift! —

And on my colorful cheerful scarf —
Tears of sharp salt,
Pearls coarsely ground.

19 November 1924


These eight translations are all of short and stunning lyrics found toward the end of Tsvetaeva’s final lyric collection, After Russia (Paris 1928), here in new translation for the first time in forty years.

The collection itself was written entirely in exile, in Berlin and Prague, with these particular lyrics being written toward the end of her stay in Prague. Iosif Pourterman then published the collection in Paris—not through the publishing house to which he was connected, but by private subscription—this, despite Tsvetaeva’s well-established reputation throughout the early 1920’s in both Russia and the West.

As Tsvetaeva’s biographer, the late Dr. Simon Karlinsky describes it:

“This involved the poet in the time-consuming and humiliating business of mailing out the subscription forms, since the size of the printing was not decided until the number of subscribers was ascertained.”1

Plus ça changeplus c’est la même chose.

Nevertheless, Karlinsky judges this lightly subscribed, barely-noticed publication to be “the most mature and perfect of her collections.”2

“The mature poet of After Russia had come a long way . . . . Now her points of reference are Homer, Ovid, the Nibelungenlied, Shakespeare, Racine and Goethe.  She remains in this collection her own passionate and rebellious self, but she is now also capable of a detachment that is almost Olympian.”3

The references in The Two of Us, 1, 2 and 3, An Island, and All by herself—Helen gazes over the rooftops exemplify Karlinsky’s observation, while the unique, near-speaking voice of Under a Shawl, I sang like arrows and eels, and A blizzard sweeps the floors exemplify Tsvetaeva’s troublingly-careless sense of herself as an orphan, a near-refugee.

Based upon a handwritten note on one manuscript copy, noted by her devoted textual editor, the late Alexander Sumerkin, we know The Two of Us, 1, 2 and 3 are addressed by Tsvetaeva most personally to Boris Pasternak.  She seems to have thought of the two of them as a broken pair, separated as the two poets were by her exile in the West, his continuing to live in the USSR, and their existing marriages to others. 

It is my great privilege as her translator here to bring this sample of Tsvetaeva’s last collection back to light, and into English.

“The book that by rights should have secured her greatest triumph sank with very few ripples. One could still see copies of the original edition of After Russia gathering dust on the shelves of back rooms of Russian bookstores in Paris and New York as late as the 1950s.”4

My thanks to the National Endowment for the Arts for a translation fellowship in 1985 which led to over thirty years of engagement with Tsvetaeva as a poet.  These translations are made under license from Russica Publishers, Inc., 799 Broadway, New York, N. Y., from their five-volume Russian language edition of Tsvetaeva’s work, edited by the late Alexander Sumerkin.


1Simon Karlinsky, Marina Tsvetaeva, The Woman, her World and her Poetry, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge 1985), p. 185.

2Ibid, p. 188.

3Ibid, p. 187.

4Ibid, p. 188.

Mary Jane White, MFA Iowa Writers’ Workshop, NEA Fellowships (in poetry and translation). Tsvetaeva translations: Starry Sky to Starry Sky (1988); New Year’s, an elegy for Rilke (Adastra Press 2007); Poem of the Hill (The New England Review); Poem of the End (The Hudson Review), reprinted in Poets Translate Poets, (Syracuse 2013)        


Marina Tsvetaeva (1982-1941), admired by Joseph Brodsky: “Well, if you are talking about the twentieth century, I’ll give you a list of poets. Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva (and she is the greatest one, in my view. The greatest poet in the twentieth century was a woman).”




Kelsi Vanada translating Álvaro Lasso

Six poems from Izquierda Unida [United Left]

Alto Perú

For a time the party was a movement that believed in violence. Everyone at school spoke of taking up arms, of finding surrealist poets to assassinate in the jungle. The slogan was stay aware in the face of the drug companies. So they got dressed, grabbed speakers, and marched off to the labyrinth with heads held high. When they arrived, they found no human beings. Their weapons were melting away, they got diarrhea, started to crawl around. As if they’d been tricked, they cried till they lost all speech. And the mothers of the combatants helicoptered in, annoyed, with flyswatters; they called roll and, undeterred, took them home.

We’ve All Been Hit Before

When that building in Tarata exploded, the kids from Surquillo ran toward the light. We knew who’d done it, but we wanted to see what the darkness the news channels were reporting on was like. The police blocked our way, but we still managed to stuff some loot into our pockets. When we got home, we had the odd sensation that our country’s inequalities had disappeared, and we bought candles so our parents wouldn’t give us the belt.

The Disappearance of the Peruvian State

I was kicked out of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics for believing in a third-world god. My mother had already fulfilled every requirement: she grasped the logic of the fire that never goes out, even passed the atheism class. Everything was in order so we could stay.

My mother and her little cosmonaut.

But the great dogmas began to fall, brick by brick, above our heads. That was when they moved me to Peru. I used to think the system was the same, the opaque colors were the same, the drunks sprawled along the sidewalks were the same. Everything but my exotic third-world god, the most serious one at the party: my little dictator in a guayabera.


«Writing verse is like painting still lives», he’d tell me, in his bushy doctor’s mustache: it’s just an exercise, an obsolete love I’ll never give up.

I always dreamed about stabbing him in the back as he wrote. It’s what I longed for when his eyelids grew heavy: to penetrate his soft milky buttocks, wrinkled like my grandfather’s skin, until I broke him, until he couldn’t even finish his little riddles.

My humble spouse could never make love when he wrote. It was yet another unspoken rule between us. For writing he used a chair, the only one in the whole high-ceilinged room, and he’d lay pencil and paper on an equally solitary table. A simple injunction: I had to go.

Viagem ao principio do mundo

I’m one of those people who doesn’t have a country of origin. I had a neighbor who thought he could find my passport at the top of a tree. But all he found was a peaceful view of his future wife hanging his future son’s clothes out to dry. The clothes went from big to small, and from his perch, my neighbor attained an enlightened perspective. When that’s over with, I ring the future mother’s doorbell and ask to borrow a little money.

The Publishing Industry

I install a 50-watt bulb with some difficulty and, with everything lit up, see that the room’s full of signs. Terrified, I rush outside. A cloud has conducted a small but precise shadow over our heads.

The children sit down to discuss what will become of the fair. They’ve been informed of the applicability of being adults, the applicability of money, the applicability of the cloud described in the paragraph above. A child notices another child disguised as a mother, and ironically a cord lowers to just within reach of his hand so he can detonate a little bell across the whole sky.

Translator’s Note:

When Álvaro Lasso and I first discussed these poems, he explained that as a twice-published poet, and as founder and editor of the Peruvian independent small press Estruendomudo, he was tired of reading and writing poetry as he knew it. Izquierda Unida (Celacanto 2015, republished by La Bella Varsovia 2016) collects what he considers his rejection of that former poetry, in favor of something “pop”—writing that draws from the movies and music of the contemporary imagination. Written in dense, short, cinematic prose blocks, these poems enact the ideas of revolution, idealism, and, ultimately, failure of the coalition Izquierda Unida in Peru in the 1980s. Their main character is Lasso himself in his many roles throughout his life: immigrant (he was relocated to Peru as an infant from Azerbaijan), child, adult, laborer, publisher, lover, consumer of culture.
These poems were a delightful challenge to translate because they are so precisely balanced tonally. While the sentences appear fairly short and simple, they make full use of imagistic and multivalent words. One example is a scene in which Lasso, as a child, hides under the bed while his aunt and uncle engage in sexual play above him. He uses the term “se derrite” (literally, “she melts”) to describe his aunt’s experience, as he hears it. In the short space of these poems, syntactical repetition is often key. Short, irregular bursts of quoted speech also punctuate the poems, and to provide a similar visual punch, seemed to me best left in the carrot brackets used by Lasso in the Spanish: « ». Swirls of other languages (Portuguese, Russian) reflect Lasso’s multicultural background, but in a more negative sense also add to a general confusion felt by most of the characters in the poems. Pervading these poems is a flat and implacable approach to the future, a sense of foreboding, a frenzied desire to record and recollect and assign meaning in the face of a violent, unforgiving world.

