These people didn’t know my father

it’s possible all women make up a secret organization working under the guise of an oppressed class the women coerced into prostitution they’re the suicide bombers of our terrorist organization sacrificing themselves for the life of all women and the murder of all men a nice romantic image is coming together here I think I’m one of these women one of the ones engaged in the struggle against all men for all women but I know it’s not true AIDS exists but the struggle doesn’t

one of them said / you girls are always hauling heavy stuff

Oksana Vasyakina won the 2019 Lyceum poetry prize, a major Russian award for younger authors. She was not a winner one would expect for an award named with reference to Pushkin, handed out on the Red Square, covered by the evening news, and paid for by a South Korean corporation. It is heartening to see public recognition of Vasyakina, a feminist activist and a lesbian, whose work does not hide but rather publicizes her orientation and her politics. But it is also strange to see it in a state which has made support for so-called “traditional values” the cornerstone of its grasp on power, passing a law that decriminalizes domestic violence, as well as a law that criminalizes discussion of LGBTQ issues with minors.

Vasyakina’s poetry greatly differs from how many Russian readers conceive of poetry. First, she foregrounds social issues, reading the personal through the political, while many Russian readers of poetry want poetry to create a personal space safe from the political. “No such space exists,” says the poetry of Vasyakina and that of her colleagues, for example, her friend and partner in activism Galina Rymbu. Second, Vasyakina works in diction that is direct, and also very—one might even say pointedly—accessible, itself a political gesture and a democratic one. But, being bereft of many traditional markers of the poetic, it presents itself as a matter for reading rather that as an object for evaluation and appraisal.

2019 was also the year when a major published house released her Wind of Fury, a collection which mixed poems and interviews in defiance of genre hierarchies. Vasyakina had earlier published its main piece, a poetry cycle of the same name, on a home printer as a chapbook, which she mailed to readers, bypassing all the formal channels of publication. About 2500 copies went out in the first two years, although the cycle was also freely available as a PDF on the internet. Mainly addressing violence against women and domestic violence, Wind of Fury was translated into English by Joan Brooks, and nominated for the Pushcart.

Vasyakina was born in the town of Ust’-Ilimsk in Siberia in 1989, which she left as a teenager. Almost by chance, as a sporadic participant in the poetry slam, she applied and was accepted to the Literary Institute, a creative writing college in Moscow, where her classmates included Galina Rymbu. The poem being published here, “These people did not know my father,” came out in the original in 2017. It is included in F Letter: New Russian Feminist Poetry, edited by Galina Rymbu, Ainsley Morse, and myself, and forthcoming in October 2020 from isolarii. The bilingual anthology also features work by Lida Yusupova , Lolita Agamalova, and others, and closes with Rymbu’s “My Vagina,” recently published by n+1.

—Eugene Ostashevsky

I

this poem
will make sense only to people who have something to do
with contemporary poetry,
or really with that segment of it that’s represented by the
poetess
Lida Yusupova and another fifty or so poets and poetesses
whose books are sold in
the independent bookstore Word Order in the foyer of the
Electrotheater

now I work in the bookstore
every morning when I get to work I raise the black blind
get out the books and set them up on the counter
every day I set them up in a new way I know
that evening I will return the books under their black blind
I think about how it’s like buddhist mandalas
and I, a meticulous lady-gnome sinking into silence and
setting out the books
a new day—a new order
to be destroyed in the evening
while over the course of the day customers and theater
patrons take away or switch around the books
and then I think that when monks build the mandala

wind and moisture do what they do
the patterns thin out and the sand mixes together
what I want to say is that the mandala that the monks
finished just now

is another mandala a moment later

and in an hour it’s not at all the mandala they were
working on
in the same way people come
pick up books move them from place to place
sometimes they probably steal and damage them
but I don’t want to think about that
I’m thinking about how people they are like rain or wind

