misty forest at night
Photo by Rosie Sun on Unsplash

Orpheus by Nina Kossman

He sings his way up to being,

quietly, with unhurried breath,

as though words were a blossomed staircase

leading to a perfect sky

where the kind-eyed gods themselves

with slow, sinuous movements,

and ancient, immaculate hands

would greet him kindly: "Friend!"

As though the net to catch human souls

was masterfully spun of poetry,

of nothing but the sound of words,

not even the sense, the sound...

Where are the moonlit woods

that stood up darkly and strictly

in the soft, thick mist of his longing,

now that he has seen Eurydice vanish

back into the silent earth?


Nina Kossman is a Moscow-born poet, playwright, writer, painter, and translator of Russian poetry. Her short stories and poems in English have been published in journals in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Among her published works are three books of poems in Russian and English, two volumes of translations of Marina Tsvetaeva’s poems, two collections of short stories, and a novel. For Oxford University Press, she edited the anthology Gods and Mortals: Modern Poems on Classical Myths. Her writing has been translated into Greek, Japanese, Russian, and Spanish, and she is the recipient of a UNESCO/PEN Short Story Award, an NEA translation fellowship, and grants from Foundation for Hellenic Culture, the Onassis Public Benefit Foundation, and Fundación Valparaíso. She lives in New York.

Author's note

From Nina Kossman's introduction to Gods and Mortals: Modern Poems on Classical Myths (Oxford University Press, 2001): "If we think we now know the answers, it is because the questions were first posed in antiquity. If we now see far, it is because we stand on the shoulders of tradition. Myths belong to us as much or as little as the imagery of our own unconscious: the deeper we dig into our psyches the more likely we are to stumble upon an ancient myth. Our ancestors are us or we are our ancestors: the texture of our bones is passed on, along with the texture of our dreams. And perhaps it is because the myths echo the structure of our unconscious that every new generation of poets finds them an inexhaustible source of inspiration and self-recognition."

"Orpheus" originally appeared in Nina Kossman's 2020 book Other Shepherds, as well as on her personal website.