Photograph by Nicolás Giussani

Kelsi Vanada is from Colorado and holds MFAs in Poetry (Iowa Writers’ Workshop, 2016) and Literary Translation (University of Iowa, 2017). She translates from Spanish and Swedish, and her poems and translations have been published most recently in Columbia Poetry Review, EuropeNow, Asymptote, and Prelude. She was a 2016 ALTA Travel Fellow and works as Program Manager of ALTA. Her first translation, The Eligible Age by Berta García Faet, was published by Song Bridge Press in 2018.

Álvaro Lasso was born in Baku, Republic of Azerbaijan, in 1982. At ten months old, he was relocated to Peru; he studied Hispanic Literature at Peru’s Pontificia Universidad Católica. He founded the poetry festival Novissima verba (2001–2006), the poetry magazine Odumodneurtse! (2003-2006), and the Libromóvil project (2011–2015). He is both founder and editor of Estruendomudo, one of the most important independent publishing companies in Latin America since 2004. Lasso has published Dos niñas de Egon Schiele [Egon Schiele’s Girls] (2006), The Astrud Gilberto Album (2010), and Izquierda Unida [United Left] (2015), republished in Spain by La Bella Varsovia in 2016. He lives in Santiago, Chile, where he opened an office of Estruendomudo.




Paul Sohar translating Zoltán Böszörményi


“The inventory’s done.” Nothing more. Whitewashed wall.
Croupier in ceaseless winter. Stake piled on stake.
Two crickets fiddling. That’s all.

The kettle’s empty in the kitchen. Suppers incinerate.
Book, booze, nothing doing, blue skunk cabbage, blue.
Muddy city gate.

My freshly pressed shirt. Give it to you off my back.
I’ll put them to sleep, should doubts attack.
You’re true stuff. Nothing. Just enough.

** ** ** **

Huge, Yellow Fairy Tales (Nagy sárga meséket)

I’m rounding up a herd of nerves,
huge, yellow tales: my childhood,
the cadet keeps running
with a howling olive-branch flag in his hand
and playing with an air gun near my heart.

The anxious two-year-old
creates a smile oasis
like a freshly opened gift package
and defeats the huge yellow fairy tales:
he confiscates my childhood,
my toy horsewhip
and, shrugging his shoulder,

he whacks my nerves into docile
domestic stock.

** ** ** **

GLEAM SLIVER  (Fényszilank) 

A horde of butterflies taking off.
For a moment of truth a breath is enough.
Overused molds. Maybe sins.
On its see-through spots, fever begins.
Its sac is damp and melts like tulle.
The fragrant glaze holds on to the morning shine.
No joke, no confession coerced.
No boundaries.
Silence and passion are so many quarries,
but there’s no one to share them with you.
On a flimsy twig a wee little bird.
Its beaks open and close, its eyes slivers of gleam.
It takes off, but where to?
The brash century takes a seat.
And shuts your mouth for you.

** ** ** **

The Dust of my Existence (Létem pora)

A void inside me urges me on to great things,
I’ve become the crow’s nest of zealous words.
Weakness holds out the fulfillment of strength.
It halts. It comes to life in creative works.

The void is fertile. I’ve seen huge fires die,
the lava of volcanoes come to belly crawl.
Light is hungry, straw flame, an icon, deity.
There’s a spirit I in invisible loyalty.

Emptiness is all, it raised me as I am,
the time on my knees is Scythian.
Prodigal nonexistence is eyeing me,
I’m a dispersed cloud, failure and success;
my guard is the iron hand of nothingness.
The dust of my existence washed out to sea.

** ** ** **

Introduction to Zoltán Böszörményi’s Poetry

Most poets can be best described by the environment that formed them, but what can you say about Zoltán Böszörményi, who largely formed his own environment? He was born Transylvanian-Hungarian in Romania where Hungarians form a barely tolerated ethnic minority, where it would have been much easier for him to accept the majority identity and all the advantages that came with it. Yet, he chose to identify himself as a Hungarian and nourish his mind on Hungarian history and cultural heritage, a choice that eventually had a definitive role in his poetic consciousness. However, shortly after publishing his first volume of poetry, he was hauled into the dreaded State Security headquarters for an overnight stay in an interrogation room before he was let go with a warning to stay away from his circle of poets. Seeing no future for himself in communist dictatorship he fled to Austria, to eventually find a new home in Canada. There was no persecution there but little demand for his Hungarian poetry. After a rocky start and with great effort he worked himself up from a position as hotel janitor to car salesman while learning English and philosophy at York University, finally landing a job with an advertizing agency. There was little time for poetry; this was a period of opening up to a new world and a wider perspective for his mind. Soon he took advantage of another historical situation to take another tack; in 1989 communism collapsed, and Böszörményi went back to Romania. Using his business experience he started a Hungarian publishing firm, putting out a weekly newspaper, a quarterly literary journal and books of prose and poetry. He was also able to restart his writing career, adding prose to his poetry; his adventurous escape and varied experiences in the Western World combined with his knowledge of the contemporary intellectual currents of Central Europe gave him plenty of material and inspiration as well. As his publishing venture got off the ground he was able to divide his time between the two sides of the Atlantic and concentrate on his writing. His work creates a world of its own by sifting words in an effort to find the meaning of life, like gold diggers sift through dirt to find riches. Thus his poetry, while it is Hungarian in language and cultural influences, can be best described as cosmopolitan in the positive sense of it: being open to the ideas and the intellectual ferment of the world and concerning itself with the world of reality out there. This also explains its eclectic nature when it comes to form; the voice remains authentic going from free verse to rhymed poetry as the mood or the theme requires. He speaks five languages, Romanian, Hungarian, German, English and French, but he can best express himself in his mother tongue, Hungarian. And poetry is not just a form of expression but a way of life, at least for true poets.

Paul Sohar has been writing and publishing in every genre, including seventeen volumes of translations, the latest being Silver Pirouettes, Gyorgy Faludy’s poetry (Ragged Sky Press, Princeton, 2017). His own poetry: Homing Poems (Iniquity Press, 2006) and The Wayward Orchard, a Wordrunner Press Prize winner (2011). Other awards: first prize in the 2012 Lincoln Poets Society contest, and a second prize from RI Writers Circle contest (2014). Translation prizes: the Irodalmi Jelen Translation Prize (2014), Toth Arpád Translation Prize and the Janus Pannonius Lifetime Achievement Award (both in 2016, Budapest, Hungary). Magazine credits include Agni, Gargoyle, Kenyon Review, Rattle, Poetry Salzburg Review, and Seneca Review.

Zoltán Böszörményi (1953-), a Romanian-Hungarian poet and novelist, was born and educated in the Transylvanian-Hungarian area of Romania, but as a young poet he moved to Canada where he graduated from York University. After the fall of communism he went back to Romania to resume his literary career. He has published two novels in Sohar’s English translation: Far from Nothing (Exile Editions, Canada, 2006) and The Club at Eddie’s Bar (Phaeton Press, Ireland, 2013). His novel “The Refugee” just came out in Berlin in German translation. Now he is working with Sohar on a selection of his poems in English translation: The Conscience of Trees




Anthony Seidman translating Rodolfo Hinostroza

(fragment) from Hommage à Vasalery

O & beauty is love
          vers l’admission
                time is filled
with crystalline structures
element element element
as thus:--------------------------------------------
which permeates the things
I am moist
my pores sublimate delicate saltpeter crystals
within and without once again
it was not the vibration of the protoplasm
not a shapeless thing not a swamp
confused libraries yellowing beneath the sun
une autre jeunesse des choses
towards the inexhaustible shape that purifies inexhaustibly.

