Unbreakably – P. Solovyova

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 37/?

Polixena (or Poliksena) Solovyova (1867-1924) had the misfortune to be born sister to the much more famous poet, philosopher and theologian Vladimir Solovyov, one of the central founders of 20th-century Russian Christian philosophy. Thus, the younger Symbolists venerated her poetry more because they saw her as her brother’s spiritual sister than for its own merit. She herself apparently saw at least her early publications, in the 1880s, as weak, and was much more prominent as an artist and illustrator. Review of her poetry were compassionate and its technical weaknesses, claims Wikipedia, were not much pointed out. The exception was Alexander Blok, who disliked her poetry and refused to review it.

From 1905 to 1912 she was editor of a children’s magazine and children’s publishing house with her lesbian lover, the children’s author Natalia Manaseina (ironically, Blok’s mother volunteered as proofreader for it). There she published her translation of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” one of the earliest translations into Russian (I have not yet read it). After the Revolution, for several years she worked as a librarian and translator in Koktebel in the Crimea. She remained with Manaseina until the end of her life.

This poem is addressed to Zinaida Gippius, whom we have already encountered in this series. I can see that the criticism of Solovyova’s general technical weaknesses would apply to its over-repetition in the original of the words “passion” (three times) and “death” (also three times; I replaced one of them with “mortal”). I still find it an interesting poem as another example of women’s poetry in the Silver Age. I unfortunately have not yet found out what Solovyova’s relationship was to Gippius in order to contextualize this poem further.


To Zinaida Gippius

The closer death breathes through its icy teeth,
The hotter scarlet kisses glow,
And in the graveside requiem, passion’s moans grow.
In earthly waters hardness gleams beneath.
And spring bloom would not draw such passioned breath
So sweetly, if that mortal stinging
Were not a threat to fruits autumn was bringing:
No passion without shade of death.

Polixena Solovyova, 1914; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya,
September 2016.

Poem 25 – S. Parnok

Russian Silver Age poetry translations (occasional), 36/?
Nowadays Sophia Parnok (1885-1933) is known best for being the lover of Marina Tsvetaeva from 1914 to 1916. But she was a poet, translator (from French) and highly respected literary critic in her own right, writing excellent criticism of the post-Symbolism poetic movements, without adhering to a movement herself. She concisely characterized the styles of Akhmatova and Mandelstam, but rejected acmeism as a school of thought. She also wrote libretti — she had been raised in a musical family. (Her brother Valentin Parnakh — they both changed the spelling of their Jewish last name, Parnokh, in different ways — as well as being a poet and playwright, is considered the introducer of jazz to the Soviet Union in the 1920s.)
She was married (with a wedding by Jewish rite) to the poet and dramatist Vladimir Volkenstein for two years, but afterwards turned her attention exclusively to women. According to a line in her English Wikipedia article sourced to Diana Burgin’s biography of her, “She also survived a train crash, owned a pet monkey, and was Russia’s first openly-lesbian poet… Parnok finally succumbed to her illness in 1933 with three of her lovers at her bedside. Her funeral procession of her friends and fans extended 75 kilometers outside of Moscow.” (Which I find lovely to contemplate but hard to believe — 75 km is pretty darned long.)
There are only four of her poems on Russian Wikisource, which bear the numbers they had in her collected poetry edition, presumably the one edited by Sophia Poliakova and published in Ann Arbor in 1979.
Poem #25
If you find out you’ve by stubborn friends been rejected,
If you find out that Cupid’s bow wasn’t so taut,
If unkissed lips had by another’s caress been affected,
And one laconic with you shares with others all thought…
If gardens have turned to desert through loss and privation —
Strike, still, with distracted fingers the lyre’s bright strings:
Poet, recall in your grief your fellow’s Latinate declaration:
“Swifter still pass days deceived by the lying that sings.”
Sophia Parnok, 1912; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, September 2016.

“Here I kneel on the flagstones…” – A. Gertsyk

Russian Silver Age poetry translation series (occasional), 34/?

