Yvonne Green

Read 'Silent Blessing' by Yvonne Green 

about the author 
about Semyon Lipkin 

Yvonne Green
Yvonne Green

I read Semyon Izrailevich Lipkin's work soon after reading Lisnianskaya's poems in translation by Daniel Weissbort ("Far From Sodom"), and for the past eight years I have worked on them.

I am sure my approach, which is neither literal nor metric, may seem replete with shortcomings. However, Inna and her daughter Lena, Sergei Makarov and Robert Chandler have encouraged me to publish. Indeed, without their encouragement I would have never dared to do so. I am indebted to them. Equally I am aware of the liberties I have taken with this great poet's work.

Lipkin's syntax, rhyme, meter and layers of meaning, his mastery of Russian language and his ability to import his understanding of foreign languages into the framework of his perceptions is unmatchable, in my opinion. Your on-line magazine's biography of Lipkin lists some of the languages he knew which included, Abkhaz, Akkadian, Buryat, Dagestani, Karbardinian, Kalmyk, Kirghiz, Tatar, Tadjik-Farsi and Uzbek. What it doesn't say (per Sergei Makarov) is that he not only learned these languages but he also taught himself everything he could about the cultures, religious customs, taboos of the nations who spoke them. According to Sergei, his knowledge was encyclopaedic. He was a man who understood not only politics, economics, geography but also valued and respected regional cultures whilst at the same time understanding man's shortcomings. Sergei describes him as a man who beamed with wisdom.

Joseph Brodsky wouldn't approve of my work: its failure to reproduce form would appal him. Vladimir Nabokov would have wanted a literal line-by-line translation with footnotes. Ted Hughes would have found my translations too "smooth" although I addressed that in Anthem (my title) on page 64 of "The Assay" after Military Song (1981) [Smith/Doorstop 2010] where I used hyphenated words to try to indicate foreignness. The Russian readers at Pushkin House in London would certainly challenge me.

One of the first Lipkin poems I translated, "Moldavian is a Language" (1962), appears on page 69 of "The Assay" (infra) mimics the form although does not reflect the Russian version — merely creates a sense of it.

I quickly realised that if I did this in all my translations or even tried to be more faithful to the Russian form, then my work could produce a nursery rhyme quality to an English reader which would obscure the poems' message.

I've taken many liberties with the poems, but one in particular which I discussed with Inna and Lena, was my translation of  'Ashes' (1967) which appears on page 62 of "The Assay" (infra) and which I called 'Charred'.

"Why have you changed 'Ashes' to 'Charred'?" Lena asked me.

"Some English readers" I explained, "tune out when they see Holocaust poems, maybe for some of them Paul Celan had the last word, I wanted to use a title which would get those readers past that reaction".

"Why have you moved Lipkin's reference to crematoria from his last line?" Lena continued.

I looked at Inna, we both knew a reader will often look at the last line of a poem first and lose interest if it is too blatant or contains a message they don't want to hear. A year or two earlier I had watched a good first draft of a Holocaust poem being read in a class I attended at a London University and heard a member of that class say,

"I'm sick to death of Holocaust poems. Sylvia Plath's 'Daddy' said it all, there's nothing more".

I told Lena that I put my translation of 'Ashes' away rather than show it to that class and resolved to take the liberty of moving Lipkin's final line in order to get people to the end of the poem.

To this day, I do not know if there is any validity to that decision. To an extent, appeasement has caused an upsurge in Holocaust denial in England in my opinion. My concern is that by choosing to translate 'Ashes' in this way not only am I guilty of an appeasement of sort, but also of not being faithful to Lipkin.

However, Inna raised her hand and said to her daughter, Lena, who had been translating each line of my translations back into Russian, as well as everything I said:

"It is a good translation", which I took to mean that the poem's meaning has been conveyed in a manner which was appropriate in the light of my explanation.

We had this discussion in Jerusalem prior to me submitting 'Ashes' to Poetry Review which then published it.

With all these caveats in mind, I submit my translations.


