Poetry from Masha Udensiva-Brenner
Eins, zwei, drei
My great grandmother taught me
how to count in German.
She survived World War I;
World War II;
evacuation; bombs exploding
over yellow fields
as she ran for water;
marriage to an alcoholic.
She had fine gray hair, thick legs
in thick tights, a striped house dress,
and gold and silver teeth.
She walked with a cane
her moods soured faster than milk
and we watched crime shows,
grainy images flickering
on a small TV in the corner.
Sometimes we slept head to toe
on her bed, a dusty red rug hanging
above our heads
me drifting into nightmares
about criminals breaking in and killing us
her perpetuating them.
Guessing at a Future in a Moscow Kitchen, 1980s
We told our fortunes
by dripping wax into water
I don’t remember mine
but I remember what I felt
gazing at the glorious,
unpredictable beast of the future
crawling through a maze
of outstretched legs
my knees collecting
And my parents, merely children,
waiting for the world to unfold,
to move faster.
my little orange coat
the collar taut against
white stripes of snow
spring meant glasnost
a word I didn’t know
my Lenin pin
under the bed
my hair awry
with her fist raised
and it was never mine, that place
somehow, I knew it,
we would never stay
would watch that world unravel
somewhere far away.
Into the void
When I was eight, and maybe even nine and ten,
I had recurring dreams that we were trapped
again, inside the gray and hopeless country we had left
waiting in never-ending lines of muted furs and soiled shoes
of sullen faces staring shamelessly
and balking at the way we look,
our dress, our gait,
but I am just a child, I’d think
when narrowed and condemning eyes bore into mine…
A glint of silver teeth, crossed arms, and withered, calloused feet
stuck in the never-drying sleet, the graying snow, the clouds of haze
that decorate the cracked and worn pastel facades in soot.
My lungs were never good,
Kept me in bed for days and sometimes even months
With grandma on her knees
dusting our floors with wet and tattered rags
Attacking corners with a tisk
forcing concoctions through my lips
the bitter, pungent herbs that brewed and steeped
for hours on the countertop.
I’d dream we landed in the fog
And walked the narrow, quiet streets we’d once called home
hailed unmarked taxis in the hail
that drove us through the city’s rings
into the homes of relatives
and friends we’d known before
but now seemed strange, grotesque,
and served potatoes, borscht, and vinegret
then suddenly the sky would turn to black
something behind the clouds would bend and crack
a wrinkled face would bare its crooked, yellow teeth
to yell into the void—
“your form is incomplete!”
and plant a stamp
red, boxy letters
on my face.
From there it was a maze of offices
and bureaucrats. Thoughts of New York would flood
my head—subway performers, lights,
the Barbie dolls I kept next to the bed—
and I would run in circles
haunting place to place
my mom behind me wincing in the snow
and cold, gray barricades
forbidding our way home.
Masha Udensiva-Brenner is a Brooklyn-based writer. Her poetry has appeared in Anderbo.com, Underground Voices, Alba, and Promethean. Her writing has appeared in the Awl, Guernica, New Republic, and Tablet, among others. She hosts the Expert Opinions podcast on Eurasianet.org.