Deep in the mountain the idol rests in sweet repose, infinite and blest, the fat of necklaces dripping from his neck protects his dreams of flood tide and of slack.
As a boy, he buddied with a peacock, they gave him rainbow of India to eat and milk in a pink clay dish, and didn't stint the cochineal.
Bone put to bed, locked in a knot, shoulders, arms and knees made flesh, he smiles with his own dead-silent lips, thinks with his bone, feels with his brow, and struggles to recall his human countenance...
by Осип Эмильевич Мандельштам (Osip Emilyevich Mandelshtam.) His surname is commonly latinised as Mandelstam) from the first of the Voronezh Notebooks (10-26 December 1936) translated by Andrew Davis
Goldfinch, friend, I'll cock my head - let's check the world out, just me and you: this winter's day pricks like chaff; does it sting your eyes too?
Boat-tailed, feathers yellow-black, sopped in colour beneath your beak, do you get, you goldfinch you, just how you flaunt it?
What's he thinking, little airhead? - white and yellow, black and red! Both eyes check both ways – both! - will check no more – he's bolted!
by Осип Эмильевич Мандельштам (Osip Emilyevich Mandelshtam.) His surname is commonly latinised as Mandelstam) (9-27 December 1936) translated by Andrew Davis
The original Russian Cyrillic version of the poem
Мой щегол, я голову закину — Поглядим на мир вдвоем: Зимний день, колючий, как мякина, Так ли жестк в зрачке твоем?
Хвостик лодкой, перья черно-желты, Ниже клюва в краску влит, Сознаешь ли — до чего щегол ты, До чего ты щегловит?
Что за воздух у него в надлобье — Черн и красен, желт и бел! В обе стороны он в оба смотрит — в обе!— Не посмотрит — улетел!
Extra information: The RSPB website has information, a bird identifying ‘questionnaire’ if you’ve seen any you don’t recognise, sound clips of bird calls, videos and more about goldfinches and many other species of birds. It might be an interesting distraction if you haven’t looked at it before.
The image of a goldfinch or starling is a repeated motif in the poetry of Mandelstam. (if you can’t read Russian then just put the text of the linked page, or it’s page address, into GoogleTranslate which gives a surprisingly eloquent translation).
Sound, too? The recorder that picks up everything picked up nothing but the natural background. What language does the god speak? And the camera's lens, as sensitive to an absence as to a presence, saw what? What is the colour of his thought? It was blank, then, the screen, as far as he was concerned? It was a bare landscape and harsh, and geological its time. But the rock was bright, the illuminated manuscript of the lichen. And a shadow, as we watched, fell, as though of an unseen writer bending over his work. It was not cloud because it was not cold, and dark only from the candlepower behind it. And we waited for it to move, silently as the spool turned, waited for the figure that cast it to come into view for us to identify it, and it didn't and we are still waiting.
Once we all used to abide together with God, side by side, He didn't dwell in the sky, we'd see him from time to time alive, on the mausoleum. He was much more clever and evil than that other God, the old one, known to the world as Jehovah, whom he overthrew with a crash and reduced to a heap of ash, then subsequently restored and recruited to serve the cause. For once we all used to abide together with God, side by side.
One day as I wandered around in the Arbat, I met God on parade with five limousines and surrounded by guards wearing mousy grey overcoats, hunched in dread. It was early and late – overhead the grey light of morning was showing as he grazed with his cruel, all-knowing eyes through the hearts of men, unmasking deviants and traitors.
For we lived in an era when God himself was our neighbour.
by Борис Абрамович Слуцкий (Boris Abramovich Slutsky) (1955) translated by Stephen Capus
Here is the poem in the original Cyrillic Russian.
Мы все ходили под богом. У бога под самым боком. Он жил не в небесной дали, Его иногда видали Живого. На мавзолее. Он был умнее и злее Того — иного, другого, По имени Иегова, Которого он низринул, Извел, пережег на уголь, А после из бездны вынул И дал ему стол и угол.
Мы все ходили под богом. У бога под самым боком. Однажды я шел Арбатом. Бог ехал в пяти машинах. От страха почти горбата, В своих пальтишках мышиных Рядом дрожала охрана. Было поздно и рано. Серело. Брезжило утро. Он глянул жестоко, мудро Своим всевидящим оком, Всепроницающим взглядом.
Мы все ходили под богом. С богом почти что рядом.
Additional information: Slutsky was an atheist but he didn’t forget his Jewish cultural roots regarding not only Yiddish but also the Hebrew he had learned as a child which remained important to him even if only as deeply felt absences. This poem can be read as Slutsky reflecting on how the cult of persona arose in the Soviet era. Communist iconography of Lenin replaced Imperial Russia’s religious iconography in the day to day lives of Russian citizens in Moscow’s historical Arbat street and the surrounding area. Then he reflects, in the second part of the poem, how imagery of Stalin eventually replaced Lenin’s image and he was even worse than him.
'Rest a while,' says the muse, but I press on losing myself between the dictionary and the blank page. Wisdom advises, 'Call ber bluff and she'll come cringing.' But I am all nerves, running vocabulary through my fingers, faster and faster. And somewhere before me is the great poem, wrapped in its stillness, that I fool myself into thinking I will overtake soon by putting on speed.
She came in out of the frost, her cheeks glowing, and filled my whole room with the scent of fresh air and perfume and resonent chatter that did away with my last chance of getting anywhere in my work.
Straightaway she dropped a hefty art journal onto the floor and at once there was no room any more in my large room
All this was somewhat annoying, if not absurd. Next, she wanted Macbeth read aloud to her.
Barely had I reached the earth's bubbles which never failed to entrance me when I realized that she, no less entranced, was staring out of the window.
A large tabby cat was creeping along the edge of the roof towards some amorous pigeons. What angered me most was that it should be pigeons, not she and I, who were necking, and that the days of Paolo and Francesca were long gone.
by Александр Александрович Блок (Alexander Alexandrovich Blok) (1908) translated by Robert Chandler
‘The earth’s bubbles’ in this poem references a line from Act I, scene 3 of Shakespeare’s play Macbeth “The earth hath bubbles, as the water has, / And these are of them.” which Banquo says to Macbeth when the witches disappear after their encounter. Between 1904 and 1905 Blok wrote a poem cycle he titled ‘Bubbles of the Earth’, incorporating motifs from folk magic. In 1907 he wrote of Shakespeare, ‘ I love him deeply; and perhaps, most deely of all – in the whole of world literature – Macbeth’.