‘Oh Don’t Look Back’ but Olga Berggolts

Oh don’t look back

at that ice

at that dark;

there, waiting greedily

for you is a look

that will demand an answer.

 

I looked back today. And suddenly,

I saw him – alive and with living eyes,

looking at me out of the ice,

my one and only, for all time.

 

I hadn’t known it was like that;

I’d thought I lived and breathed another.

But Oh, my joy, my dream, my death,

I only live beneath your gaze.

 

I have been faithful to him alone;

in that alone I have done right:

to all the living, I’m his wife;

to you and me – your widow.

 

by Ольга Фёдоровна Берггольц (Olga Fyodorovna Berggolts)

a.k.a. Olga Fyodorovna Bergholz

(1947)

translated by Robert Chandler


A Soviet poet, writer, playwright and journalist. She is most famous for her work on the Leningrad radio during the city’s blockade, when she became the symbol of city’s strength and determination.

Olga was married a number of times. In 1925 she joined a youth literature group ‘The Shift’ where she became acquainted with Boris Kornilov. In 1927 Boris and Olga entered the State Institute of Art History, and in 1928 they got married. In 1930 she graduated from the philological faculty and was sent to Kazakhstan to work as a journalist for the Soviet Steppe newspaper. During this period Olga divorced Kornilov and married her fellow student Nikolay Molchanov. Her former husband Boris Kornilov was arrested “for taking part in the anti-Soviet Trotskyist organization” and executed on February 1938. In January 1942 she survived another personal tragedy: her second husband Nikolay Molchanov died of hunger. Olga later dedicated a poem 29 January 1942 and her book The Knot (1965) to Nikolay. On March 1942 Olga, who suffered from a critical form of dystrophy, was forcefully sent by her friends to Moscow using the Road of Life, despite her protests. On 20 April she returned to Leningrad and continued her work at the Radio House. On her return she married Georgy Makogonenko, a literary critic, also a radio host during the siege.

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‘And so I keep going’ by Varlam Shalamov

And so I keep going;

death remains close;

I carry my life

in a blue envelope.

 

The letter’s been ready

ever since autumn:

just one little word –

it couldn’t be shorter.

 

But I still don’t know

where I should send it;

if I had the address,

my life might have ended.

 

by Варлам Тихонович Шаламов (Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov)

(1955?)

translated by Robert Chandler

‘Loving, I am still dumbfounded’ by Afanasy Fet

Loving, I am still dumbfounded

by the world and its beauty,

and nothing will make me renounce

the sweetness you grant me.

However hard my breath come,

while I stand here on earth

the sound of new life will be welcome

wherever it stirs.

Submissive to the sun’s rays,

roots go down into the grave

to seek from death the strength

to meet spring days.

 

by Афанасий Афанасьевич Фет (Afanasy Afanasyevich Fet)

a.k.a. Шеншин (Shenshin)

(1890)

translated by Robert Chandler

‘All that is human slips away’ by Varlam Shalamov

All that is human slips away;

everything was mere husk.

All that is left, indivisible,

is birdsong and dusk.

A sharp scent of warm mint,

the river’s far-off noise;

all equal, and equally light –

all my losses and joys.

Slowly, with its warm towel

the wind dries my face;

moths immolate themselves

in the campfire’s flames.

 

by Варлам Тихонович Шаламов (Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov)

(1955)

translated by Robert Chandler

A Feast in Time of Plague [excerpt] by Alexander Pushkin

There is joy in battle,

poised on a chasm’s edge,

and in black ocean’s rage –

that whirl of darkening wind and wave –

in an Arabian sandstorm,

and in a breath of plague.

 

Within each breath of death

lives joy, lives secret joy

for mortal hearts, a pledge,

perhaps, of immortality,

and blessed is he who, storm-tossed,

can see and seize this joy.

 

by Александр Сергеевич Пушкин (Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin)

a.k.a. Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin

(1830)

translated by Robert Chandler


Fun Facts: This is one of Pushkin’s ‘Little Tragedies’, an adaption of part of a play by a Scottish writer, John Wilson. The song this excerpt is from is of Pushkin’s own original composition though.

‘The air is split into black branches’ by Velimir Khlebnikov

The air is split into black branches,

like old glass.

Pray to Our Lady of Autumn!

The windows of autumn’s chapel,

smashed by a hurtling bullet,

are wrinkling.

A tree was burning,

a bright spill in the golden air.

It bends; it bows down.

Autumn’s flint and steel angrily

struck the sparks of golden days.

A forest at prayer. All at once

golden smells fell to the ground.

Trees stretch out – rakes

gathering armfuls of the sun’s hay.

Autumn’s tree resonantly evokes

a sketch of Russia’s railroads.

The golden autumn wind

has scattered me everywhere.

 

by Велимир Хлебников (Velimir Khlebnikov)

a.k.a. Виктор Владимирович Хлебников

(Viktor Vladimirovich Khlebnikov)

(1921)

translated by Robert Chandler

Prayer before Sleep 28 March 1931 at Seven O’Clock in the Evening by Daniil Kharms

‘Lord, in broad daylight

apathy overcame me.

Allow me to lie down and fall asleep Lord,

and while I sleep fill me Lord

with your strength.

There is much I want to know,

but neither books nor people

will tell me this.

May You alone Lord enlighten me

by means of my verses.

Wake me strong for the battle with meaning,

swift in the arrangement of words

and zealous to praise the name of God

for ever and ever.

 

by Даниил Иванович Хармс (Daniil Ivanovich Kharms)

a.k.a. Даниил Иванович Ювачёв (Daniil Ivanovich Yuvachov)

(date unknown)

translated by Robert Chandler