These first few poems, written when Parnok was 17 to 19 years old, are claimed, though not explicitly, to be Burgin’s, translations, But I am listing them separately because I did not find them in her biography of Parnok, and they are sufficiently different in tone and structure that I am not convinced they are Burgin’s work.
I’m drunk on your wild caresses,
You’ve driven me crazy for you…
Just tell me I’ve only been dreaming
So I can believe that it’s true.
No, you want to torment me forever –
Why shouldn’t you play and have fun;
And smiling, you answer, carefree,
“We won’t do again what we’ve done.”
29 August 1902
Dedicated to N.P.P.
Love’s gone… the tuberoses have expired,
You have become cold as ice.
To see tears, my tears, that’s your desire,
But pride will never let me cry.
In night-time silence, utterly exhausted,
Suffering and loving endlessly
I curse the day of our first meeting
And sob for what you’ve done to me.
But I won’t cry when you are with me.
So there! Insult me, beat me and torment,
Just hint that I may get a chance to see you,
And if you want to, torture me again.
The way you play upon my heartstrings,
Sometimes it seems no pity in you dwells;
But you give all of paradise’s raptures
While with your hand you push me into hell!
29 August 1902
Dedicated to N.P.P.
The colder the letters you write,
The longer the silence between them,
The harder the waiting becomes,
The more I’m tormented with love!
The more I give pain to myself,
I want not to think and I suffer,
I want to forget and remember
That marvelous smile of yours!
Your image arises before me…
It makes me recall your caresses,
It rouses the passion inside me,
And I’m more tormented with love.
25 March 1903
Life is a woman. Merely by her own seductions
Intoxicated, she will stand above her victim.
The more unhappy is the soul that lies before her,
the fuller she all is with unrestrained desire,
How often her mysterious gaze has hovered over
my soul with powerful inquisitiveness,
but merely had my soul to quiver in responding –
and silently, with unconcern, she sought the distance.
Perhaps because I wished to fall in love with being
with so much obstinate avidity,
I felt more vividly how bottomlessly
dispassion for it had come over me.
But what of now? Can I be captivated
by life in an enraptured rush I do not understand?
My soul luxuriates in boundless freedom
as if inhaling life for the first time.
Just listen, how amidst inspired dreaming
the soul will suddenly lay bare its secret curves.
Let your thought illuminate them brightly
with creation’s breath in an audacious surge.
You will see, then, how the endless distance
so easily and wondrously removes its haze,
and there upon a lofty pedestal of marble
the depth of worlds feels Beauty’s silent gaze.
I so want to reflect my whole soul in my words,
I so want to discover them in my soul’s depths,
what they say should not be accidental.
But my impulse for searching’s rebelliously weak –
I lack know-how in finding my words,
and that’s why I have made my soul subject to silence,
and hear in the silence her ebbings and flowings –
I so want to shout out – I don’t dare to.
In mournful luxury of trees that have been gilded,
in tiredness of branches bent without a quiver
is Autumn’s quietude. Deserted and so pale
the distance that has dimmed; and in the night the play
of stars is cold; and the discerning silence
stands guard, or so it seems, to see if some weak sobbing
will not break out, a last enfeebled groan
from fading foliage. The air, though, is made thick
with fog… and it appears that the exhausted garden
wants to sigh, but doesn’t dare; and strangely blazes
among the tree-tops, colourlessly gold,
a single ruby leaf, as if with blood engorged.
How can one write about the quiet fading,
of vivid rushes deep within one’s soul?
About how thought, far off in sunless exile,
in morbid meditation or joyless sleep
looks lifelessly inside herself, exhausted,
and slowly drowns in her own feebleness,
how can one write?
How can one write – about the golden-textured
ray thrown lazily upon the emerald waves?
The play of hues on strange and wondrous sea shells
and lightning’s whimsy , and the thought of thunderclouds.
The lovely tuberose’s drunken fever,
and the weeping willow’s lonely tears –
how can one write?
