I Was Washing At Night Out In The Yard by Osip Mandelstam

I was washing at night out in the yard,

the heavens glowing with rough stars,

a star-beam like salt upon an axe,

the water butt cold and brim full.

 

A padlock makes the gate secure,

and conscience gives sternness to the earth –

hard to find a standard anywhere

purer than the truth of new-made cloth.

 

A star melts in the water butt like salt,

cold water in the butt is blacker still,

death is more pure, disaster saltier

and earth more truthful and more terrible.

 

by Осип Эмильевич Мандельштам (Osip Emilyevich Mandelshtam. His surname is commonly latinised as Mandelstam)

(Tbilisi, 1921)

translated by Peter France


 

A poem written in respone to the news of Nikolay Gumilyov‘s execution.

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Бежецк (Bezhetsk) by Anna Akhmatova

There are white churches there, and the crackle of icicles,

The cornflower eyes of my son are blossoming there.

Diamond nights above the ancient town, and yellower

Than lime-blossom honey is the moon’s sickle.

From plains beyond the river dry snow-storms fly in,

And the people, like the angels in the fields, rejoice.

They have tidied the best room, lit in the icon-case

The tiny lamps. On an oak table the Book is lying.

There stern memory, so ungiving now,

Threw open her tower-rooms to me, with a low bow;

But I did not enter, and I slammed the fearful door;

And the town rang with the news of the Child that was born.

 

– by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova) (26 December 1921)

– from Anno Domini MCMXXI

translation by D. M. Thomas


In December 1921, during visits to her imprisoned son at Slepnyovo, Akhmatova was tormented, while passing by the ancient town of Bezhetsk nearby, with memories of happier times she shared with Gumilev when she would visit this area.

 

To A Guest by Vladislav Khodasevich

Bring visions when you ring my bell

or all the loveliness of hell,

of God, if you belong to that band.

But little acts of meaning well –

just leave them outside on the hat stand.

 

On this small pea in endless space

be shining angel or be demon.

But not mere man, though, for to be one

is to pass by and leave no trace.

 

by Владислав Фелицианович Ходасевич (Vladislav Felitsianovich Khodasevich)

(1921)

translated by Michael Frayn

‘Moscow Who Are You?’ by Velimir Khlebnikov

Moscow, who are you?

Enchantress or enchanted?

Forger of freedom

or fettered lady?

What thought furrows your brow

as you plot your worldwide plot?

Are you a shining window

into another age?

O Moscow, are you femme fatale

or fetter-fated,

fated or fêted?

Does scholarship decree

your crucifixion

beneath the razorblades of clever scholars

frozen over an old book

as pupils stand around their desk?

O daughter of other centuries,

powder keg,

explosion of your fetters.

 

by Велимир Хлебников (Velimir Khlebnikov)

a.k.a. Виктор Владимирович Хлебников

(Viktor Vladimirovich Khlebnikov)

(1921)

translated by Robert Chandler

Lot’s Wife by Anna Akhmatova

And the just man trailed God’s messenger,

His huge, light shape devoured the black hill.

But uneasiness shadowed his wife and spoke to her:

‘it’s not too late, you can look back still

 

At the red towers of Sodom, the place that bore you,

The square in which you sang, the spinning-shed,

At the empty windows of that upper storey

Where children blessed your happy marriage-bed.’

 

Her eyes that were still turning when a bolt

Of pain shot through them, were instantly blind;

Her body turned into transparent salt,

And her swift legs were rooted to the ground.

 

Who mourns one woman in a holocaust?

Surely her death has no significance?

Yet in my heart she never will be lost,

She who gave up her life to steal one glance.

 

– by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova) (1922-1924)

– from Anno Domini MCMXXI translation by D. M. Thomas

Rachel by Anna Akhmatova

A man met Rachel, in a valley. Jacob

Bowed courteously, this wanderer far from home.

Flocks, raising the hot dust, could not slake their

Thirst. The well was blocked with a huge stone.

Jacob wrenched the stone from the well

Of pure water, and the flocks drank their fill.

 

But the heart in his breast began to grieve,

It ached like an open wound.

He agreed that in Laban’s fields he should serve

Seven years to win the maiden’s hand.

For you, Rachel! Seven years in his eyes

No more than seven dazzling days.

 

But silver-loving Laban lives

In a web of cunning, and is unknown to grace.

He thinks: every deceit forgives

Itself to the glory of Laban’s house.

And he led Leah firmly to the tent

Where Jacob took her, blind and innocent.

 

Night drops from on high over the plains,

The cool dews pour,

And the youngest daughter of Laban groans,

Tearing the thick braids of her hair.

She curses her sister and reviles God, and

Begs the Angel of Death to descend.

 

And Jacob dreams the hour of paradise:

In the valley the clear spring,

The joyful look in Rachel’s eyes,

And her voice like a bird’s song.

Jacob, was it you who kissed me, loved

Me, and called me your black dove?

 

– by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova) (1921)

– from Anno Domini MCMXXI translation by D. M. Thomas

‘To Fall Ill As One Should…’ by Anna Akhmatova

To fall ill as one should, deliriously

Hot, meet everyone again,

To stroll broad avenues in the seashore garden

Full of the wind and the sun.

 

Even the dead, today, have agreed to come,

And the exiles, into my house.

Lead the child to me by the hand.

Long I have missed him.

 

I shall eat blue grapes with those who are dead,

Drink the iced

Wine, and watch the grey waterfall pour

On to the damp flint bed.

 

– by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova) (1922)

– from Anno Domini MCMXXI translation by D. M. Thomas