No. 4 & 5


Osip Mandelstam  

Translated from the Russian by Ilya Bernstein  


The Age and Other Poems


Behold the pyx, suspended in the air
Like a golden sun — a splendid point in time.
Nothing but Greek is to be spoken here.
We hold the whole world like an apple in our hands.

The solemn apex of the liturgy —
The temple in July, with light below the dome,
When we can deeply sigh outside of time
About the meadow where time does not flow.

Like an eternal noon, the Eucharist goes on.
Everyone takes Communion, plays, and sings,
And the divine vessel — there for all to see —
Overflows with jubilation without end.



My age, my beast, who will be able
To peer into your pupils
And who will glue with his own blood
The vertebrae of two centuries?
Blood-the-builder gushes
From the throat of earthly things,
And a parasite merely trembles
On the threshold of new days.

A creature, as long as it is living,
Must carry its spine intact,
And a wave plays with a backbone
That is invisible to sight.
Like a child’s tender cartilage
Is the age of an infant earth —
And once again, like a lamb,
They have sacrificed life’s crown.

In order to free the age from bondage,
In order to begin the world anew,
The joints of days, gnarled and knotted,
Must be tied together by a flute.
It is the age that makes the wave quiver
With the grief of human beings,
And in the grass a serpent breathes
Like a golden measure of the age.

Buds will swell again, as always,
And green sprouts will spurt,
But your backbone has been broken,
My wonderful pitiful age!
And with a meaningless smile,
You look backward, cruel and weak,
Like a beast that used to be agile,
On the tracks of your own feet.

Blood-the-builder gushes
From the throat of earthly things,
And the ocean’s cartilage splashes
Like a hot fish against warm shores.
And from the elevated bird net,
From the damp mounds in the blue,
Indifference, indifference
Spills over your mortal wound.



Only by the sound of the voice will we tell
What it was that scratched, that struggled there...

Star versus star — a mighty clash,
The path of flint from the old song.
Language of flint, language of air.
Water and flint, the ring and the horseshoe.
Against the soft shale of the clouds
I see a milky graphite picture —
Not the apprenticeship of the world,
But the delirium of sheepish torpor.

We sleep upright in deepest night
Under a heavy sheepskin hat.
The stream trickles back into the rock
In little chains, in foam and speech.
Written by fear and by the shift,
Using a milky lead pencil,
This is the ripening rough draft
Of the apprentices of running water.

Precipices, cities of goats,
The mighty layering of flintstones;
And even so, another ridge —
Sheep churches and habitations!
They heed the sermon of the plumb,
Water instructs them, time erodes them —
And they have saturated for years
The air and its transparent forest.

Like a dead hornet beside the hive
The bright day is swept out in shame
And night-the-vulture brings
Burning chalk to feed the graphite.
To erase the impressions of the day
From the iconoclastic panel
And like a chick to brush away
Visions that are already transparent!

The fruit matured. The grapes grew ripe.
The day raged, as a day will rage.
At noon, a gentle game of dice
And the fur of angry sheepdogs.
Like litter from the icy heights —
The underside of green impressions —
The hungry water runs,
Twisting and playing like an animal,

And like a spider crawls toward me —
Where every clash is splashed by moonbeams,
On an astounding ascent
I hear the shrieking of the graphite.
I break the night, the burning chalk, 
To make a hard immediate record,
I trade in noise for the songs of arrows,
I trade in order for a vulture’s tremor.

Who am I? Not a simple mason,
And not a roofer or a shipwright —
A double-dealer with twin souls,
A friend to night and daylight’s herald.
Blessed is he who has called flint
An apprentice of the running water.
Blessed is he who, on firm soil, 
Has fastened the straps of the foothills.

And now I study the diary,
The scratches of a graphite summer,
Language of flint, language of air,
With sediments of light and darkness.
And I desire to thrust my fingers
Into the path from the old song —
Locking in a clash, as in a wound,
Water and flint, the ring and the horseshoe.

1922, 1937


Night in the yard. A gentleman’s lie:
After me, the deluge.
And what after that? Citizens’ snores
And the rush to the cloakroom.

Masquerade-ball. Wolfhound-age.
So learn this once by heart:
Hat in a sleeve, hat in a sleeve —
And may God preserve you from harm.

March 1931


To my own ruin, to my own contradiction,
Like a moth flying toward a midnight flame,
I would like to make an exit from our speech
For all that I will owe to it forever.

There is between us praise without flattery,
And friendship to the hilt, without hypocrisy,
So let us learn some seriousness and honor
In the West, from a foreign family.

Poetry, you thrive in stormy weather!
I remember an officer, a German —
The handle of his sword was snared in roses
And on his lips was the name of Ceres...

The fathers in Frankfurt were still only yawning.
There was as yet no word of Goethe.
Hymns were composed, and horses pranced
And leaped in place, like letters.

Tell me, my friends, in which Valhalla
Did you and I crack nuts together?
What kind of freedom did we inherit?
What were the landmarks that you left me?

And directly from the page of a yearbook,
Directly from its first-rate freshness,
You stepped into the grave, without fear,
As if going to the cellar for a tankard of Moselle.

