Translator’s Note: In Tristia (1922), his second collection of poems, Osip Mandelstam responded to the wars and upheaval of the years between 1917 and 1922 in Russia by celebrating the order and culture of the classical world. He spent part of these years as a refugee in the Crimea, which remained for a long time sheltered from the revolutionary and civil wars. The Crimea was to Mandelstam sacred ground because it had been part of the ancient Greek world, and he particularly valued the peace and hospitality he found there with the painter S.Y. Sudeikin and his wife, Vera Arturovna. Vera Sudeikin, who later married Igor Stravinsky, died in New York on September 17, 1982.
In his “Tristia,” Ovid wrote of his exile from Rome to the shores of the Black Sea. Mandelstam’s “Tristia” partly echoes Ovid’s account of his last night in Rome, and perhaps also records Mandelstam’s sense that the Saint Petersburg he loved, and the life he had known there before the Revolution, were gone forever.
I have studied the science of saying goodbye
In a night of lamentations with hair unbound.
The oxen chew, and the wait drags on and on
Till the last hour of the city’s vigil comes round,
And I ponder the ritual of that cockcrow night
When I lifted the load of sorrow I must bear
While eyes red from weeping stared somewhere out of sight
And the song of the Muses merged with a woman’s tears.
Who can know, when he hears the word “farewell”
What kind of separation is before us,
Or what it is the crowing cock foretells
When the fire burns upon the acropolis,
And as some new kind of life is dawning,
While the oxen chew lethargically in their stall,
Why the cock, the herald of new life,
Flaps his wings on the city wall?
And so I cherish the familiar rituals of yarn:
The shuttle moves to and fro, the spindle hums,
Look there—running, like a fleck of swansdown,
Barefoot Delia comes!
Ah, this life of ours stands upon a base so thin,
And the language of rejoicing is so poor!
It all happened long ago, it all happens once more,
And nothing is sweet but the moment of recognition.
So be it: a fluid pattern
Spreads across a clean earthen plate
Like a squirrel skin someone has flattened,
Hovering over the wax, a girl waits.
It is not for us to speculate about Greek Erebus,
What wax is for women, bronze is for men.
Fate comes only in battle for us,
But their fate is to die in telling fortunes.
THE STREAM OF GOLDEN HONEY
for Vera Stravinsky
The stream of golden honey trickled out of the bottle, so viscous
And so very slow, that the lady of the house had time to say:
Here, in sad Tauride, where our destiny has brought us,
We are not bored—she glanced over her shoulder—not in any way.
Everywhere they are working for Bacchus, as if the world held only
Watchmen and dogs—as you pass by, you won’t see anyone—
The quiet days are like ponderous barrels, rolling along:
There are voices far off in a hut—you won’t understand them, you
After tea we went outside, into a wide brown garden;
Dark blinds like eyelashes hung to the window-sills,
We went past the white columns to look at the vines,
Where the crystal air poured down over sleeping hills.
I said: the vine is alive, like some battle of long ago,
Where curling ranks of curl-crested riders charge.
The science of Hellas is in stony Tauride, and so
The rusted furrows are here, the noble gold acreage.
Well, yes, and silence stands like a spinning-wheel in the white
chamber.It smells of paint, of vinegar, of cool wine from the cellar.
The wife in the Greek house, that they all loved—do you remember—
Not Helen—the other one—how long she used to embroider?
Golden Fleece, where are you, Golden Fleece?
All voyage long the crashing of heavy waves,
And leaving his ship, its sails worn thin by the seas,
Odysseus came home, sated with time and space.
December 2, 1982