Questions to the Prophet by R. S. Thomas

How will the lion remain a lion

if it eat straw like the ox?

 

Where will the little child lead them

who has not been there before?

 

With our right hand off, with what

shall we beg forgiveness in the kingdom?

 

How shall the hare know it has not won,

dying before the tortoise arrive?

 

Did Christ crying ‘Neither do I condemn thee’,

condemn the prostitute to be good for nothing?

 

If he who increases riches increases sorrow

why are his tears more like pearls than the swine’s tusks?

 

by R. S. Thomas

from Mass for Hard Times (1992)

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The Line Of The Horizon by Maria Petrovykh

It’s just how it is, it’s the way of the ages;

years pass away, and friends pass away

and you suddenly realize the world is changing

and the fire of your heart is fading away.

 

Once the horizon was sharp as a knife,

a clear frontier between different states,

but now low mist hangs over the earth –

and this gentle cloud is the mercy of fate.

 

Age, I suppose, with its losses and fears,

age that silently saps our strength,

has blurred with the mist of unspilt tears

that clear divide between life and death.

 

So many you loved are no longer with you,

yet you chat to them as you always did.

You forget they’re no longer among the living;

that clear frontier is now shrouded in mist.

 

The same sort of woodland, same sort of field –

you probably won’t even notice the day

you chance to wander across the border,

chatting to someone long passed away.

 

by Мария Сергеевна Петровых (Maria Sergeyevna Petrovykh)

(1957)

translated by Robert Chandler

‘That’s How I Am…’ by Anna Akhmatova

That’s how I am. I could wish for you someone other,

Better.

I trade in happiness no longer…

Charlatans, pushers at the sales! …

We stayed peacefully in Sochi,

Such nights, there, came to me,

And I kept hearing such bells!

Over Asia were spring mists, and

Tulips were carpeting with brilliance

Several hundreds of miles.

O, what can I do with this cleanness,

This simple untaintable scene? O,

What can I do with these souls!

I could never become a spectator.

I’d push myself, sooner or later,

Through every prohibited gate.

Healer of tender hurts, other women’s

Husbands’ sincerest

Friend, disconsolate

Widow of many. No wonder

I’ve a grey crown, and my sun-burn

Frightens the people I pass.

But – like her – I shall have to part with

My arrogance – like Marina the martyr –

I too must drink of emptiness.

You will come under a black mantle,

With a green and terrible candle,

Screening your face from my sight…

Soon the puzzle will be over:

Whose hand is in the white glove, or

Who sent the guest who calls by night.

 

by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova)

(1942, Tashkent)

from her Седьмая книга (The Seventh Book) era of work but not published at the time

translation by D. M. Thomas


 

In 1942 Akhmatova was flown out of Leningrad by the authorites on a whim and spent the next 3 years in Tashkent. She became seriously ill with typhus but regarded this period with a mix of joy, delirium and recognition.

Akhmatova in this poem draws a parallel between her circumstances and the fate of fellow poet Marina Tsvetaeva. Tsvetaeva had been an emigre since 1922, returning to Russia only to find out her husband was shot and her daughter arrested. She hung herself in 1941 and it had an immense effect on her peer Akhmatova as evidenced by her poetry.

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

The Last Toast by Anna Akhmatova

I drink to our demolished house,

To all this wickedness,

To you, our loneliness together,

I raise my glass-

 

And to the dead-cold eyes,

The lie that has betrayed us,

The coarse, brutal world, the fact

That God has not saved us.

 

by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova) (1934)

from Тростник (Reed) / Из шести книг (From the Six Books)

translation by D. M. Thomas

A Carol for the Coalfields by Idris Davies

From the moors of Blaen Rhymni down to the leaning wall

Of Caerphilly Castle you shall hear the same accents

Of sorrow and mirth and pride, and a vague belief

That the future shall be greater than the past.

 

The man in the Rhondda Valley and the man in Abertillery

Have shared the same years, the same days of hope and desolation,

And in Ogmore Vale and in Ammanford both old and young dream

That the future shall be greater than the past.

 

On the ragged hills and by the shallow polluted rivers,

The pious young man and the old rascal of many sins,

The idealists and the wasters, all sometimes believe and say

That the future shall be greater than the past.

 

Mothers praying for sons away in the wars, and mothers waiting

On doorsteps and by firesides for men coming home from the pits,

And the old folks bent and scarred with years of toil, all sometimes hope

That the future shall be greater than the past.

 

Last night the moon was full above the slag heaps and the grave-yards

And the towns amongst the hills, and a man arose from his dream

And cried out: Let this day be sufficient, and worthy of my people

And let the night winds go on wailing of the future and the past.

 

by Idris Davies

In Memory of V. C. Sreznevskaya by Anna Akhmatova

Impossible almost, for you were always here:

In the shade of blessed limes, in hospitals and bockades,

In the prison-cell, and where there were evil birds,

Lush grasses, and terrifying water.

How everything has changed, but you were always here,

And it seems to me that I have lost half my soul,

The half you were – in which I knew the reason why

Something important happened. Now I’ve forgotten…

But your clear voice is calling and it asks me not

To grieve, but wait for death as for a miracle.

What can I do! I’ll try.

 

– by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova)

-written at Komarovo, St Petersburg on 9 September 1964

– from Седьмая книга (‘The Seventh Book’)

-translation by D. M. Thomas