Observation Post: Forward Area by Alun Lewis

The thorns are bleached and brittle,
The empty folds decay,
Rooftrees creak in the silence
Of inarticulate dismay.

Drought denudes the planting;
In the dry red heat
Dawn spills its ghostly water,
Black heads on the wheat.

Some evil presence quenches
The vagrant drunken theme
Of the swart and skinny goatherd
And the black goats of his dream.

A darker beast than poverty
Transfixed the crouching peasants there,
And tore the votive tablets down
And filled the children with such fear.

The cowdung fires guttered out,
The wizened women cried,
The bridegroom lay trembling,
And rigid the bride.

Love could be had for nothing.
And where is love now?
Gone with the shambling oxen,
Gone with the broken plough,
Death lives here now.

by Alun Lewis

Гражданская война (Civil War) by Maksimilian Voloshin

Some rose from the underground,
Some from exile, factories, mines,
Poisoned by suspicious freedom
And the bitter smoke of cities.
Others from military ranks,
From noblemen’s ravished nests,
Where to the country churchyard
They carried dead fathers and brothers.
In some even now is not extinguished
The intoxication of immemorial conflagrations;
And the wild free spirit of the steppe,
Of both the Razins and the Kudaiars, lives on.
In others, deprived of all roots, is
The torn fabric and sad discord of our days –
The putrefied spirit of the Neva capital,
Tolstoy and Chekhov, Dostoyevsky.
Some raise on placards
Their ravings about bourgeois evil,
About the radiant pure proletariat,
A Philistine paradise on earth.
In others is all the blossom and rot of empires,
All the gold, all the decay of ideas,
The splendor of all great fetishes,
And of all scientific superstition.
Some go to liberate
Moscow and forge Russia anew,
Others, after unleashing the elements,
Want to remake the entire world.
In these and in others war inspires
Anger, greed, the dark intoxication of wild outbursts –
And in a greedy pack the plunderer
Afterward steals to heroes and leaders
In order to break up and sell out to enemies
The wondrously beautiful might of Russia,
To let rot piles of wheat,
To dishonor her heavens,
To devour her riches, incinerate her forests,
And suck dry her seas and ore.
And the thunder of battles will not cease
Across all the expanses of the southern steppes
Amid the golden splendor
Of harvests trampled by horses.
Both here and there among the ranks
Resounds one and the same voice:
“Who is not with us is against us!”
“No one is indifferent, truth is with us!”
And I stand one among them
In the howling flame and smoke
And with all my strength
I pray for them and for the others.

by Максимилиа́н Алекса́ндрович Воло́шин
(Maksimilian Voloshin)
(22 November 1920)
from the cycle ‘Strife
with Wrangel
Koktebel, Crimea
translated by Albert C. Todd

Гражданская война

Одни восстали из подполий,
Из ссылок, фабрик, рудников,
Отравленные тёмной волей
И горьким дымом городов.

Другие — из рядов военных,
Дворянских разорённых гнёзд,
Где проводили на погост
Отцов и братьев убиенных.

В одних доселе не потух
Хмель незапамятных пожаров,
И жив степной, разгульный дух
И Разиных, и Кудеяров.

В других — лишённых всех корней —
Тлетворный дух столицы Невской:
Толстой и Чехов, Достоевский —
Надрыв и смута наших дней.

Одни возносят на плакатах
Свой бред о буржуазном зле,
О светлых пролетариатах,
Мещанском рае на земле…

В других весь цвет, вся гниль империй,
Всё золото, весь тлен идей,
Блеск всех великих фетишей
И всех научных суеверий.

Одни идут освобождать
Москву и вновь сковать Россию,
Другие, разнуздав стихию,
Хотят весь мир пересоздать.

В тех и в других война вдохнула
Гнев, жадность, мрачный хмель разгула,
А вслед героям и вождям
Крадётся хищник стаей жадной,
Чтоб мощь России неоглядной
Pазмыкать и продать врагам:

Cгноить её пшеницы груды,
Её бесчестить небеса,
Пожрать богатства, сжечь леса
И высосать моря и руды.

И не смолкает грохот битв
По всем просторам южной степи
Средь золотых великолепий
Конями вытоптанных жнитв.

И там и здесь между рядами
Звучит один и тот же глас:
«Кто не за нас — тот против нас.
Нет безразличных: правда с нами».

А я стою один меж них
В ревущем пламени и дыме
И всеми силами своими
Молюсь за тех и за других.

The poem, in it’s original Russian form, recited by Boris Chenitsa.

Addition information: Voloshin‘s poem – published on the centenary (plus one year) of the poem’s creation!

The ‘with Wrangel’ mentioned in the poem’s accreditation I believe refers to Pyotr Wrangel who was a Russian officer of Baltic German origin in the Imperial Russian Army. During the later stages of the Russian Civil War, he was commanding general of the anti-Bolshevik White Army in Southern Russia. After his side lost the civil war in 1920, he left Russia. He was known as one of the most prominent exiled White émigrés and military leader of the South Russia (as commander in chief).

Razin refers to Stepan (Stenka) Razin (ca. 1630 – 1671), a Don Cossack who led a peasant rebellion in 1670 – 1671. Celebrated in folk songs and folktales, he was captured and publicly quartered alive.

According to my book’s notes “Kudaiar refers to a legendary brigand celebrated in folk songs”. However translating it myself from the Russian root Кудеяр it is actually better Latinised/transliterated to Kudeyar regarding a Russian legendary folk hero whose story is told in Nikolay Kostomarov‘s 1875 novel of the same name. It should be noted there were apparently several Cossack robbers who adopted this name. In a letter to tsar Ivan IV a Muscovite boyar, from Crimea, reported that “there is only one brigand left here – the accursed Kudeyar“. The name is apparently Persian, composed of two elements standing for “God” and “man”.

