Blog Post

Let It Snow

It snowed yesterday in Seattle.  The locals acted like it was the Second Coming.  I received an avalanche of identical Facebook status updates ("It's snowing!") and the news shows went into wall-to-wall breathless-coverage mode.

  "Yes, Bob, we see some flakes here on Queen Anne, too.  Loretta?"  "Same here, Suzanne.  Intersections such as this one have seen wrecks in the past.  So please, Seattlites, think of the children and stay off the roads."

Caught up in the holiday mood, I chucked the pile of work I was supposed to be doing and set about translating an appropriately wintery poem, Iakov Petrovich Polonskii's "Sleigh Bells" (1854).

Polonskii (1819-1898) is sometimes called a realist, though that is an imprecise label.  More accurately, he tends to be a romantic with a greater love for specific details and description than his immediate forebears Pushkin and Lermontov.  I'm not all that familiar with his work, and I've never read any commentary on it, so my translation is even rougher than usual, so please feel free to post suggestions for revision:  

КОЛОКОЛЬЧИК

Улеглася метелица... путь озарен...
Ночь глядит миллионами тусклых очей...
Погружай меня в сон, колокольчика звон!
Выноси меня, тройка усталых коней!

Мутный дым облаков и холодная даль
Начинают яснеть; белый призрак луны
Смотрит в душу  мою- и былую печаль
    Наряжает в забытые сны.

То вдруг слышится мне - страстный голос поет,
    С колокольчиком дружно звеня:
"Ах, когда-то, когда-то мой милый придет -
    Отдохнуть на груди у меня!

У меня ли не жизнь!.. Чуть заря на стекле
Начинает лучами с морозом играть,
Самовар мой кипит на дубовом столе,
И трещит моя печь, озаряя в угле,
     За цветной занавеской, кровать!..

У меня ли не жизнь!.. ночью ль ставень открыт,
По стене бродит месяца луч золотой,
Забушует ли вьюга - лампада горит,
И, когда я дремлю, мое сердце не спит,
     Все по нем изнывая тоской".
"Где-то старый мой друг?.. Я боюсь, он войдет
     И, ласкаясь, обнимет меня!

Что за жизнь у меня! и тесна, и темна,
И скучна моя горница; дует в окно.
За окошком растет только вишня одна
Да и та за промерзлым стеклом не видна
И, быть может, погибла давно!
                                      
Что за жизнь!.. полинял пестрый полога цвет,
Я больная брожу и не еду к родным,
Лишь старуха ворчит, как приходит сосед,
     Оттого, что мне весело с ним!.."

* * * * * *

Uleglasia metelitsa . . . Put' ozaren . . .
Noch' gliadit millionami tusklykh ochei . . .
Pogruzhai menia v son, kolokol'chika zvon!
Vynosi menia, troika ustalykh konei!

Mutnyi dym oblakov i kholodnaia dal'
Nachinaiut iasnet'; belyi prizrak luny
Smotrit v dushu moiu-- i byluiu pechal'
    Nariazhaet v zabytye sny.

To vdrug slyshitsia mne-- strastnyi golos poet,
    S kolokol'chikom druzhno zvenia:
"Akh, kogda-to, kogda-to moi milyi pridet--
    Otdokhnut' na grudi u menia!

U menia li ne zhizn'! . . Chut' zaria na stekle
Nachinaet luchami s morozom igrat',
Samovar moi kipit na dubovom stole,
I treshchit moia pech', ozariaia v ugle,
    Za tsvetnoi zanaveskoi, krovat'! . .

U menia li ne zhizn'! . . noch'iu l' staven' otrkyt,
Po stene brodit mesiatsa luch zolotoi,
Zabushuet li v'iuga-- lampada gorit,
I, kodga ia dremliu, moe serdtse ne spit,
    Vse po nem iznyvaia toskoi."
"Gde-to staryi moi drug? . . Ia boius', on voidet
    I, laskaias', obnimet menia!

Chto za zhizn' u menia!  i tesna, i temna,
I skuchna moia goritsa; duet v okno.
Za okoshkom rastet tol'ko vishnia odna
Da i ta za promerzlym steklom ne vidna
I, byt' mozhet, pogibla davno!

Chto za zhizn'! . . polinial pestryi pologa tsvet,
Ia bol'naia brozhu i ne edu k rodnym,
Lish' starukha vorchit, kak prikhodit sosed,
    Ottogo, chto mne veselo s nim! . ."

* * * * * *

The snowstorm's subsided.  The path is lit.
Night looks on with a million dim eyes.
Ringing sleigh-bells, plunge me into a dream!
Take me away, you three tired horses!

