Vladimir Vysotsky: Songs: Trans. by de Cate and Navrozov

Vysotsky's Lyrics: Translation by de Cate and Navrozov

And the candles are melting
The ballad of the departure for paradise
The ballad of the short neck
Chastushki (4 verse limericks)
The chess crown contest: The match
The chess crown contest: Training
Comrade scientists
Condemned to life
Dialogue in front of the TV-set
Evening storm
I walked out of a fine deal
A long drawn out jump
Meet the bride
The monument
Of the sea
Skull and crossbones
A soldier's song
Two scruffy ships
Who's racing after what?

Source: Recording "Le Monument"

The monument
Russian title: Pamyatnik
When alive I was shapely and lordly,
Feared nothing them bullets and feelings,
Didn't fit a conventional frame.
but as soon as my death was recorded,
They hobnailed and lamed the Achilles
On the pedestal of here fame.

Can't shake off my flesh made of granite,
Can't extract my world-famous heel
From this foundation cement of mine,
And the iron ribs embedded in it,
The armature I cripplingly feel
Sending spasms up the back of the spine.

I used to brag about my broad shoulders:
"Measure'em, a whole crooked yard!"
Didn't know they would fit fooolscap folders
Of judgments on the deceased bard.
A conventional frame, I got shoved into one
As if on some crazy fixed bet,
And as for the shoulders, well, son of a gun,
They straightened out even that.

And no sooner did I up and pass away
They my kith'n'kin had themselves a race
To make a death mask of the dead master.
Who put them up to it, I can't say,
but for sure the Asiatic bones of my face
Got clean shaved off the dazzling plaster.

Never reckoned on this even dreaming,
Never thought that my fate, even sleeping,
Was to end up the deadest of stiffs.
But the plaster surface was gleaming,
And sepulchral boredom was seeping
From my gaping smile without teeth.

When alive I'd never stick a finger in
The mouth of a lout.
To come to me with the usual  yardstick
They'd think twice about.
But I died, and then and there on the cot
The undertaker measured me with his rod.

Then a year had passed, flown fast,
And to crown the newly straightened-out me,
For the poeple who came, thronged and horded,
They unveiled a bust that was huge and robust,
To the deafening roar of loud-speaking glee,
Of my own lovely songs, pre-recorded.

Suddenly shattered above me was silence,
Sound burst forth from the loudspeaking battery,
Floodlights lit up the theatrical set-up...
And lo, by the powers of modern science,
The voice once voiceless with agony
Had turned to a pleasing falsetto.

Well, I was dumbstruck in my white shroud.
"Such in our common share!"
This I shouted, a loud-mouthed castrato,
Into the crowd's ear.
They tore the shroud from me: How thin'e is!
"Death, 'tis thy doing."
Do you really need me like this,
My own shoe-in?

Hollow sound the Commander's grim footsteps.
Thought I: I'll have me an amble of old,
Take a walk where flagstones and echoes meet.
So I did. The crowds scrammed - what a mess!
As I wrenched my leg free from the mould,
And I let the rubble fall away at my feet.

I leant forward a neked and monstruous lump,
Out of my skin, trying to stand up straight.
Tumbling down, I reached for my rod of iron...
Even so, when I hit the ground with a thump,
From the busted-up loudspeakers I brayed,
"I'm alive!", and it sounded a lot finer.

And that fall, it both broke me
And bent me.
And again my jawbones protrude
From the metal.
Didn't manage the way it was wanted,
On the quiet.
Made my exit publicly flaunted,
Out of granite.
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Meet the bride
Russian title: Smotriny
Neightbours starting to get plastered,
At the feast them guests in rows,
And the mistress of the master
To the cellar down she goes.
In the keys, the lock is tumbled,
Out the food, the stove is hot,
Flues are clean, so nary a rumble
Or some other trouble spot.

But in my place it's troubles round robin:
One day the garden, next the cow's in pain,
One day the stove is smoking, won't draw beans,
The next it's toothache or some such pain.

Over there, it's cabbage soup with meat,
The whole village hears them chewing.
The daughter, bride, ripe enough to eat,
All in boils, well, just a few o'them.

The lad he must've come to meet that broom.
What those pancakes must've cost them, fancy!
And who'd have thought that puny bridegroom
Was one for dancing!

But at my place, them dogs of yours truly
Don't bark no more, just howl and fight.
And on my feet, old bunions oozing fluid
From pacing round the empty room at night.

Oh, at the neighbour's, they drink fast.
But, hell, why not, it's not your last.
And why not sing when it's a blast,
And he's paying?
But here, my woman's nine months,
The geese I haven't fed for months,
Not just the geese, the whole dance !
I mean, a pain.

Here them roaches run things, pure and simple,
I chase one out of doors next day there's ten.
And also, in an awkward place, a huge big pimple:
What, work, man? I can barely sit or stand.

The neighbour sent his little runt
To say I should come over soon,
And so I thought I'd better come,
Declined, but then agreed.
He must've downed a litre or more,
Warmed right down to the very core,
And so I went and drank the store,
Still felt aggrieved.

And in the thick of all that festive fare
I whispered something to the bridegroom-to-be,
And suddenly the lad is outta there,
The bride upset, for all to see.

