The Unknown Lady
By Aleksandr Blok
The restaurants on hot spring evenings
Lie under a dense and savage air.
Foul drafts and hoots from drunken revelers
Contaminate the thoroughfare.
Above the dusty lanes of suburbia
Above the tedium of bungalows
A pretzel sign begilds a bakery
And children screech fortissimo.
And every evening beyond the barriers
Gentlemen of practiced wit and charm
Go strolling beside the drainage ditches-
Derby tilted, lady at the arm.
The squeak of oarlocks comes over the lake water
A woman’s shriek assaults the ear
While above, in the sky, inured to everything,
The moon looks on with a mindles leer.
And every evening my one companion
Sits here, reflected in my glass.
Like me, he has drunk of bitter mysteries.
Like me, he is broken, dulled, downcast.
The sleepy lackeys stand beside tables
Waiting for the night to pass
And tipplers with the eyes of rabbits
Cry out: “In vino veritas!”
And every evening (or am I imagining?)
Exactly at the appointed time
A girl’s slim figure, silk raimented,
Glides past the misted window grime.
And slowly, passing through the revelers,
Unaccompanied, always alone,
Exuding mists and secret fragrances,
She sits at the table that is her own.
Something ancient, something legendary
Surrounds her presence in the room,
Her narrow hand, her silk, her bracelets,
Her hat, the rings, the ostrich plume.
Entranced by her presence, near, enigmatic,
I gaze through the dark of her lowered veil
And I behold an enchanted shoreline
An enchanted hinterland, far and pale.
I am made a guardian of higher mysteries,
Someone’s sun is entrusted to my control.
Tart wine has pierced the last convolution
Of my bent, labyrinthine soul.
And now the drooping plumes of ostriches,
Asway in my brain, droop slowly lower
And two eyes, limpid, blue, and fathomless
Are blooming on a distant shore.
Inside my soul a treasure is buried,
The key is here, and it is mine.
How right you are, you drunken monster!
I know: the truth is in the wine.
In the Church Choir a Girl was Singing*
In the church choir a girl was singing
About all the weary people in a strange land
About all the ships far out on oceans
About all who were forgetting the joys at hand.
High in the steeple her voice was singing,
A thin ray turning her shoulder white .
From the dark everyone watched and listened
To the white dress singing in the light.
And all could believe that joy was coming,
That all the ships were harbored, safe,
That in strange lands all weary people
Had found a milder, brighter life.
The voice was so sweet, the ray so slender
That only next to the Holy Door,
Privileged to mysteries, a baby was crying
That those away would return no more.
*Note: In 1964 this translator had the good fortune to attend a lecture in which Professor Roman Jakobson dissected, for more than an hour, the intricate patterns and interplay of vowels and meaning in this little poem. As a double misfortune, the details of that lecture have slipped from the translator’s memory, and the beautiful sound patterns, despite the translator’s best try, didn’t make it into English.
Aleksandr Blok (1880-1921)
For many, despite the attractions of Mayakovsky, Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, and Brodsky, Aleksandr Blok remains the greatest Russian poet of the twentieth century. In Russian, his poetry has emotional lift and an unmistakable sound -- something to do with his vowel combinations and sequences -- so that the music sweeps you up and up to places that the mind alone won’t take you to. To listen to the old scratchy recordings of Blok reading his own poems is to sense why some of his contemporaries seriously entertained the notion that he was in some way a latter-day Russian reincarnation of Apollo.
The Alpine Horn
Far up in empty mountains I met a shepherd
Blowing low notes on a long alpine horn.
Flowing pleasantly and loud, both song
And horn were merely instruments for waking
A more captivating mountain melody.
Each time, after a few notes, the shepherd listened
As the echo traveled back through narrow gorges
With indescribably sweet resonance,
And I imagined an unseen choir of spirits
With instruments not of this earth translating
Earth’s utterings into the language of heaven.
And I thought: “Genius! Like this alpine horn
You must sing a song of earth to wake in hearts
Another song. Blessed is he who hears.”
And from the mountains rang an answering voice:
“Nature is a symbol, like this horn
Sounding for the sound of the answer -- God.
Blessed is he who hears both song and answer.”
Vyacheslav Ivanov (1866-1949)
A classicist, a theorist of symbolism, a translator from many languages, a visionary interpreter of Dostoyevsky,Vyacheslav Ivanov was probably the most erudite of the major Russian poets , and in this respect has been compared to Goethe and Dante. This translator’s sense is that a closer comparison might be to Robert Graves.Somewhat neglected -- you need a stack of to follow some of his poems -- his work is, as Vladimir Markov writes, “a supreme achievement: there is a fullness, roundness and mellowness in it seldom found elsewhere.”
Two wires are wrapped together,
The loose ends naked, exposed
A yes and no, not united,
Not united, but juxtaposed.
A dark, dark juxtaposition --
So close together, dead.
But resurrection awaits them;
And they await what waits ahead.
End will meet end in touching
Yes -- no, left and right,
The yes and no awakening,
And their death will be - Light.
Zinaida Hippius (1869-1945)
Too often labeled a “decadent”, an “anti-democrat” , and worse, Hippius
(alternate spelling Gippius) , with her husband the novelist and
religious philosopher Dmitri Merezhkovsky, hosted and perhaps with her
caustic wit dominated the St. Petersburg salon attended by the leading
Russian poets of the age. Of her work, a leading Slavist, Vladimir
Markov, has written: “Future critics may very well some day call
Zinaida Hippius the greatest religious poet of Russia because the
mainstream of her poetry is nothing but the story of the soul’s journey
to a complete finding of God.”
All translations by George M. Young
© George M. Young, 2005
George M. Young taught Russian at Grinnell and Dartmouth through the 1960s and 70s, directed a fine arts auction business through the 1980s and 90s, and currently serves as Adjunct in English at the University of New England. He is the author of a book of poems, a book and many articles on the Russian philosopher Nikolai Fedorov, and a book on the American academic artist Charles H. Woodbury. He and his wife have two grown children and live in southern Maine.