By SOPHIA PARNOK.
Translated from the Russian by Alex Chernova, Anna Ivaskevica
and Alex Wong
In those days, the first words
Were sung with an infant’s warble,
And like a springtide storm, Jehovah
Thundered over the world with a still-young wrath.
Cedars were learning how to cast their
Shadows, and Eve—just barely fell;—
Her core boiled with seed, and the world
Was God; and God was lust;—
Wearied them out with his jealousy;
Poured himself, flaming, right down into blood . . .
Israel, tell me, did you really exhaust
All the Lord’s first love?
The Lord God did not heed my yearning,
Would not favour me with coldness;
Would not guide my tired flesh
Outside the flaming circle.
And lovers drink my lips, but the inmost fever
My blood is thick, like ancient honey.
This, my scalding—this my scalding Egypt.
But in my dream an azure rivulet
Streams from the murky deeps, and I
Ascend, and I am alone—face
To face in front of You.
Virgin and Child look out with sightless
Eyes again. It smells
Of incense, oil, and wax. The church
Wells with a soft weeping.
Candles drip in the numb, little rigid fists
Of girl submissives.
Lead me further from my death,
You with your fresh, sun-coloured arms,
Who, striding by me, set me alight!
Don’t all the winds of all howling shores
Storm in your reckless name?
Marina, namesake of the sea!
Can such a midnight be the work of God?
What lonely journey must I make? The moon
Goes flying above me like a cat
Running across the road.
On a night like this, the noose is more reliable.
Poisons have a deadlier sting. Triggers loosen.
In the hold of this indomitable yearning,
I hardly know if I should cry or sing.
Above a house with a melodious door,
That blustery voice goes trilling on.
But you, my heart, have nobody to fly to,
Under the flight of this October moon.
It’s not the sensual bed that is most sacred,
But the bread broken by a guest in an hour
Of friendship at the companionable table.
Forgetful chirper, you—my little gourmand,—
Tell me, from whose hand have you not yet pecked
Just one small seed at least? I, nonetheless,
As though in a church on the day of a festival,
Went lighting all the candles in the house
When you flew in to me.
For E. K. Gertsik
When you fall out of love
With the flesh
You begin to chill
To the work of incarnation:
The hand that reaches for the clay
Almost doesn’t stir.
Already, you won’t mould
Lion or dove.
What floats into your life as a mere shadow
Won’t be fixed in marble.
You give up on a song
In the middle of a word,
Withdraw the brush in the middle
Of a stroke, because
Simply they are not needed.
And farewell also to you,
Delightful appetite: penultimate
Pleasure of the soul!
Sophia Parnok (1885-1933), was a Russian poet, translator, literary critic and librettist. Of Jewish descent and later a convert to the Russian Orthodox Church, she was briefly married to the dramatist Vladimir Volkenstein, but her intimate relationships were mostly with women, and her passionate sapphic eroticism is explored with great frankness in her poetry. Her lovers included the great Silver-Age poet Marina Tsvetaeva, with whom she had a tumultuous affair in 1914-16, and who addressed Parnok in her own celebrated sequence, ‘Podruga’ (which Elaine Feinstein has translated beautifully under the title ‘Girlfriend’). The third poem in the present selection is addressed to Tsvetaeva.
Alex Chernova studies Modern Languages at the University of Cambridge. She was born in Moscow and moved to London as a child.
Anna Ivaskevica studies English Literature at the University of Cambridge. She was born in Riga, Latvia, and now lives in East Anglia.
Alex Wong is the author of two collections of poetry, Poems Without Irony (2016) and Shadow and Refrain (2021), both published by Carcanet. He has also edited the works of Swinburne and Pater for Carcanet Classics. He teaches English Literature at the University of Cambridge, and his critical work includes a book on The Poetry of Kissing (2017) and various essays and articles.