I’ll Do Your Bidding At A Sign


by Boris Pasternak

Dawn will set candles guttering.
It will light up and loose the swifts.
With this reminder I’ll burst in:
Let life be just as fresh as this!
Dawn’s like a gunshot in the dark.
A bang-and flying burning bits
Of wadding go out, spark by spark.
Let life be just as fresh as this.
Another guest outside’s the wind.
At night, it huddled close to us.
It’s shivering-at dawn, it rained.
Let life be just as fresh as this.
It’s so ridiculous and vain!
Why did it want to guard this place?
It saw the “No admittance” sign.
Let life be just as fresh as this.
I’ll do your bidding at a sign-
A wave of kerchief-now,
While in the darkness you still reign
And while the fire’s not out.

In the early 1950’s Pasternak was invited to an important Soviet writers’ conference in Moscow. Pasternak knew if he attended and spoke his mind, he would likely be arrested for what he wanted to say; if he attended and didn’t speak, he would be arrested for contempt; if he didn’t attend, he’d be arrested for disobeying Stalin’s direct invitation. Pasternak decided to attend the three day conference. The first day Pasternak said nothing. Colleagues and friends urged him to speak, since if he was going to be arrested, at least he might benefit from the support of a sympathetic and prestigious State sanctioned audience. He remained silent again on the second day. On the third day he rose and said two words; “Thirty-two”. The audience immediately understood Pasternak meant Shakespeare’s XXXII sonnet which Pasternak had popularized with his hopeful Russian translation and the crowd recited the words from heart, words beyond even Stalin’s iron-fisted reach.

I know little of Pasternak’s writing or legacy beyond Dr. Zhivago, a novel he began in 1921 and did not finished until 1956. He was in no hurry, as he was certain that it’s content would be controversial if not considered grounds for a firing squad. But as often happens with great art, it found a way to eventually come into the light. It had been rumored that Pasternak was under consideration for the Nobel Peace prize for literature for several years prior to Dr. Zhivago’s publication and so it was not a surprise that he won in 1958 on the wave of it’s Western popularity. However receiving the Nobel only made life more difficult for Pasternak, as a smear campaign was organized by the State in the former Soviet Union, forcing even close friends to denounce him publically while pressure mounted that he was going to be deported. Pasternak decided it was best to decline the award but he continued to be denounced harshly in the State-owned press. Finally Pasternak wrote directly to Soviet Premier Nikita Khruhschev:

I am addressing you personally, the C.C. of the C.P.S.S., and the Soviet Government. From Comrade Semichastny’s speech I learn that the government, ‘would not put any obstacles in the way of my departure from the U.S.S.R.’ For me this is impossible. I am tied to Russia by birth, by my life and work. I cannot conceive of my destiny separate from Russia, or outside it. Whatever my mistakes or failings, I could not imagine that I should find myself at the center of such a political campaign as has been worked up round my name in the West. Once I was aware of this, I informed the Swedish Academy of my voluntary renunciation of the Nobel Prize. Departure beyond the borders of my country would for me be tantamount to death and I therefore request you not to take this extreme measure with me. With my hand on my heart, I can say that I have done something for Soviet literature, and may still be of use to it.

Boris Pasternak

Pasternak died in his beloved homeland in 1960. His death did not mark the end of the suffering of those that loved him nor the suppression of his writing. His wife, Olga Ivinskaya, was arrested for the second time in 1961, with her daughter, Irina Emelyanova. The charges; Ivinskaya and her daughter were Pasternak’s link with Western publishers and by doing so they had dealt in hard currency for the royalties on Doctor Zhivago. The KGB quietly released them, Irina in 1962, and Olga in 1964 having served four years of her eight-year sentence.

Immediately following their arrests in 1961, the KGB seized all of Pasternak’s letters to Ivinskaya, along with correspondence to other writers and intellectuals, his manuscripts, plays and unpublished poems and prose. In 1988, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ivinskaya sued for their return. The Russian supreme court ruled against her, saying she had “no proof of ownership.”

At Pasternak’s funeral, the final speaker said:

“God marks the path of the elect with thorns, and Pasternak was picked out and marked by God. He believed in eternity and he will belong to it… We excommunicated Tolstoy, we disowned Dostoevsky, and now we disown Pasternak. Everything that brings us glory we try to banish to the West… But we cannot allow this. We love Pasternak and we revere him as a poet… Glory to Pasternak.”

Definition of Poetry

by Boris Pasternak

It’s a whistle blown ripe in a trice,
It’s the cracking of ice in a gale,
It’s a night that turns green leaves to ice,
It’s a duel of two nightingales.
It is sweet-peas run gloriously wild,
It’s the world’s twinking tears in the pod,
It is Figaro like hot hail hurled
From the flutes on the wet flower bed.
It is all that the night hopes to find
On the bottom of deep bathing pools,
It’s the star carried to the fish-pond
In your hands, wet and trembling and cool.
This close air is as flat as the boards
In the pond. The sky’s flat on its face.
It would be fun if these stars guffawed-
But the universe is a dull place.

Published by

A Sonnet Obsession

I am a life-long Minnesotan who resides in Minneapolis. I hope you enjoy my curated selection of sonnets, short poems and nerdy ruminations. I am pleased to offer Fourteenlines as an ad and cookie free poetry resource, to allow the poetry to be presented on its own without distractions. Fourteenlines is a testament to the power of the written word, for anyone wanting a little more poetry in their life.

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