They borrowed ten bob, sloped off to the pub or club, grew potatoes, caulis, leeks in dead-straight lines, remembered, I mean, were in, the Second World War, cracked jokes, jokes about Hitler, Goebbels, Stalin, even Churchill, did odd things, odd things, look after old ladies in their rich incontinence, or drew cartoons, sketched for small mags, cartoons, sketched, drew, small mags.
They seemed to have lots of patience, except when opening time loomed over some petty duty, like work. Mine had a second childhood, a red scooter which he regularly came off, half-pissed back from a country pub, mistook a bush for a turning home. He carried on until Mother nagged him into giving-up his latecome burn-ups, so went sketching no more.
I’m a father now, think my sons could sometime achieve this state, make tea like tar, maybe keep allotments, worry about their kids, trudge to some bloody boring jobs to feed the family’s faces, swear with cronies, be hurt when kids call them old fart, stupid sod, or worse, wonder where they too went wrong,
Pray there’s no war to haunt their nights, make them keep graveyard horrors at bay, with favourite ales, quips and long tales, Nuclear families, bowed with labels, stagger on, sperm-count falling day by day, Still I remember those fathers, leaning on sticks, pint in hand, know they had a sense of what it’s all about, a cod-code to keep and a smile for outrageous stupidity because it was to be expected.
by Peter Gruffydd
Further information: There is a PDF help-sheet discussing the poem line by line produced by Dr Jamie Harris (Aberystwyth University, August 2019) for CREW. The following is the biography provided at the start of that document.
Peter Gruffydd was born in Liverpool in 1935. He first moved to Wales at the age of five, following his evacuation in early 1941 (due to the Second World War). Having already learned Welsh, he then began studying English at Bangor University. His time living in Wales was brief, and he has spent most of his life in England, living in Liverpool, the West Midlands, and Bristol. Gruffydd was a member of Plaid Cymru and a Welsh nationalist (his movement into Welsh politics mirrors that of the Welsh intellectual Saunders Lewis, an ardent nationalist who was born in Liverpool). Gruffydd’s nationalist politics is evident in some of his poetry, such as ‘The Small Nation’, which Matthew Jarvis suggests ‘is substantially a lament for a Wales that the poem’s speaker sees as having lost courage’, and which foresees ‘The slow funeral of a small nation’.
Before he became known by the surname with which he appears in the Poetry 1900-2000 anthology, Gruffydd published under the name Peter M. Griffith (the English-spelling, but pronounced in a similar same way). In 1993, Gruffydd became a founder member of the Welsh Branch of PEN International (now Wales PEN Cymru), an organisation which advocates on behalf of writers across the world.
Although his poems have appeared in several poetry magazines, Gruffydd has one solitary collection to his name, 1972’s The Shivering Seed. His earliest significant poetry publication was in Triad, with two other notable Welsh ‘Second Flowering’ poets, Harri Webb and Meic Stephens.
Dr Jamie Harris (Aberystwyth University, August 2019) for CREW
Artillery was burying us. At first it killed us. But, with blatant hypocrisy, Now swears that it loved us.
It broke open its muzzles, But with all the charred nerves In the overworked hands of the medics. We didn’t readily believe it.
We could trust only morphine, In the very last resort – bromide. But those of us who were dead Trusted the earth, and no one else.
Here everyone still crawls, laying mines And receiving counterattacks. But there – already illumining, They draft memoirs…
And there, away from the destruction zone, They scrape and polish parquet. The Bolshoi Theater lofted on a quadrangle Follows the celebration skyrocket.
Soldiers lay about. At night the mint showers Them with regalia from time to time. But machine guns belch them out With explosive vomit.
One of them, accidentally surviving, Came to Moscow in autumn. He shuffled along the boulevard like a drunk, And passed among the living like an echo.
With his artificial leg He got in someone’s way in the trolley. By a string of petty absurdities He approached the Mausoleum.
He recalled the eroded hillocks, Scraps of plywood along the roadways, The soldier’s eyes, opened forever, Shown in calm reproach.
Pilots fell down on them from the sky, Bogged down in clouds of bones. But courage does not grow scarce, As sky doesn’t let one grow obsolete.
