translated by Philip Nikolayev
Procul este, profani.
The poet's absent-minded hand
Strummed the inspired lyre. He sang on
While unenlightened folk around,
Expressions proud and coldly frowned,
Listened with meaningless attention.
And the crass rabble questioned thus:
"To what end is his tuneful singing?
With earfuls of this soulful ringing,
To what goal is he leading us?
Where is the lesson in his chanting?
Our hearts both breaking and enchanting,
Oh waywardmost of sorcerers,
Your song is freer than the breeze,
But just as fruitless. Tell us please,
Where's the utility to us?"
Be silent, senseless mob, grunt not,
Wage worker, slave to care and want,
I cannot stand your cheeky rant!
Worm of the earth, not son of heaven,
Utility's what you believe in,
Your judgment is inane and hollow:
You weigh the torso of Apollo,
Yet in his form you see no good.
That marble is a god! So what?
You much prefer your cooking pot,
Because therein you cook your food!
No, Sir! If you are heaven's chosen,
Not someone who's a dime a dozen,
Use divine gifts as it befits:
Conduits for useful benefits!
Correct with verse your brethren's hearts,
For we are cowardly, ungrateful,
Sly, foolish, wicked, shameless, hateful,
Slaves, liars, targets for your dart.
We are cold castrates of the heart!
Berate us then, our vice to lessen,
Loving thy neighbor. We too may love you
If you instill in us your lesson
The while we have a listen of you.
Away with you! The peaceful poet
Cares not for your stupidity!
The lyre cannot revive your lot:
Persist in your depravity.
Each of you frightens like a coffin.
Think of the plethora of fine things
You've used to exercise your vileness:
Whips, prisons, axes; – enough, madmen!
Since on your sidewalk townfolk walk,
Sweeping it clean is useful work,
Yet do you ask the altar priests
To ply the broom and sweep the streets?
No, not for mundane trepidation,
Nor mortal gain, nor battleground,
But we were born for inspiration,
For prayerful and wondrous sound.
When, pained with spiritual thirst,
I trudged across a gloomy desert,
I came upon a six-winged seraph
Who stood before me on my path.
With digits light as sleep he touched
My eye pupils, and those enlarged,
Like a she-eagle's in a fright,
Filling up with prophetic sight.
He touched my ears: a din rushed in
Mixed with a ringing, a chiming din.
I heard a heavenly vibration,
And angels' gentle flights above us,
And sea fish gliding in the gulfs,
And yon far grapevine's hibernation.
And from my mouth he tore and flung
My sinful, idle, crafty tongue,
Useless verbose appendage, and
Inserting with a bloodstained hand
Implanted there a wise snake's kiss –
A venom sting – behind numb lips.
His sword opened my chest, from whence
My tremulous heart he plucked out,
placing a slab of coal in flames
within its hollow past all doubt.
And when like carrion silently
I lay, God's voice called out to me:
"Prophet, arise! Behold and hear,
And roam – for no mundane rewards –
By land and sea, but everywhere
Sting people in their hearts with words.
The monument I've built is not in chiseled stone,
The people's path to it will ne'er be overgrown,
Its disobedient head in bold defiance has risen
Above the Alexandrian column.
No, I will not all die: my soul in the secret lyre
Will well escape decay, outliving my remains,
My fame will last while in the sublunary sphere
At least one poet remains.
Word of me will traverse the holy land of Rus,
And every living tongue in it will sing my praise:
The Slavs' proud heir, the Finn, the still savage Tungus,
The Kalmyk, friend of prairies…
I daresay that a fact that folk will cherish long
Is that bright liberty served as my lyre's true calling,
That I, in my cruel age, evoked kindness with song
And mercy for the fallen.
Remain obedient to God's injunction, Muse,
Fear no hurt, crave no crown, retain your calm and cool,
Treat flattery and slander with indifference,
Argue not with the fool.
When, for the mortal son, the noisy day expires
And night's translucent shade
With sleep, the day's labor's reward,
Enwraps the city squares –
At such a time the wakeful hours drag on
For me in one long silence,
In night's passivity I feel the snakebites burn
Keener of conscience;
Dreams come aboil; a surfeit of black gall
Crowds my depression
As recollection unrolls its endless scroll
And, reading my own life in sheer disgust,
I shudder, curse,
And bitterly lament; and yet I don't delete
Those lines, those words.
Poet! Set not too much store by the people's love.
The noise of accolades will not for long be heard,
You'll face the idiot's court, you'll hear the cold crowd laugh,
Yet you must remain firm, sullen, and unperturbed.
You're a king: live alone. Follow freely the roads
Along which your free mind impels your seeking feet,
Perfect the precious fruits of your beloved thoughts,
Demanding no rewards for that most noble feat.
They lie within you. You are your own supreme court,
The sternest judge of all of the worth of your work.