I first heard of Adelaida Gertsyk (1874-1925) through a dedication in Maximilian Voloshin’s poems. She had been a prominent female poet among the Symbolists, who often called her a “prophetess.” As well, she was a prominent translator, particularly of Friedrich Nietzsche, both his philosophical texts and his poetry. She also wrote a number of articles on child psychology.

Her husband, Dmitri Zhukovsky, whom she married in 1908, was also a translator of philosophy (and a biologist by education) and she helped him edit the journal “Questions in philosophy.” Together they hosted a prominent salon for literary and philosophical discussion in Moscow. (He was the son of the general Eugene Zhukovsky but seems to be no relation to the Golden Age poet and translator Vasily Zhukovsky (1783-1852), who bore that surname by adoption anyway.) Voloshin introduced Gertsyk to Marina Tsvetaeva when the former was 35 and the latter was 18, and Tsvetaeva described the meeting as as “We passionately became friends.”

After the Revolution, while living in Sudak in the Crimea, she was arrested and imprisoned for a few months. She described this in her memoir “Basement Essays,” which has been fully published only in Latvia. Most of her work is still unknown and unpublished in Russia.


Here I kneel on the flagstones as in bygone day.
I don’t know to whom or about what I pray.
With the power of fire, longing and entreating cry,
I’ll dissolve all the walls between “I” and “not-I.”
If there’s heaven in me — open, open your door!
If there’s fire in the dark — light and burn, I implore!
Joyful heaven’s encounters nearing I see.
This time’s world, how to name it? How to set it free?

Adelaida Gertsyk, 1907; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, September 2016

“I like it that your fever isn’t me…” – M. Tsvetaeva

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 32/?

So it has been over a month of these, and this will be the last one for a while. I am not replacing the question mark with a number, as I will certainly keep doing them — I feel that permanently quitting translating poetry would be as difficult at this point as forgetting the languages I use every day. But they will be an occasional thing rather than a daily thing. Even though actually pulling together eight lines of verse generally takes me about ten minutes and can be done late in the evening, I’ve found that they still use up my creativity for the day, and in this month, I haven’t made any significant progress on my fiction or other artistic pursuits.

For some stats: there are 32 poems, counting this one, representing 15 poets. Five of the poets are women (Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Gippius, Kuzmina-Karavaeva, Lokhvitskaya), with 11 poems by them. I wish I had more, but five women poets is still more than the average Russian can name from the Silver Age. The most poems are by Blok and Tsvetaeva, each with four. Gumilev and Akhmatova each have three. There are two Futurists (Mayakovsky and Khlebnikov), one Imaginist (Esenin), five Acmeists (Gumilev, Gorodetsky, Akhmatova, Kuzmina-Karavaeva, Mandelstam), six Symbolists (Blok, Balmont, Voloshin, Lokhvitskaya, Gippius, Merezhkovsky) and Tsvetaeva who didn’t really adhere herself to a movement to my knowledge.

For a fitting finale to this stage of the project, I decided to go for what is almost certainly Marina Tsvetaeva’s best-known poem. This is mainly because its first and third verses were set to music by M. Tariverdiev and performed in the 1976 film “The Irony of Fate (or, Enjoy Your Bath)” directed by Eldar Ryazanov, that has been a New Year’s tradition for Russian and Soviet citizens for nearly forty years now.

There were many years when I deeply related to the sentiment in the verses. When I first tried translating it in 2006, it was as a loose translation of just the song. To fit it into this project, I took in the second verse, and polished and tweaked the others, taking a few more liberties with the translation than I normally do. Doubtless people have translated the poem/song before. This version is mine.

* * *

I like it that your fever isn’t me.
I like it that my fever isn’t you.
That all this heavy earth spins suddenly
Beneath the feet of — not us two.
I like that I can be open and free,
Not play with words, and not avoid what’s true,
And that I do not blush with crimson hue
When your sleeve touches mine unexpectedly.

I also like that right before my eyes
Another one you’d calmly be embracing,
And you don’t wish for hellfire to rise
On me if it’s not you I kiss the face of.
That my sweet name, my sweet, not night nor day,
You call in vain or whisper to me, “Do you…”
That in church silence they will never say
Above our joining hands a hallelujah…

With all my heart and hand I’m thanking you
That you, if to yourself unknowingly,
Love me so much; for peace the whole night through,
For trysts at dusk being a rarity,
For not-walks in not-moonlight by us two,
That not beyond our heads the sun we’ll see…
Because my fever is, alas, not you,
Because your fever is, alas, not me.

