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Poems for Pussy Riot: Marta Kubisova’s ‘Ne’ in Russian…

29 Sep

A slightly unusual text features here, a version of Marta Kubisova’s 1969 Czech protest song ‘Ne’, translated into Russian («Нет») by way of my own English approximation (‘No’). The reason for this slightly convoluted process is simple: a couple of weeks ago writer, editor and all-round whirlwind Sophie Mayer emailed asking if I wanted to contribute a poem to a project designed to raise awareness and support for Pussy Riot as their appeal hearing – against penal sentences of two years each for the performance of a song – is scheduled for Monday October 1st. (A version of this song, A Punk Prayer, appeared here on August 15th, during the original trial, in both English and Russian, with some discussion of the context of the performance and the exact nature of the allegations against the women). The Russian versions of the many resulting texts were made with the intention of placing the poems in support of the women into their hands, via the band’s legal representatives, who have worked closely with English PEN and the Poems for Pussy Riot team (as well as Mayer, Cat Lucas, Sarah Crewe, Mark Burnhope and many others have been involved) and the English versions of the texts will be released as an e-book called Catechism on Monday, to coincide with the appeal hearing and an international day of action. As well as the English version of Kubisova’s ‘Ne’ (a song chosen for its historical parallels with this case) the book contains new work by 110 writers, ranging from Ali Smith, Deborah Levy and Sandra Alland to Sasha Akhtar, Jack Underwood and Amy Key. In the meantime, many of the contributions can be read on the English PEN website and anyone interested is encouraged to get down to the Russian consulate on Monday, where a protest will be staged (details are on the Poems for Pussy Riot Facebook page). As Mayer has put it, the hope is that the e-book and the band themselves will be released simultaneously. Let’s hope so. Until then, here’s Marta’s beautifully celebratory 1969 song of refusal, in Russian, as translated from my English version of the original Czech lyric by Zdenek Rytir by Dasha McLeish. Convoluted? Perhaps. Worthwhile? Absolutely.

Уэйн Бэрроуз

Песня «Нет» была записана в исполнении чехословацкой певицы Марты Кубишовой в 1969 г., но оставалась под запретом цензуры вплоть до 1990 г. Кубишова не скрывала своего враждебного отношения к процессу «нормализации», последовавшему за вторжением советских танков в 1968 г., и поплатилась за это возможностью выступать, записывать песни и ездить на гастроли – запрет, наложенный в 1970 г., оставался в силе вплоть до 1990 г. За время действия запрета она оставалась одной из главных фигур в диссидентской среде и одной из первых поставила свою подпись под «Хартией 77».


(по мотивам песни Отакара Петрины и Зденека Рытира, 1969 г.)

Я б купила все моря вместе с океанами,
Я б купила все шторма вместе с ураганами.
Я построила бы дом в глубине морской,
Чтоб навеки распрощаться со своей страной.
Той, где правит страх, а правды нет.
Кто-то хочет жить в такой стране?


Я б купила небосвод, звездами расшитый,
Вместе с ветром, что под вечер на покой спешит.
Я бы крепость возвела там, на облаках,
И молилась, чтоб она не обратилась в прах.
Там, где правит страх, невинных нет.
Кто-то хочет жить в такой стране?


Но в морях полным-полно боевых судов,
Бомбами и пулями набитых до краев.
Нет убежища, увы, и на дне морском –
Хищные подлодки вмиг найдут мой дом.
Самолеты рыщут в вышине…
Если ли край, где можно скрыться мне?


Все мы в клетке здесь сидим, в мертвой тишине
Но под маской, иногда, бросаем взгляд вовне.
Мы должны благодарить за дозволенье жить?
За то, что если мы смолчим, нас могут пощадить?
Страх тут правит бал, а правды нет.
Кто-то хочет жить в такой стране?



Marta Kubišová: Tajga Blues ‘69 (Supraphon, 1969)

4 Aug

Said by Marta Kubišová herself to be her favourite among all her recordings, Tajga Blues ‘69 is also one of the greatest records of its era, and not only in the former Eastern bloc. Few Western singles of the day are as remarkable as this particular few minutes of dramatic balladry and highly political poetics underscored by heavily distorted guitar. Tajga is the arctic region of the northern hemisphere, and appearing so soon after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, it’s unlikely that the song’s allusion to Siberia as a region of exile would have been missed, however oblique the imagery of the song itself, reminiscent as it is of some of the material written the Serbian poet Vasko Popa in Yugoslavia, and others elsewhere. How the record was released and even televised (and not, like another overtly political Kubišová song of the same moment, Ne (No), quickly withdrawn) is something of a mystery, possibly related to a time-lag between the management at the State record label (itself a powerful export income generator through its Classical music arm) and the ‘normalisation’ process, but no real information seems to be available. Whatever the reason for her recordings continuing to be released for around a year after the 1968 invasion, Kubišová did not hold onto her room for manouvre for very long. Despite her immense popularity, smear stories were run in the press and used as grounds to impose a ban during early 1970, preventing her from performing, recording or travelling for the next twenty years. If at least some of these post-1968 songs were pressed (though often left largely undistributed) the ban finally managed to silence her, musically at least, until the Velvet Revolution in 1989. This version of Tajga Blues ’69 first appeared in Poetry Review (Vol.100 No.4) in the winter of 2010. The song can be heard here and a transcript of the original Czech lyric can be read here.

Tajga Blues ‘69

(after Bohuslav Ondrácek/Zdenek Rytir, 1969)

Tajga sleeps, soft white drifts in,
Tajga lies sleeping, is gracious – his first grave sin.
Tajga slumbers in a dungeon of trees,
handcuffed to the Blue Mountains
as guards cling to houses in a quiet street.

