Marx and Heine and Dowlais by Idris Davies

I used to go to St John’s Wood

On Saturday evenings in summer

To look on London behind the dusty garden trees,

And argue pleasantly and bitterly

About Marx and Heine, the iron brain and the laughing sword;

And the ghost of Keats would sit in a corner,

Smiling slowly behind a summer of wine,

Sadly smiling at the fires of the future.

And late in the summer night

I heard the tall Victorian critics snapping

Grim grey fingers at London Transport,

And sober, solemn students of James Joyce,

Dawdling and hissing into Camden Town.

 

But now in the winter dusk

I go to Dowlais Top

and stand by the railway bridge

Which joins the bleak brown hills,

And gaze at the streets of Dowlais

Lop-sided on the steep dark slope,

A bettered bucket on a broken hill,

And see the rigid phrases of Marx

Bold and black against the steel-grey west,

Riveted along the sullen skies.

And as for Heine, I look on the rough

Bleak, colourless hills around,

Naked and hard as flint,

Romance in a rough chemise.

 

by Idris Davies


Fun facts:

Dowlais is a village and community of the county borough of Merthyr Tydfil, in Wales. Dowlais is notable within Wales and Britain for its historic association with ironworking; once employing, through the Dowlais Iron Company, roughly 5,000 people, the works being the largest in the world at one stage.

Marx, I assume, refers to Karl Marx (5 May 1818 – 14 March 1883) the German philosopher, economist, historian, political theorist, sociologist, journalist and revolutionary socialist.

Heine, refers to Christian Johann Heinrich Heine (13 December 1797 – 17 February 1856) was a German poet, journalist, essayist, and literary critic. He is best known outside of Germany for his early lyric poetry, which was set to music in the form of Lieder (art songs) by composers such as Robert Schumann and Franz Schubert. Heine’s later verse and prose are distinguished by their satirical wit and irony. He is considered part of the Young Germany movement. His radical political views led to many of his works being banned by German authorities, which however only added to his fame. Heine spent the last 25 years of his life as an expatriate in Paris.

James Augustine Aloysius Joyce (2 February 1882 – 13 January 1941) was an Irish novelist, short story writer, and poet. He contributed to the modernist avant-garde and is regarded as one of the most influential and important authors of the 20th century. Joyce is best known for Ulysses (1922), a landmark work in which the episodes of Homer’s Odyssey are paralleled in a variety of literary styles, most famously stream of consciousness. Other well-known works are the short-story collection Dubliners (1914), and the novels A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Finnegans Wake (1939). His other writings include three books of poetry, a play, his published letters and occasional journalism.

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‘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.

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)

‘I, A Butterfly That Has Flown’ by Velimir Khlebnikov

I, a butterfly that has flown

into the room of human life,

must leave the handwriting of my dust

like a prisoner’s signature

over the stern windows,

across fate’s strict panes.

The wallpaper of human life

is grey and sad.

And there is the windows’

transparent ‘No’.

 

I have worn away my deep-blue morning glow,

my patterns of dots,

my wing’s light-blue storm, first freshness.

The powder’s gone, the wings have faded

and turned transparent and hard.

Jaded, I beat

against the window of mankind.

From the other side knock eternal numbers,

summoning me to the motherland,

asking one single number

to return to all numbers.

 

by Велимир Хлебников (Velimir Khlebnikov)

a.k.a. Виктор Владимирович Хлебников (Viktor Vladimirovich Khlebnikov)

(1921)

translated by Robert Chandler


 

Fun fact: Khlebnikov possibly reflecting on Zhuangzi’s famous quote:

  • Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. Between a man and a butterfly there is necessarily a distinction. The transition is called the transformation of material things.
    • As translated by Lin Yutang

 

 

A Concrete Salesman Always Seals The Deal

Once there was a meeting of townsfolk people with many concerns. Each came to the meeting looking for answers but alas the town council had no answers. They too had given up hope unlike a bland looking man in a bland grey suit with bland well-worn grey shoes entered from the rear of the town hall. Oh what a marvel, oh what a wonder, he had an answer to all the town’s woes. And so began his pitch:

Ladies and gentlemen, fear not for I have the answer! Step right up and I will solve your issues with this wonder substance! I’ve heard it all before and I have the answer in this bucket of dust!