Exacting artist, satisfied with your output?
You are? Then scorn the crowd that sullies your good name,
And spits upon the alter wherein burns your flame,
And shakes in childish impishness your tripod.
While unengaged by holy summons
Of Apollonian sacrifice
The poet's timidly immersed
In vain society's concerns;
His soul's lethargic sleep is cold,
His sacred lyre too lies dormant;
Of all the nobodies of the world
He is perhaps the least important.
The instant God's celestial word
Touches the poet's high-strung ear,
His soul, like an awakened eagle,
Shudders to life with wings unfurled.
Bored with conventional amusements,
Shunning societal opinion,
His head unbowed down to the feet
Of the whole nation's sovereign minion,
He flees, both savage and severe,
Filled with a din that stuns the ear,
Unto the banks of desolate waves
In oak groves' broadly rustling shades.
* * *
It's winter. What to do in the countryside? Greeting
The valet bringing me my morning tea, I meet him
With questions, such as: has the weather grown warmer?
Has the sky cleared a bit, has the snowstorm blown over?
Desirous of a ride, should I dare leave my bed
Before lunch, or peruse antique journals instead?
It's sprinkling still with snow, and instantly we rise
And mount. Across the field in the first light, we ride,
Quirts in hand, the hounds follow without surprise.
We study the virgin snow with our diligent eyes,
Circle around and prowl, and it is getting late
When, having killed two hares, we are back at our gate.
What merriment! Night falls, a storm about to start;
The candle gutters dimly; with a smarting heart,
I imbibe boredom's poison drop by slower drop;
Trying to read, the eye skips and glides to a stop,
My thoughts too far away… At last I shut the book,
Pick up a quill, and sit; I manage to extract
From the somnolent Muse a few discordant lines;
But, sound grating on sound, I forfeit all my rights
To rhyme, my estranged helpmate, while my dubious verse
Drags on a while, cold, misty and mysterious.
Next, tired, I drop the dispute with my lyre, and walk
Into the living room, where I encounter talk
Of the sugar factory and the forthcoming election;
The matron frowns, to mimic the weather's action,
And plies her knitting needles fast, or reads the cards,
Predicting what kismet awaits the king of hearts.
Good grief! Each blessed day passes in drab seclusion!
Yet should my evening luck bring a welcome intrusion
To our sad settlement by carriage or by cart
As I were sitting at a lonesome game of draughts –
A sudden family, a lady with two young maids
(Two slender sisters, both graced with fine straw-blond braids) –
What a change overcomes this scene of desolation!
How life itself, dear Lord, is filled with excitation!
First, indirect attention's noncommittal glances,
Then from a couple of words to more sustained exchanges,
Then friendly laughter with several cheerful songs,
Soft whispers at table, languor in a long gaze,
Breathlessly giddy speeches, dapper waltzing in pairs,
Protracted rendezvous upon the narrow stairs…
Onto the twilit porch emerging now apace,
Her graceful neck exposed, a blizzard in her face,
Unscathed by northern gales blooms forth the Russian rose!
A kiss will melt away the beastly frosts and snows.
How fresh among their dust a Russian beauty glows!
The bird of God
Knows no care, toils not,
Is on no quest
To erect a nest;
Sleeps on a branch the long night long,
At sunup stirs
To God's own words
And turns to song.
After springtime sweet
Comes summer's heat,
Fog and rainfall fall
On the later fall:
While folk go mad at such a time,
He flies to flee
To a hot clime
Past the blue sea.
* * *
The tentative and muffled sound
Of a fruit fallen from a tree
Amid the ceaseless melody
Of the deep silence of the woods.
* * *
The Christmas trees stand all ablaze
With gold braid in the winter woods;
Within their thickets, toy gray wolves
Glare at the world with horrid eyes.
Hello, my sorrow the clairvoyant,
Hello, my meek and quiet freedom
And ever-laughing crystal dome
Of that there lifeless firmament!
* * *
Grief inexpressible at last
Opened its two enormous eyes,
Awakening the flower vase
To splash the world with its cut glass.
Now the whole room stands deeply steeped
In languor's heady medicines.
How could the tiniest of kingdoms
Swallow such quantities of sleep!
A splash of crimson Beaujolais,
A healthy spell of sunny May,
And superfine white digits
Breaking the thinnest biscuit.
* * *
Upon that gently blue enamel,
Only conceivable in April,
Birch trees raised their filigree
Branches, twilit progressively.
A well refined and minute pattern
Wherein the finest net was caught
Of a design so aptly wrought
As if upon a china platter
Before our eyes by the dear artist
Upon a glassy firmament,
Aware of momentary strength,
Oblivious of mournful death.
* * *
How I detest the tedium
Of monotonous stars.
Welcome, my old delirium,
Rise of the pointy towers!
