Poems translated from the Russian of Vladislav Khodasevich by Peter Daniels
The babble of spring
The babble of spring won't melt the glue
of strictly dovetailed prosody.
I've come to love the iron grind
when worlds are in cacophony.
The vowels that gape with open mouths
can let me breathe, and freely speak;
in crowds of consonants I hear
the pack-ice chunks that crunch and creak.
I love a tin-drum cloud that shoots
its jagged arrows to the ground;
and sweet to me the electric saw,
its singing, screaming, scraping sound.
For all the lovely harmonies
here in this life, I value dearer
shudders that ripple through my flesh,
the sweaty clamminess of horror,
or dreams in which from being whole,
I burst and splatter everywhere
like mud that's flinging from a tyre,
whirled off toward some alien sphere.
24-27 March 1923
This starts as a poem about poetry but moves on through language and sound in general to something apocalyptic: Khodasevich always seems to have one eye on the impossible vastness of space, to put human concerns into perspective.
The sound-play is an obvious challenge for translation, apart from the rhymed stanzas. I have rhymed only the second and fourth lines, and have lost some internal rhyme and other sound effects (e.g. liubliu pevuchii i vizguchii, or drozh', pobezhavshaia po kozhe) but have aimed to include something equivalent where I can, for instance with line 8 which is not so onomatopoeic in Russian, though containing plenty of consonants (l'din vzgromozhdennykh tolcheia).
English syntax, rhythm and rhyme inevitably necessitate changes such as plural "dreams" in line 17 rather than singular which would need an article, or reversing the order of lines 11-12. However, for the line "and sweet to me the electric saw" I have used a deliberately old-fashioned idiom, which is my own mildly ironic echo of a Victorian poem by Lucy Larcom, which I know as a hymn from primary school:
The grass is softer to my tread
because it rests unnumbered feet;
sweeter to me the wild rose red,
because she makes the whole world sweet.
This echo continues with "I value dearer" in the next stanza. The reference has nothing to do with Russian literary or cultural references, and is likely to be more personally mine than widely known to most English readers, but I hope this is the kind of connection that an English poetic translator can legitimately make use of for both the inner music and the sense of a Russian poem.
From the Window
Today was such a funny day:
the carter's carthorse ran away
to please himself, and let it rip;
a kite escaped a young boy's grip;
no-nose Nikolavna grieved
because her chicken had been thieved.
But now the thief is going to jail;
the kite fell in the yard next door
- the boy is primping up its tail;
the horse is back at home once more:
the quiet harmony of my hell
has been restored, and all is well.
Always I expect the worst:
a speeding car gone raving mad
will leave you gaping in the dust
that soaks away your gushing blood.
And this is how it's going to start:
diversions, dizziness, distress,
a broken star falls down to earth,
the waters turn to bitterness.
Soul-choking dreams are over and done,
and all I wish for is beginning:
angels will put out the sun
like a candle in the morning.
11 August 1921
While your soul bursts out in youth
uncover her, in innocence:
commit to streams of fearless talk
her holiest rebellions
Intolerant and intolerable,
trumpet the conquests of the new,
proclaim the freshly-minted truths -
at least, these truths are new to you.
Then when your inspiration seems
a little dull, a little dry,
sing of a simple cup of tea,
a pollen-dusted butterfly.
Compose with sureness, make it shapely,
bend to your will the obedient words,
and when you've come to weigh it calmly,
you may bless or curse the world.
But there's a new and magic truth
you'll find when you're no longer young:
how thrilling and how difficult,
to live by words but hold your tongue.
They gave themselves to sad monotonous
tasks, until their strength was spent.
Half-dead among them, only I
distracted their predicament.
They looked at me and they forgot
their bubbling kettles boiling dry,
the boots of felt that scorched on stoves
- all listening to my poetry.
Then in sepulchral Russian dark
appeared a flower-decked herald girl;
and I was offered music's concord
out of the buffeting windy whirl.
Mad with visions, over the sheet-ice
on the canal, I'd reach the bank
and slither up the crumbling steps
clutching a piece of cod that stank,
and driving every verse through prose
disjointed in the pull and push,
somehow I grafted the classic rose
to the Soviet briar bush.
12 December 1925
This was written after three and a half years of exile. It is full of the poet's sense of vocation, which by 1925 was becoming more difficult for him, his émigré Russian-speaking audience being either mostly philistine or a quarrelsome group of exiled poets. The personal references are inevitably opaque: the "herald girl" is Nina Berberova, their relationship developing in the winter of 1921-22; "music's order" refers to his poem "Ballada" of December 1921, in which the lyre of Orpheus is handed to him through the wind; payment was often in fish, which he exchanged for other goods as his faddy diet meant he refused to eat it.
The scansion seems very tricky in this poem, especially the first line of stanza 3. This does give me some licence also to use rhythms that may not be obvious on a first reading, as in lines 12 and 13. The main thing will be for the reader always to find the four stresses in a line, which I hope is not difficult.
Khodasevich's last line is a foot short. I originally tried a full tetrameter, "onto the thorny Soviet briar", but the sudden closure of the short line is significant: for one thing, it helps to raise the question of what could come next in the story of his poetry. The word dichku is not necessarily a briar, but I rejected a version with "hedge".
I did not attempt to rhyme lines 1 and 3 of each stanza; the rhyme of those lines in the last stanza came of its own accord and I decided not to fight it, as it may suggest the "classic rose" maintaining its musical order, with the short last line as the Soviet disruption.