Clouds – whole valleys-sides covered in berries ripe and ready for the picking, a steep rock-face with overgrown heather, a flock of black sheep running to be rounded up and sheared by the wind: water with its roots in the sky.
Rain – the drizzly seeds of droplets sown, the slanting sea-strewn westerlies which turn clothing into blotting paper, the aching storms which gravel into bones, making you shrink and cower.
Valleys – scooped and scoured out by laws, people cleared away like shanty-dwellers bossed by bulldozers, memories left to night-writers, to bells tolled by feeding streams and rivers, to drought and dereliction exposed.
Reservoirs – acid funnels of the conifers press down soil to stop it slipping; to trippers they seem like mirrors, but they balance water on scales tapping mountains for its wealth.
Pipelines – over the border, moving like a train with trucks of coal, like iron and steel liquid and molten, like the feet of all those who had to leave muttering ‘Money, money…’ forced against the gradient, longing for sea.
Chemicals – a layer of aluminium the surface sheen, the weight of lead its depths and those substances meant to purify unseen in a clear glass, lurking like radiation.
Houses – the old person whose grasp of time runs through knotted fingers and down the drain, children whose minds become stagnant; families knowing when it’s cut off water’s precious as air when they choke on the stench of their own cack, as germs breed with cockroaches and rats.
Dŵr – they’ve stolen the word, those safe-lock faces, mispronounced it ‘Door’, reinforced and vaulted below reservoirs where they’ve counted profits from broken bones of village walls, from a thirst which opens mouths in fledging questions to the clouds.
By Mike Jenkins from This Houses, My Ghetto
Additional information: Dŵr is the Welsh word for water. The line referring to it being mispronounced as ‘door’ regards a common mistake people make when first learning how to say it if unfamiliar with Welsh pronunciation. the elongated ‘oo’ sound of dŵr is ‘oohr’ not ‘or’. To approximate the pronunciation think of the word sounding like ‘dew-er’ but don’t stress the second syllable so it becomes ‘dewr’.
Since I’m speaking about Welsh pronunciation I might as well note how amusing it is to read in every Russian-English dictionary the explanation that the Cyrillic letter ‘Ч’ “… sounds like the ‘ch’ in the Scottish word ‘loch’…” since that sound exists in the Brythonic language of Welsh e.g. Chwarae (ch-wah-rye) which means ‘play’ as in the popular Welsh phrase ‘chwarae teg‘ (teg = ‘teh-guh’) meaning ‘fair play’.
Such blueness blazes at our window From the nearness of the river We want to turn aside our eyes As on ikons or at miracles. Such shrouds, such continents of snow, To touch a day sets our ears ringing And people everywhere are blue. – And you and I, apprentices of the enchanter, stand and freeze In the spaces of the studio Beside the blackboard on the wall, With dry throats and piercing gaze. I’ll draw and scan, in arrogance, Each syllable, each minute’s life, To my remoteness; and the crammed Fairbooth, no rag to veil its panes – And all that was irrelevance Now shapes our fate, enters our veins, Stands as prefix to our names. Accomplices! Our love’s forever, For all men, to the ruinous grave, To the torn wound, and to the line Unfinished: where grass springs, and stands Above our breasts, above our hands. Such blueness blazes at our window From the nearness of the river.
by Юнна Петровна Мориц (Yunna Petrovna Morits [also spelled ‘Moritz’]) Translated by J. R. Rowland
У нас такая синева В окне — от близости реки, Что хочется скосить зрачки, Как на иконе, как при чуде. У нас такие покрова Снегов — почти материки, Что день задень — в ушах звонки, И всюду голубые люди, И я да ты — ученики У чародея. Холодея, Стоим в просторах мастерской У стенки с аспидной доской. Зрачками — вглубь. В гортани — сушь. Вкачу, вчитаю по слогам В гордыню, в собственную глушь Ежеминутной жизни гам, Битком набитый балаган Без тряпки жалкой на окне. И все, что прежде было вне, Теперь судьбу слагает нам, Родным составом входит в кровь, Приставкой к личным именам. Сообщники! У нас-любовь Ко всем грядущим временам, Ко всем — до гибельного рва, До рваной раны, до строки Оборванной, где прет трава Поверх груди, поверх руки! У нас такая синева В окне от близости реки.
