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.

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‘How bare the countryside! What dearth’ by Fyodor Tyutchev

How bare the countryside! What dearth

How stark the  hamlets’ desolation…

Long-suffering country of my birth,

poor homeland of the Russian nation.

 

Never will the stranger’s gaze

look deeper to perceive or guess

what hidden light there is that plays

and shimmers through your nakedness.

 

In servant’s guise the King of Heaven,

beneath the cross in anguish bent,

has walked the length and breadth of Russia,

blessing her people as he went.

 

by Фёдор Иванович Тютчев (Fyodor Ivanovich Tyutchev)

(1855)

translated by Avril Pyman


Fun fact: Counted amongst the admirers of Tyutchev’s works were Dostoevsky and Tolstoy along with Nekrasov and Fet. Then later Osip Mandelstam who, in a passage approved of by Shalamov, believed that a Russian poet should not have copy of Tyutchev in his personal library – he should know all of Tyutchev off by heart.

The Beetle by Nikolay Oleynikov

In a beaker sits a beetle,

sits and sucks his tawny leg.

He’s been caught. He has been sentenced,

and for ruth he does not beg.

He casts glances at the sofa,

in his sorrow half-alive;

there he sees the vivisectors,

honing axes, whetting knives.

An efficient young assistant

boils the scalpel on the heater,

at the same time gently whistling

something from the early Beatles.

He can whistle, brainless monkey,

licensed butcher from the dregs!

And the beetle in the beaker

sits and sucks his tawny legs.

He observes the surgeons closely,

and his eyes begin to roll…

He would not have been so frightened

had he known there is a soul.

But we’ve learned from modern scholars

that the soul is not at issue:

fat and kidneys, blood and choler

are the soul’s immortal tissue.

All that makes us hustle-bustle

are some ligaments and muscles.

This is science. Facts are stubborn

but are easy to apply.

And he wrings his arms (the beetle),

he is ready, he will die.

Now the resident approaches,

the MD who cuts and rips;

on the beetle he discovers

what he needs between the ribs.

And he throws and sticks the patient,

as he might have stuck a boar,

then he bares his teeth and, beastlike,

fills the workroom with his roar.

Whereupon the vivisectors

grab the beetle’s carcass, and

some explore his chest with pincers,

some dismember him by hand.

And they kicked him, flicked him, pricked him,

and they tore to death their victim.

Lacerated by that thug,

dies of injuries the bug.

He is cold. His eyes don’t tremble…

Then the brigands stopped their pranks

and retreated, somewhat sobered,

stepping back in serried ranks.

Torture, anguish – all is over.

There is nothing more to lose.

The remaining subsoil waters

from his body slowly ooze.

In a chink, inside the closet,

waits his son and hums a song –

‘Daddy, Daddy, where’re you, Daddy?

Pauvre garçon!

He will never see this father,

who could not have travelled farther.

There he stands, his vivisector,

bending over with the lads –

ugly, shaggy, grinning bravely,

with his pincers and his adze.

You elitist, sexist mugger,

scoundrel, scholarly and smug!

Read my lips: this little bugger

is a martyr, not a bug.

Soon the window will be opened

by the coarse, unfeeling guard,

and he’ll find himself, our darling,

on the driveway in the yard.

Near the porch, amid the garbage,

he will not rot (his body hacked,

with his legs all pointed upward)

and await the final act.

Neither rain nor sun will quicken

him who thus unburied lies.

And a chicken – yes, a chicken –

will peck out his beady eyes.

by Николай Макарович Олейников (Nikolay Makarovich Oleynikov)

a.k.a. Nikolai Makarovich Oleinikov

(1934)

translated by Anatoly Liberman


Nikolay Makarovich Oleynikov ( Никола́й Мака́рович Оле́йников; born 5 August 1898, d. 24 November 1937) was a Russian editor, avant-garde poet and playwright who was arrested and executed by the Soviets for subversive writing. During his writing career, he also used the pen names Makar Svirepy, Nikolai Makarov, Sergey Kravtsov, NI chief engineer of the mausoleums, Kamensky and Peter Shortsighted.

In ‘The Beetle’ Oleynikov continues a fable begun by Captain Lebyadkin the mad poet from Dostoevsky’s The Demons.

‘Everything Is Looted…’ by Anna Akhmatova

Everything is looted, spoiled, despoiled,

Death flickering his black wing,

Anguish, hunger – then why this

Lightness overlaying everything?

 

By day, cherry-scent from an unknown

Wood near the town. July

Holding new constellations, deep

At night in the transparent sky –

 

Nearer to filthy ruined houses

Flies the miraculous…

Nobody has ever known it,

This, always so dear to us.

 

– by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova) (1921)

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