A Northern Elegy


A Northern Elegy

Yest’ tri epokhi
u vospominanii.


It may be simple to remember all
Our eyes have seen: much harder to recall
What someone else’s memory records
And make our own eyes resurrect their words;
Yet through your poems, which have struck root in me,
A city that I have never seen, I see:
April; a high, cold sky, intensely blue;
Ice breaking up, the river breaking through;
New energies sweeping out the rubbish of war;
The swift, impetuous rush of the Neva;
A spring wind bringing the frozen trees to bud
And peace at last, and stirring in the blood
Of the numbed life left in that shattered town;
Carts clearing rubble, sandbags coming down
From the bronze horseman in Decembrist Square
And water rippling, glancing everywhere;
The city rising from ruin, your Leningrad
— The buildings, yes, but not its million dead
In their anonymous graves packed in and tossed
Together, unknown, irrecoverable, lost
In that great nightmare, the Nine Hundred Days,
Swept to oblivion in so many ways,
Bombardment, fire, starvation, plague and cold.
But this was not the worst your fears foretold
Returning from your exile in Tashkent
That June, to see what the long siege had meant.
The heaps of rubble where church or palace stood
Were easier to restore than Valya’s blood,
The child, your little friend, whose golden head
You wrote of in a poem when he was dead.
The double task to which you set your mind,
Was to relive lost Leningrad and, behind
The city, the city of Peter, Pushkin’s town
And Dostoyevsky’s Russia — and your own.
Still proudly standing, your Fontanny Dom
On the Fontanka met your coming home
With its still prouder motto on the gates:
Deus conservat omnia; God creates
Again where man destroys, peoples with shades
Your Summer Garden’s leafy walks and glades;
No sparrow falls to ground, but He will know;
All things that perish remain in Him — and so
You took your cue from God himself, began
Your restoration of the world of man.
You were the sybil with her golden bough
Recalling the soul from Lethe’s triple slough;
You were Eurydice going back to hell.
You were Lot’s wife, turned back to view the shell
Of burnt-out Sodom, the ruins where she had sung
Spinning among her friends when she was young,
And paid the bitter price without regret.
You held it all within you, living yet.
As memory raised, like Lazarus from the grave
The flash of spires reflected on the wave,
The Men’shikov sundial, a passing boat
On the Neva — you knew it all by rote;
Those two worlds lost by revolution and war
Were safe: Deus conservat omnia.
That was the bitter moment when you wrote
That elegy, your fourth from which I quote.


There are three periods in recollection.
The first — as though it were just yesterday —
Under their arch of sky, the spirit blest,
The body blissful resting in its shade;
Its laughter vivid still, its tears unspent;
— The ink-blot from the table not wiped off —
As if imprinted on the heart, the kiss
The sole, the parting one, the unforgettable…
Yet this endures so little time at all…
Already no sky overhead, but in
Some god-forsaken suburb a lone house,
Cold in the winter, burning hot in summer,
Where there are spiders; dust lies everywhere;
Where ardent letters smoulder down to ash
And, on the sly the portraits change about,
And folk walk there as though towards a grave
And, on returning wash their hands with soap
And brush away a glancing little tear
From weary eyelids — heave a heavy sigh…
But clocks tick on and spring replaces spring;
One after one, and still the sky turns pink;
The names of towns and cities are replaced;
Witnesses to events are found no more
And, none with whom to weep or to remember.
And slowly from our presence shades depart
Whom we have ceased already to invoke
And whose return we would find terrible,
Once, as we wake, we see we have forgotten
Even the way there to that lonely house,
So that, choking with shame and rage, we run
To find it but (as happens in a dream)
All there is different: People, objects, walls
And no one knows us — we are strangers there.
We have come to the wrong number — O my God!
And then, when comes the bitterest of all,
We have to own we could not find a place
Within life’s present boundaries for that past,
To us as alien now, or nearly so,
As to our neighbour in the flat next door;
That we would not have recognised the dead;
That those, whom God has put apart from us,
Got on quite well without us — and that even
All has been for the best …


A bitter moment! Yet what seemed to be
Dissolved in loss and mutability,
Led on to a new epoch, none the less;
For memory, though then you could not guess,
Must first dislimn, transform, be torn apart
Before its resurrection into art
Presents the spirit in that new flesh reborn.
Those personal memories must be withdrawn,
Like autumn leaves must strip your branches bare,
Flutter to the damp soil and moulder there.
And only when dispersed beyond recall
By private wish or conscious will at all,
Comes the fourth epoch in which poetry
Grows from that humus like a magic tree.
Memory is the seed and that is why,
Unless it fall into the ground and die,
It cannot create the new life of the corn.
So sitting, as you thought, deprived, forlorn
Amid the ruins of your ambitious plan,
Suddenly in the night it all began:
Your Poem without a Hero, stage by stage
Laid down its lines unbidden on the page
And, unpremeditated, unforeseen
Your world, up to the fatal year thirteen,
A world transfigured, risen from the dead
Emerged through you as though without your aid;
And all those voices, silent now so long,
Came at your call, but spoke in their own tongue.
Yet in that miracle of spontaneous art
You saw, although you seemed to take no part,
That fourth epoch of memory, breaking through,
Had been there all the time, unknown to you;
You saw, beyond the poet’s utmost skill,
Forces subsume her individual will;
Her personal gifts, surrendered willingly
She speaks at last for all humanity,
For stones and trees, for water and for fire,
The dumb creation and the world entire.


Yet poets who translate all to speech must learn
To be themselves translated in their turn
And pass into the general life of things
Which, having been granted utterance, now sings
The timeless poet to repay that debt
And the dead mouths find life and utterance yet.
The fifth and final stage of memory
Comes when the poet is laid in earth and she
No more remembers for her age but now
All things remember her. As, where the plough
Once cut deep into fallow, an ancient field
At sunset from the air may be revealed,
Paths trodden by long-dead feet and a faint plan
Of towns and farmsteads of archaic man,
So from the poet’s lines by time’s decay
The trivial and the temporary leached away,
The bones and the bare outlines left behind
Restore the permanent colloquy of mankind.
The poet takes her place, beneath its sod,
In the unfailing providence of God,
As, what was personal in her, shares in His
Sustaining and abiding synthesis
And the whole universe plays that music back
As you, yourself wrote of dead Pasternak:


The unique voice fell silent, yesterday
The interlocutor of the grove has left us, say
Rather to the life-giving ear of grain
Transformed, or what he sang, the gentle rain.
And every flower to which the world gives birth
Has bloomed to meet this death; and suddenly
There is silence on this planet on which we
Confer the unassuming name of … Earth.

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