Баллада о немецком цензоре (The Ballad of a German Censor) by David Samoylov

In Germany once lived a censor

of lowly rank and title.

He blotted, struck and cancelled

and knew no other no other calling.

 

He sniffed out harmful diction

and smeared it with Indian ink.

He guarded minds from infection

and his bosses valued his work.

 

On a winter day in forty-three

he was dispatched ‘nach Osten’.

And he stared from the train car’s window

at fields, graveyards, snowstorms.

 

It was cold without a fur coat.

He saw hamlets without homes or people.

Only charred chimneys were left,

creeping by, like lizards or camels.

 

And it seemed to him that Russia

was all steppe, Mongoloid, bare.

And he thought he was feeling ‘nostalgia’,

but it was really just the chill and fear.

 

He arrived at his field post office:

such-and-such region and number.

Table, chair, iron cot and mattress,

three walls – in the fourth, a window.

 

Russia’s short on Gemütlichkeit!

He had to climb over snowdrifts.

And the work? No shortage of that:

cutting, deleting, smearing.

 

Before him lay piles of letters,

lines and lines – some straight, some wavy.

Generals wrote to their comrades,

soldiers wrote to their families.

 

There were letters, messages, queries

from the living, from those who’d been killed.

There were words he judged ‘non-Aryan’,

but it was really just fear and chill.

 

He would read nearly all day round,

forgetting to eat or shave.

And inside his tired mind

something strange began to take place.

 

Words he’d blotted and excised

would come and torment him at night,

and, like some eerie circus,

would parade there before his eyes…

 

Lines, killed by black ink,

turned tyrannical, like a tirade:

‘In the East, the East, the East,

we will not, will not be spared…’

 

The text was composed of black mosaics;

each word clung fast to the next.

Not the greatest master of prose

could have come up with such a text.

 

Long thoughts, like wagon trains,

shook the joints and ridges

of his tired and weakened brain;

battered its fragile bridges.

 

He turned unfriendly to all his friends

and grew brusque, unsociable, sad.

He was brilliant for a few days

and then broke down and went bad.

 

He awoke, from the fear and chill…

with a wild, choking feeling.

The dark was impenetrable –

the window blacked out with ink.

 

He realised that bravado leads nowhere,

that existence is fragile,

and the black truth invaded his soul

and wiped away the white lie.

 

The poor censor was born a pedant.

He reached for a small notebook

and truthfully – that is, with talent –

set everything down, in order.

 

The next morning he took up, with seal,

his… No – a different task:

he underlined all that was real

and crossed out everything else.

 

Poor censor, he’d lost his mind!

Little man, like a grain of millet!

He informed on himself in a day

and was taken away that minute…

 

There once lived a censor in Germany.

His rank and title were low.

He died and was promptly buried,

and his grave fell under the plough.

 

by Давид Самойлов (David Samoylov)

pseudonym of Давид Самуилович Кауфман (David Samuilovich Kaufman)

(1961)

translated by Boris Dralyuk


Additional information: David Samoylov (Давид Самойлов), pseudonym of David Samuilovich Kaufman ( Давид Самуилович Кауфман; 1 June 1920 in Moscow — 23 February 1990 in Tallinn) was a notable poet of the War generation of Russian poets, considered one of the most important Russian poets of the post-World War II era as well.

‘It’s time my friends, it’s time. We long for peace’ by Alexander Pushkin

It’s time my friends, it’s time. We long for peace

of heart. But days chase days and every hour

gone by means one less hour to come. We live

our lives, dear friend, in hope of life, then die.

There is no happiness on earth, but peace

exists, and freedom too. Tired slave, I dream

of flight, of taking refuge in some far-

off home of quiet joys and honest labour.

 

by Александр Сергеевич Пушкин (Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin)

a.k.a. Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin

(1834)

translated by Robert Chandler

Roncesvalles by Varlam Shalamov

I was captivated straight away,

tired of the lies all around me,

by that proud, tragic tale

of a warrior’s death in the mountains.

 

And it may have been Roland’s horn

that called me, like Charlemagne,

to a silent pass where the boldest

of many bold fighters lay slain.

 

I saw a sword lying shattered

after long combat with stone –

a witness to forgotten battles

recorded by stone alone.

 

And those bitter splinters of steel

have dazzled me many a time.

That tale of helpless defeat

can’t help but overwhelm.

 

I have held that horn to my lips

and tried more than once to blow,

but I cannot call up the power

of that ballad from long ago.

 

There may be some skill I’m lacking –

or else I’m not bold enough

to blow in my shy anguish

on Roland’s rust-eaten horn.

 

by Варлам Тихонович Шаламов (Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov)

(1950?)

translated by Robert Chandler


Fun facts: Shalamov references one of his favourite poems by Marina Tsvetaeva by mentioning Roland’s Horn calling to him.

