Rainer Maria Rilke, Lou Andreas-Salomé, and the Russian
peasant poet Spiridon Drozhzhin in Moscow, 1900.
[SIX POEMS FOR LOU ANDREAS-SALOMÉ]
Of an evening on the sand
a girl sat by the sea
like a mother by her baby.
She sat and she sang,
till its breath turned all deep,
filled with sleep. Having seen
the wide world’s hope, she
beams, nay, celebrates
the glad day of her face.
The babe will, like the sea,
touch distance, meet the skies,
either your pride or woe,
a murmur or a silence.
Up to this waterfront is all you know,
whereat you sit, waiting on,
and whence you launch a lovely song
once in a while, but hardly help
anyone’s being, health, or sleep.
November 29, 1900. Schmargendorf.
As I walk and walk, everywhere around
extends this windy clime, your motherland,
where I walk on and on in full oblivion
that I have known more than one other land.
How faraway now, how far away from me
those long afternoons by that southern sea,
bright nightfalls dripping with May’s sweetest sunsets,
where everything is merry and empty; darker
glows God, as the striving populace turns
unto Him, confident in Him, their brother.
December 1, 1900.
White home, rock-a-bye,
a dray-cart rumbled by
into the night, God kens,
the lonesome hut shut,
the orchard shuddered,
sleepless after the rain.
A lad eyed the night field:
between them an unhurried
intense unfinished story
flew on in silent glory,
then ceased. The vale entire
is ash, the firmament’s on fire.
The lad thought: Life’s damnation!
Why isn’t there salvation?
As if expecting a reply,
the earth looked up toward the sky.
December 5, 1900.
The roses, as you recall them still, hang young,
the first to greet you first thing in the morning.
All that is ours lies so nearby, including
the bright blue sky. No one has need for sin.
Come the first day, arise we from
God’s very hand wherein we’ve slept
ask not how long,
I could not tell. The present’s past
is still at zero. Time, begin!
Then what? Be calm, don’t cry,
fearful that you might die,
for death is just a nod.
Await no other reply:
there will be summer nights,
days strewn with dazzling lights,
there will be we, and God.
December 6, 1900.
Das Antlitz (“The Visage”)
Had I been born a simpleton to peasants,
I’d live life with the broadest face, its traits
hardly at all expected to convey
what’s tough to think and possibly to say
is harder still.
My hands would fill
with all the love and patience of each day,
at night joined tight in prayer until
such time as they’ve had ample time to pray;
no one will know or wonder who I am,
for I have aged, and now my head, all gray,
is swimming on my chest, tending downsteam,
seeming softer with age. The date of parting nigh,
I parted my palms like a book and I
lay them over half my face, then took them off and
placed them empty where they belonged in the coffin,
and by this likeness shall my descendants know
all that I was—I yet not I—by this look,
larger than life, than me, of joy and woe,
which clearly shines in each organic quirk.
Yes, this is the eternal face of work.
In the wee hours, December 6, 1900.
All folk afield, this hut is used today
to its own solitude and with a sigh,
like a nanny, has gently soothed away
the babe’s silent cry.
On the brick stove awake an old man lies,
all lost in snows yesteryear his head,
as he, were he a poet, might well have said,
yet silent lies, may the Lord grant him peace.
Between the heart and the mouth there falls
a chasm, a sea, darker glows the blood,
and that sweet bonny beauty love
has gone on in his breast ten centuries,
not having lips to speak it forth, again
finding no rescue, no escape in sight—
while an unrequited crowd of words in pain
alien streamed by and by into the light.
Noon, December 7, 1900.
[TWO POEMS OF APRIL 1901]
I’m so tired of trials by morbid days.
An empty night, windless across the fields,
lies plain above the silence of my eyes.
My heart began like a nightingale begins,
but could not finish the telling of its words,
and all I hear now is its very silence
swelling up in the dark like a nightmare
and darkening like the last gasp of air
by an unlamented child past all remembrance.
I’m so alone: nobody understands
the silence that is the voice of my long days,
there being out there no such wind as opens
wide the ample heavens of my eyes.
Outside my window an enormous day stands
on the city’s strange edge, a large man lies,
awaiting. Is this I, I ask myself,
awaiting what? And where’s my soul?
PHILIP NIKOLAYEV is a poet and literary scholar. He is co-editor-in-chief of Fulcrum: an Annual of Poetry and Aesthetics. His latest poetry collection is Letters from Aldenderry (Salt).