This poem was written during a gap-year project in Asbest, a town near Yekaterinburg in the Sverdlovsk region of Russia, in the summer of 2007. I was one of a team of seven young people at the ‘Love of Christ’ church: we were involved in different aspects of church life, such as youth and children’s ministries, prayer meetings, meals for the homeless, and the ‘Salvation’ rehabilitation centres.
For a teenager living in a new country for the first time, it was an intense experience in many ways. We knew barely any Russian, and when communication happened successfully, it was often in a delightful hybrid of Russian and English (with a fair amount of gesturing). I was amazed by the faith, tenacity, and joyfulness of the people we met, their commitment to being family together, and the many transformations of people’s lives which had clearly taken place at the rehab centres. All these things seemed important to record in writing. But we were kept very busy, so the poem developed fragment by fragment, each being scribbled in a general purpose notebook, between outlines for talks, impromptu language lessons, song lyrics in Russian and English, memos-to-self, drafted emails, and so on. The editing was done after returning, when the whole experience seemed distant.
The poem referred to in section 5 is Michael Rosen’s ‘Eddie and the Wallpaper’, from the collection Quick, Let’s Get Out of Here.
Brothers make pallets for bread,
make good banya—
malatók bang bang finger,
finger —and sisters chop kartoshka,
talk to Tishka, koshka, tchyorka,
markov—tch tch—make borscht—
svirkla—tch tch—make borscht—
sechka, vada, kasha—
Brothers eat sechka, borscht, bread, khleb,
play football. Artur—Zhenya—Sergei.
Sergei, his future wife, ts-ts,
narcotic. Bad Sergei. . .
Good Sergei. Good sechka—sow-dust—Santa Clowse.
Super-duper soup—you like our sowna? Jo—
how long you know Rebekah? Give, please,
dictionary—sister—ay ay ay. . .
The forest is magical.
It is a flat and empty plain
scored and scored with thick strong
lines. Pine trees, silver birches.
Along the road
are crowded trees.
Above bare trunks
are crowded leaves
I do not want
to arrive; please,
stretch out the journey;
when we get there I
will spend all day doing the wrong
The forest is magical.
Tiny, fragile trees
grow beneath the pines,
Silver birches shine.
The brats went back to their flat tonight,
not together, but each on his own,
alone in the dark through a different country,
down the stairway, over ulitsa Mira and home.
Sister’s work, perhaps,
not to worry but just to listen to cars
swishing through water and mud
on the right hand side of the road.
Babba Valya wears glasses to read the Psalms aloud,
becoming a big-eyed bushbaby Babushka Valya.
Ameen, we shout. Hallelujah, the Lord is my Shepherd!
The Lord is my light, the Lord is my salvation!
Hallelujah, we shout, because sometimes we understand.
And even when she looks in desperation
up across the gulf and says
mwi nye panimayem droog drooga,1
and I’m still completely confused about the beetroot,
even then my Lord is here
and we are his daughters.
Hallelujah, spasiba za chai, za kofye,
za syostri mayi, spasiba2
O Lord above all.
We did some decorating at Izumrud.
I thought of a poem.
When I say we did some
Irina did it and I just stood
at the bottom of the ladder.
Later, her son,
roaming the centre on his own
like a free-range gorilla
won’t come and rip the paper
upwards off the wall.
He is in Perm
with a swollen liver
staying with her mother.
I don’t have a son
and don’t know how she feels.
Cows wander outside
in golden sunlight.
A bell rings for dinner at two.
I saw him and thought, it’s happened.
I am looking at someone dead.
That was how grey
and still his lips were,
how pale his hands were, how thin
his legs were, like a scarecrow’s
sunk in the grass.
But we have no time to think.
I had forgotten this till now.
Even when he lifted his fleshless head,
got his stiff body standing, and staggered
across to his friend who begged for two roubles,
and we went home, I only thought
it’s good that he’s not dead.
Not when I look at the lectern,
the new one, which, like a bathtub
with golden feet, has appeared
suddenly on the stage,
but when I look at Helen,
or Leon, or Dennis,
I think how lovely is
Your dwelling place,
The traffic on ulitsa Mira
makes the quietness in the house
Blue sky outside, the leaves
soaking up light.
like sun through water.
Half sleeping still, I am safe
in the gentle depths,
the radiant depths,
the depths of covering grace.
I have just opened twenty-two cans
the hard-core Russian way.
I think they maybe are holding
sprats; Kim is twenty-two; so is Vitaly.
In twenty-two minutes we’ll still be
spreading spoonfuls of mayo on bread.
It feels like twenty-two bites
on my forehead at least.
Outside the brothers stack bricks
for the shish kebab.
Today is a feast.
I do not want to forget this:
how we washed our hands in the bathtubs
in the grass beside the greenhouses
in a forest half-way across Russia.
In heaven I want to recognize them:
Masha, Nastya, Vyera,
I do not want to forget the sound
of their prayers, their raw songs,
or the light on the tree-trunks
at dusk when I went outside
to see what it looked like
with no-one around
but the dog, Fil,
like a Siberian wolf,
or the stillness
that lay in the soil even deeper
than the silhouetted pines.
From my mind
which is mashed
only the words
all I need is You…
No-one but one person
could be more
beautiful than Sergei was
when he said with such force
and frayed cuffs
to his purple hoodie, why maybe
pamolimsya, it is necessary
that we pray –
and then there was Vitaly
with the jauntiness
of the glue
on his sweater,
the slight turn-up of his jeans –
and Kolya who was so quiet,
so very very quiet,
I never heard him speak,
but he smiled so warmly once
when we came to the door.
No-one but one person could be more
Zhenya, Andrei, Tolik,
Irina can telephone her son today.
He is in Perm.
Her husband is at the other centre.
Which is far enough away.
When we came through Russian night,
we flew over Perm,
so the pilot said.
We could have looked down and waved
at Irina’s son,
Sasha’s daddy wobbled
up, shook hands,
and joined in volleyball.
talking, talking, tottering
towards the people he spoke to,
as if he had lost
his personhood, and had to borrow it from them. . .
. . .and he looked like a bigger,
more broken, alcohol sodden Sasha. . .
When we saw Sasha again,
we were going to swing him but
he said he was afraid.
We put him down.
He was back seconds later demanding yeshyo’, yeshyo’.
He usually liked to be swung just by his hands,
the tapuchkis flying off his four-year-old feet.
That day he sat still,
for a moment—
sat still on my lap and I held him.
1 we do not understand one another
2 Hallelujah, thank you for tea, for coffee, for my sisters, thank you