My Sister Life and The Zhivago Poems

My Sister Life and The Zhivago Poems

by Boris Pasternak

Boris Pasternak is best known in the West for his epic novel Doctor Zhivago, whereas in Russia he is most celebrated as a poet. The two poetry collections offered here in translation are chronological and thematic bookends, and they capture Pasternak’s abiding and powerful vision of life: his sense of its beauty and terror, its precariousness for


Boris Pasternak is best known in the West for his epic novel Doctor Zhivago, whereas in Russia he is most celebrated as a poet. The two poetry collections offered here in translation are chronological and thematic bookends, and they capture Pasternak’s abiding and powerful vision of life: his sense of its beauty and terror, its precariousness for the individual, and its persistence in time—that vitality of being with which he is on familiar and familial terms.

In the early work My Sister Life, which commemorates the year 1917, Pasternak, then in his late twenties, found his poetic voice. The book would go on to become one of the most influential collections of Rus­sian poetry of the twentieth century. “The Poems of Yury Zhivago” are a part of the poet’s famous novel, Dr. Zhivago, whose title might be rendered in English as “Doctor Life.” These later lyrics are a kind of summing up that reflect, from the perspective of age and approaching death, upon the accumulated experience of a contemplative life amid turbulent and terrifying times.

Falen’s fresh new translations of these poems capture their expres­sion of the beauty and the joy, the terror and the pain, of what it is to be alive . . . and to die.

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Northwestern University Press
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5.10(w) x 7.60(h) x 0.70(d)

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My Sister Life and The Zhivago Poems

By Boris Pasternak

Northwestern University Press

ISBN: 978-0-8101-2797-5

Chapter One


    He appeared in the nights,
    In a glacier's blue light from Tamára.
    With his wings he defined
    The dominion of nightmare and horror.

    Didn't weep or enwrap
    Naked arms that were scarred and tormented.
    Still the grave lay intact
    By the fence of the Gruzian temple.

    Like a hunchback grotesque,
    At the grating the shape never grimaced.
    And the flute by the lamp,
    Though it sighed, never spoke of the Princess.

    An inferno then swept
    Through his hair and, like phosphor, it sparkled.
    The colossus stood deaf
    To the Caucasus graying for sorrow.

    At a yard from the door,
    As he picked at the threads of his caftan,
    By the glaciers he swore:
    "Sleep, my love,—I'll return as an avalanche."

The Demon is the hero of a famous narrative poem by Mikhail Lermontov (1814–1841), Russia's foremost Romantic poet and the dedicatee of My Sister Life. In Lermontov's poem the Demon, a fallen angel, is a figure of rebellion and renunciation who roams the Caucasus in a melancholy search for love and peace. He falls in love with the young Gruzian (Georgian) princess Tamara, who is about to be married. After killing her bridegroom, he appears to the girl in her dreams. Fleeing to a nunnery in an effort to resist her tempter, Tamara at last succumbs to his passionate suit and, on yielding to his kiss, dies. As the Demon is about to fl y off with her soul in his arms, an angel intervenes and carries the girl to heaven. At the poem's end the Demon is once again condemned to roam the world in eternal solitude.

Isn't It Time for Birds to Sing


    On pavements I will pound them out
    Of sun and glass combined;
    In winter, let the loft resound
    As mildewed corners read my lines.

    The attic will itself declaim,
    With bow to wintry window frame,
    And up to ledge and roof will rise
    A leap of wonders, woes, and signs.

    A month and more the storm will sweep
    And blur where things begin and end.
    I'll recollect the sun!—and see:
    The world has changed again.

    Then Christmas, like a daw, will peer,
    And fresh carousing day will show
    My love and me a host of things
    We never dreamed to know.

    In scarf, with hand before my eyes,
    I'll shout outdoors and ask the kids:
    Oh tell me, dear ones, if you please,
    Just what millennium this is?

    Who beat a pathway to my door,
    That hole all blocked with snow,
    While I with Byron had a smoke
    And drank with Edgar Poe?

    While in Daryál, as with a friend,
    In hell, in arsenals of truth,
    I dipped—like Lérmontov in dread,
    Like lips—my life in life's vermouth.


