What did he see in the war, my father? All I have are the photos – small sharp stills from a 1940s film: Trevor Howard, angular, tanned, glancing up handsome from the shade of a cocked serge cap. His hands, fine and strong, held compasses, maps; knew the levers of lorries and the shafts of guns. The same hands that cupped my head like an egg when I tripped and fell, could tell the cool weight of a grenade, the exact bite of a Stanley knife. Had laid out the dead.
I could well believe he’d been a soldier, the hardness of his body showed it. And the way he held the bowl of his pipe, firmly, with a kind of sure commitment: this is what I am, these are my tools, my equipment. There are tasks to be done. It was there in the weave and cut of his clothes: things well made, stout for their purpose – gaberdine and wool, best leather, double-stitched, double-knotted, built for wear and weather.
What could he do in peacetime that would compare with those days deliberate as a bird’s of animal’s days when there’s food to be found, nests to be made? The medals meant nothing: trinkets, he called them. But the men – ordinary, afraid and brave, welded to him in the long slow furnace of shared smokes in canvassed trucks, nights under desert skies – it was they who brought up the light in him, repeating their lines forty years on.
What of the rest could he find to say to a young girl who knew only the safe house of his steady arms, the gentleness of his delphinium eyes; and the cheerfulness worn casually, daily, like collar and tie.
Here is the soldier home from the War, sailing into Cardiff. He’s startled after Palestine by the colours on the ridge, dead bracken, glossy, like wet army cottons, purple coppice he can’t identify, the mossy green of fir trees that weren’t there when he volunteered.
The cold cuts through the suit bought from the tallest of the Lascars, the cuffs, inches short of his wrists, expose his skin, now as dark as theirs, but collier-white before he went. He looks like them, but Christ, he’d hardly kept up. Only pennies rub in his pocket – the captain had skint him, the Scotch bastard.
Posted missing back at Easter, he’d not written, couldn’t risk the censor checking on his letter. He’ll stay on board till it’s dark, jump the wall, thread the back streets north, then – the freedom of the frozen tracks – up and over the top, past the hill farms’ yowling sentries, down to the town where ghosts parade.
Filled with the final weariness Seized with the exhaustion before dying His big hands limply spread A soldier lies. He could lie differently – Could lie beside his wife, in his own bed, Not tearing at the mosses drenched with blood. But could he? Could he? No, he could not. The Ministry sent him his call-up notice, Officers were with him, marched beside him. The court-martial’s typewriters clattered in the rear. But even without them, could he? Hardly. Without a call-up, he’d have gone himself. And not from fear: from conscience, and for honor. Weltering in his blood, the soldier lying Has no complaint, and no thought of complaining.
by Борис Абрамович Слуцкий (Boris Abramovich Slutsky) translated by J. R. Rowland
Последнею усталостью устав
Последнею усталостью устав, Предсмертным умиранием охвачен, Большие руки вяло распластав, Лежит солдат. Он мог лежать иначе, Он мог лежать с женой в своей постели, Он мог не рвать намокший кровью мох, Он мог… Да мог ли? Будто? Неужели? Нет, он не мог. Ему военкомат повестки слал. С ним рядом офицеры шли, шагали. В тылу стучал машинкой трибунал. А если б не стучал, он мог? Едва ли. Он без повесток, он бы сам пошел. И не за страх — за совесть и за почесть. Лежит солдат — в крови лежит, в большой, А жаловаться ни на что не хочет.
Slutsky’s father was a white-collar worker and his mother a teacher. He went to school in Kharkov and from 1937 he studied in Moscow, first in law school and then at the Gorky Literary Institute. During World War II he made friends with many of the poets who were to die in the war and was himself severely wounded. Though he published some poetry in 1941, he did not publish again until after Stalin’s death in 1953. Ilya Ehrenburg wrote an article in 1956 adovicating that a collection of Slutsky’s work be published. He created a sensation by quoting many unknown poems. Discussings Slutsky’s poetry, Mikhail Svetlov said, “Of one thing I am sure – here is a poet who writes better than we all do.”