when my mandala is ready
I put the tiny frightening book by the poetess Lida Yusupova
in the spot where everyone can see it
in the hope that someone who doesn’t know me or Lida
will come up and buy it
and then I’ll look that person in the eye
I’ll look that person in the eye with all of my tenderness
and say you know that’s my favorite poetess
and the person will entirely get it and go and read the book
when they make it to the “Verdicts” part they’ll remember me
and nod or do some other thing
so that at the other end of Moscow I’ll know
that the person made it to the “Verdicts”

especially before a show there’s always a lot of people
and everyone picks up and holds
Lida’s tiny frightening book
they take it from the spot where everyone can see it and
open it and close it right away and put it back
and then look over their shoulders to see if anyone noticed
that they picked up the baby-blue book with Ron Mueck’s
father’s body

I know that this sculpture is actually very small
like all dead people
Ron Mueck said
that when he saw his father dead
this big powerful man
he was surprised by how dry and small he became when he
died

when I saw my own father dead
I remembered that you have to hold the feet
so as not to be afraid
that’s what my late aunt used to say
her feet I didn’t get to hold
she died in Siberia from TB
a few years ago
to everyone who says that nowadays you can get treated for TB
and that no one’s died of it for a long time
I answer no

my aunt died from TB
I think to myself
that she died because of who she was
it was a pretext, the tubie
that’s what she called it
she used to say if you’re afraid go up and take the feet
so I went up and grabbed the toes of his shoes
my fingertips felt the emptiness beneath the hard imitation
leather
and I thought they must have bought him the cheapest shoes
they had at the funeral home
and figured
they must have cost around three hundred rubles
now on his feet they weigh about as much as air

I looked at him
when I realized it wasn’t frightening
and in fact it wasn’t frightening from the beginning
but you had to carry out the ritual
I looked at him
thought how strange he looks
like papier-mâché
only not small
but
empty

people fling aside this gray-blue little book
like it was someone else’s kleenex
or a porn pic in an envelope
but it’s poetry
still they’re embarrassed by it I think

today there was a show again
there were lots of people dressed in different ways

there was even this guy I thought might be someone’s
bodyguard he picked up a book by a famous anthropologist
and said that this anthropologist is really good but he
hadn’t read any of his stuff on cinema so he should buy
it and then another bodyguard came and asked him to cover
for him because he just bought something to eat at the
theater bar and wanted to have supper then the first man
quickly paid and followed his partner out

people came and looked picked up set back down
moved the books around
bought them
did everything like ordinary people
who in between the first and second bell
don’t get something to eat or drink champagne
but do something else

and then a mature-looking man came up
he picked up Lida’s book and started reading it in the middle
then leafed through and was reading it some more
I was giving the bodyguard his change
and then other people theirs

the man put the book down and left
and then came back
with a well-groomed young woman
he picked up Lida’s book again
and handed it to the woman
I look at her
and she in her white white white
blouse
with a transparent tattoo
on her beautiful beautiful beautiful skin
started giggling
she was reading and laughing and turning the pages
and laughing

a beautiful beautiful beautiful woman
in the very heart of the capital
inside a trendy contemporary theater
giggling over the tiny frightening book in her hands

and the man was asking her
does she want this kind of poetry
and she was saying no
and laughing

she closed the book
hurriedly put it down and then met my gaze without meaning to
I was waiting for her to look at me the whole time

she was laughing in my face and saying thank you

it just so happened
that when she started to say thank you
I started telling her you know that’s my favorite poetess
she didn’t hear me
because she was saying her mocking thank you

the second bell rang
the program-seller came up to buy herself a magazine
I was giving her change
and dropped a coin 50 kopecks
she said don’t worry about it
but I started to look for the coin on the floor
she became embarrassed
because I was looking for the coin
for her for the program-seller
a young woman

but I had the feeling
that I was still looking at that other woman
and she was saying thank you
and also that she doesn’t need that kind of poetry
she keeps laughing laughing laughing
she doesn’t need that kind of poetry
like how the theater-program seller
doesn’t need
a coin worth 50 kopecks


