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The following translations of contemporary Russian poet Lev Rubinstein—what he terms “poetic texts” —should not be merely read.  They should rather be engaged, installed, staged, and performed.  They are scripts, tatters of speech, the ruins of discourses, set into conversation with other ruins.

Rubinstein, a former librarian at the Lenin Library in Moscow, began composing these poetic series on library index cards in the 1970s, influenced by avant-garde traditions, Zen, and postmodernism.  What I love about his version of conceptualism is that his poems can be read either as a parody of discourses or as the renovation of the fragments of truth which they attempt to illuminate; in other words, I find the poems to touch on utter banalities which nonetheless contain elements of truth, even as they expose official truths as banal.  He’s a lot of fun, dancing between “high” and “low,” but in the way that Frost believed poetry should “play for mortal stakes.”

                                                                                          —Philip Metres

Index of Poetry

“A beetle, crawling on the road . . .”
“A futile gift, for you alone . . .”
“All is but omen for a fortune teller . . .”
“Alas, my sisters, this fog in the morning . . .”
“Alas, things are always not the way they seem . . .”
“All’s ruined, and there’s no reason . . .”
“Amid delusions, side by side we lie . . .”
“Anger is the only reason for the fire . . .”
“An ungifted orphan, what is to be done?..”
“A pity that nothing will happen . . .”
“As if a teenage girl . . .”
“As if I’m nailed and questioned . . .”
“A victim of European insomnia . . .”

“Baby, my poor dear, come closer . . .”
“Becoming gradually ever closer . . .”
“By the gate filled with a divine light . . .”
“By no means should we forget, when and what . . .”

“Clasping in damp palms . . .”
“Come to me, and we shall talk . . .”
“Cruel discovery, one day . . .”

“Dashing without regrets . . .”
“Disappeared without regret . . .”
“Dragging forth a godforsaken story . . .”
“Dreamed as if suddenly . . .”

“Embracing both praise and scolding . . .”
“Exactly that much time has passed . . .”
“Ever closer gradually becoming . . .”

“For the sake of spurious serenity . . .”
“Give up all hope. Someone should pay . . .”
“Go figure, below is the same as above . . .”
“Gradually becoming ever closer . . .”
“Gray, feeble, he thinks he still has it . . .”

“Hidden in a corner, out from there . . .”

“I’m losing, I’m finding again . . .”
“I’m more than the one whose . . .”
“In a strange land, I arrived and left . . .”
“In light attire, amid the rushing crowd . . .”
“Is it hard? It’s not easy, I bet . . .”
“It is too late, although perhaps just right . . .”
“Intentions can’t be hidden, when . . .”
“In the labor of an utmost thought . . .”
“Isn’t this knowledge forbidden to us . . .”
“It can’t be worse, and yet . . .”
“I wish everyone knew, and most of all, her . . .”

“Live, contemplating nothing . . .”
“Long as eternity, wide as a second . . .”

“Mighty wind, I fly along . . .”
“My address never changes.  Letters rarely . . .”

“Night. Elaborate attire . . .”
“Nightfall. And yet there is a light . . .”
“Now one can see so far away . . .”
“Now then, as a first step, let’s take a little . . .”

“O faith in that which happens . . .”

“Poor Vestal, tell me where . . .”

“Rabies, I guess?  Blood on the collar . . .”
“Rational and effortless . . .”
“Remembering anew autumnal violins . . .”
“Rushing to see in real life . . .”

“Serving as measure of every value . . .”
“Settling down for the night . . .”
“She looked as if time had stood still . . .”
“Such was the illusory gesture of sunset . . .”

“The desert is voluntary, unlabored . . .”
“The essence of the problem is . . .”
“The fog is no obstacle to a prophet . . .”
“The key is to capture what’s within your reach . . .”
“The light from an unknown source . . .”
“The light track of a golden rain . . .”
“The memory in every wrinkle of existence . . .”
“The muse has asked of me . . .”
“The nimble image of eternity . . .”
“The permanent alone is norm­­al . . .”
“The smoke disperses, and behold . . .”
“The transient alone is normal . . .”
“The thunder amid the clear sky, then . . .”
“The trace is sad, wherever you look . . .”
“The unhurried instinct of trees . . .”
“The vindictive mirror offers . . .”
“The way one waits at the very threshold . . .”
“They were, notwithstanding, happy times . . .”
“Thrown into the tide of time . . .”
“To make it short, it’s here, by the gate . . .”
“True or not, we’re ready . . .”

“Unpretentious as he was . . .”
“Unwillingly pressing ourselves cheek to cheek . . .”

“Vouching, avoiding, meeting . . .”

“Washing away the pale tracks . . .”
“We’ll forget where we are and why . . .”
“What if we are forced again . . .”
“Who was it, and for which sins . . .”
“Without those who do not know . . .”

“Yes, it happened, who doesn’t know that . . .”
“Yet I dare you to go through this again . . .”


For It Is Said

In anticipation of eternity we are unable to move hand or foot internally, for it is said, “Here at last you’ve arrived.  I’ve been waiting for you for so long.”

What is least distinct is worth paying most attention to, for it is said, “One can’t distinguish the wings of a flying dragonfly.”

Even carefree gliding above blooming fields harbors a waft of worry, for it is said, “Joy is always ambivalent.”