Additional information: Yunna Petrovna Morits (Moritz) is a Soviet and Russian poet, poetry translator and activist. She was born 2 June 1937 in Kiev, USSR (present day Kyiv, Ukraine) into a Jewish family. Her father Pinchas Moritz, was imprisoned under Stalin, she suffered from tuberculosis in her childhood and spent years of hardship in the Urals during World War II.
She has been founding member of several liberal organizations of artistic intelligentia, including the Russian section of International PEN. She is a member of Russian PEN Executive Committee and its Human Rights Commission. She has been awarded several prestigious prizes, including Andrei Sakharov Prize For Writer’s Civic Courage.
After 2014 Morits became a supporter of the Russian occupation of Donbass and Crimea. Some of her recent poetry conveys anti-Ukrainian and anti-Western sentiments, and her invective at perceived anti-Russian campaign by the West.
Moritz was first published in 1954, and her first collection of poetry, Razgovor o schast’e (Conversation About Happiness), came out in 1957. She completed studies at the Gorky Literary Institute in 1961 and, in addition to writing her own poetry, has translated both Hebrew and Lithuanian works. In 1954, when she was not yet eighteen, she announced uncautiously to fellow students in Moscow, including the compiler of this anthology, that “the Revolution has croaked.” She was always then and continues to be rather harsh and uncompromising. Though she may have lost friends, who were unable to withstand her categorical judgements, she has never lost her conscience. A mercilessness is sometimes felt in her poetry – as in the lines “War upon you! Plague upon you! / Butcher…” from the poem in honor of the Georgian poet Titian Tabidze, who was killed in Stalin’s torture chambers. This poem caused a storm of protest when it was published in the journal lunost’ (Youth) in 1961.
Moritz is a masterful poet; where she reaches into her own pain, she does more than just touch us – she conquers. Yet if her adult verse is dominated by dark tones, then her poetry for young people is full of joy of the open-air market. It is as if Moritz does not deem adults worthy of joy and must give it all to children.
Biographical information about Moritz, p.932, ‘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.
Yunna Morits born in Kiev. Her first collection of poetry, Talk of Happiness, was published in 1957. In 1964 she published a collection of translations of the Jewish poet M. Toif. With Joseph Brodsky, she was a particular favourite of Akhmatova’s. She has had a hard life: she suffered from tuberculosis, and her husband, a literary critic, committed suicide at the time of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Though regarded by many writers as one of the finest women poets in Russia today, Morits is very little published now, and is scarcely known abroad. She has been much influenced by Pasternak and, like him and Zabolotsky, has an animistic vision of nature. Her powerful, atmospheric poems about the Far North or the South, severe, utterly serious, with intimations of pain, of loss, of separation, are darkly moving. Her verses stir with the slow rhythm of nature. She is a poet of rooted attachments, measuring her love against the forces of nature. She is drawn to those men – hunters, settlers, fishermen – whose business it is to live and contend with these forces. The intensity of her work, its concrete, weighted depiction of the drama of the spiritual life as it is reflected or as it unfolds in nature, places her in the forefront of contemporary Russian poetry.
Biographical information about Moritz, p.241, ‘Post-War Russian Poetry’ (1974), edited by Daniel Weissbort , published by Penguin Books Ltd.
The reserve of weak, sensitive eyelashes protects your pupil in its heavenly rind, as it looks into the distance and down.
Let it be blessed and live long in its homeland – cast the surprise pool of your eye to catch me!
