Songs I and II from Gnedich

Song I

The rage that killed so many,
the wretched anger of Achilles
who knew that he would perish,
that he would perish young,
yet he, Gnedich, will die lonely
and will probably also die young.
(It is better – because otherwise:
lonely old age –
they say it is worse
than lonely youth,
even though then you had nothing to eat
and sat alone every evening,
and even when you did have money
and went to the brothel, women shied away
but then grew accustomed to you
because you were kind
and sad – and life was passing by, where every day
was death.)

Homer says: youth is always frightening,
and the memory of it is the scariest.
Sing, goddess – it is your amusement
to sing our sorrows, our pain is your glory,
‘But when you come to me
pretending to be an actress
I agree to suffer,’ – said Gnedich,
and looked in the mirror with one eye.
In the dark hole of glass he saw
either Cyclops or the hero-lover,
then Homer, then suddenly no one really,
just furniture and the sickly candle
(there was not even the hand that held it),
myre alge, woes unnumbered,
thousand sorrows, much grief,
algos is pain, algeo – I suffer,
but in Greek even suffering is good,
and in Russian – it is nothing but pain.

The pain is etched upon me
(Gnedich says)
and now everyone reads: don’t come to him,
don’t love him,
but take pity on him.
even though he does not need your pity.
He hurled many strong souls into the invisible world…
Who? Achilles. – Let us not be distracted
(the sound of hoofs outside the window, the piercing scream of the tradeswomen)
into the gloom of Hades – god and place – an invisible god,
for the invisible one is dead,
as one who is afraid to be looked at,
one at whom they are afraid to look,
one whose reflection
even the mirror prefers to blink away as a tear
so it won’t obscure the world,
perfect and everlasting.

He hurled souls to Hades and bodies
to dogs and to hungry vultures
so we will be divided after death
like a butcher does at the marketplace:
souls there, bodies here
(and both are gloomy),
my face was beautiful, Gnedich says,
and then became ugly,
but as to my soul –
I don’t know.
I suspect that it is invisible,
and probably also dead,
wherein Jove’s will is accomplished
my life is counted, my death
is assigned. I did not get love.
I did not have glory. Only words
I got – Greek –
to bind them with the Russian ones.

He often thinks about the daughter of Chryses, unnamed.
Her father came for her and she disappeared,
following her father without a word
and would not be seen with any heroes anymore.
This virgin without a name
belongs to her father, and he belongs to Apollo,
and all of them are in the transparent sphere, where only devotion exists,
only awe, only prayer.
She, having descended from the ship, dissolves
in the hands of her father
like the wallpaper fades,
as the walls crumble, as the moisture evaporates,
without passion, without a name.
If he could also erase himself from the horizon
without pain…
But no, he is retraced, scratched out, he is cut
in the marble like the letters.
To bring myself to the mirror –
to try to read it, but nothing is clear,
there are no chroniclers for me
(he smiles and ties his silk scarf
around his neck).

The elder walks at the edge of
the bustling sea,
where the waves accrue on the sand with a splash,
with the foam, with the thunder – and crawl back with a hiss;
he, speechless, is walking on the shore
in the never-ending noise of the abyss.
The sea does not listen to man,
but man thinks
that he understands the language
in which the water talks
to him.

Every time they brought a note from her
he searched for the word “yours.”
God of mice, hear my prayers,
let her fall in love with me!
(The god of mice answers nothing
but quietly scratches in the corner
and rustles with the wallpaper
all night).

The ghosts of actors wander in the theater,
the shadows of heroes wander in Troy,
the shadows of words wander in the soul,
while you are sleeping, she loves you,
Homer speaks to you, you both are able to see,
you both are alive, and life is beautiful
(but awakening heroes are crying
and ghosts are fading away).

