On the Stairs

This poem was published in the Hysteria Issue of Spolia (http://www.spoliamag.com/)


“On the Stairs” is definitely one of my favorite poems. Russians know Zabolotsky primarily for what we call his “Смак,” a word that most nearly means “gusto, juiciness, tastiness.” Quite literally, Zabolotsky’s writing is juicy both because of the unexpected subject matter and the ways in which he plays with words, alliterations, and sounds. Eighty years after it was written, the poem still sounds just as fresh and modern, and stands as a horrific reminder of the consequences of nonconformism.

In my translation I have tried to remain as true as possible to the sound of the original. The syllable count and the rhyming scheme are mostly kept intact. I have also tried to pay homage to Zabolotsky’s love of alliteration and wordplay.


Николай Заболоцкий

Коты на лестницах упругих,

Большие рыла приподняв,

Сидят, как будды, на перилах,

Ревут, как трубы, о любви.

Нагие кошечки, стесняясь,

Друг к дружке жмутся, извиняясь.

Кокетки! Сколько их кругом!

Они по кругу ходят боком,

Они текут любовным соком,

Они трясутся, на весь дом

Распространяя запах страсти.

Коты ревут, открывши пасти,-

Они как дьяволы вверху

В своем серебряном меху.

Один лишь кот в глухой чужбине

Сидит, задумчив, не поет.

В его взъерошенной овчине

Справляют блохи хоровод.

Отшельник лестницы печальной,

Монах помойного ведра,

Он мир любви первоначальной

Напрасно ищет до утра.

Сквозь дверь он чувствует квартиру,

Где труд дневной едва лишь начат.

Там от плиты и до сортира

Лишь бабьи туловища скачут.

Там примус выстроен, как дыба,

На нем, от ужаса треща,

Чахоточная воет рыба

В зеленых масляных прыщах.

Там трупы вымытых животных

Лежат на противнях холодных

И чугуны, купели слез,

Венчают зла апофеоз.

Кот поднимается, трепещет.

Сомненья нету: замкнут мир

И лишь одни помои плещут

Туда, где мудрости кумир.

И кот встает на две ноги,

Идет вперед, подъемля лапы.

Пропала лестница. Ни зги

В глазах. Шарахаются бабы,

Но поздно! Кот, на шею сев,

Как дьявол, бьется, озверев,

Рвет тело, жилы отворяет,

Когтями кости вынимает...

О, боже, боже, как нелеп!

Сбесился он или ослеп?

Шла ночь без горечи и страха,

И любопытным виден был

Семейный сад - кошачья плаха,

Где месяц медленный всходил.

Деревья дружные качали

Большими сжатыми телами,

Нагие птицы верещали,

Скача неверными ногами.

Над ними, желтый скаля зуб,

Висел кота холодный труп.

Монах! Ты висельником стал!

Прощай. В моем окошке,

Справляя дикий карнавал,

Опять несутся кошки.

И я на лестнице стою,

Такой же белый, важный.

Я продолжаю жизнь твою,

Мой праведник отважный.


Nikolai Zabolotsky

The tomcats sit on rigid stairs,

Their giant snouts raised to the sky,

Like buddhas, scattered here and there,

They roar, like bagpipes, about love.

Shy naked pussycat bodies

Embarrassed, press against each other.

Coquettes! This place is teeming with their ranks!

They pace around in sideways circles,

Oozing with love juice, fresh and fertile,

They shake the whole house with their dance

Disseminating smells of passion.

Jaws opened, tomcats roar, enmaddened,—

Satanic creatures, how they gloat

Adorned with shining silvery coats

There’s only one cat in his own world

Who sits back pensive, doesn’t sing.

Inside his ruffled, shaggy fur coat

The fleas hold carnival, dance[1] and swing.

Oh, hermit of the doleful staircase,

Garbage Pail Monk, come from above,

In vain he searches, ‘til the day breaks,

For that new world, virginal love.

Apartment smells come through the door,

There, the day’s work’s barely begun.

And there, from toilet bowl to drawer

Fat female bodies move and jump.

The primus stands, hot torture rack,

And on it, crackling in fright,

A phthisic[2] fish moans, turning black

Its oily greenish acne shining in the light.

Cleaned bodies, there, of animals

Lie on the counters dead and cold

And iron pots, the fonts of tears,

Crown this satanic, evil lair.[3]

The trembling lone cat, tense, stands up,

He knows the world’s a vicious cycle

And all around is splashing slop[4]

Threatening to flood the Wisdom Idol.[5]

So he stands up on his hind legs,

And walks forth proudly, paws raised high.

The stairs are gone. Now not a speck

Can he see.[6] Women dash aside,

Too late! He clings onto her neck,

Possessed, he digs into her flesh,

Devilish, he kicks, tears open veins,

Rips out her bones with claws untamed…

Oh God, oh God, how clumsy, how absurd!

Did he go mad or blind, his vision blurred?

The night passed without bitterness or fright,

And curious men could see the garden

Turned feline scaffold overnight,

Crescent moon shining as skies darkened,

The giant-bodied birches, buddies, [7]

Squeezing and swaying in the wind,

The naked screeching squawking birdies

Hopping around on unsure feet.

Above them, baring yellow teeth,

The cat’s cadaver hung, austere.

O Monk! You are a hangman now!

Farewell. Outside my window,

As if the carnival were in town,

Again the cats put on their show.

And as I stand here, on the stairs

Just as serious, just as white,

I keep alive your life, your cares,

My righteous, daring knight.

[1] In the Russian, Хоровод literally means dancing in a circle—almost like Ring Around a Rosy. Definitely a dance associated with a party atmosphere.

[2] Taken literally, “Чахоточная” means “tuberculosic” or “phtisic.” In Russian, it’s also used to describe a state of diseased agitation. I ended up choosing “phtisic” because of the great alliterative effect it has with “fish.”

[3] A literal translation of the last line would read “Crown this apotheosis/Апофеоз of evil.” Sadly, there is no way to fit the cognate “Apotheosis” into this line.

[4] I’ve tried to remain true to a bit of alliteration here, which in the Russian reads “Pomoi Pleshut”

[5] As odd as “Wisdom Idol” may sound, it is a pretty accurate translation.

[6] I have tried to remain true to Zabolotsky’s breakup of these lines into sentences with periods.

[7] These lines are just chock-full of alliteration: “Mesiats Medlenniy,” “Derevia Druzhnie,” etc. To preserve some of this, I had to change the lines that most literally say “the friendly trees shook / their giant, pressed-together bodies” to the more alliterative “big-bodied birches, buddies.” I hope this small change can give the reader more of a sense of why these lines are so full of the Russian “Смак.”