Poetry

Sergei Yesenin: Tragedy And Poetry

The prominent Silver Age poet was never far from controversy.

“My Russia, wooden Russia! I am your only singer and herald”

Sergei Yesenin was born in the village of Konstantinovo in Ryazan Region on Oct. 3, 1895. From the window of his house, he could see a church and the hilly bank of the Oka River – all of which he would often recall in his poems.

He began writing poems as a child, and when he left school, he headed to conquer the literary world of Moscow, where he published his first poems.

Soon, in search of fame, he moved to St. Petersburg, where he attended literary salons wearing traditional clothing, bast shoes or felt boots, with sheets of his poems wrapped in a rural headscarf.

The stunt – canny self-promotion in an age well before the PR industry – worked brilliantly, and the self-taught village poet with a mop of golden curls became incredibly popular. In 1916, he had the opportunity to perform to the family of Emperor Nicholas II.


“Infamy has come to me, / That I am an abuser and scandalmonger”

Yesenin also earned notoriety as a troublemaker. He was closely involved with the literary scene and often teased other poets. His best-known literary duels were with another famous poet, Vladimir Mayakovsky.

With his love of rural space, Yesenin did not accept his counterpart’s revolutionary and industrial poems. Mayakovsky, however, urged him not to waste his talent describing nature and dedicate it to Bolshevism instead.

During a public poetry reading Yesenin told Mayakovsky that he would not give “his” Russia to him: “Russia is mine! And you are an American!” To that, Mayakovsky replied sarcastically: “Take it, here you are! Eat it with bread!”

“Many women loved me, and I loved more than one, too”

Love is the second major theme in Yesenin’s work. A handsome ladies’ man, the poet had four children from his numerous affairs. His first common-law wife, Anna, gave birth to a son, Yuri, in 1914, but Yesenin left his family for St. Petersburg and only rarely visited the child.

In 1917, he married the beautiful actress Zinaida Reich, who gave birth to a daughter, Tatyana, and a son, Konstantin. The separated two years later, and Reich soon married the renowned director Vsevolod Meyerhold, becoming one of Moscow’s most famous actresses.

The poet’s second official wife was the American dancer Isadora Duncan. She was 18 years older than him and neither spoke the other’s language. Their marriage was full of endless scandals and lasted about two years. The poet accompanied Duncan on tour in Europe and America, where he would perform at parallel literary events.

Sofya, Yesenin’s third wife, was Leo Tolstoy’s granddaughter, Sophia Andreyevna Tolstaya. The poet married her a few months before his death, and this was also an unhappy marriage. “Everything here is too filled with the ‘great old man,’ it is choking me,” Yesenin complained while living in Sofya’s home. It is Tolstaya who did a lot to preserve his legacy and left memoirs about him.

“Silly heart, don’t beat …”

Yesenin greeted the 1917 Revolution with enthusiasm and the hope that Russia would be transformed, but he soon saw the hunger, destruction and terror in the country, and began describing apocalyptic scenes: “the garden of skulls” and “rabid glow of corpses.”

In his long poem, “Pugachev” – about the famous rebel and impostor who organized a mass revolt against Catherine II – Yesenin turns to the theme of confrontation between power and the people. The Land of Scoundrels, another long poem, would continue this theme.

In 1924, a year before his death, in the poem. “The Return Home,” he describes a ravaged village with its poor wooden houses and a calendar portrait of Lenin hanging instead of an icon. Seeing Yesenin as an ideological and cultural danger, the authorities harassed the poet, bringing arbitrary court cases against him.

In 1925, nervous breakdowns, alcoholism and pressure from the authorities landed Yesenin in a mental hospital. A month later he was found hanging from a pipe in the Angleterre Hotel in Leningrad (as St. Petersburg was known in the Soviet Union). The previous day, Yesenin had composed his final poem, “Goodbye, my Darling, Goodbye,” in blood:

Goodbye, my darling, goodbye
My love, you are forver in my heart.
This farewell was preordained
As shall be our reunion.

Goodbye. No handshake or fond word.
Let’s not have sadness furrow the brow.
There’s nothing new in dying now
And nothing new in living either.

The official cause of death was suicide, but many alternative versions have been put forward in the last decade. The most common is that the troublesome poet was murdered by the Soviet authorities.

Inna Parfenova writes about literature and culture for Russia Beyond.

The photo shows a portrait of Sergei Yesenin. Provenance and authorship unknown.

