Jamie Olson has continued his eight-year tradition of posting Russian “Nativity poems” — inspired by Joseph Brodsky’s practice of writing a poem for every Christmas — on his blog The Flaxen Wave. This year he has shared his delicate translation of a melancholy, visionary poem by Konstantin Vaginov (1899-1934). Vaginov describes a scene in Petrograd, sometime between 1919 and 1923, when the city, still reeling after years of war and terror, was undergoing a radical transformation. Orthodox Russia was becoming a different country under Bolshevik rule.
Jamie’s post brought to mind another poem, written under different circumstances, by the émigré poet Ivan Elagin (1918-1987), whose work I’ve translated before. What it shares with Vaginov’s poem is a tone of calm acceptance of great loss, the loss of an entire world, which lives on only in the private realm of the poet’s imagination. In Elagin’s case, Russia lives on in his memory of a simple window. (And this warm, glowing, singular Russian window stands in stark contrast to the stony windows of loneliness in Pittsburgh, where the poet lived in emigration.)
I like my life here on this foreign shore.
I do not taste nostalgia’s bitterness.
Of all the things I left — so long ago —
it’s just the Russian window that I miss.
I still recall, down to this very day,
when darkness settles on my soul,
a window with a large cross in the middle —
a window in the evening, all aglow.
Мне не знакома горечь ностальгии.
Мне нравится чужая сторона.
Из всей — давно оставленной — России
Мне не хватает русского окна.
Оно мне вспоминается доныне,
Когда в душе становится темно, —
Окно с большим крестом посередине,
Вечернее горящее окно.