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The Joseph Brodsky/Stephen Spender Prize 2011

Second prize

Read the judges’ report

Catherine Ciepiela

Tomatoes and Sunflowers


Finally, in the bright air the tomatoes have
Reached their peak: the tomatoes and sunflowers.
Soon they’ll be caned by September-schoolteacher
And explode in tart juices across the grass.
But for now it’s as though the God of Things
Held his breath, and the rocking, the flaring won’t
Quit, and the beginning of dying drags
On and on – ”it’s too soon to bury me.”

That invisible cusp where summertime
Touches autumn, sweeter than anything.
When you know it’s started, the dimming down,
And the world will go motionless, monotone.
But for now it’s tensed, and commingling
Elements – scarlet, orange, emerald,
Copper – go quiet, gasp on the verge of a
Dead faint at this final resting place.

Brimming – branches, shadows, lineaments,
Flavor and scent not quite stench, just exhaling.
Grasses black, brown, blue, then down from the
Sky, a gust – there’s a rush, shuddering.
But as soon as the picture completes itself
And perspective shrinks to zero, everything
Collapses. You know what will stay with me?
The spiderweb – its dire embroidery,
The tomato – the crack that won’t close again,
Half-minute foretaste of ashes, calamity –
I was given it all, none of it promised me.

Translated from the Russian by Catherine Ciepiela
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Помидоры и подсолнухи


Наконец, определились в ярком воздухе
Помидоры: помидоры и подсолнухи.
Вот сейчас сентябрь-дидактик вскрикнет «Розги!» и
Всё взорвётся едким соком на траву.
Но пока, как будто задержал дыхание,
Б-г вещей, и колыханье, полыханье не
Прекращаются, и длится-длится раннее
Умирание – «о да, ещё живу».

Эта точечка невидная, касание
Между осенью и летом, слаще сладкого.
Знаешь—вот оно начнётся, угасание,
Станет всё тогда недвижно, одинаково.
Но пока напряжено вокруг и замерло
Обращение частиц—ало, оранжево,
Изумрудно, буро—перед тем как—замертво,
Дышит дышит, успокоенное заживо.

Всё сполна – наросты, тени, линии,
Вкус и запах, но не вонь ещё – дыхание.
Травы чёрные, коричневые, синие,
Ветра с неба—ускоренье, содрогание.
Но как только эта видимость исполнится,
И как только расстояние нарушится,--
Всё падёт. Ты знаешь, что запомнится?
Паутина—оскорбительное кружевце,
Помидор—незаживающая трещина,
Полминуты в предвкушеньи дыма, ужаса, --
Всё далось мне, а ведь не было обещано.

Polina Barskova
© Polina Barskova
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Translation commentary


This poem by Polina Barskova takes a conventional poetic subject – the changing seasons – and makes it vivid by focusing in an acute and erotically charged way on the tipping point. The sensory pleasures of late summer soon will give way to more tragic experience, a change the speaker dreads and accepts at the end of the poem.

The poem is written in trochaic hexameter with dactylic rhymes (with the exception of two masculine rhymes in the first stanza). I did not attempt to duplicate the rhymes, at least at the level of sound correspondences; I did keep the rhythmic shape of the rhymes, namely, the dactylic line endings. In the Russian original, many of the dactylic rhymes are carried by single words of three or four syllables; I had to use more words to create the dactyls because English words are generally shorter than Russian ones. Also, my lines are shorter and the trochaic rhythm is realized more loosely.

There were challenges at other levels of the poem, as well. Many of the nouns translate as English gerunds, which can sound repetitive; I avoided using two in a row in line 20 with ‘a rush, shuddering’ for ‘uskorenie, sodroganie’. The word ‘vse’ (‘everything’) is repeated five times in the poem, and I chose to translate it variously to avoid abstractness. Lines 13–16 are a tangle of idioms about life and death, for which I tried to find English analogies. Also in that section, I changed the subject of the sentence from ‘obrashchenie chastits’ (‘interaction of elements’) to ‘commingling elements’ to avoid a static genitive phrase.

Catherine Ciepiela