I Was Washing At Night Out In The Yard by Osip Mandelstam

I was washing at night out in the yard,

the heavens glowing with rough stars,

a star-beam like salt upon an axe,

the water butt cold and brim full.

 

A padlock makes the gate secure,

and conscience gives sternness to the earth –

hard to find a standard anywhere

purer than the truth of new-made cloth.

 

A star melts in the water butt like salt,

cold water in the butt is blacker still,

death is more pure, disaster saltier

and earth more truthful and more terrible.

 

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

(Tbilisi, 1921)

translated by Peter France


 

A poem written in respone to the news of Nikolay Gumilyov‘s execution.

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The Sixth Sense by Nikolay Gumilyov

Good is the wine that is in love with us,

and good is bread, our generous friend;

and good the woman who brings us torment

yet yields her sweetness to us in the end.

 

But what are we to do with sunset fires?

With joys that can’t be eaten, drunk or kissed?

And what are we to do with deathless verse?

We stand and watch – as mysteries slip past.

 

Just as some boy too young to know of love

will leave his play to gaze, his heart on fire,

at maidens swimming in a lake, and gaze

and gaze, tormented by obscure desire;

 

or as within the gloom of ancient jungle

some earthbound beast once slithered from its lair

with wing buds on its back, still tightly closed,

and let out cries of impotent despair;

 

so year on year – how long, Lord, must we wait? –

beneath the surgeon’s knife of art and nature,

our flesh is wasted and our spirit howls

as one more sense moves slowly to creation.

 

by Николай Степанович Гумилёв (Nikolay Stepanovich Gumilyov)

(1920)

translated by Robert Chandler


 

An influential Russian poet, literary critic, traveler, and military officer. He cofounded the Acmeist movement and was Anna Akhmatova’s husband who was arrested and executed by the Cheka, the secret Soviet police force, in 1921.

All Rules Are Incorrect by Boris Slutsky

All rules are incorrect,

all laws remain perverse,

until they’re firmly set

in well wrought lines of verse.

 

An age or era will

be merely a stretch of time

without a meaning until

it’s glorified in rhyme.

 

Until the poet’s ‘Yes!’,

entrusted by his pen

to print, award success

to this or that – till then

 

the jury will be out,

the verdict still in doubt.

 

by Борис Абрамович Слуцкий (Boris Abramovich Slutsky)

(early 1960s)

translated by Stephen Capus

Ordeal [Extract] by Olga Berggolts

[…] And once again

you will have the strength

to see and recognize

how all you have ever loved

will begin to torment you.

And at once, like a werewolf,

a friend will appear

before you and slander you,

and another will push you away.

And the temptations will start:

‘Renounce! Disavow! Forswear!’

And your soul will writhe

in the grip of anguish and fear.

And you will have the strength,

once again, to repeat one thing:

‘I forswear nothing – nothing –

of all I have lived my life by.’

And once again, remembering

these days, you will have the strength

to cry out to all you have loved:

‘Come back! Come back to me!’

 

by Ольга Фёдоровна Берггольц (Olga Fyodorovna Berggolts)

a.k.a. Olga Fyodorovna Bergholz

(January 1939, Cell 33)

translated by Robert Chandler


 

A Soviet poet, writer, playwright and journalist. She is most famous for her work on the Leningrad radio during the city’s blockade, when she became the symbol of city’s strength and determination.

In December 1938 she was imprisoned for several months and was only released after suffering a miscarriage from being beaten during interrogations. The above extract is from one of her prison poems.

Where Can I Hide In This January? by Osip Mandelstam

Where can I hide in this January?

Wide-open city with a mad death-grip…

Can I be drunk from sealed doors? –

I want to bellow from locks and knots…

 

And the socks of barking back roads,

and the hovels on twisted streets –

and deadbeats hurry into corners

and hurriedly dart back out again…

 

And into the pit, into the warty dark

I slide, into waterworks of ice,

and I stumble, I eat dead air,

and fevered crows exploding everywhere –

 

But I cry after them, shouting at

some wickerwork of frozen wood:

A reader! A councillor! A doctor!

A conversation on the spiny stair!

 

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

(1937)

translated by Andrew Davis

One Mirror Must Mirror Another by Georgy Ivanov

One mirror must mirror another;

each mirror mismirrors the other.

 

Not that evil cannot be defeated,

only that we cannot escape defeat;

 

I believe in the ash left behind by the fire;

not in the music that burned my life.

 

by Георгий Владимирович Иванов (Georgii Vladimirovich Ivanov)

a.k.a. Georgy Ivanov

(1950)

translated by Robert Chandler

I Had A Bird In My Hand by Boris Slutsky

I had a bird in my hand

but my bird has flown.

I held a bird in my hand

but am now all alone.

 

My small bird has left me

full of anger and rage;

my blue bird has left me

alone in a cage.

 

by Борис Абрамович Слуцкий (Boris Abramovich Slutsky)

(early 1977)

translated by Robert Chandler