Goldfinch, friend, I'll cock my head - let's check the world out, just me and you: this winter's day pricks like chaff; does it sting your eyes too?
Boat-tailed, feathers yellow-black, sopped in colour beneath your beak, do you get, you goldfinch you, just how you flaunt it?
What's he thinking, little airhead? - white and yellow, black and red! Both eyes check both ways – both! - will check no more – he's bolted!
by Осип Эмильевич Мандельштам (Osip Emilyevich Mandelshtam.) His surname is commonly latinised as Mandelstam) (9-27 December 1936) translated by Andrew Davis
The original Russian Cyrillic version of the poem
Мой щегол, я голову закину — Поглядим на мир вдвоем: Зимний день, колючий, как мякина, Так ли жестк в зрачке твоем?
Хвостик лодкой, перья черно-желты, Ниже клюва в краску влит, Сознаешь ли — до чего щегол ты, До чего ты щегловит?
Что за воздух у него в надлобье — Черн и красен, желт и бел! В обе стороны он в оба смотрит — в обе!— Не посмотрит — улетел!
Extra information: The RSPB website has information, a bird identifying ‘questionnaire’ if you’ve seen any you don’t recognise, sound clips of bird calls, videos and more about goldfinches and many other species of birds. It might be an interesting distraction if you haven’t looked at it before.
The image of a goldfinch or starling is a repeated motif in the poetry of Mandelstam. (if you can’t read Russian then just put the text of the linked page, or it’s page address, into GoogleTranslate which gives a surprisingly eloquent translation).
Once we all used to abide together with God, side by side, He didn't dwell in the sky, we'd see him from time to time alive, on the mausoleum. He was much more clever and evil than that other God, the old one, known to the world as Jehovah, whom he overthrew with a crash and reduced to a heap of ash, then subsequently restored and recruited to serve the cause. For once we all used to abide together with God, side by side.
One day as I wandered around in the Arbat, I met God on parade with five limousines and surrounded by guards wearing mousy grey overcoats, hunched in dread. It was early and late – overhead the grey light of morning was showing as he grazed with his cruel, all-knowing eyes through the hearts of men, unmasking deviants and traitors.
For we lived in an era when God himself was our neighbour.
by Борис Абрамович Слуцкий (Boris Abramovich Slutsky) (1955) translated by Stephen Capus
Here is the poem in the original Cyrillic Russian.
Мы все ходили под богом. У бога под самым боком. Он жил не в небесной дали, Его иногда видали Живого. На мавзолее. Он был умнее и злее Того — иного, другого, По имени Иегова, Которого он низринул, Извел, пережег на уголь, А после из бездны вынул И дал ему стол и угол.
Мы все ходили под богом. У бога под самым боком. Однажды я шел Арбатом. Бог ехал в пяти машинах. От страха почти горбата, В своих пальтишках мышиных Рядом дрожала охрана. Было поздно и рано. Серело. Брезжило утро. Он глянул жестоко, мудро Своим всевидящим оком, Всепроницающим взглядом.
Мы все ходили под богом. С богом почти что рядом.
Additional information: Slutsky was an atheist but he didn’t forget his Jewish cultural roots regarding not only Yiddish but also the Hebrew he had learned as a child which remained important to him even if only as deeply felt absences. This poem can be read as Slutsky reflecting on how the cult of persona arose in the Soviet era. Communist iconography of Lenin replaced Imperial Russia’s religious iconography in the day to day lives of Russian citizens in Moscow’s historical Arbat street and the surrounding area. Then he reflects, in the second part of the poem, how imagery of Stalin eventually replaced Lenin’s image and he was even worse than him.
‘They flash upon that inward eye which is the bliss of solitude
from ‘The Daffodils’ by William Wordsworth
An afternoon yellow and open-mouthed with daffodils. The sun treads the path among cedars and enormous oaks. It might be a country house, guests strolling, the rumps of gardeners between nursery shrubs.
I am reading poetry to the insane. An old woman, interrupting, offers as many buckets of coal as I need. A beautiful chestnut-haired boy listens entirely absorbed. A schizophrenic
on a good day, they tell me later. In a cage of first March sun a woman sits not listening, not feeling. In her neat clothes the woman is absent. A big, mild man is tenderly led
to his chair. He has never spoken. His labourer’s hands on his knees, he rocks gently to the rhythms of the poems. I read to their presences, absences, to the big, dumb labouring man as he rocks.
He is suddenly standing, silently, huge and mild, but I feel afraid. Like slow movement of spring water or the first bird of the year in the breaking darkness, the labourer’s voice recites ‘The Daffodils’.
The nurses are frozen, alert; the patients seem to listen. He is hoarse but word-perfect. Outside the daffodils are still as wax, a thousand, ten thousand, their syllables unspoken, their creams and yellows still.
Forty years ago, in a Valleys school, the class recited poetry by rote. Since the dumbness of misery fell he has remembered there was a music of speech and that once he had something to say.
When he’s done, before the applause, we observe the flowers’ silence. A thrush sings and the daffodils are flame.
