Over the next several weeks Rutgers’s James McGavran will be joining us to share his translations of major Russian poets. Today we begin our new poetry series with the work of Osip Mandelstam.
Undoubtedly one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) was born in Warsaw but grew up in St. Petersburg. Early in his career he was a founding member of the Acmeist school of poets that also included Anna Akhmatova and Nikolai Gumilyov; Mandelstam’s first collection of poems, Stone (1913), brought him instant recognition as one of the most talented writers of the younger generation. Further collections followed in the early 1920s, as Mandelstam’s style became more and more complex, his imagery more and more dense and layered. It is on his final five notebooks of poems, which were never published in his lifetime, that his reputation primarily rests, for they attain a verbal texture and richness of meaning unmatched in Russian poetry. The notebooks, which contain all his poetic output from 1930 to 1937, were preserved by Mandelstam’s wife, Nadezhda Mandelstam, until they could be published abroad. Mandelstam was arrested twice during the 1930s, originally because of an epigram he wrote on Stalin in 1933. His first arrest resulted in exile (together with his wife) in the southern city of Voronezh; after his second arrest on May 5, 1938, he was sentenced to five years in the Gulag and died in a transit camp near Vladivostok on December 27.
My age, my beast, who will ever
Look into your eyes
And with his own blood glue together
The backbones of two centuries?
Blood the builder gushes
From the throat of earthly things,
Only the parasite trembles
On the threshold of new days.
As long as it holds life, a creature
Must carry to the end a spine,
And a wave plays
With the unseen backbone.
Like a child’s tender cartilage
Is the age of earth’s infancy—
Once more, like a sacrificial lamb,
The crown of life’s skull is offered up.
To wrest the age from captivity,
To begin a new world,
The knees of gnarled and knotted days
Must fit together like a flute.
It is the age that rocks the wave
With human yearning,
And in the grass an adder breathes
The golden measure of the age.
And again the buds will swell,
Shoots of greenery will spring up,
But your backbone is broken,
My beautiful, pathetic age.
And with a senseless smile
You look back, both cruel and weak,
Like a beast that once was lithe,
Upon the prints of your own paws.
Blood the builder gushes
From the throat of earthly things,
And the seas’ warm cartilage
splashes ashore like a burning fish.
And from the high bird netting,
From humid billows of azure
Cool indifference pours, pours down
On your mortal injury.
He Who Has Found a Horseshoe
(A Pindaric Fragment)
We look at a forest and say:
Here’s ship timber, mast timber,
Free to their very crowns of any bushy burden,
They should be creaking in a gale,
Like solitary stone pines
In the frenzied forestless air;
Under the salt heel of the wind the plumbline will hold true, fitted to the dancing deck,
And the navigator,
In his unbridled thirst for space,
Dragging through damp ruts
The fragile instrument of a geometrician,
Will collate against the pull of the earth’s bosom
The ragged surface of the seas.
But breathing in the smell
Of the resin tears exuded through the ship’s planking,
Admiring the boards,
Riveted, arranged into bulkheads
Not by the peaceful carpenter of Bethlehem, but by another—
The father of voyages, the seafarer’s friend—
They too stood on land,
Uncomfortable land, like a donkey’s back,
Their crowns oblivious to their roots
On a celebrated mountain ridge,
And clamored under freshwater downpours,
Vainly offering to exchange their noble cargo to the sky
For a pinch of salt.
Where to start?
Everything is cracking and reeling.
The air shivers with similes.
No one word is better than another,
The earth buzzes with metaphor,
And light two-wheeled carts
Flamboyantly harnessed to flocks of birds, flocks dense with the effort,
Break into pieces,
Vying with snorting hippodrome favorites.
Thrice blessed is he who puts a name into his song;
A song adorned with a title
Lives longer among the others—
She is marked among her girlfriends by a fillet on the brow
That cures her from unconsciousness and overpowering, intoxicating smells—
Whether it be the nearness of a man,
The smell of a powerful beast’s fur,
Or simply a breath of thyme rubbed between the palms.
Air can be dark like water, and all things living swim in it like fish,
Fins pushing against the sphere,
Dense, resilient, barely warmed—
A crystal in which wheels are set in motion and horses shy,
Neaera’s moist black earth, plowed up anew each night
By pitchforks, tridents, hoes, plows.
The air is mixed as stiffly as earth—
You cannot get out of it, and it is hard to get in.
A rustle runs through the trees like a green ball game,
Children play knucklebones with the vertebrae of dead animals.
The brittle chronology of our era nears its end.
Thank you for all that was:
I myself was mistaken, I lost my way, lost count.
The era rang like a golden globe,
Hollow, cast, supported by no one,
At every touch answering “yes” and “no.”
The way a child answers:
“I will give you an apple,” or, “I will not give you an apple.”
And his face is an exact copy of the voice that pronounces these words.
The sound still rings, though the cause of the sound has vanished.
A horse lies in the dust and snorts, in a lather,
But the sharp bend of its neck
Still preserves the memory of the race, with legs flung wide,”
When there were not four of them,
But as many as there were stones in the road,
Renewed in four shifts,
Numerous as the push-offs from earth
Of a blazing pacer-horse.
