Image by Lucien Monfils.
Having spent a decade in the enchanting world of Julia Nemirovskaya’s poems, I’ve grown used to coincidences. Usually these take the form of an unexpected resonance between one of my innermost concerns or unresolved feelings and one of her lyrics, to which I happen to turn at just the right moment. Sometimes it’s the arrival of one of her letters just as I finish my latest translation. This week it was the mail carrier’s delivery of her book — the most complete selection of her poems to date — and, within minutes, the appearance of my version of her poem “Coffee at Night” in Nina Kossman’s excellent journal East West Literary Forum. The poem begins:
My hand, flying seaward, will tremble at night,
touch a slipper that’s resting its head on the floor,
and I’m startled – as when, in a book, I catch sight
of “despair” … and it seeps into my very core.
I posted this stanza to Twitter, which I recently joined, saying that Julia’s poems, too, have seeped into my very core, but as an antidote to despair. Not that her verse is free of anguish; rather, by depicting anguish so very precisely she nearly dispels it, loosens its hold. Once named and seen clearly — to quote from the end of “Coffee at Night” — “sorrow loses its power,” its illusory insurmountability.
One of the poems in Julia’s beautiful new Russian book, with a cover designed by her daughter, evokes another disorienting state — that of a patient emerging from anesthesia. It rises, organically (pardon the pun), to a humble yet profound epiphany, merging the body with nature, growth with dissolution, death with rebirth. Coincidentally, a dear friend of mine has just undergone surgery, and so I dedicate this translation to his speedy recovery.
After the Operation
I’m becoming myself again — like coming back home,
I step into myself: pills everywhere, a clock and a comb.
I turn to the window. A shortsighted glass of ice
transforms the leaves into emeralds as I raise the blinds.
I stare at the ice without blinking, noticing how
the tree that had been outside starts to melt rather than grow.
It’s the doctor, clasping an X-ray in hands covered with hair:
the trunk of a spine, branches, and birds whirling in air.
Я опять становлюсь собой и в себя как в дом
Захожу: гребёнки, часы и таблетки всюду.
Поднимаю жалюзи, близорукий стакан со льдом
Превращает листья в тяжелые изумруды.
Не мигая смотрю на лёд, замечая, как,
Тот платан, что был за окном, не растёт, а тает.
Это врач, он рентген в волосатых зажал руках:
Ствол спины и ветки и птицы кругом летают.