by Nikolay Gumilyov
I was walking down an unfamiliar street,
and suddenly I heard the caws of crows,
and distant thunder, and a ringing lute:
a tram flew by, before my eyes.
Just how I ran onto its running board
remains a mystery.
The tail it trailed, even in daylight,
It raced on like a dark and winged whirlwind,
adrift in time’s abyss...
Stop this tram at once.
Too late. We’ve turned the corner,
glided through a palm-oasis,
and rocked our way across three bridges –
the Neva, the Nile, the Seine.
Slipping past the window, an ancient beggar
threw us a searching stare –
the beggar who died in Beirut, of course,
only last year.
Where am I? Languid, anxious,
my heart beats in response:
‘Look – it’s the station! They’re selling tickets
to India of the Soul – depart at once!’
A sign… It announces in blood-swollen letters:
‘Greengrocer.’ I know that instead
of cabbage heads, swedes and rutabagas
they sell the heads of the dead.
The executioner, with a face like an udder,
red-shirted, stout as an ox,
has chopped off my head. Along with the others,
it lies at the bottom of a slippery box.
On a side street, a house of three windows,
a fence made of boards, greying grass...
Stop this tram at once.
Mashenka, you lived and sang here.
Here’s where you wove me a carpet.
Where are they now – your voice, your body?
Dearest, are you truly among the dead?
O how you moaned in your chamber,
while I, in a powdered wig, your groom,
went to present myself to the Empress –
never to glimpse you again.
I’ve grasped it at last: our freedom
is only a light pulsating from far –
people and shadows stand at the entrance
to the zoo of the wandering stars.
A sweet and familiar wind, of a sudden,
and over the bridge, flying my way –
a horseman’s hand in a glove of iron,
and two great hooves, raised to the sky.
Steadfast stronghold of Orthodoxy,
St. Isaac’s spire is etched on high.
Prayers must be sung for Mashenka’s health
and a memorial service for me.
And still, my heart is forever sullen.
It’s hard to breathe, and it hurts to live...
Mashenka, I could never have known
of such a love, of such a grief.
by Sergey Yesenin
Give me your paw, Jim, for good luck.
I’ve never seen such paws – not ever.
Let’s sit beneath the moon and bark
at all this boring, noiseless weather.
Give me your paw, Jim, for good luck.
But please, old boy – don’t lick, don’t lick.
Just try and get this simple thing.
Friend, you don’t know what life is like,
and don’t know what it takes to live.
Your master’s kind and widely known;
you’ve had so many guests before –
and, smiling, every one has longed
to pet you, touch your velvet fur.
In your dog’s way, you’re bloody handsome,
with such a kind and trusting face.
And, needing nobody’s permission,
just like a drunk, you kiss and kiss.
Dear Jim, among your guests you’ve had
some of all sorts, some out of sorts.
But she – most silent and most sad –
has she happened to call round, old sport?
If she does come, I give you a command.
Since I’ll be gone, please stare into her eyes
and tenderly, for me, please lick her hand –
for all my faults – and faults that weren’t my fault.
by Nikolay Zabolotsky
A long ray gushes through the window,
the mighty house stands in the dark,
the fire spreads about, enkindled,
and flashing in its shirt of stone.
the kitchen sheds delightful heat.
Like golden draft horses, today
there ripen, not at all in vain,
baked loafs, and babas, and pirogs.
There, a coquettish kulebyaka
shines as the meaty heart of being.[i]
Above, turned blue from being rinsed,
a chick casts curses on his childhood.
He’s shut his childish little eyes,
furrowed his multicolored forehead,
and laid his sleepy little corpse
into a delftware table-casket.
Above him, no priest brayed a mass,
waving a cross up in the air;
for him, no cuckoo cared to sing
her guileful, crafty little song:
chained in the clap of cabbages,
he lay there, in tomatoes dressed;
above him, like a cross, descended
a dainty leg of celery.
And so he slumbered, in life’s prime,
a paltry midget among men.
The clock resounds. Night has arrived.
The feast is fervent, effervescent.
The wine decanter cannot keep
its fiery head from toppling over.
A giant flock of meaty women
sit in a circle, feathers shining,
and balding wreaths of ermine, greased
by sweating, century-old maids,
crown their enormous, heaving breasts.
They eat the densest of the sweets;
they wheeze in their voracious passion;
and, spreading free their bellies, press
close to their plates and to the flowers.
Their balding husbands sit erect,
straight as the whistle of a bullet,
their necks unable to escape
from fatty trenches of loose meat.
And breaking through the manifold
monotony of crystalware,
like some dream of a happy land,
a wedding speech’s wishful wand.
O birds of god, have you no shame?
And what does he add to your honor –
this groom, now tacked on to a bride,
who’s traded in the clap of hooves?
The forms of his conforming face
still bear a wedding-crown’s faint trace;
the golden ring upon his finger
glints brightly with a daring air.
Meanwhile, the priest, perennial guest,
his beard splayed out, like some great visor,
sits like a tower over the party,
with a guitar upon his shoulder.
Strike up, guitar! Widen the circle!
Ton-heavy goblets roar aloud.
Startled awake, the priest now bellows
and lashes at the golden strings.