Already it looks willingly at the ephemeral ages – bright, rainbowed, fleshless, still pleading.
by Осип Эмильевич Мандельштам (Osip Emilyevich Mandelshtam) (His surname is commonly Latinised as Mandelstam) (2 January 1937) from the second Voronezh Notebook translated by Richard and Elizabeth McKane
‘Твой зрачок в небесной корке’
Твой зрачок в небесной корке, Обращенный вдаль и ниц, Защищают оговорки Слабых, чующих ресниц.
Будет он обожествленный Долго жить в родной стране — Омут ока удивленный,— Кинь его вдогонку мне.
Он глядит уже охотно В мимолетные века — Светлый, радужный, бесплотный, Умоляющий пока.
Additional information: The translators chose to use the first line of the second stanza as a title for the unnamed piece rather than the first line of the first stanza as most would do with untitled poems for reference purposes. Hence the discrepancy in the title of this post between the Russian and English. Aside from this they numbered this poem as the seventeenth entry in the second of Mandelstam’s Voronezh Notebooks but I don’t know if that is a officially recognised convention when referring to the unnamed pieces in the three notebooks (as you might use regarding, for example, Shakespeare’s sonnets).
The notebooks were written while he was in exile, accompanied by his wife Nadezhda in the southwestern Russian city of Voronezh, which was a reprieve of sorts after he had been arrested during the repression of the 1930s. Mandelstam and his wife chose Voronezh, possibly, partly, because the name appealed to him. In April 1935, he wrote a four line poem that included the pun – Voronezh – blazh‘, Voronezh – voron, nozh meaning ‘Voronezh is a whim, Voronezh – a raven, a knife.’
This blog is now 7 years old. Technically the anniversary was in November but I always forget to mark it.
So, what are the plans for the next year? More of the same really. I’ve recently been trying to post poems around the time their subject, theme or date of creation are relevant but I don’t know if anyone has really noticed it.
I mention each year that I will upload reviews and such but the laptop they were stored on broke. Anyone familiar with my past reviews knows I tend to go a bit overboard with them so I might try to do some concise ones this year rather than include the exhaustive synopses featured in past ones.
So… not so much an update as a confirmation things will continue ticking over. I just fell out of the habit of saying much between poetry uploads over the years as I don’t know if anyone is that interesting in my ramblings so took this opportunity before posting a poem tomorrow.
Thanks to everyone who has supported this site over the years!
As part of this New Year’s post I was going to do a list of poets, authors and media I suggest from Welsh and Russian origins for those looking for starting points or recommendation but realised I need to give it a bit more time and consideration rather than rush out a list of names, brief comments and hyperlinks. So, that will be coming some time this year hopefully.
Instead let me highly recommend Anton Lapenko‘s Внутри Лапенко (Inside Lapenko) series! The first two seasons are available on YouTube with English subtitles. There is also the (unsubtitled) third season, a number of short video sketches and his seasonal special set in December 1886, which was released recently (at the time of posting).
Внутри Лапенко (Inside Lapenko)
Anton Lapenko, alongside his brothers who stand in when there are multiple people on camera, plays a range of characters in a late era Soviet town. Although a number of loosely connected comedy sketches there are overarching storylines in each season. In the first season an unnamed engineer runs afoul of a local gang leader and events spiral from there. I defy you not to be fully invested in the plight of the Engineer character by the end of the first season! In the second season the gang leader’s ex-wife takes over the town/country with a totalitarian regime and everyone joins together to depose her.
The series is filmed to emulate the aesthetics of the late Soviet era and 1990s reflecting the filming style, dramatic beats, technology, culture, fashion and movies of the time with many references to the era (although there are ones more easily recognisable to those familiar with American films also in the second season). It acts as both a satire and love letter to the late Soviet era (mixing elements of the 1980s, 1990s and anachronistic later modern things like Alice – the Yandex equivalent of Amazon’s Alexa or adverts for their sponsors which adds to the surreal nature of scenes) with a soundtrack of popular songs from the time which will quickly become earworms you can’t forget.
