The Lermontov translations (2): 'My Demon' & 'New Year’s Poem'

Transcreations from Russian by Jerome Rothenberg & Milos Sovak

[The first installment of the Lermontov translations can be found here. The translations in their final form are dedicated to Milos Sovak, without whom there would have been no chance even to start them. (J.R.)]


My Demon

 To line up his evils & yours

is his pleasure black clouds
smoke drifting by.


How he loves these ill-fated

storms, this white water,
those oak groves that rattle


& roll. Among its sere leaves

a throne planted deep
in the earth unmoving


he sits there serenely

scowling, inciting
mistrust, holds sweet love


in contempt, will not heed

those who beseech him,
unmoved at sight of their blood


& the sounds of our loftier

natures he rends,
his voice swift & awful.


The muse who should have

provoked him recoils,
sees the horror aglow


in his unearthly eyes.


New Year’s Poem

how many times encircled by

a motley crowd
in front of me
as in a dream


cacophonies of dance

& music
speeches learned by heart
in phatic whispers


mixing with shapes of people

absent a mind or soul
grimacing masks
yet so fastidious


much as they touch

my cold hands
with uncaring boldness
beauties of the town


hands spared a tremor

over lengths of time
outwardly absorbed by
gauds & vanitas


I cherish in my soul

an ancient wistfulness
for sacred sounds
of years long gone


& if in any way

it comes to me
that bird-like I dissolve
in flight remembering


the shallow past

myself a child surrounded
by familiar places
high manor house & orchard


bower left in ruins

a green net of grasses
as a cover
for the sleeping pond


& out beyond it

hidden in haze like smoke
a distant village
fog across the fields


I’ll walk here, here I’ll enter

a dark passage
through these bushes
where this evening light peers


& the sere leaves

crackle under foot
my every step demurring
& in my chest


already wistful, strange

a squeezing sound
the more I think of her
desiring & weeping


how I love this creature

of my dreams

eyes full of azure fire

& rosy little smile


like early morn

past hedgerows
shows a fresh
demise of color


like a magic kingdom’s

mighty lord
I pine here through long hours
lonely days


under a storm, a heavy load

of doubts & passions
like a new-risen isle
an innocent in midst of oceans


blooming in that briny wilderness

& having recognized
myself I recognize
my own delusions


hear the crowd of humans

with its noises
scattering my dreams
an uninvited guest


how I would like to blast

their gayety
their feast day
hold them in contempt


& blind them

with my iron verses
bursting with bitterness
& rage




On January 26, 2009 Milos Sovak died after a long illness. Our friendship had lasted over thirty years & gave me the opportunity to work with him on a series of translations, the most important a book of selected poems from the great Czech modernist Vitezslav Nezval & scattered poems from the Russian late Romantic Mikhail Lermontov. Our collaborations took place mainly in the sunlit garden of his home in Encinitas, California, & occasionally in his other home in Provence, close to the town of Mazan & the chateau & theater of the Marquis de Sade. Milos was himself a gifted translator into Czech & the designer, typographer, & publisher of limited edition artists’ books through his own Ettan Press in California. He was a good friend to many poets & artists, & most remarkably an important medical researcher & the inventor of an impressive range of devices in many fields. The felicities in what follows are largely of his doing.