The neighbour shouts that he's no fink,
That common law is writ in ink,
That he don't eat who does not drink,
And takes a swig.
Then one and all jump to their feet,
The little runt corrects and blets,
"Who does not work, let him not eat-
Dad, you're thick!"

And me, I sat alone and fingered fondly
The fiver I had stashed for morning-after blues,
Embracing my accordeon, my only
True pal who gets me invitations to these do's.

The neighbour downed a litre more
And like a dog right off the floor
He got me up for an encore:
What did I think, drink's on the house?
Then three of them big chunky lads
Grabbed me tight by my shoulder pads:
"You sing, you bastard!" and one adds,
"Or else we rip your stinking mouth."

So far so good, and then the fun got bendy,
The bride had commeced to spread her tail,
And I began to sing "O happy days unending"
And "How I used to ride with the mail".

And then a soup of fish was eaten,
And the chicken innards with the feet in,
And then the groom had to be beaten
Good and proper.
And then they danced like village swells,
And then they fought among themselves,
And everything that started well
Came a cropper.

And as for me, I moaned in a far corner.
I'd had my fill, the time to strut had passed,
Thinking: Which of you fine fellows, come morning,
Will I again be seeing through my glass?

Next morning, over there all is tranquil,
Plenty of good mood and, frankly,
No hang-over bitterness to rankle:
Eat your fill, in other words.
And nobody is in a fight,
The dog is squealing with delight,
The tiled stove is clean and bright,
And even the flue works.

But over here, even in finest weather,
It's burning hell inside my swollen head.
I drink the freezing water, clean the leather
Of my accordeon, and the wife's still mad.
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Dialogue in front of the TV-set
Russian title: Dialog pered televizorom
"Look, Vanya, honey, at the funny clowns!
That one, he's got a mouth like a purse.
Check out the geezer with the loopy flounce.
A voice like he's pissed, or something worse.

"And that one's like, but no, I mean it,
Your brother-in-law, must drink as much.
Come on, just watch, one tiny minute,
I never seen such."

"Now listen, Zina, leave my in-law out:
Remember, he's still our kith and kin.
And for mouths, you watch  your snout
Instead, all right? Or I'll bash it in.

"Instead of carrying on, instead
Of all that crap that you get off on,
Go buy a bottle... No, you said?
Move over, Zina, on the sofa."

"Look, Vanya, at those dwarfs, real dorky!
In real jerseys too, all foreign-spun.
At the Fifth Sewing Plant, where I been working,
They'd never think of sewing that for fun.

"Your buddies, by the other way,
Wear such crap, and always will,
And always snarf from morning on
Such awful swill."

"My friends may lack your fancy labels,
But they work hard to keep their families fed.
Cheap swill perhaps, but more on staples;
A.M. or P.M., they've got the bread

"You, Zina, on the other hand,
Your pal is was that guzzled gas,
That tire-plant guy, he was your friend,
Speaking of crass!"

"Hey, Vany, parrots! Ever seen'em cuter?
I knew the'd jum like this, I must be psychic,
Who's that in pink, must be a tutu,
I want a little one just like it.

"When bonuses are due, say, honey,
Promise to get one, will you, hon?
But why say 'No, it's always money!'
You never let me have my fun."

"I think you'd better shut your trap.
This quarter's bonus ain't comin'.
And why? Who wrote that crap
To my employer? You're the dummy!

"As for this fashion-item piece,
On you it would look cheap, and sordid.
A yard of cloth you'd need, at least.
So where can we afford it?"

"Watch, Vanya, now the acrobats are starting!
Those cartwheels, wow, the tall one with the hat!
The other day, at our factory party,
Comrade Satikov, he jumped around like that.

"But you, you just come home and gobble
Your food, then off to bed to snore.
Or else you yell at me when sober.
Well, Vanya, wanna hear more?"

"You're itching, Zina, for a bruising
With them insults and your baiting.
All day you lounge, no break refusing,
Come home, and sit there watching.

"So the liquor store I go,
Where with my pals I gather.
For as for drinking on my own,
That hardly happens ever."
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Comrade scientists
Russian title: Tovarischi uchenye
Comrade Scientists, PhD's and candidates.
You've messed it up, your x's and your naughts.
You sit there and logarithm your antidotes
While the potato crop just quietly rots.

From compost and dry mould you try extracting
A magic balsam, like some square root.
Maybe it's amusing, and maybe it's attractive,
But it's the potato root that's rotting underfoot.

By bus to Skhodnya station, don't be late!
And there just leg it and be snappy,
When the honored spud is on your plate,
A pinch of salt and you'll be happy.

You show your patriotism here, dig'em tubers,
Then bang, world fame will explode like ammonal.
Instead, your whole gang are out slicing tumors,
And also legs of dogs - and that is criminal!

Comrade Scientists, enough of all your probings,
Quit your experiments, hydrite and antihydrite.
Get in the trucks and drive down to Tambov province.
Your gamma-rays can wait before you set'em right.

To Tambov we are driving, don't be late!
And there just leg it and be snappy,
When the honored spud is on your plate,
A pinch of salt and you'll be happy.

Bring your families along, your brothers and your sons,
We'll put them up in comfort and later you'll exclaim:
To hell with those blue-genes, those other chromosomes,
We've had a hard day's work, and now it's time to play.

