And I knew a destructive pleasure
in trampling what's sacred and good,
a delirium exceeding all measure -
this absinthe that poisons my blood!
by Александр Александрович Блок
(Alexander Alexandrovich Blok)
translated by Stephen Capus
And with a strange desire all her days
she walked her worldly ways;
for dull the melodies of earth she found
after that heavenly sound.
by Михаил Юрьевич Лермонтов (Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov)
translated by Frances Cornford
Interesting extra: The poem this extract is from was written by Lermontov when he was seventeen years old. Typical of his early romanticism its subject is a soul unable to forget the songs of the angel who first carried her down to earth to be incarnated.
On a sidenote: The past day or two I’ve been using WordPress’ new ‘blocks’ system and putting this in the ‘verse’ version. Does it make any difference? The entire system just feels like it complicates matters needlessly.
Distances divide, exclude us.
They’ve dis-weilded and dis-glued us.
Despatched, disposed of, dis-inclusion –
they never knew this meant fusion
of elbow grease and inspiration.
by Марина Ивановна Цветаева (Marina Ivanovna Tsvetaeva)
translated by Peter Oram
Interesting addition: Throughout much of 1926 Tsvetaeva kept up and intense correspondence with Rainer Maria Rilke and Boris Pasternak. The above poem was sent to Pasternak while Tsvetaeva was in exile and had moved from Prague to Paris thus increasing her distance from her homeland. She grew increasingly isolated amongst the other emigre community as she had praised the works of Mayakovsky which got her mistakenly branded as endorising the Soviet system which eventually led the editors of the important journal The Latest News to stop publishing her works which, via her literary earnings, had allowed her to support her family through her contributions.
Just as I once learned one ancient tongue
enough to read its texts,
and I forgot the aphabet –
I’ve forgotten solitude.
This all must be recalled, recovered, and relearned.
I remember how once I met
a compiler of words
in the ancient tongue that I had learned
Turned out, I knew two words: ‘heavens’ and ‘apple’.
I might have recalled the rest –
All beneath the heavens and beside the apples –
But the need wasn’t there.
by Борис Абрамович Слуцкий (Boris Abramovich Slutsky)
translated by Marat Grinberg and Judith Pulman
Interesting information: Slutsky was a atheist but he didn’t forget his cultural roots regarding not only Yiddish but also the Hebrew he had learned as a child which remained important to him even if only as deeply felt absences. He had to ‘relearn solitude’ due to the death of his wife Tanya in 1977. For the following three months, before he fell into a depressed silence for the last nine years of his life during which he wrote nothing, he produced some of the most highly regarded poems on the themes of love and mourning in the Russian language.
Horseshoe-heavy, he hurls his decrees low and high:
In the groin, in the forehead, the eyebrow, the eye.
Executions are what he likes best.
Broad is the highlander’s chest.
by Осип Эмильевич Мандельштам (Osip Emilyevich Mandelshtam. His surname is commonly latinised as Mandelstam)
translated by Alexandra Berlina
Interesting additon: In the Autumn of 1933 Mandelstam composed an epigram about Stalin, which he performed at seven small gatherings in Moscow, which ends with the above lines. Mandelstam was arrested six months later but instead of being executed (by being shot) he was exiled to the Northern Urals. Why was this considering ‘executions’ are what [Stalin] loves best’? A cruel irony or possibly that this relative leniency was due to Stalin taking a personal interest in Mandelstam’s case and being concerned about his own place in Russian literary history? After Mandelstam’s attempted suicide the usual sentence was commuted to one of being banished from the largest cities in Russia. Mandelstam and his wife, Nadezhda, settled in Voronezh where he went on to write the three Voronezh Notebooks. In May 1938 he was arrested again and sentenced to five years in the Gulag. He died in a transit camp near Vladivostok on 27 December 1938.
It was a day like any other.
A woman friend of mine called round.
Without a tear she told me she’d
just buried her one true friend.
We sat in silence till the morning.
What words were there to say to her?
I’m a Leningrad widow too.
by Ольга Фёдоровна Берггольц (Olga Fyodorovna Berggolts)
a.k.a. Olga Fyodorovna Bergholz
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.
Fun extra: Here is a recital of the entire poem in the original Russian:
I shall come to you in a dream,
a black ewe that can barely stand;
I’ll stagger up to you and I’ll bleat,
‘Shah of Shahs, have you dined well?
You are protected by Allah’s will,
the world is a bead in your hand…
And did my son’s flesh taste sweet?
Did your children enjoy their lamb?
by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova)
translation by Robert Chandler
Fun facts: This poem refers to the arrest of Akhmatova’s son by the authorities during the Stalinist era.
An alternative translation of the same poem was done by D. M. Thomas.