|From the book The Beginning of a Book|
|To Professor Donald Nicholl |
"Rostheme", Common Lane, Cheshire, UK
|Here, where you, Donald, haven’t been|
in this country,
which you loved so much
and which no longer pains
our hearts, but pains something simpler instead
in our unbearable country,
I remember your home
on Common Lane,
the simple and honorable home of a working man,
and Dorothy with tea on a tray,
and your serene death.
Holy Russia, you used to say,
that the city of Kitezh ,
where a Saint shares his bread with a bear,
where an Easter Seraphim
says: Greetings to you, my joy!
and his smile
ignites the stars in the afternoon sky,
where prisoners pray for their souls, for their jailers…
Perhaps, they’re meeting you now, Donald:
how can they not meet one who had such faith in them,
the Seraphim and the Saint, and those from the Kolyma and Magadan prisons,
whose names are unknown and whose faces,
as they used to say,
will merge into the face of the Holy Spirit.
my pitiless heart
is like earth over which heavy tanks have rolled,
if something does grow in this kind of earth, it will not be soon,
perhaps in two hundred years.
everything is rushing to an inevitable world
just like a river to an ocean,
everything will change and be forgiven
flowing into common, infinite waters,
into the precipice of Mercy
about which we know –
your words will not penetrate deeper into my heart.
The slaughtered earth
has nothing to receive and to nurture its grain.
Here is the horrid suffering
about which you used to ask me
with the straight forwardness of a man used to praying.
It’s not evil, not insult, Donald,
all these pass quite easily…
during our late, foul-weather fall
filled with compassion and accord,
irrational compassion and unfettered accord,
I remember you
and hear words uttered in another language in your voice
about the Easter Seraphim,
the Saint and his bear,
the Solovki prayer,
and the precipice of Mercy
that murmurs like the northern sea.
Slava I. Yastremski and Michel Naydan
Here, in this country Donald,
that you so loved, and never visited,
in this country that makes us sick
at heart – or somewhere more fundamental,
in this unbearable country,
I remember your house
standing by its English common,
the plain, dignified house of someone steeped in work,
and Dorothy bringing tea on a tray,
and your radiant death.
Holy Russia was what you talked about:
the drowned city of Kitezh,
where Saint Sergius shares his bread with a bear,
where at Easter the blessed Serafim
says, Good morning my delight,
where his smile lights stars in the noon sky,
where prisoners pray for their guards.
Maybe now they’ll come to greet you, Donald.
They must do, when you believed in them so.
Blessed Serafim, Saint Sergius, the multitudes from Mogadan and Kolyma,
without number or name, those whose faces,
as you said, would fuse into one,
the face of the Holy Spirit.
But, Donald, my heart is as hard
as earth scarred by the passing of tanks.
If anything grows there, it’ll take years –
centuries, two centuries at least.
Your words about how
everything passes into a single inexorable whole
like waters into the sea,
how everything will be changed, forgiven,
flowing into one immeasurable ocean,
the infinite depths of mercy
whose existence we sense –
your words won’t sink deep.
This exterminated soil
can’t sustain the growth of stray seeds.
It’s suffering of that ugly kind
you asked about with the persistence
of someone used to talking to God.
It’s not anger or affront, Donald:
that passes quite quickly.
in this late wet autumn
full of misery and reconciliation,
irrational misery, irrational reconciliation,
I remember you
and your voice talking in another language
about the blessed Serafim greeting Easter,
about St Sergius and his bear,
about the prayers said in Solovki camp,
about the infinite depths of mercy
resounding like the Northern seas.
Catriona Kelly and Robert Reid
|Donald Nicholl (1923-1997): Catholic layman and theologian, whose works include Holiness, The Testing of Hearts, The Beatitude of Truth, and, of special relevance here, Triumphs of the Spirit in Russia.|
The city of Kitezh: According to a legend, the city was miraculously saved by God, who hid the city from the Tartar-Mongol hordes under the water of the Lake Svetloyar.
Solovki is a monastery in the Russian North converted to a prison during Stalin's times.
| ||A Letter|