The Torments Of Conscience

We live, dying is not our business,
shame is another lost episode,
but like an unseen madonna, conscience
is standing at every crossroad.

And her children and her grandchildren,
the torments of conscience-strange torments-
with vagrant’s crutch and bag are wandering
a world which is everywhere dishonest.

From one gate once more to the next gate,
once again from doorstep to doorstep,
chanting like old Russian beggars,
they travel with God for their heart’s help.

Surely it was they who always haunted
the serfs, tapping with one finger
secretly on their windows, and who pounded
with their fists in the palaces of the Tsars?

Surely they hurried off dead Pushkin
on a sledge in the snow from a black sky,
it was they who drove Dostoievsky to prison,
it was they who whispered to Tolstoy: ‘Fly! ‘

The executioners understood it thus:
‘He who torments himself is a troublemaker.
Torments of conscience-this is dangerous!
Conscience itself must be liquidated! ‘

But like the clanging of an alarm bell
rattling their houses at night time,
torments of conscience-terrible-
frightened the executioners with their crimes.

For even the guardians of injustice,
who abandoned all honor long ago,
may no longer know the meaning of conscience,
but the torments of conscience they do know.

And if in this wide world where no one,
no one is guiltless, someone has heard
within himself the cry ‘What have I done? ‘
then something can be done with this world.

I do not believe in the prophets construing
the coming of the Second or the Thousandth Rome,
I believe in the words ‘What are you doing? ‘
in ‘What are we doing? ‘ bitterly spoken.

And on the slippery edge of lost faith
I am kissing your dark hands,
for you alone are my last faith,
torments of conscience-fierce torments!

Translated by Geoffrey Dutton with Igor Mezhakoff-Koriakin

The Pig

In England once there lived a big
And wonderfully clever pig.
To everybody it was plain
That Piggy had a massive brain.
He worked out sums inside his head,
There was no book he hadn’t read.
He knew what made an airplane fly,
He knew how engines worked and why.
He knew all this, but in the end
One question drove him round the bend:
He simply couldn’t puzzle out
What LIFE was really all about.
What was the reason for his birth?
Why was he placed upon this earth?
His giant brain went round and round.
Alas, no answer could be found.
Till suddenly one wondrous night.
All in a flash he saw the light.
He jumped up like a ballet dancer
And yelled, ‘By gum, I’ve got the answer! ‘
‘They want my bacon slice by slice
‘To sell at a tremendous price!
‘They want my tender juicy chops
‘To put in all the butcher’s shops!
‘They want my pork to make a roast
‘And that’s the part’ll cost the most!
‘They want my sausages in strings!
‘They even want my chitterlings!
‘The butcher’s shop! The carving knife!
‘That is the reason for my life! ‘
Such thoughts as these are not designed
To give a pig great peace of mind.
Next morning, in comes Farmer Bland,
A pail of pigswill in his hand,
And piggy with a mighty roar,
Bashes the farmer to the floor…
Now comes the rather grisly bit
So let’s not make too much of it,
Except that you must understand
That Piggy did eat Farmer Bland,
He ate him up from head to toe,
Chewing the pieces nice and slow.
It took an hour to reach the feet,
Because there was so much to eat,
And when he finished, Pig, of course,
Felt absolutely no remorse.
Slowly he scratched his brainy head
And with a little smile he said,
‘I had a fairly powerful hunch
‘That he might have me for his lunch.
‘And so, because I feared the worst,
‘I thought I’d better eat him first.’

In The Goddess’ Name I Summon You

Oil on limbs,
maybe a rancid smell
as on the chapel’s
oil-press here,
as on the rough pores
of the unturning stone.

Oil on hair
wreathed in rope
and maybe other scents
unknown to us
poor and rich
and statuettes offering
small breasts with their fingers.

Oil in the sun
the leaves shuddered
when the stranger stopped
and the silence weighed
between the knees.
The coins fell:
‘In the goddess’s name I summon you…’

Oil on the shoulders
and the flexing waist
legs grass-dappled,
and that wound in the sun
as the bell rang for vespers
as I spoke in the churchyard
with a crippled man.