II

1

my father was a long-haul truck-driver
he hauled dead and live chicken watermelon pipe
sometimes in winter when there was nothing to haul he would
wait for weeks in the steppe idle
he’d wait for the pipe to get dug out of the collective-farm
sands
he’d wait
for weeks
and watch the steppe change toward evening and then toward
morning
from day to day
the steppe is beautiful and there is reason to love it
I love it because for starters it is impossible to look
at for long you get afraid sadness wells up in your breast
and you feel like just running and running and running
until the steppe ends
after the chicken he would sweep the droppings and the
carcasses of the birds who died in transit along with the
straw out from the cargo bed and say
that never again would he haul fowl
even pipe is better
it doesn’t make a racket or reek or die
after the watermelon he’d squint from the sour smell of
spoiled fruit
and sweep out the shards of green rind black seeds flesh
gone dark from the heat with flies and dirt stuck to it
even pipe is better he would say
you have to wait for it but it doesn’t go bad or reek
but after the chicken and the watermelon it still stinks
till winter it’s OK when there’s a bit of wind but when
there’s no wind you can’t stand around waiting the smell
is so bad
that at night the guys chase you from the parking lot out
to the steppe
to sleep there

he died of AIDS
they buried him over the steppe with a view of the bypass

and now it seems to me that he’s lying there listening to
the steppe and waiting for pipe
under the ground there he has a portable TV radio and
newspapers plus milk
and he’s waiting
for all of the pipe to be raised up from the depths of
the collective-farm fields
then he will load up on pipe and go
haul the silent pipe
the heavy rusted pipe

2

I work as а manager in the Moscow branch of the independent
bookstore Word Order
every Wednesday and sometimes on Thursdays
I load boxes of books into the trunk of a taxi and take
them to a truck stop to ship to Petersburg and then take
other boxes back
before my mother and father got divorced I used to lie
to my teachers that my head hurt so they would call my
father and he’d pick me up
it didn’t always work
but until I was nine I would ride around with him in the
back seat of his Volga (he was a taxi driver in the
nineties) then his jeep (he chauffeured for someone
at city hall in the two-thousands)

I played with dolls
studied multiplication tables
in the car
sometimes I just liked to lie there and watch out the
tinted back window how they float appear and disappear
power lines and clouds bridge trees wind
after his death I started getting carsick even if I sit
up front a minute later I start to feel nauseous and
want to jump out the window

taxi drivers probably think I sit up front so I can talk
with them

about children is it OK to beat them if they misbehave
about theater is the Electrotheater good and why is it
called that do big-name actors perform there
about books like for instance a small volume of Pushkin’s
erotic poems with illustrations
about children’s books
about how expensive textbooks are these days
about iPhones
about Russian porn
and the peculiarities of Moscow roads

but I feel sick from the driving and even more so from
their conversations

one of them said
you girls are always hauling heavy stuff
I was driving one girl she had one of those suitcases you
know on wheels red
weighed about as much as a grown man
she wheeled it down the sidewalk herself
but we had to lift it into the trunk together

I said
maybe it really was a grown man in her suitcase
she killed her husband
that’s all

he fell silent

and I felt almost not nauseous

3

on Wednesdays and sometimes on Thursdays
I take a taxi to the Olympic sports & entertainment
complex
big trucks with books park there
they haul them from Petersburg and haul them to Petersburg
I find myself at а truck stop where crowds of men are
passing heavy cardboard boxes to each other
they often pull up vans and load them with twenty or
thirty bundles apiece
my deliveries are small
the most I ever send to Petersburg is five boxes
and I pick up about the same amount
the guys who haul me the books are friendly and it’s
always the same ones
they joke around with me in a nice way about how I’ll
break my back with these boxes or how even if the
delivery’s been paid for by Petersburg they still
wouldn’t mind
taking some extra money from me
there’s a peaceful cow painted on the side of their truck
she’s grazing in a meadow against a placid baby-blue sky
it’s very dry and dusty in their truck-bed
smells of cardboard paper wood printer’s ink
definitely no chickens or sour watermelons
they use almost no profanity
I sometimes think that truck-drivers who haul books just
don’t use profanity ever
they are happy people
it’s very dry in their truck-bed
and the people who come to get the books are not pipe
thieves but well-educated booksellers
but of course it’s not really like that
they use profanity and are happy exactly to the extent
that Russian truck-drivers are happy

