Lera Yanysheva: St. Petersburg (From Russian Romani)

This poem is based on real events. Since 2003, Romani neighborhoods in and on the outskirts of St. Petersburg have been repeatedly attacked by Neo-Nazi skinhead groups, with the reaction of the police and the public seldom rising above indifference. For more thoughts on the poem, see the note after the translation.

St. Petersburg
By Lera Yanysheva
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

I wander down the road he liked to stroll down all the time, 
And there I see the shop he used to stop in every day. 
Then God do I feel sick. My heart's all shredded. Why? 
Why did you have to take my little boy away? 
              God oh God!

We lived an honest life  
           but you of course would know.
Everyone knows he'd not hurt anyone.  
               He was too sweet. 
For two weeks he was laid up in a coma  
                and then...Oh    
God! He was twenty..... 
            and the skinheads jumped him in the street. 

I crawled across the floors of all your churches on my knees,  
Groveling while my boy lay in that hospital,   
And stayed up for his sake each night to offer you more pleas.   
Why? Answer now! Why did you just ignore it all! 
              God oh God!

I'd dreamt of my son's wedding day, of welcoming a wife. 
Instead I got prepared for him to die...and now today.... 
O Blessed Virgin, what on earth still justifies my life? 
You...you know what it's like to lose your son this way. 
              God oh God!

I press my palms against the shop's display glass...no more pleas,  
Just thinking: how could I deserve what you have done? 
Then I look over at the Metro exit and....I freeze.. 
I'm losing it. I could have sworn that was my son.  


I grew up here, got married here, and found a calling here  
Singing to their applause. The times were good to me.  
Yesterday, God I held this Russian city dear. 
Today, it's got a beauty that I cannot stand to see. 
              God oh God.

Thoughts on the poem

The poem seems like an anti-prayer, an anti-litany. It is the voice of a woman who does not ask for intercession, because she has learned there is no point. The refrain O Dévlale "Oh God" uttered with shades of despair, accusation and incomprehension, builds up an almost ritualistic charge — reminiscent of formulae such as (in their English versions) "Grant This Oh Lord" or "To Thee Oh Lord" which punctuate the supplications of a Christian litany. But this poem does not supplicate. It is done supplicating.

It has a liturgical air to it in some ways, but it is quite unliturgical. Being in Romani, it is as far removed as can be from the Slavonicism with which the religious register has articulated itself in Russian literature. The religious terms are all Romani. (Even Yanysheva's own Russian translation of this poem is almost completely bare of Slavonicisms except for things like the name of the Blessed Virgin, and elements which are part of the spoken language — even the address to the divine O Bože ž Moj has the distinctly un-liturgical emphatic particle inserted, as if to say "Oh God" not so much in plaintive address, but with accusation, disappointment.)

It puts me in mind of Job turning to God one more time and saying "no, seriously, what the fuck?" I could fill this post with ways in which it reminds me of Job. Take passages like "yet my hands have been free of violence and my prayer is pure" or the way in which Job's debate with his acquaintances (who insist he must have done something to deserve his fate, despite Job and God knowing otherwise) finds a parallel in the common assumption that Roma must be guilty of something, though of course God sees the truth of matters — as this poem in fact states. I'm not saying it's necessarily a conscious allusion to Job. I don't know if it is. But they are of a kind in their misotheism.

It also works subtly as an antagonistic dialogue with the life of Christ as related in Christian mythology. The exclamations echo, not in phrasing so much as in their narrative context, Christ's words on the cross and in Gethsemane. The speaker points out in none-too-subtle terms what she and the Virgin Mary have in common. When she thinks sees her son alive stepping out of the Metro (i.e. coming up from underground) in a moment of confusion which makes her question her own sanity, it is a kind of non-Resurrection which turns the myth of Christ's Resurrection on its head. If the point of miracles is to make one believe, this un-miracle serves to make her even less sure of what she can believe.

The speaker of this poem — after calling out like Job, but receiving no such answer as he did — turns at the end of the poem to the city of St. Petersburg, and by extension the nation which it represents, implying that these people wouldn't have done a damn to help Jesus himself, anymore than they did to stop these Nazis. The story of Christ and of the Christian God rings hollow. So too can the beauty of the titular city itself no longer be anything but intolerable to look at. (The Romani text literally says she cannot look upon beauty, without specifying whose beauty or of what sort, or whether it's beauty in general. Yanysheva's Russian translation of this poem, however, makes the thrust of the final line more clear-cut.) All St. Petersburg's beauty, and all the wonderful memories it has given her, are now belied by the seediness, callousness and inhumanity it harbors. Like the Christian God, if He even exists, St. Petersburg itself is cruelly unfeeling. In the final direct second person apostrophe in the penultimate stanza, when the speaker says palso že mánca 'djáke tu kerdjan? "Why did you do something like this to me?" it is not entirely clear whom, or what, she addresses. This place, this city, was her home in every sense of the word. It, too, has forsaken her.

