“I looked eye to another eye” – M. Voloshin

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 29/?

We return to Maximilian (or Max) Voloshin, the Symbolist, and I have the excuse to tell the story of how he and Nikolai Gumilev fought a duel.

So in 1909, Gumilev was getting interested in the poet Elizaveta Dmitrieva (1887-1928), and they had an affair, but she preferred Max Voloshin. (Wikipedia is not clear as to whether they were having an affair or were just close friends.) So Voloshin and Dmitrieva hatched a plot to essentially do what we now call trolling using what we’d now call a sockpuppet: they started submitting poetry to the magazine “Apollon” under the pseudonym Cherubina de Gabriac. The poetry of the mysterious European Catholic lady caused a sensation, but in the autumn of 1909, the editor finally revealed that that “de Gabriac’s” phone number was that of Dmitrieva and that she was a fake all along.

Gumilev was most chagrined and “allowed himself to speak unflatteringly of the poetess” (meaning Dmitrieva). Voloshin was offended and insulted him in return, at which point Gumilev challenged him to a duel. This happened on November 22, 1909 on the shore of the Chernaya River on the outskirts of St. Petersburg. Gumilev’s second was the editor Eugene Znosko-Borovsky, also noted as a prominent chess master and chess theorist, among the few to defeat Jose Raul Capablanca. Voloshin’s second was the Count Alexey Tolstoy, also notable playwright, science fiction writer, fantasist, and later war crimes investigator (distant cousin of Leo).

Neither poet was hurt; Voloshin’s gun jammed twice and Gumilev shot into the air. But the newspapers had a field day, and Dmitrieva was shocked and embarrassed and didn’t compose poetry for a long time (she remained friends with Voloshin until her death, although she married someone else).

To turn back to this poem by Voloshin: a collection of Symbolist images as it is, it touched two of my life’s perennial fascinations, memory and the minds of others. Although I can’t really articulate why at the moment, I knew when I learned of it that I had to translate it.


I looked eye to another eye,
But met not others’ looks and smiles
But just echoing double files
Of repeated mirrors going by.

I essayed with word, line and hue
To secure a quick moment’s trace.
But in an instant a captured face
Vanished, to be defined anew.

Recognizing, I feared to forget…
But there is no nepenthe in striving.
So to ever be burning and thriving
One must break links without regret.

I am captured in dreams of pearl,
In the curling spin of projections,
Shattered in many-hued reflections.
Lost in a looking-glass lacework whirl.

Maximilian Voloshin, February 7, 1915; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, August 2016.

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