The First Poem About Babiy Yar By Olga Anstei

[Editor’s Note: We are publishing this poem by Olga Anstei, which appears here for the first time in English translation, along with the original Russian. Dr. Maria Bloshteyn is translating Anstei’s work and has very generously agreed to let us share with our readers this moving record of a great evil].

 

Kirillovsky Yar

 

Translated by Maria Bloshteyn

 

I.

Raindrops fell on that windless day.
Thorny sloes prickled with acerbic youth.
A limping tree stump in the twilight,
knocked-over tombstones, chapels…
A slip of a girl, a dusky Dryad—
down the damp path into the nocturnal ravine!
There, in the wild garden’s balmy thicket,
unloved but faithful, he’ll fall at my feet!..
Into the depths, down the slopes—until stars come out!
The most carefree of all carefree places!

 

II.

Closer to noon.  It was sunny and bright.
Youthful acerbity flows out gently,
growing more mellow, growing more joyful.
On the hot chalky bluffs the swift
turns his clever head.
Wormwood wilts, held between palms.
Thyme trembles on an angled ledge.
The bumblebee is a beloved tiny brother!
Blue warmth flows down into the Yar…
Handful by handful from all around
into the most fragrant of all fragrant places.

 

III.

Onward.  Obedient to some obscure call,
I go to the crossroad between older graves,
out of a hushed beloved house,
where Azrael stands at the threshold.
I carry a cross that still wants tears,
that raises three mortal candles
that is covered with wax drips
that saw a shroud and head-wreath in the night…
It will be dug into place there, a loathed gift,
at the head of a nameless grave…
The most frightening of all frightening places!
A frightening brown contorted cross!

 

IV

The last cup of all.  The same place where
nature once drowsily luxuriated,
became Golgotha, the base of the cross
to a strange and fateful people.
Listen!  They were lined up,
their belongings piled on the gravestones…
Half-smothered, half-killed,
then half-covered with soil…
Do you see those old women in kerchiefs,
elders, dignified like Biblical Abraham,
and curly-headed babes, like those in Bethlehem,
in their mothers’ arms?
I can’t find words for this.
Look:  here on the road lie dishes,
a torn tallit, scraps of Talmud,
shreds of passports washed out by rain!
A black—murderous—blood-encrusted cross!
The most horrific of all horrific places.

(December 1941)

 

Кирилловские яры

 

I

Были дождинки в безветренный день.
Юностью терпкой колол терновник.
Сумерки и ковыляющий пень,
Сбитые памятники, часовни…
Влажной тропинкой — в вечерний лог!
Тоненькой девочкой, смуглой дриадой —
В тёплые заросли дикого сада,
Где нелюбимый и верный — у ног!..
В глушь, по откосам — до первых звёзд!
В привольное — из привольных мест!

 

II

Ближе к полудню. Он ясен был.
Юная терпкость в мерном разливе
Стала плавнее, стала счастливей.
Умной головкою стриж водил
На меловом горячем обрыве.
Вянула между ладоней полынь.
Чебрик дрожал на уступе горбатом.
Шмель был желанным крохотным братом!
Синяя в яр наплывала теплынь…
Пригоршнями стекала окрест
В душистое из душистых мест.

 

III

Дальше. Покорствуя зову глухому,
На перекрёсток меж давних могил
Прочь из притихшего милого дома,
Где у порога стоит Азраил —
Крест уношу, — слезами не сытый,
Смертные три возносивший свечи,
Заупокойным воском облитый,
Саван и венчик видавший в ночи…
Будет он врыт, подарок постылый,
Там, в головах безымянной могилы…
Страшное место из страшных мест!
Страшный коричневый скорченный крест!

 

IV

Чаша последняя. Те же места,
Где ликовала дремотно природа —
Странному и роковому народу
Стали Голгофой, подножьем креста.
Слушайте! Их поставили в строй,
В кучках пожитки сложили на плитах,
Полузадохшихся, полудобитых
Полузаваливали землёй…
Видите этих старух в платках,
Старцев, как Авраам, величавых,
И вифлеемских младенцев курчавых
У матерей на руках?
Я не найду для этого слов:
Видите — вот на дороге посуда,
Продранный талес, обрывки Талмуда,
Клочья размытых дождём паспортов!
Чёрный — лобный — запёкшийся крест!
Страшное место из страшных мест!

