No. 4 & 5


Osip Mandelstam  

Translated from the Russian by Seth Zimmerman  


From Voronezh Notebooks

Black Earth

Much revered, groomed with care
Like a fine mane, the crumbling, dark,
Damp clods of my land and liberty 
Form a chorus in the open air!

The black earth has a bluish quality
In early days of ploughing—weaponless work
Ploughs up language in a thousand mounds—
You know, there’s something boundless in these bounds!

Nonetheless the earth’s an axe butt, a blunder—
Beg her, fall at her feet— it makes no difference:
She grates our ears with her rotting flute,
And her morning clarinet makes them shiver.

How comfortable the rich topsoil on the ploughshare, 
How silent the April steppe turning over. . . 
Well then, greetings, black earth, be courageous, be acute—
In work is a black-voiced silence.


Red Square

Yes, my lips are moving as I lie in the ground,
And schoolchildren will learn what I say by heart:
In Red Square the earth is at its most round,
And its unconstrained slope grows hard,

In Red Square the earth is most round, and has
A slope unexpectedly expansive,

Rolling down to the rice fields, as long as
The last slave on earth is still alive.


I Perform

I perform a smoky rite:
In my disgrace there lie before me
The strawberries of a summer by the sea -
The carnelian – doubly, overly sincere -
And the agate – its antlike brother.
Yet to me the simple soldier
From the sea’s depths is the most dear -
Grey and wild, no one’s delight. 


This January

What can I do with myself this January?
The city’s as open as a tight steel box.
Are closed doors driving me to a drunken fury?
I want to bellow at all bolts and locks.

Alleys twist like a stocking in tangles,
Streets are storerooms of clutter,
Imps scurry into dark angles
Then crawl awkwardly to the gutter.

I slip into a dark, warty pit somewhere
Near the pumphouse, all frozen over.
Stumbling, I gulp down dead air
As rooks flutter off in a fever.

Groaning over the icy box, I pound
The wood with my fist and sigh after the birds:
Oh for a reader, a doctor, a comrade to hang around
On the barbed stairs with and exchange words!



The eyes were keener than whetted scythes—
In each pupil a cuckoo and a dewdrop lay.

Now at best they can barely recognize
A constellation—or even the whole milky way.


I Speak Roughly

I speak roughly—a preliminary
Whisper, for it’s not time yet:
Through experience and sweat
We master heaven’s indefinable game.

And beneath the temporary 
Sky of purgatory we often forget
That heaven’s happy repository 
Is an expanding, lifelong home.


A Pear and a Cherry Tree

A pear and a cherry tree fix me in their sight—
Their crumbling strength beating me without a miss.

Flower-clusters mixed with stars, stars with leaves—where
Does truth flourish here? What double power is this?

Whether from force or flower—the airy-white 
Beatings bludgeon to death the very air.

And this double-scented sweetness irritates—
It struggles and spreads, blends, abruptly disintegrates.


There Are Women

Limping over the bare ground
With an irregular grace,
She sets a halting pace
For nimbler friends just behind.
She's both pulled and confined
By the freedom of her inspiring
Disability, and seems bound
In her moves by one clear notion—
That this spring weather
Is the grave's primal mother,
And this birth is forever recurring.

Akin to the raw earth, there are women
Whose every step resounds with sorrow.
To escort the dead and be first to greet
The resurrected is their vocation.
To claim their caresses is a crime,
And to leave them an impossibility.
Angels today - worms in the grave tomorrow—
Mere outlines with the passage of time.
Steps once taken one cannot repeat.
Immortal are flowers.  Unified is heaven.
What shall be is a promise, not a surety.




The copyright of 
everything published 
here remains 
with the author's.


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