I look at their faces look into their eyes
it feels like they knew my father
it feels like I even saw one of them at the wake after the
funeral
it feels like he even sat down by my grandma and talked
to her about something for a long time
but it’s not true
they never met my father out on the road
these people drive in a different region
they drive on highways where spruce trees and rust-colored
swamps alternate with birch groves
my father drove around the Russian south where nothing
altered the steppe but the wind
fall winter spring and summer changed the color of the
steppe grass
in the spring it smelled sweetly of wormwood and some
nameless bush flowered with a pale-pink flower
it was a strange smell and made your heart clench tight
these people didn’t know my father
just like other random people
but every time I pick up the boxes of books I look them
in the eye
and think that they’re the same as him
they drive and drive without rest
and then stop driving

4

he died of AIDS
and sometimes I want to think that the woman who infected
him
(of course it was probably a needle but on the other hand
I think to myself he could have slept with prostitutes
out on the road even though in every city he drove to

more than once a month he had women that’s how it goes
with long-haul truck-drivers and lonely women)
it’s possible this woman
was carrying out a mission to destroy men
it’s possible all women make up a secret organization
working under the guise of an oppressed class

the women coerced into prostitution they’re the suicide
bombers of our terrorist organization
sacrificing themselves for the life of all women and the
murder of all
men
a nice romantic image is coming together here
I think I’m one of these women
one of the ones engaged in the struggle against all men
for all women

but I know it’s not true
AIDS exists but the struggle doesn’t

5

just about anybody can die of AIDS

strangers who are drug addicts
strangers who are rock stars
strangers who are models
strangers who are gay
just strangers
but not somebody’s father or brothers
he did die of AIDS
but no one knows it and won’t find out unless they read
this text
because when his friend found out my father died of AIDS
he was stunned and said: but I drank from the same
mug as him and no problem, I’m healthy
an official cause of my father’s death exists meningitis
who can die of meningitis
your child
your father
your mother
your sister
your wife
your husband
just about anyone who’s yours

the fact that he died of AIDS is being kept strictly secret
I don’t understand what for
though on the rare occasions when people ask me what he
died from so young only 47
I look at the person and wonder how to answer
I don’t know why
but sometimes I think I wonder what to choose precisely
because an official cause of death exists

in fact when people ask me most of the time I say it was
HIV-infection
it doesn’t sound as frightening as AIDS
your father can’t die of AIDS
but HIV-infection could cause the death of your father

6

every Wednesday sometimes on Thursdays I bring the books
to the Electrotheater
I have a special utility closet to keep the books in
I share it with the sound people they put their equipment
there
and I use it to store books and money

I often imagine that instead of books I’m hauling
dynamite
I store it specifically for the secret terrorist organization
of women and children struggling against the patriarchy

it really isn’t any trouble at all for me to calmly transport
the boxes full of dynamite by taxi to carry them
across the whole foyer of the Electrotheater
maybe I’ll get lucky and the sturdy red-cheeked security
guard will be on shift and help me unload the car
he often helps me carry the boxes

and on the second level of the utility closet where not
only the sound guys but even the salesgirls never go
you can stack up the boxes in the far corner and just
in case write “don’t touch, for Natalia P.”

