Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Nativity Poem by Boris Pasternak

Cover for the 1st Italian edition of Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago / Image courtesy of the Hoover Institution

[NOTE: As I have done in previous years, I'm posting a nativity poem for the Christmas season. I've translated this one (into a lazy vers libre) from the selection of Zhivago poems at the back of Boris Pasternak's 1957 novel.]


*     *     *

Star of the Nativity
by Boris Pasternak

Winter had set in.
Wind blew in from the steppe
and the child was cold in a dark den
on the slope of a hill.

He was kept warm by an ox’s breath.
Other beasts also
stood in the cave.
Above the manger floated a warm haze.

After shaking bits of straw and millet
from their thick furs,
herdsmen gazed sleepily
into the midnight distance from a cliff.

Far off lay a snowfield and churchyard,
fences and headstones,
a plank in a snowdrift,
and a sky full of stars above the graves.

Nearby, unknown until that night,
more timid than a candle
in a watchman’s window,
a star glimmered on the road to Bethlehem.

It flared up like a dry hayrick, apart
from God and heaven,
like an arson’s gleam,
like a farm and threshing-floor in flames.

The new star hung like a blazing stack
of hay and straw
at the heart of a world
unsettled by its very presence.

The blaze glowed red above the world,
signifying something,
and three stargazers
raced toward the call of unprecedented fires.

Behind them, camels bore lavish gifts,
and donkeys in harnesses, each more stunted
than the next, trod slowly down the mountain.

And all that was yet to come rose up
in a strange vision of future times:
all the dreams and thoughts of centuries,
all worlds, all galleries and museums,
all antics of fairies, all sorcerers’ spells,
all Christmas trees and childhood fancies,
all garlands and flickers of lighted candles,
all the splendor of bright-colored tinsel…
(the wind blew ever fiercer from the steppe)
…and all the apples, the shining ornaments.

Part of a pond lay hidden by alders,
but part could clearly be seen from the cliff
through rooks’ high nests and crowns of trees.
The herdsmen distinctly saw how donkeys
and camels were passing along the water.

“Let’s go with the others to witness this miracle,”
they said, wrapping themselves in their sheepskins.

Shuffling through snow had made them hot.
Across the meadow, like sheets of isinglass,
sets of bare tracks led behind a shack.
By blazing starlight, sheepdogs growled
at the tracks, as they would at flared-up embers.

That frosty night was like a fairy tale:
someone new would always materialize
on a windswept ridge and join their ranks.
The tired dogs, glancing around in fear,
huddled together and waited for the worst.

Along the same road, through the same place,
angels walked in the thick of the crowd.
Their unearthliness had made them invisible,
yet every step they took left a footprint.

Hordes of travelers gathered at the rock face.
Day was breaking. Cedar trunks emerged.

“And who are you?” Mary asked.

“We are the herdsmen’s tribe and heaven’s envoys.
     We have come to exalt you with our praise.”

“You cannot all come in.
     Some must wait here.”

Amid the early morning haze, gray as ash,
shepherds and camel-drivers stamped about,
those on foot cursed those on horseback,
and, at the hand-dug watering trough,
camels bellowed and donkeys kicked each other.

Day was breaking. The dawn swept the last
of the stars from the sky like cinders.
And among the innumerable crowd, only
the magi did Mary let into the cave.

He slept, radiant in his oaken manger
like a moonbeam in a tree trunk’s hollow.
His sheepskin blanket had been exchanged
for donkeys’ lips and oxen’s nostrils.

The magi stood in the barn-like shadows,
whispering yet barely conversing in words.
Somebody reached out a hand in the dark
to move one of them to the left of the manger,
and he glanced at the door: the star, he noticed,
like one more guest, was watching the Virgin.

1947

Translated from the Russian by Jamie Olson

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