The first time that Christa Malone heard the name of Innokenti Isayevich Falin, it was spoken by the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy.
In February of 1961, Christa stood in a reception line at the White House with twenty other high school seniors whose poems had been selected for inclusion in a national anthology of young people's poetry called Wings of Song. All but four were girls, a flock of ungainly bright birds in their suits and dresses, all with hats and white gloves too. A gravely courteous aide had arranged them in a row, instructed them how to respond and step away, and now looked at his wristwatch and toward a distant door; and Kit Malone sensed the quick beating of their hearts. The anthology had the sponsorship of a major foundation.
He was stopping to meet them on his way to a grander affair, Kit wouldn't remember later what it was, but when the far double doors opened he was wearing evening clothes; his wife beside him wore a gown of some unearthly material that gleamed like the robes of an El Greco cardinal. The aide guided them down the line of young poets; the President took each one's hand, and so did the First Lady; the President asked each one a question or two, talking a bit longer with a tall girl from Quincy.
A little longer too with Kit: making an easy joke in his comical accent but seeming to turn her in his gaze like a jewel or object of curious interest. When she told him what state she came from he smiled.
"You have a new poet living there, I understand," he said. "Yes. Our new poet from Russia. Falin. You've heard about him?"
She hadn't, and said nothing, only smiled, her own smile compelled by his huge one.
"Falin, yes," he said. "He's been exiled. From over there. And come here."
Jackie took his arm, smiling too at Kit, and drew him toward the next poet.
There were photographs taken then, and a few words from the President about the importance of poetry, to the nation, to the spirit. He said that the poets were the unacknowledged legislators of the world; he reminded them that he had invited Robert Frost to speak at his own inauguration. The land was ours before we were the land's. His pale eyes fell momentarily again on Kit, piercing or perceiving.
That night in their hotel, in the unaccustomed city lights and noise and the girl from Quincy unquiet in the other bed, Kit dreamed of a tiger: of walking with one in the corridors of a featureless palace (his?), watching the heavy muscles slide beneath his gorgeous clothes in the way a tiger's do and talking with him about this and that: aware that she was to listen more than speak, awed and alert but not afraid.
In that month she wrote a poem, "What the Tiger Told Me," the last poem she would write for a long time. And later, years later, she wondered if the President had lingered close to her for an extra moment and studied her with that smiling voracity because he perceived a sexual aura or exudate coming from her. His senses were inordinately acute that way, and had been alerted, perhaps, by something she herself hadn't yet discovered: that she was pregnant.
In January of that year, on his way to the United States, Innokenti Isayevich Falin had begun writing a linked series of poems whose titles were dates. The first was sketched on Berlin hotel notepaper with his new German fountain pen, and was revised on the plane to New York. The original later lost with all the others is a sonnet, fourteen lines in Falin's own peculiar rhyme scheme. The unrhymed rough translation that Kit Malone later worked out with Falin looked like this:
Tip up this year on the fulcrum of its final serif
Revolve it through the degrees from right to upright
Like a lifted flagpole without a flag
Or a flat raised upon the stage of an empty theater
Before which histories will soon be enacted.
Now drop it farther, push it entirely over
As the statue of a deposed leader is thrown
Supine, his gloved finger that pointed Onward
Driven into earth to point Endward instead.
See what you have accomplished?
This rarity comes but once in centuries:
A year that can be overthrown but not reversed,
And after all our labors seems to become itself again.
It is not so. As always, we will never be the same.
Excerpted from The Translator by John Crowley. Copyright © 2002 by John Crowley. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Copyright © 2002 John Crowley.
All rights reserved.