There by R.S. Thomas

They are those that life happens to.

They didn’t ask to be born

In those bleak farmsteads, but neither

Did they ask not. Life took the seed

And broadcast it upon the poor,

Rush-stricken soil, an experiment

In patience.

What is a man’s

Price? For promises of a break

In the clouds; for harvests that are not all

Wasted; for one animal born

Healthy, where seven have died,

He will kneel down and give thanks

In a chapel whose stones are wrenched

From the moorland.

I have watched them bent

For hours over their trade,

Speechless, and have held my tongue

From its question. It was not my part

To show them, like a meddler from the town,

their picture, nor the audiences

That look at them in pity or pride.

 

by R. S. Thomas

from Pietà (1966)

1918 by Tony Lewis Jones

I am younger than the century. A boy, you think,

But I am chained to a machine gun

Capable of ending a thousand lives

And this makes me a man.

 

There will be no withdrawl.

The officers have warned us:

Here, in our trenches, we fight or die

And no one is to cut me free.

 

In pity for my situation,

Don’t mistake me. I’m as frightened

As the newly wedded bank clerk we all tease

Who’s never known his wife; frightened

 

As the English, waiting to attack

When dawn reveals the cratered wasteground

Under my machine gun’s eye

Like, me, they’re chained to cirrcumstance;

 

The future doesn’t favour deals.

I have to trust my comrades and my gun:

No need to aim this thing. Bring on the enemy.

Let’s see some daylight. Death, release your slaves.

 

By Tony Lewis Jones

Directions by R.S. Thomas

In this desert of language

we find ourselves in,

with the sign-post with the word ‘God’

worn away

and the distance… ?

 

Pity the simpleton

with his mouth open crying:

How far is it to God?

 

And the wiseacre says: Where you were,

friend.

You know the smile

glossy

as the machine that thinks it has outpaced

belief?

I am one of those

who sees from the arms opened

to embrace the future

the shadow of the Cross fall

on the smoothest of surfaces

causing me to stumble.

 

by R. S. Thomas

from Between Here and Now (1981)

How It Was by Arseny Tarkovsky

Nowhere anything for eating,

all of Russia fading, freezing,

selling gramophones and blankets,

hats and chairs and anything

in exchange for wheat and millet

in the year nineteen-nineteen.

Elder brother killed already,

and my dad already blind,

all our furniture long bartered,

home was like an empty tomb,

yet we lived, we still had water,

bread we baked from angry nettles.

Mama was all hunched and aged,

all grey-haired though only forty,

nothing but a beggar’s rags

clinging to her skinny body.

When she slept, I kept on checking:

was she breathing, was she not?

Guests were few and far between

in the year nineteen-nineteen.

Sick at heart, our poor old neighbours,

just like little birds in cages,

tiny birds on whithered perches,

lived like we did, lived in hell.

Then one of these poor old neighbours

bought a gift – rotten potato.

‘Think what riches,’ she began.

‘once belonged even to beggars!

See how Russia’s being chastised

for Rasputin and his doings!’

Evening came. ‘Eat!’ said Mama,

holding out a splendid flatbread.

And the Muse dressed all in rose,

came to me all of a sudden,

hoping she could make me sleepless,

hoping I’d be hers for ever.

So I wrote my primal poem,

sang how Mama on a Sunday

baked a flatbread from potato.

So I had my first encounter

with poetic inspiration

in the year nineteen-nineteen

by Арсений Александрович Тарковский (Arseny Alexandrovich Tarkovsky)

(1977)

translated by Robert Chandler


Fun fact: Arseny was the father of the famous and highly influential film director Andrei Tarkovsky. His poetry was often quoted in his son’s films.