The Sparrows of Butyrka
Now even the snow has grown sad –
Let overwhelmed reason go,
And let’s smoke our cigarettes through the air-vent,
Let’s at least set the smoke free.
A sparrow flies up –
And looks at us with a searching eye:
‘Share your crust with me!’
And in honourable fashion you share it with him.
The sparrows – they know
Who to ask for bread.
Even though there’s a double grille on the windows –
And only a crumb can get through.
What do they care
Whether you were on trial or not?
If you’ve fed them, you’re OK.
The real trial lies ahead.
You can’t entice a sparrow –
Kindness and talents are no use.
He won’t knock
At the urban double-glazing.
To understand birds
You have to be a convict.
And if you share your bread,
It means your time is done.
Translated by David McDuff
In 1986, Bloodaxe published a unique poetry collection. No, I’m Not Afraid, by the 32-year-old Russian dissident writer Irina Ratushinskaya, translated into English by David McDuff, was a compendium: it included essays by, among others, the poet Joseph Brodsky and by Ratushinskaya’s husband, fellow human-rights activist Igor Gerashchenko. There were descriptions of life in the “Small Zone” of the labour camp at Barashevo where the poet spent three years, and biographies of some of the other women prisoners. Ratushinskaya’s own lively cartoons accompanied poems written before, during and between her periods of imprisonment. The poems remain as fresh and immediate as if the words had just been uttered.
The Sparrows of Butyrka was written between 11 and 20 December 1981. Irina and her husband had been arrested in Pushkin Square, Moscow, and given 10-day sentences for taking part in a demonstration of support for Andrei Sakharov. Irina was already known to the authorities; she had been fired from her first job as a primary school teacher for opposing antisemitism. Deeply influenced by her Polish grandmother, she followed the Catholic faith. She saw Poland rather than Russia or the Ukraine (she was born in Odessa) as her true motherland. Her poems can be lyrical, but often have a quick-fire air of defiance about them. They’re sometimes wistful, often angry, rarely without a spark of humour.
I read and admired her work when it was first published, and collaborated on some translations published in her collection Pencil Letter. But this was long ago, and it was Jack Mapanje’s prison poem Skipping Without Ropes that suddenly reminded me of this week’s poem. I knew she had returned to Russia in 1998, and had died of cancer in 2017. Suddenly it seemed urgent to reread her work and relate it to a new context – the present, western moment of protest and action for political change.
Mapanje’s and Ratushinskaya’s poems both feature a prison-visiting sparrow. Although Mapanje’s sparrow is fed by one of the guards, while Irina’s shares the prisoners’ breadcrumbs, the bird in both embodies the spirit of rebellion, humanity and freedom, kept alive, and keeping the poets alive, during their captivity.
Ratushinskaya’s poem contains a premonition that was to come true: “The real trial lies ahead.” And yet it determinedly lives in the moment. “Let overwhelmed reason go” is the vital, even spiritual, commandment. There’s no discernible logic to unjust punishment, and it’s not possible to plan ahead. Rationality and principles are opposed: principles for Ratushinskaya have to win. The snow’s “sadness” (suggesting it has briefly melted) must be dismissed: being sad won’t help. The poem moves quickly, colloquially, and almost humorously, savouring the small comforts, the cigarette, the smoke set free through the air-vent, and the unexpected arrival of the bird.
The experience described seems partly collective: the pronoun choice implies other people are present, especially at first (“let’s smoke our cigarettes”). As it goes on, the poem seems to make an inward movement. “What do they care / Whether you were on trial or not,” the speaker asks, now seemingly addressing herself. She has been brooding about the trial, or the lack of one. But the sparrow rallies her spirits again, and the poem moves on.
Ratushinskaya is quite specific about what the sparrow, and sparrows generally, represent. “He” is against authority. He visits the prison but “won’t knock / At the urban double glazing”. The latter phrase possibly refers to KGB headquarters.
Aphorism and proverb add a folktale flavour. “To understand birds / You have to be a convict” builds on the interchangeability of the roles. Ratushinskaya’s sparrow is like her: he instinctively knows truth from falsehood, and refuses to be “enticed” with bribes. And in turn the prisoners are awarded special understanding of the bird. Informally, without preaching, the poem suggests that freedom can be appreciated only if you’ve tasted its opposite.
The last two lines might suggest a prisoner’s saying, one of those optimistic superstitions that can keep hope fed and alive: “And if you share your bread, / It means your time is done.” This might suggest the bread-sharing is a saving distraction. Time’s heaviness can seem to be overcome, even if you’re still serving your time. Possibly, given Ratushinskaya’s Christian faith, there’s a suggestion of Holy Communion – or, at least, an act of redemptive grace. There might be an alternative interpretation of “your time is done” suggesting that your time on Earth is over. This seems out of tune with the overall impulse of the poem.
Ratushinskaya went on writing after her early release from the labour camp. Her publications include the memoir, Grey Is the Colour of Hope, and two novels, The Odessans (1996) and Fictions and Lies (2000).
David McDuff’s translation of the dystopian novel, Kallocain, by Karin Boye was published by Penguin Classics in 2019. He is working on translations of poems by Pia Tafdrup, the first two books of which will be published by Bloodaxe next year. His translation of Tua Forsström’s collection., Anteckningar, is also due from the same publisher in 2021.
In the meantime, some readers may be able to enjoy the poem in the original Russian: