Barn Owl by R. S. Thomas

i.

Mostly it is a pale

face hovering in the afterdraught

of the spirit, making both ends meet

on a scream. It is the breath

of the churchyard, the forming

of white frost in a believer,

when he would pray; it is soft

feathers camouflaging a machine.

 

It repeats itself year

after year in its offspring,

the staring pupils it teaches

its music to, that is the voice

of God in the darkness cursing himself

fiercely for his lack of love.

 

ii.

and there the owl happens

like white frost as

cruel and as silent

and the time on its

blank face is not

now so the dead

have nothing to go

by and are fast

or slow but never punctual

as the alarm is

over their bleached bones

of its night-strangled cry.

 

by R. S. Thomas

from The Way of It  (1977)

How It Was by Arseny Tarkovsky

Nowhere anything for eating,

all of Russia fading, freezing,

selling gramophones and blankets,

hats and chairs and anything

in exchange for wheat and millet

in the year nineteen-nineteen.

Elder brother killed already,

and my dad already blind,

all our furniture long bartered,

home was like an empty tomb,

yet we lived, we still had water,

bread we baked from angry nettles.

Mama was all hunched and aged,

all grey-haired though only forty,

nothing but a beggar’s rags

clinging to her skinny body.

When she slept, I kept on checking:

was she breathing, was she not?

Guests were few and far between

in the year nineteen-nineteen.

Sick at heart, our poor old neighbours,

just like little birds in cages,

tiny birds on whithered perches,

lived like we did, lived in hell.

Then one of these poor old neighbours

bought a gift – rotten potato.

‘Think what riches,’ she began.

‘once belonged even to beggars!

See how Russia’s being chastised

for Rasputin and his doings!’

Evening came. ‘Eat!’ said Mama,

holding out a splendid flatbread.

And the Muse dressed all in rose,

came to me all of a sudden,

hoping she could make me sleepless,

hoping I’d be hers for ever.

So I wrote my primal poem,

sang how Mama on a Sunday

baked a flatbread from potato.

So I had my first encounter

with poetic inspiration

in the year nineteen-nineteen

by Арсений Александрович Тарковский (Arseny Alexandrovich Tarkovsky)

(1977)

translated by Robert Chandler


Fun fact: Arseny was the father of the famous and highly influential film director Andrei Tarkovsky. His poetry was often quoted in his son’s films.