‘He Loved Light, Freedom and Animals’ by Mike Jenkins

An inscription on the grave of one of the children who died in the Aberfan disaster of October 21st, 1966

 

No grave could contain him.

He will always be young

in the classroom

waving an answer

like a greeting.

 

Buried alive –

alive he is

by the river

skimming stones down

the path of the sun.

 

When the tumour on the hillside

burst and the black blood

of coal drowned him,

he ran forever

with his sheepdog leaping

for sticks, tumbling together

in windblown abandon.

 

I gulp back tears

because of a notion of manliness.

After the October rain

the slag-heap sagged

its greedy coalowner’s belly.

 

He drew a picture of a wren,

his favourite bird for fraility

and determination. His eyes gleamed

as gorse-flowers do now

above the village.

 

His scream was stopped mid-flight.

Black and blemished

with the hill’s sickness

he must have been,

like a child collier

dragged out of one of Bute’s mines –

a limp statistic.

 

There he is, climbing a tree,

mimicking an ape, calling out names

at classmates. Laughs springing

down the slope. My wife hears them

her ears attuned as a ewe’s in lambing,

and I try to foster the inscription,

away from its stubborn stone.

 

by Mike Jenkins

from Empire of Smoke


Not so Fun facts: This poem refers to the Aberfan disaster the catastrophic collapse of a colliery spoil tip at 9.15 am on 21 October 1966. The tip had been created on a mountain slope above the Welsh village of Aberfan, near Merthyr Tydfil and overlaid a natural spring. A period of heavy rain led to a build-up of water within the tip which caused it to suddenly slide downhill as a slurry, killing 116 children and 28 adults as it engulfed the local junior school and other buildings. The tip was the responsibility of the National Coal Board (NCB), and the subsequent inquiry placed the blame for the disaster on the organisation and nine named employees.

I’ve been to the town and it’s still a very quiet place to this day as a generation of the community was lost in that disaster. Where the junior school once stood there is now a memorial garden.

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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

‘Help me, O Lord, through this night’ by Osip Mandelstam

Help me, O Lord, through this night.

I fear for life, your slave.

To live in Peter’s city is to sleep in a grave.

 

by Осип Эмильевич Мандельштам (Osip Emilyevich Mandelshtam. His surname is commonly latinised as Mandelstam)

(1931)

translated by Robert Chandler

‘I like the Lutheran service, calm and grave…’ by Fyodor Tyutchev

I like the Lutheran service, calm and grave,

I like its ritual, solemn and severe;

the message of these bare and empty walls

I bow to, I revere.

 

But don’t you see? Why surely you must know

that for the last time Faith is with us there.

She has not crossed the threshold yet to go,

but all is swept and bare.

 

She has not crossed the threshold on her way,

she has not gone for good, and closed the door.

But yet the hour has struck. Kneel down and pray,

for you will pray no more.

 

by Фёдор Иванович Тютчев (Fyodor Ivanovich Tyutchev)

(1834)

translated by Frances Cornford and Esther Polianowsky Salaman


Fun fact: Counted amongst the admirers of Tyutchev’s works were Dostoevsky and Tolstoy along with Nekrasov and Fet. Then later Osip Mandelstam who, in a passage approved of by Shalamov, believed that a Russian poet should not have copy of Tyutchev in his personal library – he should know all of Tyutchev off by heart.

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)

Today by Gillian Clarke

Kate in full day in the heat of the sun

looks into the grave, sees in that unearthing

of a Roman settlement, under a stone

only the shadow of a skeleton.

 

Gwyn on his back in the dark, lying

on the lawn dry from months of drought,

finds in the sky through the telescope

the fuzzy dust of stars he had been searching.

 

Imprint of bones is a constellation

shining against silence, against darkness,

and stars are the pearly vertebrae

of water-drops against the drought, pelvis,

 

skull, scapula five million light years old

wink in the glass, and stardust is all we hold

of the Roman lady’s negative

in the infinite dark of the grave.

 

by Gillian Clarke

from New Poems

The Belfry by R. S. Thomas

I have seen it standing up grey,

Gaunt, as though no sunlight

Could ever thaw out the music

Of its great bell; terrible

In its own way, for religion

Is like that. There are times

When a black frost is upon

One’s whole being, and the heart

In its bone belfry hangs and is dumb.

 

But who is to know? Always,

Even in winter in the cold

Of a stone church, on his knees

Someone is praying, whose prayers fall

Steadily through the hard spell

Of weather that is between God

And himself. Perhaps they are warm rain

That brings the sun and afterwards flowers

On the raw graves and throbbing of bells.

 

by R. S. Thomas

from Pietà (1966)