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Nabokov: An Evening in theWasteland

by John Cobley

Wednesday Nov 27th, 2019


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


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