In Memory of Sergey Yesenin by Anna Akhmatova

There are such easy ways

to leave this life,

to burn to an end

without pain or thought,

but a Russian poet

has no such luck.

A bullet is more likely

to show his winged soul

the way to Heaven;

or else the shaggy paw

of voiceless terror will squeeze

the life out of his heart

as if it were a sponge.

 

by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova)

(1925)

translation by Robert Chandler


Not so fun facts about the poem’s subject: On 28 of December in 1925 Yesenin was found dead in the room in the Hotel Angleterre in St Petersburg. His last poem Goodbye my friend, goodbye (До свиданья, друг мой, до свиданья) according to Wolf Ehrlich was written by him the day before he died. Yesenin complained that there was no ink in the room, and he was forced to write with his blood. According to the consensus among academic researchers of Yesenin’s life, the poet was in a state of depression a week after he escaped from a mental clinic and committed suicide by hanging. A theory exists that Yesenin’s death was actually a murder by OGPU agents who staged it to look like suicide.

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Tiger Bay by Idris Davies

I watched the coloured seamen in the morning mist,

Slouching along the damp brown street,

Cursing and laughing in the dismal dawn.

The sea had grumbled through the night,

Small yellow lights had flickered far and near,

Huge chains clattered on the ice-cold quays,

And daylight had seemed a hundred years away…

But slowly the long cold night retreated

Behind the cranes and masts and funnels,

The sea-signals wailed beyond the harbour

And seabirds came suddenly out of the mist.

And six coloured seamen came slouching along

With the laughter of the Levant in their eyes

And contempt in their tapering hands.

Their coffee was waiting in some smoke-laden den,

With smooth yellow dice on the unswept table,

And behind the dirty green window

No lazy dream of Africa or Arabia or India,

Nor any dreary dockland morning

Would mar one minute for them.

 

by Idris Davies


Fun fact: Tiger Bay (Welsh: Bae Teigr) was the local name for an area of Cardiff which covered Butetown and Cardiff Docks. It was rebranded as Cardiff Bay, following the building of the Cardiff Barrage, which dams the tidal rivers, Ely and Taff, to create a body of water. The development of the Cardiff Docks played a major part in Cardiff’s development by being the means of exporting coal from the South Wales Valleys to the rest of the world, helping to power the Industrial Age. The coal mining industry helped fund the growth of Cardiff to become the capital city of Wales and contributed towards making the docks owner, The 3rd Marquess of Bute, the richest man in the world at the time

‘June Would Be Clammy, January Crisp’ by Boris Slutsky

June would be clammy, January crisp;

and concrete solid, sand unstable.

For there was order. Real order.

 

People got up and went to work.

And then they watched The Happy Fellas

at cinemas. For there was order.

 

In pedigrees and in parades,

political police, and apparatus,

even in parodies – there was order.

 

People made fun, and were afraid,

only of those they were supposed to,

for there was order, real order.

 

An order of the bent and bashed.

In hours, in minutes, and in seconds,

in years as well, there was real order.

 

It would have gone on without end,

but then a certain person fell,

and all this order went to hell.

 

by Борис Абрамович Слуцкий (Boris Abramovich Slutsky)

(early 1960s)

translated by G. S. Smith


Fun facts: Obviously the ‘certain person’ was Stalin and his era of terror where indeed there was order, compared to the era of thaw, but I was surprised to find actually ‘The Happy Fellas’ actually does exist! It is the 1934 film Веселые ребята a.k.a. ‘Jolly Fellows’ or ‘Funny Boys’ depending on how you choose to translate the title.

Jolly Fellows (Russian: Весёлые ребята Vesyolye rebyata), also translated as Happy-Go-Lucky Guys, Moscow Laughs and Jazz Comedy, is a 1934 Soviet musical film, directed by Grigori Aleksandrov and starring his wife Lyubov Orlova, a gifted singer and the first recognized star of Soviet cinema.

The script was written by Aleksandrov, Vladimir Mass, and Nikolai Erdman (whose father briefly appears on screen as a German music teacher). It features several songs which instantly became classics across the Soviet Union. The most famous song — “Kak mnogo devushek khoroshikh” (Such a lot of nice girls) — enjoyed international fame, covered as “Serdtse” (Heart) by Pyotr Leshchenko. Music was by Isaak Dunayevsky, the lyrics were written by the Soviet poet Vasily Lebedev-Kumach.

Both Orlova and her co-star, the jazz singer and comic actor Leonid Utyosov, were propelled to stardom after this movie.

Slutsky, of course, is mocking how the film is sacchrine, state sanctioned, sanitised humorous entertainment with no challenging elements or anything that might make the audience think about their social hardships they are living through during Stalin’s era of non-conforming people being made to ‘disappear’ for speaking or acting out, gulags and starvation. Everything is fine citizen, watch the film and feel good about life… everything is in order. No one deviates, no one transgresses, no one thinks or acts differently. There is order – or else!

‘Could Beatrice Write With Dante’s Passion’ by Anna Akhmatova

Could Beatrice write with Dante’s passion,

Or Laura have glorified love’s pain?

Women poets – I set the fashion…

Lord, how to shut them up again!

 

by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova)

(1960)

from Седьмая книга (The Seventh Book)

translation by D. M. Thomas

Target by R. S. Thomas

I look up at the sky at night

and see the archer, Sagittarius,

with his bow drawn, and realise

man is the arrow speeding,

 

not as some think infinitely

on, but because space is curved,

backwards towards the bowman’s heart

to deal him his unstaunched wound.

 

by R. S. Thomas

from Mass for Hard Times (1992)

Moorland by R. S. Thomas

It is beautiful and still;

the air rarified

as the interior of a cathedral

 

expecting a presence. It is where, also,

the harrier occurs,

materialising from nothing, snow –

 

soft, but with claws of fire,

quartering the bare earth

for the prey that escapes it;

 

hovering over the incipent

scream, here a moment, then

not here, like my belief in God.

 

by R. S. Thomas

from Experimenting with an Amen (1986)

Ap Huw’s Testament by R. S. Thomas

There are four verses to put down

For the four people in my life,

Father, mother, wife

 

And the one child. Let me begin

With her of the immaculate brow

My wife; she loves me. I know how.

 

My mother gave me the breast’s milk

Generously, but grew mean after,

Envying me my detached laughter.

 

My father was a passionate man,

Wrecked after leaving the sea

In her love’s shallows. He grieves in me.

 

What shall I say of my boy,

Tall, fair? He is young yet;

Keep his feet free of the world’s net.

 

by R. S. Thomas

from Poetry for Supper (1958)