Five Poems

01 March, 2014

ABOUT THE POEMS The Russian writer Lev Ozerov (1914–1996) had a long career as an editor, translator and poet, but his finest poems were published only after his death and little of his work has been translated into English. Ozerov’s poems are of interest both for their thematic and formal concerns, and as a record of the poet’s age, one of the most vibrant in all of Russian literature.

In 1999, his book Portraits Without Frames was published posthumously; it comprises 50 verse accounts of meetings with important cultural and political figures, told with apparent simplicity yet great artfulness. Two of those portraits are published here: long poems about the great Russian prose writers Boris Pasternak and Andrey Platonov, figures of dignity, grace and truth in a landscape besmirched by the depredations of power and the corruption of both politics and language. One beautiful scene shows the victimised Pasternak leaving “for the eleventh century” and for “stone, coolness, calm” as he visits an ancient cathedral; another shows Platonov and the poet discussing whether or not literature should be “relevant/ to the needs of the day”—an endless utilitarian pressure on literature. But Ozerov’s poems shine even without the presence in them of other great writers. Included here, too, are three shorter poems, including one that memorably declares, “A silence we can share is more than silence.”

‘Pasternak’ is translated by Boris Dralyuk; ‘Platonov’ and the other poems by Robert Chandler, who has also translated many books by Platonov into English and is the author of a short biography of Alexander Pushkin. Together with Irina Mashinski, Chandler and Dralyuk are the editors of Russian Poetry from Pushkin to Brodsky, to be published by Penguin Classics this November.

'Pasternak' and other poems by Lev Ozerov

translated from Russian by Robert Chandler and Boris Dralyuk


Khrushchev’s sevenfold retinue

were falling over themselves,

doing all they could

to disgrace the man.

But their idea of disgrace

brought him glory.

He refused to leave Russia.

So they demanded

he leave Moscow

during Macmillan’s visit

in 1959.

It’s not that Pasternak took fright

or lost his head,

tormented as he was.

I saw him

in those troubled days.

No. Like a forest or a garden

before a storm,

he was prepared to take the hit

not out of meekness,

but out of faith

in life,

which he had, after all, called his sister.

Saying farewell, he looked at me

in such a way, and smiled so brightly,

that I flinched.

It scared me.

Pasternak left for Tbilisi.

With his wife.

Ten days of February,

six of March.

In Georgia, he warmed up

among his old, faithful friends—

in Tabidze’s home,

now a museum.

The worries, grief, and bitterness

of the preceding days and weeks—

the racket, scandals, quarrels—

wore off. At the sight of Tbilisi

and its surroundings,

they fell away,

like turbid mountain torrents.

Tbilisi brought him back to younger days.

Through distant smoke, through dove-gray haze

he saw the light of heaven,

the color blue,

which he had always loved.

Would he have the chance

to spend time here

at least once again?

On the eve of his departure,

he set off early

to say farewell to Svetitskhoveli.

He removed his cap and entered the cathedral.

He felt the breath of the eleventh century.

Can anyone not love this place,

the grandeur of this space,

stretching eastward,

inspiring thoughts of eternity,

of the eternal life of the soul?

This place doesn’t make you feel small—

it brings you peace.

Pasternak needed this,

like air,

in a world where he was suffocating.

These four free-standing pillars,

holding the dome up like the sky!

These reliefs, these carvings!

Stone, coolness, calm.

He stepped out, his soul uplifted.

He looked at the cathedral, then the sky—

the sky, then the cathedral.

Saying farewell

proved difficult.

But he was glad that he’d spent time here.

When he turned his attention to the earth,

he noticed people

looking closely at him.

Let them look—that’s their business.

But one of them, loud-voiced and young,

approached and asked,

‘You’re Pasternak, aren’t you?’

‘No, no, I’m not Pasternak,’

he answered, horrified,

and took off in a hurry—

yes, almost at a run

like Pushkin’s Eugene

from the Bronze Horseman.

‘You Pasternak?’

someone was shouting after him.

‘No, no, you’re wrong,’

he answered, without looking back.


Platonov is reading ‘Fro’

in the apartment of Kornely

Lyutsianovich Zelinsky,

just by the Moscow Arts Theatre.

‘A grand little hut!’

he said afterwards,

without a trace of envy.

Platonov reads with animation.

I have not heard of Platonov.

I know nothing of his ways,

of his way in life.

‘That’s splendid!’ I blurt out,

unable to contain myself,

when he finishes.

Piercing eyes,

kindness and irony on his lips,

irony and kindness.

Platonov says nothing, mistrustful.

‘Yes, but hardly relevant

to the needs of the day,’

Zelinsky concludes softly,


His head is slightly tilted

to one shoulder.

Soft, compliant,

insulated once and for all,

all sweetness

and heartfelt tenderness.

We talk a little more, drink tea

with sugar, with small bagels.

And we sit there for a while,

eyes sliding over the bindings

of the books in the rich,

well-cared-for library

that looks like its owner.

Platonov gets to his feet.

I do the same.

We run—fly—hurtle

down the stairs

and wander for a long time

about Moscow.

There are a lot of cars.

Which of them are Black Marias,

we don’t know. We don’t

talk about it, but we know

we are both thinking about it

and we think about

how we both know this.

‘And you? Can you

make out

what’s relevant

to the needs of the day

and what isn’t?’

Platonov asks, boldly,

on Bolshaya Ordynka.

I’m twenty years old. Wet

behind the ears. ‘No,’

I reply guiltily.

I feel ashamed,

but it’s the truth.


what really matters!’

A pause. A look. A pause.

‘Stay like that. Don’t change.’

Platonov falls silent,

withdraws into himself,

then says, ‘In fifty years time,

who knows,

it may be clear

what era you and I live in

and what it should be called.

Now, though…

There’ll be any number of names,

all without rhyme or reason,

chosen by the grandchildren

of whoever’s

around the powers that be—

of whoever’s around, I mean,

for the time being.

He was walking fast,

not looking around him,

holding his head up high,

with his high cheekbones

and flinty chin.

An Oar

An oar is lying now on the sand.

It tells me more of space and motion

than all the vast and violent ocean

that brought it to dry land.

The Dead

The dead are speaking. Without full stops.

Or commas. And almost without words.

From camps. From isolation cells.

From buildings as they blaze.

The dead are speaking. A letter. A will.

Diaries. Exercise books from school.

On rough pages of uneven brick—

the cursive of a hurrying hand.

With slivers of tin on a bed-board,

with shards of glass on a wall

or a thin stream of blood on a barrack floor,

life signed off as best it could.


The world’s too big; it can’t be scanned in verse.

We two. And silence. And the universe.

Two can be company enough. And silence—

a silence we can share is more than silence.