To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Lermontov Translations (2): “My Demon” & “New Year’s Poem”

Transcreations from Russian by Jerome Rothenberg & Milos Sovak


[The first installment of the Lermontov translations can be found here.  The translations in their final form are dedicated to Milos Sovak, without whom there would have been no chance even to start them. (J.R.)]

My Demon

To line up his evils & yours
is his pleasure     black clouds
smoke drifting by.

How he loves these ill-fated
storms, this white water,
those oak groves that rattle

& roll.  Among its sere leaves
a throne planted deep
in the earth    unmoving

he sits there serenely
scowling, inciting
mistrust, holds sweet love

in contempt, will not heed
those who beseech him,
unmoved at sight of their blood

& the sounds of our loftier
natures he rends,
his voice swift & awful.

The muse who should have
provoked him    recoils,
sees the horror aglow

in his unearthly eyes.

New Year’s Poem

how many times encircled by
a motley crowd
in front of me
as in a dream

cacophonies of dance
& music
speeches learned by heart
in phatic whispers

mixing with shapes of people
absent a mind or soul        
grimacing masks
yet so fastidious

much as they touch
my cold hands
with uncaring boldness
beauties of the town

hands spared a tremor
over lengths of time
outwardly absorbed by
gauds & vanitas       

I cherish in my soul
an ancient wistfulness       
for sacred sounds
of years long gone

& if in any way
it comes to me
that bird-like I dissolve
in flight remembering

the shallow past
myself a child surrounded
by familiar places
high manor house & orchard

bower left in ruins
a green net of grasses
as a cover
for the sleeping pond

& out beyond it
hidden in haze like smoke
a distant village
fog across the fields

I’ll walk here, here I’ll enter
a dark passage
through these bushes
where this evening light peers

& the sere leaves
crackle under foot
my every step demurring
& in my chest

already wistful, strange
a squeezing sound
the more I think of her
desiring & weeping

how I love this creature
of my dreams
eyes full of azure fire
& rosy little smile

like early morn
past hedgerows
shows a fresh
demise of color

like a magic kingdom’s
mighty lord
I pine here through long hours
lonely days

under a storm, a heavy load
of doubts & passions
like a new-risen isle
an innocent in midst of oceans

blooming in that briny wilderness
& having recognized
myself I recognize
my own delusions

hear the crowd of humans
with its noises
scattering my dreams
an uninvited guest

how I would like to blast
their gayety
their feast day
hold them in contempt

& blind them
with my iron verses
bursting with bitterness
& rage


On January 26, 2009 Milos Sovak died after a long illness. Our friendship had lasted over thirty years & gave me the opportunity to work with him on a series of translations, the most important a book of selected poems from the great Czech modernist Vitezslav Nezval & scattered poems from the Russian late Romantic Mikhail Lermontov. Our collaborations took place mainly in the sunlit garden of his home in Encinitas, California, & occasionally in his other home in Provence, close to the town of Mazan & the chateau & theater of the Marquis de Sade. Milos was himself a gifted translator into Czech & the designer, typographer, & publisher of limited edition artists’ books through his own Ettan Press in California. He was a good friend to many poets & artists, & most remarkably an important medical researcher & the inventor of an impressive range of devices in many fields. The felicities in these translations are largely of his doing.

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