The Merry and Merciless Series: Versions of “You”
Zinaida Gippius, player in the Russian Symbolist scene and troubled androgyne, published a poem in 1905 called “Tы” (“You”). It’s a queer one. Part love poem (perhaps an aubade), part ode to the moon, its primary project is to reconcile the trouble of sexual difference with the trouble of sexual identity. Neither trouble triumphs.
The poem’s gender conflict and play lie in the grammar and the rhyme scheme, both minefields notoriously difficult for the translator to negotiate. Russian words are gendered and English words are not. So in the most literal English translation, the fact that sometimes the beloved is a “[masculine] uneasy thrill” and sometimes a “[feminine] limpid mystery” isn’t clear; an English translation needs another way of coding its genders.
I began to translate it hoping that a less literal translation would be more faithful. I ended up with four versions, a series of poems commenting on each other (a series of a poem commenting on itself). They do get progressively less literal. By the end I had realized that my frustration was apt, that I could put it to use. Because of course the speaker is frustrated too. Her beloved is hard to pin down. Morning’s around the corner so their night together’s almost over.
Multiplicity and frustration, between playing and wanting and still not knowing and the night’s approaching end: these are the tropes that orient the series.
uneasy thrill of a spring night
delicate shoot of a skinny poplar
whirlwind gust hot & discreet
limitless slick of dark blue depths
shining glade in the cloudy sky
dewy daisy of these fresh fields
sword mine skyly – my finegrain ray
limpid mystery tender & clean
you’re the bright & greedy campfire on the crossroads
and the bridal gauze over the valley
you’re my merry and merciless
you’re my near and unknown
i’ve waited and i’m waiting for my clear dawn
i’ve fallen in love with you tirelessly
rise up my moon silver & red
come out crescent – darling mine – darling
ode to the moon
you sure know how to sound the alarm on a spring night, boy,
you’re girlish, skinny, green,
engulfing. gust. boy. hot as hell and careful. careful rhymes with the alarm.
smooth as a girl, smooth words ending in –less. bottomless and limitless and inky.
this line is about a ray of light shining out in phallic relief against the cloudy sky.
this one is about a wet flower.
has anyone ever wanted so much? you’re a sprawled pile of fire,
you’re nothing on nothing. light on dark. nothing on nothing. marry me.
you take no prisoners,
i’m schizo. rhymes with marry me. rhymes with nothing.
get up already, you moon.
i said get up.
little spring makes you a little crazy right now
shrugging skinny (pour a little salt) love
glimpses of early quicksilver & storm
tossing my shimmying mercurial love
you’re all wet
once you figure out where a poem jerks you can translate it ad nauseam
onward ho (wriggling)
lo little swallow me
gimme your slippery old wrist!
tonight you’re all milk & fists
tonight you’re all milk & fists
waxing while i wax glorious
in this little light you’re all thirst & chance
i love your grin now show me the rest of the cat
Fear of Dispersion / is not even of concern
to these cats who have skin / & wanna get fucked
the jury’s out on tame but / say my name
look This is spring
This is summer
& this is havoc
the last time i translated a poem before you it was mercury:
pure red within pure silver
i swore i wouldn’t leave a trail of blood but / you know what
there are places i’ve not been
i’m going em
look This part is about loft & privy
you have to understand
the myth and not the wreck sewn in
quickening the surface, much slower in
metaphors, etc., of me
so well so self contained / you’ve got no waves
except your readytaut mouth
guess i have to roll with the punches
k i know what you feel like from the inside too
mess up the walls some more
til it feels like home