Day of the Border Guards
for Barbara Roesmann
May 28, 1987: German Teen Lands Plane in Red Square
This story's true: spring at last in Moscow,
time of thawing earth, of drying mud.
Sunshine and mist hopscotch across Red Square:
stones the color of smoke, St. Basil's domes,
those child-sized Kremlin windows. Banners flutter
from lampposts to proclaim today the Day
of the Border Guards; in front of Lenin's Tomb,
young border guards in parade regalia snap
photographs, some laughing, some tugging
girls by the hand, some already draped
across the shoulders of their comrades. Except
for the clothes, the cameras, today could be
any spring day in a thousand-year span:
I could be myself, or any one
of Pushkin's women, or Margarita walking
the alleys with yellow flowers in her arms.
So many possibilities: a man
I've never met spots my flowers, knows
immediately he's loved me all his life.
Onegin shouts at his coachman to stop.
I marry a general; I marry a madman.
I become a witch, an Old Believer,
a Streltsy wife sledging to Siberia.
Perhaps I poison myself-arsenic? Hemlock?
As I'm calculating the fatal dose,
a silvery object darts from the western sky:
I watch it circle, descend, buzz Red Square.
Someone shouts, He's landing! People start
pushing, running to get out of the way-
the airplane noses down at the southern edge of
Red Square. The young pilot-he can't be more
than seventeen-climbs out, extends his hand.
No one around me moves; I hold my breath.
And now an officer of the Border Guards
threads his way among the crowd, swaying
ever so gently across the sharp-edged stones.
Soon a thousand things will happen at once:
someone will shove a camera in my hand,
ask me to take his picture with the pilot.
Warning sirens will blare from the Kremlin.
Special Forces cops will swarm the plane:
they'll handcuff the boy, cordon off Red Square.
I'll be herded to the metro, lose
my flowers in the crush. Wonder what
it was I saw. Because now I'm a witness,
I stand and watch-we all watch-as slowly,
shockingly-that drunken officer
of the Border Guards stretches out ten trembling
fingers to print the faintest stain of hope
on the airplane's shiny metal skin.
Reading Mr. Lincoln's Army
Sheremetyevo Airport, Moscow
Tonight I'm reading Mr. Lincoln's Army
in a holding cell near Sheremetyevo.
McClellan's writing to his Ellen of
the "original Gorilla" (he means Lincoln)-
Mac's been called upon to save the nation.
My watch shows 10 p.m., but I've flown
across the ocean, I'm in some nether hour.
Right now, it seems just as likely that I
could be that self-same Ellen-tight-corseted,
hooped, done up in sprigged muslin, reading
my lover's letter in the drawing room-
as myself, arriving late, without a visa.
I stir, shiver, touch my hand to the nightstand.
This cell resembles every room in Russia:
the same beige-papered walls, same tiles crumbling
in the bath, the same gray-flecked linoleum
ruching across the floor. Outside, my jailors
snore in their chairs. I maintain the fiction
that all's well this night: now I'm Little Mac
telling my Ellen how I'll save the country
from itself-I'm not the type, I say, to bolt
awake later, staring, astonished with fright.
The river's the same, curving
gentle and infinite from right
to left across the frame.
And the street grid sketched out
in an age of absolutes,
it's still there-no one
would dream of changing it.
There's still a square
in the old town center,
and the cathedral's
ancient head has been fitted
with a new gold cap.
But factories have filled in
fields beyond the rails,
and the hippodrome
has shifted shape-if
you believe the maps-
from oval to rectangle.
What used to be the town
next door is now Our Town.
Soon Engels Street
will go back to being
Garden Street, I guess;
and Kirov's bust
(its nameplate comically
misspelled) will be leaving
the park. But they'll keep
the column that marks
the War, clumsy metal fins
still weighing down
its gilt star. A changeable
wind will still moan down
blowing the seasons
right out of town.
-from Day of the Border Guards
BIO: Katherine E. Young is the author of Day of the Border Guards (University of Arkansas Miller Williams Prize Series, 2014), one of Split This Rock’s “eagerly anticipated” picks for 2014, one of Beltway Poetry‘s “Best Books of 2014,″ and an Honorable Mention for the North Carolina Poetry Society’s Brockman-Campbell Award. Young’s poems, translations, and reviews have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, The Iowa Review, and many others. Her translation of Russian poet Xenia Emelyanova won third place in the 2014 Joseph Brodsky-Stephen Spender Prize competition. Her translations of Inna Kabysh won third place in the 2011 Joseph Brodsky-Stephen Spender Prize competition and were commended by the judges of the 2012 Brodsky-Spender Prize. A dual-language iPad edition of Kabysh’s poetry that includes both text and audio, Two Poems, was published by Artist’s Proof Editions in 2014. Young’s translations of Vladimir Kornilov appear in The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry. In 2015 she was named a Hawthornden Fellow.
Young has read her poetry at the Library of Congress and in U.S. venues from Massachusetts to Mississippi. She has been invited to lecture on translation and translation theory at the University of Oxford (United Kingdom) and at the Institut Perevoda (Moscow, Russia). Her translations have been read in the U.S., the United Kingdom, Serbia, and Macedonia. Her reviews and criticism have appeared in Poet Lore and The Innisfree Poetry Journal.