When the sickness passed
still for a long time they didn’t allow him to see himself in a mirror,
but he was so happy that he recovered
because delirium – even if you are just twelve –
takes you places
that are too dark.
He did not remember tulips in bloom there,
rivers of forgetfulness flowing
remembered only the gray air,
as though the earth were enveloped in clouds
and no sky. When he woke up
and started to catch with one eye
the light that flowed from the window
between the flower curtains
and heard the rooster’s cry and the bark
of fleetly-bounding dogs, ah, how he wanted to hug
them all!
Because over there in the gray sky-less air,
there was no one near. No chicken, nor cats
nor Avdotya, nor warm milk,
nor even the cobweb, trembling,
when the window pane is open,
absolutely nothing at all: only he alone,
but how can one be that way – at twelve years old –
all alone –
and there?

Then he realized that he had become a monster.

We went to the fortune-teller, – Gnedich said,
but she did not tell me anything,
rien du tout (he added
in bad French).
To lay out the cards, or to burn the wax,
or to read the lines on the palm of a hand
or to try guessing at the future through birds in the sky,
or to turn the coffee grounds into the saucer,
or to interpret dreams – nothing comes of it.
I have no future.
Je n’ai qu’un livre (I have only one book):
my childhood favorite the Iliad.
I read it only after the illness,
I do not want to remember what I was – before –
(but I heard, I was a handsome child
who was loved by everyone; played outdoors
with mostly the children of peasants,
and ran fastest of all. And shouted louder).

The sorrowful maiden leaves with others,
she always leaves.
Loyal friend Batyushkov used to say:
the maiden always eludes,
that’s why we love them,
they are like water,
but do not quench thirst,
we look into them to see our own reflections –
and love ourselves in them,
and rejoice, not knowing
that this dark and dreadful whirlpool
can draw us in.
(Poor madman, how he knew his life,
even when everything was already lost
he used to say:
I walked; I carried a flagon on my head
full of jewels,
the flagon fell and broke,
what was within it – who would know it now!
And he turned to the wall,
where he saw mountains, valleys, rivers,
battlefields, the ruins of cities,
the faces of dead comrades,
because time became one solid wall
in his room
and the plaster on this wall was crumbling away.

Briseis was taken away because Achilles let her go.
He was silent, she was silent.
Later, Ovid would guess at her hurt,
he would say through her lips: How could you let me go?
and cry.
But Homer made it more dignified: both are speechless,
no scenes, no tears.
My hidden love, Gnedich says,
even if everybody guessed,
I would say nothing; maybe she
would fall in love with my silence –
if she did not love my voice.
(Children’s fairytales: the monster was hiding, hiding
only allowed others to hear its voice,
and when it had fallen silent, the sweetheart fell in love with it,
when it had fallen silent, no sooner,
when it had perished.
If the seed doesn’t die, then it will remain alone,
but if it dies, others will love it, –
this is what turns out the priest was saying.
I have always suspected there is some meaning in all these stories.
I remember, in Poltava,
when Father Paphnutius was very drunk,
and was crying with great tears during the service
he was telling the complete truth,
he was like a prophet, and we all were scared).

Have you ever seen a sea,
endless, similar to the darkness of wine,
did you spread out your hands to the abyss
calling for your mother? She is rising like a mist
on the grey water (Batyushkov and Gnedich
compared their recollections. There were few of them
They agreed on one thing: goddess cannot live
with a mortal for a long time, she disappears
to the place where are mermaids, and shadows, and mothers.
After death women turn into air,
Batyushkov used to say,
and men – into earth. Gnedich agreed with him,
but thought, if she suddenly falls in love with me,
maybe I’ll also become – air?)

When they were young – they regretted
that their mothers did not see them,
because happiness, and glory, and women were
almost in their hands,
and later they had to be happy,
that their mothers were not there anymore
and they would not notice a derangement
how the person becomes
an addition to the desk
in a department office or library.
Both are servants (but thought that they were poets).
Two bachelors (but thought that they were lovers).
Two invalids not imaginary, wandering
along a dark road to gloomy hell,
like a sparrow from Catullus.
Two sparrows –
that’s what they were, as it turns out!
Two ruffled birds – one crooked,
another mad.
Birds do not go crazy,
only people
who turn into birds,
Philomela without a tongue and
Procne, who killed her son,
became a swallow and a nightingale.
During one of the visits
Gnedich leaned over to his friend,
and the other whispered him a secret
that to lose one’s mind – that is to become a bird,
and nodded at the window: Do you hear their voices
in the tree tops? They speak Greek.
Gnedich had to agree,
so as not to disturb the sufferer.
Then he walked home.
The sun was already setting.
The gods must have partied all day,
Apollo played on the lyre for them,
the muses sang in two tones.
Then they went to their chambers
built for them by Hephaestus
and rested in the happy sleep
of immortals.

