Translator's Note: A blind man was riding an unheated train
Perhaps all translations are Frankenstein’s monsters. The main question then becomes: is the creature alive? We know that translations, like the monster, are a grab bag of other organs and skin, stolen from the graveyards of other traditions whose sensibilities are not always our own, grafted together into something that approximates a whole. But has the translator provided the lightning rod, gathered the electricity? In the end, does it breathe?
Tarkovsky’s poetry exemplifies the richness of Russian poetry, driven as it is by its music, propelled by a stunning diversity of meters and rhyme schemes; our translation, we determined, should make every attempt for a parallel (if not exactly corresponding) music. For example, in his war-era portrait “A blind man was riding...,” Tarkovsky employs a dactylic trimeter (plus a final beat) in couplets that echo Nikolay Nekrasov’s jaunty folk song meters, creating a dissonant effect with the grim picture of a blind man in a cargo train during the Nazi invasion. Almost accidentally, I began to hear the poem as amphibrachs, an unusual three-part foot (unstressed-stressed-unstressed), and then worked to maintain that dance nearly to the end. Without a rhythm and rhyme, we would risk turning Tarkovsky into a standard Socialist Realist—losing that suture of sound and vision that makes his poetry lasting. (I have taken just a couple of liberties with meaning, but mainly as a way to keep the spell from breaking.)
In “To Poems,” Tarkovsky’s characteristic Christian pantheism rises to the surface of the poem, like sudden green in spring. The final lines presented a problem that thankfully was clarified by F.D. Reeve, who noted that the “eyes of grass” is a reference to how fields of grasses would contain wildflowers, whose “eyes” would seed the earth. In what is an all-too-typical problem in translation, what appeared to be pure abyssal surrealism—“eyes of grass”—was an associative leap from one place to another place, very much on (and in) earth. How stunning that a poet of such great humility (from humus, earth) is, in that final stanza, able to pull off speaking as earth. —pm
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This poem originally appeared in the June 2011 issue of Poetry magazine