 

(декабрь 1941)

 

 

Maria Bloshteyn, PhD, researches Russia and the United States. She is the author of The Making of a Counter-Culture Icon: Henry Miller’s Dostoevsky. She is also a literary translator and has published Alexander Galich’s Dress Rehearsal: A Story in Four Acts and Five Chapters, and Anton Chekhov’s The Prank.  Her translations have appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry.

 

The photo shows, “Execution at Babi Yar,” by Felix Lembersky, painted in 1952, which depicts the murder of Jews, by the Nazis, at Babi Yar, on September 29-30, 1941. Some 80,000 people were killed at this place, including 33,771 Jewish men, women and children.

Olga Anstei: A Life In Brief

Babiy Yar (“The Old Woman’s Ravine”) is a large and beautiful ravine in Kiev (Kyiv), the capital of Ukraine, that will be forever associated with the mass murder of Jews by Nazi troops in War World II.

This isolated and deep ravine, historically a site of a military camp, a church, and two cemeteries (an Orthodox Christian one and a Jewish one), provided the perfect place for killing large numbers of people, a fact noted by the Nazi military governor of Kiev, the SS and Police Commander, and the Commander of SS death squads when they were planning the extermination of the Jews of Kiev.

There were other nationalities and groups killed at Babiy Yar, including Roma, Ukrainian Nationalists, the mentally ill, Soviet prisoners of war, Communists, and dissenters of all kinds.

The largest single massacre occurred on September 29-30, 1941, when more than 33,771 Kievan Jews were brought to the site and executed (the largest single massacre of Jews by the Nazis up to that point).

According to witnesses and the few survivors, Jewish men, women, and children were brought to this place of execution under pretense of relocation. Then, they were stripped of belongings and clothing, made to lie down naked on the bodies of Jews already killed in the ravine, and then shot.

This horror has been commemorated in poetry, music, and art, most famously by Evgeny Yevtushenko.  His long poem “Babiy Yar” (1961), written after he visited the site and discovered it had been turned into a garbage dump, is specifically about the massacre of the Jews and the unwillingness of the authorities to acknowledge this crime.

The poem exploded Soviet silence about the Jewish victims buried of Babiy Yar. In fact, Soviet authorities had long refused to acknowledge the numbers of Jews killed at the site.

Yebtushekno’s poem was translated into seventy-two languages, and inspired Dmitry Shostakovich’s  Thirteenth Symphony.

Yevtushenko, himself, however, had always pointed out that his was not the first poem about Babiy Yar.

There were, indeed, other poets who had already memorialized the Jewish massacre at this site, such as, Ilya Ehrenburg in his Babiy Yar” (1944), and Lev Ozerov in “Babiy Yar” (1944-1945).

However, the very first poet to write about this slaughter was a remarkable woman who lived in occupied Kiev in 1941 and who witnessed firsthand—if not the executions at Babiy Yar—then certainly the tragedy of Kievan Jews.

Olga Anstei (the nom de plume of Olga Shteinberg, 1912-1985) was born in Kiev. Her family combined Russian, Cossack, Ukrainian, and – apparently – Jewish backgrounds.

She was a beloved only child, well-educated as only a girl raised by Russian-Ukrainian intelligentsia could be, with a special love for poetry and literature.

It is not surprising then that she started writing poetry while very young. She wrote mostly in Russian, but also in Ukrainian, and French. In fact, she was a polyglot, for she spoke Russian, Ukrainian, German, French, and English (something that would help her in all sorts of ways later in life), and she also translated from these languages.

After graduating from the Institute of Foreign Languages, she married the poet and translator Ivan Elagin (nom de plume of Ivan Matveev), who, like Anstei, became one of the most prominent poets of the so-called second wave of Russian immigration.

They were married in a church, in 1938, in great secrecy – at 2 in the morning – since such religious sacraments were decried in the Soviet Russia of that time.

When the war came, the Anstei-Elagins found themselves in Nazi-occupied Kiev. In a daring gamble, Olga managed to convince the occupiers that she and her husband (who was half-Jewish) were actually Volksdeutsche (ethnic Germans).

Accordingly, they were given privileged treatment, and Elagin even managed to enrol in a school for medics, instituted by the Nazi regime.

