[Poem Fragment about Periods of War and What Causes Them] by Boris Slutsky

Sooner or later, every post-war period

becomes a pre-war period.

The outcome of the Sixth World War

will depend on how we have treated

the prisoners-of-war from the Fifth.

 

by Борис Абрамович Слуцкий (Boris Abramovich Slutsky)

(early 1960s?)

translated by Robert Chandler

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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.

Сороковые (The Forties) by David Samoylov

The forties, fateful,

warring, frontline,

with funeral notices,

clattering trains.

The hum of the rails.

All is cold, high and barren.

Their houses have burned –

they’re heading east.

That’s me at the station

in my scruffy wool cap.

The star’s not standard issue –

it’s cut from a can.

Yes, here I am in the world,

skinny, happy, carefree.

I’ve got tobacco in my pouch –

I have a stash of rolling papers.

I joke with the girls,

and limp a little overmuch.

I break my rationed bread in half,

and I know everything on earth.

Imagine! What coincidence –

war, horror, dreams and youth!

And all of it sank deep inside me…

and only later did it wake.

The forties, fateful,

lead and gun smoke…

War wanders through the land.

And we are all so young!

 

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.

A recital of the poem in its original Russian:

The original Cyrillic Russian version of the poem:

Сороковые

Сороковые, роковые,
Военные и фронтовые,
Где извещенья похоронные
И перестуки эшелонные.

Гудят накатанные рельсы.
Просторно. Холодно. Высоко.
И погорельцы, погорельцы
Кочуют с запада к востоку…

А это я на полустанке
В своей замурзанной ушанке,
Где звездочка не уставная,
А вырезанная из банки.

Да, это я на белом свете,
Худой, веселый и задорный.
И у меня табак в кисете,
И у меня мундштук наборный.

И я с девчонкой балагурю,
И больше нужного хромаю,
И пайку надвое ломаю,
И все на свете понимаю.

Как это было! Как совпало –
Война, беда, мечта и юность!
И это все в меня запало
И лишь потом во мне очнулось!..

Сороковые, роковые,
Свинцовые, пороховые…
Война гуляет по России,
А мы такие молодые!

February Diary [extract] by Olga Berggolts

It was a day like any other.

A woman friend of mine called round.

Without a tear she told me she’d

just buried her one true friend.

We sat in silence till the morning.

What words were there to say to her?

I’m a Leningrad widow too.

 

by Ольга Фёдоровна Берггольц (Olga Fyodorovna Berggolts)

a.k.a. Olga Fyodorovna Bergholz

(1942)

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.

 

Fun extra: Here is a recital of the entire poem in the original Russian:

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

‘What did they do’ by Boris Slutsky

What did they do

with the relatives of Christ?

What did they do with them?

No written source

will tell you a damned thing –

nothing but crossings out, emptiness.

What the hell did they do with them?

 

What did they do

with those simple people,

simple craftsmen, men who worked on the land?

Were all marched off to some nearby wilderness,

lined up and machine-gunned?

 

Whatever happened then, two centuries later

there were no demands for compensation or calls for revenge?

Total posthumous rehabilitation of Jesus

led to no rehabilitation of kin.

 

And now flowers are growing from the relatives of Christ.

Below them lie depths, above them rise heights,

yet world history had found no place

for those relatives of Christ.

 

by Борис Абрамович Слуцкий (Boris Abramovich Slutsky)

(1977)

translated by Robert Chandler