Origins of Sublimation

 Beauty = Yearning
of the lost paradise
the womb in which you experienced perfect silence
only the gurgle of warm and gooey liquids
gurgle of comets / peace and nourishment
a part of something
not the body’s solitude
the mystical harmony
the precise site of the clairvoyant before the universe


And the bird-bell says:
“During the ascension towards the perfect conjunction
things follow this order:
a) Opacity:
thing with shape or shapeless thing
not irradiation
faces in the Metropolitan Art Nouveau
vagueness of material
does not allow that bodies pass through it / does not present
b) The Definition:
                                             that which is termed as beautiful or ugly
with / without character
a mangy dog & sparkling white teeth,
where both co-exist and one explains the other
the bearded hangman, the
Cover Girl
scream / death
c) Ambiguity: 
  negative synthesis
things annulling other things and therein an unexpected sparkle
delicate nuance
immersed in Grand Guignol
inside & out
matter which is suspended yet
still comes and goes
and d) Grace:
unobtainable by will
illumination without choice
image which pauses the fluency of Time
a lightning-bolt strikes your forehead
evidence evidence!”
& that’s what the bird bell said
from a point in mid-air
where every labyrinth reveals itself and explains itself.


L’Utopie aussi:
a paradise lost proposes
a paradise anew 
thus Beauty = Mediation 
between the visible world and the possible world
/ anamnesia of the uterine world /
and thus the clairvoyant
 does not ossify
does not lose the absolute
he stands here
cf. the Bodhisattvas p.ex
in transparent meditation
& the still humility before the gathering
with your eyes you shall gaze upon it with your hands you shall touch it
and it will assume a shape
love makes visible the invisible
and makes invisible or visible
cf. Ariosto 
the fountain of youth
which doesn’t age.

Love’s Body

A body destroys the blind autonomy
d’un autre corp
it abandons
your body like the river or the sea
the art of seeing the world and living it
resides in the encounter
no fear of death
Oh abolition
the return of the mystical couple
  you were never one body
you were 2 before being born
from thence you saw the stations of the eclipse
one body only = terror of death
half of a face half of truth
2 orientate themselves towards the magnetic center of the Universe of Leibniz
they perceive the ecstasy the end of the era
in which death reigns over
beauty & life.


& the scream continues and the terror of being only one body
no world forthcoming
no perfect love perfect harmony
liberty in exchange
privation is infinite dix. Estagirita
endless search for what was lost
chucked into Time that fills itself
with incoherent things anguished fluency
but derrière la fin de la conscience
there’s a place of peace greater than peace
lake of the homecoming
    they began the light
legends myths emissions
which create and propose another life.


Cathars = pure
& the world was a prison
the solitude of the body, the powerful
      au bout de l’angoisse
among the need for destruction
shattered from the four sides
no way for the object no way for love
& someone adopted the fetal position
squatting arms crossed
hands half-closed
powerful veil warm placenta between him and the others
distant thrum of the stars revolving
imperfectly conjuring the superhuman terror
obscure poetry not assent the opacity
the bitter love’s mystery.


& thus the reverse of opacity
it both resembles and differs from
the sweet love’s mistery
the couple in their bed
celebrating Vatsyayana
  it was not love for one’s body nor for another’s
bliss exchanged
bite yum flesh of apple yum mouth another mouth
duality against death
mystical homecoming
a sole body in two   divine duality
the perfect couple
space responds to the movements
they create waves towards Pegasus & The Phoenix
Thou art & Thou art.

Translator’s Note

I discovered Hinostroza’s poetry by way of Medusaurio (1996), an anthology edited by Roberto Echavarren, José Kozer, and Jacobo Sefamí. The anthology was in the university stacks, and it was a major moment for me. The book can be likened to Cuesta’s Antología de la poesía mexicana moderna (1928) for its brilliant reassessments and rediscoveries, its shifting of canonical expectations, and, perhaps most importantly, for its heralding the importance of the Neo-Baroque in Latin American Poetry, with Hinostroza as one of the movement’s leading voices. I was enrolled in the bilingual MFA program at the University of Texas at El Paso, crossing on foot into El Paso every morning via the international bridge starting in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. The Creative Writing department boasted a healthy amount of younger poets from Latin America, as well as Mexican and Latin American professors. Over beers at El Recreo or The Kentucky Club, younger poets like Paolo De Lima of Peru or Gaspar Orozco of Mexico spoke with perception and enthusiasm about the legendary Hinostroza, confirming my initial readings of this difficult yet electrifying vates. Just prior to my leaving Ciudad Juárez in 1999, UTEP professor Miguel Ángel Zapata published the anthology Nueva poesía latinoamericana (UNAM), and therein I discovered another selection of Hinostroza, revealing a celestial landscape: the logic of the stars melded with political commentary, poetry from antiquity, chemistry, collages of political propaganda, which Hinostroza critiqued and juxtaposed with lyrical passages celebrating Eros and unflinchingly defying Thanatos, and praising the transformative powers of the Verb. Hinostroza’s net of readings, concerns, and allusions was cast as wide as Pound’s or Zukofksy’s, but his aim was love and physical union as an escape from history’s labyrinth. Indeed, what set this poet apart from most of his contemporaries in the Anglo-Saxon world is that his Muse always reminded him to sing of love. Yes, Hinostroza can be “difficult,” but his poetry urges the reader along with the beauty of the lyre. In this, Hinostroza’s art faintly resembles the Octavio Paz of “Piedra de Sol,” a longish and demanding poem that nevertheless manages to inspire readers of diverse capacities, casting their gaze on the delights of coitus. (One of the poem’s most celebrated lines celebrating love was even served as the title of a Mexican pop group’s most popular album.) Hinostroza accompanies the reader, as his vast and arcane cosmography and lexicon rotate in corymbulous explosions. The reader who opens Contra natura touches no mere book, he touches a man, as well as an original poetry relating the world via the “logic of metaphor.”

Anthony Seidman’s most recent collection of poetry is A Sleepless Man Sits Up In Bed, released in 2016 by Eyewear Publishing. His book-length translations include Confetti-Ash: Selected Poems of Salvador Novo (The Bitter Oleander) and Smooth-Talking Dog (Phoneme Media), poems by Roberto Castillo Udiarte, a poet recognized as “the Godfather of Tijuana’s counterculture.”

Rodolfo Hinostroza (Peru, 1941-2016), was a celebrated poet. Hinostroza’s groundbreaking collection Contra natura (1971) won the 1972 Maldoror Prize for Poetry given in Barcelona with none other than Octavio Paz as the judge. At the time of his death, Hinostroza was singled out as the leading poet of his generation. His open sequences, mixed registers of language, interest in history, astronomy, literary history, politics etc., make for a demanding and brilliant poetry.