Slutsky’s first collection, Pamiat’ (Memory) (1957), immediately established his reputation as a poet. His most celebrated poems are “Kelnskaia iama” (The Pit of Cologne) and “Loshadi v okeane” (Horses in the Sea). His poems “Bog” (God) and “Khozain” (The Boss) sharply criticized Stalin even before the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956.
Slutsky’s poetry is deliberately coarse, prosaic, and always distinctive. He evoked many imitators and much ridicule, but he also taught many of the postwar generation of poets. During the scandalous attacks on Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago in 1959, Slutsky unexpectedly came out against Pasternak. It was a crucial error. Many of his admirers turned their backs on him, but, more important, he never forgave himself. When he died, he left so much poetry unpublished that almost every month for several years new poems appeared in magazines and newspapers.
Biographical information about Slutsky, p.689, ‘Twentieth Century Russian Poetry’ (1993), compiled by Yevgeny Yevtushenko (ed. Albert C. Todd and Max Hayward) , published by Fourth Estate Limited by arrangement with Doubleday of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc. (transcribed as found in the original text).
Artillery was burying us. At first it killed us. But, with blatant hypocrisy, Now swears that it loved us.
It broke open its muzzles, But with all the charred nerves In the overworked hands of the medics. We didn’t readily believe it.
We could trust only morphine, In the very last resort – bromide. But those of us who were dead Trusted the earth, and no one else.
Here everyone still crawls, laying mines And receiving counterattacks. But there – already illumining, They draft memoirs…
And there, away from the destruction zone, They scrape and polish parquet. The Bolshoi Theater lofted on a quadrangle Follows the celebration skyrocket.
Soldiers lay about. At night the mint showers Them with regalia from time to time. But machine guns belch them out With explosive vomit.
One of them, accidentally surviving, Came to Moscow in autumn. He shuffled along the boulevard like a drunk, And passed among the living like an echo.
With his artificial leg He got in someone’s way in the trolley. By a string of petty absurdities He approached the Mausoleum.
He recalled the eroded hillocks, Scraps of plywood along the roadways, The soldier’s eyes, opened forever, Shown in calm reproach.
Pilots fell down on them from the sky, Bogged down in clouds of bones. But courage does not grow scarce, As sky doesn’t let one grow obsolete.
And the soldier knew that, for the Motherland, Those who were swallowed by the war, Are the equals of those who lie here buried In the wall itself or beneath the wall.
by Константин Ильич Левин (Konstantin Illyich Levin) (1946) translated by Albert C. Todd
Нас хоронила артиллерия…
Нас хоронила артиллерия. Сначала нас она убила, Но, не гнушаясь лицемерия, Теперь клялась, что нас любила.
Она выламывалась жерлами, Но мы не верили ей дружно Всеми обрубленными нервами В натруженных руках медслужбы.
Мы доверяли только морфию, По самой крайней мере — брому. А те из нас, что были мертвыми, — Земле, и никому другому.
Тут всё ещё ползут, минируют И принимают контрудары. А там — уже иллюминируют, Набрасывают мемуары…
И там, вдали от зоны гибельной, Циклюют и вощат паркеты. Большой театр квадригой вздыбленной Следит салютную ракету.
И там, по мановенью Файеров, Взлетают стаи Лепешинских, И фары плавят плечи фраеров И шубки женские в пушинках.
Бойцы лежат. Им льет регалии Монетный двор порой ночною. Но пулеметы обрыгали их Блевотиною разрывною!
Но тех, кто получил полсажени, Кого отпели суховеи, Не надо путать с персонажами Ремарка и Хемингуэя.
Один из них, случайно выживший, В Москву осеннюю приехал. Он по бульвару брел как выпивший И средь живых прошел как эхо.
Кому-то он мешал в троллейбусе Искусственной ногой своею. Сквозь эти мелкие нелепости Он приближался к Мавзолею.
Он вспомнил холмики размытые, Куски фанеры по дорогам, Глаза солдат, навек открытые, Спокойным светятся упреком.
На них пилоты с неба рушатся, Костями в тучах застревают… Но не оскудевает мужество, Как небо не устаревает.