Drive over, Comrade Scientists, Einsteins prized and rare,
Inestimable Newtons, together we'll be one.
"Cos our earthly suffering, it fills a common grave:
The earth she jus' don't care, it's phosphates or it's dung.

Head over, my sweet ones, in ranks without hiatus,
Although you're major scholars and never wear a cross,
You're wilting there behind your apparatus,
But here the air is clear, like  medicine, dross.

Comrade Scientists, relax, if something breaks or bubbles
Or goes wrong, like, say some bezerk phenomenon.
In a flash we'll be there with our pitchforks and our shovels,
A few day's deliberation, and it'll again be running.
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A long drawn out jump
Russian title: Zatyazhnoj pryzhok
Above the roar of the engines, not a sound,
I was left thankfully with my shame;
For as I hesitated before the gaping hatch,
I forgot to fasten my carbine.

With a swoft kick of the knee the instructor
Helped me clear the bar of this failing,
And I mistook his sleepy curses
For the usual: "Go to it, Laddie!"

And with a razor's slice of cold
The ascending currents from below
Tore away my scream
And burnt my frozen cheeks.

And merrily and carefree
The same aerial currents
Took my breath away, driving
The sound right down to the liver.

I fell into their skillful, clutching hands.
They moulded me, bounced me this way and that.
And, one after another, with acrobatic gaiety
I executed a series of incredible stunts.

Only later would I find if there was to be
Any sense in my falling. Meanwhile...
At times the earthly horizon hurtled toward me,
At others the clouds beneath me leapt aside.

And my scream was torn from me,
As my cheeks were shaved
By the cold, sharp blade
Of the ascending currents.

Down to my liver blood was driven
By those cruel and elastic
Invisibly encountered
Currents of the air.

I tugged at the ring in a sudden inspiration
As one rips off a shirt or the pin of a grenade.
However, because I'd originally been mistaken,
I had enjoyed eighteen seconds of free flight.

But now misshapen, with a hump on each shoulder,
And in each hump a bundle of salutory silk,
I'm in love with the target that I'm headed for,
I'm in love with this prolonged, fated fall.

And my scream is torn from me,
And my burning cheeks are shaved,
By the cold, clean scrape
Of the ascending currents.

Down to my liver they penetrate,
Whether I breathe in or out,
Those soulless, everlasting
Currents of the air.

I fly. Triangles, lozenges, and squares
Develop into rivers, lakes, and meadows.
The accursed air thickens, grows denser -
It's my foe, the parachute's true slave.

Below, the plane is already landing.
Having spat me toward the earth in despair,
I'll hit the ground sooner than it does,
Thanks to this protracted jump.

And my scream is torn from me,
And my burning cheeks are shaved
By the blunt, cold blade,
As the ascending currents comb my hair.

A sack behind each shoulder,
And my hands clapped to my sides,
I confront the fleet and carefree
Currents of the air.

An unprecented leap from the depth of the stratosphere.
At the signal "Go!", I took a step into nowhere,
For the sake of the shadow of a faceless chimera,
For the sake of a free fall, I jumped.

I plow through the cottony, aerial darkness,
The plaything of forces I cannot control.
Even falling freely is not possible,
Since we do not fall in a vacuum.

And my scream is torn form me,
My burning cheeks are shaved
By the cold, sharp blade
Of the currents of the air.

Like candles, they're lighting bonfires -
For I'll be landing with a jolt -
Those upright, irreproachable
Currents of the air.

The wind oozes in my ear and whispers slyly:
"Don't pull the rign, you'll feel the lightness soon."
Three hundred meters to impact. It's almost too late
The wind lies. The wind, he's a liar!

The straps tug me upward, the dome above me opens,
Like a pistol shot - Stop! And those minutes are gone.
There's  no such thing as a truly free fall,
Just true freedom to open the parachute.

My cheeks grow cool,
My eyelids open,
The currents fill
With concern for man.

I stare upward sadly -
There the stars are lonely -
And drink in horizontally
The currents of the air.
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Skull and crossbones
Russian title: Byl razveselyj rozovyj vosxod...
The sun, it rose all rosy and diverting,
The ship, she slipped softly out to sea...
It was the cabin boy's first-ever voyage
Under the death's head of piracy.

Listing to starboard, with sails a-flapping,
The two-masted brig made a sharp turn.
And the cabin boy's heart went leaping
With the hempen ropes on the stern.

Hiding a tender soul beneath the coarseness,
The skipper gave him some advice that stuck:
"Be a gentleman whenever luck is with you,
There are no gentlemen without the luck."

The brig roamed the seas, hither and thither,
Meeting with quarry Fate would bring her way,
Breaking the thin oar-bones of carvels
Whenever it was time to board the prey.

Once when a prize loot was to be divvied,
The whole gang began to shout and swear.
The cabin boy turned pale and bared his blade:
He knew the'd gypped him of his share.

A girl stood by and neither hid nor cried.
And the boy, he recalled the advice that stuck:
"Be a gentleman whenever luck is with you,
There are no gentlemen without the luck."

And then he knew the captain would do nothing
To stop the bloody brawls among the brothers,
And then he knew he would not feel the pain
Of steel as he inflicted it on others.

