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Poem of the week: The Sparrows of Butyrka by Irina Ratushinskaya

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The Soviet-era dissident writer’s defiant prison lyric has lost none of its immediacy

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

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