When the Nazi troops retreated before the advancing Soviet forces, Olga Anstei, her mother, and Ivan Elagin decided to leave with them, partly to get away from the Soviet regime, which already had Elagin’s father executed as the enemy of the people in 1937, but also because they surely realized that they would have been considered collaborators and shot by the Soviets.

After many misadventures and tragedies (their first child, born in Germany, had died in infancy), Olga, Ivan, and their second child, a daughter who would grow up to become a Russian-American poet Elena Matveeva, and Olga’s mother ended up in a displaced person camp, where the latter died of a heart attack.

The couple now emigrated to America, where Olga and Ivan divorced, though they retained a cordial relationship, as well as a deep admiration for each other’s work.

Elagin went on to become a professor of Russian in Pittsburg University, while Olga eventually became a translator at the UN.

She regularly published poems, stories, and essays of literary criticism in émigré journals, all of which were well-received and widely praised by major critics.

Her work is permeated by a deep spirituality (she had a life-long connection with the Russian Orthodox Church), and a lyricism that makes her keenly aware of the beauty of life around her.

She possesses a deep clarity of vision that allows her to look at life unflinchingly and to write with precision.

This gives her work a sense of connectedness with the larger body of Russian poetry, which allows her to conduct a poetic dialogue with her predecessors and contemporaries.

One critic wrote that it is not possible to talk about the influence of a particular poet on Anstei; rather, she absorbed the experience of an entire generation of Russian poets.

She wrote her poem, “Kirillovsky Yar” (a name for the larger area of gullies and ravines in Kiev that includes Babiy Yar) in December of 1941. It was first published in Munich in 1948.

Ironically, Anstei, who translated so many poems so well, has not been translated very much herself, even though her poems reach out across the years and impress and delight the reader in equal measure.

Here, I offer the first English translation of “Kirillovy Yar,” which is the very first poetic response to the Babiy Yar massacre, and one of the first poetic reactions to the horror of mass extermination.

Perhaps better than anything it shows that whatever evil and insanity that may come, it is still only temporary.

But what remains—as close to eternity as is humanly possible—is the triumph of the human voice lifted in lament, the triumph of beauty over ugliness, the triumph of the human spirit.

 

Maria Bloshteyn, PhD, researches Russia and the United States. She is the author of The Making of a Counter-Culture Icon: Henry Miller’s Dostoevsky. She is also a literary translator and has published Alexander Galich’s Dress Rehearsal: A Story in Four Acts and Five Chapters, and Anton Chekhov’s The Prank.  Her translations have appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry.

 

The photo shows, “Execution at Babi Yar,” by Felix Lembersky, painted ca. 1944-1952.

Philosophy As Ecstatic Vision: Vladimir Solovyov

If, after plodding through page after dense page of some philosophic text, say, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, or Schopenhauer’s expanded 1844 version of The World as Will and Representation, you find yourself wondering bitterly why philosophers can’t seem to express their views in a more condensed and lively fashion, or—even more heretically—why philosophers tend to be such, well… tedious personages with no sense of humour and such boring lives, you simply haven’t come across Vladimir Solovyov (1853-1900).

Solovyov (his last name has been transliterated into English in a variety of ways) was a philosophical and literary heavyweight in 19th-century Russia, whose views on contemporary life were eagerly sought out by the press, and whose ideas had an enormous impact not only on other Russian philosophers, but also on such giants of Russian literature as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (Solovyov became close friends with the latter in the late 1870s),  and on the entire movement of the Russian Symbolist poets.

Solovyov is still largely unknown in the West, though lately he has been more prominent on the Western cultural radar, due to the efforts of such scholars and translators as Judith Deutsch Kornblatt.

Solovyov was born in Moscow, into a devoutly Orthodox family of well-known intellectuals—his father was an eminent historian and a rector of Moscow University, and his many siblings included writers, poets, and artists.

Solovyov had a spiritual bent as a young child (he used to throw off his bedcovers and shiver “for the glory of the Lord”) and loved imaginative games.

In his early teens, he became a trouble-maker and hell-raiser, impersonating the Antichrist to frighten the peasants at the family country estate.

Around that time, he experienced a crisis of faith that lasted until his early university years, during which he enraged his usually placid father by throwing the icons out of his bedroom.

