Posts filed under ‘Russian’

I called death down

Anna Akhmatova


I called death down on the heads of those I cherished.
One after the other, their deaths occured.
I cannot bear to think how many perished.
These graves were all predicted by my word.
As ravens circle above the place
Where they smell fresh-blooded limbs,
So my love, with triumphant face,
Inflicted its wild hymns.

Being with you is sweet beyond mention,
You’re as close as the heart I call my own.
Give me both hands, pay careful attention,
I beseech you: go away, and leave me alone.
Don’t let me know where you make your homes.
Oh, Muse, don’t call to him from above,
May he live, unmentioned in my poems,
Ignorant of all my love.

[translated from the Russian by Lyn Coffin]

In his introduction to the collection that this poem is taken from (Anna Akhmatova: Poems, W.W. Norton & Co., 1983), Brodsky writes:

“Naturally enough, poems of this sort couldn’t be published, nor could they even be written down or retyped. They could only be memorized by the author and by some seven other people since she didn’t trust her own memory. From time to time, she’d meet a person privately and ask him or her to recite quietly this or that selection as a means of inventory. This precaution was far from being excessive: people would disappear forever for smaller things than a piece of paper with a few lines on it.”

It’s ironic, isn’t it? For centuries poets have been promising their beloveds immortality in verse. “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee”, Shakespeare writes, and the sentiment recurs again and again throughout the ages that follow. And yet here we are, in the Russian police state, and suddenly the act of naming has turned fatal, the poem guaranteeing not eternal fame but instant execution.

Akhmatova wrote this poem in 1921, the year her first husband, poet Nikolay Gumilyov, was executed by the Soviets. In the years to come, she would suffer much at the hands of the state – the arrest and death of her friend and fellow poet Osip Mandelstam, the arrest and death of her third husband, Nikolai Punin and the arrest of her and Nikolay’s son, Lev, whose incarceration would become the subject of her incredible ‘Requiem’.

Knowing the trials that lie ahead, this poem seems prophetic, but even without that context it is a heartbreaking poem. The exquisite violence of that image of love as a scavenger, conveying so perfectly the horror of something as tender as a love poem turned into an instrument of betrayal; the grief and guilt of the first stanza perfectly balancing the self-denial of the second. If there was ever any doubt about Akhmatova being one of the finest lyric poets of all time, today’s poem should put it to rest.

I could go on, but I’ll leave you with another quote from Brodsky, who says it so much better than I ever could:

“her verses are to survive whether published or not: because of the prosody, because they are charged with time in both [mundane and metaphysical] senses. They will survive because language is older than state and because prosody always survives history. In fact, it hardly needs history; all it needs is a poet, and Akhmatova was just that.”


November 18, 2007 at 6:23 am 1 comment

A Girl Was Singing

Alexander Blok


A girl was singing in the choir with fervour
of all who have known exile and distress,
of all the vessels that have left the harbour,
of all who have forgotten happiness.

Her voice soared up to the dome. Glistening,
a sunbeam brushed her shoulder in its flight,
and from the darkness all were listening
to the white dress singing in the beam of light.

It seemed to everyone that happiness
would come back, that the vessels were all safe,
that those who had known exile and distress
had rediscovered a radiant life.

The voice was beautiful, the sunbeam slender,
but up by the holy gates, under the dome,
a boy at communion wept to remember
that none of them would ever come home.

(translated from the Russian by Jon Stallworthy and Peter France)

Another fine Russian poet, this time by request (though I’ve been meaning to include Blok for a while). I love the vividness of this poem, the searing image of “the white dress singing in the beam of light”; and also the way in which Blok, having spent the first three stanzas building a sense of something approaching grace, plunges us, with the very last line of the poem, back into the terrible reality of the mortal world. Yet there’s nothing didactic or rhetorical about this turning back – Blok isn’t trying to make a point against faith – it’s simply the natural return of the uplifted heart to its accustomed weight. This is a glorious poem about the transient beauty of the religious experience, indeed, about the transience of beauty, and therefore of art, itself.


