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Nine Poems by Ossip Mandelstam

These poems, among the last by Ossip Mandelstamm, were written during the apocalyptic days of the great Stalinist purges in the Thirties. Our translations, while trying to be as faithful as possible to Mandelstamm’s images and meter, are not literal. Rather, they are adaptations attempting to recapture Mandelstamm’s tone and the atmosphere of his terrible last years. Mandelstamm’s poetry has not been republished in the Soviet Union since the Thirties, but last May a public reading of his work was given at Moscow University at which Ilya Ehrenburg presided. A complete scholarly edition of his poetry in Russian has just been issued by Interlanguage Literary Associates in Washington, D.C.

—R.L and O.C.

I.

Preserve my words forever for their aftertaste of misfortune and smoke,
for their tar of collective patience and conscientious work—
water in the wells of Novgorod must be black and sweetened
to reflect a star with seven fins at Christmas.

Oh my Fatherland, my friend, my rough helper,
remember your unrecognized brother, the apostate from the people’s
family …I have promised to build you forests of log-wells,
such as the Tartars built to lower the princes in wooden buckets.

If only your executioners, those frozen blocks, could love men,
as the Czar Peter, a deadly marksman, loved the balls he bowled on the
lawn—for your love, I’ll walk through life in an iron shirt,
for my execution, I’ll walk the woods like Peter, and find a handle
for the axe.
May 3, 1931

II.

No, I will not hide from the great mess
behind the coachman’s back of Moscow;
I am hanging on the outside of a terrifying time, a moving bus.
I do not know why I live.

You and I, we will go to Avenues “A” and “B”,
and see who is going to die first—
Oh Moscow, she huddles like a scared sparrow,
then she swells like a sponge cake.

She has just time to threaten from behind a corner.
You do as you wish, I am not afraid—
who has enough heat behind his gloves to hold the reins,
and ride around Moscow’s ribbon of boulevards?

April 1931

According to the new edition of Mandelstamm’s collected poems, this poem is addressed to Anna Ahmatova.

III. THE TURKISH WOMAN

Everything rests on your small shoulders:
the sidelong glances of conscience,
our dangerous, bearish simplicity—
my words, like a drowned woman, are dumb.

Fins shining, red gills fanning,
their wondering mouths rounded in wordless
and famished O’s, the fish fin here and there.
Take this, feed them the half-risen bread of your flesh!

But we are not goldfish swimming round the globe,
and bubbling when we meet by a water fern;
ours the heat of the warm-blooded body, little ribs
like wishbones, the vain wet glitter of the eyeball.

I am gathering poppies from the dangerous fields
of your eyebrows. I love
your tiny, fluttering fish-gill red lips,
as a janissary loves his pitiful, small crescent moon.

Dear Turkish woman, do not be angry,
we will be tied together in a strong sack
and thrown into the Black Sea. I’ll do it myself,
while drinking your words, their black water.

Maria, comfort those who must die;
death must be frightened off, and put to sleep.
I stand on a steep cliff by the sea.
Go away from me, stand off—another minute!

Moscow, February 1934

The title of this poem is Ahmatova’s. In her opinion it is “the best love poem of the century.”

IV.

My eyelash prickles—a tear boils up from my chest.
I’m not afraid. I know what’s on the calendar—a storm.
Someone marvelous is hurrying me on to forget everything.
It’s stuffy here. It’s boring how much I want to live.

I lift my head at the first noise from the bunks.
I look around me wildly, half asleep.
I am like a convict singing his rough song.
when morning whitens the thin strip above his prison.

Moscow, 1931

V. STALIN 1934

We live. We are not sure our land is under us.
Ten feet away, no one hears us.

But wherever there’s even a half-conversation,
we remember the Kremlin’s mountaineer.

His thick fingers are fat as worms,
his words reliable as ten pound weights.

His boot tops shine,
his cockroach mustache is laughing.

About him, the great, his thin-necked, drained advisors.
He plays with them. He is happy with half-men around him.

They make touching and funny animal sounds.
He alone talks Russian.

One after another, his sentences like horseshoes! He pounds
them out. He always hits the nail, the balls.

After each death, he is like a Georgian tribesman,
putting a raspberry in his mouth.