Irpen is the memory of
the south and summer…
-B. Pasternak

I once promised so much to you,
and I can give you nothing-
I made you poor.
I promised you us in the blue, in the foliage,
on green grass,
head to head,
cool cherries on each cheek,
and tranquillity that smells lazily of hay.
We wanted to come to Irpen,
languid and half asleep,
here on that precipice or tree stump,
the exquisite fugitive wrote
of gillyflowers and forest
when he fled here…
But today there is no escaping,
as from a tribunal,
out of shame for history.
Clouds burst endlessly,
washing away all hope of peace and comfort
for you and me,
in the blue and foliage,
on green grass,
head to head…
The toadies swill their borscht,
their bellies growling.
A prominent critic approaches
who barely reaches my shoulders,
but nevertheless he pats me on them:
‘Right now you’re just how
I’ve always wanted you.
You haven’t swallowed the bait of flattery,
and on civic issues you’ve come out strong…’
In your eyes I see contempt and shame.
By his praise
I’m destroyed for you.
Don’t believe it-
I’m not that way,
I’m not that way,
I’m not that way!
I’m simply smashed to splinters,
like a raft in a flood.
That critic lies.
Don’t listen to nonsense!
He just likes the chips that fly off me,
but not me!
But you say:
you’re just that way.
You’re not a raft,
but the pampered fruit of the age,
everyone’s favourite,
a model son…’
and your beautiful glance is unbearably cruel.

You say,
the epoch is a blood mother to me.
Could a mother maim
and break?
Like a horse,
they harnessed me with a collar,
and beat me with a whip,
grinning to boot.
But today they lavishly pass me gingerbread.
Every piece scars me
like a whip.
The raw autumn mist clings like a sucking swamp.
The toadies gloomily play dominoes.
The countryside hungers,
woods become scarce,
yet cosmonauts are flying to the heavens!
I’ve impoverished you even more terribly-
I’ve impoverished you with my soul.
Forgive me, that I promised you so much.

Translated by Albert C. Todd and James Ragan


No, No! Believe me!
I’ve come to the wrong place!
I’ve made a god-awful mistake! Even the glass
in my hand’s an accident,
and so’s the gauze glance
of the woman who runs the joint.
‘Let’s dance, huh?
You’re pale…
Didn’t get enough sleep? ‘
And I feel like there’s no place
to hide, but say, anyway, in a rush
‘I’ll go get dressed…
No, no…it’s just
that I ended up out of bounds…’
And later, trailing me as I leave:
‘This is where booze gets you…
What do you mean, ‘not here’? Right here! Right here every time!
You bug everybody, and you’re so satisfied
with yourself, Zhenichka,
you’ve got a problem.’
I shove the frost of my hands
down my pockets, and the streets around are snow,
deep snow. I dive into a cab. Buddy, kick this thing! Behind
the Falcon
there’s a room. They’re supposed to be waiting for me there.
She opens the door,
but what the hell’s wrong with her?
Why the crazy look?
‘It’s almost five o’clock.
You sure you couldn’t have come a little later?
Well, forget it. Come on in. Where else could you go now? ‘
Shall I explode
with a laugh
or maybe with tears?
I tell you I was scribbling doggerel,
but I got lost someplace.
I hide from the eyes. Wavering I move backwards:
‘No, no! Believe me! I’ve come to the wrong place! ‘
Once again the night,
once again snow
and somebody’s insolent song,
and somebody’s clean, pure laughter.
I could do with a cigarette.
In the blizzard Pushkin’s demons flash past,
and their contemptuous, buck-toothed grin
scares me to death.
And the kiosks,
and the drugstores,
and the social security offices
scare me just as much…
No, no! Believe me! I’ve ended up
in the wrong place again…
It’s horrible to live
and even more horrible
not to live…
Ach, this being homeless
like the Wandering Jew…Lord! Now I’ve gotten myself
into the wrong century,
wrong epoch,
geologic era,
wrong number.
The wrong place again.
I’m wrong.
I’ve got it wrong…
I go, slouching my shoulders as I’d do
if I’d lost some bet,
and ah, I know it…everybody knows it…
I can’t pay off.

Translated by James Dickey with Anthony Kahn


They tell me, shaking their heads:
‘You should be kinder… You are somehow-furious.’
I used to be kind. It didn’t last long.
Life was breaking me hitting me in the teeth.
I lived like a silly puppy.
They would hit me- and again I would turn the other cheek.
I’d wag my tail of complacency,
and then, to make me furious,
someone chopped it off with a single blow.
And now I will tell you about fury,
about that fury with which you go to a party
and make polite conversation
while dropping sugar into your tea with tongs.
And when you offer me more tea
I’m not bored- I merely study you.
I submissively drink my tea from the saucer,
and, hiding my claws, stretch out my hand.
And I’ll tell you something else about fury.
When before the meeting they whisper:
‘Give it up…
You’re young, better you write,
don’t jump into a fight for a while…’
Like hell I’ll give in!
To be furious at falsehood- is real goodness!
I’m warning you- that fury hasn’t left me yet.
And you ought to know- I’ll stay infuriated for a long time.
There’s none of my former shyness left in me.
After all- life is interesting when you’re furious!

