Boris Poplavsky: Breathing the air of exile

This week through The High Window we are continuing to look back to the October revolution and at how it drove another great poet into exile. Like Marina Tsvetaeva, Boris Poplavsky was an emigré, but one whose name is unlikely to be as familiar to most English readers. A brief biographical outline will be found here:

Those wishing to explore further can read more poems by Boris Poplavsky  in Flags (Shearsman Press, 2009) translated by Belinda Cooke, but to give you a taster you will find below two poems preceded by a short essay.


Boris Poplavsky (1903-1935) 

‘The air of exile is bitter like poisoned wine’
Anna Akhmatova, ‘Poem without a Hero’

Boris Poplavsky belongs to the younger generation of the first emigration of Russian poets. After the 1917 Revolution he moved to Yalta with his father where he was to experience some of the horrors of the Civil War and where his literary career was to begin. In 1919 they both emigrated to Constantinople and Poplavsky finally settled in Paris in 1921 where he was to live the rest of his short life until his tragic accidental death in October 1935.  During his life, though, he only published one book of poems Flags (1931) he commanded great respect both among his peers and many of the older generation.  Descriptions of Poplavsky’s tragic end may have been glossed over by those wishing to preserve his memory but the story goes that he ran into a fellow drug addict intent on suicide, who somehow involved the poet.  He died from an overdose of narcotics mixed with poison. As a longterm cocaine addict (initiated by his sister when he was twleve), there was always the risk of such an end. His posthumous collections include: Snowy Hour (1936), From a Garland of Wax (1938) and Airship of an Unknown Direction (1965).  He also completed one novel, Apollo Unformed, and started another, Home from the Heavens, as well as writing extensive journals.

Essentially Poplavsky’s tragedy was that he was born at the wrong time.  It was hard for the younger poets to gain access to the émigré journals controlled by the older established poets. so for those of Poplavsky’ generation it was doubly bitter: they were deprived of any complete sense of the mother culture and excluded from established writer status which might have come to them more readily had they stayed in Russia. In the poem ‘Departure from Yalta’, Poplavsky does express a sense of loss at leaving Russia; ‘that we might believe, weep and burn with longing,/but never speak of happiness’ but the more natural context for his poetry is the impoverished, bohemian setting of Paris where the poet is forced to make a living other than through his writing. Gleb Struve makes the scathing comment that Poplavsky ‘did not know how to work and did not want to work’, yet, considering his short life, he was extremely productive.  Like his peeers he was also more ready to absorb the new culture and would almost certainly become a poet of the French language, had he lived.

His novel, often absurd images reflect affinities with Avant Garde movements such as French Surrealism and the Russian Oberiu.  However, ultimately it is the poignancy of the poetry which gives it a lasting quality with Poplavsky a Hamlet-like figure expressing the unbearable pain of living in the world,  often transfering this emotional state onto the natural world itself, ‘the life of the woods grow sad on the mountains’ and ‘where with terrible voices the leaves on the trees/cry out in lament at their terrible destruction’.  Yet this bleak natural world also moves him: ‘how endlessly  touching is the evening’, as he searches for the transcendent, while fearing that perhaps there is nothing else: ‘Everything now is meaningless and clear/be at peace there is nothing more’, all expressed directly or on the edge of dispair, ‘It’s terrible to think how time passes/you can neither think nor live’.  Yet with Poplavsky it is not so much a death wish but a pleasurable melancholy which ironically provides him with a purpose. His relationship with God, though predominantly that of a Christian, is intriguingly intimate, like a close friendship between two ordinary people, ‘I don’t believe in God or myself/but I see how fragile we both are’ and  ‘God called to me but I didn’t reply, we felt shy and cursed our shyness’.

As far as translation of Poplavsky’s poetry is concerned his wordplay loses a lot in translation, yet at other times his poems are a gift for the translator: the novel ways in which he personifies nature, the ‘heartbreaking’ quality of many of his direct statements, and the beautiful sense of movement in some of his images, all can be conveyed into English without great loss; by way of example of this last quality consider these lines from ‘Salome’:

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx… to the song
of the white acacia, the evening walked away…
beyond the river and into the clouds.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx… The restaurant
orchestra swam over the marsh,
and into the interminable distance.

