‘Memory Has Veiled Much Evil…’ by Varlam Shalamov

Memory has veiled

much evil;

her long lies leave nothing

to believe.

 

There may be no cities

or green gardens;

only fields of ice

and salty oceans.

 

The world may be pure snow,

a starry road;

just northern forest

in the mind of God.

 

by Варлам Тихонович Шаламов (Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov)

(1952?)

translated by Robert Chandler

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Once it was the Colour of Saying by Dylan Thomas

Once it was the colour of saying

Soaked my table the uglier side of a hill

With a capsized field where a school sat still

And a black and white patch of girls grew playing;

The gentle seaslides of saying I must undo

That all the charmingly drowned arise to cockcrow and kill.

When I whistled with mitching boys through a reservoir park

Where at night we stoned the cold and cuckoo

Lovers in the dirt of their leafy beds,

The shade of their trees was a word of many shades

And a lamp of lightning for the poor in the dark;

Now my saying shall be my undoing,

And every stone I wind off like a reel.

 

by Dylan Thomas


Fun Facts: ‘Mitching’ is Skivving, bunking, skipping school.

‘In Black Memory…’ by Anna Akhmatova

In black memory you’ll find, fumbling,

A glove to the elbow that unlocks

A Petersburg night. And a crumbling

Air of sweetness in the murky box.

A wind from the gulf. And, there, between

The lines of a stormy page,

Blok, smiling scornfully, holds the scene,

The tragic tenor of the age.

 

by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova)

(1960)

from Седьмая книга (The Seventh Book)

translation by D. M. Thomas


Fun fact: ‘Blok’ here of course refers to the Russian lyrical poet Alexander Blok who had died in 1921.

‘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.

‘What’s War? What’s Plague…’ by Anna Akhmatova

What’s war? What’s plague? We know that they will pass,

Judgement is passed, we see an end to them.

But which of us can cope with this fear, this –

The terror that is named the flight of time?

 

by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova)

Komarovo, 9 September (1964)

from Седьмая книга (The Seventh Book)

translation by D. M. Thomas

9 March 1823 by Vasily Zhukovsky

You stood before me

so still and quiet.

Your gaze was languid

and full of feeling.

It summoned memories

of days so lovely…

It was the last

such day you gave me.

Now you have vanished,

a quiet angel;

your grave is peaceful,

as calm as Eden!

There rest all earthly

recollections,

There rest all holy

Thoughts of heaven.

 

Heavenly stars,

quiet night!

 

by Василий Андреевич Жуковский (Vasily Andreyevich Zhukovsky)

(1823)

translated by Boris Dralyuk


Fun fact: Ivan Bunin, the Nobel Prize winning Russian emigre author,  is related to him.

Courage by Anna Akhmatova

We know what trembles in the scales,

What has to be accomplished.

The hour for courage. If all else fails,

With courage we are not unfurnished.

What though the dead be crowded, each to each,

What though our houses be destroyed? –

We will preserve you, Russian speech,

Keep you alive, great Russian word.

We will pass you to our sons and heirs

Free and clean, and they in turn to theirs,

And so forever.

 

by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova)

(23 February 1942)

from Седьмая книга (The Seventh Book)

translation by D. M. Thomas