• Email
  • Print

The Monkey

Vladislav Hodasevich, translated from the Russian by Vladimir Nabokov

The heat was fierce. Great forests were on fire.
Time dragged its feet in dust. A cock was crowing
in an adjacent lot.
As I pushed open
my garden-gate I saw beside the road
a wandering Serb asleep upon a bench
his back against the palings. He was lean
and very black, and down his half-bared breast
there hung a heavy silver cross, diverting
the trickling sweat.
Upon the fence above him,
clad in a crimson petticoat, his monkey
sat munching greedily the dusty leaves
of a syringa bush; a leathern collar
drawn backwards by its heavy chain bit deep
into her throat.
Hearing me pass, the man
stirred, wiped his face, and asked me for some water.
He took one sip to see whether the drink
was not too cold, then placed a saucerful
upon the bench, and, instantly, the monkey
slipped down and clasped the saucer with both hands
dipping her thumbs; then, on all fours, she drank,
her elbows pressed against the bench, her chin
touching the boards, her backbone arching higher
than her bald head. Thus, surely, did Darius
bend to a puddle on the road when fleeing
from Alexander’s thundering phalanges.

When the last drop was sucked the monkey swept
the saucer off the bench, and raised her head,
and offered me her black wet little hand.
Oh, I have pressed the fingers of great poets,
leaders of men, fair women, but no hand
had ever been so exquisitely shaped
nor had touched mine with such a thrill of kinship,
and no man’s eyes had peered into my soul
with such deep wisdom…Legends of lost ages
awoke in me thanks to that dingy beast
and suddenly I saw life in its fullness
and with a rush of wind and wave and worlds
the organ music of the universe
boomed in my ears, as it had done before
in immemorial woodlands.
And the Serb
then went his way thumping his tambourine:
on his left shoulder, like an Indian prince
upon an elephant, his monkey swayed.
A huge incarnadine but sunless sun
hung in a milky haze. The sultry summer
flowed endlessly upon the wilting wheat.

That day the war broke out, that very day.

  • Email
  • Print