The Friday poem this week comes from Stanford University historian and poet, Robert Conquest. He is the author of twenty-one books on Soviet history, politics, and international affairs, including the classic ‘The Great Terror’ – which has been translated into twenty languages – and the acclaimed ‘Harvest of Sorrow’ (1986).
In a 2010 profile for the Stanford news he offered this advice to young poets, “Write under a pseudonym, and pretend it’s a translation from the Portuguese.”
The profile also includes observations by his friends:
“As a poet Bob is funny, intensely lyrical and deeply reflective,”(R.S.) Gwynn said. “Whenever I read him I think of how rarely we are allowed to see a mind at work, and what a mind it is.”
“(Christopher) Hitchens, speaking of Conquest’s “devastatingly dry and lethal manner,” also wrote that his was “the softest voice that ever brought down an ideological tyranny.” Naming Conquest among his handful of favorite poets, Hitchens called him not only “the king of the limerick” but also “the dragon slayer of the Stalinoid apologists.”
This poem is for all you ‘dragon slayers @ work’, boarding a flight home.
After the horrors of Heathrow
A calmness settles in.
A window seat, an ambient glow,
A tonic-weakened gin.
The pale-grey wings, the pale-blue sky,
The tiny sun’s sharp shine,
The engines’ drone, or rather sigh;
A single calm design.
Those great wings flex to altering air.
Ten thousand feet below
We watch the endless miles of glare,
Like slightly lumpy dough.
Below that white all’s grey and grim,
The wrong side of the sky.
Reality’s down in that dim
Old formicary? Why?
What though through years, the same old way,
That world spins on its hub?
The mayfly’s simple summer day
Beats lifetimes as a grub!
A geologic fault, this flight:
Those debts, that former wife,
Make some moraine down out of sight,
Old debris of a life.
(Only one figure, far and clear
Looks upward from that trough
A face still visible from here
-The girl who saw him off.)
The huge machine’s apart, alone.
The yielding hours go by.
We form a culture of our own
Inhabiting the sky.
Too short? Yet every art replies,
Preferring for its praise
To Egypt’s smouldering centuries
The brief Athenian blaze …
That flame-point sun, a blue-set jewel,
Blazed blurredly as it went.
Our arguments run out of fuel.
We dip for our descent.
We drift down from pure white and blue
To what awaits us there
In customs shed and passport queue
-The horrors of O’Hare.
Robert Conquest, 1988