Throughout it all, he remained an excellent student and finished school with a gold medal, after which he enrolled at the University of Moscow. He vacillated between the Historical and Philological Faculty and the Faculty of Physics and Mathematics, finally graduating from the former in 1873.

His ultimate choice was apparently influenced by a chance encounter with a young woman on a train, during which he experienced a vision of a spiritual entity in female form that reminded him of a similar vision that he had had as a child.

He identified his vision as the glorious revelation of Sophia—the Eternal FeminineDivine WisdomHokhmah, as she is known in various esoteric traditions.

Profoundly shaken and inspired to re-connect with his Orthodox heritage, Solovyov moved to the district of Sergiev Posad, close to the famous male monastery, and audited courses offered at the Moscow Theological Academy (where the Russian Orthodox Church educated its priests and theological scholars).

Solovyov went on to write a thesis for a Master of Philosophy degree, titled The Crisis of Western Philosophy Against the Positivists, (1874), in which he criticised Western philosophy as an artifact that had outlived its usefulness, attacked Positivists from a Slavophile position, and argued for a new synthesis based on religious principles.

The defense of the thesis in St. Petersburg generated a spirited debate in the press, attracting the attention of Leo Tolstoy, among others.  After the defense, he was invited to remain at the Historical and Philological Faculty as a Docent, the equivalent of an assistant professor, to deliver a series of lectures at the University of Moscow, and to give lectures at the famous Moscow Courses for Women.

Although he was enthusiastic about taking up his duties as a Docent, he soon applied to do research in London’s British Museum, in order to study Indian, Gnostic, and Medieval philosophy.

In London, Solovyov studied the Kabbalah and various occult subjects (despite his mystical yearnings he was level-headed enough to recognize that Spiritism, to which he was introduced in London, was utter quackery).

After experiencing another ecstatic vision of the Sophia in the Museum, he abruptly decided to travel to Egypt, where he claimed he experienced yet another revelation of Sophia in the desert.

He lived in Italy and France for a while, and then returned to Russia. He resumed his duties at the University of Moscow, but then got fed-up with university politics and moved to St. Petersburg in 1877.

There, he became a member of the Learned Committee in the Ministry of National Education (he characterized the meetings he attended as “deadly boring and endlessly stupid, but, thankfully, infrequent”); he also lectured at the University of St. Petersburg, while writing his PhD thesis.

It was in St. Petersburg that Solovyov became close friends with Fyodor Dostoevsky, who would base the character of at least one of the Karamazov brothers on Solovyov (Dostoevsky’s widow felt that the subtle thinker Ivan Karamazov was modeled on Solovyov, and there is a persistent tradition that the earnest and boyish Alyosha Karmazov was also inspired by him).

In 1880, Solovyov defended his doctoral thesis titled The Critique of Abstract Principles, in which he continued his critique of the western philosophical traditions and argued that the real goal of philosophy is to define the meaning of human life and human activity, which it can do only after it determines the nature of existing reality.

He delivered and published a number of important lectures, including his Lectures on Godmanhood (1878-1881)—attended by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and other notables.  He continued as a Docent rather than as a full professor, because his relationship with the Dean of the university soured for a variety of reasons.

He had to leave academia entirely after the assassination of Alexander II, when he gave a speech arguing that Alexander III should show Christian forgiveness and mercy to the murderers of his father, commuting death penalties for exile in Siberia.

After leaving academia, Solovyov finally spread his wings as a philosopher and a writer, writing countless articles in the main journals of the day, travelling, giving public lectures, publishing a number of seminal works—some of them in French—about the ultimate destiny of Russia and mankind.

These included: Russia and the Universal Church [1889]; The General Meaning of Art [1990]; The Meaning of Love [1894]—which inspired Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata; The Spiritual Foundations of Life [1897]; Three Conversations about War, Progress and the End of World History [1900]; Tale of the Antichrist [1900].

Uncharacteristically for a philosopher, almost all of these works are highly readable, possibly because many of them originated as lectures and retain the gesture of the spoken word, and also because Solovyov had a pronounced sense of humour.

In fact, Solovyov began one of his first lectures by defining man not as a “social creature but as a laughing creature”—and all his friends testify in their memoirs that he loved to laugh and that he laughed at every opportunity.

