Baratynsky by Varlam Shalamov

	Three Robinson Crusoes
in an abandoned shack,
we found a real find -
a single, battered book.

We three were friends
and we quickly agreed
to share out this treasure
as Solomon decreed.

The foreword for cigarette paper:
one friend was delighted
with a gift so unlikely
he feared he was dreaming.

The second made playing cards
from the notes at the back.
May his play bring him pleasure,
every page bring him luck.

As for my own cut -
those precious jottings,
the dreams of a poet
now long forgotten -

it was all that I wanted.
How wisely we'd judged.
What a joy to set foot in
a forgotten hut.

by Варлам Тихонович Шаламов (Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov)
(1949)
translated by Robert Chandler

Interesting extra: The poem refers to Yevgeny Abramovich Baratynsky (Евге́ний Абра́мович Бараты́нский ) was lauded by AlexanderPushkin as the finest Russian elegiac poet. After a long period when his reputation was on the wane, Baratynsky was rediscovered by Russian Symbolism poets as a supreme poet of thought..

Relearning Solitude [Extract] by Boris Slutsky

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

and lost.

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)

(1977)

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.


Roncesvalles by Varlam Shalamov

I was captivated straight away,

tired of the lies all around me,

by that proud, tragic tale

of a warrior’s death in the mountains.

 

And it may have been Roland’s horn

that called me, like Charlemagne,

to a silent pass where the boldest

of many bold fighters lay slain.

 

I saw a sword lying shattered

after long combat with stone –

a witness to forgotten battles

recorded by stone alone.

 

And those bitter splinters of steel

have dazzled me many a time.

That tale of helpless defeat

can’t help but overwhelm.

 

I have held that horn to my lips

and tried more than once to blow,

but I cannot call up the power

of that ballad from long ago.

 

There may be some skill I’m lacking –

or else I’m not bold enough

to blow in my shy anguish

on Roland’s rust-eaten horn.

 

by Варлам Тихонович Шаламов (Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov)

(1950?)

translated by Robert Chandler


Fun facts: Shalamov references one of his favourite poems by Marina Tsvetaeva by mentioning Roland’s Horn calling to him.

Roncesvalles is famous in history and legend for the defeat of Charlemagne and the death of Roland in 778, during the battle of Roncevaux Pass, when Charlemagne‘s rear guard was destroyed by Basque tribes. Among those killed in the battle was a relatively obscure Frankish commander, Roland, whose death elevated him and the paladins, the foremost warriors of Charlemagne’s court, into legend, becoming the quintessential role model for knights and also greatly influencing the code of chivalry in the Middle Ages. There are numerous written works about the battle, some of which change and exaggerate events. The battle is recounted in the 11th century The Song of Roland, the oldest surviving major work of French literature, and in Orlando Furioso, one of the most celebrated works of Italian literature.

The Bright Field by R.S. Thomas

I have seen the sun break through

to illuminate a small field

for a while, and gone my way

and forgotten it. But that was the pearl

of great price, the one field that had

the treasure in it. I realize now

that I must give all that I have

to possess it. Life is not hurrying

 

on to a receding future, nor hankering after

an imagined past. It is the turning

aside like Moses to the miracle

of the lit bush, to a brightness

that seemed as transitory as your youth

once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

 

by R. S. Thomas

from Laboratories of the Spirit (1975)