Simon Rogghe translating Louis Aragon


May the water of the sky shake up
The dust on our locks
And the drought too where graze
Our burnt flocks
May the water of the sky chase the anguish
That gnaws away the grain
The great heart of the oars
May the water of the sky say
May the water of the sky say I want thus
To wait makes people nervous
The time the time just sloughs
And night is never dark enough
She will return the dawn
The horror of broad daylight
Like a furnace the world is alight
Where the stone yearns for the steps of the moon
Where the stone bursts apart at the feet of the sun
Where the stone is like a heart in the terrible hand of a child
And what then could I say about my unhappy human heart
The times the times are tough
To what gods would I pray with you suppliants in sweat
Under your felt hats
To what gods who aren’t deaf as is our age-old disbelief
Who are the gods that keep the water gates
Who let the barges of misfortune pass through at their behest
The heat has been scorching ever since ever since
I dare not say ever since how much time
Who are the gods that open the windows
And chase away the summer’s dreadful plague
This chamber of fire full of soldiers and boots
Pull away the flaming wicks that incessantly fall on my face
But you are all woolly as if it were winter
Your eyes look so black it’s like a funeral
Don’t you hear the rasps that the grasshoppers make
Future skeletons grind in the grain
I can’t get used to living on close terms with death
It is hell unless you show me a cloud
You I don’t know who maybe a demon or maybe just people like you and I
Because a day will come that may be near
Where rain and nice weather will be in the fickle hands of the first man who comes along
Man man precisely by this power over the sky
Then it will be over with drought and with dust
Then there will be no more place for thirst in the parched throats of plants
There will be no more place for the sun to bring sunshine
There will be no more crickets under the fiery straw and no more blight either
Then no longer will anyone tell you strange words to control your steps
You’ll no longer fear getting burned touching the door to your house
You’ll no longer be a footman to a master who can’t pronounce your name
The earth you turn over will no longer be inexplicably sterile
No longer inexplicably fleeting like a lascivious woman
She will no longer lie to Jack Peter or Jane
May it rain may it rain by the signals we make on our hills
May it rain up a thunderstorm with the generosity of iron
Drops so large they drown our old bile
Drops so close rank and file the sky’s arrows advance
Oh scatter you rain from torrential hands
Rain with fingers of music
Rain scented with bubbles and death
Scatter the fields overcome in your watery comb
Let your crystal spill out in blue furrows where like a disease
Boiled the parasite spirit of weeds
Oh rain rain oh rain and fill the cup of the horizon to the brim
Champagne of my beautiful cloud festive drink
Rain dear to my face as it is to the earth
And don’t mind if I stand in your way you can pierce me
Adorable rain rain as gentle as love
We are all hoping for with our eyes to the sky
Reaching our palm and the back of our hand
To feel the first drop of the blessing of tears


Here comes the cloud cried the child with a celluloid swan on his heart
Here comes the cloud repeated the women at the bluest end of the washing stone
Here comes the cloud and the cornettes of the nuns at the hospice
Turned to the windows of fire hoping that it was just a flock of migrant birds
The men stumbled out of the shadowy bars with their drinks turning pale
Their shoes too shiny and their decorations all black
And in the alleys where the violent stench ran amok a whole throng of kids who played with animal flesh over bone
Looked to the roofs seeing nothing yet and yelped
Here comes the cloud

It arrived on the horizon weary as a sleepless eye
Not much bigger than a fly it arrived
It arrived like an ink stain on the retina
A tourist plane on a Saturday night’s suspense drama
It arrived like two images superimposed
It arrived the cloud arrives like a big giant fly with a buzz made of steel
It arrives with sharp scissors that fill our ears
With the cries of the grinders from the days of our youth
The entire sky grinds its teeth

What kind of rain does it bring
This cloud summoned unwisely what kind of rain
Already the summer is turning its face from the suffering looks
Already the rye-colored land is tracked down for its light
What kind of rain is it then that rattles as if to alert to the coming of lepers
The earth creaks and the dried-up tree trembles
Hail it is hail Oh misfortune
On the grain on the flowers on the harvest on the windows on the awnings on the wanderers
Sharp diamonds rain down from the spears of maledictions

Beasts with greased joints
Sleek dragons starving for food
Hybrid monsters astride their horses of iron and the cruelty of man
Animals made of noise and devastation
Their simple names in the moment elude the ones they kill
Cheating the sky with giant blue eyes on their green flapping wings
Locusts that’s what they called them in Egypt
They are locusts swarming down on us how terrible
When tangled up in their wings flesh is torn
The hum of the bee announces the thunder
And others and others with the cracking of bones in the crosshairs
With the breaking of skulls at the sting of their rays
Yes it is hail and the magicians on the mountain
Will be rent to pieces for having summoned the plague

Where man made his home and his comfort of living
Where hung the hammock of old age and sang the kettle on the furnace
Where painted flowers on the wall made for the spells of reverie
Where slept the child of future and of memory
There is now hail the snorts of wind the mincing claws
The grating of murder and the grimace of death
The grinding of the town that disintegrates and the stone cried out for grace
Hail grace
And the hail laughed out loud through its grainy teeth
The hail sank its teeth into a chunk of happiness
Raised its pockmarked beak with crushed hope in its jaws
Shook its grainy mane over the growling graves
Scratched into the soil with its grinding paws to pluck out the dead that sleep below
And like a cat cuts through a pillow
It scattered man into a whirl of feathers on his torn-out heart

We spoke of hail just now
Hail doesn’t have this color

I’m telling you in Egypt that’s what they called locusts


Que l’eau du ciel mette en déroute
La poussière de nos cheveux
Et la sécheresse que broute
Un bétail brûlé
Que l’eau du ciel chasse l’angoisse
Qui ronge de ces charançons
Le grand cœur des blés
Que l’eau du ciel dise
Que l’eau du ciel dise Je veux
Attendre fait les gens nerveux
Le temps le temps dure
Et la nuit jamais n’est assez obscure
Il revient l’aurore
L’horreur du grand jour
Le monde est un four
Où la pierre aspire aux pas de la lune
Où la pierre éclate au genou du soleil
Où la pierre est comme un cœur dans la main terrible de l’enfant
Et qu’est-ce que je pourrais dire alors de mon malheureux cœur d’homme
Les temps les temps sont durs
Quels dieux prierais-je avec vous suppliants en sueur
Sous vos chapeaux de feutre
Quels dieux qui ne soient sourds comme notre incrédulité séculaire
Qui sont les dieux qui gardent les écluses
Qui font passer les péniches de la malchance à l’appel des bateliers
Il fait une chaleur à crever depuis depuis
Je n’ose pas dire depuis combien de temps
Qui sont les dieux qui ouvrent les fenêtres
Et chassent la pestilence épouvantable de l’été
Cette chambre de feu pleine de soldats et de bottes
Écartez ces mèches de flammes qui retombent sans cesse sur mon front
Mais vous êtes couverts de laine comme au gros de l’hiver
On dirait tant vos yeux sont noirs qu’on suit un enterrement
Est-ce que vous n’entendez pas le bruit de crin que font les sauterelles ?
Des ossements futurs grincent dans les céréales
Je ne peux pas m’habituer à vivre à tu et à toi avec la mort
C’est l’enfer à moins que vous ne me donniez un nuage
Vous je ne sais qui démons peut-être ou tout bonnement gens comme vous et moi
Car un jour viendra bien qui pourrait être proche
Où la pluie et le beau temps seront aux mains capricieuses du premier venu
Homme homme précisément par ce pouvoir sur le ciel
Alors il ne fera plus bon pour la sécheresse ni pour la poussière
Alors il n’y aura plus de place pour la soif dans le gosier des plantes
Il n’y aura plus de place au soleil pour l’insolation
Il n’y aura plus de cricris sous la paille ardente et plus de nielles Alors personne ne te dira plus des mots étrangers pour limiter tes pas
Tu ne craindras plus de te brûler en touchant la porte de ta propre maison
Tu ne seras plus valet des labours chez un maître qui ne sait pas prononcer ton nom
La terre que tu creuseras ne sera plus inexplicablement stérile
Plus inexplicablement fuyante comme une femme de mauvaise vie
Elle ne mentira plus à Jean-Pierre ou François
Qu’il pleuve qu’il pleuve aux signes que font ceux de chez nous sur les collines
Qu’il pleuve une tempête de pluie avec la générosité du fer
Des gouttes larges à noyer l’amertume ancienne
Des gouttes si proches l’une de l’autre qu’on ne puisse distinguer entre elles ces flèches du ciel
Crible crible ô pluie aux mains torrentielles
Pluie aux doigts de musique
Pluie à la bonne odeur de mousse et de mort
Crible les champs envahis dans ton peigne liquide
Fais couler ton cristal dans les sillons bleus où bouillait
L’esprit parasitaire des liserons
Ah pleus pluie ah pleus à pleins bords dans la coupe des horizons
Champagne de mon beau nuage boisson des jours de fête
Chère pluie à mon visage aussi douce qu’à ma terre
Et ne te gêne pas si je suis sur ton chemin Tu peux me percer
Pluie adorable pluie aussi tendre que l’amour
Que tout un peuple espère les yeux tournés vers le ciel
Et tendant alternativement le dos de sa main et sa paume pour voir
Si déjà vient de commencer la bénédiction des larmes