Marina Tsvetaeva, May 3, 1915;
translation by me, March 2006-August 2016

“All promised him to me…” – A. Akhmatova

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 25/?

Continuing the theme of love poems (with a twist): This poem by Anna Akhmatova, from her collection White Flock, was dedicated in manuscript to B. V. Anrep, which dedication was subsequently crossed out.

Boris Vasilievich von Anrep (1883-1969) was a poet and artist, who had quit law school to study art (specifically, mosaics) in France and England. By the beginning of the 1920s, he was getting multiple contracts for mosaics in British stately homes, and in 1923, he created the mosaic floor in the Blake Room of the Tate Gallery.

But he spent World War I in Russia, as a reserve officer, and there he met Akhmatova in 1915 in Tsarskoye Selo. She immediately began dedicating poems to him, and seventeen of the poems in White Flock are marked with his name. They would meet whenever he would return from active duty. However, he apparently only saw their relationship as a warm friendship. He had married Yunia Khitrovo, an aristocrat, in 1908, at the insistence of their families as she had been “compromised” by him. Akhmatova met her in 1916 and dedicated another poem to her. By 1911, he had started a relationship with the singer Helen Maitland, and lived with both Helen and Yunia in Paris, while also pursuing other relationships on the side.

He never returned to Russia after 1917, but in 1952, he was commissioned to create four large mosaics for the British National Gallery, and portrayed Akhmatova as Compassion in one of them. They met for the last time in 1965, shortly before Akhmatova’s death.


All promised him to me, it seemed:
The sky’s edge with its dull gold glister,
On Christmas Eve the sweetest dream,
The many-chiming wind at Easter,

The ivy’s curving scarlet vines,
Park waterfalls white-churning down,
The two great perching dragonflies
On the wrought-iron fence rust brown.

I couldn’t not believe, not hope,
That soon in friendship we’d be meeting
When I would walk on mountain slopes
Along a path of rocks sun-heated.

Anna Akhmatova, 1916; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, July 2016.

“Some wait for joy, some seek ovations…” – M. Lokhvitskaya

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 24/?

I mentioned Mirra Lokhvitskaya (1869-1905) before in connection to her correspondence with Konstantin Balmont. As much of her side of the conversation was destroyed, we know of their relationship through a series of poems they dedicated to each other. There was much speculation as to whether their relationship was sexual, but most reliable sources believe that it was platonic — despite the sensuality of her poems, Lokhviskaya lived a quiet life married to Eugene Gibert (a second-generation French immigrant who worked as a civil engineer) and raising five sons.
She was born Maria Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya, in a large family. Her younger sister Nadezhda would grow up to be the satirist and memoirist with the pseudonym Teffi, whom I have already mentioned in connection to her reminiscences of Zinaida Gippius. Apparently, all the children in the family wrote poetry but got mercilessly teased by each other for doing it; there are several conflicting stories that Maria took the pen name Mirra from a poem or poetic translation of her brother’s that was the object of family mockery.
In her heyday she was the first notable female Silver Age poet, paving the way for Anna Akhmatova and Maria Tsvetaeva. She was also among the most commercially successful poets of any gender: her collections sold well where most others’ sold poorly. Her contemporaries observe, though, that she was often underestimated because she was small and beautiful, so people didn’t notice anything other than her looks. Unfortunately, she died at the young age of 35, apparently of heart disease.

Most of her poems on Wikisource, though full of lyric imagery, are tricky to translate. She was fond of using very strictly formal verse, such as the triolet, which, like a villanelle, is structured around repeating lines; I would have a hard enough time composing one of those on any topic, much less convey the same meaning with one. This poem is thankfully simpler, and fits our mini-theme of love.


Some wait for joy, some seek ovations,
Some look for honours in the field,
Some yearn for mad gratification,
Some for reply to prayers appealed.

While I — all visions false, mistaken,
Like bygone dreams fever-distressed,
I’ll trade now for the bliss of waking,
Oh dear friend, upon your breast.

