Cирена (Siren) by Anna Prismanova

In that land we tried to speak
of thirst, unquenchable thirst,
of a mournful cry that pierced us in the dark
and was halted in mid-flight.

But in the silence there reaches out for us
a steamboat’s cry, the crying of its soul,
it pulls us in, inviting and in parting,
as it sails into the age-old twilight.

This high-flown, antediluvian howl,
that the head and insides both absorb,
that even soaks into the legs –
is the union of peace and anxiety.

The steamboat sails off into the darkness and the night.
But it’s as if the siren’s wail died long ago.
As in the time of crusades when knights
were blessed on their way by ringing church bells.

And we, my dear, will leave like this, exactly,
having spent our last small ounce of arrogance,
we’ll leave – moving restlessly into the night,
we’ll have taken little and won’t have weighed the consequences.

The siren awaits us at the end of the earth,
and I know already the torment that she bears:
she wants us all to follow in her footsteps,
and wishes too we’d leave her all alone.

And so the steamboat howls, and howls the darkness.
I’ve not the strength to counteract these howls.
It’s possible that I myself am howling
inside the funnel of just a boat as this.

by Анна Семёновна Присманова (Anna Semyonovna Prismanova)
a.k.a. Анна Симоновна Присман (Anna Simonovna Prisman)
(Date unknown – before 1953)
translated by Bradley Jordan
from the poetry collection Трубы (Trumpets/Tubes/Pipes)

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Additional information: There is a dedication in the Russian version, ‘В. Коpвин-Пиотpовcкому‘, omitted from the translation. This refers to Vladimir Lvovich Korvin-Piotrovsky (1891 -1966) who was a Russian poet, novelist and playwright.

I am unsure of the exact date of the poem but a Russian website listing the poetry collection it is from has an end note stating “The poem was included in the anthology In the West: An Anthology of Russian Foreign Poetry. Comp. Y.P.Ivask. New York. Ed. Chekhov. 1953. p. 226.” which refers to the book published in 1953, under the title Na zapade; antologiia russkoi zarubezhnoi poezii (In the West; an anthology of the Russian émigré poetry).

Prismanova is considered comparable to her contemporary, the American poet, Louise Bogan and challenged traditional ideas of femininity in her poetry.

Prismanova’s origins and early life are obscure. She appears in emigration in Paris in the mid-1920s, and her first published collection, Ten’ itelo (Shadow and Body) (1937), contains poems beginning in 1929. She and her poet husband, Aleksandr Ginger, remained in Paris during the Nazi occupation. Responding to the wave of patriotic feeling and longing for Russia that appeared among emigres after the war, they both accepted Soviet passports, though they continued to live in Paris.

Prismanova was best known in the emigre world for intimate lyrics that manifest her spiritual searching for real truth in herself, in language, and in literary form. Prismanova’s poem “Vera” (1960), about the heroic, revolutionary populist Vera Figner (1852-1942), amazed readers by its portrait of a figure so unlike the poet and her intimate lyrical themes. Overshadowed by the more vocal figures of emigration, she was nevertheless a highly intelligent, subtle, and sensitive poet.

Biographical information about Prismanova, p.342-343, ‘Twentieth Century Russian Poetry’ (1993), compiled by Yevgeny Yevtushenko (ed. Albert C. Todd and Max Hayward) , published by Fourth Estate Limited by arrangement with Doubleday of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc.

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Cирена

В. Коpвин-Пиотpовcкому
Cтаpалиcь мы cказать на cей земле
о жажде и ее неутоленьи,
о кpике cкоpби, pвущем наc во мгле
и оcтановленном в cвоем cтpемленьи.
Но нам навcтpечу тянетcя в тиши
влекущий наc, пpизывный и пpощальный,
кpик паpоxода, кpик его души,
уже плывущей в cумpак изначальный.
Вбираемый нутpом и головой,
пpоcачивающийcя даже в ноги,
cей выcпpенний и допотопный вой
cлияние покоя и тpевоги.
Во мглу и в ночь уxодит паpоxод.
Но cтон cиpены как бы замеp в оном.
Так pыцаpи в кpеcтовый шли поxод,
напутcтвуемые цеpковным звоном.
И мы, душа моя, вот так, точь-в-точь,
утpатив до конца оcтаток cпеcи,
уйдем – вдвигаяcь неотcтупно в ночь,
немного взяв и ничего не взвеcив.
Cиpена ждет наc на конце земли,
и знаю я – томленье в ней какое:
ей xочетcя и чтоб за нею шли,
и чтоб ее оcтавили в покое…
Так воет паpоxод, и воет тьма.
Пpотиводейcтвовать такому вою
не в cилаx я. Я, может быть, cама
в тpубе такого паpоxода вою.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T. S. Eliot

S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma percioche giammai di questo fondo
Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.

Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherized upon a table;

Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,

The muttering retreats

Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels

And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:

Streets that follow like a tedious argument

Of insidious intent

To lead you to an overwhelming question …

Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”

Let us go and make our visit.

 

In the room the women come and go

Talking of Michelangelo.

 

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,

The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,

Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,

Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,

Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,

Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,

And seeing that it was a soft October night,

Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

 

And indeed there will be time

For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,

Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;

There will be time, there will be time

To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;

There will be time to murder and create,

And time for all the works and days of hands

That lift and drop a question on your plate;

Time for you and time for me,

And time yet for a hundred indecisions,

And for a hundred visions and revisions,

Before the taking of a toast and tea.

 

In the room the women come and go

Talking of Michelangelo.

 

And indeed there will be time

To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”

Time to turn back and descend the stair,

With a bald spot in the middle of my hair —

(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)

My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,

My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin —

(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)

Do I dare

Disturb the universe?

In a minute there is time

For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

 

For I have known them all already, known them all:

Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;

I know the voices dying with a dying fall

Beneath the music from a farther room.

               So how should I presume?

 

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—

The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,

And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,

When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,

Then how should I begin

To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?

               And how should I presume?

 

And I have known the arms already, known them all—

Arms that are braceleted and white and bare

(But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)

Is it perfume from a dress

That makes me so digress?

Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.

               And should I then presume?

               And how should I begin?

 

Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets

And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes

Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? …

 

I should have been a pair of ragged claws

Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

 

And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!

Smoothed by long fingers,

Asleep … tired … or it malingers,

Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.

Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,

Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?

But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,

Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,

I am no prophet — and here’s no great matter;

I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,

And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,

And in short, I was afraid.

And would it have been worth it, after all,

After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,

Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,

Would it have been worth while,

To have bitten off the matter with a smile,

To have squeezed the universe into a ball

To roll it towards some overwhelming question,

To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,

Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—

If one, settling a pillow by her head

               Should say: “That is not what I meant at all;

               That is not it, at all.”

 

And would it have been worth it, after all,

Would it have been worth while,

After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,

After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—

And this, and so much more?—

It is impossible to say just what I mean!

But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:

Would it have been worth while

If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,

And turning toward the window, should say:

               “That is not it at all,

               That is not what I meant, at all.”

 

. . . . .

 

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;

Am an attendant lord, one that will do

To swell a progress, start a scene or two,

Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,

Deferential, glad to be of use,

Politic, cautious, and meticulous;

Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;

At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—

Almost, at times, the Fool.

 

I grow old … I grow old …

I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

 

Shall I part my hair behind?   Do I dare to eat a peach?

I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

 

I do not think that they will sing to me.

 

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves

Combing the white hair of the waves blown back

When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea

By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown

Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

 

by T. S. Eliot


Fun Facts:

Like many of Eliot’s poems, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” makes numerous allusions to other works, which are often symbolic themselves.

  • In “Time for all the works and days of hands” (29) the phrase ‘works and days’ is the title of a long poem – a description of agricultural life and a call to toil – by the early Greek poet Hesiod.
  • “I know the voices dying with a dying fall” (52) echoes Orsino’s first lines in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.
  • The prophet of “Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter / I am no prophet — and here’s no great matter” (81–2) is John the Baptist, whose head was delivered to Salome by Herod as a reward for her dancing (Matthew 14:1–11, and Oscar Wilde’s play Salome).
  • “To have squeezed the universe into a ball” (92) and “indeed there will be time” (23) echo the closing lines of Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’. Other phrases such as, “there will be time” and “there is time” are reminiscent of the opening line of that poem: “Had we but world enough and time”. Marvell’s words in turn echo the General Prologue of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, “whil I have tyme and space”.
  • “‘I am Lazarus, come from the dead'” (94) may be either the beggar Lazarus (of Luke 16) returning for the rich man who was not permitted to return from the dead to warn the brothers of a rich man about Hell, or the Lazarus (of John 11) whom Christ raised from the dead, or both.
  • “Full of high sentence” (117) echoes Chaucer’s description of the Clerk of Oxford in the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales.
  • “There will be time to murder and create” is a biblical allusion to Ecclesiastes 3.
  • In the final section of the poem, Prufrock rejects the idea that he is Prince Hamlet, suggesting that he is merely “an attendant lord” (112) whose purpose is to “advise the prince” (114), a likely allusion to Polonius — Polonius being also “almost, at times, the Fool.”
  • “Among some talk of you and me” may be a reference to Quatrain 32 of Edward FitzGerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (“There was a Door to which I found no Key / There was a Veil past which I could not see / Some little Talk awhile of Me and Thee / There seemed — and then no more of Thee and Me.”)