Inna Lisnianskaya

Inna Lisnianskaya was born in Baku in 1928. Her first publication was in 1948 and her first poetry collection appeared in 1957. Since 1979, her books have appeared primarily outside the US. In recent years she has published several more collections in Russia and has contributed regularly to all major literary periodicals. Lisnianskaya was married to the late Semyon Lipkin, also a leading Russian poet, and her most recent collection partly consists of an elegy to him. She lives in Moscow.

How did Russian poets get typecast? Had it something to do with opposition to the Soviet regime? If this wasn’t the whole story, it was at least part of it. Though I kept what I thought was a close watch on Russian poetry, I had only vaguely heard of Inna Lisnianskaya. It was in connection with an exhaustive sweep of the terrain, so to speak, for an anthology of Russian women poets [published by University of Iowa Press in 2006] that Lisnianskaya came fully to my notice.

I began to read through her entire oeuvre and to identify poems, which I felt were translatable by myself. Eventually, I had in hand a small selection, which was published bilingually by Arc. Meanwhile, Inna Lisnianskaya, nearly eighty, continues prolifically to produce poetry of the highest quality. My translator’s criterion now is simply what I feel able to translate, as she seems incapable of writing a negligible poem.

Lisnianskaya is primarily a lyric poet and I have not given up the hope of working towards an English equivalency. However, I know from experience that absolute success is out of the question, it being more realistic to strive for a kind of accuracy, if not just of verbal sense, but also of movement, texture, even form, which can sometimes be imitated non-mimetically.

—Daniel Weissbort

You see, I am caught in the trap of myself

I am caught in the trap of myself –
At the height of day, I cry: I am here!
Humiliate me, people!
Crucify me!

My dark outcry lasts for three dawns,
Not a rooster’s cry, but a raven’s call.
The bell-ringers will toll
Not lighted lamps, but bells.

Branded by a searing guilt,
Retribution I await.
Under the brick wall I shall crush
The lamps’ glass under my bare foot.

Lord, what am I saying to You?
Three nights, in a fever, I burn.
The bells have shaken loose the dawn …
Lord, what am I saying to you?


To Maria Petrovykh*

Here lies your book, in front of me –
And I see your face.
Here is your time, always in a hurry,
Curling into a ring

By the birches, under which you sleep without pills,
a ring of tobacco smoke hovers.
You are awake and are now smoking,
After a cup of tea, of course.

I rang the bell long ago,
Now, I’ll rap on the tree-trunk:
Let me in, dear, Just for a minute or two,
I’ve brought your book!

An eye lights up in the birch,
And I hear the bark creak –
I must revise a few lines,
But there’s no pen handy.

“So, let me in! I’ve brought a pen.”
“Someone else’s? What’s the use!”
The birch tree, silvery, has closed its eyes
And has become like you.



The day flares over the thinning grove,
Tilting all live thing towards the stream;
In my breast a coal grows cold,
Scalding only me.

Should I contradict the vast expanse,
Which does not know its own spirit?
Distance myself from the beast of burden
Though I too am one of that herd?

How much do I need? A little bread,
Some water, and to forget water
Which, for some reason, always seemed
Left over from the Flood.

How much do I need? I know in advance
I shall take myself to the place of slaughter,
Take myself there to be sacrificed,
On the path leading into the gully.


The Rain in January

What’s the matter, sad one, rain?
Your time has come. And so?
I’m smoking, smoking again, again
Absent-mindedly, burning a hole in the cover.

Do you weep because you want
To return to the darkness of those days,
In which I struck a prophetic note
On your little violin,

Going on about how you were raised
To keep alive hill and dale,
And are now saturated
With the poisons we distil?

What’s the matter, weeper, why sob?
Did you miss our world,
standing like a dressing-table,
Less its three enchanted mirrors.



I studied all this as in school
In unsure sleep, not disposed to dream,
And old age resembled childhood,
As does late autumn early spring.

Either a coffin or a cradle
dark as night or bright as day.
Either a devil’s smile or an angel’s
Wrinkling the mirror of the lake.

But where are you in present time,
The bread of life, life’s course-books?
For long have I lived in the future,
Like a forgotten article in a Roman codex.


— translated by Daniel Weissbort

Former director of the Translation Workshop and MFA Program in Translation at the University of Iowa, Daniel Weissbort is presently a research fellow at King’s College London University, and Honorary Professor in the Centre for Translation and Comparative Cultural Studies at the University of Warwick. He is the co-founded the journal Modern Poetry in Translation, and is well known for his anthologies of Russian and East European poetry; he is also the author of several collections of poems, a translational memoir of Joseph Brodsky, From Russian with Love, the editor of the Selected Translations of Ted Hughes, and co-editor, with Astraldur Eysteinsson, of Translation – Theory and Practice: A Historical Reader (Oxford, 2006). He is writing a book on Ted Hughes and translation.