Many of Yanysheva's poems, like this one, have iambic lines varying in length, generally between pentameters, hexameters and heptameters (though this is a rule of thumb — this poem, for example, has no pentameters, and there is one line of octameter.) It is the rhyme-scheme and iambic pulse which maintain regularity. It has the effect, to my admittedly unqualified ear, of making the lines seem more speech-like, contracting and expanding to accommodate the flow of speech. Though it can fragment speech-flow as well by running purposefully out of joint with it, as in the second stanza here where this is given visual, typographic manifestation.  

The Original:
Петербурго
Лера Янышева

Гэём дромэ́са мэ, одо́й псирдя́н мро чяворо́. 
Дыкхав пэ ба́нза мэ, кари́к заджя́лас ка́жно дэс. 
О Дэ́влалэ… Ило́ миро́ дукха́л. Палсо́? 
Палсо́ ж на ачядя́н ту ма́нгэ чяворэ́с? 
              О Дэ́влалэ!

Сарэ́ амэ́ джидя́м патывалэ́с. 
            Ведь ту дыкхья́н!
И никонэ́скэ налачё ёв на кэрдя́. 
              Джинэ́н сарэ́!
А дэшуду́й дывэ́с ёв сыс дрэ ко́ма… 
               Хасия́м!
Биш бэршорэ́ чявэ́скэ сыс… 
           скины́ лэс замардэ́!

Пир кхангирья́ сарэ́ мэ пэ чянгэ́ндэ прогэём, 
Коли́ миро́ чяво́ дрэ да больни́ца пасия́. 
Сарэ́ ратя́ палэ чявэ́стэ думиндём. 
Палсо́ ту ман — нэ, пхэн — палсо́ на ушундя́? 
              О Дэ́влалэ!

Сыр мэ камьём о бьяв чявэ́скэ тэ кэра́в! 
А вме́сто адава́ дужакирдя́ лэс мэрибэ́н. 
Пхэн, Ма́схари — вашсо́ про свэ́то тэ джива́в? 
Ведь ту джинэ́с, сыр нашавэ́на чяворэ́н, 
              О Дэ́влалэ!

Мэ по банза́кри фэ́нчтра о васта́ тходём 
И думина́в — палсо́ жэ ма́нца ’дя́кэ ту кэрдя́н? 
И по вуда́р метро́стыр мэ дыкха́в и замэём… 
Сыр насвалы́ — на чяворо́-ль миро́ выджя́л?.. 

              
Ада́й выбариём тай палоро́м мэ выгэём 
Гадже́нгэ багандём. Мэ со́мас бахталы́… 
Сыр я́да фо́ро, Дэ́вла, атася́ камьём. 
Ададывэ́с пэ гожипэ́н мэ тэ дыкха́в нашты́, 
              О Дэ́влалэ! 

Peterbúrgo
Lera Janîševa

Gejom dromésa me, odoj psirdjan mro čavoro. 
Dîkháv pe bánza me, karik zadžálas kážno des. 
O Dévlale...Ilo miro dukhal. Palso? 
Palso ž na ačadjan tu mánge čavores? 
               O Dévlale!

Sare ame džidjam patîvalés. 
           Vjedj tu dîkhján!
I nikonéske nalačo jov na kerdja. 
              Džinen sare!
A dešuduj dîvés jov sîs dre kóma... 
               Xasijam!
Biš beršore čavéske sîs.... 
          skinî les zamarde!

Pir khangirja sare me pe čangénde progejom, 
Koli miro čavo dre da boljníca pasija. 
Sare ratja pale čavéste dumindjom. 
Palso tu man — ne, phen — palso na ušundja? 
              O Dévlale!

Sîr me kamjom o bjav čavéske te kerav! 
A vmjésto adava dužakirdja-les meriben. 
Phen, Másxari — vašso pro svéto te dživav? 
Vjedj tu džines, sîr našavéna čavoren, 
              O Dévlale!

Me po banzákri fénčtra o vasta thodjom 
I duminav — palso že mánca 'djáke tu kerdjan? 
I po vudar metróstîr me dîkháv i zamejom... 
Sîr nasvalî — na čavoro-lj miro vîdžál?.. 

 
Adaj vîbarijóm taj palorom me vîgejóm 
Gadžénge bagandjom. Me sómas baxtalî... 
Sîr jáda fóro, Dévla, atasja kamjom. 
Adadîvés pe gožîpén me te dîkháv naštî, 
              O Dévlale! 


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