Gertrude: “But look where sadly the poor wretch comes reading . . .”

November 17, 2020
Detail of Robert Aitken’s Samuel Gompers Memorial, 1933, Washington, DC / Photo by takomabibelot / Flickr

What book he was reading – we still don’t know,
For Shakespeare doesn’t tell us. Just that
He was reading! What’s more, by that point the scene
Was charged with an ominous light, and in the world
Beyond, where a pale ghost had cried down revenge,
The gloom was deeper still. And yet, even so –
With a book, with a book! How fortunate,
To catch up with him at just this moment.

For in what else could he take comfort,
When all had grown so pernicious and brutal?
And we too were lucky, reading saved us as well,
Through times of trouble a book sustained us.
To leave here, and enter another place, and dwell,
If just for an hour, in that cherished haven.
“But look where sadly the poor wretch comes reading,”
Having put aside madness and masquerading.

Translation from the Russian

Aleksandr Kushner is the preeminent poet of St. Petersburg, whose rich cultural heritage resonates in his work. He was close to Joseph Brodsky, Evgenii Rein, and other leading poets of the 1960s Thaw generation in the Soviet Union and has been honored with many national and international awards, both then and in post-Soviet times. His work has been translated into more than a dozen major languages, most recently Chinese. “Dialogue with a Dreamer,” his interview with Emily Johnson, appeared in the Winter 2002 issue of WLT.

Carol Ueland is professor emerita of Russian at Drew University. Her scholarly publications focus on Russian poetry, biography and women’s writing. She and Robert Carnevale are the co-translators of Kushner’s Apollo in the Grass (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015).

Robert Carnevale’s poems have been published widely, including in the Paris Review and the New Yorker. He teaches at Drew in the Arts and Letters program.