Not to set fire to myself
or be burned like Avvakum,
I do what I can
to chase away thought.
I now orbit the earth
in low-level flight,
life’s burdens and vanities
far out of sight.
by Варлам Тихонович Шаламов (Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov)
translated by Robert Chandler
Fun Fact: Referenced in this poem is Avvakum Petrov (Аввакум Петров) a Russian protopope of the Kazan Cathedral on Red Square who led the opposition to Patriarch Nikon’s reforms of the Russian Orthodox Church. For his opposition to the reforms, Avvakum was repeatedly imprisoned. For the last fourteen years of his life, he was imprisoned in a pit or dugout (a sunken, log-framed hut) at Pustozyorsk above the Arctic Circle. He was finally executed by being burned at the stake. The spot where he was burned has been commemorated by an ornate wooden cross. His autobiography and letters to the tsar, Boyarynya Morozova, and other Old Believers are considered masterpieces of 17th-century Russian literature.
Before death I have felt the dark of death;
I thought: like Ossian I shall lose my way
in mist by the grave’s edge and blindly stare
from wild moors down through the dim precipice
of dawnless night and see no trees, no fields
of freedom, no soft grass, no azure skies,
and no sun rising like a miracle.
Yet with the soul’s eye I shall see you, shades
of prophets, friends too soon flown out of sight,
and I shall hear the blessed poet’s song
and know each voice and recognize each face.
by Вильгельм Карлович Кюхельбекер (Wilhelm Karlovich Küchelbecker)
translated by Peter France
Fun fact: This was written after he went blind about a year before his death.
Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on; on; and out of sight.
Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted,
And beauty came like the setting sun.
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away… O but every one
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing
will never be done.
by Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967)