Voici le nuage a crié l’enfant qui tenait un cygne de celluloïd sur son cœur
Voici le nuage ont répété les femmes au plus bleu du lavoir
Voici le nuage et les cornettes des religieuses dans l’hospice
Ont tourné vers les fenêtres de feu leur espoir d’oiseaux migrateurs
Les hommes sont sortis des petits bars d’ombre où blêmissent les breuvages
Avec leurs souliers trop beaux pour l’époque et leurs insignes noirs
Et dans les ruelles où l’odeur violente sévit toute une marmaille jouant avec des bêtes amaigries
A regardé du côté des toits sans rien voir encore et glapi
Voici le nuage

Il arrivait de l’horizon fatigué comme un œil d’insomnie
Il arrivait pas plus gros qu’une mouche
Il arrivait comme un pâté d’encre une image de la persistance rétinienne sous les paupières
Un avion de tourisme un samedi soir des romans d’anticipation
Il arrivait sur nous à la façon des anaglyphes
Il arrivait le nuage il arrive comme une mouche énorme avec un bruit d’acier
Il arrive avec des ciseaux aiguisés plein nos oreilles
Des cris de rémouleurs dans un matin d’enfance
Le ciel tout entier grince des dents

Quelle sorte de pluie est-ce donc que ce nuage
Imprudemment appelé quelle sorte de pluie
Déjà le visage de l’été se dérobe à la souffrance des regards
Déjà l’immense pays couleur de seigle perd sa lumière traquée
Quelle sorte de pluie est-ce donc qui semble annoncer les lépreux avec la crécelle
La terre craque et l’arbre séché frémit
La grêle la grêle la grêle Ah malheur
Sur les graines la fleur la moisson les vitres les voiles les promeneurs égarés
Il pleut des diamants taillés des javelots des malédictions

Des bêtes aux articulations soignées
Des dragons maigres affamés de pâtures
Des montres hybrides à cheval sur le fer et la méchanceté de l’homme
Des animaux faits de rumeur et de dévastation
Dont le nom simple à cette minute échappe à ceux qu’ils tuent
Avec de grands yeux bleus dans leurs ailes vertes afin de tromper le ciel
Sauterelles voilà comment on les appelait en Égypte
Ce sont des sauterelles qui s’abattent épouvantablement sur nous
Et la chair se déchire aux enchevêtrements des ailes
Le chant de l’élytre annonce au tonnerre qu’il est bien arrivé
D’autres d’autres au craquement des os dans les croisées
A l’écrabouillement des crânes dans le pétrin des poutres
Oui c’est la grêle et les magiciens sur la montagne
Seront écharpés pour avoir appelé le fléau

Où l’homme avait fait sa demeure et la douceur de sa vie
Où se balançait le hamac des jours et chantait sur le feu la bouilloire
Où les fleurs peintes faisaient aux murs le vertige des rêveries
Où se berçait l’enfant d’avenir et de mémoire
Il y a la grêle il y a le groin du vent vert il y a la griffe labourante
Il y a le grincement du meurtre et la grimace du martyre
Et le gréement de la ville se désagrège et la pierre a crié grâce
Grêle grâce
Et la grêle a ri de toutes ses dents de grêle
De toutes ses dents de grêle a mordu le bonheur à pleines dents
Relevé sa gueule de grêle avec de l’espoir broyé dans les dents
Secoué ses cheveux de grêle au-dessus du grabat grondant
Creusé la terre de ses mains de grêle pour en tirer les morts qui dorment dedans
Et comme un édredon qu’un chat lacère
Fait de l’homme une dispersion de plumes sur son cœur arraché

Qui parlait de grêle tout à l’heure
La grêle n’a pas cette couleur

Je vous dis qu’en Égvpte on appelait cela des sauterelles

Translator’s Note

Aragon’s poetry collections written during World War II bear the unmistakable imprint of the Resistance, but what makes them stand out in Aragon’s repertoire is that each collection is accompanied by a theoretical essay with considerations on verse, rhyme and poetics—all within the framework of an overarching literary-historical perspective. In Brocéliande in particular, Aragon tries to bridge the gap between the poetry of the past (the legends of the Grail and of Merlin imprisoned in the enchanted forest of Brocéliande) and modern poetry. Whereas this connection with medieval poetry should definitely be placed within the framework of the Resistance, as an attempt to reconstitute a unified French poetic heritage, it is also inspired by the surrealist idea that the poetic voice does not obey the laws of time and space, that it unites past and present within the realm of poetic creation itself. 

It is precisely this idea of a past that is still active in the present that makes Aragon’s poems relevant today. Although the collection Brocéliande should be seen as single poem made up of seven individual poems to be read in consecutive order, I have chosen to excerpt two free-verse poems, because the tone and themes strongly pertain to the current state of affairs. The notion, for example, that soon “rain and nice weather will be in the fickle hands of the first man who comes along” resonates with alarming intensity not only with climate change and the ineptitude of politicians to address this issue, but also with modern dictatorship and the accompanying threat of nuclear war.

These poems, moreover, are chant-like, rendering visible the double-edged sword of incantation: a magical tool for the regeneration of nature (a prayer to make it rain), but also a tool used by false magicians to swindle the (often fickle) masses. This is shown in the connection between the two poems: in the first poem, the people, discontented by the drought, turn to their magicians to make it rain; in the second poem, the people get what they asked for, and rain falls down in the form of a torrent of artillery from enemy planes, causing these very same magicians to “be rent to pieces for having summoned the plague.” 

It is perhaps this awareness of both the effectiveness and the futility of poetry as a political tool (in the first case, as rhetoric and propaganda; in the second case, as poièsis, an action for its own sake) that prompts Aragon to fuse the mythical past of medieval tales to the urgency of the Resistance, in a poem that is both hermetically turned inward while vociferously calling for action. Still influenced by the surrealist quest for a “point of the spirit” where all contradictions cease to exist, in Brocéliande Aragon writes on the cusp of external reality and a surrealist, magical unconscious.

Simon Rogghe is a poet and fiction writer. He was born in Philadelphia and grew up in Belgium. After traveling in the US and Europe competing at horse shows as a professional rider, he found a home in the Bay Area. When not working on his PhD in French literature, he also translates French surrealists as well as contemporary fiction. He is the author of Green Lions, a collection of poetry and artwork in collaboration with Zarina Zabrisky (Numina Press, 2014). His work is published in over twenty literary journals, including 3:AM Magazine, Gone Lawn, Lunch Ticket, and Inventory.

Louis Aragon (1897-1982) was one of the founding members of the French surrealist movement, known in particular for his experimental work Le Paysan de Paris (1926). Aragon authored numerous novels and poetry volumes throughout his life, always with a keen awareness of the (at times porous) boundaries between prose and poetry, due to the fact that Aragon’s aspirations as a novelist were at odds with the more dogmatic surrealist principles stipulated by André Breton. Aragon joined the Communist Party in 1927, was immobilized during World War II and received a medal for acts of bravery.