P.S. Wikipedia entry on Blok here (with an alternate translation of the poem; I like the translation posted here better, though obviously I can’t vouch for its fidelity to the original)

June 24, 2007 at 9:56 am Leave a comment

I’m glad your sickness

Marina Tsvetaeva


I’m glad your sickness is not caused by me.
Mine is not caused by you. I’m glad to know
the heavy earth will never flow away
from us, beneath our feet, and so
we can relax together, and not watch
our words. When our sleeves touch
we shall not drown in waves of rising blush.

I’m glad to see you calmly now embrace
another girl in front of me, without
any wish to cause me pain, as you
don’t burn if I kiss someone else.
I know you never use my tender name,
my tender spirit, day or night. And
no one in the silence of a church
will sing their Hallelujahs over us.

Thank you for loving me like this,
for you feel love, although you do not know it.
Thank you for the nights I’ve spent in quiet.
Thank you for the walks under the moon
you’ve spared me and those sunset meetings unshared.
Thank you. The sun will never bless our heads.
Take my sad thanks for this: you do not cause
my sickness. And I don’t cause yours.

(translated from the Russian by Elaine Feinstein)

Having mentioned Tsvetaeva in my last post, I figured it was time we had a poem of hers on the site.

I love this poem. Not so much for its phrases or language, but for the relationship it so vividly portrays, its attempt to capture the nuances of a connection that lies somewhere between the casualness of friendship and the intensity of romance. I love the way the poem balances regret and relief, disappointment and comfort, the way it manages to bring to life the struggle between the desire for companionship and the desire for solitude. So much of poetry is about relationships that are passionate and overwhelming that it’s refreshing to find a poem that celebrates a quieter, more tentative bond.


June 2, 2007 at 2:41 pm 2 comments

We shall meet again, in Petersburg

Osip Mandelstam


We shall meet again, in Petersburg,
as though we had buried the sun there,
and then we shall pronounce for the first time
the blessed word with no meaning.
In the Soviet night, in the velvet dark,
in the black velvet Void, the loved eyes
of the blessed women are still singing,
flowers are blooming that will never die.

The capital hunches like a wild cat,
a patrol is stationed on the bridge,
a single car rushes past in the dark,
snarling, hooting like a cuckoo.
For this night I need no pass.
I’m not afraid of the sentries.
I will pray in the Soviet night
for the blessed word with no meaning.

A rustling, as in a theater,
and a girl suddenly crying out,
and the arms of Cypris are weighed down
with roses that will never fall.
For something to do we warm ourselves at a bonfire,
maybe the ages will die away
and the loved hands of the blessed women
will brush the light ashes together.

Somewhere audiences of red flowers exist,
and the fat sofas of the loges,
and a clockwork officer
looking down on the world.
Never mind if our candles go out
in the velvet, in the black Void. The bowed shoulders
of the blessed women are still singing.
You’ll never notice the night’s sun.

(Translated from the Russian by Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwin)

Of all the omissions from our list of poets so far, none is perhaps as surprising to me personally as the absence of Mandelstam. I can’t imagine what I was thinking.

Mandelstam, along with Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva, is an old favourite. His poetry has that supra-lyrical quality of transcending understanding – a quality best seen, though in a very different way, in the poetry of Pablo Neruda. I couldn’t explain to you what it is about a poem like this one that I find moving, almost haunting. But something about it speaks to me across time and space, makes me experience a nostalgia for a lost Russian youth that I (obviously) never had. Just the first four lines of this poem are weighted with such sadness, such an intensity of longing, that they alone leave me moved and vulnerable.

I particularly love “maybe the ages will die away / and the loved hands of the blessed women / will brush the light ashes together” because it makes me think, inevitably, of Eliot: “The worlds revolve like ancient women / gathering fuel in vacant lots” lines published, I remind myself, a mere 3 years before Mandelstam’s poem, which was written in November 1920.


May 31, 2007 at 10:10 am 5 comments

I Loved You

Aleksandr Pushkin

Listen (to D. Zhuravlev read in russian)

I loved you; even now I may confess,
Some embers of my love their fire retain;
But do not let it cause you more distress,
I do not want to sadden you again.
Hopeless and tonguetied, yet I loved you dearly
With pangs the jealous and the timid know;
So tenderly I loved you, so sincerely,
I pray God grant another love you so.