Roncesvalles is famous in history and legend for the defeat of Charlemagne and the death of Roland in 778, during the battle of Roncevaux Pass, when Charlemagne‘s rear guard was destroyed by Basque tribes. Among those killed in the battle was a relatively obscure Frankish commander, Roland, whose death elevated him and the paladins, the foremost warriors of Charlemagne’s court, into legend, becoming the quintessential role model for knights and also greatly influencing the code of chivalry in the Middle Ages. There are numerous written works about the battle, some of which change and exaggerate events. The battle is recounted in the 11th century The Song of Roland, the oldest surviving major work of French literature, and in Orlando Furioso, one of the most celebrated works of Italian literature.

Роландов рог (Roland’s Horn) by Marina Tsvetaeva

Like a jester complaining of the cruel weight

of his hump – let me tell about my orphaned state.

 

Behind the devil there’s his horde, behind the thief there’s his band,

behind everyone there’s someone to understand

 

and support him – the assurance of a living wall

of thousands just like him should he stumble and fall;

 

the soldier has his comrades, the emperor has his throne,

but the jester has nothing but his hump to call his own.

 

And so: tired of holding to the knowledge that I’m quite

alone and that my destiny is always to fight

 

beneath the jeers of the fool and the philistine’s derision,

abandoned – by the world – with the world – in collision,

 

I blow with all my strength on my horn and send

its cry into the distance in search of a friend.

 

And this fire in my breast assures me I’m not all

alone, but that some Charlemagne will answer my call!

 

by Марина Ивановна Цветаева (Marina Ivanovna Tsvetaeva)

(March 1921)

translated by Stephen Capus


Fun facts: This poem was a favourite of Varlam Shalamov, according to Irina Sirotinskaya (she was a close friend of his and the holder of his works’ publication rights). It’s very likely he may have referenced this work in his poem Roncesvalles.

Tsvetaeva is referencing the romanticised tale of the historical figure Roland‘s death as retold in the eleventh-century poem The Song of Roland, where he is equipped with the olifant (a signalling horn) and an unbreakable sword, enchanted by various Christian relics, named Durendal. The Song contains a highly romanticized account of the Battle of Roncevaux Pass and Roland’s death, setting the tone for later fantastical depiction of Charlemagne’s court.

And, yes, he is ‘that’ Roland – the one who Stephen King references in his Dark Tower series though it was chiefly inspired by him via the poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” by Robert Browning.

 

Original Russian cyrillic version:

 

Роландов рог

Как нежный шут о злом своем уродстве,
Я повествую о своем сиротстве…

За князем — род, за серафимом — сонм,
За каждым — тысячи таких, как он,

Чтоб, пошатнувшись,— на живую стену
Упал и знал, что — тысячи на смену!

Солдат — полком, бес — легионом горд.
За вором — сброд, а за шутом — все горб.

Так, наконец, усталая держаться
Сознаньем: перст и назначением: драться,

Под свист глупца и мещанина смех —
Одна из всех — за всех — противу всех! —

Стою и шлю, закаменев от взлету,
Сей громкий зов в небесные пустоты.

И сей пожар в груди тому залог,
Что некий Карл тебя услышит, рог!

 

A recital of the original Russian language version

The Ballad of a Bounder by Idris Davies

He addressed great congregations

And rolled his tongue with grease,

And his belly always flourished,

In times of war or peace.

 

He would talk of distant comrades

And brothers o’er the sea,

And snarl above his liquor

about neighbours two or three.

 

He knew a lot about public money –

More than he liked to say –

And sometimes sat with the paupers

To increase his Extra pay.

 

He could quote from Martin Tupper

and Wilhelmina Stitch,

And creep from chapel to bargain

With the likeliest local bitch.

 

He could swindle and squeal and snivel

And cheat and chant and pray,

and retreat like a famous general

When Truth would bar his way.

 

But God grew sick and tired

Of such a godly soul,

And sent down Death to gather

His body to a hole.

 

But before he died, the Bounder

Said: ‘My children, be at peace;

I know I am going to heaven,

So rub my tongue with grease.’

 

by Idris Davies


Fun facts: Martin Tupper was an English writer, and poet, and the author of Proverbial Philosophy. Wilhelmina Stitch was one of the pen names of Ruth Collie, an English born poet who started her writing career in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Bronze Poet by Innokenty Annensky

Clouds that whiten in a dome of blue

and twisted trees sharply delineated,

the dust aglow, each shadow elongated

and phantoms that pass through the heart anew.

Why was the tale so brief? I cannot say.

Was there a second half I didn’t know?

In pale skies the clouds dissolve away

and night roams through the blackened tree below.

