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(as they must) | Bus Stop: Israelitischer Friedhof | Fish

(как могут) | Автобусная остановка Israelitischer Friedhof | Рыба
by Maria Stepanova
Translated from Russian by
Sasha Dugdale

(as they must)


Night terrors

Marching their way—

Dragoons of them, tapping

Their beetle legs like twigs on dry paper.

The native population of the heart’s nether-nation

Their tears cocked like a loaded weapon

Like a lesson got by rote, your words of explanation.


Once they’re in, they devour everything.


And you, sweet reading

Lifting the lamp’s lit arms above its head

Spreading your tent above fallen dreamers

Hiding the Jew in an empty store cupboard.


And you, courage,

Fear’s flushed veneer.

The pointless ability to rest one’s cheeks in one’s hands

And lift one’s own head like a cup—

A cup

Barely half-filled

And quite useless:

The wine of madness, its dark contents

Spreading and taking hold in the animal body.

Oh how it foams,

Full of the dark fruits

Veiled over with a dull-blue film

Like the eye of a dying bird.


(He knows

Will he help?

Will he mix the wine with water?

Turn out the sleepless plasma screen?)

We deny, we turn away,

We walk the road step by step

Breathing with our eyes, hardly able to bear each other up,

We see acorns, fixed in the dirt clay:

Morning, morning is here!


How many of you there were, acorns.

The ones without caps,

The shaved heads of Cossacks

Burnt black in the sun,

Hardened, with long running scars.

And the ones like children, thick-walled,

Tiny barrels, big-headed boys,

So very sure of themselves

Born for the palm of the hand.


For the roll of the fist, for the life in a pocket

(A pitch-dark, populous, perspiring pocket?)

In somebody’s possibly kindly grasp.


You aren’t for growing, for unfurling

You aren’t for rupturing the paper earth,

And humming from root to topmost leaf,

Like a hive interrupted.

Nor for the extending of a ship’s long deck

Or for the wearing of a feast on your back

Or for the lying as someone else’s bed.

You were meant for another purpose.


The squirrel busies itself, the wind passes through


One by one, two by two

All they know is how to fall on the road

Where they lie, as they must.







Bus Stop: Israelitischer Friedhof


Along the bus route, to the right and all in front

The letters on the wall spell out G – O – D.

And issuing from the mouth with unprecedented force

Involuntary, like a speech bubble: Lord. Have mercy.

And so another verst slips

By, with such and such upon the lips.


Like the cheapest ballad of a briar

At the bus stop, yet bearing on apace.

It runs at you and unwreathes

Like a paper handkerchief blossoms on your face

The whole town momently bathed in light

Climbing to the upper branches for a sight

Dumbstruck at the balustrades

Watching, like the neighbor, from behind her lace,


How the dead rise from their graves.


There is no place for the living on dead ground

Even there, where the first lady of the sod,

Soviet Maize, strode on limbs earth-bound

And waxed unceremonious toward the Gods


The young mother, the queen bee

Who has learned to gather up like children, the glean

Of harvests, meadows, and sowings

Her tongue sucking sap from the weed

A cocktail of vital air and dank mold-green

Blood and water from the left flank flowing.


Even here where she leafs through the fields

Speaking with the voices of seasons

Where the antennae quiver, the swarm breathes

And unready minds are breached

By the promise of bright new reasons.


Thimble-bodied, the sparrows flit and fly

The sparrows, as shaggy as foxes.

Where a cross is formed from every outline

And, like the maypole, surges to the sky


And flies—but onto the ropes, like boxers.


So at dawn they lie still: her, him, any of us

Like the babe in its pram, the ice in the compress

Like the unborn child in the amniotic flow

Its soft down washing in the womb’s scumble

Like a headcount in a children’s home

Like a little finger loose in a thimble.


Is anyone easy in their skin? How about the one

Who will wake embraced and held tight?

Moses in his basket, the muses’ suckling son

The newlywed appearing in smoke and light?

Stepping across the reproductive earth, one as two.

In imitation of spring, whispering, renewed

And will he give thanks and praise

For this duality, so newly gained…


Is he easy in his skin? Who was pulled into light

And opened himself for the first shriek

Between red and white, between doctor and breast

The indignity of air in the barreling chest

Now speak!


Nor is there place for the living in the warm surf.

Is anyone easy in their skin? Is anyone easy enough?

And clutching at the very last the last of all

The hands I can trust, I glance out over the sill:


Between soothing and surviving, between living and dead

There is a secret place, I know

I cannot steal it, nor is it my debt

Nor will I leave it alone.


In the deadest of all dead places at the heart

Of the earth, in an empty sleeve, in the untouched dust

Of endless cenacles, each colder than the last

Brought to life by the cooing of doves.


On the buses terminating at and on their paths

In the darkening bushes, the unworkplaces

The brashly lit halls where kids learn martial arts

On orphaned balconies, two joining faces.


Buying the day’s pretzels

Crossing with the bicycles

Every warehouse loader, every wife, every girl

This place drags them all into its thrall.


I stand by it like a watchman, pacing my duty

Borne by invisible hands, in a heaven that is earthly

At the cemetery, where the eternal act of bringing forth

Is the meeting and parting with a new natural force.








In a tin bath, a tin bath she lay

We poured water in, and mixed in some salt

One man got drunk, another repaired the transmitter,

A fourth man wandered the shore in lament:

What would he tell his grandchildren, but I digress:

Speaks no English, has not expressed hunger,

Still one should do something—cook, or offer something raw.

