Photograph by David McDonnell

The mean grey streets below were tired.
A few bewildered tourists came,
pretending it was all they’d hoped.
For they’d been told that Lonely Planet
had named this place a destination
no self-respecting European
should ever miss. They’d all done Rome,
meandered through her film-set alleys
and marvelled at her ancient treasures;
they’d braved the teeming Istanbul;
ascended Eiffel Tower and
been guided round old Notre Dame;
they’d stood in Greenwich Park and seen
the Thames in flood below; and some
who knew a thing or two had even
been drawn by Pushkin’s verse to see
the city that he loved and loathed –
the golden spire of Admiralty,
the Neva’s mighty ice floes and
the great one mounted on his horse;
they’d climbed to see the Parthenon,
endured the summer sun and sensed
the ancients’ long-forgotten wisdom;
they’d even been to Dublin, where
they’d noted what had seemed unbridled
disdain for southern upstart town.
And so they’d travelled filled with hope
through verdant pastured Celtic land
to see the city on the Lee;
suppressed their disappointment on
Parade that wasn’t near as Grand
as they’d been told. The English Market
was pretty good – but some had been to
La Boqueria. Though St Fin Barre’s
was all it promised on its hill,
the trip there’d led through dog-turd maze,
and when they’d got there they’d been told
they couldn’t enter without paying.
And so they’d crossed the river then,
walked sodden, mouldering, sullen streets
past houses ruined by pvc
to climb old Shandon’s fabled tower.
It wasn’t high. And halfway up
They’d stopped to pick out ’Derry Air
upon those wretched weary bells.
And at the top, there spread below
was all they’d seen and where they’d been –
the narrow grubby unplanned mess,
the touted city on the Lee.
And somehow, still, they found a way
to love this damp, unlovely town,
for on the parapet a bird
was lying, dead.
……………………..Defiant, proud,
poor Cork is ever thus – absurd.

Rupert Moreton

April (Huhtikuu), Saima Harmaja

This is a poem from Harmaja’s first collection, published in 1932 when she was 19. She was already afflicted with the tuberculosis that claimed her five years later.

I love the way Harmaja veers between meters (iambic tetrameter and iambic pentameter) to add to the sense of longing.

The land is weary now and grey.
And wet snow’s falling through the day.
Above the lonely, febrile sea
the wind calls desolate to me.
It’s April now – the hardest month of all.
Now spring is weeping in her birth pangs’ squall.

When April wins the battle, you must know
she raises sceptre’s gilt enchanted glow.
And in her teary visage April smiles –
the sun comes out, and earth she soon beguiles,
spreads sheen of lucent green upon the ground,
and breath of lovely breeze makes whispering sound.
And surely you must know that no one’s spurned
the coming of the spring who for her’s yearned.

And yet I find I’m filled with fear
for all the fragile new life here,
which midst the tree roots in the earth
now pulses to the light in birth,
for whom the open lake’s chill gusts
like death’s communication thrusts
on smoulder of incipient blaze.
It starts to quiver, and it sways –
oh, does it have the strength to linger and
how long before the sun awakes the land?

Oh, is the one who’s colder than them all
familiar with the same redeemer’s call?
Oh, does she know spring’s timid, pallid hue
and that her love will never leave us too?
For no one who on earth has ever yearned
can throw away the hope of spring that’s burned!
Oh, no one who has longed enough for bliss –
I know this well – how could I not know this!


On väsynyt ja harmaa maa.
Ja märkää lunta putoaa.
Ja yli meren aution
soi tuulen laulu lohduton.
On huhtikuu. On vaikein aika maan.
Nyt kevät itkee luomistuskissaan.

Oi, tiedättehän, se voittain taistelun
taas nostaa valtikkansa lumotun.
Ja kyyneleissään hymyy huhtikuu,
– käy päivä esiin, multa kirkastuu,
ja yli mullan kuultaa vihreys,
soi ihmeellisen tuulen hengitys.
Oi, tiedättehän, ei kevät hyljätä
voi ketään, joll’ on kevään ikävä.

Ja kuitenkin: se säikkyvä,
se uusi, hento elämä,
se, joka puissa mullassa
nyt sykkii kohti valoa,
ja jolle viima ulapan
on niinkuin viesti kuoleman,
se vieno, joka palelee
ja värisee ja vapisee,
– oi, jaksaako se yhä odottaa,
siks’ kunnes auringossa herää maa?

Oi, tietääkö se kaikkein viluisin
sen vapahtavan, minkä minäkin?
Oi, tietääkö se arka, vaalea:
ei kevään rakkaus voi sammua.
Ei yhtään ikävöivää päällä maan
voi kevät jättää, oi, ei milloinkaan!
Ei ketään, joka kaipaa kylliksi,
sen tiedän – enkö sitä tietäisi!

Translation by Rupert Moreton

In a Graveyard (На кладбище), Semyon Nadson

Semyon Nadson flowered briefly – he died at 24 of tuberculosis.

This poem was written in 1884, when he was 21. It departs from its iambic hexameter once, in the line I translated as “The one beneath in rank decomposition”; I fear the effect is lost in English.

There is a corner of a graveyard that I know:
The grass is fresher there – untrodden, it is springing,
And there the splendid lindens arcing shadows throw,
Above the ancient crosses birds are sweetly singing.
I often wander there in summer’s dying heat…
And reading stones’ inscriptions sometimes has me grieving,
Or lying on the grass I watch as milk-white, fleet,
Above me where the sky and swaying tree tops meet,
Upon its journey somewhere lofty cloud is weaving.
And then today I chanced upon a toppled cross,
In slow incline towards a branch with prayer’s sad prating,
Inscribed on it was this to one who’d suffered loss:
“Do not delay dear friend! For you alone I’m waiting.”
Last evening’s vernal showers must have caused its fall
And so I fell to melancholic supposition
About the one beneath whose dust it held in thrall,
The one beneath in rank decomposition…
“Do not delay! I’m waiting for you” – treasured phrase!
From its interment did she hear your voice, I wonder?
His summons did you heed, or does your light still blaze,
O favoured, tender friend, pray, has he pulled you under?
And though I looked, I could not find the loved one’s name…
You lie here fading by an alien crowd surrounded,
Forgotten and alone without a wreath’s acclaim
To speak of all her love for you, by death unbounded.
It seems life’s swirling passion’s whirlpool’s sucked you in,
The burning sadness, like a wound, has found its healing,
And she beneath dense branches’ shadows hasn’t been
To this your tear-blurred grave to weep with bitter feeling.
This cross alone, as if a thoughtful hand, extends
Itself towards the place where your dear head is lying,
About it all it laughs as past with present blends,
About frail human memory, human love undying.


На ближнем кладбище я знаю уголок:
Свежее там трава, не смятая шагами,
Роскошней тень от лип, склонившихся в кружок,
И звонче пенье птиц над старыми крестами.
Я часто там брожу, пережидая зной…
Читаю надписи, грущу, когда взгрустнется,
Иль, лежа на траве, смотрю, как надо мной,
Мелькая сквозь листву молочной белизной,
Куда-то облачко стремительно несется.
Сегодня крест один склонился и упал;
Он падал медленно, за сучья задевая,
И, подойдя к нему, на нем я прочитал:
“Спеши,- я жду тебя, подруга дорогая!”
Должно быть, вешний дождь вчера его подмыл.
И я задумался с невольною тоскою,
Задумался о том, чей прах он сторожил,
И кто гниет под этою землею…
“Спеши,- я жду тебя!”- Заветные слова!..
Услышала ль она загробный голос друга?..
Пришла ль к тебе на зов, иль все еще жива
Твоя любимая и нежная подруга?..
Я имени ее не нахожу кругом…
Ты тлеешь, окружен чужой тебе толпою,
Забыт и одинок,- и ни одним венком
Ее любовь к тебе не говорит с тобою…
Жизнь увлекла ее в водоворот страстей
И жгучую печаль, как рану, исцелила,
И не придет она под тень густых ветвей
Поплакать над твоей размытою могилой.
И только этот крест, заботливой рукой
Поставленный тебе когда-то к изголовью,
Храня с минувшим связь, смеется над тобой,
Над памятью людской и над людской любовью!

Translation by Rupert Moreton

“It’s late – the streets are quiet” (“Умолк шум улиц – поздно”), Karolina Pavlova

A poem from 1858. The constraints of the iambic trimeter pose particular problems for the translator, given the economy of Russian inflection.

It’s late – the streets are quiet;
And skies above black grow,
Clouds threaten now a riot,
As knights to battle go.

Through window I am gazing
At all their grim arrays –
Untimely memories raising
Of other, distant days,

Those days – not many, fated –
It was a fleeting spell,
When signal I awaited –
And I heard a bell!

It is an endless fable!
For how else can it be
That I am quite unable
To purge it all from me?

I’m silent and contented,
The madness has now waned –
But still I am tormented,
And still I am constrained.


Умолк шум улиц – поздно;
Чернеет неба свод,
И тучи идут грозно,
Как витязи в поход.

На темные их рати
Смотрю я из окна,-
И вспомнились некстати
Другие времена,

Те дни – их было мало,-
Тот мимолетный срок,
Когда я ожидала –
И слышался звонок!

Та повесть без развязки!
Ужель и ныне мне
Всей этой старой сказки
Забыть нельзя вполне?

Я стихла, я довольна,
Безумие прошло,-
Но все мне что-то больно
И что-то тяжело.

Translation by Rupert Moreton

“Five years have passed” (“Прошло пять лет”), Anna Akhmatova

Akhmatova with Nikolai Gumilev and their son Lev, 1916

This doesn’t ring true. It’s too formulaic, too Soviet. And that’s the point. Akhmatova wrote this in May 1950. Her son Lev had been sentenced to 10 years in a Siberian prison camp in 1949, and Akhmatova began to write such poems in an effort to secure his release. Lev was released in 1956, when the thaw under Khrushchev began.