His ability to poke fun not only at the things he held precious but at himself is probably one of his most endearing characteristics.  Here, for instance, is a joking epitaph that he wrote for himself:

Vladimir Solovyov lies buried in this spot.
Once a philosopher, now he is nought.
Well-liked by some, by others held a foe,
Died in a gorge—mad love has laid him low!
He lost his body and his soul as well.
Dogs ate the former—the latter is in hell…
Oh Passerby, learn well from his wraith,
Of the banefulness of love and the benefits of faith.
(1892; trans. Maria Bloshteyn)

If one had to summarize Solovyov’s beliefs, one could say that he was a mystical optimist, with a firm faith in the imminent arrival of God’s Kingdom, and a no-less firm belief in Russia’s special destiny in bringing God’s Kingdom to the rest of humanity.

The specifics of his ideas were considerably more controversial, and drew the ire of Russians from many different camps. For example, one of his key beliefs was the need for the global unification of the church.

Solovyov regarded the Russian Orthodox Church’s dispute with the Roman Catholic Church as a rift that must be healed (there were persistent rumours that he himself converted to Catholicism)—an idea not welcomed by the Russian Orthodox Church to this day.

He also felt that there was an impending mega-war (possibly correlated with the Gog and Magog war which the Bible promises will occur at the end of days), during which the nations of Europe will have to join up with Russia in order to defend themselves from the Pan-Mongolians.

Unfortunately, that particular idea was accompanied by obnoxious racist attitudes, whereby the Chinese and the Japanese were viewed as the evil non-Christian “Yellow Peril,” who were about to conquer Europe and rule it mercilessly, until the Europeans (and Russians) would join forces, rise up, overthrow the invaders and begin a new harmonious era of world history.

But all these ideas were almost incidental to the main one: His belief in the Divine Sophia, the manifestation of highest Divinity, mankind’s ultimate future, around which all his other ideas revolved. (Parenthetically, the Russian Orthodox Church rejected Solovyov’s notion of the Divine Sophia and declared it heretical).

It was in Sophiology, as Solovyov called it, that he strove to bring together empiricism, rationalism, and mysticism into one grand over-arching system.

Notably, Solovyov’s key philosophic vision was actually expressed by him not in a weighty treatise, but in a long and humorous—although also seriously intended—poem, which is usually translated as “Three Meetings” or “Three Encounters,” but is much more accurately rendered as “Three Rendezvous.”

The Russian word Solovyov uses both for the title and when he describes waiting in Egypt for a sign from Sophia that she is willing to reveal herself to him is svidanie—a rendezvous or even a lovers’ tryst.

There is nothing new about depicting God as the beloved, but when Godhood is envisioned as a woman, a desired woman, no less, a tension arises between the metaphysical and the sensual, which Solovyov explores (and occasionally exploits) in his poem.

He refers to Sophia as his podruga, which can either mean (girl)friend, or beloved/lover. His demands to be shown the “whole of her,” and his insistence that he will not be denied, also acquire a lover’s—not a worshipper’s—urgency.

Lastly, in the author’s note that he appends after the poem, he coyly states that it has appealed to “some poets and some ladies,” seemingly negating the poem’s metaphysical thrust.

Judith Deutsch Kornblatt writes about his “audacious combination of humor and mysticism, of sexuality and sacred vision, of fiction and spiritual truth.” All these are evident in “Three Rendezvous,” a poem that remains both one of Solovyov’s most accessible expressions of his beliefs, and the heart of his philosophic legacy (and poetic legacy as well—the Russian Symbolists adopted Solovyov’s symbol of the Divine Sophia in their many poems and adapted it to their needs, which Solovyov did not appreciate).

Solovyov died at 47. He never married, but he did have a number of strong and passionate attachments mostly, as it turns out, to women named Sophia. He never had a proper home—he stayed with various friends. He was always sickly, but especially so during the last decade of his life.

His visions included much more terrifying subjects than the Divine Sophia:  once, while travelling on a boat around Easter time, Solovyov walked into his cabin only to discover a devil sitting in a corner of the room.

Petrified, Solovyov stammered, “Don’t you know that Christ has risen?” The infuriated devil replied, “Maybe He’s risen, but I’ll get you anyway!” and attacked Solovyov.

