A Hermit Pets a Cat, While Thinking About the Ocean
(trans. Andrew Wachtel)
O, my verse! Walk, don’t run…
Why run anyway? And where to…For you can’t
roll outta here like a tear drop
from grief—because the ocean’s made
of the name teary doremifasaline…
And I don’t want to add saltiness
to the world—much less to the water...Tears
have a lot to learn from the ocean: they are suicidal
flashes…While the ocean’s breast bursts against the shore
and, shazam, rises again…Which proves
once more that—despite the eternal
self-torment, it’s not worth taking your own life.
The sea bakes biscuits to the tune of Bizet’s
Pearlfishers. Heavens are leaden.
I’m not casting to swine, but I’m going to find
a grey pearl the likes of which no Rothschild
ever had!—A grey perfect sphere
a gem collector would die for,
But the Shah of Iran already paid dearly
For a Russian poet’s death. The grey background
signifies that Islam has appeared in the world…
The breeze stiffens, blowing dust balls around,
and the ears on the square marked off by donkeys
totter like ninepins…Whether or not it knocks them over
the wind blows the balls farther into the desert
which continues down to the sea. The balls grow legs
of sand, and walk on them into the shade
of their own shadows, getting tangled in the folds of their togas;
that is, in the dunes, the hummocks, the ripples of sand….
For sand finds it easier to give a sphere an extra leg,
like the letter Q, a snail’s leg of language,
than to roll its O across the Gobi of phonetics.
Sand covers everything, like the birds
in Hitchcock, and fish flap about
while ovoid mollusks walk
like a grain of sand on sandy waves.
They are envied by shoe-shaped infusoria with eyelesses:
shoes, but they don’t walk. eyelashes, but no pupils.
But the sea is no sea. It’s only what the wind
squeezes out of ethereal dunes…Crabs and shells
watch as spheres turn into ovals, the letter O
into the letter Q…But where are they going?
While I, beginning with Q, walk out onto the beach
and call them to me: Come!...
The breeze blows more stiffly…Tears go in
one direction, and sink…Grains of sand
come toward me and don’t sink, like a roiled
sea that can’t swallow itself up…
And to the sound of my cry—“come!”
the wind throws a pearl, fleecy gray
shiny as mica,
and if you rub its sides
it turns into a cat.
Tears in my eyes, sand in his…
Sand blows into a cat’s eye as if sifting through an hourglass.
An eternity of sand, like couplets in Shahname,
And in this desert my voice
is probably inaudible…Cats deafen us
like the crackle of grasshoppers, cicadas, locusts
It may be that Farsi will sound
throughout the world...A cat’s purr sounds menacing
Not a caress, but like Ghengis.
In Samarkhand eros and algebra are two aces:
an ace of spades that cuts out an arch.
They can give birth and fight to the death
in the oppressive local heat
on the way to the Aral Sea…But I can’t break
a window through the sand, for as soon
as it opens up, like a camera’s diaphragm
the cat it frames
falls headfirst into a funnel of comfort. Sleep.
The sea melts into the sand like a screw into threads.
Exhausted by the day’s efforts, I lie on the couch.
Sunset. And into the room slouches
a cat. Fur mussed up, he lies down by my side,
crackling, snapping, a living Geiger counter.
Though I’m intact, I guess I’m radioactive.
But when was the explosion, or did I miss the impact?
Andrew Wachtel is Herman and Beulah Pearce Miller Research Professor in Literature, Chair of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures and Director of the Program in Comparative Literary Studies at Northwestern University. His most recent book is Making a Nation, Breaking a Nation: Literature and Cultural Politics in Yugoslavia (Stanford University Press, 1998). In addition to his academic work, Professor Wachtel is active as an editor and translator of contemporary Russian and Slovenian poetry and prose. As editor of Northwestern University Press’s acclaimed series “Writings from an Unbound Europe,” Wachtel endeavors to identify and publish the most interesting contemporary poetry and prose from Central and Eastern Europe.
Ilya Kutik is Associate Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Northwestern University. He published three collections of lyric poetry in Russian and is also widely acclaimed as a translator from Swedish and English. His Ode was published in the U.S. in a bilingual edition in 1998, and his collection of essays Hieroglyphs of Another World was published by Northwestern University Press in 2000.