In Memory Of Mikhail Bulgakov by Anna Akhmatova

This, not graveyard roses, is my gift;

And I won’t burn sticks of incense:

You died as unflinchingly as you lived,

With magnificent defiance.

Drank wine, and joked – were still the wittiest,

Choked on the stifling air.

You yourself let in the terrible guest

 

And stayed alone with her.

Now you’re no more. And at your funeral feast

We can expect no comment from the mutes

On your high, stricken life. One voice at least

Must break the silence, like a flute.

O, who would have believed that I who have been tossed

On a slow fire to smoulder, I, the buried days’

Orphan and weeping mother, I who have lost

Everything, and forgotten everyone, half-crazed –

Would be recalling one so full of evergy

And will, and touched by that creative flame,

Who only yesterday, it seems, chatted to me,

Hiding the illness crucifying him.

 

by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova)

(House on the Fontanka, 1940)

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

translation by D. M. Thomas

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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

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

Imitation From The Armenian by Anna Akhmatova

I shall come into your dream

As a black ewe, approach the throne

On withered and infirm

Legs, bleating: ‘Padishah,

Have you dined well? You who hold

The world like a bead, beloved

of Allah, was my little son

To your taste, was he fat enough’

 

by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova) (1930s)

from around the time of Тростник (Reed) / Из шести книг (From the Sixth Book) but left unpublished

translation by D. M. Thomas


This poem refers to the arrest of Akhmatova’s son by the authorities during the Stalinist era.

Воронеж (Voronezh) by Anna Akhmatova

O.M.

And the town is frozen solid, leaden with ice.

Trees, walls, snow, seem to be under glass.

Cautiously I tread on crystals.

The painted sleighs can’t get a grip.

And over the statue of Peter-in-Voronezh

Are crows, and populars, and a pale-green dome

Washed-out and muddy in the sun-motes.

The mighty slopes of the Field of Kulikovo

Tremble still with the slaughter of barbarians.

And all at once the poplars, like lifted chalices,

Enmesh more boisterously overhead

Like thousands of wedding-guests feasting

And drinking toasts to our happiness.

And in the room of the banished poet

Fear and the Muse take turns at watch,

And the night comes

When there will be no sunrise.

 

by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova) (1936)

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

translation by D. M. Thomas


 

O.M. refers to the poet Osip Mandelstam who was living in the city of Voronezh when Akhmatova visited him in February 1936. Peter the Great built a flotilla here and the Field of Kulikovo, where the Tartars were defeated in 1380 isn’t far away.

Some Gaze Into Tender Faces by Anna Akhmatova

Some gaze into tender faces,

Others drink until morning light,

But all night I hold conversations

With my conscience who is always right.

 

I say to her: ‘You know how tired I am,

Bearing your heavy burden, many years.’

But for her, there is no such thing as time,

And for her, space also disappears.

 

And again, a black Shrove Tuesday,

The sinister park, the unhurried ring

Of hooves, and, flying down the heavenly

Slopes, full of happiness and joy, the wind.

 

And above me, double-horned and calm

Is the witness… O I shall go there,

Along the ancient well-worn track,

To the deathly waters, where the swans are.

 

by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova) (1936)

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

translation by D. M. Thomas