Twenty-first Century Russian Poetry


Maria Rybakova


Translated by Elena Dimov

Gnedich, Song VIII

"Gnedich, tell me, why did I hide in dreams as a child?" Batyushkov wrote. "Probably so that I wouldn't grieve for my mother, yet think about her in a different way, as though neither madness nor death existed, but solely one moment, taken from my memory's depths, when she was with me, and that moment went on in my dreams. I created an Italy for myself, beautiful as a mother, so that she would hold me in her arms. But even here it is lonely. We left for Baia in the evening, to see the ruins through the water of the Gulf at dawn. Do you know about this city? Of course you do, you know everything. It is a port city near the Stygian marshes, here Pliny looked on as the volcano spewed the flames that killed Pompeii. Being Roman, he was accustomed to the sight and knew that at death one ought to look on calmly, (even at his own) and yet he was horrified. In this port Caligula built a bridge of many boats, and his horse stepped from boat to boat until he came to Puteoli - thus the madman outwitted an astrologer, who told him: 'Ride a horse over the bay, and you'll become an emperor.' Here Nero twice tried to kill his mother, and in the end he succeeded; he played the harp to forget himself. We went into a semicircular temple of Echo, half-filled with water, clapped our hands and then heard invisible hands applaud for us, as though on command. I felt like a gladiator in the arena, but my slain opponent was as invisible as the audience. At dawn, before getting into the boat, I saw a boy on the beach throwing flat pebbles into the sea, so that they would bounce off the water, and only then sink. I rummaged around in the nooks of my memory, hoping to discover myself as a child in a similar pastime but found nothing; I remembered only the things I dreamt as a child and as a youth. I barely touched life - like these pebbles skimming the sea surface - just a bit. If only I could go back and restore the life I missed while dreaming, about which I can only wonder. Monsieur used to take me to a forest and a birch grove, but I cannot remember their scents. There had to be birds singing, and if I were different, I would learn to imitate their whistle. And who were these girls whom I met sometimes in living rooms and, blushing with shame, turned away from them, without a chance to glance at their faces, whether they were pale or, on the contrary, shiny with sweat. Not one of them was Eleonora, but unlike her, they existed. I stepped into the boat, afraid to miss its woodenness and rocking, I greedily inhaled the smell of the sea, so that I could tell you: I breathed it! The real sea, not the one I saw in my dreams at night, when the bed was rocking and calling itself in the false language of dreams, 'a boat.' The boatman said: 'guarda così é bello!' On my right the Spanish castle was pink and golden, on the left the shadows were still thick, and empty boats quivered like black grains in the blue predawn water. But I could not, I could not forget myself and become this bay. Dreams creep up and rise, like glass, between me and the world. The sun had risen, rays penetrated the water's depths illuminating the underwater streets, porticoes and colonnades; the boatman explained with a click of his tongue: 'It was Baia - but then the sea came.' We hung from the boat and looked at the motionless city under the sea: on whose streets people once walked, and the most beautiful women of the empire rested in the shade of the arcades. Now only water fills the emptiness of the homes, but who would dare to assert that all of this is gone? After all they were beautiful, those matrons of the past, and beauty, if you believe Plato, is eternity and truth; therefore, they still exist, and in the astrologer's mica dish they distinguish my features, and laugh at the silly Hyperborean, that believes in himself but not in them. But the sea says that they don't exist, that maybe, they never did. There is only me, who cannot touch anything - neither that which was, nor that which is. Caught in a web of my own dreams, a stunted poet, and your obedient servant with a false name Batyushkov. When they brought this letter, Gnedich was still asleep and the message waited for him in the living room, on the table, where dust had not yet had the chance to gather. ...Elena came out of the church on the feast of St. Mary Who-Sets-Snow-on-Fire. Soon everything will turn into streams, frozen rivers will crack and will move ice floes. She liked to watch as snow turned into water, when with the spring's roar everything moved, hastening, exposing the shameless land even here, in the city. Her shawl slipped off her shoulders, the wind played with the colorless hair escaping from her braid. Mary of Egypt was a harlot but withdrew to the desert, and became akin to a walking corpse from mortification. On the icon you cannot even make it out, if it is a man or a woman: the arms and legs are like sticks, the face is tiny. Elena jumps over a creek and thinks: all that separates us disappears because of holiness, man an' woman become the same, ol' n' young, servant an' master, the dead an' the livin'. She remembers the one-eyed Gnedich: he is half-blind and pockmarked - but he cannot be like that in truth. They just gave him that face to wear, like a hat, and angels will remove it on Judgment Day, and under it will be a handsome gentleman like from an oleograph, because as a child he was, belike, handsome. She imagines that she takes him, not disfigured yet by smallpox, by his hand and jumps over the stream, as if she were his nanny. That spring, everybody walked constantly, the city was restless and swarmed like an anthill: couriers hurried from one office to another, burghers visited each other for tea, and fiddled with lace napkins in their fingers when there was nothing more to talk about. It was getting warmer and warmer, dandelions sprouted near dirty roads, and many years later one writer did not believe that in his youth there were still flowers on the streets and lilacs grew in the gardens (later all was covered in stone and immortalized). He questioned every memory whether it was truth or mere imagination, and if it passed the exam, he wrote it down in his memoirs. In the evening he saw the lighted windows in the flat on the third floor when he walked on Sadovayia Street. He did not know who lived there now, but once, when he was very young, with his friend, an actor, he climbed those stairs to visit Gnedich. And when Gnedich got ready to read from his translations, the writer's friend furtively nudged him in the ribs, and whispered: now he'll howl. Gnedich indeed started to howl, to shriek, to cry, to wail about the deeds of Diomedes and Nestor the Elder. Malvina the dog hid under the couch in fright and whined from there more plaintively than the host, while Gnedich listed the powerful Achaeans and brushed a candlestick along with the candle onto the floor. The guests rushed to pick it up so that the house wouldn't burn down, but Gnedich grabbed them by their hands and pointed his finger at the face of one, then at another, and screamed: "This evil dog that darts would not destroy!" Then he came to his senses, embarrassed, and blushed. They asked whether everything was all right - he did not want to answer. But they kept thanking him for a long time and he cheered up and made them promise that they would come again. They laughed on the stairs later and remembered, while going outside, this evil dog this evil dog. Now the writer cannot find the words to describe the distance between those stairs and today's office. Like a stream in spring it runs somewhere until it dries out, and he cannot understand if all of it was good or it didn't matter.