To the guitar’s primordial thunder,
lifting their glasses to the sky,
the rabid couples hurtle blind
into the mirrors’ bare abysses.
And in their tracks, across the yards,
witless from incessant wailing,
the giant house, shaking its rump,
spins into the expanse of being.
And there – the awful dream of silence,
the graying hordes of factories,
and far above the masses’ stations –
the law of labor and creation.
A baba is a tall sweet cake often containing raisins; pirog is a general term for pie; a kulebyaka is also a pie – its filling can be fish, meat, or vegetable.
For Russians, Nikolay Gumilyov’s (1886-1921) image is twofold. On the one hand, he is considered a master craftsman of verse – the founder of the “Guild of Poets,” a proving ground for Osip Mandelstam and Gumilyov’s one-time wife, Anna Akhmatova. On the other hand, he is the subject of a romantic cult; his restless globetrotting, along with the verse it inspired, is the very picture of exoticism. But these two sides of Gumilyov’s reputation are not in conflict: his verse attains a thrilling balance between passion and craft. Gumilyov had fought with the Imperial Russian Army in the First World War and was a staunch anti-communist, but he returned to St. Petersburg (then called Petrograd) after the Revolution and continued to publish and participate in new literary institutions. In August 1921 he was arrested and executed by the Cheka for allegedly taking part in a monarchist conspiracy. “The Lost Tram” is a lavish, feverish vision of imperial St. Petersburg, lost to the ages, and of the travails that awaited Russia in the Soviet era. Its vivid imagery and insistent rhythm cannot help but bring to mind Rimbaud’s “Le Bateau ivre.”
Sergey Yesenin (1895-1925), who was born to a peasant family and first made his name shortly before the Revolution as one of the “new peasant poets,” has somewhat unfairly gone down in literary history as a soppy sentimentalist, the bard of hooligans and alcoholics. In fact, much of his work is remarkably subtle in both mood and technique. Though he at first welcomed the Revolution, he soon became disillusioned with the Bolshevik regime. He continued to write poems about peasants and Moscow lowlifes into the 1920s, as if nothing in Russia had changed. This itself was seen as anti-Soviet; he was accused of corrupting the youth with his pessimism and was harassed by the secret police. He hanged himself in his room at the Hotel Angleterre in St. Petersburg (then Petrograd) in December 1925, but conspiracy theories about his death now abound. This poem – addressed to the Doberman pinscher of the poet’s friend, actor Vasily Kachalov (1875-1948) – demonstrates Yesenin’s delicate sense of humor and his great gift for writing about animals. Like much of his poetry from the 1920s, it is apolitical, written as if the Soviet Union did not exist.
Like Yesenin, Nikolay Zabolotsky (1903-58) was born in the countryside and was of peasant stock. He is the only poet of these three to have debuted after the Revolution. In the late 1920s, Zabolotsky was a member of the OBERIU (“Association of Real Art”), the last avant-garde grouping in the Soviet Union. His first collection, Columns (1929), demonstrates his entirely original vision, but also serves as a document of the social and cultural contradictions of Soviet Russia in the heady days of the New Economic Policy, when — in Lenin’s formulation — the country took a step backward into capitalism in order to take two steps forward into socialism. “The Wedding” is typical of the collection, couching phantasmagoric imagery in a form that calls to mind the 18th century; it is a feverish ode, both satirical and dead serious. Zabolotsky was arrested in 1938 and charged with writing anti-Soviet propaganda; he was sent to Siberia. Unlike his fellow OBERIU members Daniil Kharms and Alexander Vvedensky, he survived his incarceration, was released in 1944, and was allowed to return to Moscow in 1946. He passed away in 1958.
Nikolay Gumilyov (1886-1921), known for his colorful, exotic verses, was one of the leading Russian poets of the early twentieth century. He was a founder of the “Guild of Poets” and of the Acmeist school, among whose members were the young Osip Mandelstam and Gumilyov’s wife, Anna Akhmatova. Accused of participating in a “monarchist conspiracy,” he was arrested and executed by the Cheka in 1921.
Sergey Yesenin (1895-1925) was an immensely popular Russian poet of the 1910s and 1920s, and his work is much loved by Russian readers to this day. He was of peasant origin and wrote movingly about the Russian countryside, as well as about Moscow’s underclass. He lived a troubled life, was unable to make peace with the Bolshevik regime, and committed suicide in 1925.
Nikolay Zabolotsky (1903-1958) was one of the most original Russian poets of the 20th century. His early verse, composed in part during his membership in the avant-garde group OBERIU, is characterized by vivid, surreal imagery, while his later poems, especially those written after his six-year exile to Siberia, are noted for their classical simplicity. On closer inspection, however, his work is of a piece; his was a lifelong endeavor to determine man’s place in the universe, and to grasp its inner workings.
Boris Dralyuk teaches Russian literature at UCLA and has translated several collections of poetry and prose from Russian and Polish. He received first prize in the 2011 Compass Translation Award competition and, with Irina Mashinski, first prize in the 2012 Joseph Brodsky / Stephen Spender Translation Prize competition. He is co-editor, with Robert Chandler and Irina Mashinski, of the forthcoming The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (Penguin Classics, 2014).