Five Poems by Aleksey Porvin

Bread and Salt

People do not welcome the marching ranks

with bread and salt—only a manure pile

sprinkled with white snow recreates the image

of hospitality that has lived for centuries.

 

Birds circle above the border, then

stretch into a line, lifting the frontier

into the winter air, not expecting the shot

that will scatter them to the corners of longing.

 

The fibers of love and despair entwined

into a strong thread that stitched together

a family album that darkens under the falling snow

cooling its charred edges.

 

The only way to go out and meet them with bread

is remembering how the soft inside breaks,

how its pores were gathered together into a single whole

by heat alone, heat not subject to words.

 

The beating comes out of the chest, expanding,

becoming this air that bares itself to their beaks,

breathing with hidden heat

like a fresh loaf served to guests.

 

The birds carry off your heart

in pieces pronounced in different languages,

but it matters how they were once held together,

what threads once sewed them up.

The Road

Our victory, in its colorless attire,

without distinguishing features or identifiable language,

is a process of transition from one into another.

It concerns the most important words.

 

But first it touches each heart, to see

how its beat becomes an alternation between flowers

and gunfire–does time move in that rhythm,

washing colors and shades from the landscape?

 

A woman and child among those trudging along—

his cries buttoned up with bruises, but the blue sky

and the white milk of far red villages

are blended with his voice.

 

The word "independence" becomes a thing

people can trip over as they escape the front.

The road wallows in fragments of trees,

tattered paper, shattered glass.

 

All these objects are smeared with soot

from the blast that dressed everyone in night.

Their former clothes are hung on a flagpole to dry in

the combination of colors that once signified a flag.

 

Animals Understand

Many things are easier to acquire in childhood:

a foreign—no, neighboring—language,

impressions of day, thoughts of history

in a country divided in two.

 

There are scratches on the tree trunks

left by bullets: we won't read these

lines, we won't put them into letters: on the horizon

allied banners loom mute.

 

Animals understand: gotta keep biting to the end,

not hand over territory, not let your body be torn apart

—that’s why words love them,

why they adopt this method of living.

 

In times gone by, the chronicles

of collective days were kept on birch scrolls.

Yesterday, hungry children passing

through these woods chewed young bark.

 

What will the unrealized birchbark see?

What signs will it accept? The marks of juvenile teeth,

like those left on the hands of the marauders

who went through the woods to the orphanage.

 

What will the might-have-been birchbark see?

The darkness in the stomachs of children

who digested the thunder of guns and the shouts of soldiers.

The silence isn’t hard to explain.

 

 Leaving the Church

 People were waiting for some bread, but the only grain

to grind is news washed with blood.

No matter what you do, everything tastes like salt,

even the water finding its way out.

 

Water won't get lost in the cracks in the world

that we call trenches, won't get stuck

at the exit from the enumeration of incomprehensible words,

all troops have retreated from… and …estimated casualties.

 

The man stepping out of the church will see

the flags at half-mast—that means the sky

hooked itself on them as it descended, dragged them down,

wishing, perhaps, to press them into the earth.

 

Water follows the sky towards the ground.

After the late light, only the sound

of a request doesn't follow the general order,

looks down at passports charred in the blast.

 

The man sees how his words of prayer

passed through an abundance of holes in the ceiling

like flour through a sieve so the stones can be shed.

Seeing it turns him to stone.

 

What can he compare his citizenship to?

To this church dome raked with machine-gun fire.

There are so many cracks in it, his gaze gets lost,

wandering them like a labyrinth inside a stone.

  

The Philosophy of Geography

 The place we live will never be an object.

It will be process of cognition—or, as a last resort,

a thinking subject churning the seasons of the year,

digesting words and actions.

 

The flame that has passed through cities and villages choruses;

it’s a whole hooting class, looking at the grownups

as if they’d throw the ashes of every constitution on their faces

just to cover the adult pallor that reminds them of winter.

 

The teacher won't ask them about their homeland’s borders—

the boy from Bryansk in a shirt striped like a checkpoint’s gate bar,

the girl from Donetsk with braids that hang in dotted lines

like the ones grownups use to mark disputed boundaries.

 

Full-blooded children's talk, ruddy with feelings,

stepping on the clarity of thought like troops

on enemy territory–those are the marks of the subject

to which every soldier swears his oath.

 

Outside the window is spring, and all the objects on the street

are trying to bring themselves back to life, forgetting

they’ve already poured out all their tenacity for the people—but the teacher

is only wondering what to teach children with a burnt map.

 

Remove the barrier of absence, erase the tank tracks

in other people’s soil with the tension of meaning (the approved meaning

—what else is there?) and you can let love for a country

that was never an object run through the riverbeds within you.

Aleksey Porvin is a Russian poet born in 1982. English translations of his poems can be found in World Literature Today, Cyphers, Saint-Petersburg Review, Ryga Journal, SUSS, Words Without Borders,Fogged Clarity, The Straddler, The Dirty Goat, Action Yes, Barnwood International Poetry Mag, Otis Nebula, New Madrid, The Cafe Review, The New Formalist etc. Porvin is the author of three collections of poems in Russian – Darkness is White (Argo-Risk Press, Moscow, 2009), Poems (New Literature Observer Press, Moscow 2011), and The sun of the ship’s detailed rib (INAPRESS, Saint-Petersburg, 2013). His first book of poems translated into English, Live By Fire, was published by Cold Hub Press in 2011. Poems by Porvin have recently been short-listed by Andrey Bely Prize (2011, 2014). Aleksey Porvin is the winner of the Russian Debut Prize (2012).

Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler is a poet and translator, best known for his work on English renderings of novels by great contemporary Ukrainian author Serhiy Zhadan, published by Deep Vellum and Yale University Press and positively reviewed by journals including the LA Review of Books, The New Yorker, and the Times Literary Supplement. His work has appeared in numerous journals, including Little Star, Trafika Europe, and Two Lines. Wheeler is also an editor at Two Chairs, an online poetry magazine.