‘Gotta keep living, though I’ve died twice’ Osip Mandelstam

Gotta keep living, though I’ve died twice,

and water’s driving the city crazy:

how beautiful, what high cheekbones, how happy,

how sweet the fat earth to the plough,

how the steppe extends in an April upheaval,

and the sky, the sky – pure Michelangelo…

 

by Осип Эмильевич Мандельштам (Osip Emilyevich Mandelshtam. His surname is commonly latinised as Mandelstam)

(1935)

translated by Andrew Davis

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Neighbours by Mike Jenkins

Yesterday, the children made the street

into a stadium; their cat

a docile audience. As they cheered

a score it seemed there was a camera

in the sky to record their elation.

Men polished cars, like soldiers

getting ready for an inspection.

Women, of course, were banished

from daylight: the smells of roasts merging

like the car-wash channels joining.

Today, two horses trespass over boundaries

of content; barebacked, as if they’d just

thrown off the saddle of some film.

They hoof up lawns – brown patches like tea-stains.

A woman in an apron tries to sweep away

the stallion, his penis wagging back at her broom.

I swop smiles with an Indian woman, door to door.

These neighbours bring us out from our burrows –

the stampede of light watering our eyes.

 

By Mike Jenkins

from Empire of Smoke

Red Balloon by Dannie Abse

It sailed across the startled town,

over chapels, over chimney-pots,

wind-blown above a block of flats

before it floated down.

 

Oddly, it landed where I stood,

and finding’s keeping, as you know.

I breathed on it, I polished it,

till it shone like living blood.

 

It was my shame, it was my joy,

it brought me notoriety.

From all of Wales the rude boy came,

it ceased to be a toy.

 

I heard the girls of Cardiff sigh

When my balloon, my red balloon,

soared higher like a happiness

towards the dark blue sky.

 

Nine months since, have I boasted of

my unique, my only precious;

but to no one dare I show it now

however long they swear their love.

 

‘It’s a Jew’s balloon,’ my best friend cried,

‘stained with our dear Lord’s blood.’

‘That I’m a Jew is true,’ I said,

said I, ‘that cannot be denied.’

 

‘What relevance?’ I asked, surprised,

‘what’s religion to do with this?’

‘Your red balloon’s a Jew’s balloon,

let’s get it circumcised.’

 

Then some boys laughed and some boys cursed,

some unsheathed their dirty knives:

some lunged, some clawed at my balloon,

but still it would not burst.

 

They bled my nose, they cut my eye,

half conscious in the street I heard,

‘Give up, give up your red balloon.’

I don’t know exactly why.

 

Father, bolt the door, turn the key,

lest those sad, brash boys return

to insult my faith and steal

my red balloon from me.

 

by Dannie Abse

from Poems, Golders Green (1962)


Fun facts: Dannie Abse was born in Cardiff, Wales, to a Jewish family. He was the younger brother of politician and reformer Leo Abse and the eminent psychoanalyst, Wilfred Abse. Unusually for a middle-class Jewish boy, Dannie Abse attended St Illtyd’s College, a working-class Catholic school in Splott.

Curlew by Gillian Clarke

She dips her bill in the rim of the sea.

Her beak is the ellipse

of a world much smaller

than that far section of the sea’s

circumference. A curve enough to calculate

the field’s circle and its heart

of eggs in the cold grass.

 

All day while I scythed my territory

out of nettles, laid claim to my cantref,

she has cut her share of sky. Her song bubbles

long as a plane trail from her savage mouth.

I clean the blade with newspaper. Dusk blurs

circle within circle till there’s nothing left

but the egg pulsing in the dark against her ribs.

For each of us the possessed space contracts

to the nest’s heat, the blood’s small cicuit.

 

by Gillian Clarke

from The Sundial (Gwasg Gomer, 1978)


Fun fact: A cantref was a medieval Welsh land division, particularly important in the administration of Welsh law.

Among Shoals of Stars by Mike Jenkins

Each night the sea

tires of its slopping and slapping

and ascends the limestone staircase

of cactus-sharp stone.

 

It lies down

where sky has been,

waving away the blue

and only hooded clouds

show its occasional restlessness.

 

Bright fish with mouths

that globe, look down on me

and the breezy whish-whish

of sea-weed is the needled

branches of every pine.

 

I see the lights

of planes as they are out

trawling for dreams.

The moon spills milk

which I drink in,

before I too lie down

to sleep among shoals of stars.

 

by Mike Jenkins

from Invisible Times

Ravens by R. S. Thomas

It was the time of the election.

The ravens loitered above the hill

In slow circles; they had all air

To themselves. No eyes heard

Them exulting, recalling their long

History, presidents of the battles

of flesh, the sly connoisseurs

Of carrion; desultory flags

Of darkness, saddening the sky

At Catraeth and further back,

When two, who should have been friends,

Contended in the innocent light

For the woman in her downpour of hair.

 

by R. S. Thomas

from Pietà (1966)


Fun Fact: The poem refers to the Battle of Catraeth and the medieval Welsh poem Y Gododdin.

Последняя любовь (Last Love) by Fyodor Tyutchev

Towards our end, as life runs out,

love is more troubled and more tender.

Fade not, fade not, departing light

of our last love, our farewell splendour.

 

Shadow overshadows half the sky;

far to the west the last rays wander.

Shine on, shine on, last light of day;

allow us still to watch and wonder.

 

What if our blood runs thinner, cooler?

This does not make the heart less tender.

Last love, last love, what can I call you?

Joy and despair, mortal surrender.

 

by Фёдор Иванович Тютчев (Fyodor Ivanovich Tyutchev)

(1851-4)

translated by Robert Chandler


A reading of the poem in Russian:

Fun facts: Counted amongst the admirers of Tyutchev’s works were Dostoevsky and Tolstoy along with Nekrasov and Fet. Then later Osip Mandelstam who, in a passage approved of by Shalamov, believed that a Russian poet should not have copy of Tyutchev in his personal library – he should know all of Tyutchev off by heart.