The two fought. Solovyov passed out and was discovered only much later, flat on his back.

After this incident, he started to douse himself and his immediate surroundings with turpentine, believing that it kept devils at bay. This liberal and unorthodox use of turpentine is said to be one of the causes of his early death (he was also severely undernourished).

Despite his untimely demise, Solovyov and his legend live on in Russian philosophy and Russian poetry:  A thinker, a visionary, a man with a great sense of humour and a great many biases, a poet and a seeker.

Internationally, Solovyov is remembered for his willingness to reach across religious boundaries and to build roads between entrenched and hostile camps (surely something of lasting relevance).

The late Pope John Paul II called him, “one of the greatest Russian Christian philosophers of the 19th and 20th centuries.”

As a personality, Solovyov struck everyone he met by his earnestness and his openness (traits that attracted Dostoevsky and Tolstoy to him even more than his ideas).

What continues to inspire Solovyov’s readers most is his desire to find the truth, his willingness to search for this truth alone, if need be, and his conviction that eventually the truth will be found, as he wrote in one of his most thrilling poems:

Through morning mist, with steps uncertain,
I set my course to mystic, wondrous shores.
Dawn battled with the last few stars,
Dreams hovered still—and, grasped by dreams,
My soul said prayers to unknown gods.

This cold white day, along a lonely road,
I walk, just as before, across an unknown land.
The mist has lifted and my eyes see clearly
How arduous the alpine track–how distant,
How very distant are the dreams I’ve dreamt.

And unto midnight, with firm steps,
I will keep striding toward longed-for shores,
Where on a mountaintop, beneath new stars,
Ablaze all over with triumphant lights,
My cherished temple stands awaiting me.

(trans. Maria Bloshteyn)

 

Maria Bloshteyn, PhD, researches Russia and the United States. She is the author of The Making of a Counter-Culture Icon: Henry Miller’s Dostoevsky. She is also a literary translator and has published Alexander Galich’s Dress Rehearsal: A Story in Four Acts and Five Chapters, and Anton Chekhov’s The Prank.  Her translations have appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry.
The photo shows a portrait of Vladimir Solovyov, painted in 1885, by Ivan Kramskoi.

Three Rendezvous: A Poem By Vladimir Solovyov

I triumphed over death ahead of time,
And time itself through love I overcame,
I shall not name You, my Eternal Friend,
But You’ll still heed these reverent strains …

I had no faith in the illusive world,
Yet underneath matter’s coarse shell,
I sensed Your flawless mantle’s glow,
Discerning the Divine that therein dwells.

Hadn’t You thrice revealed Yourself to me?
Not as mind’s fancy, which is best ignored.
My soul cried out, your countenance appeared —
A portent — or an aid — or a reward.

 

I.

The first time—O, how long ago it was!
Thirty-six years have come and gone since then,
When my child’s soul came all at once to know
Love’s melancholy dreams and anxious pangs.

I was but nine and she…*  was nine as well.
“It was a fine May day in Moscow” to quote Fet.**
I had professed my love.  Dead silence.  Oh, my God!
She loves another!  Ah!  He’ll pay for that!

I’ll duel him right now!!!  Church.  Ascension Mass.”***
Torrents of passion seethe within my soul.
Let us together… cast off… our earthly cares…
The notes expand, grow hushed, then silence falls.

The altar’s open… But where’s priest and deacon?
Where is the crowd of worshippers at prayer?
The streams of passion suddenly run dry.
Sky-blue descends, my soul fills with azure.

Suffused with golden azure, there You stood,
Holding a bloom from climes unknown.
You nodded at me, smiled a radiant smile,
Entered the gathering mist and were gone.

My childish love now seemed an alien thing,
My soul became forever blind to earthly joys.
Our German nanny kept repeating sadly,
“Ach, little Volodya!  Too much a foolish boy!”

 

*Author’s note:  “She” in the stanza was just an ordinary young lady, and has nothing in common with the “you” to whom the preamble is addressed.

**Afanasy Afanasyevich Fet (1820-1892) was a master of the Russian lyric confessional poem and a close friend of Solovyov from his Moscow university days.

***Church feast that commemorated Jesus’s ascension to Heaven.  According to Russian folk beliefs, the feast concludes a 40 day period when boundaries are dissolved between worlds of the living, the dead, the divine, the mortal, the sinners, and the righteous.