This cannot be, it simply cannot be.


Eyes—hungry, wide-lipped, hair

Like wet hay, pale as ice and smelling of vodka;

If it turns on its side even slightly, a line

Of vertebrae knots the length of the back, like on yours.

Not a word of Russian, most likely Finno-Ugric

But sadly no experts were at hand

When the nets were cast in hope that morning

And the beast smiled and beat its tail in greeting.


Twilight, tins were opened, lamps brought in.

Cards and a chessboard appeared without undue haste.

I try debating with our mechanic, but he won’t take the bait.

A quick check-over (Witnessed by. Sign on dotted.)—

Not long enough. Only first observations,

Weight: sixty. Length of tail: ninety.

Jagged wounds in the abdominal area

Mostly likely caused by a sharp object.


Not long enough. Only early theories,

There is no time. The reestablishing of radio contact

Keeping the hut warm, catching fish.

Eats the fish with us all, very neat and tidy

Can’t stand coffee, refuses to wear clothes;

Measured the diameter of nipple; change tub water

Morning and evening; the thing sleeps hugging tail.

Can’t tell faces apart. Doesn’t remember names.


Not long enough, just come from the radio engineer

Have suspicions someone sabotaging radio

And emergency generator, work out why

No point in working out why, still I do believe we will meet.

Better to put the notes into code, put all notes into code,

At eighteen hundred last night another helicopter over the pines

Rapid pulse, slight nausea

Splashing and laughter from behind the calico curtain.


Yesterday and today let fish out for a swim.

I stood guard with a pike, Petrov had a carbine.

Didn’t attempt to slip away, only splashed around;

Water temperature; body temperature;

Possible uses for the purpose of fishing.

I ran along the shore, pretending to be a hunter.

It dived in and out gently, to no good purpose,

Wet, white-toothed and gleaming.


Only now: is it happening, I can’t tell

Two hours of pointless conversation

In the cold about the radio and the spares,

A sprint back to the hut. Silence behind the curtain.

And no one there, behind the curtain. The tub upturned.

Smoke in the mess room, I step in a puddle

And there, to the soothing hiss of the radio

The fish and the mechanic are playing snap.


Not long enough, not up to it, the thing is sick

And smells less like vodka, more like moonshine

Distended pupil, sweats, palpitations,

Listless, lethargic, no appetite,

No communications, no photographic equipment

Filth, fishscales amongst the medical instruments

Dreamt of God again, the rotating propeller

The pines bending, and the noise of the rotor.


It’s Petrov again: doctor, he says, doctor—

It’s quiet behind the curtain. The tub is empty.

The mechanic had a flask of spirits, a secret.

I don’t object, let the fish swim. On the floor

A wet scarf, fish likes to keep its throat covered

Although what use a scarf is to it, I don’t know.

From the window astoundingly clear on the bay’s shining

Surface, the head of a swimmer moving forever beyond range.




Must concentrate on essentials: we are flying away.

Despite the care I took in sabotaging the transmitter

It was put to rights painstakingly, more than once

And then there was no reason to put it off waiting

For the helicopter, for the helicopter waiting, waiting.

Everything is packed and the crates stowed,

All reckonings completed, all logbooks closed,

Blinds drawn, flags lowered, I am asleep.


My dearest, I went out late in the evening

To look at you in photographs taken at college,

I haven’t seen her for so long, she hasn’t changed

My Dearest I hoped I would never have to tell you,

My Dearest, I hoped to conceal it

My Dearest, I hoped I wouldn’t live long enough

To meet with, the coming together of two halves,

The full combination of classical attributes.


Addressed to the President of the Academy, Professor Nikitin

A copy to the Kremlin, the original for my widow.

Research notes. A diary with his observations.

Height, weight, estimated age.

Those characteristic scars in the abdominal area—

There, submerged in water, last-century surgery

Operations without anesthetic on the seabed

Changes in pressure, fibroids, scars


Giving birth is hard; bringing up the child is hard

And marriage is a near impossibility.

And such yearning, such yearning, although on dry land.

…But most of all: I love you, your very own.

But most of all: forgive me, this is not goodbye

But last of all, and first of all,

And Christ! All in all: fare you well.


And if this place is the far edge of the earth,

It is not the farthest edge of the earth.




Maria Stepanova, War of the Beasts and the Animals, trans. Sasha Dugdale (Bloodaxe Books, 2020)
Image by Antonio Carrau.
Maria Stepanova is a poet, novelist, essayist, journalist and the author of ten poetry collections and three books of essays. Her book War of the Beasts and the Animals (Bloodaxe Books, 2021), translated by Sasha Dugdale, is the first English translation of her poetry and is a Poetry Book Society Translation Choice. Her documentary novel In Memory of Memory won Russia's Big Book Award in 2018 and is published in English in Sasha Dugdale's translation by Fitzcarraldo in the UK and New Directions in the US in 2021. (Photo credit: Sergey Melikhov)
Sasha Dugdale was editor of Modern Poetry in Translation from 2013 to 2017. Her translation of Maria Stepanova’s War of the Beasts and the Animals (Bloodaxe Books, 2021) is a Poetry Book Society Translation Choice. Her translation of Stepanova’s documentary novel In Memory of Memory is also published in 2021—from Fitzcarraldo in the UK and New Directions in the US, and has been longlisted for the International Booker Prize. She is author of five collections of poetry, most recently Deformations, shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize in 2020.