Jun 072017
 

First, plain speech in the mother tongue.
Hearing it you should be able to see,
As if in a flash of summer lightning,
Apple trees, a river, the bend of a road.

And it should contain more than images.
Singsong lured it into being,
Melody, a daydream. Defenseless,
It was bypassed by the dry, sharp world.

You often ask yourself why you feel shame
Whenever you look through a book of poems.
As if the author, for reasons unclear to you,
Addressed the worst side of your nature,
Pushing thought aside, cheating thought.

Poetry, seasoned with satire, clowning,
Jokes, still knows how to please.
Then its excellence is much admired.
But serious combat, where life is at stake,
Is fought in prose. It was not always so.

And our regret has remained unconfessed.
Novels and essays serve but will not last.
One clear stanza can take more weight
Than a whole wagon of elaborate prose.

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May 312017
 

All I want to do is
escape the madness here.
To rise into the light
where I can disappear.

Where you can be like light –
and happiness is mine! –
and learn from every star
what it means to shine.

All I want to say is,
the whispering you hear –
that’s the sound of light
I whisper in your ear.

The thing that makes us light
the thing that makes us shine
is that I whisper words
and that this voice is mine.

 

The Stray Dog Cabaret: A Book of Russian Poems

(New York Review Books Classics)

Translated by Paul Schmidt.

 

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May 282017
 

Human reason is beautiful and invincible.
No bars, no barbed wire, no pulping of books,
No sentence of banishment can prevail against it.
It establishes the universal ideas in language,
And guides our hand so we write Truth and Justice
With capital letters, lie and oppression with small.
It puts what should be above things as they are,
Is an enemy of despair and a friend of hope.
It does not know Jew from Greek or slave from master,
Giving us the estate of the world to manage.
It saves austere and transparent phrases
From the filthy discord of tortured words.
It says that everything is new under the sun,
Opens the congealed fist of the past.
Beautiful and very young are Philo-Sophia
And poetry, her ally in the service of the good.
As late as yesterday Nature celebrated their birth,
The news was brought to the mountains by a unicorn and an echo.
Their friendship will be glorious, their time has no limit.
Their enemies have delivered themselves to destruction.

Berkeley 1968

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May 092017
 

The satisfied are always chewing something;
like eternal daybreak their smiles remain constant.
They think they travelled far to get here. In fact,
it was two or three steps. Their definitions
surround them like a kennel contains a hound.
Let’s say you rattle their gate. Let’s say you became
a flea nibbling the delicate skin of their belief.
One eye rolls up, a raised lip reveals a tooth.

Like a thrown stone imagining it will not fall
their explanations work to keep the world fixed.
And here you’ve come with your trumpet. Did you
think they would like your music? Your accusers
are blameless. They press their paws to their soft ears.
Why share their kennel if you won’t let them sleep?

(2006)

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May 052017
 

You will (as sometimes
people say)
laugh; you will (as clairvoyants
say) roar with laughter, gentlemen—
but, word of honor,
I have a crony,
who
would be thrilled to shake hands
with the head of a state or of any other
enterprise.

Since when, I wonder,
in the pit of the stomach
we’ve begun to experience a tender
bubbling, when looking through an opera glass
at the burly one, bristly haired, in the grand box?
Since when the concept
of authority has been equated
with the seminal notion of patria?

All sorts of Romans and butchers;
Charles the Handsome and Charles the Hideous;
utterly rotten princelings; fat-breasted
German ladies; and various
cannibals, loverboys, lumbermen,
Johns, Lewises, Lenins,
emitting stool grunts of strain and release,
propping elbows on knees,
sat on their massive old thrones.
The historian dies of sheer boredom:
On the heels of Mamay comes another Mamay.
Does our plight really force us to do
what did bureaucratic Cathay
that with heaps of superfluous centuries
augmented her limited history
(which, however, hardly became
either better or merrier)?

Per contra, the coachmen of empires look good
when performing their duties: swiftly
toward them flies the blue of the sky;
their flame-colored sleeves clap in the wind;
the foreign observer looks on and sees
in front bulging eyes of great beauty
and behind a beautiful blend
of divan cushion and monstrous pumpkin.
But the decorated big fellow or else
the trench-coated wolf
in his army cap with a German steep peak,
hoarse-voiced, his face all distorted,
speaking from an immobile convertible,
or, again, a banquet
with Caucasian wine.
No, thank you.

If my late namesake,
who used to write verse, in rank
and in file, at the very dawn
of the Soviet Small-Bourgeois order,
had lived till its noon
he would be now finding taut rhymes
such as “praline”
or “air chill,”
and others of the same kind.

 Comments Off on Vladimir Nabokov: On Rulers