November 11, 1918: The Poems of Bertram John William Andrews

[In commemoration of the end of the First World War, one hundred years ago, we present a series of poems only recovered in 2015. They are written by Bertram John William Andrews, who died of his wounds on July 31st, 1917 in the Third Battle of Ypres. He was twenty-two years of age. The poems, unpublished, were left with Annie Knox, a girl that Bertram was courting. It was the niece of Annie who found the poems in 2015. There are many famous poets of World War I – but the few verses that Andrews left behind, presented here, also possess a delicacy and fineness of thought that is rare.]

 

Bertram John William Andrews (1895 – 1917)

 

Love and War

A while ago in London town,
I watched the crowds come trooping down
And mark’d the people passing by,
(Such hosts of people passing by)
All speeding on so pensively.
Oblivious of my stare.
Yet all the time I was aware
That one had gone who should be there,
Thus, searching in my memory,
I could not think who it should be
Till, happily,

I saw a soldier home from France
“’Tis he”, I thought, “That merry glance!
“’Tis Cupid who, his bow and dart
“For bomb and bayonet laid apart,
“No longer wars on human heart
“But wages warfare new.
“Yet that,” I ponder’d,” can’t be true.
“The land has lovers still a few.
“Who then can Cupid’s place supply,
“Since still his arrows seem to fly
“unerringly?”

Anon a maiden chanc’d to pass,
A bright and winsome, laughing lass;
Who, as she went, provokingly
Enslav’d mankind and dext’rously
Contrived, their hearts should captive be
To her whom next they view’d.
Now Cupid fights, his ancient feud
Is by his sister still pursued:
But deadlier her artillery
(His bow and quiver idle lie),
Her roguish eye.

Plumstead
August 1916

**********

At Eventide

The scented zephyr whispers down the hill.
The trees droop low to catch his message sweet.
Rippling, it flows from bough to bough until
It tells me, murmuring softly and discreet.
My love is nigh – and all my pulses fill
With longing: while the summer beauties fleet
Unseen, unmarked, before my eyes that strain
For that first glimpse of her whose magic
Stirs my brain.

The summer takes a fresher sweetness now
The flow’rets bloom in colours yet more fair
And those caressing breezes softer flow
And add more radiant perfume to the air.
Enchanted, Nature’s beauties brighter glow.
She dons a magic loveliness more rare.
My love is nigh – the earth becomes more bright,
And learns to show more lovely in my
loved one’s sight.

The brazen sun his boldness finds too gay,
Confronted with that beauty: and apace
Red and asham’d, he hastes to flee away:
And earth, relieved, still finds a newer grace
When he is gone. And in the twilight grey
Ethereal shines that perfect wistful face.
With benediction stars awake high above
And all my heart goes out in strong
Abiding love.

In passion’s colours, scarlet, purple, mauve.
The sun expires: and silver floods the land
All virginal and pure the moonbeams rove
And line with light the earth on ev’ry hand.
There, where the fierce descending Phoebus strove
With Dian’s onrush, now a stately band
White, fleecy clouds, float through the steel-blue sky
On earth is peace, and in my soul, for Love is nigh.

The nestling villages in silence sleep
The little rivers murmur quietly.
Athwart the moonlit hills the shadows creep
And all the night seems full of mystery.
It’s silences my inmost fibres steep
And lull my spirit to an ecstacy.
Cathedral-like the stillness broods, and rest
Sentient of Love, lies like a garment on Earth’s breast.

Gailes
July 1916

**********

Dreams

I dreamed I was a warrior whose cuirass
Shining in splendour paled Apollo’s light.
Massive my shield and fierce it’s polish’d brass
And terrible my helmet’s nodding height.
Within my sword dwelt Slaughter and pale Fright
Ran o’er the lands, submerged neath sable pall,
For with my reeking triumph fell bleak night
And death. Yet all this had I left, to fall
Vanquished before thy feet and own myself thy thrall

And yet again I dreamed: that Music’s pow’rs
Intoxicating, from my fingers flow,
While nations wondered and the woodland flow’d
Entranc’d , in still more perfect beauty glow’d.
At times my strains like shrieking tunes rode
Upon the tempest’s height: at times they fell
With sigh as soft as snow; yet ever strode
As victors o’er men’s natures. But their spell
To thee could not express what all my
Heart would tell.