The girl thought the boy's as good as dead,
But if he's not to have her, no one can.
And all of a sudden overboard she leapt,
The waves hid the gold of her body's tan.

Dumbfounding his brigand brethren, into his chest
The cabin boy discharged his flaming gun.
He was the last of luck's great gentlemen:
All have now gone, as luck itself has done.
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Of the sea
Russian title: O more
With the earth for support, we are ready to leave
When the tide is high and salts's in the air,
And the hour has long beeen appointed.
We are lulled by the sea, rocking gently to sleep
Wayward children in their mother's care.

The waves will toil in the sweat of their brow,
Slashing to ribbons the sides of our vessel,
Our patient engines will make the months grow
From the rhythm of the quietest seconds.

There is only smooth water around, what bliss!
Not a soul for miles around, whole miles...
Grown used to being rocked to sleep like this,
Getting used to the comfort of homes takes a while.

We work with no days off here, no evening out.
At sea we've plenty of things to do, less devious.
We forget the girlfriends who care for us -
The ones we don't always care about -
May these sins of omission be forgiven us!

No, not true! We pine for them on the orlop,
In our dreams their names begin to unroll.
Here what we're after isn't some trollop,
Not some happiness, only the fish shoal.

There is only smooth water around, what bliss!
Neither fences nor walls, room enough to go dancing!
Being used to being lulled to sleep like this,
Growing used to the comfort of home gets taxing.

Some will say we are after the money it pays.
Anyhow, this isn't the place for rich pickings.
We are after the sea for the sake of the waves
Which we never forget years later.

When arriving from elsewhere's alien spring,
We are headed for the battered old pier,
The gates of the nation swing open to bring
Each sailor to his native here.

Nothing but smooth water roundabout, what bliss!
Neither fences nor walls, room enough to go dancing!
Being used to being lulled to sleep like this,
Growing used to the comfort of home gets taxing.

Every time we set sail, we're wed to the earth,
Most beloved, most faithful, most fair,
To return at the hour appointed...
Even rocked by the sea, gently lulled on the berth,
Wayward children in their mother's care.

The lighthouse can't blink as it stands to its feet,
It just stares at us, the dumb lout.
It's just seen our trawler reversing its speed,
The propellers going full out.

Even riding at anchor is something like bliss,
Gently lulled by the earth till one's soul is humming.
Those who return from the storms are used to all this,
Getting used to our next homecoming.
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Two scruffy ships
Russian title: Dva sudna
For everything on earth there is a season.
As for the sea salt, it corrodes like hell...
Two sombre ships were anchored in the harbour,
Next to each other, hull to iron hull.

Its funnel bent into a snobby smile,
The smaller stuck her nose in the air:
"What type of guy is this? And how uncouth!..
All wrinkled, rusty... nobody at all."

Side by side, the two ships
Did not bother
To look, each felt a mutual
Hatred for the other.

One of them was on an emergency list.
The other needed similar attention,
Though to judge her from a distance
Meant to founder from sheer fright.

The slightly bigger one froze in umbrage.
Though a steel-ribbed fellow with a solid bottom,
All twenty thousands of his tonnage
Shook inside him with indignation.

Thus the two ships traded
Taunts and insults,
Each feeling a mutual
Hatred for the other.

The weeks went by, and both were seen to.
Painters and welders came to treat
The rusting seams along the waterline,
And the two ships were bandaged.

The brass got scraped, the paint was laid on,
The steam was turned on, so too the saloon lights...
And when the repairs were finished,
The ships straightened their decks, like shoulders.

The ships eyed each other
With smooth sides
And realized their looks
Had much improved.

The bigger one then said to the smaller
With a sigh: "Both of us were wrong.
Never have I seen women or ships
That were lovelier than you."

The smaller one, now in the same condition,
Whispered that he was irresistible,
What's big is well seen at a distance,
But still, it's even better when close up.

Crews gathered round the shipyard,
Jostling and curious,
But the two ships talked their hearts out,
No longer furious.

Although a certain harbour authority
Dispatched them to different parts,
The two ships left the docks together,
Hull to hull, as they had stood.

Side by side they sailed silently away,
Submitting not to currents nor to rudders.
The repairmen on the wharf waved a fond farewell
To the two unwilling-to-be-parted ships.

What was the matter? Perhaps the two ships
Had gone off their rockers?
Or was it that they had simply fallen
For each other?
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Evening storm
Russian title: Shtormit ves' vecher, i poka...
All evening it's been raging, and
While bubbly bandages of foam
Cover the ruptured seams of sand,
I look on from above, and see
How the breakers smash their necks.

For those thus perishing I feel
A faint compassion - but from afar.

I hear the death raffle and the moan,
The rage of those who did not survive,
They who gathered speed well in advance,
Braced themselves to breast the barrier,
Then smashed their heads against the goal.

For thus perishing I feel
A faint compassion - but from afar.

Oh, frothing, white breakers of fate.
Growing more beautiful with death,
At the summons of the warlike trumpet
The waves rear up and whinnying,
Fracture their extended necks.

And for the dead ones we feel
A faint compassion - from afar.

Again the wind combs the waves,
Dishevelling the foaming crests.
The wave fails to clear the barrier,
Someone beneath it trips it up,
And the frothing filly collapses.