The Neva capital refers to St Petersburg. Its location on the Neva River was the constant feature of the capital, whose name was changing from St Petersburg to Petrograd to Leningrad during the era.

Koktebel is an urban-type settlement and one of the most popular resort townlets in South-Eastern Crimea. It is situated on the shore of the Black Sea about halfway between Feodosia and Sudak and is subordinated to the Feodosia Municipality. It is best known for its literary associations as Voloshin made it his residence, where he entertained many distinguished guests, including Marina Tsvetayeva, Osip Mandelshtam, and Andrey Bely (who died there). They all wrote remarkable poems in Koktebel. Another prominent literary resident of Koktebel was Ilya Ehrenburg who lived there circa 1919 while escaping from anti-Semitic riots in Kiev.

Voloshin, whose real surname was Kirilenko-Voloshin, was born into a noble family that included Zaporozhskie Cossacks and Germans Russified in the seventeenth century. He studied law at Moscow University, though he was unable to complete a degree because of his participation in student protests in 1898. He continued to study extensively in Paris from 1903 to 1917 and traveled throughout Europe and Russia. Voloshin settled in Russia for good in 1917, just before the February Revolution, and spent the rest of his years in Koktebel in the Crimea.

Voloshin always stood alone against literary currents and intrigues. The hospitality of his home in Koktebel, which has been turned into a museum, was open to all; during the Civil War both a Red leader and a White officer found refuge in it. Voloshin’s position was neutral but not indifferent, for he condemned but the excesses of the Red Terror and the bloody actions of the White Guards. His response to the Revolution, however, never slipped into spite or petty argument or pessimism, as did the opinions of many of his literary colleagues. His response was much like Aleksandr Blok’s poem “The Twelve” (see page 71), in which a white apparition of Christ rises above the Red Guards marching through a blizzard.

Voloshin based his writing to a large extent on French poetic models, but in his best works – particularly in the Civil War period – he freed himself from literariness and plunged into the maelstrom of Russian events. In these poems he tried hard to stand above the conflict, “praying for the one side as much as for the other”. Nevertheless, his sympathies were not on the side of obsolete tsarism but with the future of Russia, its people, and its culture. His celebrated poem “Holy Russia” was misinterpreted by Proletkult critics as anti-Bolshevik; its lines “You yielded to passion’s beckoning call / And gave yourself to bandit and to thief” refer not only to the Bolsheviks but to the gangs of anarchist-bandits who roamed through Russia. Voloshin’s interpretation of Russian history is controversial, subjective, and sometimes mystical, but it always conveys an undoubting faith that Russia will emerge from its fiery baptism purified and renewed.

By the time of his return to Russia from Paris in 1917, Voloshin had become a sophisticated European intellectual, more philosophical, and more socially and historically minded. Enormous intellectual and artistic daring was needed for him to call Peter the Great the “first Bolshevik.” After his return, his poetry became viewed by Soviet critics with dogmatic narrowness and in the latter years of his life went unpublished. A single-volume Soviet edition of Voloshin’s work in 1977 unfortunately made him appear an aesthete, not the chronicler of the civil war of Russia. Yet it was in the latter role that he grew into a great poet; indeed, a series of definitions from his poem “Russia” could serve as a philosophic textbook for the study of the nation’s history. Voloshin made himself a great poet by never succumbing to indifference, by his understanding of the historical laws of a social explosion, and by his courage to bless and not to curse.

Biographical information about Voloshin, p.33 – 34, ‘Twentieth Century Russian Poetry’ (1993), compiled by Yevgeny Yevtushenko (ed. Albert C. Todd and Max Hayward) , published by Fourth Estate Limited by arrangement with Doubleday of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc.

‘Newly Reaped Ears Of Early Wheat’ by Osip Mandelstam

Newly reaped ears of early wheat

lie in level rows;

fingertips tremble, pressed against

fingers fragile as themselves.

 

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

(1909)

translated by James Greene

How It Was by Arseny Tarkovsky

Nowhere anything for eating,

all of Russia fading, freezing,

selling gramophones and blankets,

hats and chairs and anything

in exchange for wheat and millet

in the year nineteen-nineteen.

Elder brother killed already,

and my dad already blind,

all our furniture long bartered,

home was like an empty tomb,

yet we lived, we still had water,

bread we baked from angry nettles.

Mama was all hunched and aged,

all grey-haired though only forty,

nothing but a beggar’s rags

clinging to her skinny body.

When she slept, I kept on checking:

was she breathing, was she not?

Guests were few and far between

in the year nineteen-nineteen.

Sick at heart, our poor old neighbours,

just like little birds in cages,

tiny birds on whithered perches,

lived like we did, lived in hell.

Then one of these poor old neighbours

bought a gift – rotten potato.

‘Think what riches,’ she began.

‘once belonged even to beggars!

See how Russia’s being chastised

for Rasputin and his doings!’

Evening came. ‘Eat!’ said Mama,

holding out a splendid flatbread.

And the Muse dressed all in rose,

came to me all of a sudden,

hoping she could make me sleepless,

hoping I’d be hers for ever.

So I wrote my primal poem,

sang how Mama on a Sunday

baked a flatbread from potato.

So I had my first encounter

with poetic inspiration

in the year nineteen-nineteen

by Арсений Александрович Тарковский (Arseny Alexandrovich Tarkovsky)

(1977)

translated by Robert Chandler


Fun fact: Arseny was the father of the famous and highly influential film director Andrei Tarkovsky. His poetry was often quoted in his son’s films.