Looking Glass by R.S. Thomas

 There is a game I play
with a mirror, approaching
it when I am not there,
as though to take by surprise.

the self that is my familiar. It
is in vain. Like one eternally
in ambush, fast or slow
as I may raise my head, it raises

its own, catching me in the act,
disarming me by acquaintance,
looking full into my face as often
as I try looking at it askance.


by R. S. Thomas
from Experimenting with an Amen (1986)

Pre-Cambrian by R. S. Thomas

Here I think of the centuries,

six million of them, they say.

Yesterday a fine rain fell;

today the warmth has brought out the crowds.

After Christ, what? The molecules

are without redemption. My shadow

sunning itself on this stone

remembers the lava. Zeus looked down

on a brave world, but there was

no love there; the architecture

of their temples was less permanent

than these waves. Plato, Aristotle,

all those who furrow the calmness

of their foreheads are responsible

for the bomb. I am charmed here

by the serenity of the reflections

in the sea's mirror. It is a window

as well. What I need

now is a faith to enable me to out-stare

the grinning faces of the inmates of its asylum,

the failed experiments God put away.


by R. S. Thomas

from Frequencies (1978)

Nightride by Gillian Clarke

The road unwinding under our wheels

New in the headlamps like a roll of foil.

The rain is a recorder writing tunes

In telegraph wires, kerbs and cats’ eyes,

Reflections and the lights of little towns.

 

He turns his head to look at me.

“Why are you quiet?” Shiny road rhythm,

Rain rhythm, beat of the windscreen wipers,

I push my knee against his in the warmth

And the car thrusts the dark and rain away.

 

The child sleeps, and I reflect, as I breathe

His brown hair, and watch the apple they gave him

Held in his hot hands, that a tree must ache

With the sweet weight of the round rosy fruit,

As I with Dylan’s head, nodding on its stalk.

 

by Gillian Clarke

from The Sundial, Gwasg Gomer, 1978)

Llananno by R. S. Thomas

I often call there.

There are no poems in it

for me. But as a gesture

of independence of the speeding

traffic I am a part

of, I stop the car,

turn down the narrow path

to the river, and enter

the church with its clear reflection

beside it.

There are few services

now; the screen has nothing

to hide. Face to face

with no intermediary

between me and God, and only the water’s

quiet insistence on a time

older than man, I keep my eyes

open and am not dazzled,

so delicately does the light enter

my soul from the serene presence

that waits for me till I come next.

 

by R. S. Thomas

from Laboratories of the Spirit (1975)


 

Llananno has a church and the screen mentioned in this poem has been restored. Here are some links if you want to learn about the poem’s subject:

Information with links to maps and more detailed information about the area: http://www.genuki.org.uk/big/wal/RAD/Llananno

Information about the church and its screen’s restoration: http://www.buildingconservation.com/articles/llananno-rood/llananno-rood.htm

 

The Line Of The Horizon by Maria Petrovykh

It’s just how it is, it’s the way of the ages;

years pass away, and friends pass away

and you suddenly realize the world is changing

and the fire of your heart is fading away.

 

Once the horizon was sharp as a knife,

a clear frontier between different states,

but now low mist hangs over the earth –

and this gentle cloud is the mercy of fate.

 

Age, I suppose, with its losses and fears,

age that silently saps our strength,

has blurred with the mist of unspilt tears

that clear divide between life and death.

 

So many you loved are no longer with you,

yet you chat to them as you always did.

You forget they’re no longer among the living;

that clear frontier is now shrouded in mist.

 

The same sort of woodland, same sort of field –

you probably won’t even notice the day

you chance to wander across the border,

chatting to someone long passed away.

 

by Мария Сергеевна Петровых (Maria Sergeyevna Petrovykh)

(1957)

translated by Robert Chandler

‘That’s How I Am…’ by Anna Akhmatova

That’s how I am. I could wish for you someone other,

Better.

I trade in happiness no longer…

Charlatans, pushers at the sales! …

We stayed peacefully in Sochi,

Such nights, there, came to me,

And I kept hearing such bells!

Over Asia were spring mists, and

Tulips were carpeting with brilliance

Several hundreds of miles.

O, what can I do with this cleanness,

This simple untaintable scene? O,

What can I do with these souls!

I could never become a spectator.

I’d push myself, sooner or later,

Through every prohibited gate.

Healer of tender hurts, other women’s

Husbands’ sincerest

Friend, disconsolate

Widow of many. No wonder

I’ve a grey crown, and my sun-burn

Frightens the people I pass.

But – like her – I shall have to part with

My arrogance – like Marina the martyr –

I too must drink of emptiness.

