First Times Together

Every second of our time together
We exulted, as if it were epiphany,
We two alone in the world.  Lighter
And braver than a bird’s wing,
You flew down the stairs
Like dizziness, skipping half of them,
Through wet lilacs into your realm
On the other side of the mirror.

When night fell, I was given a gift.
The doors of the sanctuary opened:
In the darkness, nakedness was lit
And slowly bowed to the ground.
And waking up, I said, “Blessed one,”
Knowing that daring was my blessing:
You slept, and the lilacs
On the table leaned to touch your eyelids
With the blue of the universe
And those eyelids touched by the blue
Were at peace, and your hand was warm.

While in the crystal, rivers pulsed,
Mountains smoked, seas dawned,
And on your palm you held the crystal
Sphere, and on the throne you slept,
And—my God!—you were mine.
You awakened, transfigured
The day-to-day dictionary of man.
Until full-throated force filled
The neck of speech, and “thou” unveiled
Its new meaning: “king of kings.”

Everything in the world was new again,
Even simple things—a jug, a basin—
When the layered and solid water
Stood watch between us like a guard.

Something was leading us on.
Built by miracle, cities leapt
Like mirages before our vision.
And mint bowed down beneath our feet,
And birds hovered above our heads.
And fish nosed against the river’s flow,
And the sky unfurled above the land…

While behind us, fate followed
Like a madman with a razor in his hand.

“First Times Together” is a classic Arseny Tarkovsky love poem, made more famous by its placement at the beginning of his son Andrei’s famous film, The Mirror, in which Arseny recites the poem off-screen.  The poem employs diction and phrasing redolent of both the “Song of Songs” and fairy tales, as the speaker enters into physical and spiritual union with the Beloved.  The Beloved is described nebulously and chastely (thus avoiding the typical perils of the blazon), but vividly enough to suggest her universality.  As is typical of Tarkovsky poems, we enter into the trance of his meters and rhyme, a spell or charm uniquely made for the occasion, but always meant to hold the chaotic prose of life at bay.  Through the act of love, the speaker gains the magic to reign in the universe of poetic imagination, to give names to things.  Each stanza feels lusher than the previous, until the penultimate stanza leaves the intimacy of the bedchamber temple and wakes into the outer world, proposing that all creation might bend to the will of the lovers.  (In the translation, we locked in the rhythm and rhyme ever more insistently, as if to show the growing “rage for order,” as Wallace Stevens called it.)  It’s all so much bliss.  Too much bliss.  It’s as if the poet invites the envy of everything outside of love.  John Keats, in one of his letters, wrote of the inextricability of joy and sorrow.  Here, too, as in The Eve of St. Agnes, the poem turns to outside the trance of heavenly erotic attraction.  The final two lines, a brutal couplet, suddenly brings the lovers into the cold, where fate will have its say—like a madman with a razor.  The scales of the poem tip from romance to tragedy.  


It’s interesting (and utterly coincidental) that the poem’s final line oddly echoes the final line of Robert Lowell’s “Waking in the Blue,” with its mental hospital old-timers holding “locked razors.”



Philip Metres is the author and translator of a number of books and chapbooks, including I Burned at the Feast: Selected Poems of Arseny Tarkovsky (forthcoming 2014), Compleat Catalogue of Comedic Novelties by Lev Rubinstein (Ugly Duckling Presse 2014), A Concordance of Leaves (Diode 2013), abu ghraib arias (Flying Guillotine 2011), To See the Earth (Cleveland State 2008), and Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront since 1941 (University of Iowa 2007).  His work has appeared in Best American Poetry and has garnered two NEA fellowships, the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, five Ohio Arts Council Grants, the Beatrice Hawley Award (for the forthcoming Sand Opera), the Arab American Book Award, the Creative Workforce Fellowship, the Cleveland Arts Prize, the Anne Halley Prize, and a Russian Institute of Translation grant.  He is professor of English at John Carroll University in Cleveland.

Dimitri Psurtsev (b. 1960) is a Russian poet and translator of British and American prose-writers and poets (including Dylan Thomas, James Aldridge, AS Byatt, L.F. Baum, John Steinbeck, H.L. Hix, Dana Gioia). His two books of poetry, Ex Roma Tertia and Tengiz Notebook were published in 2001.  Dimitri teaches translation at Moscow State Linguistic University and lives with his wife Natalia and daughter Anna outside Moscow.