and go on working serenely
selling books
receiving them and sending them off to Petersburg
buying coffee at the bar and chatting with the bartender
talking on the phone with the delivery guys
filling out the account forms
helping elderly lady customers order books online
asking the girls the sellers to fill in for me if I need
to be away for one of my other gigs
storing dynamite

it’s very simple

and I can do it

but it’s not true


III

I’m walking down Tverskaya from the metro to the Electrotheater
today we aren’t working there’s a reception in the Electrotheater
lobby today
the people putting it on are the car dealers the expensive-watch
dealers the art dealers and theater equipment dealers

they’ve asked that the bookstore be cleared away during
the event
they say it’s no place to sell books
I’m walking down Tverskaya and thinking selling books for
them is like hawking sunflower seeds on the sidewalk
or dolls out of a box

one of them just out and said it
how do you see it? I’ll have my watches for a million
dollars up here and right next to them you have
your fucking stationery
and I answered that you know I could give a shit how much
your watches cost
these are my books and they’re worth more to me than your
million

later on the managers smoothed things over and everyone
forgot about it very quickly
only after that conversation I cried for a long time

when I’m walking down Tverskaya from the metro to the
Electrotheater
I’m thinking about death
today I’m going there to clear out the books before an
exhibition opening
so the people journalists and artists won’t see the seamy side
so they’ll see only the crystal-clear facing seams carefully
worked over by the curators and service staff
when the bookstore is closed
it looks like a homeless camp
dog-eared cardboard boxes with books
the black blind lowered
magazines covered with cloth

they don’t want to see that

today they even asked me to scrape the stickers off the table
that Sasha had stuck on
it’s a sticker she designed
it has a woman holding a skull
a punk Hamletess I think when I look at this sticker
and think it’s Sasha’s contribution to the destruction of
the sterile bourgeois world of the Electrotheater

I didn’t scrape off the sticker
I rubbed it with my fingernail
it’s stuck on good
I wonder
when I get to the theater if it’ll still be there

I’m walking down Tverskaya to the Electrotheater and
thinking about death

those million-dollar watches had playful monkey designs
in gems and gold
I didn’t see the watches in person but I saw the posters
with pictures of them
I often think of those monkeys they danced so jauntily
across the dial
there’s your vanitas for 2016

today I was walking down Tverskaya thinking about Lida
Yusupova about her naive courage
and about that poem of hers where she’s talking to her
dead son
I took her book ritual C-4 with me because I
wanted to reread the text about saxifrages
I thought it might help me write my text about Euridice
but I came across the text called The Finch

I’m walking along and thinking about death

about how when mama dies things will become so senselessly
light for me and I’ll start crying
I imagine her sleeping and not knowing about the diamond
monkeys
about how she strokes her head bald from the chemo with
beautifully manicured nails
how she adjusts her crumpled homemade breast prosthesis
and still by force of habit lies there like Venus watching
TV
wrinkles her nose at the smell of cilantro and basil

she asked if I wanted to touch the place where her titty
used to be that’s what she called it titty
but I wouldn’t
I refused
I can imagine the news of her death and this seems easier
to me
than remembering her body aged beyond its years stained
brown from cigarettes vodka and illness
it’s even harder to touch her
to say after her that word—titty

I’m walking to the Electrotheater and thinking that you
have to have courage
and in some people’s eyes a profiteering instinct and lack
of scruple to write texts about your dead parents
about your dead children
about all those who were not heroes did not die in car
crashes did not fall on the battlefield whose lives
were not taken by history their life did not stop with
a sterile clean heart attack or cerebral hemorrhage
they just died of tuberculosis AIDS cancer schizophrenia
they rotted and decomposed from within they stank
they lost recognizable human form

to write texts that will have no trembling
to write texts that will become poetry

someone once told me
that a poem is a pure thing that doesn’t have a single
unnecessary word

no I think

a poem

is a place you lick raw that’s what a poem is

it’s a licked-out sore on a dog’s flank

sour from lymph and seeping blood and rust-colored with
wet fur around the edges that’s what a poem is

Translated from the Russian by Eugene Ostashevsky and Ainsley Morse

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