This translation is from the French version of the poem, “Musique de Granit,” which was translated from the original Bulgarian by Nicole Laurent-Catrice in collaboration with the author.
Before I went to find it, it came to me …
The River Neva. On these banks of leaden waves.*
Swamps. Reeds. Sand. Wooden shacks sprouting like mushrooms overnight.
The chilly dawn grows pale—I dream of a long-ago conflagration
in some kingdom under the sea.
A legend, as it were. The clouds drag on the ground, like overcharged nets,
And rarely, oh so rarely, does the sun glint through them like a golden carp.
Is there still time to make a wish? Peter the Great got here before me.
In his carriage, from morning to night, he raced over mud.
A seaman and nomad alighting from far-off lands, an antique deity,
Golden fleece draped over his head, appearing in boreal half light.
What does it matter if, nowadays, no shrieks of joy hail his approach,
But moans, instead, and the huff of oarsmen, the crash of hammers
Sending out sparks, ah! Sparks descend like bloody sweat.
Still, he fails to notice.
Italians, Germans, Dutchmen go past with their rolled-up charts,
And peer through them like telescopes, trained on the future:
Saint Petersburg …
Lace carved from granite. Riverside boulevards. Stoned garrisons.
Slow-moving canals, yellowed by winter. Bridges on which the cold
Morning rain beats a tattoo. Rampant fog in the park. Amid stripped trees,
Fiery lamps swing like dead men …
And at night, a razor-edged wind. A whirlwind of snow when you turn the corner,
Troika bells fading away in the distance. Glaring palaces,
windows buzzing till dawn with music and laughter.
The brilliance of the ball, is this the town’s true light?
By quivering candlelight, officers and poets, besotted by dreams of Liberty,
Ponder the future of shadow-stalked Russia:
The night slips away, turning the cold fog pink,
Like a swatch of cotton batiste soaked in pristine blood. Or perhaps drowned in sunlight …
December. A drum roll splits the sky,
And fat snowflakes fall on Senate Square.
Russia, are you tearing off your old rags?
men are loitering hatless. Some are soon headed for Siberian mines,
Others to gallows. A noose sways over these blond heads.
Its knot forms an O, their last roaring exclamation.
Humid, smoke-infested obscurity. Hoarse sirens calling out.
(Onward to the dirty yellow factories, like old, half-eaten cheese,
march armies of ants, swarming from every direction.)
Bloody demonstrations. Empty boulevards. Red leaflets dripping from trees,
Blood flying up from paving stones. The puddles of old posters,
torn off by the wind,
Rise up and drown out the police whistles. Barking guns,
Squadrons of Cossacks sunk up to their necks. The rain beats time.
The sky bares its chest to the lightning bolt …
~ ~ ~
You walk along the Neva embankment.
The snow gets thicker, denser. Shrapnel rips holes in everything.
Commemorative plaques glow in the dark.
A rose in cellophane, like a glob of frozen blood,
Begins dissolving in your eyes.
* Quotation from Alexander Pushkin, in Russian in the original text.