Баллада о немецком цензоре (The Ballad of a German Censor) by David Samoylov

In Germany once lived a censor

of lowly rank and title.

He blotted, struck and cancelled

and knew no other no other calling.

 

He sniffed out harmful diction

and smeared it with Indian ink.

He guarded minds from infection

and his bosses valued his work.

 

On a winter day in forty-three

he was dispatched ‘nach Osten’.

And he stared from the train car’s window

at fields, graveyards, snowstorms.

 

It was cold without a fur coat.

He saw hamlets without homes or people.

Only charred chimneys were left,

creeping by, like lizards or camels.

 

And it seemed to him that Russia

was all steppe, Mongoloid, bare.

And he thought he was feeling ‘nostalgia’,

but it was really just the chill and fear.

 

He arrived at his field post office:

such-and-such region and number.

Table, chair, iron cot and mattress,

three walls – in the fourth, a window.

 

Russia’s short on Gemütlichkeit!

He had to climb over snowdrifts.

And the work? No shortage of that:

cutting, deleting, smearing.

 

Before him lay piles of letters,

lines and lines – some straight, some wavy.

Generals wrote to their comrades,

soldiers wrote to their families.

 

There were letters, messages, queries

from the living, from those who’d been killed.

There were words he judged ‘non-Aryan’,

but it was really just fear and chill.

 

He would read nearly all day round,

forgetting to eat or shave.

And inside his tired mind

something strange began to take place.

 

Words he’d blotted and excised

would come and torment him at night,

and, like some eerie circus,

would parade there before his eyes…

 

Lines, killed by black ink,

turned tyrannical, like a tirade:

‘In the East, the East, the East,

we will not, will not be spared…’

 

The text was composed of black mosaics;

each word clung fast to the next.

Not the greatest master of prose

could have come up with such a text.

 

Long thoughts, like wagon trains,

shook the joints and ridges

of his tired and weakened brain;

battered its fragile bridges.

 

He turned unfriendly to all his friends

and grew brusque, unsociable, sad.

He was brilliant for a few days

and then broke down and went bad.

 

He awoke, from the fear and chill…

with a wild, choking feeling.

The dark was impenetrable –

the window blacked out with ink.

 

He realised that bravado leads nowhere,

that existence is fragile,

and the black truth invaded his soul

and wiped away the white lie.

 

The poor censor was born a pedant.

He reached for a small notebook

and truthfully – that is, with talent –

set everything down, in order.

 

The next morning he took up, with seal,

his… No – a different task:

he underlined all that was real

and crossed out everything else.

 

Poor censor, he’d lost his mind!

Little man, like a grain of millet!

He informed on himself in a day

and was taken away that minute…

 

There once lived a censor in Germany.

His rank and title were low.

He died and was promptly buried,

and his grave fell under the plough.

 

by Давид Самойлов (David Samoylov)

pseudonym of Давид Самуилович Кауфман (David Samuilovich Kaufman)

(1961)

translated by Boris Dralyuk


Additional information: David Samoylov (Давид Самойлов), pseudonym of David Samuilovich Kaufman ( Давид Самуилович Кауфман; 1 June 1920 in Moscow — 23 February 1990 in Tallinn) was a notable poet of the War generation of Russian poets, considered one of the most important Russian poets of the post-World War II era as well.

‘Oh Don’t Look Back’ by 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 the 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.

‘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.