Lida Nosrati translating Ahmad Pouri

Chapter One


 The tall, curly-haired young man makes it seem like he’s ready to help me. I tell him I’m looking for a book I spotted on the sales rack just a few days ago. A book with a brown jacket featuring a picture of the Kremlin Square and a silhouette of Anna Akhmatova on it. He squints his eyes, furls his eyebrows, letting out an ‘Anna Akhmatova’ through his sealed teeth. 
You can tell he doesn’t recognize the name. I come to his rescue, ‘There’s no mention of Akhmatova’s name on the cover. The title is something like An Encounter …’
An Encounter With the Poet, ’”a deep scratchy voice interrupts me. And then gives out the full title in English. 
I turn around and see a man standing behind me. Slender, a bit shorter than medium-height, almost sixty. I hadn’t noticed him. ‘The account of Anna Akhmatova and Zoshchenko’s meeting with foreign students in Leningrad, am I right?” he goes on. 
He was right. That’s exactly why I’m interested in the book. I didn’t have enough money on me to buy it the other day. ‘There was only one copy. And I bought it,” he says playfully. 
The young man is happy he doesn’t have to solve any problems anymore. The look in his eyes begs me to let him off the hook so he can attend to other things. I do. The man continues, “The much-sensationalized meeting of November 1954, a year after Stalin’s death.”
He talks with such confidence you can tell he knows much more about this. He has a strange accent, hard to pin down to any particular region in Iran. More like a foreign accent. 
“Have you read the book?” I ask. 
“Yes, I finished it. It was good. Contained almost all the questions and answers. The author, himself a student in those years, was present at that meeting. He was a bit displeased with Anna Akhmatova and how conservatively she answered the questions but praised Zoshchenko. You must remember that a few years before this meeting they were both dismissed from the Writer’s Union. All of this engineered by Zhdanov. He was the one who called Akhmatova ‘the whore nun’.”
I tell him I’ve read some on this. The depth of his knowledge intrigues me. “I’m translating a collection of poetry by Akhmatova. So I’m reading every book about her I can get my hands on.”
“May I ask your name?”
He gleams at hearing my name and reaches out to shake my hand, “Yes, I’ve read your translations of other poets. Pat on the back!”
Which leaves me wondering if he liked them or not.  I’m glad we’re now in that familiar terrain where it feels appropriate for me to ask something, or to ask for something.  I’m barely done when he says, “Sure. The book is all yours. I’ve read it already. Seems like you need it more than I do. By the way, which language do you translate Akhmatova from?”
“English. But I know enough Russian to compare it with the original.”
“You know Russian?”
“I wouldn’t say I know it. I’ve taught myself, with books and Linguaphone cassettes. But I stubbornly try to read the Russian text, with the help of dictionaries.”
“That’s great,” he laughs. “So, you haven’t taken any courses?”
“No, Russian is not as popular as English, you know. Earlier on, I had a teacher from Baku who worked in an import-export company. I took a few lessons with him in introductory Russian. But then he left Tehran and I continued on my own. It’s a difficult language.”
“It’s not difficult at all,’”he shook his head. “Depends what you compare it with. If it were, you wouldn’t have learned anything at all, given the limited means there are.”
I have a feeling he knows Russian. 
“How about you? Do you know Russian?”
“Russian is my mother tongue.”
Mystery solved. He was not Iranian. 
“But you speak Persian perfectly well.”
“My English and French are better than my Persian.”
He must have seen my jaw drop. He laughed, “I’ve lived a few years in each. And I’ve been living in Iran for over ten years now.”
I decided this was not the time to curb my curiosity, “If I may be so bold to ask, you work as a…?”
“Researcher. Of history, contemporary history to be more precise. That’s why I came to Iran.”
I thought getting to know him might help me with my translation of Akhmatova, and nervously suggested, “It would be great to have a chat if you have an hour to spare.”
“Gladly!’”he replied. “Let me pay for these books and we’ll go chat over a cup of coffee somewhere.”
I’m over the moon. I have lots of questions. Outside the Book City on Hefaz Street, at the foot of the steps, he asks if I know anywhere around here and already has a thought while I’m still wondering, “There’s a cozy little café around the corner, on Sana’ee Street. Not too far from here. We can walk there. The owner is Armenian. The coffee and the cakes are the best.”
I readily agree and we start walking. Were it not for the particular interrogative intonation he ended his sentences with, it would be impossible to think of him as non-native speaker of Persian. He must have quite a knack in learning languages. One of those people who don’t put too much effort into it. 
The café on Sana’ee Street is a fairly small room with a dozen square tables for two or four and an aged wooden counter behind which stands an old man of medium height with a full head of grey hair and a bony rectangular face. The shelf above him is lined with bottles of fizzy drinks and juices of all kinds. 
Between the counter and the wall, on his right, a small display cabinet lined with fluorescent light contains a variety of cakes on a glass shelf. To his left, is the coffee machine with a few sugar bowls, coffee and cocoa powder canisters and a milk jug on top. The owner knows my companion. He greets him warmly. We sit at one of the tables by the window, facing the street. 
“You’d like some coffee?”
“Great!” he smiles, “but allow me to pick the cake because the one I pick is to be found nowhere in Tehran. It’s homemade by his wife. He says he’s been carrying this cake for forty years and the recipe is top secret.”
He talks about Akhmatova in such great detail it’s as if they’d lived together for years. 
“Have you done any research on Akhmatova?”
“No, no!’” he corrects me in a rush, “Akhmatova is one of my most favorite poets. I knew her personally and followed her work closely. I was even about to publish one of her poetry collections under her own supervision.”
“You must have been quite young then.”
“No, I was about the same age as I am now,” he replies casually. 
He is silent. I look at him, perfectly puzzled. He doesn’t seem like he’s joking. He’s looking down, playing with the sugar bowl on the table, and doesn’t feel like he owes me any explanation. 
He notices my shock, and changes the topic, “The encounter the author talks about in this book occurred a year after Stalin’s death. Murmurs of dissent could be heard here and there, but the air of terror among people, especially artists like Akhmatova, still prevailed. Those days, Akhmatova’s son was arrested again, and her third husband, Punin, had died in the forced labor camp. For fear of his son being persecuted even more, Akhmatova did not appear much in literary circles and talked rarely when she did. Meeting with the students would have been dangerous for her. Later she said somewhere, ‘The students, especially the English ones, wanted me and Zoshchenko to criticize the party and our dismissal from the union. Zoshchenko did this very softly and he received a warm applause form the audience. When came my turn, one of the students asked what I thought of the party’s decision and Zoshchenko’s statements. I said I thought both the party and Zoshchenko were right. And no one applauded.’ ’’
The slender man shakes his head, “Those were horrible days. The kids in the hall could not understand Akhmatova. She said to someone later, ‘in those three hours, I saw the storm brewing. I thought my beloved Lev will be taken for another interrogation the day after.’ ’’
“Her son. Lev Gumilev. As I said he was imprisoned in the camp those days.”
I was getting impatient with all this curiosity building up, “You knew Akhmatova personally?”
“Yes. Her second husband, Shileiko, and I were classmates at the university. We studied history together. I got to know Anna Andreuevna through him. Although I knew her poetry before.”
My breath catches. On Sana’ee Street in Tehran in 1994 sits a man before me who claims he was friends with Anna Akhmatova who’s been dead for over thirty years now. He notices my disbelief but pretends he hasn’t. He lets my mind swing from one side to another in utter confusion. 
“This is the second time in my life I am so shocked,” I say, “the other time was when I saw Dr. Jalal Sattari in a publisher’s office …”
“Jalal Sattari who writes on myths?”
“Yes. When he heard I’d translated a book by Nazim Hikmet he casually said, ‘He’s a great poet. I met him in Germany. His personality was as fine as his poems.’ ’’
The slender man laughed aloud, “What’s so strange about meeting a famous person?”
“Famous people are part of history,” I explained. “One thinks they only live in books. Now, Sattari’s meeting with Nazim Hikmat, as strange as it may seem, could be plausible. But your friendship with Akhmatova is quite bizarre. We’re talking forty, fifty years ago. How old were you back then?”
“I told you, I was the same age as I am now,” he says in a serious tone.
He completely ignores my confusion. And you can’t tell from his face if he’s joking or not. I don’t know what to say. I’d rather talk to him some more, hoping we get somewhere. I go back to Akhmatova. 
“Maybe Akhmatova wouldn’t have had much fame outside the Soviet Union, had it not been for the Cold War years.”
He stares into the void outside the window.
“For many in the West,  Akhmatova enslaved in Stalin’s chains took more prominence than Akhmatova the poet. But the truth is she was a great poet. The world is rediscovering her, now that many things have changed. One of the few people who talked about Akhmatova in those days was Isaiah Berlin.”
“The British philosopher you mean?”
“Not so much a philosopher,” he corrects me gently, ‘as a thinker. And also not British, but Russian. Berlin was in Russia until the age of fifteen. He then immigrated to England with his parents and became a naturalized citizen.”