That man, the bench he sits on in the dusk

are growing heavier and more grotesque…

Don’t move! For as carnations start to shine

and leafy bushes melt and intertwine,

the poet shakes away his uniform

of tired bronze and prings on the lawn.

 

by Иннокентий Фёдорович Анненский (Innokenty Fyodorovich Annensky)

(date unknown)

translated by Peter Oram


Fun fact: Annensky is thinking of a statue of Pushkin in the Lycee Garden in Tsarkoye Selo.

‘To read only children’s tales…’ by Osip Mandelstam

To read only children’s tales

and look through a child’s eye;

to rise from grief and wave

big things goodbye.

 

Life has tired me to death;

life has no more to offer.

But I love my poor earth

since I know no other.

 

I swung in a faraway garden

on a plain plank swing;

I remember tall dark firs

in a feverish blur.

 

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

(1908)

translated by Robert Chandler

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T. S. Eliot

S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma percioche giammai di questo fondo
Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.

Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherized upon a table;

Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,

The muttering retreats

Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels

And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:

Streets that follow like a tedious argument

Of insidious intent

To lead you to an overwhelming question …

Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”

Let us go and make our visit.

 

In the room the women come and go

Talking of Michelangelo.

 

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,

The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,

Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,

Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,

Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,

Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,

And seeing that it was a soft October night,

Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

 

And indeed there will be time

For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,

Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;

There will be time, there will be time

To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;

There will be time to murder and create,

And time for all the works and days of hands

That lift and drop a question on your plate;

Time for you and time for me,

And time yet for a hundred indecisions,

And for a hundred visions and revisions,

Before the taking of a toast and tea.

 

In the room the women come and go

Talking of Michelangelo.

 

And indeed there will be time

To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”

Time to turn back and descend the stair,

With a bald spot in the middle of my hair —

(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)

My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,

My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin —

(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)

Do I dare

Disturb the universe?

In a minute there is time

For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

 

For I have known them all already, known them all:

Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;

I know the voices dying with a dying fall

Beneath the music from a farther room.

               So how should I presume?

 

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—

The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,

And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,

When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,

Then how should I begin

To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?

               And how should I presume?

 

And I have known the arms already, known them all—

Arms that are braceleted and white and bare

(But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)

Is it perfume from a dress

That makes me so digress?

Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.

               And should I then presume?

               And how should I begin?

 

Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets

And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes

Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? …

 

I should have been a pair of ragged claws

Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

 

And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!

Smoothed by long fingers,

Asleep … tired … or it malingers,

Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.

Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,

Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?

But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,

Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,

I am no prophet — and here’s no great matter;

I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,

And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,

And in short, I was afraid.

And would it have been worth it, after all,

After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,

Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,

Would it have been worth while,

To have bitten off the matter with a smile,

To have squeezed the universe into a ball

To roll it towards some overwhelming question,

To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,

Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—

If one, settling a pillow by her head

               Should say: “That is not what I meant at all;

               That is not it, at all.”

 

And would it have been worth it, after all,

Would it have been worth while,

After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,

After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—

And this, and so much more?—

It is impossible to say just what I mean!

But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:

Would it have been worth while

If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,

And turning toward the window, should say:

               “That is not it at all,

               That is not what I meant, at all.”

 

. . . . .

 

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;

Am an attendant lord, one that will do

To swell a progress, start a scene or two,

Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,

Deferential, glad to be of use,

Politic, cautious, and meticulous;

Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;

At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—

Almost, at times, the Fool.

 

I grow old … I grow old …

I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

 

Shall I part my hair behind?   Do I dare to eat a peach?

I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

 

I do not think that they will sing to me.

 

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves

Combing the white hair of the waves blown back

When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea

By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown

Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

 

by T. S. Eliot


Fun Facts:

Like many of Eliot’s poems, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” makes numerous allusions to other works, which are often symbolic themselves.

  • In “Time for all the works and days of hands” (29) the phrase ‘works and days’ is the title of a long poem – a description of agricultural life and a call to toil – by the early Greek poet Hesiod.
  • “I know the voices dying with a dying fall” (52) echoes Orsino’s first lines in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.
  • The prophet of “Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter / I am no prophet — and here’s no great matter” (81–2) is John the Baptist, whose head was delivered to Salome by Herod as a reward for her dancing (Matthew 14:1–11, and Oscar Wilde’s play Salome).
  • “To have squeezed the universe into a ball” (92) and “indeed there will be time” (23) echo the closing lines of Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’. Other phrases such as, “there will be time” and “there is time” are reminiscent of the opening line of that poem: “Had we but world enough and time”. Marvell’s words in turn echo the General Prologue of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, “whil I have tyme and space”.
  • “‘I am Lazarus, come from the dead'” (94) may be either the beggar Lazarus (of Luke 16) returning for the rich man who was not permitted to return from the dead to warn the brothers of a rich man about Hell, or the Lazarus (of John 11) whom Christ raised from the dead, or both.
  • “Full of high sentence” (117) echoes Chaucer’s description of the Clerk of Oxford in the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales.
  • “There will be time to murder and create” is a biblical allusion to Ecclesiastes 3.
  • In the final section of the poem, Prufrock rejects the idea that he is Prince Hamlet, suggesting that he is merely “an attendant lord” (112) whose purpose is to “advise the prince” (114), a likely allusion to Polonius — Polonius being also “almost, at times, the Fool.”
  • “Among some talk of you and me” may be a reference to Quatrain 32 of Edward FitzGerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (“There was a Door to which I found no Key / There was a Veil past which I could not see / Some little Talk awhile of Me and Thee / There seemed — and then no more of Thee and Me.”)

