The Lermontov translations (1): 'Untitled Poem' & 'The Dream'

Transcreations from Russian by Jerome Rothenberg & Milos Sovak

Mikhail Lermontov - Selfportrait - 1837
Mikhail Lermontov - Selfportrait - 1837

[The appeal to me in the works that follow was in the harshness and fury of Lermontov’s romanticism, but it was just this note of contempt, as in his “iron verses / bursting with bitterness / & rage,” that marked him as a poet who displayed, as Nietzsche wrote of Heine, “that divine malice without which I cannot conceive perfection.” It was that spirit – not necessarily our own – that Milos Sovak & I tried to capture in a project to translate Lermontov anew, sadly terminated by Milos’s death in 2009. I’ll present the four poems we did accomplish in two installments. (J.R.)]


spleen & sadness,
not a hand held out
& heartsick

craving it!
& what’s the good
if any, ever?

Or forever – years lost
& the best of years!
Or maybe love

with whom?
the time too short,
not worth it

& forever love
to look inside you

deep down, not a trace
of lost time
joys & miseries

turned into nothing
asking: what is passion
that sweet sickness

& how long & whether
it will last or fade
when brought back to your senses

& life too? just wait
& take a long hard look
& see it like it is

an empty


noon heat ablaze
here in this gorge 
in Dagestan

lead in my chest
I lie unmoving
deep wound

steaming still
a trace of smoke
& drop by drop 
my blood 

sand in the gorge
              I lie alone
                          the ragged edges
of its cliffs
              encircle me
                           the circle closing
& the sun is battering
              the yellow summits
asleep inside
                my dream that’s dead

& in my dream I dreamed
                a night of shining lights
                            an evening feast
down home
                into & out of which
                            a company of women
garlanded with flowers
                            spoke about me

only one girl
                who didn’t speak or laugh
                            apart from all of them
                but sat & pondered
                            sunk into her dream

what sadness
                made its way
                            into her soul
god knows what thoughts
                her thoughts were raising
when a gorge in Dagestan
                broke through 
her dream

a body that she knew
                lay in that gorge
                            & on its breast
an open wound
                still steaming
                            turning black now
& the black blood flowing
                in a stream
                            & getting colder
colder still
                & colder

[to be continued]