Three Poems in translation by Sophia Parnok

Sophia Parnok (1885-1933), one of the great modern Russian poets, was a large personality on a stage of large personalities. She was judged for not fitting in – she was married but lived as a lesbian (she had an affair with Marina Tsvetaeva), she was born into a cultured Jewish family but converted to Orthodoxy.  She was ultimately a poet – not self-dramatizing, but one who listened carefully and quietly to her own sense of self.  That listening led to a poetry that is exquisitely sensitive to nature and creature, herself and others, desperation and harmony.  The Soviet Union had no use for her, and her poetry fell into obscurity.  She has recently been resuscitated as a lesbian poet.  For all the drama and despair in her life, her work has a unique voice of radical openness, that faith in humanity that rationalists will cross-examine while the poet keeps writing poetry.

Vladimir Golstein and I translated the following three poems.

To E.K. Gertsyk

When the love of flesh fades,
So goes the desire to create.
Your fingers don’t long to handle clay
Or chisel shadows into marble.

Your song halts in mid-word,
The brush freezes in mid-stroke —
Surprise…how little they matter.
Farewell, farewell to you, sublime lust!
The spirit’s last lingering joy.


To Myself

When forty rolls around
It’s too late to play with the muses
It’s too late to languish to music
To drink fiery potion
It’s time to quiet down
It’s time to raise grandchildren
It’s time to shorten your road
When forty rolls around.

When forty rolls around
You shouldn’t be rash
You shouldn’t write letters
You shouldn’t haunt the night
Cursing your desires and lusts
Or hang onto dreams of life
On seventh heaven
When forty rolls around.

When forty rolls around
When forty rolls around
We turn into Venus’ step-children
Be it Moscow or New York
You’re kicked out to the backstreets.
That’s all, grandma Sofia
That’s what’s left of your philosophy
When forty rolls around.
August 1932



As my days are fading,
I welcome night’s calm.
The past no longer casts a
Shadow before me—

That long shadow that we,
In our tongue-tied futility
To distinguish it from other shadows,
Call our future.

January 9, 1927

Published in Tertia Vigilia, the Journal of Russian Symbolist and Early Silver-Age poetry and prose in translation.  April 20, 2016

Vladimir Golstein, Professor of Slavic Studies at Brown University, and I work together on translating  Russian poetry.   Several of our translations of Marina Tsvetaeva and Sophia Parnok have been published by The Other Shore (Princeton, 2011) and Inventory (2012).

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4 Responses to Three Poems in translation by Sophia Parnok

  1. Tom says:

    How exciting! A ‘new’ poet and one whose newness is at one with expression. The hard clear light of these poems is impersonal as truth is always impersonal and personal as truth is always personal. The translators have added new poetry to the English language. Bravo!

    • jillbpearlman says:

      Tom, you zeroed in on Parnok’s stand-out quality: impersonal as truth is always impersonal and personal as truth is always personal. She is able to stand outside herself, outside her life. That’s quite moving.

  2. Sarah says:

    These are exquisite — the truths they contain as well as their expression in your hands. They are melancholy and beautiful in the way true things often are. Thank you both for making these available to this non-Russian-speaking person. More, more, please.

    • jillbpearlman says:

      Sarah – I’m so glad that the sorrow and elegance of poems come through in our translations. We are working on more! I’ll let you know when they are at a resting point.

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