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:

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‘That’s How I Am…’ by Anna Akhmatova

That’s how I am. I could wish for you someone other,

Better.

I trade in happiness no longer…

Charlatans, pushers at the sales! …

We stayed peacefully in Sochi,

Such nights, there, came to me,

And I kept hearing such bells!

Over Asia were spring mists, and

Tulips were carpeting with brilliance

Several hundreds of miles.

O, what can I do with this cleanness,

This simple untaintable scene? O,

What can I do with these souls!

I could never become a spectator.

I’d push myself, sooner or later,

Through every prohibited gate.

Healer of tender hurts, other women’s

Husbands’ sincerest

Friend, disconsolate

Widow of many. No wonder

I’ve a grey crown, and my sun-burn

Frightens the people I pass.

But – like her – I shall have to part with

My arrogance – like Marina the martyr –

I too must drink of emptiness.

You will come under a black mantle,

With a green and terrible candle,

Screening your face from my sight…

Soon the puzzle will be over:

Whose hand is in the white glove, or

Who sent the guest who calls by night.

 

by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova)

(1942, Tashkent)

from her Седьмая книга (The Seventh Book) era of work but not published at the time

translation by D. M. Thomas


 

In 1942 Akhmatova was flown out of Leningrad by the authorites on a whim and spent the next 3 years in Tashkent. She became seriously ill with typhus but regarded this period with a mix of joy, delirium and recognition.

Akhmatova in this poem draws a parallel between her circumstances and the fate of fellow poet Marina Tsvetaeva. Tsvetaeva had been an emigre since 1922, returning to Russia only to find out her husband was shot and her daughter arrested. She hung herself in 1941 and it had an immense effect on her peer Akhmatova as evidenced by her poetry.

We Pronounced by Olga Berggolts

We pronounced

the simplest, poorest words

as if they had never been said.

We were saying

sun, light, grass

as people pronounce

life, love, strength.

 

Remembered how we cleared

that eternal, accursed glacier

from the city streets – and an old man

stamped his foot against the pavement,

shouting, ‘Asphalt, friends, asphault!’

 

As if he were a sailor long ago,

calling out ‘Land, land!’

 

by

Ольга Фёдоровна Берггольц (Olga Fyodorovna Berggolts)

a.k.a. Olga Fyodorovna Bergholz

(1945)

translated by Robert Chandler

Ordeal [Extract] by Olga Berggolts

[…] And once again

you will have the strength

to see and recognize

how all you have ever loved

will begin to torment you.

And at once, like a werewolf,

a friend will appear

before you and slander you,

and another will push you away.

And the temptations will start:

‘Renounce! Disavow! Forswear!’

And your soul will writhe

in the grip of anguish and fear.

And you will have the strength,

once again, to repeat one thing:

‘I forswear nothing – nothing –

of all I have lived my life by.’

And once again, remembering

these days, you will have the strength

to cry out to all you have loved:

‘Come back! Come back to me!’

 

by Ольга Фёдоровна Берггольц (Olga Fyodorovna Berggolts)

a.k.a. Olga Fyodorovna Bergholz

(January 1939, Cell 33)

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.

In December 1938 she was imprisoned for several months and was only released after suffering a miscarriage from being beaten during interrogations. The above extract is from one of her prison poems.

Red Nosed Frost [extract] by Nikolay Nekrasov

Not the autumn wind in the forest,

not streams hurtling down to the plains –

what we hear is Frost the Commander,

patrolling his far-flung domains.

 

Has snow been swept by the blizzards

over every pathway and track?

Is there any bare ground still showing,

any last brown fissure or crack?

 

Have the oak trees been handsomely dappled,

are the tops of the pines fluffed just right?

Have the ice floes been shackled together

so that every lake is gripped tight?

 

Frost comes striding over the treetops;

shards of ice crackle under his tread.

Lord Frost moves closer and closer;

beams of sunlight dance in his beard.

 

What pathway is closed to a wizard?

Ever nearer the widow he draws.

Now Frost is looming above her,

rehearsing his wintry laws.

 

There he stands in a pine tree,

beating time with his cane,

boasting of his own glory

and repeating his old refrain:

 

‘No need to be bashful, sweet maiden,

see how fine a Commander I am!

Speak truthfully now: have you ever

glimpsed a more handsome young man?

 

‘Blizzards, downpours and whirlwinds –

I can quieten them all in a trice;

I can stroll out over the ocean

and build myself chambers of ice.

 

‘One breath – and the greatest of rivers

lie silenced beneath my yoke,

transformed to the strongest of bridges,

broad roads for the merchant folk.

 

‘I love dropping down into graves

to scatter diamonds over the dead,

to freeze the blood in their veins

and ice the brains in their heads.

 

‘I love frightening a lonely robber

riding home with a purse he’s plundered:

in the depth of the forest silence

I make branches resound like thunder.

 

‘Old women go rushing back home,

their heads full of spirits and devils.

But there’s more pleasure still to be had

with drunkards returning from revels.

 

‘I don’t need chalk to whiten their faces!

I set their noses ablaze without fire!

I freeze beards to reins in a tangle

not even an axe can sever!

 

‘I’m rich, there’s no counting my treasure;

my fortune’s as great as the world.

Every day I bejewel my kingdom

anew with silver and pearls.

 

‘Dear Maiden, I bid you now enter

my empire. Let me make you my queen!

We shall reign in glory all winter,

then let summer slip by in a dream.

 

‘Come, maiden, and let me warm you

in a palace of pale blue ice!’

So Lord Frost sings out above her

as he swings his sparkling mace.

 

‘Are you warm enough there, dear maiden?’

he calls from high in the pine.

‘Oh yes,’ the young widow answers –

and icy shivers run down her spine.

 

Now Frost has dropped down lower,

his mace swinging ever so near,

and he whispers softly and tenderly:

‘Warm enough?’ ‘Oh yes, my dear!’

 

Warm enough – but what does she feel?

Frost’s breath has already numbed her

and needles of ice from his beard,

though colder and sharper than steel,

are lulling her into slumber.

 

‘Are you warm enough now?’ Frost whispers,

his arms now encircling her waist –

and she hears not Frost but Proklyusha

and all she sees is long past.

 

On her lips and her eyes and her shoulders

Darya feels the wizard’s long kisses –

and she sees not Frost but her husband

and she drinks in his honeyed whispers.

 

He’s talking to her of a wedding,

his words so caressing and sweet

that Darya’s eyes are now closing

and her axe lies still by her feet.

 

And the arc of a smile now parts

the poor lips of the wretched widow.

White flakes now cover her eyelids

and needles of ice her brow…

 

A lump of snow falls on Darya

as a squirrel takes a flying leap,

but Darya does not lift a finger;

she’s frozen, enchanted, asleep.

 

by Николай Алексеевич Некрасов (Nikolay Alexeyevich Nekrasov)

(1864)

translated by Robert Chandler and Boris Dralyuk

‘You Took Me’ by Olga Berggolts

You took me –

I was sullen, without affection,

with only black thoughts

and convict ravings

and a widow’s unhealed anguish

and a past love that wasn’t past

You took me as a wife –

not for joy’s sake,

not of your own accord

but out of love.

 

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.