Chalk by Dannie Abse

Chalk, calcium carbonate, should mean school –
a small, neutral stick neither cool nor hot,
its smell should evoke wooden desks slamming
when, squeaking over blackboards, it could not
decently teach us more than one plus one.

Now, no less pedagogic in ruder districts,
on iron railway bridges, were urchins fight,
an urgent scrawl names our failure – BAN THE BOMB,
or more peculiarly, KEEP BRITAIN WHITE.
Chalk, it seems, has some bleeding purpose.

In the night, secretly, they must have come,
strict, clenched men in the street, anonymous,
past closed shops and the sound of running feet
till upstairs, next morning, vacant in a bus,
we observe a once blank wall assaulted.

There’s not enough chalk in the wronged world
to spell out one plus one, the perfect lies.
HANDS OFF GUATEMALA – though slogans change,
never the chalk scraping on the pitched noise
of a nerve in violence or in longing.

by Dannie Abse
from Poems, Golders Green (1962)

Additional information: Dannie Abse CBE FRSL (22 September 1923 – 28 September 2014) was a Welsh poet and physician. His poetry won him many awards. As a medic, he worked in a chest clinic for over 30 years. He was born in Cardiff, Wales, to a Jewish family. He was the younger brother of politician and reformer Leo Abse and the eminent psychoanalyst, Wilfred Abse. Unusually for a middle-class Jewish boy, Dannie Abse attended St Illtyd’s College, a working-class Catholic school in Splott.

Editor’s note: Posted on a week when teachers went on strike in Britain.

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Враги сожгли родную хату (The Enemy Had Burned His Cottage Home) by Mikhail Isakovsky

The enemy had burned his cottage home,
And murdered all his family.
So where can a soldier turn his steps,
To whom can he carry his sorrow?

In his deep grief the soldier went
Until he came to a crossroad.
He found in the expanse of field
A mount that was overgrown with grass.

The soldier stood and choked back
The lumps he felt rising in his throat.
The soldier said: “Praskovya, welcome home
A hero – it’s your husband.

“Prepare refreshments for your guest,
Lay the wide table in the house –
My day, the occasion of my return,
I’ve come to celebrate with you…”

There was nobody to answer him.
And nobody to meet the soldier,
It was only the warm breeze of summer
That stirred the grass upon the grave.

The soldier sighed, adjusted his belt,
And opening his soldier’s knapsack,
He then placed a little bottle
Upon the gray tombstone and said:

“Do not blame me, Praskovya,
That I have come to you like this:
I meant to drink your health,
And now must drink that you should rest in peace.

“Boys and girls will be reunited,
But you and I shall never be…”
The soldier drank from a copper cup
Wine and sorrow half and half.

He drank, the soldier, the people’s servant,
And with sore heart said then:
“It took four years for me to reach you;
I subdued three countries on my way.”

The soldier grew tipsy, and a tear
Rolled down, for all his shattered hopes,
And on his breast there shone a medal
For capturing Budapest.

by Михаил Васильевич Исаковский
(Mikhail Vasilyevich Isakovsky)
translated by Lubov Yakovleva

The lyric performed by Mark Bernes

Враги сожгли родную хату

Враги сожгли родную хату,
Сгубили всю его семью.
Куда ж теперь идти солдату,
Кому нести печаль свою?

Пошел солдат в глубоком горе
На перекресток двух дорог,
Нашел солдат в широком поле
Травой заросший бугорок.

Стоит солдат — и словно комья
Застряли в горле у него.
Сказал солдат. «Встречай, Прасковья,
Героя — мужа своего.
Готовь для гостя угощенье,
Накрой в избе широкий стол.
Свой день, свой праздник возвращенья
К тебе я праздновать пришел…”
Никто солдату не ответил,
Никто его не повстречал,
И только теплый летний ветер
Траву могильную качал.

Вздохнул солдат, ремень поправил,
Раскрыл мешок походный свой,
Бутылку горькую поставил
На серый камень гробовой:
«Не осуждай меня, Прасковья,
Что я пришел к тебе такой:
Хотел я выпить за здоровье,
А должен пить за упокой.
Сойдутся вновь друзья, подружки,
Но не сойтись вовеки нам…”
И пил солдат из медной кружки
Вино с печалью пополам.

Он пил — солдат, слуга народа,
И с болью в сердце говорил:
«Я шел к тебе четыре года,
Я три державы покорил…»
Хмелел солдат, слеза катилась,
Слеза несбывшихся надежд,
И на груди его светилась
Медаль за город Будапешт.

Additional information: Mikhail Vasilyevich Isakovsky (Михаи́л Васи́льевич Исако́вский; 19 January [O.S. 7 January] 1900 – 20 July 1973) was a Soviet and Russian poet, lyricist and translator. He twice received the Stalin Prize for his songwriting (1943 and 1949). In 1970, he was awarded the title of Hero of Socialist Labour. He was also awarded four Orders of Lenin, in addition to other orders and medals.

Many poems of Isakovsky are set to music. Two of the most famous are “Katyusha (Катюша)” (music by Matvey Blanter) and, as featured in the post under an alternative translation of the title, “The Enemy Burned My Native Hut (Враги сожгли родную хату)” (music by Matvey Blanter). The song “The Enemy Burned My Native Hut (Враги сожгли родную хату)” (1945) was officially criticized for “pessimism” and was not printed or sung until 1956.

