That Night We Drove One Another Crazy

Greetings, guests. In our About section, we mention a shared affinity for the poetry of Adam Zagajewski. Zagajewski is a Polish poet, novelist, translator and essayist who serves as a faculty member at the University of Chicago. One of our goals is to share his poetry with a wider audience. But before we begin, I’d like to share a personal anecdote regarding an adventure that occurred while reading one of his books, which led to me to search through the writings of another poet, and to produce (out of my hat, yes! like a magician) a translation.

Adam Zagajewski

Adam Zagajewski

In the midst of A Defense of Ardor, a compilation of essays by Adam Zagajewski, I came upon a reference in the chapter, Toil and Flame, which piqued my curiosity. Describing a respected mentor of his, Józef Czapski, Zagajewski wrote,

It took Anna Akhmatova only one evening with Czapski in the winter of 1942, in Tashkent–where she and a host of other Russian writers had been evacuated from Leningrad and Moscow–to fall in love with him. She wrote a poem about their meeting, and not long ago I heard that Brodsky, after seeing a photograph of Czapski for the first time, commented: “Now I know why Anna Andreevna fell in love with him; he had a White Guard charm.”

Józef Czapski happened to be one of a very few Polish officers who survived the systematic executions of approximately 15,000 Polish officers, a wartime atrocity committed by Soviet authorities later known as the Katyn Massacre.

Józef Czapski

Józef Czapski

“I left Starobelsk together with a group numbering a total of 16 persons on May 12 [1940]….we came to the conclusion as early as in the summer of 1940 that we were the only prisoners of war from these three camps about whose fates information was reaching Poland after April 1940.”

J. Czapski, Wspomnienia starobielskie (Reminiscences from Starobielsk), Warszaw 1989

Anna Akhmatova

Anna Akhmatova

Being an avid Akhmatova fan, I decided I must locate this poem as soon as possible, and translate it.

I was not disappointed by what I found:

That Night We Drove One Another Crazy

That night, we drove one another crazy,
Our luminary, an ominous darkness,
While canals were murmuring along,
And the cloves held the scent of Asia.

And we passed through the city of a stranger,
Through a smoky song and midnight heat,
Alone, under the constellation Ophiuchus,
Not daring to glance at one another.

It could have been Istanbul, or even Baghdad,
But alas! Not Warsaw, not Leningrad.
How bitter is the utter contrast,
As choking as the air of orphan-hood.

It seemed as if centuries paced nearby,
And a drum were beaten by an unseen hand,
As if sounds, like secret ciphers
Circled before us in the darkness.

You and I–in a mysterious mist,
As if we strode through no-man’s-land,
But a diamond crescent felluca-moon
Suddenly rose above our meeting-parting.

And if that evening returns to you,
In your incomprehensible–to me–fate,
You should know that someone dreamed
Of this sacred minute.

(Translated by Jillian Parker, May, 2014.)

Here is Akhmatova’s poem in the original in Russian:

В ту ночь мы сошли друг от друга с ума,
Светила нам только зловещая тьма,
Свое бормотали арыки,
И Азией пахли гвоздики.

И мы проходили сквозь город чужой,
Сквозь дымную песнь и полуночный зной,—
Одни под созвездием Змея,
Взглянуть друг на друга не смея.

То мог быть Стамбул или даже Багдад,
Но, увы! не Варшава, не Ленинград,
И горькое это несходство
Душило, как воздух сиротства.

И чудилось: рядом шагают века,
И в бубен незримая била рука,
И звуки, как тайные знаки,
Пред нами кружились во мраке.

Мы были с тобою в таинственной мгле,
Как будто бы шли по ничейной земле,
Но месяц алмазной фелукой
Вдруг выплыл над встречей-разлукой…

И если вернется та ночь и к тебе
В твоей для меня непонятной судьбе,
Ты знай, что приснилась кому-то
Священная эта минута.

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