For her that fell, someone will feel
A faint compassion - from afar.

And very soon my turn will come,
The wind will blow, push me to the edge.
I have a feverish foreboding -
That I too will crush my backbone,
That I too will break my neck.

For me, the doomed one, they will feel
A faint compassion - from afar.

Thus through the centuries have many
Sat on the shores and watched
Attentively and sharply how
Others alongside of them
Smash heads and spines against stones.

For those who perished thus they feel
A faint compassion - but from afar.

But in the sombre, seaside dusk,
In the secret, whale-infested depths,
A single, unbelievable wave is born.
Toward the shore it storms and rushes
And swallows up the onlookers.

For those who perished thus I'll feel
A faint compassion - from afar.
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Russian title: Sluchai
We seem to live, but how absurd,
It's been so long since last we heard
The whistle of a passing train,
A passing ship's foggy refrain.
Some people know how to live it,
They go deep down, to the sea-bed,
And like dung beetles on their heap
These smaller fry cavort and leap.

While next to us, like bullets, chances fly,
Haphazard or belated, blind, furious.
We bare our chests to them as we walk by,
And then some end up dead and others famous.

Or else we don't pay heed to them.
Some duck them on the ground:
On purpose, or by accident,
We stumble and fall down.

Amid the clutter and the fuss,
Straightness is alien to us:
At times it's bow and scrape and drool,
At times it's rope and knot and stool.
We yearn to expand our minds,
But even minds more refined
Write everything between the lines:
They like the longer term, you find.

We yearn to soar above the crowd:
At least our thoughts can, quiet or loud,
And there they shimmer, lightly blown,
Eternal, free, and never low.
We yearn to soar, and as such
The other night we had too much
To drink, despite our bitter thoughts,
And quite a bit to eat, of course.

To bust things open everywhere,
Denounce the crimes, lay them bare,
Let light into the cellar, break the lock:
For this our heads will brave the block.
Stone sober, at a leisured pace,
We knock the past right in the face.
But weak's the hand that does the knocking,
It's cold and clammy, worse than nothing,

To take a load off a man's mind,
Revealing all to judge divine,
To raise a trembling hand, displayed
So as to show it holds no blade,
Without fear that the gendarmes
Will mow down the unarmed...
We iron ones are prone to rust:
Evasion is the thing for us.

While next to us, like bullets, chances fly,
Haphazard or belated, blind, furious.
We bare our chests to them as we walk by,
And then some end up dead and others famous.

Or else we don't pay heed to them.
Some duck them on the ground.
On purpose or by accident,
We stumble and fall down.
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I walked out of a fine deal
Russian title: Ya iz dela ushel
I walked out of a deal, ah, what a fine deal it was!
I took nothing with me, left naked as a worm.
Not because I had to, but simply because it was time,
Other deals were beckoning in them yonder hills.

We learn so many things from printed books,
But truth, it only comes from someone's mouth:
"No man is a prophet in his native land."
In other native lands they're just as rare.

They stripped me of everything, but I'm still happy
That the lion's share went to those I would have rewarded.
I walk over a slippery floor, with rosin on my heels,
I climb a narrow staircase and reach the garret.

Gone are the prophets, there is no denying,
Mahomet ana Zarathustra left us long ago.
There are no prophets in my native land,
In other native lands they're just as rare.

Downstairs they say - tor good or for bad, who knows?
"Good thing he quit, now the deal will go better."
I clear the cobwebs from the icons, I'm in a hurry:
Behind the house they're saddling the horses.

The icon is before me, and there, face to face,
It offers me this clear and melancholy advice:
"No man is a prophet in his native land,
In other native lands they're just as rare."

I leap into the saddle, body to horse's body, as one,
The steed beneath me stumbles, the bit's between my teeth.
I walked out of the deal, what a fine deal it was!
Other jobs were calling from beyond them hills.

I gallop, the stalks crunch beneath the hoofs,
But above the rustling I make out the words:
"No man is a prophet in his native land,
In other native lands they're just as rare."
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The ballad of the short neck
Russian title: Ballada o korotkoj shee
In any age there is a military commander
Whose head sits on a short neck;
With the chest that starts under the chin,
And the nape of the neck right on the spine.

It is simpler for a head to sit snugly
On such a short and inconspicuous neck,
And to choke it is significantly harder,
As the rope has nowhere to go.

And yet they crane their necks,
And still they stand on tiptoe:
For to see farther and better
One must look over other heads.

There, now you are a dark horse,
Even if you have glimpsed the light from afar,
Your stance is unsteady and wobbly,
And the neck is open to the noose.

And any despicable scoundrel
Can count the vertebra on it.
One sees more, but it is improvident
To live among people with an exposed neck.

And yet they crane their necks,
And still they stand on tiptoe:
For to see farther and better
One must look over other heads.

Proudly raise your head, like a gander,
And for the slaughter you are ready,
Whereas a genuine commander
On his two feet stands quite steady.

In Asia they are trained to ambush,
The demi-god would not allow
Anyone creeping up behind him
To knock him off his feet with a single blow.

And yet they crane their necks,
And still they stand on tiptoe:
For to see farther and better
One must look over other heads.

