This is pain's landscape.
A savage agriculture is practised
Here; every farm has its
Grandfather or grandmother, gnarled hands
On the cheque-book, a long, slow
Pull on the placenta about the neck.
Old lips monopolise the talk
When a friend calls. The children listen
From the kitchen; the children march
With angry patience against the dawn.
They are waiting for someone to die
Whose name is as bitter as the soil
They handle. In clear pools
In the furrows they watch themselves grow old
To the terrible accompaniment of the song
Of the blackbird, that promises them love.
By R.S. Thomas
from Not That He Brought Flowers (1968)
It was our last inter-glacial:
the flies, people,
the one as numerous
as the other. We talked
peace, and brought our arms up to date.
The young ones professed
love, embarassing themselves
with their language. As though
coming round on a new
gyre, we approached God
from the far side, an extinct concept.
no one returned from our space
probes, yet still there were
volunteers, believing that as
gravity slackened its hold
on the body, so would time
on the mind. Our scientists,
immaculately dressed not
conceived, preached to us
from their space-stations, calling us
to consider the clockwork birds
and fabricated lilies, how they
also, as they were conditioned to
do, were neither toiling nor spinning.
by R. S. Thomas
from Mass for Hard Times (1992)E
Christian eschatology is a major branch of study within Christian theology dealing with the “last things.” Eschatology, from two Greek words meaning “last” (ἔσχατος) and “study” (-λογία), is the study of ‘end things’, whether the end of an individual life, the end of the age, the end of the world and the nature of the Kingdom of God. Broadly speaking, Christian eschatology is the study concerned with the ultimate destiny of the individual soul and the entire created order, based primarily upon biblical texts within the Old and New Testament. The part of theology concerned with death, judgement, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind.
Thomas approaches this with a cynical mindset having lived through the threat of a nuclear winter during the Cold War, hippies during the Summer of Love and diminishing church attendance as people favour logic over faith. He bitterly reflects that science is no closer to answering the great questions of existence, posed by eschatology, than theology yet one is dismissed while the other embraced.
Throughout the poem he plays with Christian terminology and imagery to indicate the substitution of Christ with scientists, everlasting life after death with an effort to achieve immortality during this life instead and how to him it is, in comparison, an artificial form of true enlightenment and surpassing our mortal bonds.
City of splendour, city of poor,
spirit of grace and servitude,
heaven’s vault of palest lime,
boredom, granite, bitter cold –
still I miss you rather, for
down your streets from time to time
one may spy a tiny foot,
one may glimpse a lock of gold.
by Александр Сергеевич Пушкин (Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin)
a.k.a. Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin
translated by Anthony Wood
Fun fact: Pushkin is most likely alluding to St Petersburg prior to his exile.
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)
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.
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)
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.
I would gaze anxiously, as if into a mirror,
at the grey canvas, and with every week
my likeness to my new depiction grew
more strange and bitter…
by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova)
translation by Boris Dralyuk and Margo Shohl Rosen
This extract is about a well known potrait of Akhmatova by Nathan Altman (1914) presented above for ease of reference. Nathan Isaevich Altman was a Jewish-Russian, Soviet, avant-garde artist, Cubist painter, stage designer and book illustrator.
A childhood memory: those pears,
wrinkled. little, tight,
and hidden inside –
tart flesh that puckered the mouth:
exactly so my delight
in the bitter shards of your verse.
by София Яковлевна Парнок (Sophia Yakovlena Parnok) (1927)
translated by Catriona Kelly