Heron at Port Talbot by Gillian Clarke

Snow falls on the cooling towers
delicately settling on cranes.
Machinery’s old bones whiten; death
settles with its rusts, its erosions.

Warning of winds off the sea
the motorway dips to the dock’s edge.
My hands tighten on the wheel against
the white steel of the wind.

Then we almost touch, both braking flight,
bank on the air and feel that shocking
intimacy of near-collision,
animal tracks that cross in snow.

I see his living eye, his change of mind,
feel pressure as we bank, the force
of his beauty. We might have died
in some terrible conjunction.

The steel town’s sulphurs billow
like dirty washing. The sky stains
with steely inks and fires, chemical
rustings, salt-grains, sand under snow.

And the bird comes, a surveyor
calculating space between old workings
and the mountain hinterland, archangel
come to re-open the heron-roads,

meets me at an inter-section
where wind comes flashing off water
interrupting the warp of the snow
and the broken rhythms of blood.

by Gillian Clarke
from Letter from a Far Country (Gwasg Gomer, 1982)

A recording of Gillian Clarke discussing the poem’s inspiration and reciting the poem itself at 0:44

Additional information: The steel works plant in Port Talbot covers a large area of the coastline near the southern area of the town. The plant’s two blast furnaces and the steel production plant buildings are major landmarks visible from both the M4 motorway and the South Wales Main Line when passing through the town. The air when passing is notable suffice to say.

Here is an analysis of the poem.

If you’re reading this on Boxing Day 2021, when this post was published, I hope you had a nice Christmas Day (for those who celebrate it) yesterday.

О, этот воздух, смутой пьяный… (‘On the black square of the Kremlin…’) by Osip Mandelstam

On the black square of the Kremlin

the air is drunk with mutiny.

A shaky ‘peace’ is rocked by rebels,

the poplars puff seditiously.

.

The wax faces of the cathedrals

and the dense forest of the bells

tell us – inside the stony rafters

a tongueless brigand is concealed.

.

But inside the sealed-up cathedrals

the air we breathe is cool and dark,

as though a Russian wine is coursing

through Greece’s earthenware jars.

.

Assumption’s paradise of arches

soars up in an astonished curve;

and now the green Annunciation

awakens, cooing like a dove.

.

The Archangel and Resurrection

let in the light like glowing palms –

everything is secretly burning,

the jugs are full of hidden flames.

.

.

by Осип Эмильевич Мандельштам (Osip Emilyevich Mandelshtam.)

His surname is commonly latinised as Mandelstam)

(April 1916)

translated by Thomas de Waal

Mandelstam’s poem set to music composed and performed by the singer-songwriter Larisa Novoseltseva. Performed at the House of Journalists, Moscow, on February 24, 2010. She is composer and performer of songs and ballads on poems by more than forty Russian poets, mostly of the Silver Age. Check out more of her work on YouTube!

Beneath is the original Russian language version of the poem in Cyrillic.

О, этот воздух, смутой пьяный…

О, этот воздух, смутой пьяный,

На черной площади Кремля.

Качают шаткий «мир» смутьяны,

Тревожно пахнут тополя.

.

Соборов восковые лики,

Колоколов дремучий лес,

Как бы разбойник безъязыкий

В стропилах каменных исчез.

.

А в запечатанных соборах,

Где и прохладно и темно,

Как в нежных глиняных амфорах,

Играет русское вино.

.

Успенский, дивно округленный,

Весь удивленье райских дуг,

И Благовещенский, зеленый,

И, мнится, заворкует вдруг.

.

Архангельский и Воскресенья

Просвечивают, как ладонь,—

Повсюду скрытое горенье,

В кувшинах спрятанный огонь…

Маяковскому (To Mayakovsky) by Marina Tsvetaeva

Beyond the chimneys and steeples,

baptized by smoke and flame,

stamping-footed archangel,

down the decades I call your name!

Rock-steady or change-at-a-whim!

Coachman and stallion in one!

He snorts and spits into his palm –

chariot of glory, hold on!

Singer of city-square wonders,

I salute that arrogant tone

that rejected the brilliant diamond

for the sake of the ponderous stone.

I salute you, cobblestone-thunderer!

– see, he yawns, gives a wave, then he swings

himself back into harness, back under

the shafts, his archangelic wings.

by Марина Ивановна Цветаева (Marina Ivanovna Tsvetaeva)

(18 September 1921)

translated by Peter Oram


Fun facts: This poem is dedicated to Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky (Владимир Владимирович Маяковский) who was a Russian Soviet poet, playwright, artist, and actor.

During his early, pre-Revolution period leading into 1917, Mayakovsky became renowned as a prominent figure of the Russian Futurist movement. Though Mayakovsky’s work regularly demonstrated ideological and patriotic support for the ideology of the Communist Party and a strong admiration of Vladimir Lenin, Mayakovsky’s relationship with the Soviet state was always complex and often tumultuous. Mayakovsky often found himself engaged in confrontation with the increasing involvement of the Soviet State in cultural censorship and the development of the State doctrine of Socialist realism.  In 1930 Mayakovsky committed suicide. Even after death his relationship with the Soviet state remained unsteady. Though Mayakovsky had previously been harshly criticized by Soviet governmental bodies like the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers (RAPP), Joseph Stalin posthumously declared Mayakovsky “the best and the most talented poet of our Soviet epoch.”

Original Russian Cyrillic version:

Маяковскому

Превыше крестов и труб,
Крещенный в огне и дыме,
Архангел-тяжелоступ -
Здорово, в веках Владимир!

Он возчик и он же конь,
Он прихоть и он же право.
Вздохнул, поплевал в ладонь:
- Держись, ломовая слава!

Певец площадных чудес -
Здорово, гордец чумазый,
Что камнем — тяжеловес
Избрал, не прельщась алмазом.

Здорово, булыжный гром!
Зевнул, козырнул и снова
Оглоблей гребет — крылом
Архангела ломового.

18 сентября 1921