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.

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Rachel by Anna Akhmatova

A man met Rachel, in a valley. Jacob

Bowed courteously, this wanderer far from home.

Flocks, raising the hot dust, could not slake their

Thirst. The well was blocked with a huge stone.

Jacob wrenched the stone from the well

Of pure water, and the flocks drank their fill.

 

But the heart in his breast began to grieve,

It ached like an open wound.

He agreed that in Laban’s fields he should serve

Seven years to win the maiden’s hand.

For you, Rachel! Seven years in his eyes

No more than seven dazzling days.

 

But silver-loving Laban lives

In a web of cunning, and is unknown to grace.

He thinks: every deceit forgives

Itself to the glory of Laban’s house.

And he led Leah firmly to the tent

Where Jacob took her, blind and innocent.

 

Night drops from on high over the plains,

The cool dews pour,

And the youngest daughter of Laban groans,

Tearing the thick braids of her hair.

She curses her sister and reviles God, and

Begs the Angel of Death to descend.

 

And Jacob dreams the hour of paradise:

In the valley the clear spring,

The joyful look in Rachel’s eyes,

And her voice like a bird’s song.

Jacob, was it you who kissed me, loved

Me, and called me your black dove?

 

– by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova) (1921)

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