BORIS PASTERNAK: STAR OF NATIVITY

Star of the Nativity” is one of six gospel poems in the longer lyric sequence that Pasternak published as the last chapter of  Doctor Zhivago. Five of the six poems revolve around the Passion. “Star of the Nativity”is the one exception. Its aesthetic reminds me of a Roublev icon–painting as annunciation, as Pavel Florensky says – a likeness for an invisible, spiritual energy for which it is the leading wave. (Florensky is thinking by analogy of Jesus through whom God, although imageless, approaches in our image so that we through visible likeness can receive Him.) Perhaps all the Zhivago poems are annunciations in that sense. They were written in Stalin’s day, when history was a mask for idol worship. In response Pasternak offers “midnight opening”, “shy / as a candle in a / sentry’s window” – “a sign of arson” perhaps, but “centring / a startled universe”.

Translator’s Note by Tony Brinkley

Winter’s stance. Wind
from the steppes.
Where a hill slopes, a child
shivers in a cave.

A warm haze over
a manger from the animals
the cave shelters – a child
warmed by oxen breathing.

Brushing straw and grains of millet
from their sheepskin pallets, half-asleep,
the shepherds on a cliff-top
gaze into a midnight opening.

In the distance, meadows,
snow, a churchyard, fences,
graves, a cart-shaft in a snowdrift, and
the star-filled sky above the graveyard.

Nearer – unknown – shy
as a candle in a
sentry’s window,
on the way to Bethlehem, the star.

It flames like a haystack in some country
set apart from God and sky –
a sign of arson – like a farmstead burning –
conflagration from a threshing floor –

towering like a stack of straw,
of hay on fire,
this new star, centring
a startled universe –

the star’s aura, reddening
with meaning –
and three stargazers
hurrying at the invitation of unprecedented burning.

Bearing riches, trailing the Magi,
one by one – camels
and harnessed donkeys –
carefully descending one
by one, from the mountains.

And the impulse for strange visions from
the future – all, about to be, that will come
after – all the centuries of thought, all
dreams, the worlds and villages, all
paintings, play and pranks of spirits
and magicians, in the light-worlds and
in children’s visions, all the Yule-trees,

all the warmth of fluttering candles, all
chains, all generosities of coloured tinsel
… all the fierce winds from the steppes…
… all golden spheres, the apples…

A pool, half-hidden among alders, in
between a rooks’ nests and the tree-tops,
from the cliff half-visible – shepherds
watching – camels and the donkeys as they
edge their way along the mill-dam. “We will
join the others as they celebrate the miracle”,
they say and wrap for warmth their cloaks
around them.

Breaking through snow-drifts – hot, tired.
And beyond an inn, across a meadow, shimmering
like mica, the evidence of bare feet in the snow.
Sheepdogs in the starlight growl
at footprints glimmering like candles.

A night frost-bound like fairytales.
Crossing the snow’s ridges, the ice gardens,
unseen beings joining the procession –
dogs watch anxiously, fearing some
misfortune, huddled by a shepherd boy.

And on the same road, the same region –
angels with humans, incorporeal,
unseen beings who leave footprints
on the ground to mark their passage.

A crowd throngs by a boulder.
Daybreak. The emerging stand
of cedars. Mary asks them, “Who
are you?” “Shepherds and sky-
messengers, coming to sing praises.”
“But so many? You must wait here
by the entrance.”

In a half-light, gray as ashes,
shepherds pacing, quarrelling
with the riders, donkeys kicking,
camels bellow by the trough.
Daybreak. From the sky-vault like
the dust of fiery ashes, dawn sweeps
away the last stars. Mary chooses to admit
the Magi from the crowds beyond the threshold.
Shimmering like moonlight in the hollow
of a tree – without cover – He is sleeping
but for warmth, the donkeys
and the oxen breathing.

In the shadows, the cave’s twilight, among
whispers – barely speaking – someone turns
one of the Magi in the darkness from the manger
– just a little to your left – he turns to see. And like
some guest at the entrance, who watches through
the threshold, the Nativity’s birth star, gazing at the Virgin.

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