And the soldier knew that, for the Motherland, Those who were swallowed by the war, Are the equals of those who lie here buried In the wall itself or beneath the wall.
by Константин Ильич Левин (Konstantin Illyich Levin) (1946) translated by Albert C. Todd
Нас хоронила артиллерия…
Нас хоронила артиллерия. Сначала нас она убила, Но, не гнушаясь лицемерия, Теперь клялась, что нас любила.
Она выламывалась жерлами, Но мы не верили ей дружно Всеми обрубленными нервами В натруженных руках медслужбы.
Мы доверяли только морфию, По самой крайней мере — брому. А те из нас, что были мертвыми, — Земле, и никому другому.
Тут всё ещё ползут, минируют И принимают контрудары. А там — уже иллюминируют, Набрасывают мемуары…
И там, вдали от зоны гибельной, Циклюют и вощат паркеты. Большой театр квадригой вздыбленной Следит салютную ракету.
И там, по мановенью Файеров, Взлетают стаи Лепешинских, И фары плавят плечи фраеров И шубки женские в пушинках.
Бойцы лежат. Им льет регалии Монетный двор порой ночною. Но пулеметы обрыгали их Блевотиною разрывною!
Но тех, кто получил полсажени, Кого отпели суховеи, Не надо путать с персонажами Ремарка и Хемингуэя.
Один из них, случайно выживший, В Москву осеннюю приехал. Он по бульвару брел как выпивший И средь живых прошел как эхо.
Кому-то он мешал в троллейбусе Искусственной ногой своею. Сквозь эти мелкие нелепости Он приближался к Мавзолею.
Он вспомнил холмики размытые, Куски фанеры по дорогам, Глаза солдат, навек открытые, Спокойным светятся упреком.
На них пилоты с неба рушатся, Костями в тучах застревают… Но не оскудевает мужество, Как небо не устаревает.
И знал солдат, равны для Родины Те, что заглотаны войною, И те, что тут лежат, схоронены В самой стене и под стеною.
Included in the recital there is the following passage, as the third stanza, which is omitted from other versions I have sourced. Possibly it is due to the ‘improved’ version Yevtushenko states he requested be made by Levin briefly prior to his passing.
За нас молились леди Англии И маркитантки полковые. Нас интервьюировали б ангелы, Когда бы были таковые.
Translated it reads as:
Ladies of England prayed for us. And regimental vivandieres. We’d be interviewed by angels If they existed.
Additional information: It goes without saying but if you look up Konstanin Levin‘s name, for further information, in English you will probably come across page after page about the character of Konstantin ‘Kostya’ Levin from Lev Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina. For those who can read Russian or are willing to use Google translate there is the poetLevin‘s Wikipedia page but for everyone else I will share this biography from the Yad Vashem page about the poet and his wartime service they compiled as part of their ‘Jews in the Red Army, 1941–1945′ research project:
Konstantin Levin was born in 1924 in Ekaterinoslav (now Dnipro), Ukraine to a medical family. In 1941, following the family tradition, he entered a medical institute (medical university). A short time later, his institute was evacuated to Western Siberia. Having finished the first semester, Levin was drafted into the Red Army and sent to the Rostov School of Artillery (RSA), which specialized in anti-tank artillery. In 1942 the RSA was located not in Rostov-on-Don, which at this time was occupied by the enemy, but in the Urals. In the fall of 1943 Levin graduated from the RSA as a second lieutenant and was appointed the commander of a platoon of 45-mm cannons. These cannons were the most dangerous kind of artillery to operate: being ineffective against enemy tanks, after their first shot they became a good target for the enemy. Levin succeeded in surviving at the front for less than half a year.
In February 1944, while fighting in Ukraine, Levin was wounded for the first time, in the head. On April 29, 1944, participating in the battle of Târgu Frumos, in eastern Romania, Levin was hit by an enemy shell and he lost a leg. His former RSA comrade and a participant in the same operation Moisei Dorman noted: “At the end of April 1944, near Iaşi, a German tank crushed his cannon. A shell fragment cut Kostia’s leg right at the knee. The leg was hanging on by the tendons. Levin tried to cut it off with a penknife, but he was bleeding and did not have enough strength…. Almost fainting, he managed to get to his own side by crawling.” After this battle, Levin was awarded the Order of Patriotic War, 2nd Class. After his release from the Red Army, he was recommended for the Order of Patriotic War, 1st Class – for his fighting in Ukraine.
