Transitions №4

Author: Henri Volohonsky

Translated by Dmitry Manin


Ace of Hearts

Gomorrah’s shield is carried by its mayor
It’s black at heart but rosier in the face
When summoned by the underground Amour
Rose-worms race to the heart’s core of this ace

Translator’s note: Hearts are also Roses in the Swiss-German system, and Worms in Russian. The latter name derives eventually from the carmine color originally produced from insects.

Ace of Spades

Lo! With a belly thrust up on the spear
Making its stamp, a memory of Lot,
The symbol of shy flesh, headlong and taut,
Dives into shaggy fur to drink its myrrh

Ace of Clubs

A false Egyptian bishop, a castrate
Has shed the shell and boldly flirts with flying
As if a saint, flutters on outspread wings
His shield shines with a fissured emblem plate

Ace of Diamonds

A cymbal in the sky of Babylon
A flying fiery ruby tambourine
A banner amid silence sparkles on
A carmine ace — a demon — sleeps within


The royal power is shadowy but blessed
The yellow jacinth orb of the Bouillons
Shall keep within its ornate frame the gemstones
The shiny sweets that dropped out of the nest

Oh what a joy to don the crown acquired
From ancestors, as starry as the sky,
And upside down — the sign of the mind’s eye —
To idly play with a Monpensier sapphire

[1] Godfrey of Bouillon’s coat of arms is amber yellow.
[2] Montpensier is a French lordship and the generic name of small, colorful sugar confectionery in Russian.


There in the mirror is the one her heart
Loves deeply and she seeks in this smooth oval
A part of her own self: the goal is noble,
Even if that is not her nicest part

The sky gets brighter, and the eyes get colder
To match her green cheekbones and bluish lips she rubs
The rouge into the forehead of her half that’s Clubs
Meanwhile the haughty Diamonds half looms over


Armed with a halberd ready for the fray
His armor is breathtakingly magnificent
Over his head hovers a plumed beret —
An ostrich on the broad breast of a pheasant

The lower the rank the crasser are the manners
A big shot in a nearly faceless mass
He’s still a lackey charmed into his armor
Even to a knave nobility gives brass

Blank Card

The gleaming leaf is blank like fireworks in Versailles
Like the Castalian Spring or Admiral’s white tie

Deuce (Sullen)

How far below we are from lofty spheres
Their crystal glitter is too bright for us
Our skies are gloomy and monotonous
Our crescent moon is frigid and austere

We do not need the gifts that Fate disburses
Not golden joy nor grief over the top
We’ll never ask our Lady Luck to drop
White balls of fortune in our beggar’s purses

We like the coolness of the field and meadow
And in the distance past the fields, the ochre
Of dirt roads where along a paucious row

Of poplar trees, a scattered group of walkers
Would leave behind a dust cloud as they go
Where we would see an odd one-legged joker

Trey (Enamoured)

From nothing to the temple — quite a feat
Barely out of the pit — on to Astarte
The three excited rush to join the party
Each gets a half of the forbidden treat

Did seafoam form this marvel and retreat
Or will it surface when the snow departs
There on the playing card, three crimson hearts
Are chained with iron fetters to the feet

When by the tomb she lies, like a renewed
Diana with raised horns, and suddenly
The flitting gold rains down on Danaë

Stretched out before them and her hips exude
Pure beauty so luxurious and nude —
They fancy she was given to the three

Four (Passionate)

We sent the horseshoes flying from our hooves
Big ribbon bows fell from our battle blades
Like sparks stars shot out from the shoes in droves
Brilliant magnetic lightning bolt cascades

How joyfully we rode with miracles
Anticipated toward the night’s grey halos
And by our side behind heavenly girls
Orion hurling after them his arrows

The rooster sign the in-foal mule had tolled
Halted the suits’ cruel run with lances drawn
In a salute the jubilant hooves stalled

And headed home with company the drone
Died down and once again the road dust settled
Over the intersection of four bones.

Five (Mercenaries)

The star will fall — and then the bloom is gone
Five broad blades affixed to the iron star
Will pierce the bud like five sharp scimitars
So that the tulip burned red in the sun

Like a cadaver on the stalk. And when
The spring grass soars above the lush green ground —
A strike a clang a flash: the head rolls down
But even in the sun this blood won’t blacken,

Shines ever brighter scarlet every day
The flower under the steel’s ruinous strokes,
Its monument unyielding to decay

Stands like a mountain, here and there charred gray,
A temple with familiar ruddy outcrops
Where those masked five are bustling on the slopes

Six (Obedient)

Six pieces in two rows three blackbirds each
Descend into the glutton’s gut on swords
Accompanied by strings in major chords
Their faith shining like silver unimpeached

— Ah, what’s that part of ours that went down there
All but self-plucked for the rapier — at least
Still downy and — alas — just for the feast —
Can’t we escape the trial if it’s unfair?

Why aren’t we waiting for a proclamation
Against the Ace to stir a perturbation?
Cannot he cease not being full, this Doge?

— Our belly, surely, holds a message forged
In times of yore to suit your situation:
“Go eat until you too go down the gorge.”

Seven (Anxious)

The vial shattered. From the broken glass
The clan of flighted mice burst in revolt
They sense the sudden freedom soaring restless
Toward the light that gushes through the vault

They flutter on diaphanous gray wings —
The guinea pig’s fair offspring — to the heavens
Their roundish bodies with their round eyes swing
With their high voices like a screeching seventh

The seven rats who got the king dethroned
Gnaw seven breaches in the democrat’s
Glass yacht determined to break through and find

The diamond of freedom’s shining carats
So tempting is the wingedness of bats
That with the keel up high they still sing, “Land!”

Eight (Terrifying)

Here comes a host of evil butterflies
Whose honey-licking worms are soft and shelless
Like fox cubs drunk on grapes they sway a callous
Pomegranate fruit descending from the skies

And on their wingéd passage they foretell us
Hunger and darkness threatening our lives
They catch and gulp the falling chunks of ice
Resembling Harpies over Northern Hellas

A tree-body with outstretched limbs, there stands
In ruins of its towers the ancient town
Afflicted by the grim steps of the Hand

That like a dragnet roams the land around
The river’s sloping banks where on the sand
Eight salamanders lie with crests furled down

Nine (Vain)

Today the halls are filled with ecossaise
The couples dance and music never ceases
The invitees to noted dioceses
Have suit marks smeared across the ghostly face

But by their lip color you’d never tell
Only the fragrances give them away
These are not nomads washed clean yesterday
That’s how three hundred years of peerage smell

And so they mill about and swirl in dance
A whirring swarm of multifarious birds
And now the iridescent torso stirs

Snow-white about to break loose from the lance
Perhaps to plunge into the depth of mirrors
And maybe even to return perchance

Ten (Mature)

The younger generation breaking free
Matures and clambers out from their dark lair
They will succeed the fiends of yesteryear
Accomplishing our time’s loathsome decree

Their eyes with leaden gleam have no reflexes
Their hands oligodactyl and refined
Their lips— cast-iron corals— slowly grind
The porcelain of dust into asbestos

A lissome flock of females full of grace
In sparkling dominoes may flit and trot
Forever nearby at their dancing pace

What is eternity before the rot
That serves for its adornment? It is naught
A phantom stripped of its dissolving lace


Here are twice twenty-six bright windows of stained glass
Each colored shard reflects the path of someone’s fate
Plausible is the zeal of every sorceress
Methinks though that my role is hard to overstate

By chance matched with a jack I too become a jack
And with the chivalry that only age can claim
I can — you wouldn’t have known when hanging on a rack —
Be equal to a king who’s equal to a dame

Behind the motley herd in front of otherwise
Be that a painter or a poet whose mind is keen
Yet no one can parade straight into Paradise
Like me with crowds and cowbells on my tambourine

Like Daedalus I rise — wings flapping — fearless flier —
Up to the aces or like Icarus his son
I crash into the foam temple of the empire
Of mirrors with my sail transparent to the sun

Staring Phoenix in the eye as long as I could stand
I saw Fate dwell within its egg a sapphire gem
There are thirteen times four windows into this land
A face — my face — looks out of every one of them