“Really? I didn’t know Berlin was Russian. Now that you say that many things are starting to fall into place for me. His writings on Pasternak and Akhmatova, his book Russian Thinkers.”
“Seems like you’ve done a thorough reading of his works,” he says with an air of content. 
“Actually no. I haven’t read any of his philosophical or political works. But I’ve read everything he’s written on literature. I know he’s written quite extensively on music as well. He’s an interesting man. I read somewhere that he was at some point one of the high-ranking officials of the British Consulate in Moscow and met Akhmatova too.”
He looks me in the eye for a second and whispers, “November 1945, in Fontanka, Leningrad.”
The café owner who seems to function as a waiter too approaches us with a beautifully delicate wooden tray. Two cups of coffee sit on two flower-patterned saucers, and next to them are two elaborately patterned plates with a knife and fork on the side and a chocolate cake in each. He waits for the slender man to move his arms so he could put the plates and coffees on the table. My companion reaches out to get the coffee cups from him and takes a good whiff with his eyes closed before putting them on the table, “Wow! Thank you so much.”
Noosh-e jan!”, says the owner as he puts the rest of the items on the table. “Can I bring you anything else?”, he asks with the same friendly smile. 
“No, thank you very much!” says the slender man gently tapping on the owner’s arm. 
I pick up where we left off. 
“You must have known Isaiah Berlin too.”
“In fact, I somehow arranged that infamous meeting. That same day, I saw him in the Writers Bookstore on Nevsky Prospect in Leningrad. The bookstore was a hub for people looking for old and rare books. That day I was looking for a history book. I overheard someone asking the store clerk about Soviet authors. Among the authors, he was particular about Akhmatova. He wanted to know whether she was still alive. The bookseller knew about my friendship with Akhmatova. So he sent him over to me and basically freed himself from the burden of a headache. Talking to a foreigner, particularly about Anna Andreyevna, was not the wisest thing to do. I told him Akhmatova was still alive and was a friend of mine. 
“I asked his name and realized he’s the famous Isaiah Berlin whose essays I had read in the journals friends brought from abroad from time to time. He was really eager to meet Akhmatova. I called Akhmatova right then and asked for a time to meet. She was reluctant for a moment. Her son, Lev, had just been released from prison. She didn’t want to get into trouble yet again. But when she heard the man was Russian and was more interested in her poetry than the political stories surrounding her, she agreed to meet with him that same afternoon. That day, I took Berlin to Anna myself.”
He raises his cup and cautiously brings it to his lips. Takes a small sip and puts it back on the saucer. I’m confused. I don’t know why he has started this game. I say in complete distrust, “Interesting! You take Isaiah Berlin to Akhmatova in Leningrad half a century ago and are now telling me the story in Iran.”
“What’s wrong with me being friends with Akhmatova and bringing a guest to her?”
I’m almost losing it. 
“In that case, you must be a hundred and something years old now.”
He laughs aloud. “Don’t be so hung up on time and years. When I met Berlin in London some years ago he spent a whole hour trying to sort out the dates and figure out why I’ve stayed so young. Poor Berlin was even more stunned than you are because he said I hadn’t changed a bit since the time he saw me at the bookstore. He insisted this must be a miracle of nature. Berlin is a rationalist. For him, everything must pass through the filter of logic. That’s why I don’t blame him too much. But why you? You are a man of letters and into poems and poetry. You of all people should take it more easily. What is time after all? An arbitrary line, with past on one side going all the way back to darkness. And future on the other, ending up again in darkness in a step or two. We’ve all somehow accepted this and keep going on with our lives. Sometimes, one of us deviates. We slip to this side of the line being the past, or to the other side being the future. This happens all the time. Look around you. You sure have seen completely unnatural things. A baby born with two heads, or another born with a tail. I don’t know, thousands of such examples. Or a man who dreams of his long-dead father. In the dream, the father gives him directions to a chest full of the money he had saved. The son goes right to the chest and becomes rich overnight.” He laughs playfully. 
I take a sip of my coffee. It’s thick and bitter but tasty. 
“Isn’t it delicious?”
I agree. 
“I told you, no one serves a coffee as good as Monsieur’s in Tehran. And the cake. Try some.”
The cake is delicious too. Who is this man? Is he mad? Doesn’t seem to be. I remember a few years ago I was at home on a weekend when I heard Vangelis on TV for the first time. The tune always broadcast a few seconds before the news. I suddenly had a strange feeling. A very clear image conjured up before my eyes. I saw myself seated on a chair in a sidewalk patio of a café in a city in Europe waiting for someone. The image was so detailed I could have sketched every bit of it on paper had I been an artist. Even the narrow cobblestoned street on my right winding uphill seemed so real, as if I had walked on it a hundred times. The music was cut and all the images evaporated. A few days later I heard the tune again and the same images reappeared with the same clarity. 
I must have thought all these aloud because the slender man said, “You don’t believe it so you try to somehow justify it.”
“Exactly! I thought maybe I’ve seen the street or the café years ago in a movie with this soundtrack and now I’m pulling those images out from the back of my mind.”
The man lets out a short sigh and stares at his half full cup of coffee smiling.
“It’s always been like that. Humans have always wanted to find answers to their questions. And when that becomes impossible, they try to somehow convince themselves with a made up answer. Basically they explain things. The reason is very clear. When we get to a point where we can’t understand existence we get nervous. We look for a ray of light in a dark endless desert and at the end we somehow try to hold on to even a flicker of light, heave a sigh of relief and go on with our lives.”
He looks like he’s talking to himself. He doesn’t look at me and speaks in a half-voice. Suddenly he looks into my eyes. 
“So what happened in the end, to your music and dream?”
What happened really? Nothing. It’s still with me and every time I hear it I am transported to the same café, same street, same clear images. I feel brave. It’s the first time I’m talking about all this with no fear of being ridiculed. I’m not holding back anymore. Whenever I tell these things to people around me, especially Guity, I waste no time to say I don’t believe in any of it before they start lecturing me. But the slender man has opened the door of a house for me, into which I can step without trepidation and peek into its rooms and back closets. 
I share another secret with him. 
“Years ago, a couple of friends and I were going to a pub in Edinburgh, Scottland. I’m sure you know what a pub is. Something like our own qahveh khaneh, coffee houses. One of them suggested we go to the ‘End of the World’ on Cannon Gate street. He said the pub is 200 years old. He asked if I’d been there before. I said I hadn’t. Down the slope on Cannon Gate on our way to the pub, I suddenly remembered the rest of the street and the little shops on it. ‘Do you mean the pub next to the barber’s?’ I asked them.
“‘So, you’ve been there before,’ asked the friend who had suggested going there. I said no but I explained all the details of the building and pub’s interior to them. They were in disbelief. Everything was correct down to the last detail. Eventually they believed me when I said I had never been there. One of them said, ‘Sometimes these things happen. The French call it déjà vu.’ And the other joked, ‘The pub has been engrained in mankind’s collective subconscious. God bless Jung’s soul!’ and we all laughed.”
The slender man stared at me without smiling. You could tell he was thinking about a distant thought. There was a moment of silence. I ate the rest of the cake. Suddenly as if startled awake he says, “so you too slip to this side of the line sometimes.”
He looks serious but I jokingly say, “I try not to slip in any direction.”
He ignores my flippant tone. “This is beyond our control. We all do.”
“So you must have slipped to the other side. The future.”
He doesn’t smile. He agrees. Everything seems complicated all of sudden. I can’t read the situation. “By they way, I don’t know your name yet,” I say. 
He blinks absentmindedly and says, “Oh, of course. I’ll give you my card.”
He reaches into his pocket for an old leather wallet, pulls out a card from one of the small folds, and hands it over to me. It’s a simple card. One side is in Russian and the other side in English. In the middle of the card in fairly large font is written “V. N. Orloff.” With the name underlined, and two words underneath: “Historian, Literary Critic.” At the bottom of the card, on the Russian side, there’s a Leningrad address and a London address on the English side. No phone number. No other words. I thank him. 
“Can I have your phone number?”
“Of course! I’ll give you my phone number and address,” he says eagerly. “I’d be very happy if you’d visit me. I live by myself and have many books on Akhmatova, even her poetry books. You may find them useful.”
“I’m sure I will. I would love to see you again,” I say. 
He looks for a piece of paper on which to write his address. I pull out a small notebook from my bag and rip out a page and give it to him with a pen. In very nice handwriting, in Persian, he writes, “Sohrevardi Jonoubi, South of Russel Pharmacy, Aqiq Alley, No. 53, 2nd floor, third bell from the bottom.”
And writes his phone number underneath. 

