Elegy for the Welsh Dead, in the Falkland Islands, 1982 by Tony Conran

Gŵyr a aeth Gatraeth oedd ffraeth eu llu.

Glasfedd eu hancwyn, a gwenwyn fu.

Y Godoggin (6th century)

Men went to Catraeth. The luxury liner
For three weeks feasted them.
They remembered easy ovations,
Our boys, splendid in courage.
For three weeks the albatross roads,
Passwords of dolphin and petrel,
Practised their obedience
Where the killer whales gathered,
Where the monotonous seas yelped.
Though they went to church with their standards
Raw death has them garnished.

Men went to Catraeth. The Malvinas
Of their destiny greeted them strangely.
Instead of affection there was coldness,
Splintered iron and the icy sea,
Mud and the wind’s malevolent satire.
They stood nonplussed in the bomb’s indictment.

Malcom Wigley of Connah’s Quay. Did his helm
Ride high in the war-line?
Did he drink enough mead for that journey?
The desolated shores of Tegeingl,
Did they pig this steel that destroyed him?
The Dee runs silent beside empty foundries.
The way of the wind and the rain is adamant.

Clifford Elley of Pontypridd. Doubtless he feasted
He went to Catraeth with a bold heart.
He was used to valleys. The shadow held him.

The staff and the fasces of tribunes betrayed him.
With the oil of our virtue we have anointed
His head, in the presence of foes.

Phillip Sweet of Cwmbach. Was he shy before girls?
He exposed himself now to the hags, the glance
Of the loose-fleshed whores, the deaths
That congregate like gulls on garbage.
His sword flashed in the wastes of nightmare.

Russell Carlisle of Rhuthun. Men of the North
Mourn Rheged’s son in the castellated vale.
His nodding charger neighed for the battle.
Uplifted hooves pawed at the lightning.
Now he lies down. Under the air he is dead.
Men went to Catraeth. Of the forty-three
Certainly Tony Jones of Carmarthen was brave.
What did it matter, steel in the heart?
Shrapnel is faithful now. His shroud is frost.
With the dawn the men went. Those forty-three,
Gentlemen all, from the streets and byways of Wales.
Dragons of Aberdare, Denbigh and Neath –
Figments of empire, whore’s honour, held them.
Forty-three at Catraeth died for our dregs.

By Tony Conran

Additional information: It is the fortieth anniversary of the Falklands War at the time this poem is being posted.

The quote before the poem is from the Medieval Welsh poem Y Godoggin. The lines translate as: “Men went to Catraeth , keen was their company. / They were fed on fresh mead, and it proved poison.”

Tony Conran (7 April 1931 – 14 January 2013) was an Anglo-Welsh poet and translator of Welsh poetry. His own poetry was mostly written in English and Modernist in style but was very much influenced by Welsh poetic tradition, Welsh culture and history. To some extent there are parallels in Conran‘s writing with that of R. S. Thomas, but Conran can also be seen in the line of Pound, Bunting and MacDairmid.

The battle of Catraeth was fought around AD 600 between a force raised by the Gododdin, a Brythonic people of the Hen Ogledd or “Old North” of Britain, and the Angles of Bernicia and Deira. It was evidently an assault by the Gododdin party on the Angle stronghold of Catraeth, perhaps Catterick, North Yorkshire. The Gododdin force was said to have consisted of warriors from all over the Hen Ogledd, and even some from as far afield as Gwynedd in North Wales and Pictland. The battle was disastrous for the Britons, who were nearly all killed. The slain warriors were commemorated in the important early poem Y Gododdin, attributed to Aneirin.

Islas Malvinas is the Spanish language name for the Falkland Islands an archipelago in the South Atlantic Ocean on the Patagonian Shelf. An interesting fact is that a Patagonian form of Welsh is spoken in Patagonia due to some Welsh settlers.

Conran notes the areas of Wales the fallen come from: Connah’s Quay, Tegeingl, Pontypridd, Cwmbach, Rhuthun, Carmarthen, Aberdare, Denbigh and Neath.

Rheged sticks out amongst the above mentioned locations as it refers to one of the kingdoms of the Hen Ogledd (“Old North”), the Brittonic-speaking region of what is now Northern England and southern Scotland, during the post-Roman era and Early Middle Ages. It is recorded in several poetic and bardic sources, although its borders are not described in any of them. A recent archaeological discovery suggests that its stronghold was located in what is now Galloway in Scotland rather than, as was previously speculated, being in Cumbria. Rheged possibly extended into Lancashire and other parts of northern England. In some sources, Rheged is intimately associated with the king Urien Rheged and his family. Its inhabitants spoke Cumbric, a Brittonic dialect closely related to Old Welsh.

