Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Osip Mandelstam 1891 - ?1938

There's a question mark against the date of death of the persecuted Russian poet Osip Mandelstam. It must be presumed that he perished in a Russian labour camp. His volume Tristia (1922) contains poems noted for their spiritual intensity. The poem below is dedicated to the memory of Mandelstam and the countless millions of fellow victims of the brutal regime. It was written by the poet in February 1916 and translated into English by Joseph Brodsky in the 1980s.


I've mastered the great craft of separation
amidst the bare unbraided pleas of night,
those lingerings while oxen chew their ration,
the watchful town's last eyelid shutting tight.
And I revere that midnight rooster's descant
when shouldering the wayfarer's sack of wrong,
eyes stained with tears were peering at the distance
and women's wailings were the Muses' song.

Who is to tell when hearing 'separation'
what kind of parting this may resonate,
foreshadowed by a rooster's exclamation
as candles twist the temple's colonnade;
why at dawn of some new life, new era
when oxen chew their ration in the stall
that wakeful rooster, a new life's town crier,
flaps its torn wings atop the city wall.

And I adore the worsted yarn's behaviour:
the shuttle bustles and the spindle hums;
look how young Delia, barefooted, braver
than down of swans, glides straight into your arms!
Oh, our life's lamentable coars fabric,
how pure the language of our joy indeed.
What happened once becomes a worn-out matrix.
Yet, recognition is intensly sweet!

So be it thus: a small translucent figure
spreads like a squirrel pelt across a clean
clay plate; a girl bends over it, her eager
gaze scrutinizes what the wax may mean.
To ponder Erebus*, that's not for our acumen.
To women, wax is as to men steel's shine.
Our lot is drawn only in war; to women
it's given to meet death while they divine.

*Erebus - in Greek mythology, a dark region under the earth through which the dead pass on their way to Hell.

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