A Concrete Salesman Always Seals The Deal

Once there was a meeting of townsfolk people with many concerns. Each came to the meeting looking for answers but alas the town council had no answers. They too had given up hope unlike a bland looking man in a bland grey suit with bland well-worn grey shoes entered from the rear of the town hall. Oh what a marvel, oh what a wonder, he had an answer to all the town’s woes. And so began his pitch:

Ladies and gentlemen, fear not for I have the answer! Step right up and I will solve your issues with this wonder substance! I’ve heard it all before and I have the answer in this bucket of dust!

‘There’s a hole in my wall but I can’t afford to rebuild it’ – Why not seal it with cheap affordable concrete?
‘My garden is overgrown’ – Cover it over with concrete and you will have an all year round useable surface. Why not park your car on it?

‘I’ve lost my teeth’ – why not use concrete to grind down your food and drink the remains like a thick soup? (Do not take our product orally).

‘My dead pet, child, lover, mother and/or significant other smells’ – why not dig a hole in the ground and cover it in concrete? That will stop the smell and preserve your beloved for the ages.

‘I fear fire’ – why not create a fireproof yurt made from non-flammable concrete. Guaranteed to last for years to come rain or shine surviving multiple arson attempts!

‘I’m colour blind’ – No fear! Concrete is one colour fits all! And even if you have the colour perception of a dog you are seeing concrete at its full colour range like everyone else so no fear of embarrassment calling grey grey! Don’t like the all-natural colour? Then why not paint it any colour you like! The sky’s the limit!

‘My fruit floats on top of the water, I think it might have gone off’ – Well that can be solved by a few hours submerged in concrete. With a fine few inches of concrete applied to the exterior anything will sink to the bottom of the ocean… why even that guy across the road you don’t like who you know is a stool pigeon who ratted you out to the cops about your illegal gambling den in the garden shed! Got gambling debts? It’ll get rid of them too! (Not that we here representing the Concrete Union of Nationalised Tradesmen Society endorse such actions).

‘I’m cold’ – Another wonder cure through the application of concrete! Lo with just a jacket of concrete you will never have to worry about the temperature being too high or low every again during the rest of your life!

‘I’m tired’ – why not make yourself a fine heat retaining bench slab of concrete and lounge like a lizard taking in the sun. Don’t like the sun? Build a cover with our multipurpose product! It is just the versatile!

‘My car is constantly being stolen’ – Why not put the wheels in a protective casing of concrete! It’ll ensure no one will take you precious vehicle anywhere ever again! Put all your valuables in concrete! Hide them from prying eyes and ensure their safety! Security guaranteed!

‘I have no friends’ – Why not make one? Why just like the golem of Prague you too can make a lifelong friend with your own hands! Why it will be even longer lasting that that old clay golem! Fed up of life? Just pour it down your throat and immortalise yourself with the piece of artwork it produces mapping out the network of your digestive and respiratory system!
‘I’m lazy, I don’t want to be cleaning things constantly’ – Our product needs no upkeep! As soon as it’s in use it keeps on trucking by itself no hands on assistance or maintenance necessary!

Stops weeds, stops sunburn, preserves food hides unsightly blemishes and loved ones for a lifetime! It does it all ladies and gentlemen – Just add water! You can swim in it, sleep in it, Live in it, laugh in it, love in it – it is the miracle substance of our era!

Now whether you think the salesman made a killing or was run out of town is up to you… Personally I reckon he’s out there right now, laying down the same pitch, seeing what comes of it, like many an ornery wandering merchant selling his wares out there on the open roads and nothing going to stop him until it’s all gone. Last I heard of the troubled town it all got flattened to the ground, paved over and turned into an industrial park supplying construction tradesmen across the nation.


I do have reviews to post but it is just getting put off… so here is a filler vignette.

This was conceived and written in one sitting. It either sinks or swims as a story idea. As ever with these vignettes I don’t feel I should be polishing them if I am posting them and people can read them for free (or steal them). It was a nice idea though. Thanks for reading if you took the time.

Comment, like, follow – all are welcome!