Baratynsky by Varlam Shalamov

	Three Robinson Crusoes
in an abandoned shack,
we found a real find -
a single, battered book.

We three were friends
and we quickly agreed
to share out this treasure
as Solomon decreed.

The foreword for cigarette paper:
one friend was delighted
with a gift so unlikely
he feared he was dreaming.

The second made playing cards
from the notes at the back.
May his play bring him pleasure,
every page bring him luck.

As for my own cut -
those precious jottings,
the dreams of a poet
now long forgotten -

it was all that I wanted.
How wisely we'd judged.
What a joy to set foot in
a forgotten hut.

by Варлам Тихонович Шаламов (Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov)
(1949)
translated by Robert Chandler

Interesting extra: The poem refers to Yevgeny Abramovich Baratynsky (Евге́ний Абра́мович Бараты́нский ) was lauded by AlexanderPushkin as the finest Russian elegiac poet. After a long period when his reputation was on the wane, Baratynsky was rediscovered by Russian Symbolism poets as a supreme poet of thought..

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Roncesvalles by Varlam Shalamov

I was captivated straight away,

tired of the lies all around me,

by that proud, tragic tale

of a warrior’s death in the mountains.

 

And it may have been Roland’s horn

that called me, like Charlemagne,

to a silent pass where the boldest

of many bold fighters lay slain.

 

I saw a sword lying shattered

after long combat with stone –

a witness to forgotten battles

recorded by stone alone.

 

And those bitter splinters of steel

have dazzled me many a time.

That tale of helpless defeat

can’t help but overwhelm.

 

I have held that horn to my lips

and tried more than once to blow,

but I cannot call up the power

of that ballad from long ago.

 

There may be some skill I’m lacking –

or else I’m not bold enough

to blow in my shy anguish

on Roland’s rust-eaten horn.

 

by Варлам Тихонович Шаламов (Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov)

(1950?)

translated by Robert Chandler


Fun facts: Shalamov references one of his favourite poems by Marina Tsvetaeva by mentioning Roland’s Horn calling to him.

Roncesvalles is famous in history and legend for the defeat of Charlemagne and the death of Roland in 778, during the battle of Roncevaux Pass, when Charlemagne‘s rear guard was destroyed by Basque tribes. Among those killed in the battle was a relatively obscure Frankish commander, Roland, whose death elevated him and the paladins, the foremost warriors of Charlemagne’s court, into legend, becoming the quintessential role model for knights and also greatly influencing the code of chivalry in the Middle Ages. There are numerous written works about the battle, some of which change and exaggerate events. The battle is recounted in the 11th century The Song of Roland, the oldest surviving major work of French literature, and in Orlando Furioso, one of the most celebrated works of Italian literature.

Придворный соловей (Our Court nightingale) by Varlam Shalamov

Our court nightingale,

beak open wide,

can let out the loudest

trills in the world.

The creature is stunning

by what pours from his throat –

but it was he who spurred

Derzhavin to write

that praise and flattery

are by no means the same:

a slave can flatter

but he can’t do praise.

 

by Варлам Тихонович Шаламов (Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov)

(1955?)

translated by Robert Chandler


Fun facts: The Dershavin mentioned in th epoem is Gavriil (Gavrila) Romanovich Derzhavin (Гавриил (Гаврила) Романович Державин, 14 July 1743 – 20 July 1816) who was one of the most highly esteemed Russian poets before Alexander Pushkin, as well as a statesman. Although his works are traditionally considered literary classicism, his best verse is rich with antitheses and conflicting sounds in a way reminiscent of John Donne and other metaphysical poets.

Original Russian cyrillic version:

Придворный соловей
Раскроет клюв пошире,
Бросая трель с ветвей,
Крикливейшую в мире.

Не помнит божья тварь
Себя от изумленья,
Долбит, как пономарь,
Хваленья и моленья.

Свистит что было сил,
По всей гремя державе,
О нем и говорил
Язвительный Державин,

Что раб и похвалить
Кого-либо не может.
Он может только льстить,
Что не одно и то же.

 

A recital of the Russian version set to music: