Poem – A Song

Sitting at His table one day,
God and the devil a game did play;
Hated humanity was at stake;
Well, the first picked Bonaparte;
The other drew, and for his part,
‘Twas Mastai that he did take.

Impoverished abbey, thin as a sprite!
Petty prince, small and filled with spite,
Truly a thoughtless brat!
Oh what a worthless pot!
‘Twas God that had the losing lot
So the devil won them both at that.

God the Father cried, ‘Take them you!
You will not know what to do
With them’; the devil laughed; ‘Good sir-
That’s where you’re wrong,’ the devil said,
And of the one a pope he made,
And of the other an emperor.

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Poem – June Nights

In summer, when day has fled, the plain covered with flowers
Pours out far away an intoxicating scent;
Eyes shut, ears half open to noises,
We only half sleep in a transparent slumber.

The stars are purer, the shade seems pleasanter;
A hazy half-day colours the eternal dome;
And the sweet pale dawn awaiting her hour
Seems to wander all night at the bottom of the sky.

Poem – Letter

You can see it already: chalks and ochers;
Country crossed with a thousand furrow-lines;
Ground-level rooftops hidden by the shrubbery;
Sporadic haystacks standing on the grass;
Smoky old rooftops tarnishing the landscape;
A river (not Cayster or Ganges, though:
A feeble Norman salt-infested watercourse);
On the right, to the north, bizarre terrain
All angular–you’d think a shovel did it.
So that’s the foreground. An old chapel adds
Its antique spire, and gathers alongside it
A few gnarled elms with grumpy silhouettes;
Seemingly tired of all the frisky breezes,
They carp at every gust that stirs them up.
At one side of my house a big wheelbarrow
Is rusting; and before me lies the vast
Horizon, all its notches filled with ocean blue;
Cocks and hens spread their gildings, and converse
Beneath my window; and the rooftop attics,
Now and then, toss me songs in dialect.
In my lane dwells a patriarchal rope-maker;
The old man makes his wheel run loud, and goes
Retrograde, hemp wreathed tightly round the midriff.
I like these waters where the wild gale scuds;
All day the country tempts me to go strolling;
The little village urchins, book in hand,
Envy me, at the schoolmaster’s (my lodging),
As a big schoolboy sneaking a day off.
The air is pure, the sky smiles; there’s a constant
Soft noise of children spelling things aloud.
The waters flow; a linnet flies; and I say: “Thank you!
Thank you, Almighty God!”–So, then, I live:
Peacefully, hour by hour, with little fuss, I shed
My days, and think of you, my lady fair!
I hear the children chattering; and I see, at times,
Sailing across the high seas in its pride,
Over the gables of the tranquil village,
Some winged ship which is traveling far away,
Flying across the ocean, hounded by all the winds.
Lately it slept in port beside the quay.
Nothing has kept it from the jealous sea-surge:
No tears of relatives, nor fears of wives,
Nor reefs dimly reflected in the waters,
Nor importunity of sinister birds.

Poem – Ballad About Drinking

We had slaughtered a hundred white whales,
civilization was quite forgotten,
our lungs were burned out from smoking shag,
but on sighting port we blew out our chests like barrels
and began to speak to one another politely,
and with the noble goal of drinking
we went ashore from the schooner at Amderma.

In Amderma we walked like gods,
swaggering along with our hands on our hips,
and through the port our beards and sidewhiskers
kept their bearings on the pub,
and passing girls and shellbacks
as well as all the local dogs
went along with us as escort.

But, clouding the whole planet,
a notice hung in the shop: ‘No Spirits! ‘
We looked at some sparkling wine from the Don
as if it were feeble fruit juice,
and through our agonized yearning
we realized-it wouldn’t work.

Now who could have drunk our spirits, our vodka?
It’s dreadful the way people drink-simply ruinous.
But skinny as a skeleton, Petka Markovsky from Odessa,
as it always happens with him,
suddenly disappeared somewhere
giving a secretive ‘Sh-sshh! ‘

And shortly afterward, with much clinking,
he turned up with a huge cardboard box,
already slightly merry,
and it was a sweet clinking the box made
as we woke up to the fact: ‘There she is! She’s apples! ‘
and Markovsky gave us the wink: ‘She’s right! ‘

We made a splash, waving to everyone-
Chartered a deluxe room in the hotel
and sat down as we were on the bed.
Cords flew off the box
and there, in the glittering columns of the bottles,
bulging, stern, cosy,
absolutely hygienic-
triple-distilled eau de cologne stood before us!

And Markovsky rose, lifting his glass,
pulled down his seaman’s jacket,
and began: ‘I’d like to say something…’
‘Then say it! ‘ everyone began to shout.
But before anything else
they wanted to wet their whistles.

Markovsky said: ‘Come on-let’s have a swig!
The doctor told me eau de cologne
is the best thing to keep the wrinkles away.
Let them judge us! -We don’t give a damn!
We used to drink all sorts of wine!
When we were in Germany
we filled the radiators of our tanks
with wine from the Mosel.

We don’t need consumer goods!
We need the wind, the sky!
Old mates, listen to this
in our souls, as though in the safe deposit:
We have the sea, our mothers and young brothers-
All the rest…is rubbish! ‘

Bestriding the earth like a giant,
Markovsky stood with a glass in his hand
that held the foaming seas.
The skipper observed: ‘Everything is shipshape! ‘
and only the boatswain sobbed like a child:
‘But my mother is dead…’

And we all began to burst into tears,
quite easily, quite shamelessly,
as if in the midst of our own families,
mourning with bitter tears
at first for the boatswain’s mother,
and afterward simply for ourselves.

Already a rueful notice hung in the chemist’s shop-
‘No Triple Eau de Cologne’-
but eight of us sea wolves
sobbed over almost all of Russia!
And in our sobs we reeked
like eight barbershops.

Tears, like squalls,
swept away heaps of false values,
of puffed-up names,
and quietly remaining inside us
was only the sea, our mothers and young brothers-
even the mother who was dead…

I wept as though I was being set free,
I wept as if I was being born anew,
a different person from what I’d been,
and before God and before myself,
like the tears of those drunken whalemen,
my soul was pure.

Poem – Being Late

Something dangerous is beginning:
I am coming late to my own self.
I made an appointment with my thoughts-
the thoughts were snatched from me.
I made an appointment with Faulkner-
but they made me go to a banquet.
I made an appointment with history,
but a grass-widow dragged me into bed.
Worse than barbed wire
are birthday parties, mine and others’,
and roasted suckling pigs hold me
like a sprig of parsley between their teeth!
Led away for good
to a life absolutely not my own,
everything that I eat, eats me,
everything that I drink, drinks me.
I made an appointment with myself,
but they invite me to feast on my own spareribs.
I am garlanded from all sides
not by strings of bagels, but by the holes of bagels,
and I look like an anthology of zeros.
Life gets broken into hundreds of lifelets,
that exhaust and execute me.
In order to get through to myself
I had to smash my body against others’,
and my fragments, my smithereens,
are trampled by the roaring crowd.
I am trying to glue myself together,
but my arms are still severed.
I’d write with my left leg,
but both the left and the right
have run off, in different directions.
I don’t know- where is my body?
And soul? Did it really fly off,
without a murmured ‘good-bye! ‘?
How do I break through to a faraway namesake,
waiting for me in the cold somewhere?
I’ve forgotten under which clock
I am waiting for myself.
For those who don’t know who they are,
time does not exist.
No one is under the clock.
On the clock there is nothing.
I am late for my appointment
with me. There is no one.
Nothing but cigarette butts.
Only one flicker-
A lonely, dying, spark…P

Poem – Humor

Tsars, Kings, Emperors,
sovereigns of all the earth,
have commanded many a parade,
but they could not command humor.
When Aesop, the tramp, came visiting
the palaces of eminent personages
ensconced in sleek comfort all day,
they struck him as paupers.
In houses, where hypocrites have
left the smear of their puny feet,
there Hodja-Nasr-ed-Din, with his jests,
swept clean all meanness
like a board of chessmen!
They tried to commission humor-
but humor is not to be bought!
They tried to murder humor,
but humor thumbed his nose at them!
It’s hard to fight humor.
They executed him time and again.
His hacked-off head
was stuck on the point of a pike.
But as soon as the mummer’s pipes
began their quipping tale,
humor defiantly cried:
‘I’m back, I’m here! ‘,
and started to foot a dance.
in an overcoat, shabby and short,
with eyes cast down and a mask of repentance,
he, a political criminal,
now under arrest, walked to his execution.
He appeared to submit in every way,
accepting the life-beyond,
but of a sudden he wriggled out of his coat,
and, waving his hand, did a bolt.
Humor was shoved into cells,
but much good that did.
Humor went straight through
prison bars and walls of stone.
Coughing from the lungs
like any man in the ranks,
he marched singing a popular ditty,
rifle in hand upon the Winter Palace.
He’s accustomed to frowning looks,
but they do him no harm;
and humor at times with humor
glances at himself.
He’s everpresent. Nimble and quick,
he’ll slip through anything, through everyone.
So- glory be to humor.
He- is a valiant man.

Poem – The Mail Cutter

The ice had not even begun to break,
no boat could possibly sail yet,
but the letters lay in a pile at the post office,
with all their requests and instructions.

Among them trying vainly to leave,
in the scrawls of fishermen,
were reproaches, complaints, cries,
awkward confessions of love.

In vain the huskies gazed out to sea,
searching the waves through the fog,
lying like gray hillocks
on the bottoms of overturned boats.

But, like a ghost, dreamed up
from the desperate monotony,
the ice-covered mail boat
showed her gray masts.

She was beaten up and dirty,
but to the fishing village
her chilly, husky voice
sounded like the sweetest music.

And the gloomy sailors, throwing us a line
to the shore, like Vikings,
silently, skillfully
carried canvas sacks full of people’s souls.

And again the ship went out, tiredly,
her hull breaking the ice with difficulty,
and I sat in her dank hold
among the piled sacks.

Tormented, I searched for an answer
with all my restless conscience:
‘Just what am I, in fact,
and where am I going? ‘

Can it be I am like a frail boat,
and that the passions, like the waves, roll
and toss me about? ‘ But my inner voice
answered me: ‘You are a mail boat.

Make speed through the angry waves,
heavy with ice, to all those people
who have been seperated by the ice,
who are waiting to get in touch again.

And like the first sign of the ship
for which people waited so long,
carry onward the undying light
of the duty that links us together.

And along the foaming arctic sea of life,
through all the ice and against the nor’wester,
carry with you those mailbags
full of hopelessness and hopes.

But remember, as you hang on the whistle,
as soon as the storms die down,
steamers, real ships,
will go through these waters, not afraid anymore.

And the fishermen, standing up in the barges,
will look admiringly at them,
and their sleek, velvety whistles
and make them forget your husky voice.

But you, with the stink of fish and blubber,
don’t lower your rigging gloomily.
You’ve done the job on schedule.
Be happy then. You are the mail cutter.’

Thus the inner voice spoke to me,
impressing upon me the burden of prophecy.
And amid the white night of the Arctic Ocean
somehow it was all morning for me.

I didn’t think enviously
of someone else, covered with honours,
I was simply happy that a few things
also depended on me.

And covered in someone’s fur coat,
I was dependent on so much,
and like that letter from Vanka Zhukov,
I dozed on heaps of other letters.