    To give this book an epigraph
    The wildernesses moaned,
    And lions roared, and Kipling grasped
    At tigers of the dawn.

    The ghastly well of anguish gaped,
    A dried and open moat,
    As, loping off, they growled and snapped
    And licked their frozen coats.

    And now, as they go loping on
    Through these disheveled lines,
    To prowl a mist of dewy lawns,
    For them the Ganges pines.

    Cold vipers of the dawn emerge,
    Then crawl inside their lairs;
    The jungle drips a funeral dirge
    And incense fills the air.


    My sister—life—in a flood of spring rain
    Has bruised herself blue all around us today,
    But people in watches seem peevish and vain
    And bite so politely, like vipers in hay.

    The old have their motives for such goings on,
    Your motives most likely are silly, I'll bet:
    That eyes in a storm go all lilac like lawns,
    The atmosphere heavy with moist mignonette.

    That riding in May the Kamýshinsky line
    And reading the schedule of trains on the way,
    It's grander than scripture and sounds so sublime,
    That you could reread it, enraptured, all day.

    That sunset at wayside has only to shine
    On girls from the village all clustering round,
    For me to be told, this stop isn't mine,
    And, setting, the sun sympathetically frowns.

    The warning bell splashes and swims out of sight,
    As if to say: "Sorry—you've traveled so far!"
    The window shade filters the smoldering night,
    And off runs the steppe from the stair to a star.

    They're blinking and nodding, but somewhere they sleep,
    As, like a mirage, my beloved has slept ...
    While, splashing at platforms, this wide-awake heart
    Goes scattering carriage doors all through the steppe.

The Kamyshinsky line is the railroad line from Moscow to Kamyshin, a city in southern Russia near the Volga.


    It's dreadful! It drips and it listens:
      Does nobody else in the world
    Press branches, like lace, in a window,
      Or is there ... a witness?

    The ground is so swollen and smothered,
      Too spongy, too heavy to breathe,
    But listen—far off, as in August—
      How midnight grows ripe in the seed.

    No sound. And no eavesdroppers spying,
      And certain of silence profound,
    It takes to its work—and it spatters
      On roof, over gutters, and down.

    I'll bring it to lips and I'll listen:
      Is no one but me in this world
    So ready to weep at an instant,
      Or is there ... a witness?

    But hush. Not a leaflet is stirring,
      No sign in the dark but the keen
    Of sobs and the lapping of slippers,
      These tears and the sighs in between.


    A cocoa cup spatters the mirror with mist,
      The curtains of lace are asway,
    And straight into chaos—to garden and swing—
      The mirror runs off to play.

    The pines are aswagger, stinging the air
      With needles of resinous scent;
    The flowerbed, frantic, is hunting its glasses,
      While Shade reads a book in its tent.

    And there in the back, through the gate, to the dark—
      To the steppe and its opiate smells,
    A quartz-covered pathway shimmers and steams,
      All littered with twigs and snails.

    The garden rampages, huge in the mirror—
      And yet doesn't shatter the glass!
    And everything seems collodion coated,
      From dresser to sounds in the grass.

    The mirrory tide has flooded, it seems,
      The world with its ice and erased
    The tart from the branch and scent from the tree—
      But still couldn't dampen the trance.

    This universe teeming is dancing and dizzy,
      And only the wind can tie
    What bursts into life and what bursts in the prism
      And happily plays and cries.

    The soul can't be blasted, like ore with saltpeter,
      Or dug up with picks like the past.
    The garden rampages, huge in the mirror—
      And yet doesn't shatter the glass.

    And here in this fatherland strange and hypnotic
      There's nothing can smother my sight.
    And after the rain, out there in the garden,
      The statues have slugs for eyes.

    The rainwater hums in their ears, and a siskin
      Comes skipping on tiptoe and chirps.
    You might even purple their lips with a berry—
      They won't by your mischief be hurt.

    The garden rampages, huge in the mirror,
      And raising a fist to the glass,
    It catches the swing, tags it and shakes it—
      And still doesn't shatter the glass!


    A golden cloudlet passed the night
    On the breast of a giant cliff.