At last the radiance of pure happiness
Poured on my soul. I dreamed a perfect dream
And Love fulfill’d my life with loveliness
And hid in glory that faint, pallid gleam
Of War’s long stress and Music’s pulsing stream.
“To be thy lover.” Such soft harmony
Lies in those words, which sweeter sounding seem
Than all the magic strains of Faëry.
Ah! loved one, grant it may no more be dream to me.

Gailes
July 1916

**********

Memories

Some mem’ries cling as the heart grows old
Of happy days in the long ago:
And thoughts drift back, sweet thoughts of gold
None else can know

The passionate scent of your windswept hair,
The charm of your slow-waking smile
Those fathomless eyes of mischief rare;
Still will beguile.

And it may be years will pass away,
And Life wan dim and Death draw nigh;
That glorious dream of a sweet June day
Will never die.

Turnberry
Midsummer 1916

**********

The Ship of Dreams

A vessel sails the midnight air
Merrily, merrily,
With merchandise of treasures rare
In purple majesty.
Bright dreams are all its costly freight
And to the port of souls it glides
To charm, where care was, and make glad.
Its choicest wares make strong the sad.
In stormy souls serene it rides
To give respite where sorrow rode.
Ah! Shining argosy!

That ship casts anchor oft, where I,
My soul in stark dismay
From days dark torment, restless lie:
And lulls that torment’s sway.
From foreign sea and distant land
Float dreams, surpassing Ophir’s waves,
The day’s chief beauties and delight,
The mystic wonders of the night,
The chiefest wealth that vessel bears,
More rich than gems of Samarkand
Or pearls from the Cathay.

Ash Rifle Range
5/9/16

**********

Explanations

That aged one, who still the fire
Of headstrong youth retains:
Who kindles ev’rywhere desire
And binds all men in chains:
Who sometimes hard and cruel would seem
Who makes and shatters many a dream:
For him, harsh master many a ream
I’ve spoil’d and lost my pains
Poor wight!

Each eve old Love comes sailing down
To wake my slumb’ring lyre.
And, for a while, without a frown
With verse he will inspire.
Then, when I think I’m going strong,
He hides his face and all goes wrong.
I’m stranded, so’s my lovely song.
Love smiles and I retire.
Good night!

Gailes
July 1916

**********

Epilogue

Thus has this little book an end:
But, friend,
If you should read its lines and them condemn:
Pray stay your judgment while I crave
Your patience. Though I sing a strain
Of Sentiment, remember once again
It is the best so dull a knave
As I can sing. And if I dare
Exhort you to refrain awhile:
Has one verse pleas’d you, made you smile?
A little then I pay to Ayr,
Which pleasant town I in my heart do bless
For pleasant folk and three month’s happiness

So I retire. I make my bow
Right now
If anyone to jeer still dares
Who cares?

15 August 1916

[Second Lieutenant Bertram J.W. Andrews, Royal Sussex Regiment, 13th Battalion (the South Downs), is buried in Dozinghem Military Cemetery, in Belgium].

 

These poems are provided through the courtesy of Discover War Poets.
The photo shows, “Mud Road to Passchendaele,” by Douglas W. Culham, painted in 1917.

In Response To Psalm 50

Psalm 50:3: “Our God shall come, and shall not keep silence: a fire shall devour before him, and it shall be very tempestuous round about him.”

 

September

Seven embers of thought enflamed,
a mind on fire, in a wooden frame.
That single wick of a candle, broken
into a shaft of smoke, crying
molten words unspoken.

The Ether

The ether,
suspended above the clouds
like a sunset whittled down
to its final shavings,
sucked up by the moon
into the vacuum of high noon,
where the echoes go on raving…
Raving…
Raving.

 

Airships

Blowing leaves,
motion without sound,
airships breaking heaven
where only silence is unbound.

 

Cosmin Dzurdzsa is the senior editor of The Post Millennial
The photo shows, “King David Playing the Harp,” by Gerard van Honthorst, painted in 1622.

Animals And Humans In King Lear

Scattered throughout Shakespeare’s King Lear are references to animals. These references serve as points of comparison, and affinity, with the human animal. The purpose of these references is to highlight human existence on the appetitive level – that which solely feeds and nurtures the body, without concern for concepts that drive human society, such as ethics and morality.

In fact, it is for this very reason that Lear is turned out into the wild heath, very much like a feral beast, wherein he can enact his tragedy, free from all associations with the constructs of civilization.

In effect, the animal references in King Lear emphasize humankind’s affinity with all living things, in that each of us is involved in a cycle – birth, begetting offspring, death – life outside civilization, life as the instinctual drive to breed and survive.