Tajga blues, sing out the chorus still –
no word fears these short days
or the long nights.

Tajga does not wake, the north is quiet,
Tajga’s wolf trails are tracked by guards.
There are white places on maps,
blank pages in this open book
and power in the eyes of those who look.

Tajga blues is the echo I hear
as rivers roar and wind laughs a storm
through the long nights.

Tajga spreads its blankets to hide the world,
Tajga’s snow thickens on the quiet woods.
Where to go, but walk blind
through forests whose beautiful frosts
envelop us, though our eyes are closed?

Tajga blues, we sing as they imprison us;
our voices echo – exiled, heard –
and long nights whiten until the world returns.

Marta Kubišová: Ring-o-Ding (Supraphon, 1969)

19 May

This song is included on Songy a Balady and also featured (with a film by Kubišová’s husband at the time, the New Wave director Jan Nemec) in a 1969 special made for Czech TV. It’s a lyrical song whose pastoral arrangement and nursery-rhyme imagery lend it a timeless feel, melancholy and tinged with resignation, but finally optimistic, as it closes on a note of possible happiness, but leaves its fulfilment unconfirmed and its nature – given all that precedes it – unavoidably fleeting. Hopefully this version reflects these basics, at least, though some nuances may have been missed. The song can be heard here, and the Czech lyric is available to read here.


(after Bohuslav Ondrácek/Zdeněk Rytíř, 1969)

The deepest sea, the high mountain,
a forest sad in the eyes of a child;
crows’ wings roosting on a thousand gates,
nine rivers, flowing, leading here…


Behind each gate there is a single bell,
and someone rings it every day;
for your tears, your laughter, ring-a-ding,
for every moment, the air will sing.


The street is lined with pearly flowers and leaves,
windows are filled with butterfly wings;
this town is a waterfall of colour and sound
that flows more vividly than you recognise…


We hear, as one bell tolls birth, another death,
that with each misfortune one more bell rings,
chimes for the tear that swells in your eye.
For laughter? Sadness? Each passes by.


Patients wake refreshed from fever dreams,
the sun warms the face of a sleeping girl.
A car at a roadside, an alarm-clock’s repeats:
ring-a-ding, ring-a-ding, ring-a-ding…


I sing this fairy tale for the children of bells,
that girl’s hair in the sun, flowers on her dress,
the boy whose senses she’ll one day snare:
ring-a-ding, ring-a-ding, ring-a-ding…


They’ll grow up, and surely exchange rings,
each carillion beginning to chime at birth.
With every moment after, bright air will sing:
ring-a-ding, ring-a-ding, ring-a-ding…

Marta Kubišová: Balada o kornetovi a dívce (Supraphon, 1969)

6 May

A rough version of the lyric to Marta Kubišová’s Balada o kornetovi a dívce as featured on her 1969 album Songy a Balady (Supraphon). The Czech text is available to read here, and the song can be listened to here.

Balada o kornetovi a dívce (The Ballad of the Girl and the Cornet)

(after Bohuslav Ondracek/Zdenek Rytir , 1969)

The torchlight shadows flicker on stone floors,
the clouds over the castle sail quietly away.
The girls cry, and young men hang their heads –
the war is only a few hours of this night from here.

As light dawns and torches die, one climbs from bed
and vows to his girl that he will soon return.
He cannot wake her, tired as she is, so lets her stay –
he couldn’t promise to live if she saw his face.

He lets his words touch her in darkness and sleep,
imagines, when the sun at last climbs free
of the horizon’s sheets, the cornet’s sound, a call
to wake her, though he’ll be far away.

But for now, he lingers with her golden hair
spread on its pillow till morning finds her face.
Here she is, sleeping, her breath and heart,
her soft palms at play against that lovely skin.

Why keep breathing? Let the warmth hold her body
till the cornet wakes her with its cold blast at dawn.
In that early chill there will be time enough
for her eyes to seek him and her tears to flow.

We leave her, as he did, beautiful as she barely stirs,
light-headed, in love, in the embrace of sleep.
It is dawn. Her deserter stands with his back to a grave.
The cornet sounds and commands guns to fire.

Marta Kubišová: Lampa (Supraphon, 1968)

2 May

A kind of pastiche Brechtian cabaret performance, Lampa may have been an atypical presence in Kubišová’s catalogue, but it was also among her best known songs, and as such furnished the title for a 1990 compilation of her 1960s singles that appeared on the Czech market after the ban on her releases was finally ended with the Velvet Revolution. The song itself is a straightforward narrative in which the usual trajectory of a good woman falling into vice owing to lost love is neatly inverted: in Lampa, the woman is undone only when love intrudes on her days but instantly departs, taking her youth and the symbolic warmth of her protective lamp away with it. The song can be heard here, and the Czech lyric is available to read here.

Lampa (The Lamp)

(Bohuslav Ondracek/Pavel Vrba, 1968)

I burned a lamp filled with kerosene
against the evening cold,
a lamp lit by the men
I brought one by one to my room.
That lamp had never seen love before.

In the espresso bar’s flattering light
I’d burn like a candle,
unravel my youth.
I drank gin that burned
like a crystal flame on my tongue.

I tasted the forest and wood-sap
in every sip, heard axes
striking in the knocks
at my door. The lamplight flickers
for someone’s want of a girl…

But then it happened, at last,
when my hundredth man undressed
that my kerosene lamp
blinked hard, went out.
That last man felt heat instead of ice.

And when I said goodbye to him
I stared deep into the void
of a cocktail glass.
I would go again to the espresso bar
but no longer have a lamp to burn.

There is only the light of gin at dawn,
an ache in my head,
the soot of a dying flame
on the wall.
That lamp had never seen love before.