“I’ve mixed up the cards in solitaire…” – M. Voloshin

Russian Silver Age poetry translations (occasional), 35/?

In his collection Years of Wandering, Maximilian Voloshin (the Symbolist who had fought a duel with Gumilev, discussed earlier in this series) had an eleven-poem cycle dedicated to the city of Paris — a city which he seemed to have had mixed feelings about. Starting in 1903 he was dividing his time between Russia and Paris, working with both French and Russian artists (among other things, he became initiated as a Freemason there) and sending articles and poetry to the Russian magazine Libra.

This is the last entry in that cycle, which opens with the title line in the original, but I found it worked better in English to swap the first two lines. I will keep the original opening line as a title, so future readers can track down the original more easily. I took a few liberties with the imagery of this translation in order to make it work better as a poem (and to have more recognizable place names to Anglophone readers: in the original, he uses “Monsalvat,” the name used in Wagner’s Parsifal, instead of Corbenic for the location of the Holy Grail, and specifically refers to the Meganom peninsula in the Crimea in the last verse).

My own feelings towards Paris are decidedly mixed as well.


“I’ve mixed up the cards in solitaire…”

Empty, dry is my wellspring tonight.
I’ve mixed up the cards in solitaire.
Île-de-France’s gardens hold my sight,
But my soul longs for the desert air.

Autumn strolls on the Versailles’ park trails,
Sunset sets afire the atmosphere.
Yet I dream of the Knights of the Grail
On Corbenic’s cliffs steep and severe.

Paris, I know and desire the power
Of nepenthe in your poisoned glasses!
But! My soul holds Crimea’s desert flowers,
Heat, and stones, and the drying grasses…

Maximilian Voloshin, 1909; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, September 2016.

“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.

“Your opened hand, your tilted shoulder…” – M. Voloshin

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 23/?

We gradually shift from the theme of religion and myth to the theme of love, via a poem that incorporates both myths and love. 

Maximilian Voloshin (1877-1932) was a prominent member of the Symbolist circle. He finished his education as an autodidact after being expelled from Moscow University for “participation in unrest and student agitation.” He travelled Europe to study art (he was a notable landscape artist) and also participated in scientific expeditions to Central Asia. He had been both a Freemason and an Anthroposophist. During the Russian Civil War, while living in Koktebel in the Crimea, he used his house as a safehouse for the persecuted — first, the Reds from the Whites, then after the Reds gained power, the Whites from the Reds. 

This is a love poem that uses palmistry notions. To my knowledge, there is no Ring of Venus in the standard palmistry map of the hand, but there is a Girdle of Venus: a curved line under the middle and ring fingers, above the topmost of the major lines, the “Heart Line.” In a quaint 1930s palmistry book I read once, the presence of a Girdle of Venus on the subject’s hand is associated with…the authors hedged about it with horror and finally said that they might as well tell you, it’s “onanism.” Being a well-informed palmistry skeptic these days, I was amused to think this while translating this poem. To clarify, other sources do claim it’s more about sensuality. 


Your opened hand, your tilted shoulder…
Your face not yet to me defined,
Your Ring of Venus stood out bolder,
I knew the power in its line.

The way the Lines of Will divided
Told: you and I alike are strained.
Trapped in one ring, captive inside it
In the twin flows of the mundane.

And if we meet in fated chances
(Perhaps in thunder of the chase),
I’ll love you not for speech or glances
But for your pale palm’s fine trace.

Maximilian Voloshin December 3, 1910; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, July 2016