Nikolai Tatischev, who was instrumental in publishing much of Poplavsky’s poetry after his death, tells us: ‘Poplavsky loved those overcast Parisian winters and to watch the poor and the wealthy and their states of mind’.  Many of the poems in this selection show Poplavsky as this outsider expressing affinities with the various isolated street figures who walk through his poems. We see here how Poplavsky managed to find in an alien landscape, a context for powerful poetry––the poetry of the Russian poet exiled in more ways than one.


Two Poems by Boris Poplavsky translated by Belinda Cooke.


It rained all night. The storm had already lasted a month.
At the entrance to the damp forest the wicket gate was
banging on its wrecked hinges. Dark and circling,
the river of the skies rushed off to the south.

The river was as busy as a highway.
The hoarding rattled above the damp pavilion.
The passer-by, head well down turned
into the alley, where all is still green.

Over the tall jetty the white mist flew up
circling, and then dropped back into the ocean.
There above the rocks the tower’s black globe
gives advance warning of the hurricane.

Screaming out over carrion the jackdaws arrive;
their battle with the weather foreshadows the winter.
The wave in flight from the pebbled shore
flings itself dust-laden onto the shop windows.

Everything has been locked up, the benches emptied.
Only the newspaper seller sends out his piercing cry.
High up in the cold the chimneys talk their usual nonsense,
and a distant shot rings out from the mountains.

Everything is asleep. Dawn is not far away.
So drink, dear friend, let’s smash our glasses.
Let’s wind up this fine old gramophone
and carelessly sing along together.

We understood, we defeated evil,
we did everything that glitters in the cold.
We rejected everything, snow blocked our path,
so drink my friend, let’s smash our glasses.

And as for Russia we shall not weep for her!
Candles will go out on Christmas trees, and we shall sleep.
The candles will die and it will be dark over the trees,
and they will burn with stars and eternity.

Throughout that night the soldiers sang till dawn,
until finally they grew cold, silent and downcast.
With nothing left to drink they could only wait for day …
its sullen face appears and the wind blows interminably.

Now is not the time to waste your strength!
There in a deep sleep the secret homeland dawns.
Though it is winter without us, the years like white snow,
the snowdrifts grow and grow in order one day to melt.

And only you can tell the young
of that about which they sang and wept till dawn,
and only you will sing about pity for the fallen,
about eternal love expecting no reply.

For the last time the priest on the mountain
served the mass. Morning rose
and in the small neighbouring monastery
one more sick soul departed into eternity.

The hull of the ship shines, immense and severe:
who is this solitary watcher hands thrust in overcoat?
How slowly it turns red in the night time east!
Who can believe there are so many years of parting…

Who could have known then…that it was that or death?
Peacefully the old man raised the Eucharist …
that we might believe, weep and burn with longing,
but never speak of happiness.


The town is dark, its parks mysterious,
while above, the sky is a shimmering sea
of emeralds. Salome – the soul forgets,
how your voice was like death.

And now I remember, you came out of the sunset,
a black cup in your slender hands. To the song
of the white acacia, the evening walked away …
beyond the river and into the clouds.

Everything seemed pointless and strange.
The black knight shut his eyes. The restaurant
orchestra swam over the marsh,
and into the interminable distance.

Sleeping spectre, there is no way
I can wake you, I am your dream.
Salome now inclines her head to sing
in harmony with the lonely marsh waters.

Time flies past, the earth’s black-winged
spectre has long since disappeared.
I shall wait for you in the castle tower,
where the star sings in the distance.

Through the passing centuries you
shall remain: golden, unique and alive.
Sleep my knight, above Roncevaux,
like those fine fires up in the clouds.

So that you will not see sadness
and will live happily through this year,
I shall throw the black cup into the sea;
I shall walk off into those radiant marshes.

The years turn pink on the mountains.
All that is past is close to spring.
There under this bright star of freedom
memory sleeps, smiling in its dreams.


Belinda Cooke completed her PhD on Robert Lowell’s interest in Osip Mandelstam in 1993. Her poetry, translation and reviews have been published widely. She has four books to date: Resting Place (Flarestack Publishing, 2008); Paths of the Beggarwoman: the Selected Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva (Worple Press, 2008) and (in collaboration with Richard McKane) Flags by Boris Poplavsky, (Shearsman Press, 2009). Her translation of the Kazakh epic Kulager by Ilias Zhansugurov is forthcoming (Kazakh National Translation Agency. December 2017). She currently lives and teaches in Scotland on the west coast.


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