And I knew a destructive pleasure
in trampling what's sacred and good,
a delirium exceeding all measure -
this absinthe that poisons my blood!
by Александр Александрович Блок
(Alexander Alexandrovich Blok)
translated by Stephen Capus
O sacrifice to reckless thought,
it seems you must have hoped
your scanty blood had power enough
to melt the eternal Pole.
A puff of smoke, a silent flicker
upon the age-old ice -
and then a breath of iron winter
extinguished every trace.
by Фёдор Иванович Тютчев
(Fyodor Ivanovich Tyutchev)
(14 December, 1825)
translated by Robert Chandler
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.
A video of the full poem being recited in Russian.
The full original Russian Cyrillic version:
14-ое ДЕКАБРЯ 1825
Вас развратило Самовластье,
И меч его вас поразил,—
И в неподкупном беспристрастье
Сейприговор Закон скрепил.
Народ, чуждаясь вероломства,
Поносит ваши имена —
Иваша память от потомства,
Как труп вземле, схоронена.
О жертвы мысли безрассудной,
Вы уповали, можетбыть,
Что станет вашей крови скудной,
Чтобвечный полюс растопить!
Едва, дымясь,она сверкнула,
На вековой громаде льдов,
Зима железная дохнула —
И неосталось и следов.
I am a man now.
Pass your hand over my brow,
You can feel the place where the brains grow.
I am like a tree,
From my top boughs I can see
The footprints that led up to me.
There is blood in my veins
That has run clear of the stain
Contracted in so many loins.
Why, then, are my hands red
With the blood of so many dead?
Is this where I was misled?
Why are my hands this way
That they will not do as I say?
Does no God hear when I pray?
I have nowhere to go.
The swift satellites show
The clock of my whole being is slow.
It is too late to start
For destinations not of the heart.
I must stay here with my hurt.
by R. S. Thomas
from Tares (1961)
After fifty-six years the aluminium is slate grey
And the ribs of the wings as light as bird bones.
Wind rattles through the remains of the bomber
that failed to clear the escarpment of Cwar y Cigfan.
The walkers rest here, throw stones for the dog
Drink beer, share a bag of crisps, lean against the rough memorial.
The wreaths of last November have moulted their poppies
There is a wooden cross jammed between stones.
It’s a long way home for the five Canadians
Whose names are now barely legible.
Above a hang glider hovers on the edge of a thermal
Then skitters into a mocking dive.
Clouds are solid enough to reach up and grab
like the craggy hand that pulled these airmen to earth
splattered their blood over the stones and sheep shit of Cwar y Cigfan.
Made them forever part of Wales.
By Ifor Thomas
A year will come – of Russia’s blackest dread;
then will the crown fall from the royal head,
the throne of tsars will perish in the mud,
the food of many will be death and blood;
both wife and babe will vainly seek the law:
it will not shield the victims any more;
the putrid, rotting plague will mow and cut
and boldly walk the road from hut to hut;
in people’s sight its pallid face will float,
and hunger’s hand will clutch them by the throat;
a scarlet sea will send its bloody surge;
a mighty man will suddenly emerge:
you’ll recognize the man, you’ll feel
that he has come to use a knife of steel;
oh, dreadful day! Your call, your groan, your prayer
will only make him laugh at your despair;
and everything in his forbidding sight –
his brow, his cloak – will fill the land with fright.
by Михаил Юрьевич Лермонтов (Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov)
translated by Anatoly Liberman
Fun facts: He wrote this in 1830 and the irony hasn’t been lost on Russian people that less than a hundred years later Nikolai II would lose this throne and… well it’s hard not to immediately see Lermontov’s prophecy (though ‘prediction’ is the more direct translation of the Russian title) proved an all too accurate omen of events during the twentieth century during the Soviet era.
A recital of the poem in Russian:
Original Russian version:
Настанет год, России черный год,
Когда царей корона упадет;
Забудет чернь к ним прежнюю любовь,
И пища многих будет смерть и кровь;
Когда детей, когда невинных жен
Низвергнутый не защитит закон;
Когда чума от смрадных, мертвых тел
Начнет бродить среди печальных сел,
Чтобы платком из хижин вызывать,
И станет глад сей бедный край терзать;
И зарево окрасит волны рек:
В тот день явится мощный человек,
И ты его узнаешь — и поймешь,
Зачем в руке его булатный нож:
И горе для тебя! — твой плач, твой стон
Ему тогда покажется смешон;
И будет всё ужасно, мрачно в нем,
Как плащ его с возвышенным челом.
An inscription on the grave of one of the children who died in the Aberfan disaster of October 21st, 1966
No grave could contain him.
He will always be young
in the classroom
waving an answer
like a greeting.
Buried alive –
alive he is
by the river
skimming stones down
the path of the sun.
When the tumour on the hillside
burst and the black blood
of coal drowned him,
he ran forever
with his sheepdog leaping
for sticks, tumbling together
in windblown abandon.
I gulp back tears
because of a notion of manliness.
After the October rain
the slag-heap sagged
its greedy coalowner’s belly.
He drew a picture of a wren,
his favourite bird for fraility
and determination. His eyes gleamed
as gorse-flowers do now
above the village.
His scream was stopped mid-flight.