Winter Sunset At The Diner

                                                addressed to Marina Tsvetaeva

Where's Paris now
or the Soviet judge and jury
the witnesses.
Sandomirsky's brave daughter,
through the queues of railway builders
jostling for lunch it's only you
I can still see.

We left at sunset
walked the alleys, yards, churches
behind the Moskva,
ignored cold December -
your thin mackintosh
was as skewed as Myshkin's cloak
as you gave me old news
of Merezhkovsky and Balmont,
nineteen to the dozen
in your Muscovite accent.

We ignored the frost,
you raised your eyebrows
to silence questions.
Elabuga and that Tartar rope
were a long way away.

                                                Translated by Yvonne Green


I walked alone
along a strange
star-lit path.

Then I reached a border
where maples rose far ahead
and starlings chattered
in a foreign language.

I was listening to the birds
and watched the maples
But as morning came
I saw we were all corpses.

In that morning the strange
star-lit road I'd walked along
began to seem unreal
and life and death unknowable.


                                                Translated by Olga Selivanova and Yvonne Green

Dead friend of my own age

Enveloped in anguish,
depressed, unworded
paper unlooked for.

Maybe we'll meet soon
and it'll be better than this hell
where the gates have no bolts,
but I'm still here - won't leave.

The years have extended and extended
each with the weight of our guilt.
we were different before God
in our guilt.

He was an atheist, I am believer
he beamed, I sparkled.
Heaps of letters crossed
between us by kind fate.

My surroundings are uninhabited
my journey is mindless
my breathe is stifled
my bread is the bread of affliction


                                                Translated by Olga Selivanova and Yvonne Green

Souls Yet Naked Of Flesh

Ashen dust yet ungrassed
skies blueless
water and land undivided
light, yet blind before darkness

the word was unutterable
the other was asleep in the before-storm silence
alive's warmth was unknown to death
but I already loved you.

Pain has understood my courage
light has learned to see
hard earth cut from the water
is dressed in grass

souls now wear flesh
thought has woken up, seen,
become the word, the measure of all existing things
and time passes by in the distance


                                                Translated by Mariya Petrova and Yvonne Green

In Sarajevo

The mosque in Sarajevo
where the clock hands show Muslim time,
Turkic birds sing Slav songs,

God calls a tribe a place
where angels are unhappy
in different heavens,

the youthful smile of a Bosnian monk,
the sad face of a Sephardi in his tarbush,

the seraph smell of spikenard from distant Avsonia
cloth, dialects, markets, yards, breathe with a nation

everywhere there are Babylons, the last fires of Babel
isn't this a two legged world of tribes united in their differences?

In a narrow street I read a footstep commemorated
and realize the terrible principle of our century.

I heard your foosteps, your bullet, Gavrio Princip,
when you shot at Archduke Franz Ferdinand
it reached the tundra and the taiga

your blood fuelled the crusade of the Black Shirts in Rome,
named the Marxist split, held back Stalin's word
and the roar of Munich's beer houses

brought the notion of leaders to life,
a shamanistic ritual of a priest —
a replacement of a vision.

In Sarajevo I suffered,
felt how we became racial — tribal,
sacrificed community.

Night always scares me,
especially in a town away from Russia.
There were so many police cars, round every corner.

Shouting closed in like steady thunder
the student protest cut in and out
of the uneven crowd in the square,

they were diseased not empowered
by their rebellion and suddenly
I felt lonely and bitter


Avsonia — the ancient name given to Italy by Virgil and Ovid

                                                Translated by Yvonne Green

Neither War Nor Its Sentries Relented

They sealed us in 'til May that year,
Spring failed twice and used a detour
to get to us the third time.

The moon rose slowly,
shivered in the grey nights,
Taurus and Gemini flickered like beads of mercury.

The days were thick with mist,
like the blurred eyes of rabid dogs.

Three times the rivers hid under the ice,
the moon in darkness.


                                                Translated by Sergei Makarov and Yvonne Green

These translations will appear in After Semyon Izrailevich Lipkin 1911-2003 which will be published in England by Smith/Doorstop in October 2011.
"Path" first appeared in Poetry Review Number 98:4

© Copyright  Yvonne Green
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