A poem “Nemo” – forbidden love, forbidden city

For the summary I chose a poem by my good friend, colleague and companion Elena Zaslavskaja. She is a Russian-Ukrainian poet and children’s books writer from Lugansk, a laureate of the International Literary Prize. S. Yesenina “O Russia, flap your wings …” in 2015 in the “Word of Victory” nomination. Elena’s poems are translated into German, Spanish, English, French, Lithuanian and Bulgarian. Couple months ago she published her later poem “Nemo”. For three years Elena worked on it. Unfortunately, I could not make a high-quality literary translation of the poem’s parts, given in the summary, but I hope that I was able to analyze it and to find the additional meanings.

A poem by Elena Zaslavskaja was named after the protagonist of Jules Verne’s novel «Vingt mille lieues sous les mers» capitain Nemo (in latin “Nemo” means “Nobody”).

This poem is not just a rare example of love lyrics, romanticism and the Russian magic poetic tradition. It is also a multi-layered, varied sea quest, a dangerous voyage.

The main heroine, a mermaid, is an ambiguous character in the literal sense — she is a creature of bifurcated nature: half human, half fish. Fairy tales of mermaids create a context. Normally, a mermaid could exchange her beautiful voice with a witch for a couple of beautiful legs. But in “Nemo” there is no such option. This mermaid lives is sunken city Lu, and horrible war goes on in it. And mermaid’s beloved one is not even a prince, but the mysterious Nemo.

Nemo is an inhabitant of another reality. In this poem we are dealing with the plot of an impossible, unequal, forbidden love. This is one of the main plots in the world, at least it is almost mandatory in Indian fairy tales, plays and even modern Bollywood. It includes not only love between representatives of different castes and beliefs, but also different worlds: real and fabulous, or natural and spiritual. If the mermaid is a child of the sea, then let’s call Nemo an inhabitant of the earth:

“When, Nemo,
You will come ashore
What will the surf carry at your feet? «

Nemo does not need the transformation of the mermaid into a girl, does not demand for sacrifices, and does not ask dedication poetry. He wants to remain anonymous, because he understands the absence of the future and the danger of unequal love. Therefore, the main character uses her voice not as a bargaining chip, but to tell her dramatic story to the faun Marsyas, a famous rapsodist:

«The gray-haired rhapsodist,
A tramp and influencer
I will tell you my story. «

We know that rhapsodists are wandering singers, vagabonds, nomads. About Marsyas will be a little later, but for now it is worth turning to the nomadic motive of this poem, which runs through the whole work as a thread on which pearls are strung. And not only because the endless prairie, wonderful meadows and Wild Field emerge through the image of the sea in «Nemo»:

“We’ll disappear with no trace
In depths of the Wild Sea
Which has always been.
It stretches to the horizon
Produces nomadic dreams.
And feather-grass waves go
Under the prairie winds.”

 In general, there is no difference between the sea and the prairie: both are an immense and uncontrollable space. Here we take out and dust off ideas of famous French philosophers’ Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, concerning types of space.The above-mentioned sea-field refers to the so-called “smooth” spaces. This does not mean that the sea is smooth and serene. “Smooth” means continuous variation, the development of a form, the fusion of harmony and melody for the sake of extracting purely rhythmic meanings. Marine model — this is how this type of space is characterized in the “A Thousand Plateaus” by Deleuze and Guattari.The city, in contrast to the sea, belongs to the so-called “grooved” spaces. They are characterized by settledness and some stability. But the sunken city from the poem – Lu, before flooding, was called Lug Angeles. The poet’s native city name is Lugansk, so she creates an allusion to Los Angeles, a city of angels, after flooding and war “angelic nature” of this place has been missing. Now in Lu both spaces (smooth and grooved) co-exist at the same time. It is not a border or a capital, but something at the crossroads. Roughly speaking, if nomads, satyrs and mermaids had cities, then Lug Angeles would be one of them:

“Our city has long been under water.
A Legendary city, a myth.
Who built that?
Is it for life or death? «

Moreover, the peculiarity of these both spaces is that they overlap, alternate, pass into each other. Only in history it takes centuries, but in a myth it takes time between the raids of waves.
Finally, the sea is mass of water. It is a liquid crystal, but it is more perfect than silicon, its memory reserve is not limited by its structure. The flooding of the city with a new reality gives rise to new meanings (pirates, priests), new communications (smooth, horizontal), new means of communication (shell-phone). In “Nemo”, magic itself and wonderful artefacts such as a shell-phone and a unicorn horn are opposed to technology from the “outside” world:

«From the horn of a unicorn
A good gun will come out.
It can aim
Either Cyborg or Drone
Or shiny Dragon metallic. «

Weapons in the underwater world are exclusively magical and natural, not electronic or metallic. And on the contrary — the world outside the myth is a technocratic world, it brings horror and death:

«Over your head,
Like black crows
Black drones fly
F*cking robots
New messengers
Burning Valkyries!
What do you bring us
Electronic media? «

Marsyas, who was commissioned by the main character to immortalize this poem — a rhapsodist, was called the «a stitcher of songs». Instead of the wand that the rhapsodist normally should have, he was holding a flute. According to legend, goddess Athena threw out this instrument, as she could not master the art of playing it. The reason was that the goddess constantly looked at herself in the mirror. Marsyas became a master thanks to dedication, he played and sang to nymphs and fabulous creatures, and once challenged Apollo himself to a duel.

Marsyas was a satyr who opposed God. This is another symbol of unequal struggle and courage in poem. Christian moralists consider Marsyas to be the embodiment of pride. However, even the instrument he had chosen was considered “common” — not like the lyre of Apollo. The flute allegedly evoked low, «Dionysian» passions, while the lyre tuned in to a sublime mood. (You can compare Marsyas with Krishna, who played the shepherd instrument of a shepherd, not a royal one). The fact that the main heroine of “Nemo” entrusts her story to Marsyas, hints at her preference for the folklore and pagan over the “elite” and divine.

Everything that inhabits a “smooth” sea space is constantly going through metamorphosis. Marsyas, who lost the match, was skinned by Apollo. However, he was introduced to the gods, and his flayed skin symbolized the outer inert shell, which the rhapsodist throw off and revealed his true inner being. It is not for nothing that statues of Marsyas stood in the markets in Rome and the colonies as emblems of freedom.

The mermaid from poem is also capable of such a metamorphosis (the ability to become human being through love) — but she meets death, being «extracted» from her mythical habitat by pirates. She was caught on a spoon (spoon as a kind of technology, a trick, deception), means that it was her magical “fish-nature” that lead her into a trap and death.

The fact that at the end the mermaid reveals her name for Nemo hints at the possibility of her resurrection (her name was the same as that of the author Elena). To know the name of a creature means to have power over it, the ability to summon him or her at any time, to oblige to speak the truth, etc. Multiple descriptions of the afterlife say that the dead souls do not remember their names. The mermaid remains to live in the memory of the sea, in the songs of Marsyas. But, even to the rhapsodist, she does not open the name of her beloved, forever protecting his life and freedom:

“You will not be recognized,
Not named.
Mister Nobody. No name.”

Olga Bodrukihna,

summary of a poem for assessment of Communicative English for the Budha College,

Delhi, India


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