Home » Issues & Poems » Issue Seven » Asbest


Lucy Sixsmith

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.


1. Izumrud


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—

sechka, 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. . .



2. Belokamenny


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

or needles.

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.



3. Kvatira


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.



4. Kvatira


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.



5. Izumrud


We did some decorating at Izumrud.

I thought of  a poem.

When I say we did some

I’m lying.

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.

Rehab continues.



6. Ulitsa


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.



7. Tsirkov


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,

O Lord.



8. Kvatira


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.



9. Belokamenny


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.



10. Belokamenny


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,

sisters, brothers.

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.



11. Asbest


From my mind

which is mashed

and overwhelmed

no poetry


only the words

all I need is You…      



12. Izumrud


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

pray? nada

pamolimsya, it is necessary

that we pray –

and then there was Vitaly

with the jauntiness

of  the glue

on his sweater,

his cap,

his grin,

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


than Sergei,

Kolya, Vitaly,

Zhenya, Andrei, Tolik,



my brothers.



13. Izumrud


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,




14. Ulitsa


Sasha’s daddy wobbled

up, shook hands,

and joined in volleyball.

He was


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

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