‘Oh Don’t Look Back’ but Olga Berggolts

Oh don’t look back

at that ice

at that dark;

there, waiting greedily

for you is a look

that will demand an answer.

 

I looked back today. And suddenly,

I saw him – alive and with living eyes,

looking at me out of the ice,

my one and only, for all time.

 

I hadn’t known it was like that;

I’d thought I lived and breathed another.

But Oh, my joy, my dream, my death,

I only live beneath your gaze.

 

I have been faithful to him alone;

in that alone I have done right:

to all the living, I’m his wife;

to you and me – your widow.

 

by Ольга Фёдоровна Берггольц (Olga Fyodorovna Berggolts)

a.k.a. Olga Fyodorovna Bergholz

(1947)

translated by Robert Chandler


A Soviet poet, writer, playwright and journalist. She is most famous for her work on the Leningrad radio during the city’s blockade, when she became the symbol of city’s strength and determination.

Olga was married a number of times. In 1925 she joined a youth literature group ‘The Shift’ where she became acquainted with Boris Kornilov. In 1927 Boris and Olga entered the State Institute of Art History, and in 1928 they got married. In 1930 she graduated from the philological faculty and was sent to Kazakhstan to work as a journalist for the Soviet Steppe newspaper. During this period Olga divorced Kornilov and married her fellow student Nikolay Molchanov. Her former husband Boris Kornilov was arrested “for taking part in the anti-Soviet Trotskyist organization” and executed on February 1938. In January 1942 she survived another personal tragedy: her second husband Nikolay Molchanov died of hunger. Olga later dedicated a poem 29 January 1942 and her book The Knot (1965) to Nikolay. On March 1942 Olga, who suffered from a critical form of dystrophy, was forcefully sent by her friends to Moscow using the Road of Life, despite her protests. On 20 April she returned to Leningrad and continued her work at the Radio House. On her return she married Georgy Makogonenko, a literary critic, also a radio host during the siege.

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‘I Go Outside To Find The Way…’ by Mikhail Lermontov

I go outside to find the way.

Through broken mist I glimpse a flinty path.

I am alone. This empty place hears God;

and stars converse with stars.

 

The heavens are a miracle

and pale blue sleep lies over all the earth.

What’s wrong with me? Why does life seem so hard?

Do I still cherish hope? Or hurt?

 

No, no, I have no expectations.

I’ve said goodbye to my past joys and griefs.

Freedom and peace are all I wish for now;

I seek oblivion and sleep.

 

But not the cold sleep of the grave –

my dream is of a sweeter sleep that will

allow life’s force to rest within a breast

that breathes, that still can rise and fall.

 

I wish a voice to sing all day

and night to me of love, and a dark tree,

an oak with spreading boughs, to still my sleep

with the green rustle of its leaves.

 

by Михаил Юрьевич Лермонтов (Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov)

(1841)

translated by Robert Chandler

Once it was the Colour of Saying by Dylan Thomas

Once it was the colour of saying

Soaked my table the uglier side of a hill

With a capsized field where a school sat still

And a black and white patch of girls grew playing;

The gentle seaslides of saying I must undo

That all the charmingly drowned arise to cockcrow and kill.

When I whistled with mitching boys through a reservoir park

Where at night we stoned the cold and cuckoo

Lovers in the dirt of their leafy beds,

The shade of their trees was a word of many shades

And a lamp of lightning for the poor in the dark;

Now my saying shall be my undoing,

And every stone I wind off like a reel.

 

by Dylan Thomas


Fun Facts: ‘Mitching’ is Skivving, bunking, skipping school.

Curlew by Gillian Clarke

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.

Marx and Heine and Dowlais by Idris Davies

I used to go to St John’s Wood

On Saturday evenings in summer

To look on London behind the dusty garden trees,

And argue pleasantly and bitterly

About Marx and Heine, the iron brain and the laughing sword;

And the ghost of Keats would sit in a corner,

Smiling slowly behind a summer of wine,

Sadly smiling at the fires of the future.

And late in the summer night

I heard the tall Victorian critics snapping

Grim grey fingers at London Transport,

And sober, solemn students of James Joyce,

Dawdling and hissing into Camden Town.

 

But now in the winter dusk

I go to Dowlais Top

and stand by the railway bridge

Which joins the bleak brown hills,

And gaze at the streets of Dowlais

Lop-sided on the steep dark slope,

A bettered bucket on a broken hill,

And see the rigid phrases of Marx

Bold and black against the steel-grey west,

Riveted along the sullen skies.

And as for Heine, I look on the rough

Bleak, colourless hills around,

Naked and hard as flint,

Romance in a rough chemise.

 

by Idris Davies


Fun facts:

Dowlais is a village and community of the county borough of Merthyr Tydfil, in Wales. Dowlais is notable within Wales and Britain for its historic association with ironworking; once employing, through the Dowlais Iron Company, roughly 5,000 people, the works being the largest in the world at one stage.

Marx, I assume, refers to Karl Marx (5 May 1818 – 14 March 1883) the German philosopher, economist, historian, political theorist, sociologist, journalist and revolutionary socialist.

Heine, refers to Christian Johann Heinrich Heine (13 December 1797 – 17 February 1856) was a German poet, journalist, essayist, and literary critic. He is best known outside of Germany for his early lyric poetry, which was set to music in the form of Lieder (art songs) by composers such as Robert Schumann and Franz Schubert. Heine’s later verse and prose are distinguished by their satirical wit and irony. He is considered part of the Young Germany movement. His radical political views led to many of his works being banned by German authorities, which however only added to his fame. Heine spent the last 25 years of his life as an expatriate in Paris.

James Augustine Aloysius Joyce (2 February 1882 – 13 January 1941) was an Irish novelist, short story writer, and poet. He contributed to the modernist avant-garde and is regarded as one of the most influential and important authors of the 20th century. Joyce is best known for Ulysses (1922), a landmark work in which the episodes of Homer’s Odyssey are paralleled in a variety of literary styles, most famously stream of consciousness. Other well-known works are the short-story collection Dubliners (1914), and the novels A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Finnegans Wake (1939). His other writings include three books of poetry, a play, his published letters and occasional journalism.

Funeral by R. S. Thomas

They stand about conversing

In dark clumps, less beautiful than trees.

What have they come here to mourn?

There was a death, yes; but death’s brother,

Sin, is of more importance.

Shabbily the teeth gleam,

Sharpening themselves on reputations

That were firm once. On the cheap coffin

The earth falls more cleanly than tears.

What are these red faces for?

This incidence of pious catarrh

At the grave’s edge? He has returned

Where he belongs; this is acknowledged

By all but the lonely few

Making amends for the heart’s coldness

He had from them, grudging a little

The simple splendour of the wreath

Of words the church lays on him.

 

by R. S. Thomas

from The Bread of Truth (1963)

Nightride by Gillian Clarke

The road unwinding under our wheels

New in the headlamps like a roll of foil.

The rain is a recorder writing tunes

In telegraph wires, kerbs and cats’ eyes,

Reflections and the lights of little towns.

 

He turns his head to look at me.

“Why are you quiet?” Shiny road rhythm,

Rain rhythm, beat of the windscreen wipers,

I push my knee against his in the warmth

And the car thrusts the dark and rain away.

 

The child sleeps, and I reflect, as I breathe

His brown hair, and watch the apple they gave him

Held in his hot hands, that a tree must ache

With the sweet weight of the round rosy fruit,

As I with Dylan’s head, nodding on its stalk.

 

by Gillian Clarke

from The Sundial, Gwasg Gomer, 1978)