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Peter Daniels
Ten poems by Khodasevich translated by Peter Daniels. Cardinal Points #12 Vol. 2 
'Translating Khodasevich' by Peter Daniels. Cardinal Points #12 Vol. 2 
about the author and translator 

Peter Daniels

"Giselle" was the first Khodasevich poem I encountered in any versified translation, when during my Hawthornden fellowship I visited the National Library of Scotland and started reading David Bethea's Khodasevich: His life and art. Bethea's translations in the book are not usually metrical and rhyming, but in this case he did include the rhymes in the even-numbered lines which I have taken on here, and I have not tried to improve on his line 2 at all. Usually I avoid reading verse translations before making my own attempts, and I have only returned to this poem 18 months after meeting it in Bethea's chapter 1 (pp. 23-24). He uses it in his introduction to Khodasevich's art as illustrating the poet's "balletic" poetry, combining "drama and choreography, rhetorical tension and dancelike release". Robert P. Hughes mentions that this is the last poem he wrote in Russia, on May Day 1922 with the parade outside, after he had been to Giselle the night before ["Khodasevich: irony and dislocation", in the Bitter Air of Exile: Russian writers in the West 1922-1972 ed. Simon Karlinsky and Alfred Appel,Jr. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977)]. His art had matured but was about to move into eclipse through the frustrating years of exile.

Khodasevich's artistic maturity came as he entered his thirties, over the period of the First World War and the Revolution. During 1918-19 he wrote several blank verse poems that survey significant moments: the day war was declared in 1914 ("The Monkey"), and the immediate aftermath of the October 1917 ("2nd November"); also more personal moments including times in Venice in 1911, and what would now be called an out-of-body experience in 1915, when he apparently watched himself dying but returned to life ("An Episode"). Even the greater, public moments in his blank verse poems are experienced obliquely through the everyday ostranenie of epiphanies not unlike Joyce's "cry in the street".

Meanwhile, along with this meditative, almost free-verse approach, he exercised his epigrammatic impulse in short, tightly rhyming poems, concentrating his ironic frame of mind.

"The Dove" was written in April 1918, about a month before he wrote "2nd November": in that poem he observes Muscovites waking up after the Revolution, and watches children releasing a pair of doves. This dove seems to come from the same experience but is not seen flying over Moscow. Instead it is one of the many birds that suggest inspiration or soul, as in "The Swallows — see previous issue of Cardinal Points at — and is to do with his sense of himself as a poet, but apart from that I am not quite sure how to interpret Khodasevich's personal meaning in this poem, so I would welcome suggestions.

"To the Visitor", like "the Dove", is not discussed by Bethea. It was written in July 1921, at the time when he lived in one of the writers' apartments of Dom Iskusstv, a former aristocratic palace on Nevski Prospekt. This was a time of great intensity not only in Khodasevich's own writing, but in his literary relationships, quite apart from the intensity of the public world (just before the death of Blok and execution of Gumilyov in August).

David Bethea calls "The Stopper" a "far-fetched" metaphor. But health was a major preoccupation, including bad skin problems which might have been treated with iodine, and the body-soul dichotomy appears regularly, e.g. in "An Episode" where Khodasevich appears to watch himself dying and leaving his body.

"Lady" expresses the guilt the poet still felt in 1922 over the suicide of his closest friend Muni (Samuil Kissin) in 1916, when Khodasevich was not there to prevent him the way Muni had been there for his friend on an earlier suicidal occasion. He felt responsible, although powerless to help, being immobilised with tuberculosis of the spine, while Muni was in the army stationed at Minsk.


Yes, yes! In blind and tender passion
wear out the pain, burn out the fire;
rip your heart up, like a letter,
lose your mind, and then expire.

And then? Once more to roll away
the gravestone that lies over you;
to love once more, and flash your feet
upon a stage of moonlit blue.

                                                            1 May 1922

The Dove

You opened up the little hatch
                  and out the white dove flew,
and as it passed it brushed my face
                  as if a stiff breeze blew.

And is that all? This meagre gift
                  of time for what I do?
Will you my friend remember these
                  eight lines I wrote for you?

                                                            16-17 April 1918

To the Visitor

Enter bringing me a dream,
or some gorgeousness from hell,
or bring me God if you're from Him,
but little acts of meaning well,
leave on the hatstand in the hall.

Here on this pea we call the earth,
either be angel or be demon,
but to be human — what's the worth
of that, except to be forgotten?

                                                            7 July 1921

The Stopper

The stopper in the iodine
has rotted from the strength inside,
the way the soul will burn unseen
and eat the flesh it's occupied.

                                                            17 September 1921


Lady's washed her hands so long,
Lady's scrubbed her hands so hard,
and this lady won't forget
the blood around the neck.

Lady, lady! Like a bird
you twitch about your sleepless bed.
Three hundred years you've had no sleep -
and six years now I've stayed awake.

                                                            9 January 1922

Translated by Peter Daniels             

Copyright  Peter Daniels
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