• Email
  • Print

Five Poems by Andrei Voznesensky

NOTE ON TRANSLATION:

These poems are taken from a collection of translations of the work of Andrei Voznesensky, Antiworlds, edited by Patricia Blake and Max Hayward, and to be published by Basic Books in May. Apart from being an attempt to present the work of a young Russian poet who speaks with particular urgency to the world at large, Antiworlds is something of an experiment in verse translation. The American poets made their versions in close collaboration, over a two-year period, with Max Hayward.

The translation of Voznesensky’s work presents the usual difficulties of interpreting the whole complex of cultural references, even of everyday sights and sounds, a knowledge which the poet takes for granted in his native audience, but which are unfamiliar or at best exotic to an audience rooted in a different tradition. The peculiar flavor of the original can never, of course, be rendered, but meaning and imagery, if not the wealth of associations and allusions, can survive the crashing of the language barrier. Voznesensky’s translators have nonetheless sought to convey, in terms of their own poetic idiom and vision, the essence of what he says in Russian to his compatriots.

—Patricia Blake and Max Hayward

THE CASHIER

The dumb herd scowled:
“You’ve short-changed us,” they howled.
Pennies like medals stuck in the crust
Of sawdust.

The cashier flew into a rage—
“Nonsense! Be off with you! Go!”—
And rose like dough
From her glass cage.

Over counters where they sell
Cheese cakes and melons was blown
A sudden smell
Of tears and ozone.

Loud was the smell of tears
Among that lowing crowd:
The hands of one dumb pair
Howled in the air.

Clutching bacon, somebody swore,
Or so I imagined: at least, he
Gave a Beethovenish roar,
Earthy and shaggy.

Drumming of knuckle and palm
On the glass plate;
So bellowed the psalm
Of my dumb fate.

With a knowing leer
The cashier
Peered at a bill she held up to the light
To see if Lenin’s profile looked all right.

But Lenin wasn’t there any more:
The bill was counterfeit.
It was a grocery store
Where people and farces meet.

—translated by W.H. Auden

DEAD STILL

Now, with your palms on the blades of my shoulders,
Let us embrace:
Let there be only your lips’ breath on my face,
Only, behind our backs, the plunge of the rollers.

Our backs, which like two shells in moonlight shine,
Are shut behind us now;
We lie here huddled, listening brow to brow,
Like life’s twin formula or double sign.

In folly’s world-wide wind
Our shoulders shield from the weather
The calm we now beget together,
Like a flame held between hand and hand.

Does each cell have a soul within it?
If so, fling open all your little doors,
And all your souls shall flutter like the linnet
In the cages of my pores.

Nothing is hidden that shall not be known.
Yet by no storm of scorn shall we
Be pried from this embrace, and left alone
Like muted shells forgetful of the sea.

Meanwhile, O load of stress and bother,
Lie on the shells of our backs in a great heap:
It will but press us closer, one to the other.

We are asleep.

—translated by Richard Wilbur

MY ACHILLES HEART

In these days of unheard-of suffering
One is lucky indeed to have no heart:
Crack-shots plug me again and again,
But have no luck.

Riddled with holes, J laugh
At the furious pack: “Tally-ho, boys!
I am a lattice. Look through me.
Isn’t the landscape lovely?”

But suppose a gun should locate,
Tied by an aching thread,
Beating a hair’s breadth off target,
My Achilles heart.

Beware, my darling. Hush. Not a sound,
While I charge noisily
From place to place around Russia,
As a bird diverts the hunters from its nest.

Are you still in pain? Do you act up at night?
This defenseless extra is what saves me.
Do not handle it roughly;
The shudder would bring me down.

Our destruction is unthinkable,
More unthinkable what we endure,
More unthinkable still that a sniper
Should ever sever the quivering thread.

—translated by W.H. Auden

THE NOSE

The nose grows
during the whole of one’s life.
(from scientific sources)
Yesterday my doctor told me:
“Clever you may be, however
Your snout is frozen.”
So don’t go out in the cold,
Nose!