Song II

He slept badly
in the silence of the celestial night
he woke up and thought:
Why wouldn’t she come into dreams?
There were only the endless corridors,
crannies, chandeliers, lobbies,
dressing rooms, dusty curtains, decorations,
an empty hall and somewhere from the street – the sound of applause.
And in his dream he understood that it must be the other way around,
that everything had changed places, but he did not stop,
searching for her between the velvet chairs,
artificial mountains, houses and trees,
silent violins and contrabasses,
he even forgot who he was actually looking for,
and only when he woke up in despair that
he did not find her,
he remembered: Semyonova. He, ugly as hell,
was in love
with a diva and gave her lessons in stage speech.

He lights a candle,
so not to think about the impossible
and not lure him into sin,
that would be shame even to confess.
Wouldn’t it be better to eat something,
a piece of bread with lard,
drink some cold tea,
and work some more on the translation,
while the city is so quiet
in the silence of the celestial night.
When he came here for the first time,
he wrote to his sister: What a terrible city
at night! Silence, as in the grave.
Not like in Poltava where nights are sonorous,
roosters cry, dogs howl,
even the cattle wake up and moo,
and if everything becomes silent,
crickets begin to chirp like mad, –
in general: a normal night, but here…
Then he became used to it, he liked waking up
before everyone and thinking about the sleeping ones
in this silent city –
about Finns and Germans with their inexplicable dreams,
about the palace where the Emperor slumbered,
about the yardmen, who perhaps even in their dreams were sweeping,
but he alone was awake.

There is always a pile of clean sheets of paper on the desk.
Clean like his face was before the illness,
but he covers the sheets with letters
like the disease covered his face with its horrible marks.
The ink blackens sheet after sheet,
for the Iliad is too long,
and there is no end in sight.
But if he stops, what will remain of him?
Neither faith, nor love, nor hope.
But he learned the rules of ancient Greek grammar,
cases, times, endings,
aspirations (“Oh, it’s not at all what you think!” –
he says to the ladies, if they feel like
listening in the lounge
about his work. One was telling him:
“I would never have enough patience!”
He caught himself thinking,
when her beauty passes,
the patience would be her fate, but immediately
forced him to quote
a particularly striking verse,
because in his childhood a doctor told him:
“Always admire others,
do forget about yourself: cripples are malicious”, –
and the boy swore: “I will love,
so be it hopelessly, but – always!
as others love.”
Naïvely, he believed,
that a man’s life passes in love and war,
not in rewriting circular letters
and abiding by the rules of etiquette).

He told Batyushkov about the omens:
A dragon – daphoinos – that is
both multicolored and bloody,
crawls out from under the roots and devours infant birds,
one by one, and then at last – the mother bird,
“nor long survived he: to marble turned”…
Batyushkov responded: “How could this garbage
be taken as an omen of the gods? Brrr… Just imagine:
all these generals stood and watched
as a snake ate birds. I would have vomited,
and you know I’m not sensitive,
I’ve been through three wars.” (Dear friend,
he courageously believed, that he, a soldier,
would soldier on, keep fighting,
and then his thought could not hold up anymore
broke into thousands of pieces,
where verbs were by themselves,
and nouns separate,
and he remembered that the roof of a house
had the legs of a hussar,
and the door was near a little girl’s mouth.)
Gnedich smiled and did not tell him,
how in the village Mikolka lead him into the woods
to search for frogs,
when they, as he said, were goin’ ’bout marriage
Mikolka threw them into an ant hill
and after several days he found
little bones.
He showed them to Gnedich
telling him: Do you see this hook?
I will attach it to a girl’s skirt,
and the wench will fancy me.
Does it always help? – Gnedich asked.
Always, – Mikolka used to reply – and truly,
all the girls loved him. But Gnedich was never able
to throw the frog in love
for the ants to eat,
because frogs and toads were
slippery and covered in warts.