Нас хоронила артиллерия… (Artillery Was Burying Us…) by Konstantin Levin

Artillery was burying us.
At first it killed us.
But, with blatant hypocrisy,
Now swears that it loved us.

It broke open its muzzles,
But with all the charred nerves
In the overworked hands of the medics.
We didn’t readily believe it.

We could trust only morphine,
In the very last resort – bromide.
But those of us who were dead
Trusted the earth, and no one else.

Here everyone still crawls, laying mines
And receiving counterattacks.
But there – already illumining,
They draft memoirs…

And there, away from the destruction zone,
They scrape and polish parquet.
The Bolshoi Theater lofted on a quadrangle
Follows the celebration skyrocket.

Soldiers lay about. At night the mint showers
Them with regalia from time to time.
But machine guns belch them out
With explosive vomit.

One of them, accidentally surviving,
Came to Moscow in autumn.
He shuffled along the boulevard like a drunk,
And passed among the living like an echo.

With his artificial leg
He got in someone’s way in the trolley.
By a string of petty absurdities
He approached the Mausoleum.

He recalled the eroded hillocks,
Scraps of plywood along the roadways,
The soldier’s eyes, opened forever,
Shown in calm reproach.

Pilots fell down on them from the sky,
Bogged down in clouds of bones.
But courage does not grow scarce,
As sky doesn’t let one grow obsolete.

And the soldier knew that, for the Motherland,
Those who were swallowed by the war,
Are the equals of those who lie here buried
In the wall itself or beneath the wall.

by Константин Ильич Левин
(Konstantin Illyich Levin)
(1946)
translated by Albert C. Todd

Нас хоронила артиллерия…

Нас хоронила артиллерия.
Сначала нас она убила,
Но, не гнушаясь лицемерия,
Теперь клялась, что нас любила.

Она выламывалась жерлами,
Но мы не верили ей дружно
Всеми обрубленными нервами
В натруженных руках медслужбы.

Мы доверяли только морфию,
По самой крайней мере — брому.
А те из нас, что были мертвыми, —
Земле, и никому другому.

Тут всё ещё ползут, минируют
И принимают контрудары.
А там — уже иллюминируют,
Набрасывают мемуары…

И там, вдали от зоны гибельной,
Циклюют и вощат паркеты.
Большой театр квадригой вздыбленной
Следит салютную ракету.

И там, по мановенью Файеров,
Взлетают стаи Лепешинских,
И фары плавят плечи фраеров
И шубки женские в пушинках.

Бойцы лежат. Им льет регалии
Монетный двор порой ночною.
Но пулеметы обрыгали их
Блевотиною разрывною!

Но тех, кто получил полсажени,
Кого отпели суховеи,
Не надо путать с персонажами
Ремарка и Хемингуэя.

Один из них, случайно выживший,
В Москву осеннюю приехал.
Он по бульвару брел как выпивший
И средь живых прошел как эхо.

Кому-то он мешал в троллейбусе
Искусственной ногой своею.
Сквозь эти мелкие нелепости
Он приближался к Мавзолею.

Он вспомнил холмики размытые,
Куски фанеры по дорогам,
Глаза солдат, навек открытые,
Спокойным светятся упреком.

На них пилоты с неба рушатся,
Костями в тучах застревают…
Но не оскудевает мужество,
Как небо не устаревает.

И знал солдат, равны для Родины
Те, что заглотаны войною,
И те, что тут лежат, схоронены
В самой стене и под стеною.

Read by Лаврентий Анатольевич Сорокин (Lavrenty Anatolyevich Sorokin) who was an Honored Artist of Russia and actor at the Globus theatre.

Included in the recital there is the following passage, as the third stanza, which is omitted from other versions I have sourced. Possibly it is due to the ‘improved’ version Yevtushenko states he requested be made by Levin briefly prior to his passing.

За нас молились леди Англии
И маркитантки полковые.
Нас интервьюировали б ангелы,
Когда бы были таковые.

Translated it reads as:

Ladies of England prayed for us.
And regimental vivandieres.
We’d be interviewed by angels
If they existed.

