The Giraffe – N. Gumilev

Russian Silver Age Poetry translations, 2/?

Nikolai Gumilev (or Gumilyov) (1886-1921) is nowadays better known as the repressed and eventually murdered husband of Anna Akhmatova, but he was a competent poet in his own right, and co-founded the Acmeist movement in poetry. He was fascinated by Africa and visited it four times, but this poem, the first I had encountered of his work, is not about Africa, not really.

The Giraffe

Today I can tell that your gaze is especially sad
And your arms are especially thin as they clasp round your knee.
Listen, I’ll tell you how far, far away, on the shores of Lake Chad,
An exquisite giraffe wanders free.

He has been created so languid and graceful and slim
With dapples in magical patterns adorning his hide,
So only the moon in her beauty compares with him
As she shimmers and breaks on the crystal lake’s rippling tide.

He looks like the many-hued sails of a ship from afar.
He floats in his gallop as birds do in joy of their flight.
I know that the earth sees much wonder when at the first star
He hides in a cavern of marble to wait out the night.

I can tell of mysterious lands and of laughter and bliss,
Of the maid black but comely, the passionate young chief on the plain…
But you, for too long you’ve inhaled the weight of the mist.
You do not believe there is anything other than rain.

And how can I tell you of the scent of the grasses that play
Beneath slender palms, and how tropical gardens there lie…
You’re crying? Just listen… on the shores of Lake Chad, far away,
An exquisite giraffe wanders by.

Nikolai Gumilev, 1908; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, February 2012.

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