There is a game I play
with a mirror, approaching
it when I am not there,
as though to take by surprise.
the self that is my familiar. It
is in vain. Like one eternally
in ambush, fast or slow
as I may raise my head, it raises
its own, catching me in the act,
disarming me by acquaintance,
looking full into my face as often
as I try looking at it askance.
by R. S. Thomas
from Experimenting with an Amen (1986)
A certain engineer made up his mind to build a giant brick wall across all of Petersburg. He thinks over how this is to be accomplished, he doesn’t sleep nights reasoning it out. Gradually a club of thinker-engineers forms and a plan for building the wall is produced. It is decided that the wall will be built during the night and in such a way that the whole thing is put up in one night, so that it would appear as a surprise to all. Workers are rounded up. The job is divided up. The city authorities are lured away, and finally the night comes when the wall is to be built. Only four people know of the building of the wall. The engineers and workers are given exact orders as to where each should go and what each should do there. Thanks to exacting calculations, they’re able to build the wall in one night. The next day Petersburg is all commotion. The inventor of the wall himself is dispondent. What this wall was good for, he himself never knew.
by Даниил Иванович Хармс (Daniil Ivanovich Kharms)
a.k.a. Даниил Иванович Ювачёв (Daniil Ivanovich Yuvachov)
translated by Matvei Yankelevich
Dafydd looked out;
I look out: five centuries
without change? The same sea breaks
on the same shore and is not
broken. The stone in Llŷn
is still there, honey-
coloured for a girl’s hair
to resemble. It is time’s
smile on the cliff
face at the childishness
of my surprise. Here was the marriage
of land and sea, from whose bickering
the spray rises. ‘Are you there?’
I call into the dumb
past, that is close to me
as my shadow. ‘Are you here?’
I whisper to the encountered
self like one coming
on the truth asleep
and fearing to disturb it.
by R. S Thomas
from Mass for Hard Times (1992)
Fun facts: Dafydd is the Welsh form of David and St David is the patron saint of Wales. However the Dafydd referenced here could be one of many. I assume it’s Dafydd ab Owain Gwynedd (c. 1145 – 1203) who was Prince of Gwynedd from 1170 to 1195 but please comment if you know otherwise.
Pen Llŷn refers to the Llŷn Peninsula (Welsh: Penrhyn Llŷn or Pen Llŷn) extends 30 miles (50 km) into the Irish Sea from north west Wales, south west of the Isle of Anglesey. It is part of the modern county and historic region of Gwynedd. Much of the eastern part of the peninsula, around Criccieth, may be regarded as part of Eifionydd rather than Llŷn, although the boundary is somewhat vague. The area of Llŷn is about 400 km2 (150 sq miles), and its population is at least 20,000. The Llyn Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty covers c. 62 square miles.
Historically, the peninsula was travelled by pilgrims en route to Bardsey Island (Welsh: Ynys Enlli), and its relative isolation has helped to conserve the Welsh language and culture, for which the locality is now famous. This perceived remoteness from urban life has lent the area an unspoilt image which has made Llŷn a popular destination for both tourists and holiday home owners. Holiday homes remain a bone of contention among locals, many of whom are priced out of the housing market by incomers.
From the 1970s to the 1990s, a Welsh nationalist group known as Meibion Glyndŵr claimed responsibility for several hundred arson attacks on holiday homes using incendiary devices, some of which took place in Llŷn. R S Thomas was a well known nationalist who endorsed their actions. In 1990 the poet and priest R. S. Thomas called for a campaign to deface English-owned homes.
I spent all day at the meeting,
either lying or voting.
I’m surprised I didn’t go grey
or die of shame.
I wandered about the streets,
where I could be myself again.
I had a smoke with a yardman –
then a drink in a cheap kiosk
along with two amputees,
who had fought at Krasny Bor.
Their complaints were something else –
their conversation was real.
One memory led to abother,
as we stirred the ash in our hearts:
penal battalions sent on reconnaissance
straight across minefields.
One man would return bemedalled;
others would lie down for ever,
their trumped-up sins now redeemed
with daredevil blood.
And I said in a drunken rage,
barely able to string thoughts together,
‘Oh how I hate our righteous ones,
Oh how I love our sinners!’
by Ольга Фёдоровна Берггольц (Olga Fyodorovna Berggolts)
a.k.a. Olga Fyodorovna Bergholz
translated by Robert Chandler
Fun fact: The reference to Kransy Bor refers to the military action during the Seige of Leningrad of the Second World War (or ‘Great Patriotic War’ to Russians): “The Battle of Krasny Bor was part of the Soviet offensive Operation Polyarnaya Zvezda. It called for a pincer attack near Leningrad, to build on the success of Operation Iskra and completely lift the Siege of Leningrad, encircling a substantial part of the German 18th Army. The offensive near Krasny Bor, formed the western arm of the pincer. The Soviet offensive began on Wednesday, 10 February 1943. It produced noticeable gains on the first day, but rapidly turned into a stalemate. The strong defense of the 250th (Spanish) Infantry Division led by General Emilio Esteban Infantes and the 4th SS Police Division gave the German forces time to reinforce their positions. By February 13, the Soviet forces had stopped their offensive in this sector. In Spain, February 10 became known as “Black Wednesday”, due to the heavy losses of the Spanish Division, which lost over 70% of the men engaged in the action. It was the most costly battle for the Spanish volunteers during their time on the Eastern Front.”
To put the poem in context: remember that the men served in a penal battallion during the Stalinist era and therefore were probably falsely accussed of something or other by the authorities of the time. As the two men were in a penal battallion they were made to take part in more risky military manoeuvres in, what we would call, a suicide squad. Hence Olga’s reaction, after attending a Party meeting, where she had to lie about her real opinions or voted the entire time, drunkenly decrying the ‘righteous’, who were corrupt bureaucrats and staunch members of the Party, abusing their authoritive power to crush anything but complete compliance to their will, instead of practising any humanity towards their fellow man and those left behind broken by their leadership.