Additional information: It goes without saying but if you look up Konstanin Levin‘s name, for further information, in English you will probably come across page after page about the character of Konstantin ‘Kostya’ Levin from Lev Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina. For those who can read Russian or are willing to use Google translate there is the poet Levin‘s Wikipedia page but for everyone else I will share this biography from the Yad Vashem page about the poet and his wartime service they compiled as part of their ‘Jews in the Red Army, 1941–1945′ research project:

Konstantin Levin was born in 1924 in Ekaterinoslav (now Dnipro), Ukraine to a medical family. In 1941, following the family tradition, he entered a medical institute (medical university). A short time later, his institute was evacuated to Western Siberia. Having finished the first semester, Levin was drafted into the Red Army and sent to the Rostov School of Artillery (RSA), which specialized in anti-tank artillery. In 1942 the RSA was located not in Rostov-on-Don, which at this time was occupied by the enemy, but in the Urals. In the fall of 1943 Levin graduated from the RSA as a second lieutenant and was appointed the commander of a platoon of 45-mm cannons. These cannons were the most dangerous kind of artillery to operate: being ineffective against enemy tanks, after their first shot they became a good target for the enemy. Levin succeeded in surviving at the front for less than half a year.

In February 1944, while fighting in Ukraine, Levin was wounded for the first time, in the head. On April 29, 1944, participating in the battle of Târgu Frumos, in eastern Romania, Levin was hit by an enemy shell and he lost a leg. His former RSA comrade and a participant in the same operation Moisei Dorman noted: “At the end of April 1944, near Iaşi, a German tank crushed his cannon. A shell fragment cut Kostia’s leg right at the knee. The leg was hanging on by the tendons. Levin tried to cut it off with a penknife, but he was bleeding and did not have enough strength…. Almost fainting, he managed to get to his own side by crawling.” After this battle, Levin was awarded the Order of Patriotic War, 2nd Class. After his release from the Red Army, he was recommended for the Order of Patriotic War, 1st Class – for his fighting in Ukraine.

In 1945 after the war, Konstantin Levin entered the Literary Institute in Moscow. Although the admission committee found his poems depressing, he was admitted because he was a disabled veteran who had earned two military orders. He was a good student. Levin walked with a prosthesis, never using a cane or crutches. In 1946, after he wrote the poem “Artillery Buried Us,” he was almost expelled from the Institute. In the following year, he wrote a poem about himself, in which he let the reader know that he had been not simply a soldier, but a Jewish one. After that, poem Levin was, in fact, expelled from the Institute, and only the intervention of the Russian poet Aleksei Surkov helped him receive his diploma.

For the rest of his life Konstantin Levin earned his living by routine literary work. He died in 1984. The first collection of his poems was published posthumously in 1989.

https://www.yadvashem.org/research/research-projects/soldiers/konstantin-levin.html

The poem therefore appears to be autobiographical though Levin uses the third person when recounting the events of it when referring to himself as “one of them, accidentally surviving/…/with his artificial leg”.

Levin’s renowned poem “Artillery was burying us…” passed from hand to hand throughout literary Moscow in the years following World War II, along with Naum Korzhavin’s poems against Stalin. Levin worked as a literary consultant and never tried to publish his poetry. Just prior to his death the compiler of this anthology persuaded him to make a new, even better version of his masterpiece. Boris Slutsky considered him one of the finest poets in the front-line generation.

Biographical information about Levin, p.736, ‘Twentieth Century Russian Poetry’ (1993), compiled by Yevgeny Yevtushenko (ed. Albert C. Todd and Max Hayward) , published by Fourth Estate Limited by arrangement with Doubleday of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc. (transcribed as found in the original text).

A Life by R.S. Thomas

Lived long; much fear, less

courage. Bottom in love’s school

of his class; time’s reasons

too far back to be known.

Good on his knees, yeilding,

vertical, to petty temptations.

A mouth thoughts escaped

from unfledged. Where two

were company, he the unwanted

third. A Narcissus tortured

by the whisperers behind

the mirror. Visionary only

in his perception of an horizon

beyond the horizon. Doubtful

of God, too pusillanimous

to deny him. Saving his face

in verse from the humiliations prose

inflicted on him. One of life’s

conscientious objectors, conceding

nothing to the propaganda of death

but a compulsion to volunteer.

 

by R. S. Thomas

from Experimenting with an Amen (1986)

 

Courage by Anna Akhmatova

We know what trembles in the scales,

What has to be accomplished.

The hour for courage. If all else fails,

With courage we are not unfurnished.

What though the dead be crowded, each to each,

What though our houses be destroyed? –

We will preserve you, Russian speech,

Keep you alive, great Russian word.

We will pass you to our sons and heirs

Free and clean, and they in turn to theirs,

And so forever.

 

by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova)

(23 February 1942)

from Седьмая книга (The Seventh Book)

translation by D. M. Thomas