I know profoundly well – you’ve shown me everything,
the breathing of the skies, and speech of mighty billows
and twinkling of the stars within the depths of air,
and lightning’s vivid laugh in gloomy quietude
you’ve given me with you in brilliant consonance.
So let that farewell cry, as always, sound above me!
I have a heart so that it can be broken!
I know too well that last, that grievous moment,
when happiness can’t help but be forsaken –
but through the garden joyfully I’ll go!
So what if a new loss lies in my future,
– My heart’s so happy in its secret fever:
love summons me, and I won’t contradict her.
Oh love! You stand before me and I’m afraid of you.
I know inside your breast you hide a gleaming dagger,
you’ll wound my thought with it and thus renew yourself,
and give to drink with blood your living body –
And these, Parnok’s poems to Nina Vedeneyeva, her last love.
Defy all State Pension Plans of heaven,
May returned for us in wintertime,
and flowers blossomed in the greening meadow,
where in full bloom an apple tree inclined
its fragrant fans above the two of us,
and where the earth smelled sweet like you,
and butterflies made love in flight…
We’re one year older now, but what’s the difference –
old wine has also aged another year,
the fruits of ripe knowledge are far more succulent.
Hello my love! my grey-haired Eve!
Moscow sleeps… But I…
Oh but I feel sleepless,
Oh, the night’s so stifling,
my blood wants to sing…
Listen, listen, listen!
in your pale petals glisten
silver streaks of frost.
You’re the one my song’s for,
my silver rose,
Oh Rose of December,
you shine under snow,
giving me sweet comfort
that can’t console.
it still hasn’t cut its first teeth, our Passion –
not vodka, not spirits, yet no longer water,
its mischievous, bubbly, melodious Asti.
You still don’t know how to pale when I come up to you,
your pupil still doesn’t become fully widened,
I know, though you think that the magic I do
exceeds what I did in Kashira or affectionate Kashin.
Oh where is that tiny, forsaken, and garden-filled town,
(perhaps on the map they don’t bother to site it?)
Where’s the cottage with jasmine and the welcoming night,
and curlicue arches of hop-plants above us,
and thirst which could no longer be satisfied,
and sky, and a sky more impassioned than Petrarch’s.
At the end of my last or next-to-last spring –
together the two of us dreamed crazy dreams,
I burn up my night in a savage, a beautiful fire.
Dec 26 1931 (?)
I see: you’re getting off the streetcar – utterly beloved
a breeze, and in my heart it breathes you’re – utterly beloved
I can’t tear my eyes from you because you’re – utterly beloved!
And however did you come to be so – utterly beloved?
You, she-eagle from Caucasian glaciers, where in heat it’s cold.
You, carrier of a very sweet contagion, who never has a cold.
You, beclouder of your lover’s reason with logic clear and cold.
All five senses reel from your intoxication – utterly beloved!
And her last Poem, written less than a month before her death
“Come what may, ” you wrote, “we shall be happy…”
Yes, my darling, happiness has come to me in life!
Now, However, mortal weariness
overcomes my heart and shuts my eyes.
Now without rebelling or resisting,
I hear how my heart beats its retreat.
I get weaker, and the leash that tightly
bound the two of us is slackening.
Now the wind blows freely higher, higher,
everything’s in bloom and all is still –
Till we meet again, my darling! Can’t you hear me?
I’m telling you good-bye, my far-off friend!
Chekhov, thought by many today to be a gentle humanist, seems not to have held views that were very different those of his ignorant homophobic countrymen; this seems clear from his privately expressed feelings and opinions. Burgin has this telling comment of Chekhov’s, made in a letter to his friend and publisher in 1895:
” The weather in Moscow is good, there is no cholera, there’s also no lesbian love – Brrrr!! Remembering those persons of whom you write me makes me nauseous as if I’d eaten a rotten sardine. Moscow doesn’t have them – and that is marvelous.”
That Chekhov himself, infected as he was with TB, was most probably a much greater source of unpleasant and harmful contagion than any hoard of lesbians, seems not to have crossed his mind.