 

II.

Years passed.  I’ve got my Master’s, I’m a docent.
First time abroad—I’m off on a mad flight!
Berlin, Hannover, and Cologne emerge,
Flash by, and disappear from sight.

I dreamt of neither Paris—world’s great centre,
Nor Spain, nor yet the gaudy glittering East.
My one dream was of the British Museum—
And it didn’t disappoint me in the least.

Could ever I forget that blessed half a year?
I paid no heed to fleeting beauty—here and gone,
To people’s daily lives, passions, or nature,
My soul, the whole of it, was ruled by You alone.

Let human masses scramble about their business,
Amidst the roar of fire-breathing trains,*
Let them erect their giant soulless buildings,
I’m here alone, where sacred silence reigns.

Well, naturally, take that cum grano salis,**
Alone does not mean that I hated man.
Despite my solitude, I still met with some people.
Let’s see:  which of them should I mention then?

A pity that their names won’t fit my meter,
Names, that, one might say, were not unknown;
There were a couple British wonder-workers,
Two or three Moscow docents, far from home.

Still, I was frequently alone when reading,
And (you can think whatever you like) God knows,
That some mysterious powers led me
To everything about Her ever put to prose.

And when, if spurred on by some sinful fancy,
Toward “another genre” of book I’d roam,
Such incidents ensued, that I would often
Have to pick up and, mortified, go home.

Then, once (it happened sometime in the fall),
I told Her, “Oh, Divinity at its height,
I know You’re here, but since that time in childhood
Why hadn’t You revealed Yourself to sight?”

And just as I had thought these words unspoken,
Golden azure enveloped me again,
And right in front of me, I saw Her glimmer,
But just Her face—that’s all I saw back then.

That moment turned into long-lasting joy,
My soul once more grew blind to mundane things,
And if I talked to “sober, serious types,”
My words seemed muddled dumb imaginings.

 

*Literally, the Russian phrase can be translated as “fire-breathing machines” but in the 19th-century, “fire-breathing machines” was a byword used to describe trains.

**“With a grain of salt” (Latin).

 

III.

I told Her then, “You had revealed Your face,
But how I yearn to see the whole of You…
What You did not begrudge a child,
Denying a young man just wouldn’t do!”

“Go forth to Egypt,” a voice within resounded.
I must reach Paris then! –The railway rushed me south.
Reason and feeling never had to argue,
Reason turned idiot and shut its mouth.

From Lyons to Turin, Piacenza, then Ancona,
From Fero to Bari, and then to Brindisi,
And finally a British steamer raced me
Across the quivering blue bosom of the sea.

In Cairo, I found both shelter and credit
At the Abbot Hotel, alas, gone long ago…
A cozy, modest place, the best hotel around!
Russians lodged there—even from Moscow.

The General in room nine cheered all the lodgers
With stories of the Caucasus of yore…
It’d do no harm to name him—he’s long dead,
And I’ll recall just good things, nothing more.

It was the famous Rostislav Fadeev,
Retired war hawk, handy with the pen,
He’d name a strumpet or a church council
with equal ease—a most resourceful man.

Twice daily we‘d meet over the table d’hôte,
He talked a lot and all in cheerful vein—
He’d always have off-coloured jokes at hand
And from philosophizing he would not abstain.

But I awaited my cherished rendezvous.
Then, one still night, it happened:  I could hear
A passing cool breeze whisper to me:
“I’m in the desert, come to meet me there.”

I’d have to walk (neither in London nor Sahara
Does anyone transport young men for free—
Meanwhile, my pockets were completely barren;
Credit alone had been sustaining me).

So one fine day, without funds or provisions,
I set off, like Nekrasov’s Uncle Vlas,*
(Say what you will, but I’ve secured my rhyme now)
Where I was going, I was at a loss.

You must have laughed to see me in the desert:
I donned a tall top hat and overcoat—
I frightened a huge Bedouin nearly witless,
I was the devil himself, he must have thought.

He would’ve killed me too, but there was a council—
Two sheikhs of different tribes argued what to do
In noisy Arabic, then bound my hands together
As if I were a slave, and without much ado

Took me as far from them as possible,
Graciously untied my hands and walked away.
I’m laughing with You now—both gods and humans
Can laugh at troubles once they’ve had their day.

