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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 ...
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.
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
ABOUT THESE VERSES
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
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
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
BEFORE ALL THIS THERE WAS WINTER
Through the lacy curtains' glow
Ravens fl y.
Fraught with fear of frost and snow
That's October whirling there.
Closer now and climbs the stair
On its claws.
Hear them plead and hear them moan,
Make October's cause their own,
Stakes in hand.
Seizing wind, the waving wood
Drives us out,
Down the stairs for firewood—
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
Snow, like foaming salt from clouds,
Or from reins,
Leached away, like stains from cowls,
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.
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