Relearning Solitude [Extract] by Boris Slutsky

Just as I once learned one ancient tongue

enough to read its texts,

and I forgot the aphabet –

I’ve forgotten solitude.

This all must be recalled, recovered, and relearned.

I remember how once I met

a compiler of words

in the ancient tongue that I had learned

and lost.

Turned out, I knew two words: ‘heavens’ and ‘apple’.

I might have recalled the rest –

All beneath the heavens and beside the apples –

But the need wasn’t there.

 

by Борис Абрамович Слуцкий (Boris Abramovich Slutsky)

(1977)

translated by Marat Grinberg and Judith Pulman

 

Interesting information: Slutsky was a atheist but he didn’t forget his 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. He had to ‘relearn solitude’ due to the death of his wife Tanya in 1977. For the following three months, before he fell into a depressed silence for the last nine years of his life during which he wrote nothing, he produced some of the most highly regarded poems on the themes of love and mourning in the Russian language.


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Молчание (Silentium) by Osip Mandelstam

She has yet to be born:

she is music and word,

and she eternally bonds

all life in this world.

 

The sea breathes gently;

the day glitters wildly.

A bowl of dazed azure

sways pale foam-lilac.

 

May I too reach back

to that ancient silence,

like a note of crystal

pure from its source.

 

Stay, Aphrodite, as foam.

Return, word, to music.

Heart, be shy of heart,

fused with life’s root.

 

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

(1910)

translated by Robert Chandler and Boris Dralyuk


Fun fact: This is Mandelstam’s variation on Tyutchev’s earlier poem ‘Silentium‘.

Recital in the original Russian:

Russian cyrillic version:

Она еще не родилась,
Она и музыка и слово,
И потому всего живого
Ненарушаемая связь.

Спокойно дышат моря груди,
Но, как безумный, светел день,
И пены бледная сирень
В черно-лазоревом сосуде.

Да обретут мои уста
Первоначальную немоту,
Как кристаллическую ноту,
Что от рождения чиста!

Останься пеной, Афродита,
И, слово, в музыку вернись,
И, сердце, сердца устыдись,
С первоосновой жизни слито!

Коршун (The Kite) by Alexander Blok

Over the empty fields a black kite hovers,

and circle after circle smoothly weaves.

In the poor hut, over her son in a cradle

a mother grieves:

‘There suck my breast: there, grow and take our bread,

and learn to bear your cross and bow your head.’

 

Time passes. War returns. Rebellion rages.

The farms and villages go up in flame,

and Russia in her ancient tear-stained beauty,

is yet the same,

unchanged through all the ages. How long will

the mother grieve and the kite circle still?

 

by Александр Александрович Блок (Alexander Alexandrovich Blok)

(22 March 1916)

translated by Frances Cornford and Esther Polianowsky Salaman


Fun fact: As you can tell from the date this was written into the lead up to the Russian Revolution. To be more exact, during the early months of 1916, there were increasing food and fuel shortages and increasingly high prices. Thus the Progressive Bloc was formed. Despite successes in the Brusilov offensive, the Russian war effort was still characterised by shortages, poor command, death and desertion. Away from the front, the conflict caused starvation, inflation and a torrent of refugees. Both soldiers and civilians blamed the incompetence of the Tsar and his government. This lead, later in the year, to increasing strikes which are supported by the military who declare they won’t protect the Tsar from a revolution – which would be successful in October 1917 after many further events and internal conflicts.

A recital of the poem in Russian:

The original Russian text in Cyrillic:

Чертя за кругом плавный круг,
Над сонным лугом коршун кружит
И смотрит на пустынный луг. —
В избушке мать над сыном тужит:
«На́ хлеба, на́, на́ грудь, соси,
Расти, покорствуй, крест неси».

Идут века, шумит война,
Встаёт мятеж, горят деревни,
А ты всё та ж, моя страна,
В красе заплаканной и древней. —
Доколе матери тужить?
Доколе коршуну кружить?