November 27, 2012

Osip Mandelshtam

Osip Mandelshtam [Russia]

Osip Mandelshtam grew up in St. Petersburg in an assimilated middle-class, Jewish family. He was educated in classical studies at the Tenishev School.

     From 1907-1910 Mandelshtam spent most of his time in western Europe, where he discovered the French Symbolists and other contemporary writing of his time. In 1911, he returned to Russia, attending St. Petersburg University. There he joined with poets Anna Akhmatova and Nikolai Gumilev in establishing the poetic movement, Acmeism.

     Mandelshtam continued to write during World War I and through the Russian Revolution, taking no active role in either conflict. During the civil war he served briefly in the Education Ministry in Moscow under Anatoly Lunacharsky.

     Mandelshtam’s early works include Kamen (1913, Stone) and Tristia (1922). After 1922, he was unable to publish until the end of the decade. During that time he supported himself by translating and writing children’s books. In 1920 he published Stikhotvorenia 1921-25 (Poems 1924-25), containing some of his most important and profound meditations. In 1934 he was arrested by Stalin for denouncing the leader as a “peasant slayer,” and was sentenced to three years exile in Voronezh. At the end of that time, Mandelshtam was allowed to return to Moscow, but was eventually banished to the suburbs. He was arrested again in May of 1938, and this time he was sentenced to five years hard labor. In a transit camp near Vladivostok, the poet died of heart failure.


Kamen (1913); Tristia (1922); Stikhotvorenia 1921-25 (1928); Sobranie sochinenni (4 volumes), edited by Gleb Struve and Boris Filipoff (Vol 1: Washington, D.C.: Inter-Language Literary Associates, 1979; Vol 4: Paris: YMCA Press, 1981); Stikhotvorenia, edited by Nikolai I. Khardzhiev (Leningrad: Biblioteka poeta, 1974)

Osip Mandelstam’s “Stone,” translated by Robert Tracy (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1981); Osip Mandelstam: Selected Poems, trans. by Clarence Brown and W. S. Merwin (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press/Athenaeum, 1973/1974); Osip Mandelstam: 50 Poems, translated by Bernard Meares (New York: Persea Books, 1977); Osip Mandelstam: Selected Poems, trans. by David McDuff (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1974); Osip Mandelstam: Poems Chosen and Translated, trans. by James Green (Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala Publications, 1978); A Necklace of Bees: Selected Poems, trans. by Maria Enzensberger (London: The Menard Press, 1992); Tristia, trans. by Kevin J. Kinsella (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2007)


Insomnia. Homer. Taut sails.
I have read the list of ships to the middle:
This migrant flight
That once winged over Hellas.

What drives this wedge of cranes into alien borders?
What do you seek, Archean men?
Were it not for Helen,
What need had you of Troy?

 Homer falls silent
And foam swirls from the head of kings.
Only the black sea rages
And a heavy surf thunders against my pillow.

(from Kamen, 1915)

Translated from the Russian by John Glad

On Stony Pierian Spurs

On stony Pierian spurs
the muses’ ring was forged in dance
that blind bards might lay up for us like bees
heavy combs of Ionian honey.
And from the bulging female brow
fell coldness
that distant grandsons might touch
the archipelago’s tender coffins.

Spring tramples the fields of Hellas
as Sappho pulls on a red slipper.
And from the cicada’s hidden smithy
tiny hammers ring out over the cut grass.
Already beef hides have been stretched
over wedding shoes,
and before the carpenter’s door
scamper headless chickens.

the lyre lies fingerless,
baking its golden belly
in the Epirian sun.
She longs to be flipped over, caressed.
Where is Terpander?
How long must she wait
for the rape of dry thumbs?

Above the gossiping, bare-headed grass
wasps copulate with honeysuckle
and oaks drink deep from tepid springs.
I would break no bread
and sip but wine and honey
where the creak of labor
does not blacken the islands’ sky.

 (from Tristia, 1922)

—Translated from the Russian by John Glad


I have studied the science of parting
In the bareheaded laments of night.
Oxen chew, the waiting drags on
As the vigil stretches the night’s last hour.
I honored the ritual of the crowing night
When I took up the traveler’s heavy grief.
I saw in a woman’s distant eyes
Tears mingling with the Muses’ song.

Who can tell from the word “parting”
What kind of separation lies before us,
What awaits us in the rooster’s call
When a fire burns in the acropolis?
And at the dawn of a new life,
While the oxen chew lazily in the barn,
Why the rooster, herald of the new day,
Beats its wings on the city wall?

I love the routine of spinning wool,
The shuttle’s glide, the spindle’s hum.
Look, drifting towards us like swan’s down,
Barefoot Delia comes flying!
How poor the foundation of our lives,
How plain the language of joy!
Everything has come before and will again,
But only the moment of recognition is sweet.
So be it: a transparent shape
Lies on a clean, earthen dish
Like the stretched hide of a squirrel.
A girl, bending over the wax, reads it.
It is not ours to tell the future of Greek Erebus:
Wax is for women as bronze is for men.
Our lot is to fall in battle,
Their’s to die by prophecy.

(from Tristia, 1922)

 —Translated from the Russian by Kevin J. Kinsella

Can’t remember how long

This song’s been known to me—
Does a thief slink along to its tune
Or the prince of mosquitoes drone?

I would like just one more time
To speak of nothing at all,
To blaze up like a match in the dark,
Or nudge night awake with my shoulder.

To lift off the air’s hat
Like a smothering haystack,
To shake up a heavy sack
Chock-full of caraway seeds.
So that the flow of blood
And the ringing of dry grass
Every after would ripple on
Through the ages, the hayloft, the dream.

(from Stikhotovorenia 1921-25, 1928)

—Translated from the Russian by Maria Enzensberger

“Insomnia” and “On Stony Pierian Spurs”
Reprinted from Twentieth-Century Russian Poetry, edited by John Glad and Daniel Weissbort (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992). Copyright ©1992 by University of Iowa Press. Reprinted by permission of the University of Iowa Press.
Reprinted from Tristia (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2007). Translation copyright ©2007 by Kevin J. Kinsella. Reprinted by permission of Green Integer.

“Can’t remember how long”
Reprinted from A Necklace of Bees: Selected Poems, trans. by Maria Enzensberger (London: The Menard Press/King’s College London, 1992). Translation copyright ©1992 by the Estate of Maria Enzensberger. Reprinted by permission of The Menard Press.

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