Today when out and proud lesbians are eager to claim their lesbianism as a matter of personal identity, and take this vital right for granted, it is difficult to discern whether Parnok felt her lesbianism to be a matter of disposition or identity. To some of us that might matter hugely, but to others of us what matters most is that she never for a moment disowned her experiences as a woman who loved other women, and she gave her heart and her soul a voice.
She could, I suppose have curbed her exuberance in matters of love and affection, or for that, her anguish in matters of personal loss and pain, but she did not. She used her voice and her talents to express her love without dissimulation or deceit. She dared to speak and to express the thoughts and words and ideas her society determined were better left unsaid and unexpressed and it is remarkable that nearly 80 years after her death of Grave’s disease at the age of 47, her work still speaks for her. Her poems are fresh and vibrant, and full of force and a kind of blazing tenderness.
I have chosen here, just as a matter of personal inclination, to include a handful of Parnok’s poems written by her between 1903 and 1905, when she was a teenager, some which were written when in her thirties, and finally some written in the last year or so of her life.
Alas, I cannot determine whether the early poems are complete, or just fragments. They are Burgin’s translations, excerpted from her biography of Parnok. Nevertheless, they are easily recognisable as the tender first blossoms of an ardent young heart, and are precious for that reason alone, if for nothing else.
The other poems appearing here, written in mid-and late -life (late that is for Parnok who only lived to be 48 years old) exactly reflect the assurance of mature womanhood, and then the terrible poignancy of a woman who sees clearly, in the same glance, both the intensity of her love, and her approaching death.
Some Personal thoughts…..
There are some minds that possess a harmonic echo with ones own – not because the two are alike, but because the sound of one picks up and converts into sound the hidden frequencies of the other. It is something which happens in an instant – like a bullet whistling past one’s ear – or love at first sight, and that is what I felt when I first heard the poetry of Sophia Parnok.
I found an enormous feeling of ‘heart’ in her poems – and always love – not just love in an abstract sense, but the sense of a love which for want of a better word I have to call cultural – by which I mean my own culture – which is the culture of lesbian writing.
The matrix in which Parnok’s poems are rooted is personal and expressive of the twinings and weavings that go into our own individual histories of how in our own lives such matters as relationships, dilemmas, difficulties, enmeshments etc are encountered, traversed and resolved.
People in the mainstream probably take this for granted – heterosexual men for certain, and to a lesser extend heterosexual women – because theirs is the dominant culture, and they swim in it like fish, barely having to notice the element.
This does not hold at all true for those of us who feel the strangeness and alienness of the mainstream world and all the assumptions which go unexamined and slide frictionlessly by mainstream people on the whole but fly against us aliens like the showers of grit in a sandstorm.
Encountering Parnok was for me like encountering an island in mid-ocean, one that was spare and beautiful, and which took its expansive beauty for granted, without a fuss. Its many features – jagged cliffs, clear rock-lined pools, dark thickets of unbroken shade, its trees, it coast-line and sunlit beaches, all seemed familiar to me – even though they were completely new.
I wish Parnok had had a life filled with happiness, and the blessing of sound health, but she didn’t have either. Moreover she lived in a world that was in the throes of rapid change – Russia transformed itself from a monarchy to a communist republic in the second decade of her life, and that transformation and upheaval has its reflection in her own struggles.
Her lack of a settled life – careers, relationships and homes, were always in a state of unsettled flux – gave her poetry a restless feel, but paradoxically a restlessness with roots. The roots of course were the sense of a constant and unappeasable hunger for love and for living, and for the endless and inexhaustible loveliness of the natural world, which are all the markings of the Muse poet.
I find it impossible not to love the person who gave us this poetry – this enormous gift of place and of context which simply overrides place and time, to embrace me in the senses of soul-enlivening familiarity that comes from feeling myself standing in my own world – my own universe of sentiment, with all the features of the landscape and all the fixtures of its interior places familiar and recognisable.
To read Parnok banishes my feelings of existential homesickness – and that is why I place her in the company of the saints I feel watching over me – and over all of us, who need that place which was at first only within the hearts and minds of women like her, but is now expanded to be a place which we can enter, and be at home with them and ourselves..