Season one consists of 5 episodes of about 22 minutes average length.
Season 2 has 8 episodes which each run a little longer about 25 minutes long each on average.
The Engineer, as the central character functions as the classic ‘little man’ of Russian culture (Ма́ленький челове́к). A small man, of low social status and origin, not gifted with outstanding abilities nor distinguished by strength of character, who satisfies himself with the small victories and moments of contentment in life. He waxes lyrical while constantly making plans about how he will spend his life with his Особа (lit. ‘person/individual’ but I personally read it as ‘my girl’ or ‘beloved’ considering the tones in which he speaks about her – if you are more familiar with the use of the term please leave a comment). Importantly we never see her face and there is a fake out at the end of season 2 where we think we have seen her face finally but it proves to be a case of mistaken identity. In fact this is a cameo by the actress, Irina Gorbacheva, who helped promote Lapenko‘s work by sharing his Instagram short videos (some of which are not on the YouTube channel).
Igor Katamaranov: A childhood friend of Engineer’s who now works as a labourer in multiple jobs. He is perpetually drunk on turpentine yet, when Engineer is in danger, is always there when needed while also having his own surreal side adventures in the background of events (including at one point living inside the Alice device somehow). My favourite moment, without spoiling when it happens, has him with a boom box playing «Туман» by Сектор Газа during one of the times Engineer needs his help.
The Journalist (Yuri): Host of ‘The Riddle of the Hole’ trying to uncover conspiracies at every corner. In the first season he has a romantic relationship with Yandex’s Alice device he ‘rescues’ from a cupboard in the Iron Sleeves hideout and in the second with Tatiana causing a love triangle to develop with his boss Richard Sapogov. The song «Время, вперёд!» by Георгий Свиридов serves as his leitmotif and theme of the programme he records.
The Iron Sleeves gang: The leader, who eventually ends up wheelchair bound, and his henchmen who have the individual habits of being on the phone to their mother, carrying a keyboard around and being a saxophone player. The leader often appears by surprise and greets the Engineer casually saying здарова отец (‘hello father’ but more tonally ‘hey, old guy’ or ‘hiya, governor’ indicating the mat tone of informal non-standard speech gangsters would affect).
Zhilin: The local police captain who seems to be a one man taskforce. He laughs at his own jokes and often imprisons people but doesn’t actually bother to lock the door despite often being unwavering in his dedication in detecting wrongdoing. At one point a pigeon is involved in shooting him.
Crimson Fantomas: The rock band consisting of blonde haired Rosa Robot and the red haired Shershen (lit: Hornet) who live next to the Engineer constantly drinking and annoying him with their noise making. They have good hearts and big dreams but Rosa is clearly an air head and Hornet is too quiet to challenge his wild ideas.
The survival expert: He appears a few times to offer the audience of his show advice how to survive dangerous circumstances like a poisonous snake bite or being shot which often leaves him in a critical condition needing medical aid. He disappears eventually from the show, presumably having died off-screen, only to make a surprise reappearance!
Richard Sapogov: The arrogant, hedonistic and self serving, vain manager of the TV station the Journalist works at. He lives only for enjoying beauty and the better things in life. He and Tatiana appear in adverts in the first season but are much more prominent in the second season onwards due to the love triangle.
Tatiana: Sapogov’s assistant and girlfriend who is initially incapable of coherent speech until, during an all out battle, an arrow lodges in her head. She begins a relationship with Yuri the Journalist when he shows her far greater affection than Sapagov who neglects her. Both she and Sapogov make brief appearances in season 1. Also, she has a collection of wooden sticks she is very fond of.
Natella: The ex-wife of the Iron Sleeves’ leader. She is an active prostitute who appears briefly in season 1 but, in season 2, eventually leads her group the Iron Heels (whose members mirror those of the Iron Sleeves) to take over the town by becoming the totalitarian president of the country!