You will come under a black mantle,

With a green and terrible candle,

Screening your face from my sight…

Soon the puzzle will be over:

Whose hand is in the white glove, or

Who sent the guest who calls by night.

 

by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova)

(1942, Tashkent)

from her Седьмая книга (The Seventh Book) era of work but not published at the time

translation by D. M. Thomas


 

In 1942 Akhmatova was flown out of Leningrad by the authorites on a whim and spent the next 3 years in Tashkent. She became seriously ill with typhus but regarded this period with a mix of joy, delirium and recognition.

Akhmatova in this poem draws a parallel between her circumstances and the fate of fellow poet Marina Tsvetaeva. Tsvetaeva had been an emigre since 1922, returning to Russia only to find out her husband was shot and her daughter arrested. She hung herself in 1941 and it had an immense effect on her peer Akhmatova as evidenced by her poetry.

Борис Пастернак [Boris Pasternak] by Anna Akhmatova

He who compared himself to the eye of a horse,

Peers, looks, sees, recognizes,

And instantly puddles shine, ice

Pines away, like a melting of diamonds.

 

Backyards drowse in lilac haze. Branch-

Line platforms, logs, clouds, leaves…

The engine’s whistle, watermelon’s crunch,

A timid hand in a fragrant kid glove. He’s

 

Ringing, thundering, grinding, up to his breast

In breakers… and suddenly is quiet… This means

He is tiptoeing over pine needles, feaful lest

He should startle space awake from its light sleep.

 

It means he counts the grains in the empty ears,

And it means he has come back

From another funeral, back to Darya’s

Gorge, the tombstone, cursed and black.

 

And burns again, the Moscow tedium,

In the distance death’s sleigh-bell rings…

Who has got lost two steps from home,

Where the snow is waist-deep, an end to everything?

 

Because he compared smoke with Laocoön,

Made songs out of graveyard thistles,

Because he filled the world with a sound no-one

Has heard before, in a new space of mirrored

 

Verses, he has been rewarded with a form

Of eternal childhood, with the stars’ vigilant love,

The whole earth has been passed down to him,

And he has shared it with everyone.

 

by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova)

(19 January 1936)

from Тростник (Reed) / Из шести книг (From the Sixth Book)

translation by D. M. Thomas

There are Four of Us by Anna Akhmatova

O Muse of Weeping…

– M. Tsvetaeva

 

I have turned aside from everything,

From the whole earthly store.

The spirit and guardian of this place

is an old tree-stump in water.

 

We are brief guests of the earth, as it were,

And life is a habit we put on.

On paths of air I seem to overhear

Two friendly voices, talking in turn.

 

Did I say two? … There

By the east wall’s tangle of raspberry,

Is a branch of elder, dark and fresh.

Why! It’s a letter from Marina.

 

by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova)

(1961, in delirium)

from Седьмая книга (The Seventh Book)

translation by D. M. Thomas


In later Soviet editions of her works this poem is entitled ‘Komarovo Sketches‘. She spent a lot of time in her last years at Komarovo, fifty miles from Leningrad (St Petersburg), on the Karelian isthmus and is buried there.

The three poets referred to are Pasternak, Mandelstam and Tsvetaeva alongside Akhmatova herself.

The epigaph is from a poem addressed to Akhmatova in 1916.

A Childhood Memory by Sofia Parnok

for Khodasevich

 

A childhood memory: those pears,

wrinkled. little, tight,

and hidden inside –

tart flesh that puckered the mouth:

exactly so my delight

in the bitter shards of your verse.

 

by София Яковлевна Парнок (Sophia Yakovlena Parnok) (1927)

translated by Catriona Kelly

That Summer by Emyr Humphreys

There was nothing to help us

Trapped in that ornamental summer

By sunlight and ubiquitous foreboding; the tides

The pebbles indifferent to our sore feet

Told us nothing: banner headlines

Congealed those lukewarm fish and chips.

 

From where we stood to the horizon

The future stretched like a brooding canvas

Awaiting a blood stained brush. There were rocks

and groundsheets to sleep on, nowhere to go.

Only the tanks knew where to assemble.

 

Who would win who would lose

Whose corpse would hang on the wire

Would come later. The seagulls knew

More than we did as they wheeled above us

Like fighter bombers, their droppings

Illegible leafets, mobilising their screeches

As they crossed and recrossed concrete

Frontiers reinforced in the Underworld.

 

It didn’t need to happen. It shouldn’t

But it would. Limbs still free

Twitched with the urge to run: the sea

Was a threat not a refuge: the sky

Was closing in. We could only turn and face

The mouth of the tunnel: only wait

For the machine to emerge and howl

On our behalf as it ran us down.

 

by Emyr Humphreys