Five years have passed – and now the wounds inflicted
By cruel war have just begun to heal.
And now my Russia’s
……….fields unconstricted
Succumb again to quiet’s frigid feel.

Through darkness of the seaside night the beacons
Directing sailor on his journey blaze.
And at their fire, as if it friendly beckons,
The sailors out to sea now cast their gaze.

Where tank once thundered, now the tractors grumble,
Where all was fire is filled with garden’s scent,
And on the path that once was churned to crumble
The cars now float with journey’s light intent.

And where the spruce, ’midst branches’ mad derangement,
Cried out for vengeance, now the spruce grows green,
And where the heart once ached from sad estrangement,
A cradle-rocking mother singing’s seen.

Again you are a free and mighty nation,
O Russia mine!
……….For ever, though, we’ll store
In people’s treasured memories fond libation
Fermented in the burning years of war.

So for the peace of future generations
From Caspian Sea until the polar ice
As if burnt villages’ commemorations
The skylines of new cities now arise.


Прошло пять лет,— и залечила раны,
Жестокой нанесенные войной,
Страна моя,
……….и русские поляны
Опять полны студеной тишиной.

И маяки сквозь мрак приморской ночи,
Путь указуя моряку, горят.
На их огонь, как в дружеские очи,
Далеко с моря моряки глядят.

Где танк гремел — там ныне мирный трактор,
Где выл пожар — благоухает сад,
И по изрытому когда-то тракту
Автомобили легкие летят.

Где елей искалеченные руки
Взывали к мщенью — зеленеет ель,
И там, где сердце ныло от разлуки,—
Там мать поет, качая колыбель.

Ты стала вновь могучей и свободной,
Страна моя!
……….Но живы навсегда
В сокровищнице памяти народной
Войной испепеленные года.

Для мирной жизни юных поколений,
От Каспия и до полярных льдов,
Как памятники выжженных селений,
Встают громады новых городов.

Translation by Rupert Moreton


The Adoration of the Magi, Leonardo da Vinci

It rained. The nicest places seem
A bit the same when huddled crowds
Unheeding with their brollies teem
Beneath the dense and darkening clouds.
The pastel walls absorb it all –
Grow sombre-grey and seem to say
The snapping hordes will meet their fall
Before the trump of nobler day.
And yet osmosis pulls us in.
Uffizi flaunts its shelter’s lure.
From room to room in dazzled spin
In startling stun of colour’s cure
The still-damp heave discovers that
The story isn’t finished yet.
Da Vinci’s canvas, ochred, matt,
Has cast its uncompleted net.
The scene is Matthew’s, but we see,
Perhaps unknowing, John’s glib end.
Outside we drift. Like Magi, we
In new sun’s light, more hopeful, trend.

Rupert Moreton

Lived Alexander Gertsevich… (Жил Александр Герцевич…), Osip Mandelstam

The main challenge in translating this odd little poem from 1931 lay in reproducing Mandelstam’s playful changes with Alexander’s surname. Another difficulty is that there are several versions, using Gertsevich, Serdtsevich (“Heartsovich”) and Skertsevich (“Scherzovich”) inconsistently.  I have been unable to discover whether the musician existed or not.

Lived Alexander Gertsevich,
Musician and a Jew –
He ground the works of Schubert out
Like diamond, pure and true.

He gaily played by day and night
A crackling piece he’d learned,
The one sonata’s tune that he
Had memorised he churned.

What, Alexander Gertsevich,
Has day now ceased to glow?
Stop, Alexander Heartsovich,
It’s all the same, you know.

So let the fair Italian girl,
As long as snow is dry,
On narrow sledge’s runner’s skirl
Behind old Schubert fly.

And hearing dovish music’s flow
Of death we’re not afraid,
And there, just like a thieving crow
We’ve on coat-hanger swayed…

All, Alexander Gertsevich,
Was finished long ago,
Stop, Alexander Scherzovich,
It’s all the same, you know.


Жил Александр Герцевич,
Еврейский музыкант,–
Он Шуберта наверчивал,
Как чистый бриллиант.

И всласть, с утра до вечера,
Заученную вхруст,
Одну сонату вечную
Играл он наизусть…

Что, Александр Герцевич,
На улице темно?
Брось, Александр Сердцевич,–
Чего там? Все равно!

Пускай там итальяночка,
Покуда снег хрустит,
На узеньких на саночках
За Шубертом летит:

Нам с музыкой-голубою
Не страшно умереть,
Там хоть вороньей шубою
На вешалке висеть…

Все, Александр Герцевич,
Заверчено давно.
Брось, Александр Скерцевич.
Чего там! Все равно!

Translation by Rupert Moreton