A simple man,
He liked the crease on the water
His cast made, but had no pity
For the broken backbone
Of water or fish.
One of his pleasures, thirsty,
Was to ask a drink
At the hot farms;
Leaving with a casual thank you,
As though they owed it him.
I could have told of the living water
That springs pure.
He would have smiled then,
Dancing his speckled fly in the shallows,
by R. S. Thomas
from Not That He Brought Flowers (1968)
Like a jester complaining of the cruel weight
of his hump – let me tell about my orphaned state.
Behind the devil there’s his horde, behind the thief there’s his band,
behind everyone there’s someone to understand
and support him – the assurance of a living wall
of thousands just like him should he stumble and fall;
the soldier has his comrades, the emperor has his throne,
but the jester has nothing but his hump to call his own.
And so: tired of holding to the knowledge that I’m quite
alone and that my destiny is always to fight
beneath the jeers of the fool and the philistine’s derision,
abandoned – by the world – with the world – in collision,
I blow with all my strength on my horn and send
its cry into the distance in search of a friend.
And this fire in my breast assures me I’m not all
alone, but that some Charlemagne will answer my call!
by Марина Ивановна Цветаева (Marina Ivanovna Tsvetaeva)
translated by Stephen Capus
Fun facts: This poem was a favourite of Varlam Shalamov, according to Irina Sirotinskaya (she was a close friend of his and the holder of his works’ publication rights). It’s very likely he may have referenced this work in his poem Roncesvalles.
Tsvetaeva is referencing the romanticised tale of the historical figure Roland‘s death as retold in the eleventh-century poem The Song of Roland, where he is equipped with the olifant (a signalling horn) and an unbreakable sword, enchanted by various Christian relics, named Durendal. The Song contains a highly romanticized account of the Battle of Roncevaux Pass and Roland’s death, setting the tone for later fantastical depiction of Charlemagne’s court.
And, yes, he is ‘that’ Roland – the one who Stephen King references in his Dark Tower series though it was chiefly inspired by him via the poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” by Robert Browning.
Original Russian cyrillic version:
Как нежный шут о злом своем уродстве,
Я повествую о своем сиротстве…
За князем — род, за серафимом — сонм,
За каждым — тысячи таких, как он,
Чтоб, пошатнувшись,— на живую стену
Упал и знал, что — тысячи на смену!
Солдат — полком, бес — легионом горд.
За вором — сброд, а за шутом — все горб.
Так, наконец, усталая держаться
Сознаньем: перст и назначением: драться,
Под свист глупца и мещанина смех —
Одна из всех — за всех — противу всех! —
Стою и шлю, закаменев от взлету,
Сей громкий зов в небесные пустоты.
И сей пожар в груди тому залог,
Что некий Карл тебя услышит, рог!
A recital of the original Russian language version
Gotta keep living, though I’ve died twice,
and water’s driving the city crazy:
how beautiful, what high cheekbones, how happy,
how sweet the fat earth to the plough,
how the steppe extends in an April upheaval,
and the sky, the sky – pure Michelangelo…
by Осип Эмильевич Мандельштам (Osip Emilyevich Mandelshtam. His surname is commonly latinised as Mandelstam)
translated by Andrew Davis
We remember wartime
The leaves were red
And skies were tight.
Singers in uniform
Cracked burst buckled
The living the key workers
The throats of loyal trumpets
The minds of washed out cockpits
Our prayers were pistons
Our leaders in bunkers
As indestructable as rats
The tongues and necks
Of true survivors
In one cold wood
A headless boy
A thin man prays
In his own blood
On every side
Wait to be counted
In old blood
Are not doors
They are the walls
Of empty tombs
At stated times
By true survivors
by Emyr Humphreys
Fun fact: He registered as a conscientious objector in the Second World War, working on a farm, and later doing relief work in Egypt and Italy. After the war he worked as a teacher, as a radio producer at the BBC and later became a lecturer in drama at Bangor University.
To live in the moment’s a well-worn routine
that most of the world has perfected;
for some, it’s the moment that’s already been,
for others, the one that’s expected.
Yet no sort of magic can kindle anew
a past that is over forever,
nor summon the future before it is due:
our moment is now – or it’s never.
So brief is the moment in which we may live,
and future or past it isn’t.
Whoever would know of what life hast to give
must gratefully welcome the present.
by Piet Hein a.k.a Kumbel (1905-1996), Denmark
And you, my friends who have been called away,
I have been spared to mourn for you and weep,
Not as a frozen willow over your memory,
But to cry to the world the names of those who sleep.
What names are those!
I slam shut the calender,
Down on your knees all!
Blood of my heart,
The people of Leningrad march out in even rows,
The living, the dead: fame can’t tell them apart.
by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova)
from Седьмая книга (The Seventh Book)
translation by D. M. Thomas
Red river, red river,
Slow flow heat is silence
No will is still as a river
Still. Will heat move
Only through the mocking-bird
Heard once? Still hills
Wait. Gates wait. Purple trees,
White trees, wait, wait,
Delay, decay. Living, living,
Never moving. Ever moving
Iron thoughts came with me
And go with me:
Red river, river, river.
by T. S. Eliot
from Minor Poems
My talent is pitiful, my voice not loud,
but I am living; somewhere in the world
someone looks kindly on my life; far off
a distant fellow-man will read my words
and find my being; and, who knows, my soul
will raise an echo in his soul, and I
who found a friend in my own time,
will find a reader in posterity.
by Евгений Абрамович Баратынский (Yevgeny Abramovich Baratynsky)
translated by Peter France