January by R. S. Thomas

The fox drags its wounded belly

Over the snow, the crimson seeds

Of blood burst with a mild explosion,

Soft as excrement, bold as roses.

 

Over the snow that feels no pity,

Whose white hands can give no healing,

The fox drags its wounded belly.

 

by R. S. Thomas

from Song At The Year’s Turning (1955)

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Snow Keeps Falling Night And Day by Varlam Shalamov

Snow keeps falling night and day –

some god, now turned more strict,

is sweeping out from his domain

scraps of his old manuscripts.

 

Sheaves of ballads, songs and odes,

all that now seems bland or weak –

he sweeps it down from his high clouds,

caught up now by newer work.

 

by Варлам Тихонович Шаламов (Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov)

(1950 – or at least the incident which inspired the poem occurred then)

translated by Robert Chandler

Dream by Mikhail Lermontov

At blazing noon, in Dagestan’s deep valley,

a bullet in my chest, dead still I lay,

as steam yet rose above my wound, I tallied

each drop of blood, as life now now seeped away.

 

Alone I lay within a sandy hollow,

as jagged ledges teemed there, rising steep,

with sun-scorched peaks above me, burning yellow,

I too was scorched, yet slept a lifeless sleep.

 

I dreamt of lights upon an evening hour,

a lavish feast held in my native land,

and fair young maidens garlanded with flowers:

their talk of me was merry and off-hand.

 

But one of them, not joining their free chatter,

sat timidly apart, bemused, alone,

sunk in a dream, her soul by sadness shattered:

God only knows what made her so forlorn;

 

she dreamed of sand in Dagestan’s deep valley,

a gorge in which a man she knew lay dead,

black steam still rose above the wound’s scorched hollow,

as blood streamed down and cooled like molten lead.

 

by Михаил Юрьевич Лермонтов (Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov)

(1841)

translated by Alexander Levitsky

Missing The Troop Train by Yevgeny Vinokurov

There’s something desperate about trains…

I stood alone on the icy platform,

lost in the Bashkir steppes.

What can be more fantastic, more desolate

than the light of an electric lamp

rocking in a small station at night?

Trains swept past from time to time.

Their roar engulfed me,

I was submerged in coal dust,

and each time, I grabbed hold of my cap –

it looked as though I was greeting someone.

The bare, stunted tree by the side of the platform

reached out after them…

I waited for one train at least

to stop, for God’s sake!

In the distance was the dark forest mass.

I lifted my head –

over me, a vast

host of stars:

regiments,

divisions,

armies of stars,

all bound for somewhere.

An hour earlier, I’d got out of the train

to fetch some boiling water…

I could be court-martialled for this.

I stood there,

the snow melted round my boots,

and the water in the aluminium kettle I was holding

had already iced over.

Above the forest mass I saw

a little star,

fallen a long way behind the others.

I looked at it

and it looked at me.

 

by Евгений Михайлович Винокуров (Yevgeny Mikhailovich Vinokurov)

(1965)

translated by Daniel Weissbort

In The Train Car by Innokenty Annensky

We’ve done enough, we’ve said enough –

let’s sit in silence, without smiling;

low-lying clouds are shedding snow

and heaven’s light is slowly fading.

 

The brittle willows rage and split

in an unspeakable pitched battle.

‘Until tomorrow, then,’ I say.

‘As for today, let’s call it settled.’

 

Even if boundlessly at fault,

I wish – not dreaming, not entreating –

to stare out at the fields of white

through windows swathed in cotton fleecing.

 

While you, show off your beauty, shine…

assure me that I have your pardon –

shine with that stream of eventide

around which everything has hardened.

 

by Иннокентий Фёдорович Анненский (Innokenty Fyodorovich Annensky)

(1906)

translated by Boris Dralyuk

Black Cat by Bulat Okudzhava

There’s a courtyard in our building,

that’s where you’ll find the back door,

and behind it lives a Black Cat –

ensconced here like some lord.

 

There’s a smirk behind his whiskers,

darkness shields him like a wall,

and this Black Cat remains quiet

while all others caterwaul.

 

He keeps smirking in his whiskers,

hasn’t caught a mouse of late,

catches us on our loose lips,

on a bit of tempting bait.

 

He does not request or order –

when his yellow eye burns bright,

every one of us forks over,

thanking him with all our might.

 

He won’t meow and he won’t purr –

he just gorges, drinks and gloats.

And he paws at dirty floorboards

like he’s clawing at our throats.

 

This is why the place we live in

is so dark and dreary still,

we should really hang a light bulb –

but can’t seem to foot the bill.

 

by ბულატ ოკუჯავა

a.k.a. Булат Шалвович Окуджава

a.k.a. Bulat Shalvovich Okudzhava

(1957 – 1959)

translated by Maria Bloshteyn


Here is the song, often believed to be about Stalin, being performed by Bulat Okudzhava:

 

Bulat Shalvovich Okudzhava (Russian: Булат Шалвович Окуджава; Georgian: ბულატ ოკუჯავა) (May 9, 1924 – June 12, 1997) was a Soviet and Russian poet, writer, musician, novelist, and singer-songwriter of Georgian-Armenian ancestry. He was one of the founders of the Soviet genre called “author song” (авторская песня), or “guitar song”, and the author of about 200 songs, set to his own poetry. His songs are a mixture of Russian poetic and folksong traditions and the French chansonnier style represented by such contemporaries of Okudzhava as Georges Brassens. Though his songs were never overtly political (in contrast to those of some of his fellow Soviet bards), the freshness and independence of Okudzhava‘s artistic voice presented a subtle challenge to Soviet cultural authorities, who were thus hesitant for many years to give official recognition to Okudzhava.

I Was Washing At Night Out In The Yard by Osip Mandelstam

I was washing at night out in the yard,

the heavens glowing with rough stars,

a star-beam like salt upon an axe,

the water butt cold and brim full.

 

A padlock makes the gate secure,

and conscience gives sternness to the earth –

hard to find a standard anywhere

purer than the truth of new-made cloth.

 

A star melts in the water butt like salt,

cold water in the butt is blacker still,

death is more pure, disaster saltier

and earth more truthful and more terrible.

 

by Осип Эмильевич Мандельштам (Osip Emilyevich Mandelshtam. His surname is commonly latinised as Mandelstam)

(Tbilisi, 1921)

translated by Peter France


 

A poem written in respone to the news of Nikolay Gumilyov‘s execution.