Stone, you in fineness best
both gossamer and lace;
wound the sky's void chest
with needles thrust through space.
My turn will come: I wait.
The wings anticipate.
It's so, but where'll the arrow
Of a living thought go?
Perhaps, one day being done
With path and time, I'll return:
There, I was unable, loath –
But here, I'm afraid – to love.
* * *
No, not the moon, but a clock's dial lit brightly
Shines upon me; must the blame be mine to bear
If I detect the weakest stars' lacticity?
Thus, Batyushkov's airs cannot fail to rile me:
"What is the time, please, Sir?" they asked him here,
And he replied to the curious: Eternity!
Parishioners, the spawn of clay,
Face boards, not icons: those display
Mere numbers written in white chalk
Of the psalms of Sebastian Bach.
The differences of your day
Ring at the pub and the cathedral,
While you rejoice here like Isaiah,
Sebastian the rational!
Did you indeed, lofty contrarian,
When playing a choral to grandchildren,
At the same time seek too, in truth,
The spirit's sustenance in proof?
Those semiquavers of the organ,
Those complex multilayered moanings,
Are naught but your compulsive grumblings,
Willful, intractable old man!
The Lutheran parson at his pulpit
Discoursing of the Holy Writ,
Mixes his homilies with yours,
Fiercest of interlocutors.
for Nikolai Gumilev
A murky blizzard billowed endlessly
Over the yellow halls of government,
But now the lawyer again boards a sleigh,
In one broad gesture pulling closed his overcoat.
Steamships are wintering. On the sunny
Side, a cabin's thick glass pane lights up.
Monstrous like a docked battleship,
Russia is resting heavily.
The Neva's embassies from half the planet
And the Admiralty bask in a silent glare.
The state's stiff purple mantle hangs threadbare,
Like a monk's coarse haircloth garment.
Onegin's ancient bundle of regrets
Is still the burden of the northern snob
Where Senate Square is all bulged up in snow,
With bonfire smoke and chill of bayonets.
The skiffs are scooping water and the seagulls
Are visiting the cordage storage warehouse,
Where operatic baritones take strolls
To sell hot spiced honey tea and sweet rolls.
A string of motors flies by to fog obscurity,
While Eugene, an egotistical pedestrian,
Modest droll fellow ashamed of poverty,
Curses his destiny, inhaling gasoline!
January 1913; revised in 1927
* * *
On the dead eyelashes St. Isaac's froze,
The gentry's streets one long blue haze:
The organ grinder's no more, but bear fur is.
Another man's logs land in the fireplace.
Already the whipper-in wildfire unleashes
A pack of winged foldout ruler measures,
While the earth rushes on, a furnished ball,
And the old mirror plays the know-it-all.
Up stairwells, through discord, through fog out of doors,
Through breathing , through singing emotion,
Where in a fur-coat Schubert's talisman froze
In motion, in motion, in motion...
3 June 1935
* * *
Speaking from a damp bed-sheet, due
To newfound sound pastures for fish,
A loudmouth picture in a rush
Advanced upon me, all, and you.
Shrugging off wry-lipped loss, with death's
Cigarette lit between the teeth,
Officers graduate upon
The rolling flatland's gaping groin.
One heard distinctly the low-pitched
Drone of aeroplanes burned to crisps,
An equine English razor scraped
The admiral's well-lathered cheeks.
Measure me, country, alter me –
Oh sweet heat of secured land!
Chapayev's rifle chocking drowned:
Help me, resolve me, share with me!
* * *
Echoes dwell in the damp cloudy air,
Safe and lovely to be in the woods.
In submission, I'll faithfully bear
This endurable cross: lonesome walks.
And again a reproach like a drake
Soars toward the indifferent homeland.
On the sly, I obscurely partake
In a life where all men are made lonely.
Shots are fired. The wings of those drakes
Now beat heavy and droop on the lakes.
Double being's reflexible haze
Has befuddled the trunks of the pines.
Glaucous towering sky, glinting eerie,
Universal compendium of grief,
Oh allow me to be just as cloudy
And permit me to owe you no love.
1911; revised on August 28, 1935
* * *
Armed with the eyesight of those narrow wasps
That buzzing suck the axis of the earth,
I still feel keenly everything I've seen
And recollect it, by heart and in vain.
I do not draw, nor sing, nor do I grasp
The raven-voiced violin bow with bravado:
I avidly drink in life and hence love to
Envy the lot of sly, enduring wasps.
If only the air's sting and summer's heat
Someday, bypassing sleep, against all death,
Could open my ear to hear and let me heed
The old elusive axis of the earth.
February 8, 1937
PHILIP NIKOLAYEV is a poet and literary scholar. He is co-editor-in-chief of Fulcrum: an Annual of Poetry and Aesthetics. His latest poetry collection is Letters from Aldenderry (Salt).