Two translations

Lermontov and Nezval — in collaboration with Milos Sovak

[In celebration of what would have been the eightieth birthday, July 31, of Milos Sovak, I’m posting the following translations which he and I coauthored in the last years of his life. By the time of his death in 2009, our friendship had lasted over thirty years and had given 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 and scattered poems from the late Russian Romantic Mikhail Lermontov. Our collaborations took place mainly in the sunlit garden of his home in Encinitas, California, and occasionally in his other home in Provence, close to Mazan and the chateau and theater of the Marquis de Sade. Milos was himself a gifted translator into Czech, and the designer, typographer, and publisher of limited edition artists’ books through his own Ettan Press in California. He was a good friend to many poets and artists, and most remarkably an important medical researcher and the inventor of an impressive range of devices in many fields. The felicities in what follows are largely of his doing. (J.R.)]  



NEW YEAR’S POEM, after Mikhail Lermontov 

Translation from Russian by Jerome Rothenberg and Milos Sovak


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 dissove

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 .



Vitezslav Nezval: Fireworks 1924, A Cinemagenic Poem

Translation from Czech by Jerome Rothenberg & Milos Sovak


1  a gunshot (fade in)

2  a hand illuminated holding a revolver (dissolve into)

3  a hand sporting a diamond ring that

4  blows to pieces like a fireworks display with the inscription ALL THIS BECAUSE OF LOVE (double exposures moving from one image to another) a dance pavilion (full shot) & the sparks dying away

5  a street corner (fade out) the helmets of 3 policemen

6  a coffee house a lady on the phone (full shot)

7  it rings a few times

8  a gentleman’s quarters (full shot)

9  the telephone bell (close up)

10  the lady setting the receiver down

11  the clock on the clocktower moonlight 10 o’clock

12  in the fields a hare is running down a path

13  sniffing with whiskers erect (dissolve)

14  the hare standing up on its hind legs

15  from the bushes a gentleman with monocle steps out

16  a coffee house (full shot)

17  a detective observes a lady’s hand move nervously along a marble table

18  the diamond transmutes into

19  a show window with a passing tram’s reflection

20  the detective pays his check & as he hands the money over surreptitiously displays

21  his badge (dissolve into close-up)

22  the detective goes to the lady’s table

23  asks for permission

24  thumbs thru magazines

25  & newspapers (dissolve into close-up)


27  the detective while choosing a magazine stares deep into the lady’s eyes (medium close shot)

28  the lady getting up (full shot)

29  the detective grabs his heart & sinks down to the floor (fade out)

30  a crowd of guests & waiters

31  the lady puts a handkerchief on the detective’s head

32  (close-up) the detective’s hand picking a photo & 2 tram tickets from the lady’s bag

33  in the fields the hare is pricking up its ears

34  a railway station where a train is being boarded

35  a gentleman with monocle at ticket counter

36  a hand plugging lines in at the phone exchange

37  the detective makes a call while staring at the tram ticket

38  index finger in the book

39  the tram ticket held in two hands as it grows in size till it dissolves into

40  the image of the tram (interior)

41  the dispatcher in his office struggling to recall something (medium close shot)

42  presses his index finger to his forehead (full shot)

43  & gives a smile (medium close shot)

44  giving a large banknote to the gentleman with the monocle seated beside the lady in the tram

45  a maze of telegraph wires

46  a postal clerk pondering a telegram

47  a lookout post in front of which there stands a yardman

48  the yardman runs into the lookout

49  a corridor inside the train down which the man with monocle is passing

50  he is entering the toilet

51  dumping his revolver

52  his pocket watch

53  (fade out) in the dark a sign HOTEL

54  the lady in bed turning from side to side

55  (medium close shot) opening her eyes, a sad look

56  the yardman presses a button

57  the semaphore (dissolving into medium close shot) is moving slowly up & down

58  an automobile in motion

59  (medium close shot) detective holds an open timetable in his hand

60  the dispatcher looking at the man with monocle & at the lady who are walking over to

      an island lit by lanterns (dissolves)

61  (medium close shot) the dispatcher talking to a policeman

62  the train is stopping

63  the auto speeding up approaching

64  the lady hand on bed a handkerchief to forehead

65  the locomotive whistle

66  the detective standing on the train steps

67  the hare has reared up on its hind legs

68  a hand with a revolver

69  an eye behind a monocle

70  the monocle falls to the floor & shatters

71  the gentleman standing without moving

72  a gunshot (fade in)

73  a hand illuminated holding a revolver (dissolves into) a diamond

74  into a shrapnel burst with the title ALL THIS BECAUSE OF LOVE (double

exposure) a pavilion full of dancing couples

75  the leg of a jazz drummer at his drums

76  (medium close shot) a band stand lined with sheets of music & the title ALL THIS BECAUSE OF LOVE

77  in front of a shooting  gallery the man with the monocle & the lady     he takes aim & fires

78  (close-up) a metal rabbit painted silver falling over

79  (medium close shot) the gentleman & lady laughing fit to burst

80  the gentleman is rubbing at his eyes

81  a kiss behind the parasol

82  the hare’s whiskers & one side of the hare’s face moving & dissolving into a  fountain its waters turning drop by drop into the words

                                                THE END



NOTE. Nezval (1900–1958) was, with Velimir Holan, one of the two great early poets of Czech experimental modernism. Like other innovators then and now, he worked through a prolific sweep of modes and genres: open and closed forms of verse; novels drawn from his childhood and more surreal, chance-oriented prose works; avant-garde theater collaborations; numerous translations of his modern counterparts and predecessors (Rimbaud, Apollinaire, Neruda, Lorca, Eluard, et al.); and forays as composer, painter, journalist, photographer, and (from 1945 to 1951) director of the film section of the Information and Culture Ministry in Prague. His commitment to communism came early (1924), and his politics before and after made him a prominent member of that network of tolerated avant-gardists/poet-heroes that included Neruda, Brecht, Picasso, Hikmet, Eluard, and Tzara, among others (with some of whom he shared pro-forma hymns to Stalin in the early postwar years). As with many of them also, a Surrealist connection was clearly in evidence but should in no sense diminish the originality of his own practice and its contribution to ours.


The poem presented here — an early venture into film writing — is from a longer selection, translated by myself and Milos Sovak and published as Antilyrik & Other Poems by Green Integer Books in 2001. (J.R.)