In Memory of Sergey Yesenin by Anna Akhmatova

There are such easy ways

to leave this life,

to burn to an end

without pain or thought,

but a Russian poet

has no such luck.

A bullet is more likely

to show his winged soul

the way to Heaven;

or else the shaggy paw

of voiceless terror will squeeze

the life out of his heart

as if it were a sponge.

 

by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova)

(1925)

translation by Robert Chandler


Not so fun facts about the poem’s subject: On 28 of December in 1925 Yesenin was found dead in the room in the Hotel Angleterre in St Petersburg. His last poem Goodbye my friend, goodbye (До свиданья, друг мой, до свиданья) according to Wolf Ehrlich was written by him the day before he died. Yesenin complained that there was no ink in the room, and he was forced to write with his blood. According to the consensus among academic researchers of Yesenin’s life, the poet was in a state of depression a week after he escaped from a mental clinic and committed suicide by hanging. A theory exists that Yesenin’s death was actually a murder by OGPU agents who staged it to look like suicide.

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‘I Spent All Day At The Meeting’ by Olga Berggolts

I spent all day at the meeting,

either lying or voting.

I’m surprised I didn’t go grey

or die of shame.

I wandered about the streets,

where I could be myself again.

I had a smoke with a yardman –

then a drink in a cheap kiosk

along with two amputees,

who had fought at Krasny Bor.

Their complaints were something else –

their conversation was real.

One memory led to abother,

as we stirred the ash in our hearts:

penal battalions sent on reconnaissance

straight across minefields.

One man would return bemedalled;

others would lie down for ever,

their trumped-up sins now redeemed

with daredevil blood.

And I said in a drunken rage,

barely able to string thoughts together,

‘Oh how I hate our righteous ones,

Oh how I love our sinners!’

 

by Ольга Фёдоровна Берггольц (Olga Fyodorovna Berggolts)

a.k.a. Olga Fyodorovna Bergholz

(1948-9)

translated by Robert Chandler


Fun fact: The reference to Kransy Bor refers to the military action during the Seige of Leningrad of the Second World War (or ‘Great Patriotic War’ to Russians): “The Battle of Krasny Bor was part of the Soviet offensive Operation Polyarnaya Zvezda. It called for a pincer attack near Leningrad, to build on the success of Operation Iskra and completely lift the Siege of Leningrad, encircling a substantial part of the German 18th Army. The offensive near Krasny Bor, formed the western arm of the pincer. The Soviet offensive began on Wednesday, 10 February 1943. It produced noticeable gains on the first day, but rapidly turned into a stalemate. The strong defense of the 250th (Spanish) Infantry Division led by General Emilio Esteban Infantes and the 4th SS Police Division gave the German forces time to reinforce their positions. By February 13, the Soviet forces had stopped their offensive in this sector. In Spain, February 10 became known as “Black Wednesday”, due to the heavy losses of the Spanish Division, which lost over 70% of the men engaged in the action. It was the most costly battle for the Spanish volunteers during their time on the Eastern Front.”

To put the poem in context: remember that the men served in a penal battallion during the Stalinist era and therefore were probably falsely accussed of something or other by the authorities of the time. As the two men were in a penal battallion they were made to take part in more risky military manoeuvres in, what we would call, a suicide squad. Hence Olga’s reaction, after attending a Party meeting, where she had to lie about her real opinions or voted the entire time, drunkenly decrying the ‘righteous’, who were corrupt bureaucrats and staunch members of the Party, abusing their authoritive power to crush anything but complete compliance to their will, instead of practising any humanity towards their fellow man and those left behind broken by their leadership.

‘Еще раз, еще раз’ (‘Once More, Once More’) by Velimir Khlebnikov

Once more, once more,

I am

your star.

Woe to the sailor who takes

a wrong bearing

between his boat and a star.

He will smash against rock

or sandbar.

Woe to you all, who take

a wrong bearing

between your heart and me.

You will smash against rock

and be rock-mocked

as you

once

mocked me.

 

by Велимир Хлебников (Velimir Khlebnikov)

a.k.a. Виктор Владимирович Хлебников

(Viktor Vladimirovich Khlebnikov)

(May 1922)

translated by Robert Chandler


Russian reading of the poem:

Original Russian text:

Еше раз, еще раз,
Я для вас
Звезда.
Горе моряку, взявшему
Неверный угол своей ладьи
И звезды:
Он разобьется о камни,
О подводные мели.
Горе и Вам, взявшим
Неверный угол сердца ко мне:
Вы разобьетесь о камни,
И камни будут надсмехаться
Над Вами,
Как вы надсмехались
Надо мной.

‘People, Years and Nations’ by Velimir Khlebnikov

People, years and nations

run away forever

like a flowing river.

In nature’s supple mirror

We’re the fish,

dark’s ghosts are gods,

and the constellations

knot night’s nets.

 

by Велимир Хлебников (Velimir Khlebnikov)

a.k.a. Виктор Владимирович Хлебников

(Viktor Vladimirovich Khlebnikov)

(1915)

translated by Robert Chandler


Fun fact: This was written shortly before the centenary of Derzhavin’s death, continuing the theme’s of his last poem.

‘Mist Climbs From The Lake’ by Sergey Yesenin

Mist climbs from the lake.

Fields bare after harvest.

Beyond blue hills

the sun rolls to its rest.

 

Splintered, deep in ruts,

the weary road thinks

it cannot be long now

till grey-haired winter.

 

In the misty, resonant grove

I watched yesterday

as a bay moon, like a foal,

harnessed herself to our sleigh.

 

by Сергей Александрович Есенин (Sergei Alexandrovich Yesenin) a.k.a. Sergey Yesenin / Esenin

(1917)

translated by Robert Chandler

Путем зерна (The Grain’s Path) by Vladislav Khodasevich

The sower walks down the even furrows;

his fathers all furrowed the path he follows.

 

The young seed glitters gold in his hand,

but it must fall into the black ground.

 

There, amid the tunnels of the blind worm,

it will die on its due day – and grow again.

 

So now my soul treads the path of the grain –

down into darkness – and spring’s return.

 

And you, my people, and you, my native land,

you will die and live, when the dark months end,

 

for we have been granted only this one truth:

whatever lives must follow the grain’s path.

 

by Владислав Фелицианович Ходасевич (Vladislav Felitsianovich Khodasevich)

(1917)

translated by Robert Chandler

‘I, A Butterfly That Has Flown’ by Velimir Khlebnikov

I, a butterfly that has flown

into the room of human life,

must leave the handwriting of my dust

like a prisoner’s signature

over the stern windows,

across fate’s strict panes.

The wallpaper of human life

is grey and sad.

And there is the windows’

transparent ‘No’.

 

I have worn away my deep-blue morning glow,

my patterns of dots,

my wing’s light-blue storm, first freshness.

The powder’s gone, the wings have faded

and turned transparent and hard.

Jaded, I beat

against the window of mankind.

From the other side knock eternal numbers,

summoning me to the motherland,

asking one single number

to return to all numbers.

 

by Велимир Хлебников (Velimir Khlebnikov)

a.k.a. Виктор Владимирович Хлебников (Viktor Vladimirovich Khlebnikov)

(1921)

translated by Robert Chandler


 

Fun fact: Khlebnikov possibly reflecting on Zhuangzi’s famous quote:

  • Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. Between a man and a butterfly there is necessarily a distinction. The transition is called the transformation of material things.
    • As translated by Lin Yutang