‘Not To Set Fire To Myself’ by Varlam Shalamov

Not to set fire to myself

or be burned like Avvakum,

I do what I can

to chase away thought.

 

I now orbit the earth

in low-level flight,

life’s burdens and vanities

far out of sight.

 

by Варлам Тихонович Шаламов (Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov)

(1981)

translated by Robert Chandler


 

Fun Fact: Referenced in this poem is Avvakum Petrov (Аввакум Петров) a Russian protopope of the Kazan Cathedral on Red Square who led the opposition to Patriarch Nikon’s reforms of the Russian Orthodox Church. For his opposition to the reforms, Avvakum was repeatedly imprisoned. For the last fourteen years of his life, he was imprisoned in a pit or dugout (a sunken, log-framed hut) at Pustozyorsk above the Arctic Circle. He was finally executed by being burned at the stake. The spot where he was burned has been commemorated by an ornate wooden cross. His autobiography and letters to the tsar, Boyarynya Morozova, and other Old Believers are considered masterpieces of 17th-century Russian literature.

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‘I Thought They Would Make Us the Heroes’ by Varlam Shalamov

I thought they would make us the heroes

of cantantas, posters, books of all kinds;

that hats would be flung in the air

and streets go out of their minds.

 

We had returned.

We were unbowed.

We had stayed true.

 

But the city had thoughts of its own;

it just muttered a word or two.

 

by Варлам Тихонович Шаламов (Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov)

(1961)

translated by Robert Chandler

‘Alive Not By Bread Alone’ by Varlam Shalamov

Alive not by bread alone,

I dip a crust of sky,

in the morning chill,

in the stream flowing by.

 

by Варлам Тихонович Шаламов (Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov)

(1955)

translated by Robert Chandler

‘I Love A Despairing Peace…’ by Georgy Ivanov

I love a despairing peace:

chrysanthemum blossoms in fall,

lights adrift in a river of mist,

a sunset that has turned pale,

nameless graves, all the clichés

of a Symbolist ‘wordless romance’ –

what Annensky loved with such greed

and Gumilyov couldn’t stand.

 

by Георгий Владимирович Иванов (Georgii Vladimirovich Ivanov)

(1954)

translated by Robert Chandler

‘Say A Few More Words To Me’ by Georgy Ivanov

Say a few more words to me,

don’t sleep before the dawn.

I need you to feel close to me.

My journey’s almost done.

 

May the last poem I have made

take on new life through your sweet lisp,

your quiet wrestle with sounds

you cannot get your tongue round.

 

by Георгий Владимирович Иванов (Georgii Vladimirovich Ivanov)

(1958)

translated by Robert Chandler


 

Fun fact: Ivanov’s wife Odoevtseva, who this poem addresses, had a mild speech defect so couldn’t roll her ‘r’s. Ivanov died on 26 August 1958 hence the poems tone and themes.

Irina Vladimirovna Odoyevtseva (Ирина Владимировна Одоевцева) real name Iraida Heinike was a Russian poet, novelist and memoirist, and the wife of the poet Georgy Ivanov in her own right.

‘Led By What Is Shining…’ by Georgy Ivanov

Led by what is shining,

the sleepwalker looks into a blank,

black is the death beneath him

and there’s no knowing

where the moon’s thin ledge

will slide him.

 

The innocent are executed

in a universal night –

look the other way.

Look into cold nothing

and let its moonshine take you

beyond all understanding.

 

by Георгий Владимирович Иванов (Georgii Vladimirovich Ivanov)

(1948)

translated by Robert Chandler

‘Where Can I Look, Where Can I Go…’ by Georgy Ivanov

Where can I look, where can I go,

to find that almost Alpine snow,

all sacrificed so life can grow,

all turned by May to splash and flow,

to breath of dandelion and rose,

to mighty wave or shining billow –

into that foolish question posed

by François Villon long ago?

 

by Георгий Владимирович Иванов (Georgii Vladimirovich Ivanov)

(1951)

translated by Robert Chandler


 

Fun fact: François Villon was born in Paris in 1431, disappeared from view in 1463 and is the best known French poet of the late Middle Ages. A ne’er-do-well who was involved in criminal behavior, had multiple encounters with law enforcement authorities and so wrote about some of these experiences in his poems.