‘There’s a hole in my wall but I can’t afford to rebuild it’ – Why not seal it with cheap affordable concrete?
‘My garden is overgrown’ – Cover it over with concrete and you will have an all year round useable surface. Why not park your car on it?

‘I’ve lost my teeth’ – why not use concrete to grind down your food and drink the remains like a thick soup? (Do not take our product orally).

‘My dead pet, child, lover, mother and/or significant other smells’ – why not dig a hole in the ground and cover it in concrete? That will stop the smell and preserve your beloved for the ages.

‘I fear fire’ – why not create a fireproof yurt made from non-flammable concrete. Guaranteed to last for years to come rain or shine surviving multiple arson attempts!

‘I’m colour blind’ – No fear! Concrete is one colour fits all! And even if you have the colour perception of a dog you are seeing concrete at its full colour range like everyone else so no fear of embarrassment calling grey grey! Don’t like the all-natural colour? Then why not paint it any colour you like! The sky’s the limit!

‘My fruit floats on top of the water, I think it might have gone off’ – Well that can be solved by a few hours submerged in concrete. With a fine few inches of concrete applied to the exterior anything will sink to the bottom of the ocean… why even that guy across the road you don’t like who you know is a stool pigeon who ratted you out to the cops about your illegal gambling den in the garden shed! Got gambling debts? It’ll get rid of them too! (Not that we here representing the Concrete Union of Nationalised Tradesmen Society endorse such actions).

‘I’m cold’ – Another wonder cure through the application of concrete! Lo with just a jacket of concrete you will never have to worry about the temperature being too high or low every again during the rest of your life!

‘I’m tired’ – why not make yourself a fine heat retaining bench slab of concrete and lounge like a lizard taking in the sun. Don’t like the sun? Build a cover with our multipurpose product! It is just the versatile!

‘My car is constantly being stolen’ – Why not put the wheels in a protective casing of concrete! It’ll ensure no one will take you precious vehicle anywhere ever again! Put all your valuables in concrete! Hide them from prying eyes and ensure their safety! Security guaranteed!

‘I have no friends’ – Why not make one? Why just like the golem of Prague you too can make a lifelong friend with your own hands! Why it will be even longer lasting that that old clay golem! Fed up of life? Just pour it down your throat and immortalise yourself with the piece of artwork it produces mapping out the network of your digestive and respiratory system!
‘I’m lazy, I don’t want to be cleaning things constantly’ – Our product needs no upkeep! As soon as it’s in use it keeps on trucking by itself no hands on assistance or maintenance necessary!

Stops weeds, stops sunburn, preserves food hides unsightly blemishes and loved ones for a lifetime! It does it all ladies and gentlemen – Just add water! You can swim in it, sleep in it, Live in it, laugh in it, love in it – it is the miracle substance of our era!

Now whether you think the salesman made a killing or was run out of town is up to you… Personally I reckon he’s out there right now, laying down the same pitch, seeing what comes of it, like many an ornery wandering merchant selling his wares out there on the open roads and nothing going to stop him until it’s all gone. Last I heard of the troubled town it all got flattened to the ground, paved over and turned into an industrial park supplying construction tradesmen across the nation.


I do have reviews to post but it is just getting put off… so here is a filler vignette.

This was conceived and written in one sitting. It either sinks or swims as a story idea. As ever with these vignettes I don’t feel I should be polishing them if I am posting them and people can read them for free (or steal them). It was a nice idea though. Thanks for reading if you took the time.

Comment, like, follow – all are welcome!