Translated by Tina Tupikina-Glaessner, Geoffrey Dutton, and Igor Mezhakoff-Koriakin (revised)

Being Late

Something dangerous is beginning:
I am coming late to my own self.
I made an appointment with my thoughts-
the thoughts were snatched from me.
I made an appointment with Faulkner-
but they made me go to a banquet.
I made an appointment with history,
but a grass-widow dragged me into bed.
Worse than barbed wire
are birthday parties, mine and others’,
and roasted suckling pigs hold me
like a sprig of parsley between their teeth!
Led away for good
to a life absolutely not my own,
everything that I eat, eats me,
everything that I drink, drinks me.
I made an appointment with myself,
but they invite me to feast on my own spareribs.
I am garlanded from all sides
not by strings of bagels, but by the holes of bagels,
and I look like an anthology of zeros.
Life gets broken into hundreds of lifelets,
that exhaust and execute me.
In order to get through to myself
I had to smash my body against others’,
and my fragments, my smithereens,
are trampled by the roaring crowd.
I am trying to glue myself together,
but my arms are still severed.
I’d write with my left leg,
but both the left and the right
have run off, in different directions.
I don’t know- where is my body?
And soul? Did it really fly off,
without a murmured ‘good-bye! ‘?
How do I break through to a faraway namesake,
waiting for me in the cold somewhere?
I’ve forgotten under which clock
I am waiting for myself.
For those who don’t know who they are,
time does not exist.
No one is under the clock.
On the clock there is nothing.
I am late for my appointment
with me. There is no one.
Nothing but cigarette butts.
Only one flicker-
A lonely, dying, spark…

Translated by Albert C. Todd

At The Rodin Museum

Rilke is following me everywhere
With his tailor-made suits
And vegetarian smile.

He says because I’m young,
I’m always beginning,
And cannot know love.

He sees how I’m a giant piece
Of glass again, trying
To catch the sun

In remote corners of rooms,
Mountain tops, uncertain
Places of light.

He speaks of the cruelty
Of hospitals, the stillness
Of cathedrals,

Takes me through bodies
And arms and legs
Of such extravagant size,

The ancient sky burrows in
With all the dead words
We carry and cannot use.

He holds up mirrors
From which our reflections fall —
Half-battered existences,

Where we lose ourselves
For the sake of the other,
And the others still to come.

Aj, Age 15

I once chased my brother
Down to the edge of the sea.
We ran past sheets and towels
Spread like sky on the beach,
Between strips of cloth,
Drying chilli and tamarind.
Past slums shackled to the shore –
A maze of thatch roofs and cowdung
Caked walls. And then I lost him,
Searched loudly for him, called his name.
Said, Come out or else –
All the usual tricks.

A woman cleaning rice on her knees
In a blouse done up with safety pins
Pointed to a hut with a single weary finger –
Where he was hiding with a water buffalo.
The low blue lights of the television flickering.
He was inside, laughing so hard,
Shaking his head back and forth,
I thought the joy would come tearing out from him.
Afterwards, we sat in something like silence –
His rare chubby hand in mine,
Listening to the breath of living water.


Galileo, the clergy maintained,
was a pernicious and stubborn man.
But time has a way of demonstrating
the most stubborn are the most intelligent.

In Galileo’s day, a fellow scientist
was no more stupid than Galileo.
He was well aware the earth revolved,
but he also had a large family to feed.

Stepping into a carriage with his wife,
after effecting his betrayal,
he believed he was launched on a career,
though he was undermining it in reality.

Galileo alone had risked asserting
the truth about our planet,
and this made him a great man… His was
a genuine career as I understand it.

I salute then a career,
when the career is akin to
that of a Shakespeare or Pasteur,
a Newton or Tolstoy- Leo!

Why did people fling mud at them all?
Talent speaks for itself, whatever the charges.
We’ve forgotten the men who abused them,
Remember only the victims of slander.

All who rushed into the stratosphere,
the doctors who perished fighting cholera,
were, all of them, men of career!
I take their careers as my example!

I believe in their sacred faith.
Their faith is my very manhood.
I shall therefore pursue my career
by trying not to pursue one.