The Little Books of Julia Nemirovskaya

Boris Dralyuk on Julia Nemirovskaya

The obvious spatial metaphor for the act of translation—indeed, the metaphor buried in the word itself—is that of “conveying.” True enough. Yet that is only the final leg of the journey. Any old mule can smuggle a package, no questions asked; but a service like that comes with no guarantees, and is often no service at all. The expert conveyor examines the delicate item from every side, weighs it carefully, and asks the difficult questions. Long before anything can be brought across—before it can be properly packaged—it must be understood from the inside. The journey begins when a translator finds a way in.

I would like to talk about my journey into a short lyric by Julia Nemirovskaya, a Russian poet who was born in Moscow in 1962 and now teaches at the University of Oregon. I first read Nemirovskaya’s poems five years ago and was immediately charmed by her voice. It is a humble voice, somewhat childlike—a perfect vehicle for her penetrating, childlike imagination. Her two collections bear titles that say a lot precisely by saying so little: Moia knizhechka (1998) (My Little Book) and Vtoraia knizhechka (2014) (Second Little Book). These titles, which one can easily imagine gracing two spindly spines in a kindergarten library, are at once self-effacing and boldly revealing: there isn’t much here, they intimate, but it’s all I have—all of it.

As I read through the second of these modest but unstinting offerings, I found a poem that seemed to reveal explicitly the process behind Nemirovskaya’s work—a process I would describe as a radical extension of empathy.

Painful—to be boiling water:
Flooding over, never hotter,
Bubbles bursting with a pop.
Hurts—to be an apple trapped
In the dough, stuffy as clay;
Nothing takes the pain away . . .
How about a dried-up root?
How about a snapped-off shoot?
How about a short, inept
poem, jettisoned midline?
Take a person, for that matter,
Take my neighbor, an old man:
Sleep won’t come—his body doesn’t
Melt, as clouds do in the sky.
At long last, the moon emerges
On the outside of his dreams,
Laying out two strips of canvas
Gently on his upraised knees.
On it, in the dark, his eyes
Glimpse his brain, an MRI.
The lyric casts a spell with its very rhythm, a springy trochaic tetrameter, which, though absolutely neutral in Russian, immediately suggests counting rhymes to the English ear (e.g., “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe”). If the poem’s tone were somber and meditative from the start, I’d have found another meter for the translation. In this case, however, I was happy to summon the spirit of the playground—that liminal space where imagination soars over the boundaries of sense. Nemirovskaya’s first line does seem to have been conceived in flight. When spoken quickly enough, the Russian original—“Bol’no byt’ vode kipiashchei” (literally, “It hurts to be boiling water”)—is phonetically indistinguishable from a cliché: “Bol’no byt’ v vode kipiashchei” (literally, “It hurts to be in boiling water”). The whole poem gets rolling with a pathetic fallacy born of a happy accident; an elided preposition has landed the speaker not just in boiling water, but in the water’s tender, bursting skin. Hurts to be in it? How do you think it feels?

That trick is the stuff of poetry: a crack in the wall of the everyday. Straight away, Nemirovskaya furnishes us with fresh eyes for the world. She works her Orphic magic, animating the inanimate, making nature sing—though the song be one of pain. Our empathy has been extended. And having done it once, she can’t resist doing it again, with increasing intensity and speed: three lines for the water, three for the baked apple, and one a piece for the root and the shoot. In fact, by the time we get to the root and the shoot, she’s no longer doing the work for us. We’ve gone through her training and are asked to play the poet ourselves, pushing our own imaginations into those familiar objects whose suffering we have ignored. Nemirovskaya draws us into her practice. And once I found my way in, I knew just how to package her verse in English. The poem that sprang to mind was Elizabeth Bishop’s similarly short-lined “Sonnet,” in which the speaker plays the same trick with a spirit level: “Caught—the bubble / in the spirit level.” That gave me the structure for the first and fourth lines: “Painful—to be boiling water” and “Hurts—to be an apple trapped.”

Bishop had more to offer. The last item in Nemirovskaya’s catalogue of inanimate sufferers is an abandoned poem. Since the line in which this poem occurs begins with a lowercase letter, it itself feels unfinished. Is this the “jettisoned” verse? Has the poet lost steam? Has the trick exhausted itself? Yet the poem does go on. Clearly, Nemirovskaya’s empathy is too great: she doesn’t let the poor thing wither on the vine. In order to save it, she must take serious measures. That crucial moment calls to mind the last line of Bishop’s “One Art,” another fugue of minutiae that crescendos in human suffering. “Write it!” Bishop instructs herself, and Nemirovskaya too pushes forward.

Laying her tricks aside, the poet addresses the heart of the matter: the human. Empathizing with the sleepless old man may indeed be harder than imagining the pain of boiling water. His all-too-human pain is all too close to home. This is the poem’s great insight: the distance between our neighbor and ourself isn’t great, yet it is the distance we are most reluctant to cover. Having worked her way up to it, Nemirovskaya does cover it. In the final couplet, with its unexpected rhyme, the animate and inanimate, the human and inhuman, the physical and spiritual achieve a hard-won harmony—a complicated chord resolving in relief.

Nemirovskaya’s poems have led me down curious routes of imagination and helped me arrive at a more humble and humane vantage point on the world. They are a pleasure to delve into, and a pleasure to convey.

Have I the right to stretch
Myself and write these lines?
Are all these woods and banks
Really and truly mine?
Have I been given signs
By spirits of the dead?
Clouds, like faded ruins,
Are wrapped about my head.
I’m at the very top—
A feeble cry,
Slipped underneath
The rough tongue of the sky.