He also published a book on the subject of poetry, О поэтическом мастерстве (‘On Poetic Mastery‘).

Mikhail Isakovsky died in Moscow on 20 July 1973, and he was buried in the Novodevichy Cemetery.

Isakovsky was born into a peasant family. He joined the Bolshevik party in 1918 and worked as a young journalist in Smolensk. His first poems were published in 1914 in the Moscow newspaper Nov’ (Virgin Soil); his first collection Provoda v solome (Wires in the Straw), in 1927, received mixed reviews but was approved by Maksim Gorky. He achieved enormous success with his folk song-like ballads, which made his the most recognized poet of the new collectivized countryside. Some critics today, however, have condemned Isakovsky for his praise of collectivization and his deliberate blindness to the misery in the villages.

Isakovsky so craved a new fairy tale world that it must have seemed to him that to create it in poetry would turn it into reality. His best songs did become a part of reality. For his many wartime patriotic songs he was awarded the Stalin Prize in 1942. A sincere, modest man who shunned the glitter of fame, Isakovsky hardly touched the authentic problems of real life but chose to believe in a goodness that sometimes was marked with evil. Exceptional therefore in his classic masterpiece included here.

Biographical information about Isakovsky, p.394, ‘Twentieth Century Russian Poetry’ (1993), compiled by Yevgeny Yevtushenko (ed. Albert C. Todd and Max Hayward) , published by Fourth Estate Limited by arrangement with Doubleday of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc. (transcribed as found in the original text).

Never Tell by Anonymous

The saplings of the green-tipped birch
Draw my foot from bondage:
Let no boy know your secret!

Oak saplings in the grove
Draw my foot from its chain:
Tell no secret to a maid!

The leafy saplings in the oak
Draw my foot from prison:
Tell no babbler a secret!

Briar shoots with berries on –
Neither a blackbird on her nest,
Nor a liar, are ever still.

by Anonymous
12th century

Связует всех единый жребий (For All Of Us…) by Nikolai Stefanovich

For all of us destiny is undivided.
You only have to sprain your ankle,
and at that moment in Addis Ababa
someone will cry out in pain

by Николай Владимирович Стефанович
(Nikolai Vladimirovich Stefanovich)
(1912 – 1979)
written in Perm, 1943
translated by Albert C. Todd

Связует всех единый жребий

Связует всех единый жребий:
Лишь стоит ногу подвернуть –
И в тот же миг в Аддис-Абебе
От боли вскрикнет кто-нибудь.
Откуда взялся ужас оный,
Который вдруг во мне возник?
Не заблудился ли ребёнок
В лесу дремучем в этот миг?

Additional notes: The English translation by Todd omits the latter half of the poem. The untranslated lines, roughly in English, are ‘Where did that horror come from? / Which suddenly appeared in me? / Has the child gone astray? / In the dense forest at this moment?‘ or, as a native Russian speaking friend translated them ‘Where does the terror that suddenly arose in me come from? / Did a child get lost in thick woods at this moment?’

I couldn’t find any major source of English information about Stefanovich in English after an, admittedy brief, search. However the Russian Wikipedia page for Stefanovich is available for those who can read Russian or are happy to use a translator.

A brief summary of some information from Stefanovich’s Russian Wikipedia page: Soon after the start of the war in 1941, the theater, in which Stefanovich was on duty, was hit by an air raid bombshell. (He was, as a result, seriously shell-shocked and became disabled for the rest of his life). During the same year, together with the theater, he was evacuated to Perm. He rarely published his poems during his life time with the few exceptions include pieces in the Permian newspaper Zvezda during wartime and in two issues of Poetry Day in the 1970s.

According to information from a number of publications, in the mid 1930s and early 1940s, he wrote denunciations (or investigative testimony) against several people who were subsequently repressed because of this, in particular Daniil Leonidovich Andreyev (the son of the author Leonid Andreyev – though you probably noticed that from his patronymic), Natalia Danilovna Anufriev, Alexander Arkardievich Borin and Daniil Dmitrievich Zhukovsky.

Stefanovich was a bookbinder and little-known actor in the Vakhtangov Theater in Moscow who almost never managed to publish his poetry during his lifetime. Nevertheless he beautifully bound his manuscripts and circulated them personally. Only after his death did his verse begin to appear, attracting readers with its literary acuteness and capacity to say much in few words.

Biographical information about Stefanovich, p.604, ‘Twentieth Century Russian Poetry’ (1993), compiled by Yevgeny Yevtushenko (ed. Albert C. Todd and Max Hayward) , published by Fourth Estate Limited by arrangement with Doubleday of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc. (transcribed as found in the original text).

A Day in the Life by Ceri Stafford

Sitting alone in the throes of the winter,
Whispering words that died with the sun,
Staring with eyes that are stinging and bitter,
Crying inside, for the music has gone.

Walking alone in the curve of the coastline,
Cursing the demon that murdered the fire,
Cold as the heart that is dying inside him,
Mad as the heart that gave birth to the liar.

Standing alone in the kingdom of tears,
Watching for life through the knives of the rain,
Dying in memory, silently waiting,
Hate for himself growing strong with the pain.

Leaving along, left alone in the storm
By a dove disillusioned by silence and stone.
Racing through crashing night, chased by a man
who will always be spurned, who will never be home.

by Ceri Stafford