In 1945 after the war, Konstantin Levin entered the Literary Institute in Moscow. Although the admission committee found his poems depressing, he was admitted because he was a disabled veteran who had earned two military orders. He was a good student. Levin walked with a prosthesis, never using a cane or crutches. In 1946, after he wrote the poem “Artillery Buried Us,” he was almost expelled from the Institute. In the following year, he wrote a poem about himself, in which he let the reader know that he had been not simply a soldier, but a Jewish one. After that, poem Levin was, in fact, expelled from the Institute, and only the intervention of the Russian poet Aleksei Surkov helped him receive his diploma.
For the rest of his life Konstantin Levin earned his living by routine literary work. He died in 1984. The first collection of his poems was published posthumously in 1989.
The poem therefore appears to be autobiographical though Levin uses the third person when recounting the events of it when referring to himself as “one of them, accidentally surviving/…/with his artificial leg”.
Levin’s renowned poem “Artillery was burying us…” passed from hand to hand throughout literary Moscow in the years following World War II, along with Naum Korzhavin’s poems against Stalin. Levin worked as a literary consultant and never tried to publish his poetry. Just prior to his death the compiler of this anthology persuaded him to make a new, even better version of his masterpiece. Boris Slutsky considered him one of the finest poets in the front-line generation.
Biographical information about Levin, p.736, ‘Twentieth Century Russian Poetry’ (1993), compiled by Yevgeny Yevtushenko (ed. Albert C. Todd and Max Hayward) , published by Fourth Estate Limited by arrangement with Doubleday of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc. (transcribed as found in the original text).
Yevtushenko later said he wrote the song in response to conversations he had with foreigners while travelling in western Europe and the United States. The lyrics evoke the peaceful Russian countryside, the memory of the millions of lives lost in the Second World War, and the friendly meeting of U.S. and Soviet soldiers on Elbe Day.
On Thursday 24 February 2022 Russian citizens were heard singing the song at protests held in St Petersburg and Moscow. After these protests were broken up, by authorities in riot gear, it was apparently remarked by civilians “в России запрещено говорить, что русские не хотят войны…” (“In Russia it is forbidden to say Russians do not want war…”)
Into the dry-leafed coppice an owl bowls, head over heels,
Its wings bulky yet nimble –
It flies shaggily,
It flies like something sewn up in a grey sack,
With oblique slits for eyes.
Its clumsy dance in the fresh air
Is like a rudderless, compassless boat’s…
Be off, absurd creature, be off!
Beyond the ditch, black as an abyss,
Bushes shine glassily, like vessels filled with some
It is the prelude to night…
Like uprights and arcs,
Above the warm,
Are motionless sounds…
by Новелла Николаевна Матвеева
(Novella Nikolayevna Matveyeva)
translated by Daniel Weissbort
Beneath is the original Russian version of the poem in Cyrillic.
На пороге ночи
У тропки вечерней сиренево-серный
И серо-лиловый оттенок.
И, словно орех, который, созрев,
Отходит от собственных стенок,
Отходит луна от небес волокна,
От облачного потока,
И к легкому своду уходит она
Деревьев цыганские тени кудрями дорогу метут...
Вдали, в запустенье, дымится и светится пруд,
Как жар, потухающий в трубке цыгана,
Мечтательно замерший наполовину,
Попав под рукав, под сырую овчину
Оттуда, из сырости грустной,
В лесок сухокудрый летит, кувыркаясь, сова:
Я слышу, я слышу крыла ее грузные,
О, эти порхающие жернова!
Летит она прозорливо и слепо, -
Движением тяжким и скорым, как шок.
Летит клочковато, летит нелепо,
Летит, как зашитая в серый мешок
С косыми прорезями для глаз...
Как пляска ладьи, где отшибло и руль и компас,
В воздухе свежем танец ее корявый...
...За черной, как пропасть, канавой
Стеклянно блистают кусты, как сосуды с целебным настоем, -
Это вступление в ночь...
Как столбики и как дуги,
Над сиротливым простором
Стоят неподвижные звуки.