"A Letter to Mother" by Sergei Yesenin

Sergei Yesenin, 1922

Are you still alive, my starushka?
I am too, and I wanted to write.
I hope evening still bathes the cottage
in the same indescribable light.

They tell me that you try to hide it,
but I'm causing you pain and distress.
You walk out on the road after dinner
in your tattered and old-fashioned dress.

And, as you go walking through twilight,
what you brood on is always the same:
there’s a barroom fight, and there, at my
heart, someone plunges a Finnish blade.

It’s nothing, my dear! So calm yourself.
It's only a dream born of dread.
I may drink, but I’ll see you again
before anyone lays me down dead.

I’m as loving as ever I was,
and the one thing that I’m yearning for
is to leave behind my aimlessness
and return to our own front door.

I’ll come back when our garden is white
with the blossoms that I used to know;
but don’t wake me again at daybreak,
as you did once, eight years ago.

Don’t awaken the dreams that are gone;
don’t rehearse what can never come true.
The weary grief that living can bring
fell to my lot when life was still new.

And don’t ask me to pray. Don’t do it!
What is long past cannot be made right.
You alone are my comfort and help;
You are my indescribable light.

So please don't worry and pine for me;
don't let me cause you so much distress.
Don’t go out on the road so often
in your tattered and old-fashioned dress.

ПИСЬМО МАТЕРИ (Letter to Mother)
Sergei Yesenin (1895-1925)
Translation by Frank Beck

Sergie Yesenin's rapid fame--so disastrous for himself--came just as millions of Russians were moving from the countryside to the cities in the aftermath of the 1917 revolution. His poems of longing for the land and for the families left behind spoke for many.

But there was something else: Yesenin had an uncanny ear. His poems can charm you even if you can't understand a word. (Don't miss the performance by Natalya Savchenko that I've linked to below.) They have been irresistible for the generations of Russian songwriters who set them to music.

That combination of a theme with broad appeal and extraordinary poetic skills have won Yesenin a popularity in his native country second only to Pushkin's. Every day his readers--Russians from every part of society, including retirees who recall when his poems were banned, in Soviet days--bring flowers to his grave in Moscow.

The Yesenin family home in Konstantinovo, Ryazan

Yet Yesenin was one of the people in Russia least suited for the high-profile celebrity thrust on him. Emotionally unbalanced, he suffered from depression and hallucinations, and his main coping mechanism was alcohol. His reputation as a carouser eventually overshadowed his fame as a writer. Increasingly dissolute, he died a few months after this 30th birthday, under circumstances that are still unclear.

His chaotic life made headlines at the time, but Yesenin's lyric gift is what makes him beloved today. "The most precious thing he conveys," wrote Boris Pasternak, "is an image of nature, of his own Ryazan countryside in the depths of wooded Russia. He was able to describe it, as he saw it in childhood, with an overwhelming freshness."

Perhaps the best epitaph for Yesenin the man came from Nadezhda Volpin, a lover of his who was interviewed in the 1990s. "[He] was a true Russian," she said. "And not a 19th- or 20th-century Russian, but an eighth-century Russian, a primordial Russian." For those who read Cyrillic, here is Yesenin's poem in Russian:

Ты жива еще, моя старушка?
Жив и я. Привет тебе, привет!
Пусть струится над твоей избушкой
Тот вечерний несказанный свет.

Пишут мне, что ты, тая тревогу,
Загрустила шибко обо мне,
Что ты часто ходишь на дорогу
В старомодном ветхом шушуне.

И тебе в вечернем синем мраке
Часто видится одно и то ж:
Будто кто-то мне в кабацкой драке
Саданул под сердце финский нож.

Ничего, родная! Успокойся.
Это только тягостная бредь.
Не такой уж горький я пропойца,
Чтоб, тебя не видя, умереть.

Я по-прежнему такой же нежный
И мечтаю только лишь о том,
Чтоб скорее от тоски мятежной
Воротиться в низенький наш дом.

Я вернусь, когда раскинет ветви
По-весеннему наш белый сад.
Только ты меня уж на рассвете
Не буди, как восемь лет назад.

Не буди того, что отмечталось,
Не волнуй того, что не сбылось,—
Слишком раннюю утрату и усталость
Испытать мне в жизни привелось.

И молиться не учи меня. Не надо!
К старому возврата больше нет.
Ты одна мне помощь и отрада,
Ты одна мне несказанный свет.

Так забудь же про свою тревогу,
Не грусти так шибко обо мне.
Не ходи так часто на дорогу
В старомодном ветхом шушуне.

Yesenin's grave in Moscow