Two Poems

Ilya Bernstein


Let us live, Lesbia, and let us laugh.
Let us crack up at countless jokes,
Asking "How many Neapolitans does it take to screw in a lightbulb?"
And "Knock knock, who's there?"
Slapping our knees with our hands and shaking
Under the pressure of laughter.

I have heard even you snort when you were laughing
If the joke was really funny.
Why should it surprise us, then, that people's faces turn red
And they are unable to speak but can only wheeze
And tears jump out of their eyes when they are laughing?
Little kids sometimes almost pee in their pants:
What greater compliment could there be to something really hilarious?
As if any more proof was needed, Lesbia.

Tell me a joke, tell me another.
Tell me another hundred and I'll tell you a hundred.
Let's tell each other thousands and thousands.
And when we grow old, if you should die first,
Then I will look back and remember all the jokes you told me,
And if I should die first,
Then you will look back and remember all the ones I told you,
And you will laugh,
Because they will still be funny.

Reprinted with permission from Attention and Man (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2003).


Like a fishnet, in bondage to the tides—
I saw my life.
I saw it moving left and right with its miraculous draft,
And there was not a soul in sight that could pull it up.

O polyphony!
How many lines and functions have fallen into me!
My contracts are all buried in the earth,
But how manly is the handshake of hope and fear in my flesh!

I, too, have stood on a bridge over some brook
And heard it babbling in half-a-dozen places.
And I saw this life of mine
Stretched out like a sheet let down from heaven by four corners.

Ilya Bernstein

Ilya Bernstein's collection of poetry is called Attention and Man, (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2003). His poetry, prose, and translations have appeared in Ars Interpres, The Best American Poetry 2006, Circumference, Fulcrum, 6x6, Persephone, Res, and Zoland Poetry (forthcoming). He is the editor of Osip Mandelstam: New Translations (UDP, 2006). He was born in the Soviet Union, grew up in the United States, translates for a living, and lives in New York City.