Meanwhile, a silent night descended;
It came right down:  no beating round the bush—
I watched the darkness midst the flickering stars
And heard nothing around me but the hush.

I lay down on the ground, as I looked on and listened,
When lo: a jackal howled, atrociously enough.
He must have longed to eat me for his dinner,
And I didn’t even have a stick to beat him off!

But never mind the jackal!  It was freezing…
It fell to zero, but was hot all through the day.
The stars were shining mercilessly bright;
Both light and cold were keeping sleep at bay.

And long I lay there in that awful stupor,
When suddenly it came:  “Sleep, my poor friend!”
I fell asleep and when I roused awake,
The scent of roses filled both skies and land.

Aglow in a celestial royal purple,
Eyes blazing with an azure flame,**
You looked on, like the early dawning
Of a universal new creation day.

What is, what was, what’s coming through the ages,
Was all embraced by that unmoving gaze…
Below me I could see the blue of seas and rivers,
The distant forests, snowy mountain chains.

I saw the whole of it, and all of it was one—
A single image of feminine beauty,
The measureless encompassed in its measure,
No one but You, before me and within me.

Oh, radiant-eyed!  I hadn’t been deceived:
Back in the desert I was shown You whole…
And in my soul those roses will not fade,
wherever I will be, whatever might befall.

One moment—that was all!  The vision disappeared,
The sun’s orb was ascending the horizon.
The desert lay still.  My soul was praying,
Within it, church bells pealed on and on.

My spirit was hale!  But for two days I fasted,
And my spiritual vision was growing dim.
Alas, no matter how sublime the soul,
You have to eat, for hunger is no whim!

I set my course west to the Nile, like the sun,
And came back home to Cairo at nightfall…
My soul retained a trace of that rose-hued smile,
My boot soles showed many a new hole.

To outsiders the whole thing looked quite silly.
(I told them what took place—but not the vision).
The General ate his soup in solemn silence,
Then looked at me, and uttered with derision.

“Having a mind gives one the right to folly,
But it is best not to abuse this fact:
Most people are too dull to tell apart
The different sorts of madness—this and that.

So if you wouldn’t want the reputation
Of either a madman or a simple dolt,
Make sure you talk to no one else about this—
A story this disgraceful mustn’t be told!”

He kept on spouting witticisms , but before me
I saw the blue mist cast its radiant rays
And, conquered by this ethereal beauty,
Mundanity’s ocean ebbed away.

 

*Author’s note:  This device for finding a rhyme, consecrated by Pushkin’s own example, is all the more forgivable in the present case, given that the author—more inexperienced than young—is writing narrative verse for the first time.

[Nikolay Nekrasov [1821-1878] was a poet and critic known for his defence of the poor and the downtrodden. His 1855 poem “Vlas” tells of a man who gave up all his worldly goods to wander Russia as a bedraggled beggar, collecting money for the building of churches.—trans].

**Author’s note:  From Lermontov’s poem.

[Mikhail Yurievich Lermontov [1814-1841] was one of the greatest Russian Romantic poets—trans].

 

***

And so it was, while still this vain world’s captive,
That underneath matter’s coarse shell,
I sensed the glow of the flawless mantle,
Discerning the Divine that therein dwells.

Triumphing over death by premonition,
And dreaming dreams to vanquish time,
I shall not name You, my Eternal Friend,
And You’ll forgive me my uncertain rhyme.

 

Author’s Note:  An autumn evening and a dark forest inspired me to render the most significant events that happened to me in my life heretofore, in these humorous verses.  For two days memories and rhymes rose up irrepressibly within my conscience, and on the third day this small autobiography was finished (and it appealed to some poets and some ladies).

(26-29 September 1898).

[Translated by Maria Bloshteyn].

 

Maria Bloshteyn, PhD, researches Russia and the West and is the author of The Making of a Counter-Culture Icon: Henry Miller’s Dostoevsky. She is also a literary translator and has published Alexander Galich’s Dress Rehearsal: A Story in Four Acts and Five Chapters, and Anton Chekhov’s The Prank.  Her various translations have appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry.

 

The photo shows, “In The Church” by Sergei Gribkov, painted in the 1860s.