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Poetry where you least expect it

February 23, 2015

Guess where this is from:

                Иль, может быть, она оттуда видит и читает?
                        Иль, может быть, не сны одни мне снятся,
                    а в самом деле, для нее не нужны двери,
                    и, измененная, она владеет средством
                        с струею воздуха влетать сюда,
                                здесь быть со мной и снова
            и даже черные фигурки букв способна различать…
                        Нелепый бред! Луна меня тревожит:
            лучи ее как будто падают мне прямо в мозг и в сердце.
                        Что умерло, то спит и не придет
                    перевернуть рукой забытую страницу.

(Or perhaps she can see and read from there? Or perhaps I am not just dreaming dreams, but she truly has no need of doors and, changed, has the means of flying into this place with a current of air, of being here with me, and of rushing around again/bothering with this again [?], and is even able to make out the black shapes of the letters… Delirious raving! The moon troubles me: its rays seem to fall right onto my brain and heart. What has died sleeps and will not come to turn a forgotten page with its hand.)

Except for the line breaks I added, it’s from Leskov’s The Bypassed (Обойденные, 1865), where embedded poetry adds intensity to the end of a lengthy passage inside one character’s mind, almost half a century before the ternary meter passages in Andrei Belyi’s Petersburg (Петербург, 1912-13, 1922). It’s toward the end of part 3, chapter 10. Dolinskii has found a bookmark where Dora wrote what page of Spinoza she’d read up to three days before her death, and her bereaved lover imagines (or senses?) her coming back to read further and be with him again.

The sentences quoted above are a nearly perfect разностопный ямб (iambic lines of varying length, common in Russian poetry), with even the caesuras in the hexameters as expected: а в самом деле, для ‖ нее не нужны двери cuts a prosodic word, but not a graphic one, and и, измененная, ‖ она владеет средством and перевернуть рукой ‖ забытую страницу cut neither.

It’s true I had to use a weird-looking one-foot line with feminine rhyme to make it work. For a while I thought that an editor might have mistaken нОсится (parallel to владеет) for the less surprising носИться (parallel to влетать and быть), so we could read the line as “здесь быть со мной и снова носится.” But I’m not sure that makes sense: the conjunction и makes it look like we have a series of three infinitives as written, and носится would be the only dactylic line-ending.

(If you think you can do this with any prose passage, try it. Clues that this pattern of stresses didn’t arise by chance include the alignment of “line” ends with punctuation marks and syntactic boundaries, the placement of the passage at the end of a paragraph, the gradual approach to it with imperfect iambic lines right before the quoted passage, the strategic use of words that have an optional extra syllable like иль, струею, and мной, and the anaphora with Иль, может быть.)

I’m afraid no one out there is going to find this as exciting as I do. I think Boris Bukhshtab would have liked it (and probably saw it himself), or the character who hangs out in the library in Nausea and tells the narrator how important it is to remove inadvertent alexandrines from one’s prose.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 23, 2015 5:08 pm

    Melville did this. How intentionally, I have never been sure, but it is not hard to find passages of hidden blank verse.

    I don’t know of any other examples in English (besides Nabokov, and he’s the one who clued me into what Melville was doing).

    • February 23, 2015 11:29 pm

      Thanks, Tom – I had no idea. I’ve never noticed that in the little Melville I’ve read, but I’ll look for it from now on. I love these hidden things.

  2. February 24, 2015 8:35 am

    Since she had been his lover, I’d take носиться in the sense ‘fuss over (me),’ but of course I haven’t read the book.

    • February 24, 2015 1:10 pm

      A lot has been made of the book she left unfinished when she died, and I want to take носиться as meaning something like ‘fuss over Spinoza,’ but I’m not entirely confident.

      If I remember the scene right, Dolinskii reads 3 pages farther than Dora had (according to her handwritten note) read to before she died, and while he’s speculating on reality and dreams and ghosts, either Dora or the wind turns exactly 3 pages of the book.

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