Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 6/?
Sergei Esenin: “Dog Song”
Warning: I have never managed to read this poem out loud without crying. This partly drove my choice to do it for my first Esenin: as a way to try, through close reading, to regain control over it. (It didn’t work; now I may just cry in two languages.)
Sergei Esenin or Yesenin (1895-1925) was raised in a rural peasant family, and even when he joined Alexander Blok and Andrei Bely in Petrograd, he didn’t quite fit into the Symbolists, Acmeists or Futurists and ended up co-founding another poetic movement, the Imaginists. He had multiple lovers and marriages, including a short-lived marriage to modern dance pioneer Isadora Duncan (she was eighteen years older than him, knew barely any Russian, and he knew no other languages). He struggled with depression and was found hanged in Leningrad’s Hotel Angleterre at the age of 30. To this day, debates rage as to whether it was truly a suicide, or a set up assassination by the NKVD.
This poem was written when he was only twenty, and shows how familiar he was with the harsh reality of rural life.
As dawn gilded the burlap row
Of bags in the old grain shed,
A bitch there birthed a litter in snow:
Seven pups with fur all red.
Till night she caressed them round
With her tongue combing them neat,
And meltwater trickled down
Under her belly’s heat.
At dusk, when in the henhouse dimly
Hens roost on their perching rack,
The master came out grimly
And laid all seven in a sack.
She bounded across drifts to the river,
Hurrying after his step…
And long, long the smoothness quivered
Of the unfrozen water’s ebb.
When back she came, barely trudging,
Licking sweat off her fur,
The moon rising over the thatching
Seemed one of her pups to her.
Up she stared, softly whining
At the sky dark-blue and still.
The moon slid by, slim and shining,
And vanished behind the hill.
And like when they mock her, throwing
Not meat but pebbles cold,
Dully, dog eyes went flowing
Down in snow like stars of gold.
Sergei Esenin, 1915; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, July 2016.
I’d like to thank the analysis by Grigori Gendelev that really helped my understanding of this poem.