In memory of VDN
Inspiration, a rosy sky,
a black house with just one fiery
window. Oh, that sky,
swallowed up by the fiery window!
Trash of uninhabited outskirts,
a blade of grass with a teardrop,
a skull of happiness, slender, long
like the skull of a borzoi.
What’s with me? I’m losing myself,
I’m dissolving into the air, into the sunset; 10
I mutter and feel faint
in the evening’s wasteland.
Never did I want so much to weep.
Its here deep down in me.
Slightly hazy, and so anxious
I never felt safe enough
to want to tell you.
Please grow my beautiful thing,
grasp on to the little stalk,
on to the window, still celestial, 20
or on to the first spark.
Perhaps the world is empty and merciless,
I know nothing,
but I’m glad to be born
with this breath of yours.
Once it was easier, simpler:
two rhymes—and I’d open my notebook.
How confusedly in my arrogant youth
did I come to know you.
Leaning on the railing 30
of verse, floating like a bridge,
already my soul imagined
it had moved and started to slide,
And was sailing towards the stars themselves.
But in making a fair copy,
I lost the magic instantly,
and the heavy words
hid impotently behind each other.
My young solitude
among the motionless, night-time branches; 40
the wonder of night above the river,
which it reflects completely;
and the lilac bloom, pale favorite
of those first innocent footsteps
which is lit by the wondrous moon
in the half-mourning of garden parks.
And now, enlarged by memory,
more solid, and twice as beautiful,
the old house, and the immortal flame
of the kerosene lamp in the window; 50
and in sleep the approach of happiness,
a distant wind, an aerial herald,
everything louder, penetrating the thicket
and bending a branch at last;
everything that time has seemed to take away,
and you look—it shines through again,
because it is not firmly shut,
and it’s already impossible to take it away.
Blinking, a fiery eye
looks through the black fingers 60
of factory stacks at flowering weeds
and at a bent tin can.
Across the wasteland in darkening dust
a lean snow-white dog flashes by.
Lost, perhaps. But in the distance
an urgent, tender whistle is heard.
And a man comes through the twilight
to meet me. He calls out. I recognize
your cheerful gait.
You haven’t changed much since you died. 70
Vladimir Nabokov, 1932
Translated from the Russian by John Cobley
Photo: Vladimir Nabokov, aged seven, with his father in 1906