Black and blemished
with the hill’s sickness
he must have been,
like a child collier
dragged out of one of Bute’s mines –
a limp statistic.
There he is, climbing a tree,
mimicking an ape, calling out names
at classmates. Laughs springing
down the slope. My wife hears them
her ears attuned as a ewe’s in lambing,
and I try to foster the inscription,
away from its stubborn stone.
by Mike Jenkins
from Empire of Smoke
Not so Fun facts: This poem refers to the Aberfan disaster the catastrophic collapse of a colliery spoil tip at 9.15 am on 21 October 1966. The tip had been created on a mountain slope above the Welsh village of Aberfan, near Merthyr Tydfil and overlaid a natural spring. A period of heavy rain led to a build-up of water within the tip which caused it to suddenly slide downhill as a slurry, killing 116 children and 28 adults as it engulfed the local junior school and other buildings. The tip was the responsibility of the National Coal Board (NCB), and the subsequent inquiry placed the blame for the disaster on the organisation and nine named employees.
I’ve been to the town and it’s still a very quiet place to this day as a generation of the community was lost in that disaster. Where the junior school once stood there is now a memorial garden.
It sailed across the startled town,
over chapels, over chimney-pots,
wind-blown above a block of flats
before it floated down.
Oddly, it landed where I stood,
and finding’s keeping, as you know.
I breathed on it, I polished it,
till it shone like living blood.
It was my shame, it was my joy,
it brought me notoriety.
From all of Wales the rude boy came,
it ceased to be a toy.
I heard the girls of Cardiff sigh
When my balloon, my red balloon,
soared higher like a happiness
towards the dark blue sky.
Nine months since, have I boasted of
my unique, my only precious;
but to no one dare I show it now
however long they swear their love.
‘It’s a Jew’s balloon,’ my best friend cried,
‘stained with our dear Lord’s blood.’
‘That I’m a Jew is true,’ I said,
said I, ‘that cannot be denied.’
‘What relevance?’ I asked, surprised,
‘what’s religion to do with this?’
‘Your red balloon’s a Jew’s balloon,
let’s get it circumcised.’
Then some boys laughed and some boys cursed,
some unsheathed their dirty knives:
some lunged, some clawed at my balloon,
but still it would not burst.
They bled my nose, they cut my eye,
half conscious in the street I heard,
‘Give up, give up your red balloon.’
I don’t know exactly why.
Father, bolt the door, turn the key,
lest those sad, brash boys return
to insult my faith and steal
my red balloon from me.
by Dannie Abse
from Poems, Golders Green (1962)
Fun facts: Dannie Abse was born in Cardiff, Wales, to a Jewish family. He was the younger brother of politician and reformer Leo Abse and the eminent psychoanalyst, Wilfred Abse. Unusually for a middle-class Jewish boy, Dannie Abse attended St Illtyd’s College, a working-class Catholic school in Splott.
She dips her bill in the rim of the sea.
Her beak is the ellipse
of a world much smaller
than that far section of the sea’s
circumference. A curve enough to calculate
the field’s circle and its heart
of eggs in the cold grass.
All day while I scythed my territory
out of nettles, laid claim to my cantref,
she has cut her share of sky. Her song bubbles
long as a plane trail from her savage mouth.
I clean the blade with newspaper. Dusk blurs
circle within circle till there’s nothing left
but the egg pulsing in the dark against her ribs.
For each of us the possessed space contracts
to the nest’s heat, the blood’s small cicuit.
by Gillian Clarke
from The Sundial (Gwasg Gomer, 1978)
Fun fact: A cantref was a medieval Welsh land division, particularly important in the administration of Welsh law.
The cat walks. It listens, as I do,
To the wind which leans its iron
Shoulders on our door. Neither
The purr of a cat nor my blood
Runs smoothly for elemental fear
Of the storm. This then is the big weather
They said was coming. All the signs
Were bad, the gulls coming in white,
Lapwings gathering, the sheep too
Calling all night. The gypsies
Were making their fires in the woods
Down there in the east…always
A warning. The rain stings, the whips
Of the laburnum hedge lash the roof
Of the cringing cottage. A curious
Calm, coming from the storm, unites
Us, as we wonder if the work
We have done will stand. Will the tyddyn,
In its group of strong trees on the high
Hill, hold against the storm Awst
Running across the hills where everything
Alive listens, pacing its house, heart still?
by Gillian Clarke
from The Sundial, (Gwasg Gomer, 1978)
Fun facts: Glossary: Welsh = English
Awst = August
Storm Awst = August storm
tyddyn = [farm] smallholding
It is said that he went gaily to that scaffold,
dressed magnificently as a bridegroom,
his lace lying on him like white frost
in the windless morning of his courage.
His red blood was the water of life,
changed to wine at the wedding banquet;
the bride Scotland, the spirit dependent on
such for the consummation of her marrriage.
by R. S. Thomas
from Laboratories of the Spirit (1975)
Fun fact: This poem is about James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose, a Scottish nobleman, poet and soldier, who initially joined the Covenanters in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, but subsequently supported King Charles I as the English Civil War developed. From 1644 to 1646, and again in 1650, he fought in the civil war in Scotland on behalf of the King and is generally referred to in Scotland as simply “the Great Montrose”. His spectacular victories, which took his opponents by surprise, are remembered in military history for their tactical brilliance