In 2002 I met a girl from Belarus and was talking to her about poetry and how it would be interesting to have a go at translating poets from other languages. Out of this casual conversation I somehow came across Erman Yanzcyjz, a Belarusian peasant poet. The girl from Belarus kindly gave me literal translations which I was then able to write these English language versions of his poems from. I had hoped to translate some more, but we lost touch, and the political situation being what it is in Belarus (she was the daughter of a member of the government, I seem to recall), it wasn’t possible to continue the experiment. Anyhow, I was reminded of these poems this weekend as Robert Sheppard and Zoe Skoulding are also translating a number of previously unknown European poets and Zoe pointed me in the direction of EUOIA where many of these are published. Though Belarus is unlikely to join the European Union any time soon, I thought it was about time I made these poems more widely available.
The Big Man of the Town
I am a small man, yes! But I have big ideas -
Like the fisherman, who asked to explain his catch -
Goes “THIS BIG”
Arms as wide as his wife’s hips. Yes!
My friend Yannick has a friend who has a sister
Who is married to the Minister of Finance
And that is good. Yes! Everything is family in this land,
And if I am an orphan – I am beginning to learn!
I have to work on this factory line
Checking the metal parts for errors
For, as my line manager always says,
“In this country we have a reputation for fairness!”
Every day at six o’clock we listen to the radio drama unfolding.
Whether the Younger Daughter of the Mayor
Will marry her penniless tinker of a lover
Or be bundled into a frigid wedding with the wrinkled old merchant.
It is fantasy they say! Well, I think not!
A man who has little else will have to dream, I think.
Even a small man like I am now
May become the big man of the town.
I live in Chicago
I live in Chicago -
It is not really called that
But it is best to be circumspect
For you never know who is reading!
So I call it Chicago
After the big American city
Where Al Capone was a number one gangster.
Not that I mean much by that!
When I leave Chicago
Part of me will alway stay -
So when in years to come my children ask me where I was born
I will always say I am a Chicago man!
The Girls Of Belarus Want to Meet English Men
I was dancing at the illegal club with a woman called Katya.
Katya liked me, for she said it was good to know poets!
But I could not afford a girl like Katya, and she did not offer pity!
You see, the girls of Belarus want to meet English men -
Or Americans or Canadians or Swiss or Germans
And there’s nothing much I can offer them in terms of my passport.
Katya is a good-sized woman and she has an education,
Which means she hopes to sign up to be an Internet bride.
Only -: She is a Hostess at present to enable her to afford the fee.
She tells me it is worth it with her tales of Western men
And how that if even they are fat and old and have no hair
Then it will not be much difficult for her to please them.
The rest of her time, Katya says, she will live in a Mansion
And have beautiful cats, and perhaps an affair of the heart
With the Gamekeeper – she has read too much, I fear, has Katya!
I do not spend my spare time looking for an English wife,
Instead I see that perhaps the foreign men are not so rich as they say they are,
And only here when beetroot red with the Vodka and dancing close to Katya -
Can they get away with saying such outrageous things!
My First Sweet Heart
Have you perhaps forgotten your first sweet heart?
I think not! She will not let go that easily!
My first love was a six year old girl.
When I was a little ahead of my year – I was five -
She took my heart and still has it I think!
We were not neighbours or I would have known her longer.
I met her at the elementary school -
In those days we had to travel some miles on the school bus
And every one of us had to greet the driver in Russian.
But love has always spoken many tongues!
I was what the other kids called a “swotty gob” -
But if I was so clever, I did not hear that!
I got put up a class as punishment for my mouth
And sat at the front of the room not moving a centimetre,
Until the Mistress asked what she had said.
My sweet heart it was who piped up first
“He wasn’t even listening, so how can he know,
He is drawing pictures of rabbits in his book!”
They were Helicopters actually but I was never a draughtsman -
The teacher came over and rapped my knuckles with her rule.
You can perhaps imagine how crimson I went -
I did not know a person there and now they all knew me!
But I must have glanced sideways and seen who had betrayed me
And that was when she became my sweet heart.
How had I not noticed her before? She would be there ever after.
My sweet heart was there at my school for only two months.
The Soviet army had new instructions
And her father was connected to them in some way -
Though I like to think he was a Propagandist not a soldier -
And when he got moved, his family went with him.
But she had accomplished what she had set out to do
Which was to make some friends in the quickest time!
We must have spent that two months in each others pockets.
I still have her fluff there I’m sure!
And when she left – that was when I became a poet!
The reindeer approaching the house was most unusual -
Although we were on the edge of the town,
They usually stayed hidden from us covered by the thick woods all around.
And this one was a baby with its antlers like felt.
The reindeer made a braying noise like a sore child might.
I watched from the window and mentioned it to my wife.
She has never been a woman with a love of superstition -
After all I am a poet! – I needed to marry a practical woman!
But I saw the vein in her neck swell just like when her grandmother had died.
The reindeer was not taking any notice of the conversation between us
And seemed more interested in searching our outhouse for food.
My wife however was behaving most unlike her!
I asked her what was wrong – and she told me the old story.
How, when a reindeer at the house comes calling it is to take someone away.
It was only then that she told me that she was heavy with my child.
The Good Soil
The good soil! I can feel it between my fingers.
From this fertile ground come all the food I can eat.
When times are good it is enough to praise this soil!
There is plenty for me and my family all year.
The woman I love is from a poor family,
But I have a hope that we will be all right!
For she has a sexy waist – and is very wide!
Which makes me think that neither of us will go hungry.
If only I had a good job, like my cousins, who are mechanics.
Whilst I work long hours on the factory line.
It gives me ample time to dream
But it does not pay me enough to support a wife!
She is not an intellectual woman,
But that is because she has been stuck to the farm
As the only child what choice had she?
And her parents look at me with suspicion!
I tell them that one day I will be a man of substance
But it is not money that worries them but fat!
I am a skinny milksop breed of man -
If I was a Bull, they would not put in a bid!
I killed a wild pig to prove my worth too them.
But her father was not at all convinced.
It almost cost me a leg full of shot -
But I got their agreement by making her pregnant!