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The Giraffe

by Nikolai Gumilev

translated from the Russian by James Stotts

O, the look in your eyes this morning is more than usually sad,
With your little arms wrapped round your knees and body bent in half.
Let me tell you a story: far, far away, on the distant shores of Lake Chad,
There roams a most majestic giraffe

Blessed with a handsome build and graceful carriage
And a coat painted hypnotic, magical patterns,
With which none but the moon above dare compare
When her light falls down to be scattered and rocked on the waters,

Passing like a blazing sail far out at sea
As she runs by, nimble and carefree as a bird in flight.
I hear tell the earth has seen many wonderful things
When the giraffe hides herself away and the sun sets into night.

I know fabulous tales of far off, alien lands,
Of a dark maiden, of a young captain’s burning desire, all this I know,
But you’ve breathed in the damp marsh air for so long
You don’t want to believe in anything but the rain out your window.

I still haven’t told you about her tropic garden, with the slenderest palm trees,
The sweetest wildflowers, meadows of unbelievable grass . . .
Are you crying? Let me tell you a story: far away, on the distant shores of Lake Chad,
There roams a most majestic giraffe.

 

Nikolai Gumilev was first husband to the poet Anna Akhmatova, a founder of the Acmeist school of poetry, and a prominent figure in the modern poetry scene in St. Petersburg-cum-Leningrad. He traveled widely in his youth, to places such as France, Italy, and Africa, and was recognized for his bravery after volunteering to serve on the front in World War One. In 1921 he was arrested by the Cheka for alleged participation in the Tagantsev affair and executed by firing squad.

James Stotts is a poet and translator at work on an anthology of the Russian masters (from Pushkin and Fet, through Mariengof, Vaginov, Mandelstam, Gumilev, Esenin, and Tsvetaeva, to Brodsky and Ryzhii) in formal translations and abusive studies. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts, with his wife and son, and is a bartender in Cambridge. (4/2010)


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