A Hermit Pets a Cat, While Thinking About the Ocean

(trans. Andrew Wachtel)

I

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.

II

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.

III

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…

IV

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.

Contributor

Ilya Kutik

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.

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