Sunday, December 26, 2010

Pasternak: The Star of the Nativity

As a somewhat response to Laurie and to Hydriotaphia as well as to the Brodsky poem I posted on the 23rd, I offer this from Boris Pasternak, as translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky in their new edition of Doctor Zhivago.

The Star of the Nativity

It was winter.

Wind was blowing from the steppe.

And the infant was cold there in the grotto

On the slope of the hill.

He was warmed by the breathing of the ox.

Domestic animals

Stood about in the cave,

And a warm mist floated above the manger.

Shaking bed straw from their sheepskin capes

And grains of millet,

Shepherds on the cliff

Stood looking sleepily into the midnight distance.

Far off there was a snowy field and graveyard,

Fences, tombstones,

A shaft stuck in a snowdrift,

And the sky over the cemetery, full of stars.

And alongside them, unknown till then,

More bashful than an oil lamp

In a watchman’s window,

A star glittered on the way to Bethlehem.

It blazed like a haystack, quite apart

From heaven and God,

Like the gleam of arson,

Like a burning farm, a fire on a threshing floor.

It raised itself up like a flaming rick

Of straw and hay amidst

The entire universe,

Which took alarm at the sight of this new star.

A reddish glow spread out above it

And had a meaning,

And three stargazers

Hastened to the call of the unprecedented light.

After them came camels bearing gifts.

And harnessed asses, one smaller than the other,

Moved down the hillside with little steps.

And in a strange vision of the time to be,

All that came later rose up in the distance,

All the thoughts of the ages, the dreams, the worlds,

All the future galleries and museums,

All pranks of fairies, all tricks of sorcerers,

All the Christmas trees on earth, all children’s dreams.

All the flicker of gleaming candles, all the paper chains,

All the magnificence of gaudy tinsel…

…All the more fiercely the wind blew from the steppe…

…All the apples, all the golden balls.

Part of the pond was hidden by the tops of the alders,

But part of it was perfectly visible from there,

Through the nests of jackdaws and the treetops.

The shepherds could make out very well

How the asses and camels went past the dam.

“Let’s go with them to worship the miracle,”

They said, wrapping their leather coats around them.

Scuffling through the snow made them hot.

Across the bright clearing, like sheets of mica,

The tracks of bare feet led behind the hovel.

At these tracks, as at the flame of a candle end,

The sheepdogs growled in the light of the star.

The frosty night was like a fairy tale.

And from the heaped-up snowdrifts, all the while,

Someone invisibly slipped into their ranks.

The dogs trudged on, looking warily around,

And pressed to the herdsboy, and expected trouble.

Down the same road, over the same country,

Several angels walked in the thick of the crowd.

Bodilessness made them invisible,

But their tread left the imprints of their feet.

By the stone a throng of people crowded.

Daybreak. Cedar trunks outlined themselves.

“And who are you?” asked Mary.

“We’re of the tribe of shepherds and heaven’s envoys.

We’ve come to offer up praises to you both.”

“You can’t all go in together. Wait by the door.”

In the predawn murk, as gray as ash,

Drivers and shepherd boys stamped about,

The men on foot cursed the men on horseback,

At the hollowed log of the water trough

Camels bellowed, asses kicked.

Daybreak. Dawn was sweeping the last stars

Like specks of dust from the heavenly vault.

And only the Magi of that countless rabble

Would Mary allow through the opening in the rock.

He slept, all radiant, in the oaken manger,

Like a moonbeam in the wooden hollow,

Instead of a sheepskin coat, he had for warmth

The ox’s nostrils and the ass’s lips.

They stood in shadow, like the twilight of a barn,

Whispering, barely able to find words.

Suddenly, in the darkness, someone’s hand

Moved one of the Magi slightly to the left

Of the manger. He turned: from the threshold, like a guest,

The star of the Nativity looked in at the maiden.

Tarkovsky: Mirror
Tarkovsky: Mirror
Tarkovsky: The Sacrifice
Tarkovsky: The Sacrifice


  1. Not sure what the apocalyptic images of Tarkovsky have to do with the star of the Nativity unless of course you explain the connection; but another great narrative poem i was unaware of anyway.

  2. An oblique connection -- those images came to mind with this stanza:

    It blazed like a haystack, quite apart
    From heaven and God,
    Like the gleam of arson,
    Like a burning farm, a fire on a threshing floor.

    A 3rd image would be the burning bush of Mount Horeb, but those photos have been lost.

    From my late perspective, the 1st Tarkovsky image looks forward to and reverberates with the Stalker's "room" in The Zone.

    The 2nd of the Tarkovsky images abides in mystery -- a powerful image of a quixotic sacrifice that saved the world.

  3. Sorry, my fault for not reading the poem through. Makes sense now to have these images attached. Andrei Tarkovsky and Werner Herzog are two favourite film-directors of mine too! Think i saw both 'Aguirre, Wrath of God', and 'The Sacrifice' when first released.

  4. What must it be like to write like this?!

    I've been to distracted to do much commenting or writing, but I have been reading your comments and posts and enjoying them.

  5. "too distracted..."

    See what I mean?

  6. Pasternak is a favorite of mine. I wish more of his poetry was available in English, or -- better yet -- that I could read and speak Russian. I'd love to discover Pushkin in his own language -- by all accounts he's almost untranslatable.

    I know someone who knows his son -- they're involved together in a community doing the work of Christ in Russia.


Don't be a jerk.