The clouds' dull roil and the chill distance
Begin to brighten; the moon's white ghost
Peers into my soul and adorns old grief
    With forgotten dreams.

Then suddenly I hear a passionate voice sing
    And ring along with the sleigh bells:
"Oh, someday, someday my dear one will come
    And find peace on my breast!

Don't I have a life!  Dawn's rays begin
    To play with the frost on the glass,
My samovar boils on the oak table,
And my stove crackles, lighting in the corner,
    Behind a colored curtain, a bed.

Don't I have a life!  At night, the shutter open,
A golden moonbeam roams along the wall.
Or, if a blizzard rages, the icon-lamp burns,
And, when I drowse, my heart does not sleep,
    But pines away, longing-filled."
"Is my old friend somewhere?  I fear he will come
    And caress and embrace me!

What a life I lead!  My room is cramped
And dark and dull; it's drafty, too.
Outside the window only one cherry tree grows
And it isn't visible through the frosted glass
And it might well have died long ago!

What a life!  The multi-colored curtain has faded,
I, sickly, wander and do not visit kin
Unless the old woman grumbles that a neighbor's coming
    Because he wants to cheer me up."

The poem begins with a frame story.  The speaker has been out during a snowstorm, which presumably kept him preoccupied, but now the moon has come out to light the landscape, and it puts him in a reflective melancholy mood.  The sound of the sleigh bells seduces him into a reverie.  He begins to imagine that he can hear a "passionate" voice singing along with the bells.  

This enigmatic female voice proceeds to tell her story.  She appears to be a cast-off mistress.  At first, she tries to entice her lover back by offering him warmth and comfort--a "crackl[ing]" stove, a "boil[ing]" samovar, and a bower-like bed "in the corner," lit up but also modestly witheld from view by a colorful curtain.  She is also trying to console herself, of course, that, although her heart is filled with that ultra-Russian emotion toska--an intense sad longing--she is still not so badly off.  She has shelter and light and can safely wait for her missing "dear one"'s return.

That version of the story breaks off suddenly.  The voice starts up again after an indeterminate length of time has passed, or she might simply be offering a second perspective on the same situation.  Regardless, now she acknowledges that her room is in fact far from comfortable.  It's "cramped" and exposed to the elements.  There's nothing to do, no entertainment.  She feels entirely out of touch with the living and growing world of nature--there's only one tree visible from her place, and it's probably dead anyway.  Feeling sick, she avoids even her family and neighbors.  Solitude might be unpleasant, but it's preferable to the torture of spending time with people who are cheerful and cannot share the depth of your sorrow.

I think that the key word in the voice's second speech comes in the next-to-last line of the fifth stanza, when she says that she now "fears" that the "dear one" will come.  I could be wrong in how I am reading this line--any native speakers want to help me out?  Polonskii could intend for her to say something like "I am afraid but he will come." Except--"I fear that he will come" seems to me unusually psychologically acute.  She now fears her beloved's return because she knows deep down that she has nothing to offer him, neither money nor security, merely transient bliss and a chilly room without a view.  He's bound to be unhappy, and he might very well leave her again, plunging her further into despair.

OK, so it's not the cheeriest of winter poems.  But I'm impressed by its construction.  "Sleigh Bells" uses a narrative frame at the beginning but doesn't bother to provide one at the end, leaving us guessing concerning the fate of the speaker.  It then bluntly juxtaposes two slices of another story, daring the reader to figure out how to connect them--and how to fill in the gaps.  While not yet fully modernist in the manner of Akhmatova or Blok, Polonskii's poem surely points in that direction.

And--here in Seattle?  It's still snowing.  This particular reverie has to come to an end so I can go brave the black ice and get to campus to teach a class on the South African poet Lesego Rampolokeng.  I wonder, as the space heater crackles and clacks and the coffee pot boils, does it snow, too, in Soweto . . ?

Brian Reed's picture
Professor of English

Brian Reed is Chair of English and Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Cinema, and Media at the University of Washington, Seattle. He is the author of three books--Hart Crane: After His Lights (2006), Phenomenal Reading: Essays on Modern and Contemporary Poetics (2012), and Nobody's Business: Twenty-First Century Avant-Garde Poetics (2013)--and the co-editor of two essay collections, Situating El Lissitzky: Vitebsk, Berlin, Moscow (2003) and Modern American Poetry: Points of Access (2013). A new book, A Mine of Intersections: Writing the History of Contemporary American Poetry, is forthcoming in 2016.