    From garden and swing, from out of the blue,
      One branch to the mirror has fl own!
    So close—so immense, with a droplet of emerald
      Still clutching one cluster alone.

    She's hidden the garden behind her commotion,
      This stir-in-the-face from the wind.
    A kindred in spirit, as huge as the garden—
      A sister! Mirror and twin!

    But the branch has been placed in a goblet
      By the mirror that stands in the hall.
    Who is it, she wonders, that's dimming my eyes
      In this human, this somnolent thrall?


    Hey, you the wind is trying out
    To see if birds should sing,
    You gently swaying lilac bough,
    So sparrow-wet with spring!

    The drops are falling button-like,
    The garden glinting clear—
    A lake all splashed and spotted by
    A million bluish tears.

    Decked out by you in furry spikes
    And nurtured by my care,
    It came to life this very night
    To stir and scent the air.

    All night it tapped the windowpane,
    A shutter creaked distress,
    And once a breath of dankness raced
    Across a scattered dress.

    Awakened by the magic sound
    Of sobriquets and sighs,
    This brand new morning looks around,
    Anemones for eyes.


    Inscription on "The Book of the Steppe"

    She's with me now. So play and laugh!
    Come, tear the dusk in two!
    Flow down and drown—an epigraph
    To love—a love like you!

    Be silkworm-like and spin and curl
    And beat against the glass.
    Enwrap the world, entrap the world,
    And make the darkness vast!

    Black noon, a cloudburst—Look, her comb!
    On gravel, soaked—Surprise!
    Cascading trees in unison
    On jasmine, temples, eyes!

    Hosanna to Egyptian dark!
    They laugh, entangled—fall!
    It smells as if a thousand wards
    Have emptied out their halls!

    And now let's rush to touch and pluck,
    Like murmuring guitars,
    All washed in linden mistiness—
    The garden St. Gotthard.

The Book of the Steppe

Est-il possible,—le fût-il? Verlaine


    Through the lacy curtains' glow
    Ravens fl y.
    Fraught with fear of frost and snow
    Ravens cry.

    That's October whirling there.
    Terror draws
    Closer now and climbs the stair
    On its claws.

    Hear them plead and hear them moan,
    Grumbling bands
    Make October's cause their own,
    Stakes in hand.

    Seizing wind, the waving wood
    Drives us out,
    Down the stairs for firewood—
    All about.

    Snow, knee deep, comes drifting in—
    With the cry:
    "It's been ages, how you been?
    Time goes by!"

    Rutted up or beaten down,
    All the same—
    How from hooves it scattered round
    White cocaine!

    Snow, like foaming salt from clouds,
    Or from reins,
    Leached away, like stains from cowls,
    Earthly pain.


    My cubicle's a crate containing
      The bitter fruit of doom.
    Oh, keep me from descending graveward
      Besmirched by rented rooms!

    I'm back again—from superstition—
      Where once I stayed before.
    The oak-brown walls, the dark partition,
      The singing of the door.

    Remember, how I held the door lock.
      You struggled in my grip.
    My forehead brushed your ashen forelock,
      And violets touched my lip.

    O dearest, as in former meetings,
      Now too, your dress still sings
    And fl utters, like a snowdrop greeting
      The Eastertide of spring!

    It's wrong to think you're not a vestal:
      You brought a chair one day,
    Took down my life, as from a shelf,
      And blew the dust away.


Excerpted from My Sister Life and The Zhivago Poems by Boris Pasternak Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Boris Leonidovich Pasternak (10 February 1890 – 30 May 1960) was a Nobel Prize-winning Russian and Soviet poet of Jewish descent, novelist and translator of Goethe and Shakespeare. In Russia, Pasternak is most celebrated as a poet. My Sister Life, written in 1917, is one of the most influential collections of poetry published in the Russian language in the 20th century. In the West he is best known for his epic novel Doctor Zhivago, a tragedy whose events span the last period of the Russian Empire and the early days of the Soviet Union.

James E. Falen is an emeritus professor of Russian at the University of Tennessee. He is the translator of acclaimed editions of Pushkin’s Selected Lyric Poetry (NUP). Falen’s translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin is widely considered to be the one most faithful to Pushkin’s spirit.

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