“Through Harry Levin, Nabokov met the poet Richard Wilbur, whose work he came to rate very highly. Wilbur had read in Partisan Review Nabokov’s memoir `First Poem,’ and commented on the extraordinary minutiae, such as a drip glissading from a wet leaf’s tip, that Nabokov’s memory preserved for decades. Alas, every detail was true, Nabokov replied, because he was a victim of total recall.”
So Brian Boyd reports in Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years. “First Poem” appeared in Partisan Review in 1949 and eventually became the eleventh chapter of Speak, Memory, the most beautiful autobiography in the language. Nabokov describes a day at Vyra, the family estate, in July 1914, on the cusp of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution that would destroy his world. Boyd notes that Nabokov had actually been writing poems in three languages for several years, and that the “first poem” he describes, “The Rain Has Flown” (Дождь пролетел), was actually composed in 1917. Perhaps it was “first” in a deeper, non-chronological sense as Nabokov implies by making it the first poem in Poems and Problems (1969). Here is Nabokov’s translation of his Russian original:
“The rain has flown and burnt up in flight.
I tread the red sand of a path.
Golden orioles whistle, the rowan is in bloom,
the catkins on sallows are white.
“The air is refreshing, humid and sweet.
How good the caprifole smells!
Downward a leaf inclines its tip
And drop from its tip a pearl.”
Here, from Speak, Memory, is Nabokov’s rendering of the event that inspired the poem. Note, as Wilbur notes, the “glissading” of the water drop:
“Without any wind blowing, the sheer weight of a raindrop, shining in parasitic luxury on a cordate leaf, caused its tip to dip, and what looked like a globule of quicksilver performed a sudden glissando down the center vein, and then, having shed its bright load, the relieved leaf unbent. Tip, leaf, dip relief—the instant it all took to happen seemed to me not so much a fraction of time as a fissure in it, a missed heartbeat, which was refunded at once by a patter of rhymes.”
No wonder Wilbur admired “First Poem.” With Nabokov he shares an acuity of eye and ear. For both, knowledge and mystery coexist. Creation deserves attentiveness. To be less than devoted to detail is to be lazy, soft-headed and immune to the gifts around us. Nabokov saw a poem in a plant. “The Beautiful Changes” is the title poem of Wilbur’s first collection, published in 1947:
“The beautiful changes as a forest is changed
By a chameleon’s tuning his skin to it;
As a mantis, arranged
On a green leaf, grows
Into it, makes the leaf leafier, and proves
Any greenness is deeper than anyone knows.”
In a footnote to the passage quoted at the top, Boyd adds:
“Once when Wilbur came to Cornell for a poetry reading, arriving weary and unfed after a delayed flight, he looked down and saw Nabokov `sitting alone in the very front row, and passionately wished I had eaten something, that I felt better, that my poems were better.’”