- The Lady at the Kiev Racecourse
A new century not long begun:
a young man, unhappily married
and between trains, is at a loose end
on a sultry Kiev afternoon.
He goes to the races: sees a lady
in the crowd, the most beautiful lady
imaginable. Her black eyes, her hair,
the darkest night flowing like water.
He thinks she might be Spanish; he pictures her
on a warm shore he has only seen
from the deck of his ship. She is swept away
on the tide of racegoers; he never meets her,
never hears her voice. This does not displease him:
he is a man who lives in fancy
and will simply love her for ever.
That night, he takes the train to Sevastopol.
- The Lady on the Night Train to Sevastopol
Now you must know, the train was lit by candles
held in lanterns, as the manner was,
and they swayed so with the wheels’ rocking,
the carriage was all fitful, shifting shadows.
But a woman stepped in, and he glimpsed
by the guttering light the face from the racetrack;
he was sure of it. He told her his love:
she was married, of course; she would be,
but then so was he, and virtuous.
They talked in the dark, exchanged names and addresses,
then she got off half an hour down the line
at Darnitsa. Back on his ship, he writes her
letters like love poems, tells her his dreams
of freedom, revolution, a new country.
Hers to him are in prose, everyday gossip
on commonplace matters: this he never notices.
- The Lady Who Came to Ochakov
Waiting for the firing squad, the Lieutenant
begs his sister (who would rather spend
what time she can with him than go
on a fool’s errand) to fetch The Lady.
So she is found, and even her husband
urges her to the journey, so loved
is the Lieutenant. And she comes to him,
and when she enters his cell, he pales,
because the woman on the night train
is not, after all, the racecourse lady,
the one and only. He sees a housewife,
no great wit or beauty, a good heart
who has come a long way in winter to comfort
a man’s last hours. He steps forward
and holds the realness of her, the human warmth
that does what it can against the dark.
Note: The facts behind this poem are related in ‘Southern Adventure’, vol. 5 of Konstantin Paustovsky’s autobiography Story of a Life, Harvill Press 1969, tr. Kyril FitzLyon.
Sheenagh Pugh is Welsh but lives in Shetland. Her last collection was Short Days, Long Shadows from Seren.