January 20, 2016KR OnlinePoetry

The Ape

Translated from Russian by Alex Cigale

The heat was unbearable. The forests were burning.
Time passed languorously. At the neighboring dacha
A cock was crowing. I went outside the gate.
There, leaning upon the fence, an itinerant Serb,
Rail-thin and dark, was snoozing on the bench.
A heavy silver cross hung suspended
On his half-exposed chest. Drops of sweat
Rolling down it. Above him, on the fence,
Dressed in a red skirt, sat a monkey,
Greedily masticating the dusty leaves
Of the lilac bush. A leather collar,
Pulled back by a heavy chain,
Throttled its neck. The Serb, having heard me,
Came to, wiped the sweat, and asked if I would give him
Some water to drink. But having only lifted it to his lips—
Not too cold—placed the little bowl
On the bench, and that very moment the ape,
Dipping its fingers in the water, grabbed
The bowl with both of its hands.
She drank, getting down on all fours,
Leaning with her elbows on the bench.
The chin almost touching the boards,
The back arched severely above the animal’s
Balding head. It must have been just so
That Darius did once upon a time fall to his knees
To drink from the roadside puddle, as he retreated
Before Alexander’s mighty phalanx.
Having drunk every drop of the water, the ape
Brushed the bowl off the bench, raised itself
And—will I ever forget this moment?—
Offered me its black, calloused hand,
Still cool with the moisture. . . .
I had shaken the hands of beauties, poets,
Heads of state—but never did a single hand
Encompass in itself such graceful
Aspect! Nor ever did a hand
Touch my hand in such a spirit of brotherhood!
And, as God is my witness, no one gazed into my eyes
With such wisdom and to such depths,
Verily—to the bottom of my soul.
The sweetest legends of deepest antiquity
That lowly beast did stir within my heart,
And in that second my life appeared complete,
And it seemed a choir of heavenly lights and sea waves,
Of the winds and of the spheres, with organ music
Burst into my ears, and thundered, as once upon a time
In other, immemorial days.

And the Serb took his leave, thumping on a tambourine.
Having saddled his left shoulder,
The monkey rocked rhythmically,
As Indian maharajas do atop an elephant.
The huge crimson sun,
Deprived of its rays,
Hung in the opalescent smoke. The relentless swelter
Poured forth beyond the withered field of wheat.

That day, war was declared.


Poet, critic, scholar of Russian classic poetry, Vladislav Khodasevich (1886–1939) emigrated in the early 1920s to Berlin. Upon his death, Vladimir Nabokov called him “the greatest Russian poet that the twentieth century has yet produced.” Alex Cigale’s own English-language poems and translations have appeared in Colorado Review, New England Review, and the Literary Review, Modern Poetry in Translation, PEN America, and World Literature Today. He is a 2015 NEA Fellow, for his work on the poet of the St. Petersburg “philological school” Mikhail Eremin. His Russian Absurd: the Selected Writing of Daniil Kharms is forthcoming from Northwestern University Press.