On me, on you, on Capuchine monks,
According to well-known medical laws,
Relentless as clocks, without pause
Nose-trunks triumphantly grow.

During the night they grow
On every citizen, high or low,
On janitors, ministers, rich and poor,
Hooting endlessly like owls,
Chilly and out of kilter,
Brutally bashed by a boxer
Or foully crushed by a door,
And those of our feminine neighbors
Are foxily screwed like drills
Into many a key-hole.

Gogol, that mystical uneasy soul,
Intuitively sensed their role.

My good friend Buggins got drunk: in his dream
It seemed that, like a church-spire
Breaking through wash-bowls and chandeliers,
Piercing and waking startled ceilings,
Impaling each floor like
Receipts on a spike,
Higher and higher
   rose
his nose
“What could that mean?”, he wondered next morning.
“A warning,” I said, “of Doomsday: it looks
As if they were going to check your books.”
On the 30th poor Buggins was haled off to jail.

Why, O Prime Mover of Noses, why
Do our noses grow longer, our lives shorter,
Why during the night should these fleshly lumps,
Like vampires or suction-pumps,
Drain us dry?

They report that Eskimos
Kiss with their nose.

Among us this has not caught on.

—translated by W.H. Auden

HUNTING A HARE

to Yuri Kazakov

Hunting a hare. Our dogs are raising a racket;
Racing, barking, eager to kill, they go,
And each of us in a yellow jacket
Like oranges against the snow.

One for the road. Then, off to hound a hare,
My cab-driver friend who hates a cop, I,
Buggin’s brother and his boy, away we tear.
Our jalopy,

That technological marvel, goes bounding,
Scuttling along on its snow-chains. Tally-ho!
After a hare we go.
Or is it ourselves we’re hounding?

I’m all dressed up for the chase
In boots and jacket: the snow is ablaze.
But why, Yuri, why,
Do my gun-sights dance? Something is wrong, I know,
When a glassful of living blood has to fly
In terror across the snow.

The urge to kill, like the urge to beget,
Is blind and sinister. Its craving is set
To-day on the flesh of a hare: to-morrow it can
Howl the same way for the flesh of a man.

Out in the open the hare
Lay quivering there
Like the gray heart of an immense
Forest or the heart of silence:

Lay there, still breathing,
Its blue flanks heaving,
Its tormented eye a woe,
Blinking there on the cheek of the snow.

Then, suddenly, it got up,
Stood upright: suddenly,
Over the forest, over the dark river,
The air was shivered
By a human cry,

Pure, ultrasonic, wild
Like the cry of a child.
I knew that hares moan, but not like this:
This was the note of life, the wail
Of a woman in travail,

The cry of leafless copses
And bushes hitherto dumb,
The unearthly cry of a life
Which death was about to succumb,

Nature is all wonder, all silence:
Forest and lake and field and hill
Are permitted to listen and feel,
But denied utterance.

Alpha and Omega, the first and the last
Word of Life as it ebbs away fast,
As, escaping the snare, it flies
Up to the skies.

For a second only, but while
It lasted we were turned to stone
Like actors in a movie-still.

The boot of the running cab-driver hung in mid-air,
And four black pellets halted, it seemed,
Just short of their target:
Above the horizontal muscles,
The blood-clotted fur of the neck,
A face flashed out.

With slanting eyes set wide apart, a face
As in frescoes of Dionysus,
Staring at us in astonishment and anger,
It hovered there, made one with its cry,
Suspended in space,
The contorted transfigured face
Of an angel or a singer.

Like a long-legged archangel a golden mist
Swam through the forest.
“Shit!” spat the cabdriver, “The little faking freak!”
A tear rolled down on the boy’s cheek.

Late at night we returned,
The wind scouring our faces: they burned
Like traffic lights as, without remark,
We hurtled through the dark.

  • Email
  • Print