I Felt In Soul And Body by Varlam Shalamov

I felt in soul and body,

for the first time in years,

the silence after a blizzard,

the even light of the stars.

 

Should the magi wish to see

their kindness to the end,

they’d bring me sheets of paper

A candle. Matches. And a pen.

 

by Варлам Тихонович Шаламов (Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov)

(1954)

translated by Robert Chandler

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Red Nosed Frost [extract] by Nikolay Nekrasov

Not the autumn wind in the forest,

not streams hurtling down to the plains –

what we hear is Frost the Commander,

patrolling his far-flung domains.

 

Has snow been swept by the blizzards

over every pathway and track?

Is there any bare ground still showing,

any last brown fissure or crack?

 

Have the oak trees been handsomely dappled,

are the tops of the pines fluffed just right?

Have the ice floes been shackled together

so that every lake is gripped tight?

 

Frost comes striding over the treetops;

shards of ice crackle under his tread.

Lord Frost moves closer and closer;

beams of sunlight dance in his beard.

 

What pathway is closed to a wizard?

Ever nearer the widow he draws.

Now Frost is looming above her,

rehearsing his wintry laws.

 

There he stands in a pine tree,

beating time with his cane,

boasting of his own glory

and repeating his old refrain:

 

‘No need to be bashful, sweet maiden,

see how fine a Commander I am!

Speak truthfully now: have you ever

glimpsed a more handsome young man?

 

‘Blizzards, downpours and whirlwinds –

I can quieten them all in a trice;

I can stroll out over the ocean

and build myself chambers of ice.

 

‘One breath – and the greatest of rivers

lie silenced beneath my yoke,

transformed to the strongest of bridges,

broad roads for the merchant folk.

 

‘I love dropping down into graves

to scatter diamonds over the dead,

to freeze the blood in their veins

and ice the brains in their heads.

 

‘I love frightening a lonely robber

riding home with a purse he’s plundered:

in the depth of the forest silence

I make branches resound like thunder.

 

‘Old women go rushing back home,

their heads full of spirits and devils.

But there’s more pleasure still to be had

with drunkards returning from revels.

 

‘I don’t need chalk to whiten their faces!

I set their noses ablaze without fire!

I freeze beards to reins in a tangle

not even an axe can sever!

 

‘I’m rich, there’s no counting my treasure;

my fortune’s as great as the world.

Every day I bejewel my kingdom

anew with silver and pearls.

 

‘Dear Maiden, I bid you now enter

my empire. Let me make you my queen!

We shall reign in glory all winter,

then let summer slip by in a dream.

 

‘Come, maiden, and let me warm you

in a palace of pale blue ice!’

So Lord Frost sings out above her

as he swings his sparkling mace.

 

‘Are you warm enough there, dear maiden?’

he calls from high in the pine.

‘Oh yes,’ the young widow answers –

and icy shivers run down her spine.

 

Now Frost has dropped down lower,

his mace swinging ever so near,

and he whispers softly and tenderly:

‘Warm enough?’ ‘Oh yes, my dear!’

 

Warm enough – but what does she feel?

Frost’s breath has already numbed her

and needles of ice from his beard,

though colder and sharper than steel,

are lulling her into slumber.

 

‘Are you warm enough now?’ Frost whispers,

his arms now encircling her waist –

and she hears not Frost but Proklyusha

and all she sees is long past.

 

On her lips and her eyes and her shoulders

Darya feels the wizard’s long kisses –

and she sees not Frost but her husband

and she drinks in his honeyed whispers.

 

He’s talking to her of a wedding,

his words so caressing and sweet

that Darya’s eyes are now closing

and her axe lies still by her feet.

 

And the arc of a smile now parts

the poor lips of the wretched widow.

White flakes now cover her eyelids

and needles of ice her brow…

 

A lump of snow falls on Darya

as a squirrel takes a flying leap,

but Darya does not lift a finger;

she’s frozen, enchanted, asleep.

 

by Николай Алексеевич Некрасов (Nikolay Alexeyevich Nekrasov)

(1864)

translated by Robert Chandler and Boris Dralyuk

Winter Sky by Innokenty Annensky

Down and away flew the melting snow;

cheeks burned red and glistened.

I had not thought the moon was so small

or the clouds so smokily distant.

 

Asking for nothing, I’ll go away,

for my number is up, for ever.

I had not thought the moon was so fair

or so feaful up in heaven.

 

Midnight is near. I’m no one, no one’s,

worn out by the spectre of life,

marvelling at the moonbeam’s smoke

in my treacherous fatherland.

 

by Иннокентий Фёдорович Анненский (Innokenty Fyodorovich Annensky)

translated by Peter France

What Have We Done To It? by Zinaida Gippius

Our grandad’s outlandish dream,

the prison years of our heroes,

our hope and our heartfelt lament,

our prayer we hardly dared utter –

our dis-membered

dis-constituted,

dis-banded

Constituent Assembly.

 

by Зинаида Николаевна Гиппиус (Zinaida Nikolayevna Gippius)

(12 November 1917)

translated by Robert Chandler

[ Excerpt from] Night In A Trench by Velimir Khlebnikov

We need flowers to lay on coffins,

but coffins tell us we are flowers

and last no longer than a flower.

 

by Велимир Хлебников (Velimir Khlebnikov)

a.k.a. Виктор Владимирович Хлебников

(Viktor Vladimirovich Khlebnikov)

(1920)

translated by Robert Chandler

He Who Gave The Wind Its Weight by Semyon Lipkin

He who gave the wind its weight,

and gave measure to the water,

pointed lightning on its path,

and showed rain what rules to follow –

he once told me with quiet joy:

‘No one’s ever going to kill you:

How can dust be broken down?

Who has power to ruin beggars?’

 

by Семён Израилевич Липкин (Semyon Izrailevich Lipkin)

(1981)

translated by Robert Chandler


Lipkin is renowned as a literary translator and often worked from the regional languages which Stalin tried to obliterate. Lipkin hid a typescript of his friend Vasily Grossman‘s magnum opus, Life and Fate, from the KGB and initiated the process that brought it to the West.

Lipkin’s importance as a poet was achieved once his work became available to the general reading public after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the many years prior, he was sustained by the support of his wife, poet Inna Lisnianskaya and close friends such as Anna Akhmatova, Joseph Brodsky and Alexander Solzhenitsyn (who thought him a genius and championed his poetry). Lipkin’s verse includes explorations of history and philosophy and exhibits a keen sense of peoples’ diverse destinies. His poems include references to his Jewish heritage and to the Bible. They also draw on a first-hand awareness of the tragedies of Stalin’s Great Purge and World War II. Lipkin’s long-standing inner opposition to the Soviet regime surfaced in 1979-80, when he contributed in the uncensored almanac “Metropol” and then he and Lisnianskaya left the ranks of the official Writer’s Union of the USSR.

Purple Honey by Varlam Shalamov

From a frost-chilled

line of poetry

my anguish will drop

like a ripe berry.

 

Rosehip juice will dye

fine crystals of snow –

and a stranger will smile

on his lonely way.

 

Blending dirty sweat

with the purity of a tear,

he will carefully collect

the tinted crystals.

 

He sucks tart sweetness,

this purple honey,

and his dried mouth

twists in happiness.

 

by Варлам Тихонович Шаламов (Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov)

(1954)

translated by Robert Chandler