Translator’s Note

Early in my path as a literary translator in Iran, I became familiar with Ahmad Pouri’s translations of Nazim Hikmet, Nizar Qabbani, Pablo Neruda and Anna Akhmatova. Reading Pouri’s masterful translations was nothing short of a directed reading course, an encounter with the translator. In one of my visits to Tehran a few years ago, I chanced upon a novel entitled Two Steps This Side of the Line [Do Qadam Invar-e Khat], this time not translated but written by Pouri. I picked it up and finished reading it in the few remaining days of my stay. 

Two Steps this Side of the Line is a novel in seven chapters. The story set in Tehran, London, Baku and Leningrad, centers on Ahmad, an academic who is translating the poems of Anna Akhmatova. One day in a bookstore, he runs into a strange man who claims to be a close friend of the noted Russian poet. The man tells Ahmad that he can arrange a meeting between him and Anna, who has died nearly fifty years ago, but that first he needs to fly to London to collect a love letter Isaiah Berlin has written her and take it to Anna in Russia. To the surprise of Ahmad’s wife and friends, he is dragged into this maze, almost entirely willingly. 

That the novel has as its protagonist a literary translator made the decision to translate it an obvious and immediate one. Two Steps this Side of the Line is a story in which poetry and politics intertwine. It is a narrative of many layers: the love story involving Anna and Isaiah, the loveless married life Ahmad is leading, and his inner recollections. History, philosophy and psychoanalysis delicately coalesce in this book.

In another, more recent visit to Tehran, I had the fortune of meeting with Ahmad Pouri and discussed the translation of the work into English. He said he had delayed the thought until now because he wanted whoever translates the novel to ‘own’ the language. I cannot lay claim on owning either of the two languages at play here: my mother tongue, Farsi, or the tongue of my second home, English. With owning, comes proprietorship and with that comes the entitlement to profits and the responsibility for losses and liabilities.  All that at the individual level. And language is but a collective act. So I hope I have taken a step to ‘hold’ these two languages with care, here in this translation and beyond. The way one holds a fragile object or entity, like love. 

Lida Nosrati is a literary translator. Her poems and translations of contemporary Iranian poetry and short fiction have appeared in The Capilano Review, The Apostles Review, Words Without Borders, Dibur, and Lunch Ticket, among others. She has been awarded fellowships from the Banff International Literary Translation Centre, Yaddo, and Santa Fe Art Institute (as a Witter Bynner Poetry Translation Fellow). She lives and works in Toronto as a Legal Aid Worker in Refugee Law. Photo by Setareh Delzendeh.

Photograph by Mohamad Tajik

Ahmad Pouri was born in Tabriz, northwestern Iran, in 1953. He has translated more than 25 collections of poems and prose narratives including Letters of Chekov and Olga, and Politically Correct Bedtime Stories. His first novel, Two Steps This Side of the Line, was nominated for ‘Once Upon a Time Literary Award’ as well as the top prize of Golshiri Foundation for first-time novelists. His second novel, Behind the Mulberry Tree, failed to get the green light for publication from the Ministry of Culture. He is currently working on his third novel.




Julia Bohm translating Catullus


Now spring brings back
not cold warms.
Now the rage of the spring sky
grows silent with the gold west wind
of Zephyr. 
O Catullus,
let the Phrygian plains be 
left behind 
& fertile (heated) fields of Nicaea;
let’s fly to the great cities of Asia.
Now my anxious mind 
wants to go,
now my happy feet 
become anxious.
sweet meetings of friends
whom different roads 
in different directions
take back 
having set out 
far from home
at the same time.


Now spring brings back
not cold warms.
Now the rage of the spring sky
grows silent with the gold west wind
of Zephyr. 
O Catullus,
let the Phrygian plains
left behind 
& fertile (heated) fields of Nicaea;
let’s fly to the great cities of Asia.
Now my anxious mind 
wants to go,

now my happy feet 
become anxious.
sweet meetings of friends
different roads 
in different directions
take back 
set out 
far from home
at the same time.


Now spring brings back 
Now the rage of the
sky grows silent

west wind
left behind


different roads set out
far from home

Translator’s Note:

I first came across this poem my junior year of high school. My school required we take three years of a language, which was how I ended up in Latin IV with Mr. Allen, an old man with a ponytail and a beard—exactly who you’d expect to be teaching a Latin class. We translated Catullus and Ovid, two ancient Roman poets. Both covered controversial subjects in their poetry; Ovid even got himself exiled from Rome because of it. Catullus, a great influencer of Ovid, wrote mainly about love and hate—as made apparent by one of his more famous couplets, Catullus 85. 

The poem I have translated is Catullus 46. It is not about love or hate. The lack of such content is anomalous for Catullus, whose work tends to focus more on the gritty, the dirty, and on Lesbia, his lover. I’ve often felt that Latin poetry translation has become convoluted over time. Whether through its syntax, word choice, or the ancient contexts most readers are not aware of, Catullus’ work seems to have lost its beauty. There are three parts to this translation because I didn’t want content to cloud meaning. I hoped to get at the heart of this poem by leaving only its bare bones.

Julia Bohm is a writer from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her work can be found in Winter Tangerine, Public Pool, and Drunk in a Midnight Choir.

Catullus is a well known Roman poet. He lived from 84-54 BC. His work influenced many other famous Latin writers such as Ovid and Virgil.