If the nerves relax, even a little,
If you are ever off your guard,
A wicked trip will lay you flat,
A hand will close around your neck.

One can pull one's head in sadly
Between one's shoulders - and risk nothing,
Only it's most unattractive
To keep one's head in this position.

And yet they crane their necks,
And still they stand on tiptoe:
For to see farther and better
One must look over other heads.

This is the Oriental fable
An old frontiersman once told me:
"Here, even their fairy tales are cruel."
I thought, as I kept measuring my neck.
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Condemned to life
Russian title: V dorogu zhivo ili v grob lozhis'...
Hit the road, be quick ! Or - go to your grave.
Yes, the choice before us is not very rich.
We are doomed to a slow-moving life,
Shackled to it for good measure.

Someone out there decided to believe,
And so he did, without a glance around, senselessly.
But is this really life - when one is chained?
But what choice is this - when one is fettered?

Insidious is the kindness shown to us,
Like the potions of crazy fortune-tellers.
Death from one's kin - is crouched beneath the stone,
Behind - is also death, but from others.

The soul has grown cold, hand and foot we're bound,
And we are mute, pawns about to be taken,
And at us from any dirty pane of glass
Shame bares its teeth in a crooked sneer.

And what if we were now to smash the fetters
And, seizing the villain by the throat, we
Tried to find out who it was who hammered
And chained us to this cruelly belauded life?

Do we not place our hope in something?
And may it be the chains outlast the teeth?
Why do we knock at the door to paradise,
Knuckles against forged iron gates?

They offered us a quick exit from the war,
But somehow managed to jack up the price;
And so we are condemned to a long life
By guilt, by shame, by betrayal.

But is this life worth such a price?
There's still some way to go. Be calm!
And far from that great and dreadful war
It is still possible to die with dignity.

Too early to equate with a marshy slime,
No cushy nest awaits us in the rotting mould.
We will not die of a tormenting life,
We'll come alive with a sure death.
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A soldier's song
Russian title: Ya polmira pochti cherez zlye boi...
Through many a battle and half the world
Behind my unit I trudged and crawled.
Then home they brought me, all sick and mauled,
In a special train of the medical corps.

In a truck they delivered me to the door
Of my house, right on the threshold.
I stared and was dumbstruck by what I saw:
The smoke from the chimney seemed special.

The windows were bent on avoiding my eye,
And the lady inside didn't greet me as kin,
Didn't throw herself on my breast with a cry,
Just threw up her hands and hurried back in.

And the dogs started baying and tugging the chain
As I passed through the foyer's tight squeeze,
And I stumbled on something that wasn't even mine,
Felt the door, and went weak in the knees.

There sat at the table, where I used to sit,
The new man of the house, looking darkly.
And by him was a woman and why - that was it -
That's why the dogs were barking.

Man alive, I thought, while I was pulling my weight
Under fire, denied all mercy and wisdom,
He moved things around my house in his way,
And changed them around as it pleased him.

While we prayed to God before every attack
That his covering fire might not fail...
But this deadlier blow was struck from the back,
And it stuck in the heart like betrayal.

I doubled up, peasant-like, with a low bow,
I summoned all my wilt and I whispered:
Well, excuse my mistake, I'll be going now,
It's the wrong house, friends, it must be.

What I meant was: May you have peace and love
In your house, and bread in the oven...
As for him, well, he didn't even look up,
As though what had happened was normal.

The floorboards swayed as though bereft,
But I didn't slam the door as I did once -
Only the windows opened as soon as I left,
And gave me a guilty look from a distance.
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Chastushki (4 verse limericks)
Russian title: Chastushki
Merry, merry, merrylins,
Girly, girlish, girliwins.
How can I forget you?
In my heart you've stuck your pins.

Think not that I am angry.
I pine for you. I'm lonely.
No front-line invalid, I,
Thrice love-struck only.

Come visit Vanechka,
You Manyas, you Manelins.
Come out and court the wind
Like hardy dandelions.

Friend of mine, a sculptor,
Strong-armed and tender, ah!
He brought me back from England
A foam-wool, plastic bra.

Here fashions have been trailing,
Compared to our beloved Perth,
Where the latest couture hit
Is a Pantagruelian girth.

Your habits I know not,
But in Denmark, so I'm told,
A gallant rendez-vous or two,
And to the altar you are towed.

How it's with you I know not,
But in our dear old France
Ten times one can be married
With little fuss or dance.

Reverse the oars, stout fellows,
Before we hit the shore.
No need to get up early
To celebrate some more.

As fresh and spotless as a needle,
Olya, Olka, Olyechka,
Bring to one who's feeble
Enough for half a century.

On the road, as he was limping,
The grandpa sought himself a bride.
All wrongly thought: he's joking.
He took no one for a ride.

My sweet one hit the bottle,
He emptied it quite nicely,
Took no chances, in view of
The coming energy crisis.

Don't howl, don't whine, don't sneer
Over a shortage or petroleum.
We have much more to fear
From an alcohol offensive.

I look - and see one family,
On such a Sunday fete.
All are sons with one another,
Even kinsfolk, linked by fate.
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The chess crown contest: Training
Russian title: Chest' shaxmatnoj korony: Podgotovka
I shouted at the fellows, "You bozos,
Chess prestige, you've let it go to hell!"
To which the sports section chief, he blows:
"Excellent - you pull it up yourself!"