Of course, he wanted
for the girls to love him,
but they smelled of sweat, and they cackled,
showing their blackened teeth,
and Gnedich decided to wait
until Moscow or Petersburg,
where the goddesses would walk
in beautiful dresses: they would be the ones to love him,
but later it appeared that they also were afraid
to look at him
and Gnedich decided to wait a little more –
till his death.

Batyushkov used to say: Only we follow them
down to hell.
But Laodamia? Didn’t she follow
the shadow of Protesilaus
into the fire (thus the gods tricked her)? –
Gnedich objected;
but he never loved
the Latin poetry
with its sensuality and appeals to drink wine,
no matter what happened, and to
throw oneself into the arms of a lustful matron
with an island alias.
He explained to Batyushkov,
that he preferred Homer,
heroes going to their deaths
and the gods’ sons,
going to their deaths.
Imagine, that your horses
know that you will perish
and are crying, and themselves are immortal,
and the gods are weeping,
because their children are dying,
and they can’t do anything,
because fate is harder than their will.

Batyushkov laughed and turned away,
adjusted his cuffs, put his finger to his lips,
as if to say that it’s not necessary to talk about these things
and not everyone is supposed to know about them, –
so you’ll be translating Homer?
Yes, Gnedich answers, and slightly bows his head.
It’s long time, a whole life!
Yes, Gnedich replies. Rain pounds on the window,
and life seems so short,
that it’s a shame to give it up – but he decided:
to give it up to Homer…
(If he could,
he would have thrown it at the feet of a woman,
even the fallen; because he is not looking for immortality –
but only: to give himself away, everything, every drop
of his useless life, every pore
of his face, disfigured by disease,
every muscle of his still youthful body, –
to give it away, because he remembers:
the seed, falling to the ground, must die,
otherwise it would be fruitless;
it is the only thing that he understood –
his whole self, without reserve, to give away
to soil which would only
agree to accept him).

When he could not fall asleep, he remembered,
how he studied the Greek alphabet –
letters, which looked like loops and hooklets.
(Batyushkov told him he read in a book by some Swede
that angels in the other world write in hooks.
Gnedich laughed: But it is Greek!
Perhaps you are right, his friend agreed,
but I always thought that in Heaven
they speak Latin –
in the language of immortality and power,
but not Greek – the rustling one,
like dry leaves when the wind tears them
and carries them to the back streets, fluttering,
like our mortal souls.
Batyushkov used to write: Let us rejoice.
But he in fact was longing for immortality,
and eternity; and there were rumors
that it causes his illness).

Greek letters have almost no corners
they are intertwined, and writing them
is a pleasure:
Alpha, beta and gamma, delta, epsilon, zeta, eta,
theta and iota, kappa, lambda,
mu, nu, xi, omicron, pi,
rho, sigma, tau and upsilon,
phi, like a lady’s exclamation,
chi, like an official’s chuckle,
psi, the strangest of letters,
and omega, the last one, which has it all, –

but he still cannot fall asleep,
and in his mind goes through the names of the heroines of the Iliad:
Agadame, Agaue (seems like the Nereid),
Aglaea, Aegialeia,
Aitha (no, Aitha must be a horse),
Alcyona – no, perhaps she’s a seagull,
Althea and Amatheia,
Amphinome and Andromache,
Astioche, Astioсhea
Briseis, Galatea, Glauсe,
Dynamene, Doride, Doto,
Ianeira, Iphianassa
Iphis – and all of them
have the Semyonova’s face.

He knows that if he allows
the dream of her body to envelop him under the covers,
he will go to sleep instantly,
like a child under the mother’s lullaby, –
but he does not want to lull himself with lies,
and continues to count,
now only those whom he happened to see.

