"Cardinal Points" litetrary journal: www.stosvet.net

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Vladislav Khodasevich. Translated by Peter Daniels

The Music

Blizzards have whirled all night, but the morning's clear.
Still a Sunday laziness crawls across my body,
and the Church of the Annunciation hasn't yet
come out of mass. I go out to the yard.
How small, all of it: a little house, a little
twist of smoke above the roof! Silvery-rosy,
the frost-vapour. It forms its pillars that rise
from behind the houses, up to the dome of heaven
as if they were the wings of giant angels.
How miniature, suddenly, seems the burly
figure of Sergei Ivanych, my neighbour.
There he is, in sheepskin coat and felt boots.
Firewood is scattered round him in the snow.
With both his arms tensing, lifting up
the heavy chopper above his head, he
swings it - but Tock! Tock! Tock! goes each
unresounding blow: sky, snow and cold
are swallowing the sound… "Greetings, neighbour."
"Ah, good morning!" - and I sort out my own
firewood, too. His Tock! My Tock! But it soon
gets on my nerves, chopping. I straighten up,
and say: "Hang on there a minute, isn't that
some kind of music?" Sergei Ivanych
pauses in his work, raises up his head
just a little bit - nothing that he can hear,
but he's trying hard to listen… "You must have
imagined it," he tells me. "No, look,
you have to get attuned to it. Such a clear sound."
He's listening again. "Well, maybe - are they
burying a soldier? Only somehow I
can't make it out." But I don't let it go.
"Forgive me, but now it's really clear.
And the music's coming somehow from above.
I can hear a cello, and there are harps, perhaps…
That's such good playing! Stop bashing -"
and poor old Sergei Ivanych once more
holds off from chopping. He doesn't hear a thing,
but wishing not to spoil it for me, tries hard
not to look annoyed. Funny, how he's standing
in the middle of the yard, afraid to interrupt
an inaudible symphony. And I regret,
eventually, the way I've made him stop.
I declare: "It's finished." Once again we
get down to our axes: Tock! Tock! Tock! - while
the sky stays as high as ever, and up there
still the same, the feathery angels shining.


Blind Man

With a cane he feels his way,
blind man on a random walk,
carefully he plants a foot
and mumbles something to himself.
In the whiteness of his eyes
a universe reflected back:
a house, a field, a fence, a cow,
patches of a pale blue sky -
everything that he can't see.


Nights

                                                    for Sergei Krechetov

A thin howl from the dogs on guard.
Tonight still camped in the same place,
no-good vagabond orphans, we are
warming our hands at the bonfire.

A sullen look beneath the brows
from empty nights of far-fetched sleep.
The smoke is full of ruby floaters
whirled from flames that whistle and crack.

The waste says nothing. Silent, barbed,
a distant wind pursues the dust;
we sing with an evil dreariness
that's chafing at our curling lips...

A thin howl from the dogs on guard.


The House

There was a house here. They recently dismantled
the upstairs for firewood, leaving just the rough
lower stonework structure. I go there
often of an evening to relax. The open sky
and green trees in the little courtyard
rise up so fresh from all that's fallen,
and there's the clear outline of the wide
window-frames. A tumbled beam resembles
a column. A musty chill is coming
from the piles of rubble and debris
filling up the rooms, where once
the people nested...
Where they quarrelled, they reconciled, they
stored up greasy money in a stocking
for a rainy day; where in the stuffy dark
spouses embraced; where they sweated
in a fever's heat; where people were born
and died in private - all of it now
open to the passer-by. O, blessed is he
whose untrammelled foot treads cheerfully
on this dust, and whose indifferent staff
can knock against the abandoned walls!
The royal palace of great Rameses
or an unknown labourer's shack, they're
equal to the wanderer, taking the same
comfort in the song of passing time; whether
ceremonious ranks of columns, or gaps
from yesterday's doors, much the same
they lead the traveller from one emptiness
into another...
                     With a pattern of broken banisters
the stairs are walking up into the sky,
and where the landing has been interrupted
seems to me like an elevated podium.
But there's no orator. And in the sky
the evening star has started shining,
instigator of high-flown meditations.

Yes, Time: you are so good. It's good
to inhale your awful spaciousness.
Why hide the fact? The human heart
is playing like an infant fresh from sleep,
when war, or famine, or civil turmoil
swoop down suddenly, and shake the earth;
the times like opening skies will gape apart
and man will throw himself, and his ever -
unsatisfied soul, longingly into the deep.