By Gillian Clarke from Letter from a Far Country (1982)
Gillian remarks on her site: “All you need to know about this poem is that it is a true story. It happened in the ’70s, and it took me years to find a way to write the poem.“
February. Get ink and weep! Burst into sobs – to write and write of February, while thundering slush burns like black spring.
For half a rouble hire a cab, ride through chimes and the wheel's cry to where the drenching rain is black, louder than tears or ink -
where like thousands of charred pears rooks will come tearing out of trees straight into puddles, an avalanche, dry grief to the ground of eyes.
Beneath it – blackening spots of thaw, and all the wind is holed by shouts, and poems – the randomer the truer - take form, as sobs burst out.
By Бори́с Леони́дович Пастерна́к (Boris Leonidovich Pasternak) (1913) translated by Angela Livingstone
An alternate to Jon Stallworthy and Peter France’s translation of the poem ‘It’s February. Weeping take ink!‘ provided elsewhere on this site. The Original doesn’t have a specific title and is usually referred to by it’s first line, as is the case with many untitled poems, but my source for this translation titled it as ‘February’. Also of note this translation gives the date as 1913 but my research of Russian sources all agree to it being published, or at least written, in 1912. The discrepancy may be due to the date it was initially published in a collection of poetry or journal possibly.
A recital of the Russian version read by Sergei Yursky (a Russian actor who died on 8th February this year sadly) set to music by Chopin:
The original Russian Cyrillic version of the poem:
Февраль. Достать чернил и плакать! Писать о феврале навзрыд, Пока грохочущая слякоть Весною черною горит.
Достать пролетку. За шесть гривен, Чрез благовест, чрез клик колес, Перенестись туда, где ливень Еще шумней чернил и слез.
Где, как обугленные груши, С деревьев тысячи грачей Сорвутся в лужи и обрушат Сухую грусть на дно очей.
Под ней проталины чернеют, И ветер криками изрыт, И чем случайней, тем вернее Слагаются стихи навзрыд.
Over the meadows, beyond the mountains, there once lived a painter called Klee, and he sat on his own on a path with various bright-coloured crayons.
He drew rectangles and he drew hooks, an imp in a light-blue shirt, Africa, stars, a child on a platform, wild beasts where Sky meets Earth.
He never intended his sketches to be like passport photos, with people, horses, cities and lakes standing up straight like robots.
He wanted these lines and these spots to converse with one another as clearly as cicadas in summer, but then one morning a feather
materialized as he sketched. A wing, the crown of ahead - the Angel of Death. It was time for Klee to part from his friends
and his Muse. He did.He died. Can anything be more cruel? Though had Paul Klee been any less wise, his angel might have touched us all
and we too, along with the artist, might have left the world behind while that angel shook up our bones, but – what help would that have been?
Me, I'd much rather walk through a gallery than lie in some sad cemetery. I like to loiter with friends by paintings - yellow-blue wildlings, follies most serious.
by Арсений Александрович Тарковский (Arseny Alexandrovich Tarkovsky) (1957) translated by Robert Chandler
Arseny was the father of the famous and highly influential film director Andrei Tarkovsky. His poetry was often quoted in his son’s films.
Paul Klee (18 December 1879 – 29 June 1940) was a Swiss German artist. His highly individual style was influenced by movements in art that included Expressionism, Cubism, and Surrealism. Klee was a natural draftsman who experimented with and eventually deeply explored color theory, writing about it extensively; his lectures Writings on Form and Design Theory (Schriften zur Form und Gestaltungslehre), published in English as the Paul Klee Notebooks, are held to be as important for modern art as Leonardo da Vinci’s A Treatise on Painting for the Renaissance. He and his colleague, Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky, both taught at the Bauhaus school of art, design and architecture. His works reflect his dry humor and his sometimes childlike perspective, his personal moods and beliefs, and his musicality.
Here is a reading of the poem in Russian set to music featuring one of Klee’s artworks.
Beneath is the original Russian version of the poem.
Жил да был художник Пауль Клее Где-то за горами, над лугами. Он сидел себе один в аллее С разноцветными карандашами,
Рисовал квадраты и крючочки, Африку, ребенка на перроне, Дьяволенка в голубой сорочке, Звезды и зверей на небосклоне.
Не хотел он, чтоб его рисунки Были честным паспортом природы, Где послушно строятся по струнке Люди, кони, города и воды.
Он хотел, чтоб линии и пятна, Как кузнечики в июльском звоне, Говорили слитно и понятно. И однажды утром на картоне
Проступили крылышко и темя: Ангел смерти стал обозначаться. Понял Клее, что настало время С Музой и знакомыми прощаться.
Попрощался и скончался Клее. Ничего не может быть печальней. Если б Клее был немного злее, Ангел смерти был бы натуральней.
И тогда с художником все вместе Мы бы тоже сгинули со света, Порастряс бы ангел наши кости. Но скажите мне: на что нам это?
На погосте хуже, чем в музее, Где порой слоняются живые, И висят рядком картины Клее - Голубые, желтые, блажные…