Mirra Lokhvitskaya, 1896—1898; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, August 2016.

Dedication – Z. Gippius

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 20/?

Our second Gippius poem. When Zinaida Gippius published her first volume of poetry, in 1894, the first poem, “Dedication,” immediately caused a scandal. How dare this woman write “I love myself as I do God”?

All her life, Gippius was religious and devout, but in a strange, eccentric way, though in a different way than her profoundly mystical husband Dmitri Merezhkovsky. Many years later, the writer Teffi (of whom hopefully more anon) wrote about knowing Gippius in Paris that she had always gone to Catholic church, rather than the Orthodox one. She loved scandal, her contemporaries attest, and on being asked about that line and about her eccentric dress, replied that in those days, she liked pulling those kinds of provocative tricks.

She enjoyed being called “the White She-Devil.” On being asked whether she feared the Last Judgement, Gippius expressed extreme indignation. “I had never encountered such scorn for the afterlife from anyone,” Teffi observed. “She did not deny the existence of the afterlife, but that the Lord would dare judge Zinaida Gippius […] — that was absurd to even consider.”

(In the same reminiscence, Teffi notes that Gippius had a clear weakness for cute kitten pictures, which she desperately tried to conceal.)


The heavens are low and drear,
But my spirit is high, it’s known.
You and I are so strangely near,
And each of us is alone.

Pitiless is the path I have trod
And it leads me to death and the grave.
But I love myself as I do God,
And it’s love that my soul shall save.

And so if on my way I tire
And if pettily I complain,
If for joy I would dare desire,
And rebel against my own grain,

Do not leave me with no glance more,
In dull troubled days, do not leave.
Your weaker friend, I implore,
Console me, pity me, deceive.

As we both on to eastward go,
You and I are uniquely nigh.
The heavens are gloating low,
But I trust that our spirit is high.

Zinaida Gippius, March 1894; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, July 2016

“Those who are woken, pray for me” – E. Kuzmina-Karavaeva (M. Skobtsova)

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 19/?

There is only one poem by Elizaveta Kuzmina-Karavaeva (Maria Skobtsova) on the Russian Wikisource, and I translated it mainly as an excuse to talk about this woman’s extraordinary life. Poet. Acmeist. Memoirist. Mayor. Theologian. Nun. French Resistance fighter. Righteous Gentile. Martyr. Saint.  

She was born Elizaveta Pilenko in 1891 in Riga, and grew up near the Black Sea in Anapa and Yalta. Her father’s death in 1906 made her lose her own faith, and forced the family to move to St. Petersburg. There she met Alexander Blok, starting a long correspondence, and married the former Bolshevik Dmitri Kuzmin-Karavaev, through whom she met many of the poets in the Poets’ Guild, the centre of Acmeist activity. With their support, she began to publish poetry, and her collections were well-received.

In 1913 she left her husband and joined the Socialist Revolutionary Party after the February Revolution. She apparently wished to assassinate Leon Trotsky for closing the SR Party Congress, but friends persuaded her to instead move back to the Black Sea to work for the SR there. She was very active as a community organizer in Anapa, and in 1918 was elected mayor of the city when it fell under White Army control.

She led underground resistance against the Bolsheviks, while trying to protect the population from the terror of the new regime. She was arrested and put on trial, but managed to escape capital punishment due to a skilled defence and help by the judge, D. Skobtsov, whom she ended up falling in love with and marrying. In 1920, after the White movement in southern Russia was destroyed, she and her family escaped to Georgia, then Constantinople, Serbia, and finally Paris in 1924, where she published memoirs and novellas in the Russian-language press.  

In Paris, more and more moved by religious impulse after the deaths of her daughters, she completed a course of study at the St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute by correspondence, and in 1932 became a lay nun, taking the name Maria. Now under the name Mother Maria Skobtsova, she extensively published theological writings, memoirs and poetry, as well as frequently lecturing.

