Red Balloon by Dannie Abse

It sailed across the startled town,

over chapels, over chimney-pots,

wind-blown above a block of flats

before it floated down.

 

Oddly, it landed where I stood,

and finding’s keeping, as you know.

I breathed on it, I polished it,

till it shone like living blood.

 

It was my shame, it was my joy,

it brought me notoriety.

From all of Wales the rude boy came,

it ceased to be a toy.

 

I heard the girls of Cardiff sigh

When my balloon, my red balloon,

soared higher like a happiness

towards the dark blue sky.

 

Nine months since, have I boasted of

my unique, my only precious;

but to no one dare I show it now

however long they swear their love.

 

‘It’s a Jew’s balloon,’ my best friend cried,

‘stained with our dear Lord’s blood.’

‘That I’m a Jew is true,’ I said,

said I, ‘that cannot be denied.’

 

‘What relevance?’ I asked, surprised,

‘what’s religion to do with this?’

‘Your red balloon’s a Jew’s balloon,

let’s get it circumcised.’

 

Then some boys laughed and some boys cursed,

some unsheathed their dirty knives:

some lunged, some clawed at my balloon,

but still it would not burst.

 

They bled my nose, they cut my eye,

half conscious in the street I heard,

‘Give up, give up your red balloon.’

I don’t know exactly why.

 

Father, bolt the door, turn the key,

lest those sad, brash boys return

to insult my faith and steal

my red balloon from me.

 

by Dannie Abse

from Poems, Golders Green (1962)


Fun facts: Dannie Abse was born in Cardiff, Wales, to a Jewish family. He was the younger brother of politician and reformer Leo Abse and the eminent psychoanalyst, Wilfred Abse. Unusually for a middle-class Jewish boy, Dannie Abse attended St Illtyd’s College, a working-class Catholic school in Splott.

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‘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

Гимн (A Hymn) by Nikolay Nekrasov

Lord, give them freedom who are weak,

and sanctify the people’s ways,

grant them their justice which they seek,

and bless their labouring days.

 

May freedom, but a seed at first,

untrammelled rise to flower and spread.

For knowledge let the people thirst,

and light the path ahead.

 

Lord, set your chosen followers free,

release them from their ancient bands,

entrust the flag of liberty

at last, to Russian hands.

 

by Николай Алексеевич Некрасов (Nikolay Alexeyevich Nekrasov)

(1866)

translated by Frances Cornford and Esther Polianowsky Salaman


Recital in the original Russian:

Original Russian Cyrillic text:

Господь! твори добро народу!
Благослови народный труд,
Упрочь народную свободу,
Упрочь народу правый суд!

Чтобы благие начинанья
Могли свободно возрасти,
разлей в народе жажду знанья
И к знанью укажи пути!

И от ярма порабощенья
Твоих избранников спаси,
Которым знамя просвещенья,
Господь! ты вверишь на Руси…

‘Could Beatrice Write With Dante’s Passion’ by Anna Akhmatova

Could Beatrice write with Dante’s passion,

Or Laura have glorified love’s pain?

Women poets – I set the fashion…

Lord, how to shut them up again!

 

by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova)

(1960)

from Седьмая книга (The Seventh Book)

translation by D. M. Thomas

Shaggy Doggerel by Eric Finney

Sir Fitz, gallant knight,

Rides over the plain

Wearly now, in darkness and rain.

His day has been full

Of incredible deeds;

A hot bath and bed

Are now just what he needs.

He’s not brought his mac,

And water’s got in at the front

And the back.

Lem, his horse, is exhausted –

He’s a great weight is Sir –

And he hardly responds

To the touch of the spur.

But look! Far ahead

There’s the sight of a light –

For Fitz and his gee gee

A right welcome sight.

‘It’s a castle!’ cries Fitz,

‘One last effort, old nag,

Think of warm stables,

And hay in a bag!’

Soon the drawbridge is lowered,

The portcullis grinds up,

And our heroes plod in

For a bite and a sup.

Can you picture their faces,

Can you see their dismay

When they’re told

By the Lord of the place

They can’t stay?

Sir Fitz, it appears,

Who kills rogues by the dozen,

Has knocked off, amongst them,

The Lord’s second cousin.

‘Besides,’ growls the Lord.

If you want further reason,

We’re full up with tourists

This time of season.’

‘We’re both whacked,’ pleads Sir Fitz,

‘And old Lem’s got a cough.’

But the Lord of the castle again says,

‘Push off.’

‘At least,’ says Sir Fitz

With desperate force,

‘Let old Lem stay with you,

And give me a fresh horse.’

‘We’ve no horses to spare:

None to lend, none to flog;

I’ll tell you what, though,

I can find you a dog.’

‘A dog to ride out on!’ snorts Fitz,

‘Funny joke!’

‘Not at all,’ roars the Lord,

Laughter making him choke.

And the servants bring on,

At his word, a huge cur –

A mean-looking creature

with coarse ginger fur,

Cross-eyed and lop-sided,

Face fixed in a leer,

With a stump for a tail

And only one ear.

‘Well, Sir Fitz,’ says the Lord,

‘Doggy’s raring to go;

Saddle up and get mounted.’

Fitz’s answer came slow:

‘What’s a stupid suggestion;

I’m not going – that’s flat.

You can’t send a knight out

On a dog like that.’

 

by Eric Finney