Like a bird up in the air, a fish in the ocean,
a slippery worm in a damp layer of earth,
like a salamander in flames - man lives
in time. A half-wild nomad, using the moon's
changes and sketched-out constellations,
he makes attempts to measure the abyss,
with his unpractised letters noting down
events like islands plotted on a map...
But son displaces father. Cities, empires,
scriptures, truths - they pass away. And man
breaks and builds up again with equal joy.
He has invented history - what a pleasure!
And with both horror and a secret lust
the madman watches how, somewhere between
the past and the future - like clear water
slipping between the fingers - unceasingly
life is trickling away. And the heart flutters
like the flag aloft on the mast of a ship,
between the recollection and the hope
- that memory of a future...
                     But here -
the rustle of footsteps. A hunched old woman
carrying a big sack. With a wrinkled hand
she's ripping down old oakum off the walls,
pulling out laths. I go up silently
to help her, and in pleasant harmony
we do some of the work for time. It's darker:
out from behind the walls a green crescent rises,
its feeble light, like a little stream, flows
over the glazed tiles of the collapsing stove.


The Swallows

If you have eyes - through day you'll see a night
the rays from that inflaming disk won't reach.
A pair of swallows fighting to escape
flap at the window, where they feebly cheep.

But that transparent yet unyielding sheet
was never cut by wings, however sharp;
no darting that way out into the blue,
with any tiny wing, or captive heart.

Until the blood issues from every pore,
until you've wept away your earthly sight,
you can't become a spirit. Wait, and stare
at how a splash of light won't hide the night.


In Front of the Mirror

                                                    Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita

Me, me, me. What a preposterous word!
Can that man there really be me?
Did Mama really love this face,
dull yellow with greying edges
like an ancient know-it-all snake?

Can the boy who danced in summer
at the Ostánkino country-house balls
be myself, whose every response
to freshly-hatched poets inspires
their loathing, malice and fear?

Can that youthful energy thrown into
arguing full pelt well after midnight
have been my own, now that I've learnt
when conversation turns to tragedy
better say nothing - or make a joke?

But that's how it always is at the mid point
of the way through your fate on earth:
from one worthless cause to another,
and look, you've wandered away from the path
and can't even trace your own tracks.

Well, there was no leaping panther
chasing me up to my Paris garret,
and there's no Virgil at my shoulder -
there's only my singular self in the frame
of the talking, truthtelling looking-glass.


"God Alive!"


God alive! I'm not beyond coherence:
mindfully, I walk among my poems
like a disobliging abbot
among his humble monks.
I shepherd my obedient flock
with a staff that's bursting into bloom.
The keys to the mysterious garden
hang clinking at my belt.
I ponder hopefully, I pronounce.
Metalogical? Maybe the angel
that stands in the presence of God to sing,
or the oxen that don't even recognise God,
way beyond thought as they moo and bellow.
But I'm no angel of brightness,
no cruel serpent, no idiot bull.
From generation to generation
this human language has been spoken:
I love its rigourous freedom,
I love its twisting laws...
O may my last expiring groan
be wrapped inside an articulate ode!


April

Through the consoling April sun
the breeze, so very unconsoling,
a sandy whirlwind on the road -
shutting up the chattering starling.

Up above the northern latitudes,
dark grey clouds are bulking high.
Bowler hats get pulled down tight -
but these two dandies let theirs fly.

And under the noise of the rumbling hail,
the proud and wicked heart revives:
"That's our very own lightning-crack,
the wingbeat as our spring arrives!"

                                                    21 April 1937, Paris


"Not My Mother…"

Not my mother, but a Tula peasant,
Eléna Kúzina, fed me her breast.
She warmed my swaddling-clothes above the stove,
and with her cross at night my dreams were blessed.

She knew no fairy tales and never sang:
but always kept as treats for me instead
inside her treasured white enamel tin
a peppermint horse or fruity gingerbread.

She never taught me how to say my prayers,
but gave up everything she had for me:
even her own bitter motherhood,
all that was dear to her, unconditionally.

Only the time I tumbled from the window, but
stood up alive (that day for ever mine!),
with half a kopek for the miracle
her candle graced Iberian Mary's shrine.

And you, Russia, "great resounding power":
taking her nipples for my lips to pull,
I suckled the excruciating right
to love you, and to curse at you as well.

My honest, joyful task of making psalms,
in which I serve each moment all day long,
your wonder-making genius teaches me,
and my profession is your magic tongue.

And I may stand before your feeble sons
priding myself at times that I can guard
this language, handed down from age to age,
with a more jealous love for every word…

The years fly by. The future has no use,
the past has burnt itself into my soul.
And yet the secret joy is still alive,
for me there is one refuge from it all:

where with the still imperishable love
even a maggot-eaten heart can keep,
beside the trampled coronation crowd
my nurse, Elena Kuzina, asleep.


"Step over"

Step over, leap across,
fly beyond, however you like, get through it -
but tear yourself off: be a stone from a sling,
be a star that breaks away from the night...
You lost it yourself - now look for it.

God knows what you grunt to yourself,
looking for spectacles or keys.

Translated by Peter Daniels