Dog Song – S. Esenin

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.

Dog Song

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. 

In Paradise – M. Tsvetaeva

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 5/?

Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) is still considered one of Russia’s greatest twentieth century poets, although the Soviet Union and Russia heavily downplayed the fact that she had multiple same-sex attachments. She was very erudite; she studied in France, Switzerland and Italy at a time when even the Tsar’s children only dreamed of doing so, and she spent some later years of her life translating poetry including that of Federico Garcia Lorca.

Her life was one full of tragedy: she had to place both of her daughters in an orphanage and one of them starved to death there; she spent a miserable time in emigration in Paris; after her family’s return to Russia both her husband and her remaining daughter were arrested for espionage and her husband was shot while her daughter was imprisoned; and she herself finally committed suicide in 1941.

This poem dates from her first collection of poems, published when she was just eighteen, but it has the passion that sings through all of her work.

In Paradise

Memories weigh too much upon the shoulders.
Even in heaven for earthly things I’ll weep.
At our new meeting, silent words much older
I will not keep.

Where flights of angels in formation soar,
Where a child harp choir mid lilies plays,
Still, restless in the rest forevermore,
I’ll seek your gaze.

Alone among the solemn innocent maidens,
Passing heavenly sights with bitter mirth,
I’ll sing, with earth and alienness laden,
A song of earth.

Memories weigh more than my back can bear.
That hour, I won’t hide my tearing eyes.
Our meetings I don’t need, nor here nor there —
Not for meeting will we wake in Paradise!

Marina Tsvetaeva, 1910; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, July 2016

“Insomnia. Homer…” – O. Mandelstam

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 4/?

Osip Mandelstam or Mandelshtam (1891-1938) is generally considered the greatest of the Acmeists. During the Stalin years, he was arrested and imprisoned twice and finally died in a transit camp. His poetry was banned; his wife, Nadezhda, memorized all of it just in case all copies would have to be destroyed, and worked tirelessly to promote his work after the Stalin era ended. He was also very close to (and frequently rumoured to be having an affair with) Anna Akhmatova.

This is a poem written when he was twenty-four, and I chose it partly for its timelessness — I mean, who hasn’t tried to fall asleep by reading the Iliad’s interminable Catalogue of Ships chapter? The sea being “wine-dark” is not in the original, but I couldn’t resist using it.

“Insomnia. Homer”

Insomnia. Homer. Sails growing tight.
I’ve read half the list of Ships of the Achaeans.
That lengthy flock, that train of silver cranes
That over Greece once long ago took flight.

Like cranes fly in a wedge to alien shores —
Divine foam shimmers on kings’ royal hair —
Where do you sail? If Helen weren’t there,
What’s Troy to you, Achaean men of yore?

Both sea and Homer — love may move them all.
Whom should I hearken? Homer now hushes.
The wine-dark sea in oratory rushes,
Against the headboard of my bed it falls.

Osip Mandelstam, 1915; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, July 2016 (because I felt we need more Mandelstam on this project).

“A girl sang in the cathedral choir” – A. Blok

Russian Silver Age Poetry translations, 3/?

Alexander Blok
“A girl sang in the cathedral choir”

Well, on deciding to do this as a series, I realized that I didn’t have as large a stockpile of Silver Age poetry translations as I thought (with a good distribution of authors and moods, so it’s neither all-Gumilev nor all-depressing all the time) so…gotta make more. This poem by Alexander Blok, the most famous of the Symbolists, I’d first heard a girl recite at a Russian church school graduation when I was about six.

A girl sang in the cathedral choir
Of all the ships that had gone to sea,
Of all the travellers lost and tired,
Of all who’d forgotten what joys may be.

And on her white shoulder a sunbeam glistened,
As up her voice soared to the dome’s far height,
And in the darkness all watched and listened
To the singing white dress in the ray of light.

And it seemed to each watcher that joy was nearing,
That all ships were in harbours calm and secure,
That in faraway lands people lost and weary
Had found new lives shining bright and sure.

Sweet was her voice, the ray slim and fine…
Only up on high, where all Truths are learned
At God’s pearly gates — a child was crying
That no one gone out would ever return.

Alexander Blok, 1913; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, July 2016.

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.

Listen! – V. Mayakovsky

They had an edition of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s “Listen” collection at the University of Chicago Seminary Co-op bookstore, and it reminded me I’d done my own translation of the title poem once upon a time. I will be running this as a series (I’ve finally found a use for my blog).

If they light the stars,
That means someone needs it, right?
That means someone wants them to be?
That means someone calls pearls these spitballs of light?
And, bursting his lungs
in the dust of noon,
Rushes to God,
fearing that he would be late,
kisses His sinewy hand after coming so far,
that there MUST be a star,
That he can no longer bear the torment of this starless fate!
And afterwards walks about,
but calm on the outside,
And says to someone,
“Now you’re okay?
You’re not afraid?
Listen, if they light
the stars,
that means someone must need it?
That it must be vital
that every night
above the rooftops
there glows at least one star?!

– V. Mayakovsky, 1913 (translation Tamara Vardomskaya, December 2005, revised 2012)