Polina Barskova, “From Mad Vatslav’s Diary”

From Mad Vatslav’s Diary (from BrooklynRail.org)
Polina Barskova (translated by Katie Farris and Ilya Kaminsky)

I was a coal-miner, water
Poured over my gray hair, my eyelashes.
My sister, alive and laughing,
Shepherded such glorious cows!

I was a soldier, and afraid of living
I did my best to die–but did not manage to stumble
Upon any bad luck. The tsar’s own daughter
Visited my cabin and gave me a magic rope.

I was a slave. My master’s wife
Adored us, the dark, forbidden Slavs.
The green sunrise was the strangest.
In sorrow I danced, swaying, trembling, on wooden porches.


We are presented with three nonsensical portraits of one man. He claims to be a coal-miner one day, another day a soldier, yet another a slave.

Do the portraits unify? I confess I’m having fun playing with the details. The coal-miner, cleaned up from work, reveals gray hair and eyelashes. In a weird way, he resembles his work naturally. It seems perfectly appropriate that he has a sister who take a joy in him and his own spots. The first stanza gives us a hint that there are natural, familial loves, and they can work for us.

The second stanza gives us a soldier far too aware and cynical about self-sacrifice. The soldier declares that he wants to die, he wants to trade his life in for a name at best. Of course, this being Russian literature, he finds someone attracted by this sort of thing. We can imagine the tsar’s daughter burdened by the name she has to live up to. In sleeping with him, he is marked by his now too powerful enemies, and the standard she imagines defines her is broken. There are unnatural loves that come from dark, awful places. However, it is no coincidence this stanza features the highest personages, the noblest conventions, of the poem.

The coal-miner recognized a happiness that came to him, but the soldier continually refused it. What of someone striving for happiness? It’s like being a slave; it’s frightening thing how easy it is to be used. There are things you think you want, and when they happen, they’re not life affirming in the least. To have to indulge one’s lust is to want to escape the quest for happiness entirely. But all one can do is drink, tremble in the wind atop a wooden porch. In other words: you’re more static that you thought yourself, more rooted in the world we’ve created.

Happiness as a love that controls does not quite work. Still, the portraits unify. That diary could be any of ours.

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