I did not seek out your lips, Cassandra, your eyes, Cassandra,
At any flowering moment,
But in December—at the solemn vigil—
Our memories torment!

And it was then, in the year seventeen, in December,
While loving, we lost all;
One robbed himself, while another
Was robbed by the people’s will.

But if this is what life is—inescapable fury,
And the forest of ships—the high mansion—
Flee, armless victory—
Hyberborean infection!

Among armored cars in a square
I see a man: and he
Holds off wolves with burning brands:
Liberty, Equality, Legality!

Dear swallow, darling Cassandra,
You moan, you’re on fire—do you know
Why the fixed sun of Alexander
Shone on everyone, a century ago?

Some day, at some Scythian revel
On Neva’s banks, in a capital gone mad,
To the strains from some vile ball
They’ll tear the shawl from your lovely head…

—December 1917


O this air, how drunk with mutiny
On the Kremlin’s black square!
Mutineers awkwardly wave “Peace,”
The poplars smell of fear.

Cathedrals’ waxen fronts,
The thick timbers for bells,
As if some thief with no tongue
Had stolen among stone corbels.

But where it is cool and dark
Inside the sealed cathedrals,
As in amphoras of frail clay,
Russian wine bubbles.

The marvelous arched Assumption,
All the splendor of vaulted heaven,
And the green Annunciation
That might coo, all of a sudden.

The Archangel, the Resurrection
Are transparent, like your palm—
All around us a secret burning
In vessels that hide the flames…

—Winter 1917–1918

Translator’s note: “To Cassandra” is addressed to Anna Akhmatova, whose poetry of the period hints at evil to come. Both poems were published in Tristia, 1922.

This Issue

October 10, 1991