‘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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Land of my Mothers by Idris Davies

Land of my mothers, how shall my brothers praise you?

With timbrels or rattles or tins?

With fire.

How shall we praise you on the banks of the rhymneying waters,

On the smokey shores and the glittering shores of Glamorgan,

On wet mornings in the bare fields behind the Newport docks,

On fine evenings when lovers walk by Bedwellty Church,

When the cuckoo calles to miners coming home to Rhymney Bridge,

When the wild rose defies the Industrial Revolution

And when the dear old drunken lady sings of Jesus and a little shilling.

 

Come down, O girls of song, to the bank of the coal canal

At twilight, at twilight

When mongrels fight

And long rats bite

Under the shadows of pit-head light,

And dance, you daughters of Gwenllian,

Dance in the dust in the lust of delight.

And you who have prayed in the golden pastures

And oiled the wheels of the Western Tradition

And trod where bards have danced to church,

Pay a penny for this fragment of a burning torch.

It will never go out.

 

It will gather unto itself all the fires

That blaze between the heavens above and the earth beneath

Until the flame shall frighten each mud-hearted hypocrite

And scatter the beetles fattened on the cream of corruption,

The beetles that riddle the ramparts of Man.

 

Pay a penny for my singing torch,

O my sisters, my brothers of the land of my mothers,

The land of our fathers, our troubles, our dreams,

The land of Llewellyn and Shoni bach Shinkin,

The land of the sermons that peddle the streams,

The land of the englyn and Crawshay’s old engine,

The land that is sometimes as proud as she seems.

And the sons of the mountains and sons of the valleys

O lift up your hearts, and then

lift up your feet.

 

by Idris Davies