When Nazi forces occupied France, the informal convent where she lived became a Resistance headquarters. She and her fellow priests and nuns issued baptismal certificates to Jews. When Jews in Paris were rounded up in the Velodrome d’Hiver to be sent to Auschwitz, Mother Maria succeeded in smuggling four Jewish children out of there in trash bins. In 1943, she and her son were arrested by the Gestapo and sent to concentration camps. She was killed in the gas chamber at Ravensbruck concentration camp on March 31, 1945, Holy Saturday, only a week before the camp was liberated. 

In 1985, Yad Vashem recognized her as Righteous Among the Nations for her work saving Jews from the Holocaust, and in 2004, with some controversy (related to her two marriages and children, her political activism, the fact that she smoked, and her somewhat heterodox preaching and what some saw as a tendency to holy fool-ishness), the Russian Orthodox Church canonized her as a martyred saint.

The poem below was written before the October Revolution, but both presages her later theological involvement and the struggles she was to endure. 


Those who are woken, pray for me,
All those who hold a splinter of my soul.
The hour has come, brief steps lie to the goal —
All I have seen in dreams has come to be.

Brothers and friends are lost in weary sleep.
The spirit is in mortal suffering spent.
The hour has come; the roads we’ve trod all end,
And God alone my soul will keep.

Elizaveta Kuzmina-Karavaeva (Maria Skobtsova), 1916; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, July 2016.

“Leaves fall on your grave…” – M. Tsvetaeva

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 18/?

This poem by Marina Tsvetaeva is part of a cycle addressed to Peter Efron, her husband’s brother, who had died of tuberculosis.

She uses the you-formal form throughout in addressing him, a distinction I tried to preserve by using “sir.” In my effort to keep to the rhythm (and make the poem somewhat singable to the numerous musical settings that Russian composers have made of it) I changed the last lines from the letter of the original to a call, although since she does vary the meter of the last line of each verse, I felt I could relax my constraints on this. “To take you home” has more syllables than the original, but there was no shorter way I could do it in English.  


Leaves fall on your grave with the end of the year.
The air wafts winter’s chill.
Listen, my dead sir, listen, my dear,
You are mine still.

You laugh! From the blessed travel cart heading out!
The moon’s overhead.
Mine — as inalienably, with no doubt,
As this hand I spread.

With my bag I’ll go at dawn without fail
To the hospital door.
You’ve just gone away for a holiday, to sail,
To the great ocean shore.

I kissed you! Bespelled you! I laugh at the notion
That dark is the graveyard loam.
I don’t believe death! I await at the station
To take you home.

Let leaves crumble down, what mourning crepe said
Gilt words now erase clear through.
And if the whole world believes you are dead,
Then I am dead too.

I see you, I feel you — all around I scent you!
What matter the wreaths mourners send!
I haven’t forgotten you, I won’t forget you
To eternity’s end!

Of such vows I know the pointless vanity,
Worthless, destroyed.
A call to the endless – A call to infinity –
A call to the void.

Marina Tsvetaeva, 1914; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, July 2016.

“I’ll leave your home…” – A. Akhmatova

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 14/?

When Anna Akhmatova was asked which of her poems were addressed to Nikolai Gumilev, she named six. This is one of the six, and I’ve been pondering every word of it as to what a complicated relationship these two poets had even then.

The year 1913, when this poem was written, Gumilev himself spent many months in Abyssinia, leaving behind Akhmatova and their one-year-old son Lev. Earlier, he had had a brief affair with Olga Vysotskaya which resulted that October in the birth of a son, Orest, whom Gumilev may or may not have known about during his lifetime.

Akhmatova and Gumilev would end up divorcing in 1918, when the new post-Revolutionary government allowed divorce with the possibility of re-marriage, although according to sources, their relationship had soured long before.


(In the original, the first line is “white home/house and quiet garden,” and I’ve wrestled for a long time with how to fit “white” into the verse without messing up the rhythm, and finally decided to cut it. Again, compromises.)

I’ll leave your home and garden quietly lying.
Let life be empty, filled with only light.
You in my poems I’ll be glorifying,
I’ll bring you glory as no woman might.
And in the heaven you made just for her gazing
Your dear friend you will remember well,
While I, rare goods for buyers I’ll be praising —
Your love and tenderness I go to sell.

Anna Akhmatova, 1913; translated by me, July 2016