"Keep in mind, that Fischer, he's a shark,
Never leaves the board, he's got real nerve,
Plays real clean, he does, real sharp."
Well, that's O.K., 'cause I'm no push-over,
Got my own knight moves in reserve.

Oh, my fingers they're so long,
Steely are my muscles.
Hold 'em wooden, fine-carved
Hand-enamelled castles.

Football friends of mine, he said: "Don't worry,
He ain't got nothing on you yet.
Forget the backs and centre forward,
Jus' use the wings and play it straight."

I started practising the racing,
I shed whole kilos in the bath,
My hockey's getting pretty dashing...
In short, with this kind of training
I'll trash the bugger in a flash.

Oh, my hands they're so strong,
Steely are my biceps.
Hold 'em fine-laquered knights.
Hold 'em wooden horses.

"On yer feet, and there, my lad, you keep 'em flat,"
This my boxer friend advised, supportive:
"Don't close in, work the middle, let 'im sweat,
'Cos remember, that straight one is your forte."

The champion's reign is at an end:
What's at stake here is chess honor.
Ten times with Tal I tried my hand
At poker, billiards and gin rummy,
And Tal concluded: "He's a goner."

Oh, my sinews they're so fine,
Strong, triangular delights.
Bring 'em on, in oak and pine,
Those bishops and those knights.

At our canteen, which is for members only,
The chief advised me between huge bites:
"With your kind of appetite, why surely
You'll gobble up his puny little knights.

The main thing's to rest before the journey,
Fill up a knapsack of good eats, or two,
Some pies will be handy for the tourney.
This Schiffer chap may be a genius, only
He'll be no slouch when it comes to food!"

On the road and outto town,
We'll wrench the chess crown from the fiend.
Like a pawn I lay me down,
Wake me up a real-life queen.
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The chess crown contest: The match
Russian title: Chest' shaxmatnoj korony: Igra
Soon's we landed, we were seated.
Chess pieces stood in pretty rows.
Then the cameramen descended,
Blinding us with their strobes.

Even at home I isn't one for turning.
No reporter's going to get my goat.
As for inexperience, I laugh:
This Schiffer has no way of learning
What opening I'll ram down his throat.

Lucky bugger, I'm black, so it's his inning.
People say he's savy with the white.
Pawn moves to King 4... Interesting beginning,
But something is familiar about that sight.

It's my turn. What now, my buddy Steph,
Steer by gueeswork through Siberia's frozen hell?
All I can remember is - the queen's the belle,
Moving back and forth, or right to left,
While them knights are jumping like an "L".

Thanks to Steph, my oldtime factory buddy,
He's the guy who taught me how to move...
Later I heard - maybe I got it lucky -
That I opened with a classical debut.

Playing against time, slow as molasses,
Brought to mind the chef from my canteen:
Swap those chess pieces for shotglasses,
Then we'd see who's got the best routine!

Aims a fork right in my face. That's dirty!
Must be hungry. Man, so are we all!
With this sort of starter I get very thirsty,
But they don't allow drinking in the hall.

I'm famished, would you be surprised?
What they give us? Coffee and some fruits!
Squares turn to circles in my eyes,
Kings, I think, are aces in disguise,
And into the corner pockets go the rooks.

There's a superstition, and I ain't faking,
"First time lucky!" - chance can intervene -
So I'm gonna drive him crazy with my checking,
Just as soon as that chequer becomes queen.

Can't make up my mind, all's hurly-burly.
Time to strike the blow, but where to aim?
Hit him with a rook? A little early.
Right hook to the jaw? A little early.
After all, it's only the first game.

He's wrecking my defense, the cad,
The old Indian ploy I laid out before him.
Something's rotten here, and smells bad,
Like the Indo-Pakistani quarrel.

Shouldn't kid around with a kidder:
I know a thing or two about blocking.
If he goes for mate, then mate it'll be,
I'm going to floor him with my knee -
Or how 'bout a bishop on the noggin?

Everything's not so dark up close:
Time and speed is what I'm now gaining.
In this world of chess, a pawn becomes
Queen, provided it got proper training.

So this Schiffer moves his tricks around,
Up and down he walks, a little pensive.
Now he's proposed a rook exchange:
Naturally he should be apprehensive:
I can lift one-fifty kilos lying down.

It was then I fixed him with my stare.
And the moment he announced "Check!"
I showed my biceps, nice and bare,
Removed my jacket, bared my neck.

At that moment everything grew quiet.
When he noticed all that bare brawn,
He seemed to forget about the game,
And the fabled Fischer, turning white,
Suddenly agreed it was a draw.
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Who's racing after what?
Russian title: Kto za chem bezhit
Over the long-distance course the four front-runners
Race. Each is persuaded he's the most fleet-footed,
Each thinks he'll be the last to falter,
Each wants to mount the lofty podium.
This one is less, that one is more hot-blooded,
But after hearing the final pep-talk speeches,
Each ate about the same amount of spinach,
With no judge needed for a photo finish.

T'will be a battle for the entire length
All being of roughly equal strengtn.

