Two Poems for 4 May 2020 from Roger Pulvers Reads

Viral Alarm


The two poems published here were translated from Russian by Roger Pulvers. I first encountered Roger when I attended an introductory talk he gave on Japan in March 1972. It was my first week at The Australian National University in Canberra and Roger, with the dramatic flair and showmanship that hinted at his talents as a theatre director and playwright, invited the audience to become involved in the study of Japan and Japanese culture by discussing the vibrant, and unsettling, connections between Yukio Mishima 三島由紀夫, seppuku, literature, eroticism, politics and post-WWII history. Although it would be another eight years before I would devote myself to Japanese and Japan as part of a three-year ‘furlough’ from the Chinese world, Roger’s inspiring remarks stayed with me.

The two Russian poets whose work features here are well known in the Chinese world. The tragic fate of Gumilev in particular would be recalled when the details of the murder of the essayist Wang Shiwei 王實味 — beheaded on the order of Mao Zedong in July 1947 — came to light in the mid 1980s. The murder of these two writers, one killed in the early days of Soviet rule, the other on the eve of the Communist victory on the Chinese mainland in 1949, forecast a dark future for the world of letters under both regimes.

These poems are published as part of our commemoration of May Fourth — Roger Pulvers was born on 4 May 1944. Both works feature in ‘Roger Pulvers Reads’, a YouTube series devoted to poetry translated from Russian, Polish and Japanese.

We are grateful to Roger for allowing us to print these translations and they form a chapter in ‘Viral Alarm’, the theme of China Heritage Annual 2020.

— Geremie R Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
18 May 2020


Commemorating May Fourth:

Poems by Two Poets


Nikolai Gumilev and Anna Akhmatova, two of Russia’s greatest poets, were connected not only by their times but also by blood.

They married in 1910, he the handsome, suave cosmopolitan who was to be the first modern Russian poet to travel to Africa and set poems there (his famous poem ‘Giraffe’ will appear in the coming months on ‘Roger Pulvers Reads’); she the beautiful sophisticated poet, who debuted with a collection of verse at age twenty-three to great acclaim. Gumilev was shot by the Bolsheviks in 1921 on trumped-up charges of supporting the monarchist cause. Their son Lev, who was born in 1912, was made to suffer many years in the gulag for being the child of two famous poets, revered by the people for their courage and independence. These two poems tell, in their own way, of the times they lived through.

— Roger Pulvers


Nikolai Gumilev, Anna Akhmatova and their son Lev Gumilev, 1913


The Tram that Lost Its Way

Nikolai Gumilev

Translated by Roger Pulvers


I was walking on a strange and unfamiliar street
When a crow cawed out of the blue.
I heard the strains of a lute and distant thunder.
A tram flew by right under my nose.

It’s a mystery to me how I managed
To hop onto its running board.
The tram even left behind a trail of fire
In the air of that sunlit day.

It tore through that air, a dark winged storm
Losing its way in the chasm of time …
Stop this tram, conductor!
Stop it this very instant!

Not in time … we’d gone around a wall
And were speeding through a thicket of pine.
We roared over three bridges
Across the Neva, across the Nile, the Seine.

A poor old beggar tossed us a curious glance
As we flashed beneath a window frame
Naturally the very same man
Who died a year ago in Beirut.

Where am I? My heart, alarmed
Beat out a faint answer:
“Can you see that station where they sell
Tickets to the India of the Mind?”

There’s a shop sign there … it says “Greens”
In letters dripping blood.
On sale, I know, are not cabbages or swedes
But the severed heads of the dead.

The executioner slices off my head too
In his red shirt and udder-like face.
It sits at the very bottom of a slippery box
Under all the other heads.

There’s a house with three windows on a little street
A grey lawn and a fence of boards.
Stop this tram, conductor!
Stop it this very instant!

You lived and sang here, dear Mashenka.
You wove me a rug, me, your fiancé.
Where are your voice and body now?
Could it be that you are dead?

How you moaned in your sitting room
Whilst I, in my powdered plaits, went off
To introduce myself to the Empress
Never to set eyes on you again.

It’s clear to me now: our freedom
Is a light shining only from that place
Where people and shadows stand at the entrance
To a planetary zoo.

Without warning a familiar sweet breeze
And the iron-gloved hand of a horseman
And two hooves of his horse
Fly at me from beyond the bridge.

St. Isaac’s, bastion of Orthodox faith
Is etched into the dome of the sky.
I will conduct an occasional service for Mashenka
And a memorial service for myself.

My heart is steeped in eternal gloom.
Breathing is hard, and life a pain …
Mashenka, I never even imagined
That I could love and mourn like this.


[Note: For this poem as read by Roger Pulvers, see here. For the Russian original, see Николай Гумилёв, «Заблудившийся трамвай», and for a partial Chinese translation, see 尼古拉 · 古米廖夫 《迷途的電車》]


From ‘Northern Elegies’

Anna Akhmatova

Translated by Roger Pulvers


There are three epochs to reminiscences
And the first is like a day gone by.
The soul is below their blessed arch
The body delights in their shadows’ bliss
Tears flow, laughter has not yet died out
The stain of ink remains unwiped on the table
And like a seal on the heart, a kiss
Single, parting, unforgettable
But this doesn’t last long.

Now the arch above the head is gone, and somewhere
In a deaf suburb there’s a solitary house
Where the winters are cold and the summers hot
Where there are spiders and sheets of dust
Where letters, like old flames, smoulder
And portraits change in the stealth of night
Where people walk as if to a grave
And, having returned, wash their hands with soap
Shake off a fleeting little tear
From tired lids … and heave a heavy sigh.

But the clock ticks, one spring turns
Into another, the sky pales pink
The names of cities change
And soon witnesses to events are gone.
There’s no one to cry with, no one to reminisce with.
Slowly the shadows leave us
Shadows which we call upon no longer
Shadows whose return would terrify us.
And we wake to find we cannot even remember
The way to that solitary house
And choking with shame and anger
We rush there but, as it happens in dreams
Nothing is the same … people, objects, walls
And no one knows us there … we’re strangers
We were in the wrong place … oh my God!
Then comes the bitterer misery.
We become aware that there’s no more room
For that past in the borders of our life
That past is nearly as alien to us
As it is to our neighbour across the hall.
We know we would not recognize those who died
And those with whom God has parted us
Have done beautifully without us … and even
All’s for the better.


[Note: For this poem as read by Roger Pulvers, see here. For original Russian, see Анна Ахматова, «Есть три эпохи у воспоминаний……»]