In russian.

Я вас любил..

Я вас любил: любовь еще, быть может
В душе моей угасла не совсем;
Но пусть она вас больше не тревожит;
Я не хочу печалить вас ничем.
Я вас любил безмолвно, безнадежно,
То робостью, то ревностью томим;
Я вас любил так искренно, так нежно,
Как дай вам бог любимой быть другим.

(From, which is an anthology of Russian poems with translations and recordings. )

I don’t know Russian, so when I met a friend who reads literature in the language, I asked him to suggest a poem. He immediately suggested a Pushkin. (I am still looking for a good translation of that one, but here is one to begin with. I loved you this poem, for its simplicity, conciseness and completeness. :)

Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin inspired The Golden Gate (which happens to be one of my favourite books).


July 25, 2006 at 1:50 am 6 comments

I am Goya

Andrey Voznesensky


I am Goya
of the bare field, by the enemy’s beak gouged
till the craters of my eyes gape
I am grief

I am the tongue
of war, the embers of cities
on the snows of the year 1941
I am hunger

I am the gullet
of a woman hanged whose body like a bell
tolled over a blank square
I am Goya

O grapes of wrath!
I have hurled westward
the ashes of the uninvited guest!
and hammered stars into the unforgetting sky – like nails
I am Goya

(translated from the Russian by Stanley Kunitz)

A poem that captures so well the darkness and violence of Goya’s vision, marrying it to images from the Second World War.


The original in Russian (we think! hat-tip Black Mamba)

Я – Гойя!
Глазницы воронок мне выклевал ворон,
слетая на поле нагое.

Я – Горе.

Я – голос
Войны, городов головни
на снегу сорок первого года.

Я – Голод.

Я – горло
Повешенной бабы, чье тело, как колокол,
било над площадью голой…

Я – Гойя!

О, грозди
Возмездья! Взвил залпом на Запад –
я пепел незваного гостя!
И в мемориальное небо вбил крепкие звезды –
Как гвозди.

Я – Гойя.

July 2, 2006 at 3:59 am 9 comments

Breaking Up

Yevgeny Yevtushenko

In what what would be our first listener request, we have a Yevtushenko poem, recorded by Rivera.


I fell out of love: that’s our story’s dull ending,
as flat as life is, as dull as the grave.
Excuse me — I’ll break off the string of this love song
and smash the guitar. We have nothing to save.

The puppy is puzzled. Our furry small monster
can’t decide why we complicate simple things so —
he whines at your door and I let him enter,
when he scratches at my door, you always go.

Dog, sentimental dog, you’ll surely go crazy,
running from one to the other like this —
too young to conceive of an ancient idea:
it’s ended, done with, over, kaput. Finis.

Get sentimental and we end up by playing
the old melodrama, “Salvation of Love.”
“Forgiveness,” we whisper, and hope for an echo;
but nothing returns from the silence above.

Better save love at the very beginning,
avoiding all passionate “nevers,” “forevers;”
we ought to have heard what the train wheels were shouting,
“Do not make promises!” Promises are levers.

We should have made note of the broken branches,
we should have looked up at the smokey sky,
warning the witless pretensions of lovers —
the greater the hope is, the greater the lie.

True kindness in love means staying quite sober,
weighing each link of the chain you must bear.
Don’t promise her heaven — suggest half an acre;
not “unto death,” but at least to next year.

And don’t keep declaring, “I love you, I love you.”
That little phrase leads a durable life —
when remembered again in some loveless hereafter,
it can sting like a hornet or stab like a knife.

So — our little dog in all his confusion
turns and returns from door to door.
I won’t say “forgive me” because I have left you;
I ask pardon for one thing: I loved you before.

I know there are a whole bunch of people who would not appreciate this poem today and others who would, and then there is the third kind, who will wonder, what all the fuss is about? :) This is for everyone of you.

Check the minstrels for commentary on the poem and wiki for Yevtushenko’s bio.


February 14, 2006 at 11:21 am 3 comments