Vsevolod Starozubov: A popular singer who is an affectionate parody of talent of the era like Eduard Khil (who you might know from the meme Mr. Tro-lo-lo). He often affects odd ‘off to the side’ looks as if constantly posing to capture the right camera he should be looking towards or for ‘cheeky’ looking photos although it humorously comes across more like one of those moving black cat clocks that were once fashionable that would look back and forth with each tick of the clock. (He is also possibly lip syncing which I recall being common in the past with British shows e.g. BBC’s Top of the Pops where people were supposedly performing ‘live’ so can easily imagine it happening in other countries).
Guidon Vishnevsky : An esoteric local artist who unexpectedly provides a surreal method of escape, in desperate times, while struggling with his own issues.
The mesmerist: Another minor character. He assists Natella using his powers to manipulate people.
There are other characters but hopefully that gives you a head start on enjoying the series.
If you are wondering, the time code at the start of each video being 01.09.1986 is an Easter egg referring to Anton Lapenko’s birth date. As for the time stamps which proceed chronologically I have no answer and invite you to speculate.
I returned to my city, familiar as tears, As veins, as mumps from childhood years.
You’ve returned here, so swallow as quick as you can The fish oil of Leningrad’s riverside lamps.
Recognize when you can December’s brief day, Egg yolk folded into its ominous tar.
Petersburg! I still don’t want to die: You have the numbers of my telephones.
Petersburg! I still have addresses, By which I can find the voices of the dead. I live on the back stairs and the doorbell buzz
And all night long I wait for the dear guests, Rattling, like manacles, the chains on the doors.
by Осип Эмильевич Мандельштам (Osip Emilyevich Mandelshtam.) His surname is commonly Latinised as Mandelstam) (December 1930) translated by Bernard Meares (revised)
Я вернулся в мой город, знакомый до слез, До прожилок, до детских припухлых желез.
Ты вернулся сюда, — так глотай же скорей Рыбий жир ленинградских речных фонарей.
Узнавай же скорее декабрьский денек, Где к зловещему дегтю подмешан желток.
Петербург, я еще не хочу умирать: У тебя телефонов моих номера.
Петербург, у меня еще есть адреса, По которым найду мертвецов голоса.
Я на лестнице черной живу, и в висок Ударяет мне вырванный с мясом звонок.
И всю ночь напролет жду гостей дорогих, Шевеля кандалами цепочек дверных.
Additional information: Leningrad was the name of St Petersburg during the Soviet era. The poem was written in 1930 when Mandelstam had just returned from the Caucasus to his hometown of St. Petersburg (Leningrad). ‘Dear guests‘ was a euphemism for the political police who now patrolled the city upon his return.
Basic breakdown of the poem: In the poem, the speaker happily announces his return home, but at the same time has a slight anxiety due to a new government having appeared in St. Petersburg. He compares the atmosphere of the city with tar but still tries to find something bright and pleasant in everything. He admits that Leningrad remains his hometown (where Mandelstam grew up when his family moved there soon after his birth) because of the addresses he has of friends and relatives there. A man very much wants to see his loved ones, so he lives on the stairs consumed with hope. However, despite all this each doorbell reminds him of a blow to the temple and the door chains remind him of heavy and unpleasant shackles.
The poem reads as an elegy in which Mandelstam mourns the changes he sees in the city he has returned to. He wants to show that it is not the best of times when a new government comes to the city. Also he reveals the anxiety felt by people during this period of change. He talks about how dear his hometown is to him but, despite his remaining connections, he does not feel safe there anymore.
The main theme is that he feels disaster is gradually approaching the city and, for him, St. Petersburg has already changed in his absence although he finds links to his past remain. Overall, the poem demonstrates Mandelstam’s pain and despair as if there is a tragic denouement regarding everything familiar he encounters but has grown hostile and anxiety inducing to him.