Russia in a nutshell. Pushkin, summing up the difference between Russia and Western Europe, said, “The Arabs brought you Aristotle and algebra. The Mongols brought us taxation and the whip.” Alexander Blok in his poem “The Scythians” says to Europe, “You are millions. We are shadows, shadows, shadows.” He goes on to say, “And yet we smell the far-off scent of lemon groves.” “Limónikh roshch dalyóki aromát.”
However, St. Petersburg (as it was, and is again) was a great European city with its own scents. In 1913, it published more books than the United States in 1952. There were Mendeleev, Pavlov, Diaghilev, Rimsky-Korsakov and lots of poets, the silver age of poets.
Here’s a bit of another Alexander Blok poem, this one about individual despair rather than epic dreams. It attracted the attention of Rilke, and a friend of his, so I’ve heard, translated it into German. It occurs to me it might have been Lou Andreas Salome. She got around, traveled to Russia. I only know a little Russian and pretty much no German, but the ingenuity of Rilke’s friend (whether the story is true or not doesn’t matter for our purpose) is audible. I heard both versions when I was twenty-one and I’m doing them from memory—the Blok would be easy to re-find, but if anyone can track down the German I’d be grateful.
Vesyényi dyen prashól byez dyéla
Oo nyeoomytovna okná.
Skoochála za stenói i pyéla
Kak ptítsa plénnaya, zhená…
I ya, nye speshá, sobral vospomeenánya i dyéla…
I stála bespahshcháhadna yásna
Zhizn ooshoomyéla i ooshlá.
Spring day passed without incident
Outside unwashed window.
Was being bored on other side of wall
And was singing like captive bird, wife.
I, not hurrying, gathered memories and deeds…
And it stood indefensibly clear
Life [untranslatable very] [maybe “noised away”] and left.
The first part is pretty straight forward.
Der frühling Tag wergang wie immer
[something something] Fenster ungeputst und grau.
The translator has added “gray” to the unwashed window. Okay. In the next part—“gathered memories”—she or he had good luck with the beautiful Russian for memories—vospomeenániya. The German is beautiful too—Erinnerungen.
The last two lines in German:
Es war unerbíttlich Klar
Das Leben ist vorbeígeshaumt.
With unerbíttlich the translator gave up the notion of “defenseless,” but unerbíttlich doesn’t just mean merciless, it sounds merciless. Harsh, but close enough to the meaning. And she kept the four-syllable rhythm of bespashchahádna.
For ooshoomyela i ooshla she/he wrote vorbeígeshaumt. Shaum means foam. This past-participle is prolonged by two glued-in initial prepositions so that it has the splash and retreat of a wave.
When I was twenty-one, a teacher set the exercise of translating the poem into English, using both the Russian and the German. The teacher may have heard Ezra Pound’s advice to young poets: Listen to poems in languages you don’t know. Listen to the sound. I’m glad to say I’ve lost my attempt. Something about a candle guttering. Too small and finicky, as if I was poking at something with an umbrella tip, not using my bare hands.
But the sounds and the meaning of the sounds keep coming back. I have a little cabin on the upper Delaware River, up on a twenty-foot bank. In the spring of 2005, the Delaware rose twenty-six feet. I wasn’t there. A brother-in-law sent me a video-tape of the river flowing through the cabin. I got there later to join a plumber and a carpenter.
One said to the other, “Do you want to tell him or shall I? Okay—it’s not just the floor joists, it’s the rim joist, and it’s not just the rim joist it’s the base plate.”
The river was flowing peacefully again—flowing by where we stood, on down past Milford township, Dingman’s Ferry, the Delaware Water Gap, past Trenton, past Philadelphia, into Delaware Bay and then the sea. All that was as ever. The upstream side of the cabin and the inside of the single main room were plastered with silt as fine as talc. It was distressing. Also amazingly lovely. The bushes and trees on the downstream side were decorated with a canoe paddle blade, a page of a bird book, an upstream neighbor’s propane tank and shed door. Part of me was thinking insurance claim, FEMA, new pump for the well, but a tiny bit of me was spell-bound by the ankle-high silt on the part of the floor still there, the inch of silt face-high on the walls. It felt like silk, but it turned to smoke between my fingers.
I wasn’t consciously thinking of vospomeenánya or ooshoomyela i ooshla then, and nothing may come of the river silt after all, there may be no missing word under the debris, but soon I did begin to move towards the poem. My bare hand was touching something that began to disrupt the order of the usual word-for-thing. My English still can’t find the note. There is the liquid sound of Russian and a gurgling of not-quite-right English noises. There is the aftermath of river silt. There is a sense of things carried away, of things running out, and the bleakness after.
And then the touch of silt set off another echo. I loved my first father-in-law. I spent a lot of time with him. He and his wife transformed an old barn in Rhode Island into a huge summerhouse, filled for ten summers with family, three generations, at times seventeen of us, and I can say that there was a time when we all loved each other. My father-in-law covered the ground floor with cork tiles. Because they were laid on top of an old concrete slab they curled up with damp. He then ordered elegant terracotta tiles in the shape of fleur-de-lis and had them laid in with grout. The interlacing fleur-de-lis were indeed elegant, but the rising damp problem recurred and walking on them made the tiles slip and grind. We all learned to walk softly and the tiles stayed in place. My father-in-law died fairly young, age sixty. All four of his children divorced. His widow finally had to sell the house. Before the new owner moved in and while everything in the house was still there, the propane tank exploded and the house burned—not all the way down, but half. A while later I was in Rhode Island again, doing some work, and I realized I was near the old house. Will it be too much after all? Let’s see. The bay-facing half was gone except for the three-story-high chimney. The vast living room where we’d played murder in the dark was gone. I walked around outside. The flowerbeds and vegetable garden I’d planted were all weeds. I was okay, just taking things in. I went around back. The outside door to the corner room where my first two daughters had slept was open. Their twin beds were still there, the bedspreads covered with gray ash. I was defended against that. I went into the hall past the bedroom where my ex-wife and I had slept. I turned into the ground-floor front hall, wading through the layer of ashes. The walls here were scorched but still standing. There was a large silence. The silence made me stop. I took another step. I moved my foot sideways, brushing ashes aside. I saw the red fleur-de-lis tiles. I touched them. They were at last perfectly set.
Then I felt what was gone. All of it, all at once.
I heard Blok’s poem when I was twenty-one. I saw the red tiles when I was forty-two. Another twenty-odd years later, the silt and thinking about translation brought all these things together. I didn’t find the missing ooshoomelya, but another word in Blok’s last two lines became heavier and clearer. Bespashchahádna. Without defense.
Is there a moral to this side story? Maybe this: There are things and there are words—sometimes meaning is a solid link but sometimes meaning is a ghost that waits and waits until an accident brings it howling silently into you.