И знал солдат, равны для Родины Те, что заглотаны войною, И те, что тут лежат, схоронены В самой стене и под стеною.
Included in the recital there is the following passage, as the third stanza, which is omitted from other versions I have sourced. Possibly it is due to the ‘improved’ version Yevtushenko states he requested be made by Levin briefly prior to his passing.
За нас молились леди Англии И маркитантки полковые. Нас интервьюировали б ангелы, Когда бы были таковые.
Translated it reads as:
Ladies of England prayed for us. And regimental vivandieres. We’d be interviewed by angels If they existed.
Additional information: It goes without saying but if you look up Konstanin Levin‘s name, for further information, in English you will probably come across page after page about the character of Konstantin ‘Kostya’ Levin from Lev Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina. For those who can read Russian or are willing to use Google translate there is the poetLevin‘s Wikipedia page but for everyone else I will share this biography from the Yad Vashem page about the poet and his wartime service they compiled as part of their ‘Jews in the Red Army, 1941–1945′ research project:
Konstantin Levin was born in 1924 in Ekaterinoslav (now Dnipro), Ukraine to a medical family. In 1941, following the family tradition, he entered a medical institute (medical university). A short time later, his institute was evacuated to Western Siberia. Having finished the first semester, Levin was drafted into the Red Army and sent to the Rostov School of Artillery (RSA), which specialized in anti-tank artillery. In 1942 the RSA was located not in Rostov-on-Don, which at this time was occupied by the enemy, but in the Urals. In the fall of 1943 Levin graduated from the RSA as a second lieutenant and was appointed the commander of a platoon of 45-mm cannons. These cannons were the most dangerous kind of artillery to operate: being ineffective against enemy tanks, after their first shot they became a good target for the enemy. Levin succeeded in surviving at the front for less than half a year.
In February 1944, while fighting in Ukraine, Levin was wounded for the first time, in the head. On April 29, 1944, participating in the battle of Târgu Frumos, in eastern Romania, Levin was hit by an enemy shell and he lost a leg. His former RSA comrade and a participant in the same operation Moisei Dorman noted: “At the end of April 1944, near Iaşi, a German tank crushed his cannon. A shell fragment cut Kostia’s leg right at the knee. The leg was hanging on by the tendons. Levin tried to cut it off with a penknife, but he was bleeding and did not have enough strength…. Almost fainting, he managed to get to his own side by crawling.” After this battle, Levin was awarded the Order of Patriotic War, 2nd Class. After his release from the Red Army, he was recommended for the Order of Patriotic War, 1st Class – for his fighting in Ukraine.
In 1945 after the war, Konstantin Levin entered the Literary Institute in Moscow. Although the admission committee found his poems depressing, he was admitted because he was a disabled veteran who had earned two military orders. He was a good student. Levin walked with a prosthesis, never using a cane or crutches. In 1946, after he wrote the poem “Artillery Buried Us,” he was almost expelled from the Institute. In the following year, he wrote a poem about himself, in which he let the reader know that he had been not simply a soldier, but a Jewish one. After that, poem Levin was, in fact, expelled from the Institute, and only the intervention of the Russian poet Aleksei Surkov helped him receive his diploma.
For the rest of his life Konstantin Levin earned his living by routine literary work. He died in 1984. The first collection of his poems was published posthumously in 1989.
The poem therefore appears to be autobiographical though Levin uses the third person when recounting the events of it when referring to himself as “one of them, accidentally surviving/…/with his artificial leg”.
Levin’s renowned poem “Artillery was burying us…” passed from hand to hand throughout literary Moscow in the years following World War II, along with Naum Korzhavin’s poems against Stalin. Levin worked as a literary consultant and never tried to publish his poetry. Just prior to his death the compiler of this anthology persuaded him to make a new, even better version of his masterpiece. Boris Slutsky considered him one of the finest poets in the front-line generation.
Biographical information about Levin, p.736, ‘Twentieth Century Russian Poetry’ (1993), compiled by Yevgeny Yevtushenko (ed. Albert C. Todd and Max Hayward) , published by Fourth Estate Limited by arrangement with Doubleday of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc. (transcribed as found in the original text).