Бог (God) by Boris Slutsky

 Once we all used to abide
together with God, side by side,
He didn't dwell in the sky,
we'd see him from time to time
alive, on the mausoleum.
He was much more clever and evil
than that other God, the old one,
known to the world as Jehovah,
whom he overthrew with a crash
and reduced to a heap of ash,
then subsequently restored
and recruited to serve the cause.
For once we all used to abide
together with God, side by side.

One day as I wandered around in
the Arbat, I met God on parade
with five limousines and surrounded
by guards wearing mousy grey
overcoats, hunched in dread.
It was early and late – overhead
the grey light of morning was showing
as he grazed with his cruel, all-knowing
eyes through the hearts of men,
unmasking deviants and traitors.

For we lived in an era when
God himself was our neighbour.


by Борис Абрамович Слуцкий (Boris Abramovich Slutsky)
(1955)
translated by Stephen Capus
A recital of the poem in Russian by Alla Demidova (from 1:11 onwards after she briefly introduces it).

Here is the poem in the original Cyrillic Russian.

 Бог


Мы все ходили под богом.
У бога под самым боком.
Он жил не в небесной дали,
Его иногда видали
Живого. На мавзолее.
Он был умнее и злее
Того — иного, другого,
По имени Иегова,
Которого он низринул,
Извел, пережег на уголь,
А после из бездны вынул
И дал ему стол и угол.

Мы все ходили под богом.
У бога под самым боком.
Однажды я шел Арбатом.
Бог ехал в пяти машинах.
От страха почти горбата,
В своих пальтишках мышиных
Рядом дрожала охрана.
Было поздно и рано.
Серело. Брезжило утро.
Он глянул жестоко, мудро
Своим всевидящим оком,
Всепроницающим взглядом.

Мы все ходили под богом.
С богом почти что рядом.

Additional information: Slutsky was an atheist but he didn’t forget his Jewish cultural roots regarding not only Yiddish but also the Hebrew he had learned as a child which remained important to him even if only as deeply felt absences. This poem can be read as Slutsky reflecting on how the cult of persona arose in the Soviet era. Communist iconography of Lenin replaced Imperial Russia’s religious iconography in the day to day lives of Russian citizens in Moscow’s historical Arbat street and the surrounding area. Then he reflects, in the second part of the poem, how imagery of Stalin eventually replaced Lenin’s image and he was even worse than him.

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:

‘And so I keep going’ by Varlam Shalamov

And so I keep going;

death remains close;

I carry my life

in a blue envelope.

 

The letter’s been ready

ever since autumn:

just one little word –

it couldn’t be shorter.

 

But I still don’t know

where I should send it;

if I had the address,

my life might have ended.

 

by Варлам Тихонович Шаламов (Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov)

(1955?)

translated by Robert Chandler

‘All that is human slips away’ by Varlam Shalamov

All that is human slips away;

everything was mere husk.

All that is left, indivisible,

is birdsong and dusk.

A sharp scent of warm mint,

the river’s far-off noise;

all equal, and equally light –

all my losses and joys.

Slowly, with its warm towel

the wind dries my face;

moths immolate themselves

in the campfire’s flames.

 

by Варлам Тихонович Шаламов (Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov)

(1955)

translated by Robert Chandler

‘Alive Not By Bread Alone’ by Varlam Shalamov

Alive not by bread alone,

I dip a crust of sky,

in the morning chill,

in the stream flowing by.

 

by Варлам Тихонович Шаламов (Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov)

(1955)

translated by Robert Chandler

March Saw Winter Gain In Strength by Maria Petrovykh

March saw winter gain in strength –

bitter cold and unrelenting storms.

In reckless fury, blinding spite,

the wind blew only from the north.

 

No hint of spring. Gripped by inertia,

the heart slips all too close to places

of no return: no self, no words,

mere apathy and voicelessness.

 

Who can bring back our sight, our hearing?

Who can retrace the way to hearth

and home now that all trace of home

is gone, wiped from the earth?

 

by Мария Сергеевна Петровых (Maria Sergeyevna Petrovykh)

(1955)

translated by Robert Chandler and Irina Mashinski


 

the final line could be considered a sceptical response to Khrushchev’s Thaw during the, relatively, liberal period after Stalin’s death.

Also it is quite timely considering the current UK weather where ‘the Beast for the East’ and Storm Emma are double teaming the British Isles.

Pisces by R. S. Thomas

Who said to the trout,

You shall die on Good Friday

To be food  for a man

And his pretty lady?

 

It was I, said God,

Who formed the roses

In the delicate flesh

And the tooth that bruises.

 

by R. S. Thomas

from Song at the Year’s Turning (1955)