Moscow, 1934

This epigram is said to have caused Mandelstamm’s arrest in 1934.

—Sidney Nolan

VI. TO THE MEMORY OF OLGA VAXEL

Is it possible to praise a dead woman?
She was an alien to her people and full of strength.
The power of her love for a stranger
brought her to a hot and violent grave.

The firm black swallows of her eyebrows
swoop down at me from the grave.
They tell me they’ve lain too long
in their cold bed at Stockholm.

Your people were proud of an ancestor’s violin—
Your neck bending over it improved its looks.
When you opened your mouth to laugh,
you too looked more Italian, and better looking.

I keep your heavy memory,
wild one, little bear, Mignon…
But the wheels of the mills are wintering in snow,
the horn of the postman is thinly blowing.

Varonej, July 1935

VII. CHAPAYEV

1.

Unreeling, speaking from the wet film—
they must have had a shepherd of sounds for the fish—
the loud images were moving in
upon me—and upon all, upon you too…

They had given up their privileged smallness,
their teeth gripped the deadly last cigarettes.
The brand new White Russian officers
stood against the open loins of the steppes.

A low roaring was heard—airplanes
streaking in burning to the very end—
an English razor blade, large enough to shave a horse,
scraped the Admiral’s cheek.

Alter me, Oh land, refit me—
the heat of the fixed earth is beautiful—
Chapayev’s smoking rifle has jammed.
Help me, unite me, separate me…

2.

Passing the church with five cupolas. For five whole days,
I shrank back, I was proud of our huge open spaces rising like dough.
Sleep had swallowed the sounds, but sound wore through my sleep.
Behind us, the harnessed highways rushed and ran us down.

Five cupolas. Our cavalry, drunk with dancing, riding on;
our intantry, a fur-capped, black topped mass, widening,
rushing like an aorta, power in the white night—no, knives!
They slashed our eyeballs to strips of flesh like pine needles.

If only I had an inch of blue sea, as little as a needle’s eye,
enough for the lowest card-holders, convicts chained two and two, to
hoist sail,but this is a plain Russian tale without a drink to go with it, a
wooden spoon.Hey, where are those three boys coming out of the iron gates of the GPU!

To keep Pushkin’s wonderful goods from falling to parasites,
our youthful white-toothed lovers of his verse
were becoming learned, a tribe of Pushkin-specialists with pistols…
If only I had an inch of blue sea, as little as a needle’s eye!

The train was going toward the Urals. General Chapayev spoke
from the sonorous screen into our open mouths—
Oh to clear the tall wooden fence, go through the screen, and drown…
Like Chapayev, to drown, and die on one’s own horse!

Voronej, June, 1935

Vassily Chapayev was a famous partisan general, a legendary figure of the Civil War, who drowned during a battle against the Whites. Chapayev’s story was made into a memorable Soviet movie in 1934. In one scene, white officers, on foot, with cigarettes in their teeth, march into battle “against the open loins of the steppes.” In Part 2, images out of Chapayev are mixed with Mandelstamm’s impressions as he was taken eastward into exile after his first arrest. On the train, the young soldiers who guarded him and Mme. Mandelstamm were reading Pushkin.

VIII.

You and I will sit for a while in the kitchen.
The white kerosene smells sweetly.

A sharp knife, a loaf of bread.
Why don’t you pump the petroleum stove tight?

You can collect some strings,
and tie up our basket before sunrise,

then we will escape to the railway station.
No one will find us.

Leningrad, January 1931

IX. THE FUTURE

My body, all that I borrowed from the earth,
I do not want it to return here—
some flour-white butterfly.
My body, scratched and charred with thought,
I want it to become a street, a land—
it was full of vertebrae, and well aware of its length.

The dark green pine needles howling in the wind
look like funeral wreaths thrown into the water…
how our pastimes and life were drained away!
when we sat like galley slaves at our gruelling benches—
bodies spread against a backdrop of green pine boughs,
with red flags like the colored A B C’s of a child!

The comrades of the last contingent are on the move;
no conversation; on their shoulders,
the exclamation marks of rifles.
From the heights of the sky, a thousand guns,
brown eyes, blue eyes, marching in disorder—men, men, men!
Who will follow after them?

Voronej, July 21, 1935

The title is Robert Lowell’s.

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