"Say, tell us how they're doing,
For Pete's sake?"
"The TV crews are there,
The radio teams as well.
Nothing special to report,
All seems to be swell.
But the crowd's hotting up
Into quite a frenzy."

Number One's scorching his sneakers, as a hero must,
Seems to coast downhill, intends with pride,
Crowned like a winner in a blaze of ardour,
To approach the gloaming cup with hardy stride.
What was it that deprived him of deep, high-minded thoughts ?
Because when young he ate too little kasha.
As a kid he felt hunger, not ambition.
Time enough to change - and off to the gymnasium.

Like it or not, that's the way it is,
The first to get there get the choicest bits.

As for the loser, what's to say?
He lost his wager.
Out of kindness I'll give him
Bones and liver.

Number Two's far removed from these carnal concerns.
He's one of the plump, well stuffed and sated,
He dreams of glory, ne dreams of success,
He lifts his knees high, more so than the rest.
He leans into the turn, almost touching the ramp,
A sight for glad eyes, he's clearly a champ.
He's a master of tactics, in a word a real pro,
With will-power, strength, and sheer guts to show.

Precise, concentrated, tense,
He's not one to kick against the fence.

We'll see this chap again
At Thessalonika,
We'll see him on the tele
Teaching little kids.
He'll compete with Pele
In muscle-toughening.
He's the very model of
All-round wilfulness.

Number Three, by now wise and through the mill
- He's always second - can surely be relied on.
Someone first-seeded probably fell ill;
His trainer may have felt a gram of pity.
In his ears resounds the old, insidious refrain:
"Listen, this is your last chance, old fellow!"
Like a kid he's all worked up, merely needs a fillip.
Give him a good prod - or else the jig is up.

Suddenly he falls back
Into the rear-guard echelon,

Among the one-time stars,
And the cardiac cases,
Where low-priced are all places
And all pre-booked.

And the Fourth, way out there on the outer lane,
He just runs, not for anything nor anyone.
At times he closes in: Watch it, I'm on your heels!
At times falls back, which is how I want it.
(The second won't receive the laurel wreath,
The first won't taste the juicy morsel.

The third one, like a snail,
Will crawl along the supply trail...)

How many systems are there
To modern racing?
Suddenly he's slackened pace
Before the final sprint.
He's torn off his T-shirt
In unseemly haste.
This runner's behaviour
Shows deplorable taste.

Over the long distance, the four are still in front,
Nasty and kind-hearted, disinterested and grasping.
To what fancy gods are each of them not praying?
With shoulder blades protruding from their backs,
The front-line foursome whirl along the stretch,
With no judge needed for a photo check.
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The ballad of the departure for paradise
Russian title: Ballada ob uxode v raj
Here's your ticket, here's your railway car,
Everything's in order: you've got a unique chance
To see a dream of technicolour heaven:
Three centuries of non-stop cinema.

All's ready, the photos have been taken,
Everything's been stamped, no contraband we're taking,
You're now as sterile as a cherub,
In second class (not the best), but with linen.

Everything's now come true, as was predicted.
The train takes off for heaven - straight ahead!
How we'd like, how all of us would like it -
Not to die, to fall asleep instead.

The earthly platform... Don't whimper!
And don't weep! He's deaf to our wailing.
One of us has left for paradise;
He'll meet God surely, if some kind of god there is.

He'll transmit our salutations.
If he forgets, no matter, we'll survive.
We've only a few years to live,
We'll somehow manage and, as scheduled, die.

Everything's now coming true, as was predicted.
The train leaves for paradise - Straight ahead!
How we'd like,how all of us would like it -
Not to die, to fall asleep instead.

It's not everybody's lot to sleep in heaven,
Here at any rate we'll have a little fling:
We'll scrap a little, sing; ah, here I sing,
Others love, still others think of loving.

They'll leave like us, toward nothing headed,
Sleepless sons of grandsons, three centuries astride.
And may God grant, there'll be no war,
Or we'll have taken our descendants for a ride.

So everything comes true, as was predicted,
The train leaves for heaven - Straight ahead !
How we'd like, how all of us would like it -
Not to die, to fall asleep instead.

Narry a moan, you couldn't care less;
On your eternal couch you sway.
But such a price, I must confess,
Not for the finest library I'd pay.

Some sort of fellow will awake you,
And usher you into a world where war and cancer,
Like Hong Kong flu, belong to the past.
Are you happy, Fool, for what awaits you ?

Meanwhile, the little bell is ringing.
Bon voyage! Protect yourself from every ill.
And if up there, a God there really is,
Don't forget to deliver him our greeting.
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And the candles are melting
Russian title: Oplavlyayutsya svechi na starinnyj parket...
And the candles are melting
Out to the aged parquet.
The rain runs down shoulders
Like silver off epaulets.
In a frenzy there fizzles
The golden champagne.
Let the past fly away,
I'm not one to complain.

In a premortal anguish
with a back-looking glance,
The scared stags bound forward
Toward the deadly advance.
Someone points his long barrel
At the innocent breast...
Let bygones be bygones,
Come what may, if it's best.

With a heartless abandon
A clever hunter takes aim
With razor-sharp arrows
Into the sunset's red flame.
In the tempest of sound
A sad note then began.
The past leaps and bounds,
Come what may, if it can.
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