As well, it is important to realize that human society is also a construct of superfluity in that human beings tend to accumulate wealth and power, without thinking about why they need to carry on in this way.

This is precisely the painful lesson that Lear learns on the heath. He has been turned out into the storm like some mad, unwanted animal. He, the king, is powerless before nature. All his wealth, all his influence, even his fifty companions that he kept with him at all times as a show of his might – are all stripped away. On the heath, he is no more than a lost, old man whom no one wants.

Interestingly enough, Lear the king, living in his court, was more appetitive, more driven by his own sense of power (since he could make or break the lives of his daughter, especially Cordelia) – more like an animal – than the human being that he becomes on the heath.

It is by suffering like a wretched animal, by being cast to the very lowest level of subsistence, that Lear learns about truth of a human life, indeed the value of a human life.

It by suffering that he undergoes purification, where all superfluity is stripped from him, and he becomes a man that finally understands the value of love and compassion. And the animals teach this lesson to him:

Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp,
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just (III.iv.28-36).

Despite the darkness that pervades the entire play, King Lear is about the discovery of love. All too often a lifetime will go by before we understand the reality of love.

In fact, the entire play is structured around the idea of inversion – things that we assume are normal and therefore proper (such as Lear the King parceling out his kingdom to the daughter who loves him the most) – are twisted and inherently wrong, if not evil.

By his own action, by trying to see which daughter loves him the most, Lear unleashes the tragedy that shall consume in the end. Lear the “wise, old king” is in fact a foolish old man – for he actually believes he can discern true love by initiating a game – “Let’s play who loves Dad the most.”

But Cordelia refuses to play. She knows that true love is not contained in mere words, but is in fact found in actions and deeds – something Lear himself bitterly learns:

No, no, no, no! Come let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage;
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too –
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out (V.iii.8-15).

Birds in a cage are freer than kings at court. They are completely without guile and deception. The inversion continues, for the cage is the freest place for Lear; it is there he finds truth, and it is there that he finds true love that Cordelia bears for him.

Of course, it is in the nature of Shakespearean tragedy that death comes precisely – and only – when complete realization is achieved and truth laid bare.

Thus, when Lear finds Cordelia, it is too late. Death takes away the very person that Lear sought throughout the play – someone who would love him without hope for reward.

And it is at this very juncture that we have the strongest evocation of the parallel between human existence and animals – for as living creatures we share the same fate – some will die soon, others a little later, but human and animals – indeed all life – is bound to the cycle of life and death:

Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never (V.iii.307-309).
The finality of “Never” rings like a knell upon all human hopes to be greater and higher than what we really are – human animals.

It is this question that Kent asks as he sees Lear carry in the dead Ophelia: “Is this the promis’d end” (V.iii.265).

When the play ends, we must answer Kent and say, “Yes. This is the promised end – for death makes animals of us all.” And it is to Kent that we must leave the final word: “Break, heart, I prithee, break”(V.iii.314).

 

The photo shows, “King Lear, Act I, Scene I (Cordelia’s Farewell),” by Edwin Austin Abbey, painted in 1898.

Two Sonnets

I.

You sit besplendoured midst celestial spheres,
To bebass you is thus fit heaven’s joy:
Just as the mists play upon placid meers
And hearts in love must first wisdom employ.

How is the tree in just one seed embowed?
How comes the earth to conceal each bright face?
What silence emblazons the drifting cloud?
Why yearns the soul for the fire’s embrace?

It is you alone that bestir the heart
And give the eye grand Promethean light;
In your limbs is found the highest of art
To kneel ‘fore which is supernal delight.

When Now grace and reason are wedded in you,
When As the fresh day’s herald is dawn’s soft dew.

 

II.

Like lightning that strikes through the mighty oak
To find the arcane, dark richness of earth,
So does the patience of reason invoke
Grand gestures of both sadness and high mirth.

I reach forth in silence the joy of you
Which bepens your name upon my blank soul;
It is the mark of you, the purest hue,
The very urge that makes the sea to roll.

How halting the tongue that seeks to extol
The consummation found hidden in you,
The charter of which is read by but few
Like slow plaintiff birdsong that must condole.

When Like leaves and flowers true Nature convoke,
When So are my scanty words for you bespoke.

 

The photo shows, “Waiting By The Window,” by Carl Holsøe, date not known.

 

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.

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.