For some reason in the homeland in Little Russia
there were so many people even in a village,
but the capital city is so big –
but the people were none,
so that there are even doubts,
whether you really exist,
if no one shouts to you: Wait, young master,
if no one remembers
your parents who passed away.
Just outside the village there were gullies
and in the ravines was the forest,
but once there were other villages
old walls and ashes.
Once the lads found a skull,
and every time he looked at the manor,
he also saw ruins,
and an invisible voice kept saying: All will burn down, –
but he brushed it away.
In the clearing there was a small dog cemetery,
where the deceased lady buried her pets
with the French names, and where the old woman
from the last house in the village came to shepherd a goat.
The old woman had blue eyes,
which had somehow not faded with years?
even though she complained all the time, that her husband died,
and her son just drank,
she threw her thick gray hair over her shoulders.
When he was nine years old, the son of the bell-ringer,
who was of the same age,
jumped down from the tower,
because his father beat him
or maybe devils tormented him during the nights, –
for if they stick to someone,
they will be with him all the time.
Gnedich almost doesn’t remember
the boy with the big head,
too heavy for the skinny body.
But year after year Gnedich argued with him,
as though defending his decision
not to climb those same stairs
to the same height and rush down.
He said: Now look, I was accepted to the seminary,
I study languages
spoken by ancient people, –
isn’t it interesting?
I was seriously ill but I survived,
and also, the guys and I were caroling,
they gave us a lot of sweets and a whole goose,
and on top of that, you see, I started to write verses.
Later he used to say: So I am going to Moscow,
to the university boarding school,
then to Petersburg, look
what kind of a position I have:
I am invited to the salons where we talk
about fine arts,
and young ladies play on the piano,
and men discuss politics,
we smoke cigars,
we know everything that is happening in Paris,
everything that is happening in London,
soon I will be introduced
to His Majesty the Emperor,
he favorably regards my translation,
and it is not ruled out, that I, maybe
might even have a family of my own one day,
although it is still too early to think about that, –
and he adds: look at the dazzling sunrise –
red sky over stone Petersburg,
the rippling Neva is like the folds of a garment,
the water, so to say, reflects the color of the sky.
If you could only feel,
the transparency of the air,
and even this window
through which I look at the street,
is beautiful through the fact that it indeed exists,
(unlike you, ethereal one).

But in the depths of his soul,
especially during the night,
Gnedich is afraid,
that when his hour comes
and the bell-ringer’s son, still a nine-year-old,
will meet him at the threshold of the kingdom of Hades,
where he has been residing for a long time,
and will ask: So, was it worth it? –
with mockery in his voice
or indeed with curiosity –
Gnedich will have nothing to say,
but will cover his face with his hand
and will cry
transparent tears
from his left eye.


Maria Rybakova

Maria Rybakova was born in 1973 in Moscow and studied Greek and Latin. At the age of 20, she moved to Berlin to continue her studies. In 1999, her first novel, Anna Grom and her Phantom, was published in Moscow. Several other novels and short stories followed. Rybakova's books have been translated into German, Spanish, and French. In 2012, her novel A Sharp Knife for a Tender Heart was nominated for the prestigious international Jan Michalski Award. She is also the author (under the pen name Mary Fisherov) of the historical romance Love's Destiny Foretold, which is available in English. Rybakova is currently teaching Classics and Humanities at San Diego State University and working at her fifth novel.

Elena Dimov

Elena Dimov is a translator of Russian. She was born in Vladivostok, Russia and holds a M.S. in Oriental Studies from Far Eastern University and a Ph.D. in History from the Russian Academy of Sciences. She has lived in Moscow, Hamburg, and Sofia. Since 1999, she has been living in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she works at the University of Virginia and teaches a class in Russian Language and Culture. She edits the UVA website Contemporary Russian Literature at UVA. She is currently studying Russian bard poetry as well as translating Russian literature into English, including works by Joseph Brodsky and Maria Rybakova. She can be reached at [email protected].

Гнедич. Copyright (c) Maria Rybakova, 2011. English translation copyright (c) Elena Dimov, 2012.