‘I Spent All Day At The Meeting’ by Olga Berggolts

I spent all day at the meeting,

either lying or voting.

I’m surprised I didn’t go grey

or die of shame.

I wandered about the streets,

where I could be myself again.

I had a smoke with a yardman –

then a drink in a cheap kiosk

along with two amputees,

who had fought at Krasny Bor.

Their complaints were something else –

their conversation was real.

One memory led to abother,

as we stirred the ash in our hearts:

penal battalions sent on reconnaissance

straight across minefields.

One man would return bemedalled;

others would lie down for ever,

their trumped-up sins now redeemed

with daredevil blood.

And I said in a drunken rage,

barely able to string thoughts together,

‘Oh how I hate our righteous ones,

Oh how I love our sinners!’

 

by Ольга Фёдоровна Берггольц (Olga Fyodorovna Berggolts)

a.k.a. Olga Fyodorovna Bergholz

(1948-9)

translated by Robert Chandler


Fun fact: The reference to Kransy Bor refers to the military action during the Seige of Leningrad of the Second World War (or ‘Great Patriotic War’ to Russians): “The Battle of Krasny Bor was part of the Soviet offensive Operation Polyarnaya Zvezda. It called for a pincer attack near Leningrad, to build on the success of Operation Iskra and completely lift the Siege of Leningrad, encircling a substantial part of the German 18th Army. The offensive near Krasny Bor, formed the western arm of the pincer. The Soviet offensive began on Wednesday, 10 February 1943. It produced noticeable gains on the first day, but rapidly turned into a stalemate. The strong defense of the 250th (Spanish) Infantry Division led by General Emilio Esteban Infantes and the 4th SS Police Division gave the German forces time to reinforce their positions. By February 13, the Soviet forces had stopped their offensive in this sector. In Spain, February 10 became known as “Black Wednesday”, due to the heavy losses of the Spanish Division, which lost over 70% of the men engaged in the action. It was the most costly battle for the Spanish volunteers during their time on the Eastern Front.”

To put the poem in context: remember that the men served in a penal battallion during the Stalinist era and therefore were probably falsely accussed of something or other by the authorities of the time. As the two men were in a penal battallion they were made to take part in more risky military manoeuvres in, what we would call, a suicide squad. Hence Olga’s reaction, after attending a Party meeting, where she had to lie about her real opinions or voted the entire time, drunkenly decrying the ‘righteous’, who were corrupt bureaucrats and staunch members of the Party, abusing their authoritive power to crush anything but complete compliance to their will, instead of practising any humanity towards their fellow man and those left behind broken by their leadership.

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At The Memorial by Emyr Humphreys

We remember wartime

Wartime

The leaves were red

Columns

Backs

Silences

Were broken

And skies were tight.

 

Singers in uniform

Were frozen

Stony men

Were children

Nights

Flesh

Steel

Cracked burst buckled

Nothing was

The Target

Nowhere

The Retreat.

 

We managed

The living the key workers

The throats of loyal trumpets

The minds of washed out cockpits

Our prayers were pistons

We managed

Our leaders in bunkers

 

As indestructable as rats

The tongues and necks

Of true survivors

 

In one cold wood

A headless boy

Still walks

A thin man prays

In his own blood

The dead

On every side

Wait to be counted

 

Catalogues

Printed

In old blood

 

Old wars

Are not doors

They are the walls

Of empty tombs

Bowed to

At stated times

By true survivors

Only dreams

Have hinges.

 

by Emyr Humphreys


Fun fact: He registered as a conscientious objector in the Second World War, working on a farm, and later doing relief work in Egypt and Italy. After the war he worked as a teacher, as a radio producer at the BBC and later became a lecturer in drama at Bangor University.

Evans by R. S. Thomas

Evans? Yes, many a time

I came down his bare flight

Of stairs into the gaunt kitchen

With its wood fire, where crickets sang

Accompaniment to the black kettle’s

Whine, and so into the cold

Dark to smother in the thick tide

Of night that drifted about the walls

Of his stark farm on the hill ridge.

 

It was not the dark filling my eyes

And mouth appalled me; not even the drip

Of rain like blood from the one tree

Weather-tortured. It was the dark

Silting the veins of that sick man

I left stranded upon the vast

And lonely shore of his bleak bed.

 

by R. S. Thomas

from Poetry for Supper (1958)

Blood and Bone by Anna Prismanova

i.

My nature has two corner stones,

and mother, singing hushabye,

rocked not a single child, but twins:

bone of sobriety and blood of fire.

 

This blood, this bone – of equal zeal

and locked in battle from the start –

have sealed my fate with a sad seal,

forever splitting me apart.

 

ii.

Music, is it you I hear

above me in the early hours?

You place a cross upon my roof

and build a temple from my house.

 

All-mighty music, you unite

this blood, this bone within yourself.

I can’t be sure you’ll help my life,

but you are sure to help my death.

 

by Анна Семёновна Присманова (Anna Semyonovna Prismanova)

a.k.a. Анна Симоновна Присман (Anna Simonovna Prisman)

(1946)

translated by Boris Dralyuk


 

Fun fact: She is considered comparable to her contemporary, the American poet, Louise Bogan.

‘And You, My Friends…’ by Anna Akhmatova

And you, my friends who have been called away,

I have been spared to mourn for you and weep,

Not as a frozen willow over your memory,

But to cry to the world the names of those who sleep.

What names are those!

I slam shut the calender,

Down on your knees all!

Blood of my heart,

The people of Leningrad march out in even rows,

The living, the dead: fame can’t tell them apart.

 

by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova)

(1942)

from Седьмая книга (The Seventh Book)

translation by D. M. Thomas

Why East Wind Chills by Dylan Thomas

Why east wind chills and south wind cools

Shall not be known till windwell dries

And west’s no longer drowned

In winds that bring the fruit and rind

Of many a hundred falls;

Why silk is soft and the stone wounds

The child shall question all his days.

Why night-time rain and the breast’s blood

Both quench his thirst he’ll have a black reply.

 

When cometh Jack Frost? the children ask.

Shall they clasp a comet in their fists?

Not till, from high and low, their dust

Sprinkles in children’s eyes a long-last sleep

And dusk is crowded with the children’s ghosts,

Shall a white answer echo from the rooftops.

 

All things are known; the stars’ advice

Calls some content to travel with the winds,

Though what the stars ask as they round

Time upon time the towers of the skies

Is heard but little till the stars go out.

 

I hear content, and ‘Be content’

Ring like a handbell through the corridors,

And ‘Know no answer,’ and I know

No answer to the children’s cry

Of echo’s answer and the man of frost

And ghostly comets over the raised fists.

 

by Dylan Thomas

Searching The Doll by Mike Jenkins

Slowly pacing the beach,

in age now not in sleep,

it’s a cemetery

but I’ve come to dig.

Gulls wailing what’s inside.

 

I’m alone again at night

in a waking trance

searching for that doll

I dropped, the blood-smirch

on its white wedding-dress.

 

My prints always lead back

to the cellar of that house.

A nine-month sentence stretched

to life on its camp-bed:

the memory condemned.

 

I chatted so readily then

hadn’t learnt suspicion’s martial art,

his affection the breadth of air

and hands soft as powdery sand.

Soon became my jailer, my interrogator.

 

Buried me under his sweaty bulk

so my frenzied fingers tried

to take flight and reach up

to the single slit of light.

Dead birds washed up with the flotsam.

 

by Mike Jenkins

from This House, My Ghetto