He who has found a horseshoe
Blows the dust off it
And burnishes it with wool till it shines;
He hangs it over the threshold
So that it might rest
And no longer have to strike sparks from flint.
Human lips that have nothing more to say
Preserve the shape of the last word said,
And in the hand there remains a sensation of heaviness,
Though the jug splashed half empty on the way home.
What I say now is said not by me,
But dug up from the earth like grains of petrified wheat.
……. on their coins depict a lion;
Various little tablets of copper, gold, and bronze
Lie with identical honor in the earth.
The age, trying to gnaw through them, imprinted on them its teeth.
Time pares me down like a coin,
And there is no longer enough of me left for myself.
* * *
For the resounding valor of ages to come,
For the sake of a high race of men,
I forfeited a cup at the feast of my fathers,
And merriment and my honor.
On my shoulders pounces the wolf-hound age,
But I am no wolf by my blood;
Thrust me, instead, like a hat up the sleeve
Of the Siberian steppe’s warm fur coat,
So I can’t see the coward or the soft bit of grime
Or the bloodied bones on the wheel;
So that all night the blue-fox furs might shine
For me in their primeval beauty.
Lead me into the night where the Yenisei flows
And the pine reaches up to the star,
Because I am no wolf by my blood
And only my equal will kill me.
March 17–28, 1931
Lines on the Unknown Soldier
Let this air bear witness:
His long-range heart,
And in the dugouts the active and omnivorous
How denunciatory these stars are!
They just have to look down—what for?
At the censure of the judge and the witness,
At the windowless ocean, matter.
The rain remembers, dreary sower—
His nameless manna—
How little woodland crosses marked
The ocean or the battlefield.
Cold, sickly people will continue
To kill, to endure cold, to go hungry,
And in his renowned grave
The unknown soldier is placed.
Teach me, sickly swallow,
You who have forgotten how to fly,
How I can control this aerial grave
With no rudder and no wing.
And on behalf of Mikhail Lermontov,
I’ll give you a strict account,
How the grave teaches the slouch
And the aerial pit draws one in.
Like fidgeting grapes
These worlds threaten us
And hang like stolen cities,
Like golden slips of the tongue, like denouncements,
Like berries of poisonous cold—
Huge tents of tensile constellations,
Constellations’ golden oil…
Arabian horse mash, a medley,
The light of speeds ground up into a ray,
And with its slanting soles
The ray stands on my retina.
Millions murdered on the cheap
Beat a path in the emptiness—
Goodnight! Wish them all the best
On behalf of the earthen fortresses!
Incorruptible sky, sky of trenches—
Sky of mass, wholesale death—
After you, away from you, aggregate sky,
My lips carry me through the dark—
Past craters, past embankments and talus
Among which he lingered in the haze:
All ruined—the sullen, pockmarked
And humiliated genius of graves.
The infantry dies well
And well sings the nocturnal chorus
Above Shveik’s flattened smile,
Above Don Quixote’s avian lance,
And above the chivalrous avian metatarsus.
And the cripple and man shall be friends—
There’s plenty of work for them both,
And along the outskirts of the age thumps
A family of wooden crutches—
Quite a partnership, terrestrial globe!
Is that why a skull must develop
Forehead-wide—from temple to temple—
So that into its dear eye sockets
The troops cannot help but pour?
A skull develops because of life
Forehead-wide—from temple to temple—
Mocks the smoothness of its own sutures,
Like an understanding cupola shines clear,
Foams over with thought, dreams of itself—
Goblet of goblets, fatherland to the fatherland,
Cap sewn with starry seams,
Cap of happiness—Shakespeare’s father…
The clarity of ash trees, the vigilance of sycamores,
Slightly red-shifted, speeds to its home,
As if overstocking with fainting fits
Both skies with their lackluster fire.
We are allied only to that which is surplus,
Ahead lies not a downfall, but a botched measurement,
And to struggle for one’s minimum wage of air—
This glory is unlike any other.
And overstocking my consciousness
With half-fainted being,
Is it I who, with no choice, drinks this slop,
Do I eat my own head under fire?
Is that why the tare of charisma
Is prepared in the empty space,
So white stars might turn back and,
Slightly red-shifted, speed to their home?
Do you hear, stepmother of the star gang,
Night, what is coming now and later?
Aortas strain with blood,
And a whisper resounds through the ranks:
—I was born in ninety-four…
—I was born in ninety-two…
And, clutching in my fist the rubbed-out
Year of my birth, with the throng, en masse,
I whisper through blood-drained lips:
—I was born in the night between the second and third
Of January in ninety-something-or-other—
An unreliable year—and the centuries
Surround me with fire.
March 2, 1937–1938
James McGavran received a Ph.D. in Slavic languages and literatures from Princeton University in 2008. He has taught Russian language and culture courses at Kenyon College and St. Olaf College, and he begins work as an instructor of Russian at Rutgers University in the fall of 2013. His book of annotated translations of the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, Selected Poems, is now available from Northwestern University Press, and he has also published articles and translations in Slavonica, Modern Poetry in Translation, and Slavic and East European Journal. He is currently working on a collection of translations of Osip Mandelstam and a cultural history of chess in Russia and the Soviet Union.