A foreign speech will be my outer skin,
And many years before I dared to be born
I was a letter, I was a grapevine verse,
I was the book that you see in your dreams.

When I slept without form or reason,
I was awakened by friendship, as by a gunshot.
Gott Nachtigall, give me the fate of Pylades
Or else pull out my tongue — I do not need it.

Gott Nachtigall, I am still being recruited
For new plagues, for seven-year slaughters.
The sound has narrowed, the words hiss and riot,
But you are alive, and with you I am undaunted.

8-12 August 1932



In splintered, unwholesome goblets,
We drink the delusion of causes,
And our hooks touch quantities 
As infinitesimal as easy death.
And where the jackstraws have joined
The child says not a word —
In little eternity’s cradle
Slumbers a big universe.

November 1933, July 1935


The sixth sense — like a miniature appendage —
Or the lizard’s tiny parietal eye,
The monasteries of snails and bivalves,
And cilia that scintillate and murmur.

The inaccessible, at such close distance —
And no way to untie the knot or take a look —
As if you have been handed a written message
That must be answered without being read...

May 1932-February 1934


Tell me, draftsman of the desert,
Geometer of Arabian sands,
Can it be that unbounded lines
Are stronger than a blowing wind?
— “I am unmoved by the tremor
Of its Judaic concerns” —
His memory mirrors his murmurs,
His murmurs from memory are drawn...

November 1933-January 1934


The toothed paw of the maple
Is bathed in rounded angles,
And from butterflies’ speckles
Pictures are painted on walls.

Certain mosques are alive —
And I can now surmise:
Perhaps we are Hagia Sophia
With countless numbers of eyes.

November 1933-January 1934


O butterfly, O Muslim maid,
All in a cut-up shroud,
Lady Alive and Lady Dying,
So large — and there you are.

A big biter with large whiskers
And your head inside a burnoose —
O shroud, unrolled like a banner!
Fold your wings — I dare not look!

November 1933-January 1934


When, after destroying the sketches,
You diligently hold in your mind
A period without heavy glosses,
Intact in interior dark,
And shutting its eyes, it is resting
On its own momentum alone,
It stands in the same relation to paper
As a dome to the empty skies.

November 1933-January 1934


What shall we do with the deadness of level lands,
The wonder of their prolonged hunger?
Because what we deem openness in them
Is what we ourselves see when we fall asleep,
And the question grows: where are they going, where have they been,
And is the one who slowly crawls on them
The one we scream about in our dreams —
The Judas of the people of the future?

16 January 1937


Like chiaroscuro’s martyr Rembrandt,
I have gone deep into speechless time,
And the flash of my burning rib
Is guarded neither by those warders
Nor by this warrior who sleeps under the storm.

Will you forgive me, splendid brother,
And father and master of the black-green murk —
But the glancing eye of the falcon feather
And the casket smoldering in midnight’s harem
Trouble to ill effect, trouble to no good end
A nation agitated by twilight’s bellows.

4 February 1937


Into a lion’s den and fortress I am lowered
And I sink deeper, deeper, deeper,
To the germinating downpour of these sounds,
Stronger than a lion, mightier than the Torah.

Your call — how near, how near it comes
To the commandments of origin and tribe —
The threading together of oceanic pearls
And the chaste baskets of Tahitian women...

Landmass of song and voice, advance!
Chastising song and heavy singing.
No daughter of the rich, no sweetly savage face
Is worth your — O first mother — little finger.

My time is still unlimited, and I
Have accompanied the awe of the universe
As an organ playing at half voice
Accompanies the voice of a woman.

12 February 1937



The supper sky fell in love with the wall —
All cut up by the light of the cracks —
It fell on it and was lit up
And transfigured into thirteen heads.

Here it is — my nighttime sky,
Before which I stand like a boy.
With a chill in my back, with an ache in my eyes,
I receive the firmament’s blows —

And with every swing of the battering ram
Stars rain down without heads:
New wounds from the same old impasto —
An unfinished eternity’s dark...

9 March 1937


I am lost in the sky — what to do?
He to whom it is near, reply!
It was easier to ring for you,
Dante’s discuses nine.

Life and I won’t be parted — it dreams
To kill and at once to caress,
And my ears, my eyes, my eye-sockets
Overflow with Florentine grief.

So do not adorn my forehead
With sharp and tender laurels
But tear my heart apart
Into ringing pieces of blue...

And when I die, my service over,
To everyone alive a lifelong friend,
The reply of the sky will echo
Deeper and higher in my cold breast.

9-19 March 1937


I am lost in the sky — what to do?
He to whom it is near, reply!
It was easier to ring for you,
Dante’s discuses nine,
Out of breath, in the black, in the blue.

If I am not yesterday’s, not useless —
You, who stand over me,
If you are a cupbearer and tapster —
Give me force without idle foam
To drink to the health of the mindless
Turning tower of blue.

Dovecotes, birdhouses, blackness,
Examples of bluest shades —
Ice of spring, highest ice, ice of springtime —
Clouds, the wrestlers of charm —
Hush! They are pulling the bridle of a storm.

9-19 March 1937



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