Requests by R. S. Thomas

To the angel without wings:

‘Greetings; don’t let me keep you.’

 

To the winged one, making as if

to be up and gone: ‘Stay awhile.’

 

To the dark angel, pedlar

of reflections: ‘I am not at home.’

 

To the one sworn eternally

to silence: ‘Eavesdrop my heart.’

 

To truth’s angel: ‘In his ear about me

nothing but the white lie.’

 

by R. S. Thomas

from Mass for Hard Times (1992)

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In Memory of Sergey Yesenin by Anna Akhmatova

There are such easy ways

to leave this life,

to burn to an end

without pain or thought,

but a Russian poet

has no such luck.

A bullet is more likely

to show his winged soul

the way to Heaven;

or else the shaggy paw

of voiceless terror will squeeze

the life out of his heart

as if it were a sponge.

 

by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova)

(1925)

translation by Robert Chandler


Not so fun facts about the poem’s subject: On 28 of December in 1925 Yesenin was found dead in the room in the Hotel Angleterre in St Petersburg. His last poem Goodbye my friend, goodbye (До свиданья, друг мой, до свиданья) according to Wolf Ehrlich was written by him the day before he died. Yesenin complained that there was no ink in the room, and he was forced to write with his blood. According to the consensus among academic researchers of Yesenin’s life, the poet was in a state of depression a week after he escaped from a mental clinic and committed suicide by hanging. A theory exists that Yesenin’s death was actually a murder by OGPU agents who staged it to look like suicide.

‘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.

‘Еще раз, еще раз’ (‘Once More, Once More’) by Velimir Khlebnikov

Once more, once more,

I am

your star.

Woe to the sailor who takes

a wrong bearing

between his boat and a star.

He will smash against rock

or sandbar.

Woe to you all, who take

a wrong bearing

between your heart and me.

You will smash against rock

and be rock-mocked

as you

once

mocked me.

 

by Велимир Хлебников (Velimir Khlebnikov)

a.k.a. Виктор Владимирович Хлебников

(Viktor Vladimirovich Khlebnikov)

(May 1922)

translated by Robert Chandler


Russian reading of the poem:

Original Russian text:

Еше раз, еще раз,
Я для вас
Звезда.
Горе моряку, взявшему
Неверный угол своей ладьи
И звезды:
Он разобьется о камни,
О подводные мели.
Горе и Вам, взявшим
Неверный угол сердца ко мне:
Вы разобьетесь о камни,
И камни будут надсмехаться
Над Вами,
Как вы надсмехались
Надо мной.

Paper and Sticks by Dylan Thomas

Paper and sticks and shovel and match

Why won’t the news of the old world catch

And the fire in a temper start

 

Once I had a rich boy for myself

I loved his body and his navy blue wealth

And I lived in his purse and his heart

 

When in our bed I was tossing and turning

All I could see were his brown eyes burning

By the green of a one pound note

 

I talk to him as I clean the grate

O my dear it’s never too late

To take me away as you whispered and wrote

 

I had a handsome and well-off boy

I’ll share my money and we’ll run for joy

With a bouncing and silver spooned kid

 

Sharp and shrill my silly tongue scratches

Words on the air as the fire catches

You never did and he never did.

 

by Dylan Thomas


 

Fun fact: This was the only poem left out of Dylan Thomas’ ‘Collected Poems 1934 – 1952‘ because he disliked it. The book was published on 10 November 1952 by Dylan’s usual publishers Dent of London, which gathered together all the poems from his three previous volumes of poetry (’18 Poems’, ‘Twenty Five Poems’ and ‘Deaths and Entrances’), plus a further six written since 1946, to make a total of 90.

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)

Target by R. S. Thomas

I look up at the sky at night

and see the archer, Sagittarius,

with his bow drawn, and realise

man is the arrow speeding,

 

not as some think infinitely

on, but because space is curved,

backwards towards the bowman’s heart

to deal him his unstaunched wound.

 

by R. S. Thomas

from Mass for Hard Times (1992)