You shouldn’t be overly afraid of an abrupt change of condition, for it is said, “It’s only natural if it’s fleeting.”

You shouldn’t be overly burdened by the absolute lack of change of condition, for it is said, “It’s only natural if it’s constant.”

You shouldn’t compare, for it is said, “It’s impossible to compare those who are alive.”

It is silly to allude to the vagueness of a situation, for it is said, “Fog is no hindrance to a prophet.”

Let’s not specify the date of prophesied events, for it is said, “The swallow will not sing before spring.”

Is there any sense in insisting on one’s rightness, for it is said, “Why are you yelling? Who’s listening to you?”

It makes no difference what a cloud drifting above reminds us of exactly, for it is said, “A cloud resembles a person—they both float somewhere . . .”

We are not the ones to judge about the actual meaning of what is happening with us on the border of dreaming and waking, although it was said, “This dream I have dreamed is one of the strangest adventures of my life.”

The main thing is not to be afraid of missing out on something that is said, for it is said, “That which remains in one’s memory – only these bits are interesting.”

The main thing is to be able to listen closely to what is said, for it is said, “I wonder—for whom am I saying all this?”

The main thing is from time to time to look, as it were, at oneself from the side, for it is said, “It’s a shame that you can’t see yourself.”  And it is also said, “The onlooker sees more of the game.”

The main thing is to agree about everything in advance, for it is said, “The chick and the turtle see the sky differently.”  And it is also said, “Everything depends on us—we decide what happens.”

The main thing is not to rely too much on the unconditionality of one’s experience, for it is said, “Approximately a third of accumulated impressions are ridiculous nonsense.”  And it is also said, “Each has it in its own way.”

The main thing is not to count too much on the future, for it is said, “Immediately after summer, fall comes, and I’d rather not say what follows next.”

The main thing is not to count overmuch on luck, for it is said: “After the cavalry guard gallops across your back . . .” etc.

The main thing is not to forget that habitual ties are hopelessly torn, for it is said, “Where there’s a heart, there’s a prayer. Where there’s a cricket, there’s a hearth.”

It’s foolish to avoid doubts, for it is said, “One cannot escape doubt.” And it is also said, “There’s no doubt that doubts too are useful.”

It’s foolish to ask all the time where we are going, for it is said, “Wherever we go, that’s where we’re going.”  And it is also said, “You’ll see when we are there.”

It’s wrong to say that efforts are for nothing, for it is clearly said that they are not for nothing.

One might feel that it’s not worth it to continue, for it is literally said, “I’ve spent days in fruitless deliberation.  And what’s the cause of that? Isn’t that the ruinous habit of naming everything?”

And it is also said, “It depends on a whole range of circumstances.  Some of them are well known.”

And it is also said, “I’m afraid of admitting some things to myself.  But if I were to not fear, then would it really be better?”

And it is also said, “I always look around in search of support, then I’m ashamed of my weakness, then I’m ashamed of my shame.  It’s always like that.”

And it is also said, “I take a little from everything.  And I give everything a little. Like that, all the time.”

We must not distinguish defeat from victory, for it is said, “I do nothing but find and lose, find and lose, find and lose.”  And it is also said, “The main thing is that you came to me.  But with what will you leave me—is that important?”

But it’s very important to stop on time, for it is said, “For the feeling of eternity, sometimes it’s enough to have the tiniest bit.”  


Born in 1947 in Moscow, Lev Rubinstein worked as a librarian while he took part in the Russian literary underground, a job that at least partly inspired his use of the note card as poetic medium. Rubinstein is an essential figure both to Russian and to world poetry. He has been translated into German, French, Swedish, Polish, and English. A leading avant-garde poet, he has been widely published in English in full length poetry editions (Catalogue of Comedic Novelties, 2004) and anthologized in The Third Wave (1992), New Russian Writing (1995) and Crossing Centuries: The New Russian Poetry (2000). The Compleat Catalogue of Comedic Novelties is due out from Ugly Duckling Presse in 2014.

Philip Metres is the author of a number of books and chapbooks, most recently A Concordance of Leaves (Diode 2013), abu ghraib arias (Flying Guillotine 2011), winner of the 2012 Arab American Book Award in poetry, To See the Earth (Cleveland State 2008), and Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront since 1941 (University of Iowa 2007).   His work has appeared in Best American Poetry and Inclined to Speak: Contemporary Arab American Poetry, and has garnered two NEA fellowships, the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, four Ohio Arts Council Grants, the Beatrice Hawley Award (for the forthcoming Sand Opera), the Anne Halley Prize, the Arab American Book Award, and the Cleveland Arts Prize.  He teaches literature and creative writing at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio.  See http://www.philipmetres.com and http://behindthelinespoetry.blogspot.com for more information.

Tatiana Tulchinsky has translated many works of fiction, poetry, drama and non-fiction, among them Leo Tolstoy’s Plays in three volumes, Anna Politkovskaya’s A Small Corner of Hell, Anthology of Russian Verse, and Selected Works of Venedict Erofeev. She received a Best Translation of the Year Award of the American Association of Slavists, a Winner-Brenner Foundation for the Poetry Grant, and a Creative Writing Translation Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Currently she works on a project translating and promoting English-language drama for the Russian theater stage.